On Travel Literature

Something that I’ve discovered over the past couple of years is that I love to travel. Since I’ve gotten into college, I’ve done a small share of it; New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, England, Scotland, Greece, Germany, Ohio, Indiana and a lot of places in each of those locations.
Along the way, I’ve found that I also love to read about travel. Granted, movement from location to location is inevitable in any book or story, but there are some truly extraordinary reads out there about various locations and trips that people have taken. America alone has hundreds of locations and a wealth of tales across the nation. The world is big, to put it simply.
One of the first real travel books that I read was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. Steinbeck, along with his dog, (Charley) decided to take a trip across the United States, to reacquaint himself with a nation that he felt that he’d lost touch with. Starting from New York, he made his way up to Maine, across New England, New York, across the Great Lakes, the west, down the western coast line and back through the southwest and the South before returning home. Along the way, he mentions his dislike for maps, the diversity of American culture and a general assimilation of the culture as time went on.
Another favored author of mine, Hampton Sides, (Who I credit with getting me interested in the field of history with his book Ghost Soldiers) compiled a number of his essays from magazines together into a book called Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier. The front quote on the cover describes it perfectly:

“This may be the best road trip you’ll ever take- full of strange visions, hilarious detours and sudden beauty in unlikely places.”
– Burkland Bilger, staff writer at The New Yorker

This book isn’t so much about travelling from place to place, but like Travels with Charley, it focuses on the sheer richness and differences across the nation, through a series of essays on things like Tony Hawk, Gordon Liddy, the Grand Canyon & Colorado River, Harley Davidson bikers, bike messengers, soldiers from Bataan, living in New Mexico and the first Marine soldier to die in the current war in Iraq. It’s a complex painting of our culture, and in a sense, that’s what travel writing aims to uncover. Similarly, Sebastian Junger, (Perfect Storm) also wrote an anthology of essays, similar to Americana, called Fire. Like Side’s book, it’s got a variety of subjects in between the covers, ranging from Smoke Jumpers, Kosovo, and Whale Hunters. I think think that essay anthologies can function the best as travel literature, given their lack of restraint towards subject matter and ability to cover many things.
However, there are a number of books out there on specific trips that people have taken, which are just as interesting and can cover an impressive amount of topics. One of the best examples that I can think of is the book (and BBC miniseries) Long Way Round, written by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, who, along with a film crew and cameras, took two motorcycles and went around the world, starting from London, travelling through Europe to Russia, Mongolia, Canada, the United States and back to London, over the period of several months. They saw incredible things, from country to country in Europe and Asia, meeting a number of interesting people along the way. They’ve got another project in the works, called the Long Way Down, going from Scotland to Europe to Africa, which also looks to be fascinating.
As far as travel writing goes, Bill Bryson is one of the best writers out there. He’s written a number of books on the subject, I’m A Stranger Here Myself, about quirks of American culture for a UK newspaper, after he moved back to the US after 20 years. The Lost Continent is one that I’m currently reading, as he drives around the United States, looking at small town America, which is proving to be fascinating. For Walk in the Woods, he goes to a different type of travel, examining the Appalachian Trail system by hiking a good chunk of it. In each of his books, he goes to it with an astonishing brand of humour that makes it awkward to read any of his books in public, given that I’m giggling to myself every couple pages.

All of these books have something in common – the need and desire to understand culture, whether it’s of a different country, environment or just ourselves in general. Travel, in my mind is not to go see something, at least, not entirely. Likewise, travel literature is not just for telling the reader about a new place. While seeing and being shown something new are the apparent reasons for why we travel in the first place (and it is a fantastic reason to do so) – I maintain that the primary reason that we travel is to find ourselves, to see who we (either as people or a culture) really are. Each time that I read something about travel, I’m constantly surprised; at the diversity and differences, how things change, for good and bad, and just how complex everything is. Same goes for whenever I’m going somewhere new – I’ve learned quite a bit, and yet so little about about the United States, and myself at the same time. The one thing that I’ve learned, is that we are amazing, terrible, interesting, complex, brave, frightened, bigoted, wonderful, indifferent and most of all, different, everywhere we go.

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