Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Travel Literature Edition

I suffer from an ailment common among millennials: wanderer’s spirit, paired with daytripper’s budget. If vacating your life for the wilds on a whim is not always an option, travel literature can serve as a useful salve.

These are some of the books I’ve turned to for escape–in the dead of winter, in the middle of hefty work or school schedules, or in other too-long spaces between trips of my own.

Almost Somewhere by Suzanne Roberts

This travelogue hits all the right notes with me. Alternately about sisterhood, navigating the awkward and terrifying space between college and adulthood, and travel as an inward journey, it follows the author and two friends down the John Muir Trail during the summer after their graduation. They encounter turbulent weather and troubling trailmates, and find themselves under-prepared–too many books, not the right clothes, not the right physical preparation–for the challenges. But they’re resourceful. And they’re determined. And you’ll love them for it.

Roberts relates trail tribulations with humor, and the search for meaning is always present. Also, Roberts has Muir’s poetic sensibilities when describing the landscapes they encounter–or better. As a child of the Sierra Nevada myself, her descriptions feel like home to me. There are passages here that will breathe through you at unexpected times. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild blew up around the same time that Almost Somewhere came out; I counter-recommend Roberts’ book often.

Verdict: Buy. Not only does Roberts write beautifully, but this is a small press release, so you’ll be supporting indie publishing while treating yourself to a great story.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon

This one is somewhat of a classic in the genre, but I came to it by chance and really love it, so I’m going to pretend its reputation doesn’t precede this post. Blue Highways is the 1982 story of Least Heat-Moon’s travels down American backroads, a tribute to small town life in what may have been its twilight. LHM undertakes his journey cash poor, heartsick, and alone in a tricked out camper truck. He stops at diners in backwaters, at roadside stands and other curious places, and converses with the people who make the quiet corners of the nation come to life.

Not all is pleasant: conversations around race in the South have continued relevance, as do those about the challenges faced on the country’s Main Streets. Revelations abound, as do the harrowing stories which are inevitable when you go, blind and alone, into the unknown. An incident in snow, darkness, and fog, when LHM is driving up a narrow mountainside by his lonesome, still sets my teeth on edge.

Verdict: Buy. Holds up to re-reading. (Side recommendation: may be of particular interest to those who loved Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.)

The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux

Theroux’s travel writing is diverse and often very exciting: train rides through China, Africa with a lot of hitchhiking, a slow journey from Boston to the tip of South America. The guy has no boundaries. He weaves social and political commentary into his work, visits with writer-friends like Nadine Gordimer and Jorge Luis Borges in their homes while he’s out and about, dines with dignitaries, and strikes up tough conversations with local crowds. He’s a terrible curmudgeon, too, but his grumpiness makes his texts more lively. He’s like Bourdain, without the protection of a camera crew.

In Oceania, he goes by kayak. It’s a totally insane premise for a book, or a trip: kayaking from island to island in the South Pacific, washing up on shore in Fiji and Tahiti and Australia and then seeing what’s what. But it works, because it’s Theroux, and that’s just how Theroux rolls. This book trampled on the fantasy of Tahiti for me, but I also learned a lot, and it made one Boston winter feel significantly less cold and dreary.

Verdict: Borrow. Keep it on the library shelves.

Wanderlust by Elisabeth Eaves

Travel literature written by women feels a little harder to come by, so I’m always grateful to stumble upon a book like Eaves’s. A woman traveling abroad carries with her a different set of considerations and concerns, so she must be a little more fearless, or brazen, or tough, than the men traveling alongside her. Eaves is all of those things.  Consider the work’s death-defying incident in North Africa (no spoilers). I’d have limped off home to recuperate; Eaves rolls with it.

This is an around-the-world exercise in embracing rootlessness, with entertaining doses of mishaps and sex thrown in. Carrie Bradshaw meets Paul Theroux, perhaps–though that description stands to bother all involved.

Verdict: Borrow, in the name of library collection diversity.

Where would you like to escape to today?

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