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I originally wrote this article for the November 2008 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the book links in the article, you will find yourself at Wide World's site where you can make purchases. -Terrell


Classic Travel Literature

For the last few years I've been giving my hard-to-buy-for teenage nephews classic literature for holidays and birthdays. I figure that even if they don't read them now, there will come a day when they'll pull one off the shelf to enjoy and then think kindly of their old Auntie Terrell. This year, I think I'll choose a classic of travel essay. I'm planning to stick strictly to non-fiction. As great as Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver's Travels might be, that's another list. But what is it that makes any particular journey a classic? To answer that question I decided to look through some old favorites and seek out some titles I should have read long ago.

Since my target audience are young men, my first thought was Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts. Any of you who have glanced at the staff picks shelf any time in the last couple of years knows this is one of my favorites. It's the story of the author's walk across 1930's Europe when he was a wet-behind-the-ears eighteen year old. For sheer poetry of language, it's hard to beat. Marco Polo's Travels also fits in the category of great journeys by young males. Browsing my bookshelves I came across my grandmother's copy of The Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton inscribed with her name and the date, 1927. This book has been referenced by many authors as the reason they started a writing career so I began to read. After graduating from Princeton, Halliburton scorned the life of stockbrokering or lawyering, setting out instead on a tramp steamer in search of adventure and romance. By the end of his trip he had climbed the Matterhorn, been jailed in Gibraltar, sailed down the Nile under a full moon, used a coin toss to choose India as his next destination and made a solo, midwinter ascent of Mt. Fuji. Now that's the spirit I hope to foster in my young men! A classic of travel literature surely should inspire a person to live life to the fullest.

Both my teenage boys have grown up on the coasts of America although some thousand miles apart. Perhaps they'd relate better to a sea yarn. Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki, Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast (another Ivy League escapee who went sailing in 1834) or Sailing Alone Around the World, Joshua Slocum's account of his pioneering (and crazy!) 1890s voyage all seem like good choices. Even better, I can combine boats with exploration and disaster--a topic that always seems to appeal to teenagers--with Endurance by Alfred Lansing. Although there are several books about the ill-fated Shackleton expedition that was trapped in Antarctic ice and rescued after harrowing adventures, Lansing's classic account remains the most popular almost fifty years after its original publication. Both the boys are skiers and hikers, too. Perhaps I'll go to the mountains with Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard. Penguin has just released a new 30th anniversary edition of this search for the rare and illusive Himalayan cat. Matthiesen's Zen Buddhist approach to the expedition adds spiritual dimensions to the journey that my mountain-going teens will appreciate someday. These outdoorsy books indicate that a travel classic may be a book that shows you how to appreciate the power and beauty of the world.

I've got some nieces who could use a good book, too. There are certainly plenty of adventurous women travelers. I could choose one of Isabella Bird's accounts like Adventures in the Rocky Mountains. She definitely never let Victorian conventions tie her down. Or one of Freya Stark's excellent works about the Middle East, perhaps The Southern Gates of Arabia. My favorites of women's travel writing, though, often have to do with choosing a place where you feel at home and fashioning a life that makes the most of your new environment. Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun, for example, or Lisa St. Aubin de Teran's Hacienda. Hmmm, have either of those really reached classic status yet? That problem is easily solved by choosing the granddaddy (grandmother?) of the genre, Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa  about her life on a farm in the highlands of Kenya.  "In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be." Perhaps a classic is a book that inspires you to strive to be truly happy in your life.

Both my boys--and several of my other nieces and nephews--are seasoned international travelers. France, Japan, Morocco, Bali, yep, been there, done that. The big gaps in their travel résumés are right here in America. In an attempt to inspire them to explore closer to home, I may choose one of the great classics of the open road. Kerouac's On the Road falls (barely) on the wrong side of the fiction/non-fiction line and honestly, I think I'll wait until they're a little older for that one anyway. I love Steinbeck and thought of Travels with Charley, but it seems to be a book for a person who is revisiting rather than exploring the land. Instead, I'll choose a book that I should have read years ago, William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways. At a point in his life when nothing was working, Heat-Moon fitted up a little truck and hit the road with the intentions of circling the country, speaking to as many people as would speak to him, and finding himself by letting chance and destiny show him a path. I was immediately enchanted by his lush, poetic writing, his deep introspection and his vision of this country. This time, I'd say a classic of travel essay is one that helps you see not just the journey ahead but where you're coming from as well.

Will my kids enjoy their books? Absolutely. How can they not love books that inspire them to adventure, lead them to knowledge of the world and themselves, and show them paths to true happiness? In fact, I may just pick out a few more classics for my own shelves.