Photo Courtesy Michael Mohr. Article by Ian Crouch, contributor to Budget Travel.
Just what is travel writing? Sometimes it tells the story of a journey -- the initial excitement of a ship leaving port or the joy of watching the sun rise in a brand-new place. Often it celebrates the act of exploration itself -- poking around, asking questions, getting lost and into scrapes, making all the mistakes of the newcomer. But most essentially, it should prompt us to look longingly at our suitcases, start thinking about that next week off, and begin planning adventures of our own. This is the spirit that animates the books on our list -- Budget Travel's first ever roundup of the greatest travel literature. Despite their differences in genre and style, these books all give an unforgettable sense of place -- whether that place is a small patch of ground, an entire continent, or just the wrinkles of the writer's mind.
Did we highlight your favorites? Forget any notable titles? We'd love to hear your thoughts, in the comments section below.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac (1957)
Kerouac didn't invent America's obsession with the open road, but he did capture the complexities of our collective drive West in a uniquely deep and enduring way. The travels of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise are a celebration of two of the country's greatest inventions: jazz and the roaring, big-engined automobile. Yet Kerouac persists at revealing the dark, forgotten places like skid-row San Francisco and a migrant farmworkers' camp in southern California. What draws new generations of restless young readers to the book, though, is Kerouac's exuberant prose: "...The car was swaying as Dean and I both swayed to the rhythm and the IT of our final excited joy in talking and living to the blank tranced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our lives."
Window to: The U.S., from New York City to California, and Mexico.
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
"I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together," says Hemingway's narrator Jake Barnes, yet this remarkable novel about Americans abroad following World War I manages to be frank without ever being simple, and its stories are expertly held together. These scenes of Europe are among Hemingway's most indelible: drinking Pernod in Paris cafes, fishing in a mountain stream in the Pyrenees -- a bottle of white wine tucked in a nearby spring to chill -- and finally on to Pamplona, where Barnes momentarily escapes his grief while marveling at the exploits of a bullfighter: "Romero's bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time."
Window to: France and Spain.
The Beach, by Alex Garland (1996)
Garland's sly page-turner about an unorthodox, supersecret community of expat island-dwellers in Southeast Asia navigates a remarkable middle ground, at once celebrating the spirit of exploration that inspires the backpacker set and satirizing the ad-hoc culture based on drugs, tans, and pseudo-enlightenment that these young people seek. Despite Garland's suspicion of the Goa and Phuket faithful, few writers have described so well the thrill of a cliff dive, the joys of Tetris on a Game Boy, or the beguiling beauty of a tropical sunset -- and inspired armchair travelers to embark on the real thing in the process: "If I'd learned one thing from traveling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don't talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens."
Window to: Thailand and London.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
Americans have always seen Europe as an aspirational place. For Tom Ripley, though, a free trip to Italy provides the perfect chance to better himself -- by killing the object of his obsession, the shipbuilding heir Dickie Greenleaf, and taking on his enviable identity. Ripley haunts the streets of Rome and Venice, and Highsmith conjures a vision of the sun-bleached southern Italian shore that fills the dreams of pasty citizens of the world's cold-weather towns: "Now and then he caught glimpses of little villages down at the water's edge, houses like white crumbs of bread, specks that were the heads of people swimming near the shore."
Window to: Italy.
Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende (1999)
This exhaustively researched novel follows two fascinating characters, Eliza Sommers, an orphan adopted by an English brother and sister, and Tao Chi'en, her Chinese physician, as they are drawn into a mysterious adventure in California during the 1848 Gold Rush. Allende is a master of the street scene; her description of boomtown San Francisco, with its surging crowds of fortune-hunters from around the world, would spark the imagination of any traveler who has ventured into an unknown city for the first time: "The heterogeneous throng pulsed with frenzied activity, pushing, bumping into building materials, barrels, boxes, burros, and carts."
Window to: Valparaíso, Chile and San Francisco, California.
The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux (1975)
Theroux persuades us that one of the best ways to discover the culture of a country is by riding its trains. The author reached nearly every corner of Asia, and just reading the names of the notable trains he rode -- the Direct-Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Mandalay Express, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, and the Trans-Siberian Express -- is enough to summon visions of a kind of travel that even then was beginning to fade away.
Window to: Asia's fabled trains.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer (1996)
Krakauer's two classics -- Into the Wild and Into Thin Air -- were published in the span of just two years. Into Thin Air -- a riveting first-person retelling of a season of bad choices and disaster on Mt. Everest -- drew more headlines. But it's his earlier work, which tells the mysterious story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate who was found dead in the Alaskan wilderness, that lingers in the mind long after you close the book. Krakauer is sympathetic to the spirit that led McCandless to ditch his car, burn the money in his wallet, and set out for life off the grid. In a rousing section, he recalls his own [youthful] climbing adventure in Alaska, on a stark and wondrous peak called the Devils Thumb, which was both exhilarating and nearly fatal. Yet much like Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, this is a story that draws sharp lines between adventure and madness.
Window to: Alaska.
Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck (1962)
Roughly 20 years after he set the Joads off to California in their jalopy, Steinbeck took to the American roads himself, in a pickup truck he named Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse. Since human companionship can "disturb the ecological complex of an area," his French poodle Charley stood in as his Sancho Panza. Over the course of more than 10,000 miles, the great American moralist took one final survey of his country: "I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation -- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here."
Window to: the U.S.
In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson (2000)
"I was standing there with a map of Australia, surveying the emptiness and trying to conceive the ungraspable fact that if I walked north from here I wouldn't come to a paved surface for eleven hundred miles," Bryson writes. This funny and insightful book eloquently captures a country often obscured by the stereotypes fueled by all those Foster's beer ads. Along with the curious geography and terrifying fauna -- snakes, sharks, and crocs -- Bryson captures the spirit of a uniquely sporting people, who excel at games ranging from cricket to Australian Rules football: "It is a wonder in such a vigorous and active society that there is anyone left to form an audience."
Window to: Australia.
Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey (1968)
A corollary to the roaming spirit is the desire to get to know one place supremely well. Abbey worked two seasons in the mid-fifties as a wry, tourist-phobic ranger at Arches National Park in eastern Utah, several years before the roads were paved and the hulking RVs arrived. Abbey is a gruff, no-nonsense environmentalist and a poet of the rocks, which he sees in every light, including gorgeous visions of dusk: "The sun is touching the fretted tablelands on the west. It seems to bulge a little, to expand for a moment, and then it drops -- abruptly -- over the edge. I listen for a long time."
Window to: Utah's red-rock country.
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