Getting There: Travel Writing and the Art of Movement by Brandon Taper
“Life is about the journey, not the destination.”
You’ll often find these words printed on a T-shirt or scrawled in block letters on a motivational poster. It’s an uplifting adage asking you to focus on the moment and not the terminus, to enjoy yourself now rather than at an endpoint which you may or may not reach.
It’s a wonderful sentiment. But not right now.
How does one enjoy the moment when the moment is television at two or bed by nine? When the moment is closed shops and empty spaces? No, let us forgo this damnable moment and set sight instead on destination.
In our current climate, travel may seem like something from a gilded past and just out of reach. However, one of the great powers of literature –and travel writing in particular– is its ability to let you walk a few miles in another person’s figurative shoes. In short, it’s time to Move On.
Here are a few travel books to transport you someplace else while still seated. May they take you where you want to be.
The Writings of Paul Theroux
The Great Railway Bazaar
The Last Train to Zona Verde
Perhaps the best known living travel writer is Paul Theroux. He has written extensively about crisscrossing the globe, and each book gives the reader a first-class ticket to the sights, sounds, and society of wherever his feet happen to fall.
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette
John Gimlette’s travel books marry fascinating journeys with exquisite writing. In my favorite, he treks through Paraguay to learn of its twin beauties and horrors, calling it an “island surrounded by land.” Nothing will surprise you by the book’s end, except when you reach the last page.
10,000 Miles with My Dead Father’s Ashes by Devin Galaudet
Part memoir about grief and part adventure story, this book recounts how the author was tasked with carrying the remains of his father cross-country, only to lose them in the middle of his travels. The result is a poignant and unexpectedly funny book about family, secrets, and the humor to be found in the least likely of places.
Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food by Gina Rae La Cerva
A wild blend of travel adventure and detective work, this book follows geographer and anthropologist Gina Rae La Cerva as she tracks down the last wild foods in a world obsessed with modern convenience. If stewed antelope meat or bird’s nest soup doesn’t whet your appetite, you’ll still walk away from the book stuffed –with knowledge!
The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers by Eric Hansen
In this collection of travel essays, Eric Hansen proves that no matter how far you may wander, the greatest journey you can undertake is meeting someone for the first time. He writes about drinking a hallucinogenic beverage with village elders while on the remote island of Vanuatu, caring for the nearly-dead in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitute in Calcutta, and guiding a team through the rainforests of Borneo to locate the remains of a downed commercial plane. You’ll close the book with wanderlust in your step and a gleam in your eye to meet someone new.
A Mother’s Love (and List) by Brandon Taper
As some of you may have noticed over the years, I am not a middle-aged woman. I mention this only because my mother (with whom I am in quarantine) pointed out several things to me. First, that the best library patrons are “women of middle age or more.” Second, if these same patrons were forced to decide between my recommendations and my mother’s recommendations, they would certainly drift to the person with a similar age and with similar hormones. And lastly, that my mother, Lori Taper, has just such a list to share with the world.
I leave this list here without further comment, except that not doing so would seriously hamper any hope for future happiness.
Lori: You’re going to cry, so get out the Kleenex. But you’ll love that cry just like you’ll love this book.
Brandon: I’m so glad you made this your first choice. A book about two people bonded by unthinkable tragedy. Perfect.
Lori: Who knew a book about the Johnstown flood could be this good? I didn’t then, but I do now. I’m so glad I listened to the bookstore owner. Go out and get a copy now!
Brandon: Mother, this is supposed to be encouraging people to stay at home. And to use the library.
Lori: Loved it, loved it, loved it. Great sense of atmosphere and even a mystery to boot.
Brandon: Thank you for recommending such an overlooked book. I’m glad you’re making people aware of this.
Lori: Okay, listen. If you need an extra excuse to stay at home, then you just read this book. It’s shocking and enlightening at the same time. I was going to give my copy to a friend, but I didn’t want it off my nightstand!
Brandon: I can’t even.
Lori: Gorgeous writing paired with such painful truths. And you better read this before you watch the miniseries or, so help me God, I’ll find you.
Brandon: Yeah, so I don’t think threats are an actual part of book recommendations.
Lori: What a great mix of history and mystery! This is the story of the race between Edison and Westinghouse to electrify the world. I couldn’t put this down if I tried.
Brandon: Would you say this was an illuminating read?
Lori: I’m shocked you have friends.
Lori: Real life terror told in a way that makes it seem like a thriller. If you enjoyed The Devil in the White City, this story about the first American Ambassador and his family in Nazi Germany is a must.
Brandon: Yes, of course. What better way to keep your mind off a pandemic than by thinking about Adolf Hitler?
Lori: A collection of very readable and relatable essays about life and its occasional disappointments. This book will make you happy to change and even happier to be alive.
Brandon: I feel like we’re finally getting somewhere!
Lori: A wonderful and sometimes funny novel about a man who is forced to watch the world through his window and live the rest of his life under house arrest.
Brandon: Oh, God, I spoke too soon.
Travel Guides: A Quarantine Collection
One of literature’s great powers is its ability to let you walk a few miles in another person’s figurative shoes. Well, since we’re under lockdown for the indefinite future, why don’t we take that power literally? Here are some books about travel to download, listen to, or request for later.
So relax, kick up your feet on that new ottoman made of toilet paper packs, and let these characters do the traveling for you. I hope they manage to take you where you need to be.
In this oh-so-British comic travelogue, you’ll embark on a two-week boating party on the Thames River with three overworked chums (and one dog) who seek only relaxation and quiet in nature. Alas, they get neither, but you’ll get a smile or two or ten reading about their misadventures. Although written over one hundred years ago, the wit and comic frustrations of “being on holiday with friends” remain evergreen and true.
In between lush descriptions of the great river’s beauty and distractions, you’ll laugh at how travel never changes and how friends can become occasional enemies. And I promise you’ll never look at a can of pineapple again without wincing.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A key text of 1950s counterculture, this loose and electric road trip novel became known as the “Beat Bible” for its rhapsodic prose and its dedication to living life at 55 miles per hour. Nothing compares to Kerouac’s knack for slapping you in the face with the momentary and fragmentary, being precisely in the moment and of the moment.
You’ll find yourself swaying in jazz clubs and poetry readings, sweating in dive restaurants, and, yes, breathing in life one mile and memory at a time. C’mon and dig the ride before you get the destination.
Car Sick by John Waters
Film director and “Pope of Trash” John Waters decides to cross the country from Baltimore to San Francisco by relying solely on the kindness of strangers. Armed only with his signature pencil-thin mustache and a sign reading “Not a Psycho,” Waters hitchhikes his way through some unforgettable towns and unbelievable conversations with those who slowed down to pay him a kindness.
You may show symptoms of wanderlust after reading this book, and perhaps even a desire to rewatch Hairspray. Diagnosis: fabulous!
The Man Who Walked Backward by Ben Montgomery
Sit with this sentence for a spell: “As a way to ease the financial burdens of the Great Depression on his family, Plennie L. Wingo of Abilene, Texas, decided to walk backward around the globe.”
If that doesn’t make you curious to read the account, nothing I scratch together here will. In the book, Ben Montgomery stitches together one oddly-named man’s odd quest with the larger forces of the day (the Crash of 1929, the Dust Bowl, the KKK, and more) that made and unmade a nation. If you pick it up, I promise you won’t want to put it down or walk forward for at least a fortnight.