Afoot in England
By William Henry Hudson. Originally published in 1909. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. (The edition I read but do not recommend—see review.)
The practice of walking in the countryside, or rambling, has been popular in England since the 18th century, and William Henry Hudson (1841-1922) was an influential figure in the field of walking tours. For Hudson, these excursions were more than a hobby. They were part of his vocation—as a naturalist, an ornithologist, and a prolific writer whose many works include the novel Green Mansions.
As the essays in Afoot in England make clear, Hudson was a man of strong opinions—whether on cows or on women’s dress—and he makes his views on travel evident from the start. The pleasure in travel, he believes, lies in discovering “the charm of the unknown,” which is diminished if one reads a guidebook before encountering an experience on one’s own. Best to read it after the journey, he says, when reading won’t come between the viewer and the scene.
His short essays recount his own discoveries as he travels around the country: the mob at Stonehenge at dawn, Read More
TraveLit--A blog about travel literature.
Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.
Afoot in England
The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills
By Patrick Rogers. Westland, Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2017.
Patrick Rogers began trekking in the Khasi Hills in northeastern India in 2010, and he has returned many times since, drawn by the beauty of the region, with its canyons, its waterfalls, its raging rivers, and, above, all its living root bridges. These extraordinary bridges, trained from the roots of the ficus elastica, can reach a length of nearly 200 feet and rise almost 100 feet above the streams they span. They are, the author says, “among the world’s exceedingly few examples of architecture which is simultaneously functional and alive.”
Rogers takes readers along as he travels from village to village, mostly on foot, in Meghalaya, an area that is small but diverse: language, customs, religion vary from one place to the next. From time to time Rogers meets someone who knows some English, but mostly he communicates piecemeal, in words he’s picked up from Hindi and dialects or, more effectively, by signs. This seems to work. He gets along well with the people he meets, who generously offer hospitality to a bedraggled foreigner—a Phareng—whose purpose in being there they probably find unfathomable.
The book’s style is casual, but Rogers’s travels—and travails—are strenuous. He navigates hair-raising terrain, encounters massive storms, eats things I suspect most of us would rather avoid—boiled tadpoles!—and he writes about it all with a nice self-deprecating humor. Read More
According to a review in the Times Literary Supplement, the new academic term for travel writing is "literary-mobility studies." Only in academia! I love it!
Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana
(This book is available in many editions. I read it online on The Project Gutenberg.)
Richard Henry Dana is buried in an old Cambridge churchyard just down the street from my house, and I’ve passed his gravestone hundreds of times. Yet I never paid much attention to it, and until a friend recommended Two Years Before the Mast, I had never read his classic work. Indeed, not only had I never read it, I thought it was a novel!
In fact, of course, this wonderful book is an account, in journal form, of Dana’s two years—1834-1836—as a sailor in the American merchant marine. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he had suffered from a case of measles that so damaged his eyes that he was forced to drop out of school. He then signed up on a Boston brig, the Pilgrim, heading round Cape Horn to California, where it would trade its goods for hides.
Young Dana is entirely ignorant of what he has signed up for, and as he says, “There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life." Read More
By Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton. 1882. Reprinted in various editions.
Abroad is a beautifully illustrated children’s book in verse that tells the story of an English family’s trip to France. Their mother died three years earlier, and every spring their father tries to give them “some tour, or treat, or pleasant thing”—and their journey is this year’s gift.
Their trip takes them to Boulogne, Rouen, Caen, and Paris, where they visit the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens, the zoo, and the markets, see a Punch and Judy show and elegant, snobby swans, and enjoy a ride on a merry-go-round. Along the way they experience boat, trains, and hotels, and a great variety of French people at work--sharpening knives, making lace, or washing clothes. Read More
Longitude Books: Recommended Reading for Travelers recommends Walking, Henry David Thoreau's "meditations on the spiritual benefits of this most civilized form of travel."
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World.
By Geoff Dyer. Pantheon Books, 2016, 233 pp.
The stories in White Sands find Geoff Dyer on journeys in various parts of the world: on a book tour in China, researching Gaugin in Tahiti, reflecting on “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico, making a pilgrimage to Theodore Adorno’s house and contemplating the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Each piece is preceded by a brief prologue relating to the author’s past that provides an associative context for the story that follows.
Dyer doesn’t just travel. He’s a writer who probes the experience of place and of travel itself, looking for meanings. Sometimes he finds them. His essay on the Watts Towers draws on jazz musicians and various writers to create an intriguing portrait of the man who built them, Sabato Rodia, and their import.
On the other hand, his story of seeking out Adorno’s house struck me as mainly pretentious. “I have this need to show off, to show that I know things,” he says, and this piece seemed to me to suffer from that need. Read More
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
By Douglas Preston. Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 326 pp.
For centuries a legend flourished about a lost city located somewhere in the Mosquitia region of Honduras: Ciudad Blanca—the White City—or the City of the Monkey God. Although the dense rain forest made exploration a challenge, various artifacts discovered in the area seemed to reveal a culture unknown to researchers. Adding to the mystery, indigenous people believed that the city was cursed: anyone who entered this “forbidden place” would die.
Did this city even exist—or was it just a myth? Douglas Preston first became interested in the subject in 1994, when, while working on a different article, he learned that new sophisticated radar technology could penetrate jungle foliage to reveal what lay beneath and that someone was planning to use it to find the White City. Read More