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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: Alaska Days with John Muir

Alaska Days with John Muir
By S. Hall Young. Fleming H. Revell, 1915, 190 pp. Available free on Kindle and on Project Gutenberg (with illustrations).

S. Hall Young was a young missionary in southeastern Alaska when John Muir arrived there in 1879. The two men immediately formed a friendship that lasted throughout their lives, and in 1915, Young wrote this slender book, which is both an engaging description of their adventures and a homage to the great Scottish naturalist, explorer, and founder of the Sierra Club, who opened the author’s eyes to the beauty around him.

If Young’s mission was to work with and convert the Thlinget, Muir’s was to explore the forests, the mountains, and most especially the glaciers, which Young calls “Muir’s special pets, his intimate companions, with whom he held sweet communion.” Muir particularly liked going out on the glaciers in storms, “for their exhilarating music and motion,” as he wrote elsewhere: “For many of Nature’s finest lessons are to be found in her storms.”

The two shared explorations, including a six-week canoe trip through uncharted territory, and Young describes Muir as pretty much unstoppable.  Read More 
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Maps as Travel Writing

This rare map showing exploratory routes towards the North Pole as of 1909 includes the routes of Frederick Albert Cook and Robert Peary, each of whom claimed to be the first to reach the Pole. In the conflict that ensued, the courts ruled that Cook's records offered insufficient proof of his claim and awarded the honor to Peary. But a later explorer, Wally Herbert, concluded in 1989 that Peary was mistaken, and that though he came close--within 60 miles--he didn't in fact reach the Pole.

Thanks to Kevin Brown of Geographicus Rare Antique Maps for information about this map.
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Reading Around the World: Great Photos

Steve McCurry: On Reading offers unexpected, quirky, humorous, wonderful photos of reading around the world. The book has a foreword by Paul Theroux.
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Review: Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart
By Tim Butcher. Grove Press, 2007, 2008, 363 pp.

After Tim Butcher, a war correspondent, was appointed Africa Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, he became obsessed with Henry Morton Stanley, the great explorer—and not-so-great human being—who was also sent to Africa by The Telegraph more than a hundred years before. Although most famous for finding David Livingstone in 1871 (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), Stanley achieved something more significant: on his 3000-kilometer journey between 1874 and 1877, he mapped the Congo River, opening the country to brutal Belgian colonization that has been followed by years of war and chaos.

Determined to “go back to where it all began” and to “draw together the Congo’s fractious whole,” Butcher decided to follow Stanley’s route from the east side of the country to the west. Although warned by everyone he spoke to that, amidst the deterioration of the Congo and the various wars, it couldn’t be done, he nonetheless prepared. And when, in 2004, warring factions agreed to a peace treaty, he saw his chance and set out.

In Blood River, Butcher provides a compelling account of his dangerous journey,  Read More 
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Books, Travel, A Literary Hotel

"This Hotel With 50,000 Books Is A Literary Lover’s Dream Come True.
Oh, and there’s a gin bar too."

Thanks to the Huffington Post and Longitude Books for the link.

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Review: Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia
By George Crane. Bantam, 2000, 293 pp.

Bones of the Master, an engrossing story of a pilgrimage, revolves around Tsung Tsai, an extraordinary Buddhist monk, who fled Mongolia in 1959, when Chinese communists were destroying monasteries and killing monks. In 1995, now living in upstate New York, he decides he must return to his homeland, find the bones of his teacher, and properly cremate and build a stupa for them in the cave where his teacher lived.

For this journey, he recruits his good friend and neighbor George Crane, who raises the necessary funds for the journey by selling a book proposal, and in 1996, the two set off.

While establishing the background for the journey, Crane introduces us to the two main characters, who form an improbable couple. Tsung Tsai is a true Ch’an monk, dedicated to meditation, solitude, reading, celibacy. Though when the two first meet in Crane’s backyard in 1987, Crane doesn’t know—and wouldn’t guess from the rags that Tsung Tsai is wearing—the man is a Buddhist and Sanskrit scholar, whose paintings are collected in Hong Kong. And as we see throughout the Mongolian journey, he is a well-known and highly respected monk.

Crane, on the other hand, a poet in his 40s, describes himself as “a cerebral ne'er-do-well with a love of books, women, and travel and a distaste for long-term employment.”  Read More 
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Counting the Cats in Zanzibar: Travel Quotation

Thinking about Thoreau, after reviewing Walking towards Walden (below), I decided this was a good time to quote his famous passage from Walden itself:

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some "Symmes' Hole" by which to get at the inside at last. England and France, Spain and Portugal, Gold Coast and Slave Coast, all front on this private sea; but no bark from them has ventured out of sight of land, though it is without doubt the direct way to India. If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist. Start now on that farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a wornout China or Japan, but leads on direct, a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down, and at last earth down too.
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Review: Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place

Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place
By John Hanson Mitchell. Addison-Wesley, 1995, 301 pp.

“There never was a more passionate pilgrim, a deeper explorer of the wilderness of the nearby than Henry Thoreau,” says John Hanson Mitchell in this delightful account of a “saunter,” as he calls his hike from Westford, Massachusetts to Concord. Mitchell, a naturalist, is himself an “explorer of the wilderness of the nearby”—three of his books explore one square mile in eastern Massachusetts—and in this excursion he pays homage to Thoreau and the other “luminaries” of Concord as well as to Concord itself.

Mitchell believes strongly in the significance of place, and Concord, he argues, is a special place in America: a place where for five thousand years Native Americans would congregate, where the American war of independence started, where American literature first flourished, and where the first book “devoted entirely to the exploration of the idea of place” was written.

The pilgrimage Mitchell undertakes, accompanied by two adventurous friends he has traveled with before, consists of a 16 mile hike that avoids all roads. The trio’s aim is to reach their destination through a 17th-century landscape, bushwhacking their way “through woodlots, old fields, farms, backyards, swamps, and streambeds.”  Read More 
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Review: The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers

The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers
By Eric Hansen. Vintage Departures, 2004, 228 pp.

Some travel writers recount trips that are accessible, doable: they describe places we might visit and inspire us to take similar trips ourselves.

Other travel writers—like Eric Hansen—describe journeys most of us will never take. We read their work from a different perspective, glad that they have taken these journeys for us and shared the experience.

Hansen is an adventurer, a lifelong traveler with a keen interest in places, cultures, and—as the subtitle of this book suggests—people. In these nine absorbing essays, we join him in Calcutta, Thursday Island, Vanuatu, and Borneo, and meet an intriguing cast of characters that includes a lap dancer who discusses Aristotle and an elderly Russian emigre—an expert chef—who is protected in her rough Washington Heights neighborhood by the local drug dealer.

Hansen’s openness, compassion, and skill at moving deftly between the comic and the serious give depth to his essays.  Read More 
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Review: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth

Road Less Traveled: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth
By Catherine Watson. Syren Book Company, 2005, 282 pp.

Catherine Watson sensed her vocation early. “By high school,” she writes in her author’s note, “I thought of myself as a ‘tourist in life,’ someone whose actual earthly purpose was going away. Only later, when I’d become a journalist, did I comprehend the rest of the assignment: coming back and telling about it.” In Roads Less Traveled, she conveys her enthusiasm both for the traveling and for the telling.

The 40 short essays in the book cover a wide territory, from North Dakota to Turkey, from Newfoundland to Lebanon. Drawn from the pages of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where Watson was travel editor for 30 years, most of the pieces are, as you’d expect, upbeat. In Borneo, she enjoys working with Earthwatch at Camp Leakey, where she and other volunteers “follow” orangutans.  Read More 
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