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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.

Book Review: Where the Pavement Ends

Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman’s Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China & Vietnam
By Erika Warmbrunn, The Mountaineers Books, 2001, 249 pp.

Why travel by bicycle? “Because a bicycle is freedom; a bicycle is independence; a bicycle is self-sufficiency,” writes Erika Warmbrunn. “Because a bicycle lands you in places you didn’t know you wanted to go, and shows you things you didn’t know you wanted to see…”

And there is also the sheer exhilaration: “The flying abandon of a bicycle, legs pumping, body and wheels skimming above the land, cycling for the sake of cycling”—at least when the roads are good. Often, of course, they aren’t good: as Warmbrunn travels from Irkutsk to Saigon, she has to cope with roads that are torn up, or icy, or muddy. In one coal-mining village, she bicycles through such ash-laden air that she can hardly breathe. But she copes extraordinarily well.

Where the Pavement Ends describes an impressive journey. Traveling alone, with her bike—which she calls Greene—Warmbrunn covers 8000 kilometers in 8 months. Read More 

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Book Review: The Essential Lewis and Clark

The Essential Lewis and Clark
Landon Y. Jones, Editor. Ecco Press, 2000, 203 pp.

“Long before Huck lit out for the territory, Lewis and Clark…defined the territory,” writes Landon Y. Jones in the introduction to his selection from the explorers’ journals. “During their journey, and in their journals, Lewis and Clark created an epic,” he observes, “one whose effect on our collective imagination has made it, over time, the unofficial Odyssey of American history.”

The two Captains and their band, the Corps of Discovery, set out in 1804 with instructions from President Jefferson to find “the direct water communication from sea to sea formed by the bed of the Missouri and perhaps the Oregon.” Fortunately, Jefferson also instructed them to keep journals en route, which both men scrupulously did. Indeed, they wrote nearly a million words in these journals, which have been published in a 12-volume set. For those unwilling to tackle the whole of their account—or who would like to try a sample first—Landon has edited this abridged edition, aiming to capture the essence of their experience and their prose.

These journals bring to life this extraordinary journey, which covered 8000 miles, much of it through territory unknown to white Americans, and took 28 months—so much longer than they expected that many people had given them up for dead before they returned.  Read More 

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Book Review: The Roads to Sata

The Roads to Sata
By Alan Booth. Viking, 1986, 281 pp.

To travel on foot is a lure for many people, whether they are pilgrims following in the footsteps of those who preceded them, or adventurers setting out on their own paths. As Patrick Leigh Fermor observed in his classic, A Time of Gifts, "On foot, unlike other forms of travel, it is impossible to be out of touch.”

Alan Booth clearly felt the attraction of this kind of journey. An Englishman who had lived in Japan for 7 years, was married to a Japanese woman, and spoke fluent Japanese, he set out in the eighties, at the age of 30, to walk from the northernmost cape of the northernmost island of Japan, Cape Soya, to the southernmost cape of the southernmost island, Cape Sata—the entire length of Japan.

In The Roads to Sata, he gives us a kind of journal of this journey, which took 128 days and covered some 3,300 kilometers. He walked on back roads and, if necessary, on highways, he stayed in country inns, he consumed quantities of beer (“foot gasoline,” as he calls it), and he had encounters with, he estimates, some 1200 people: from businessmen to housewives, from priests to cyclists, and from farmers to sumo wrestlers—with whom he actually wrestled. (Spoiler alert: he didn’t win!)

Along the way, he meets an elderly man, who tells him: “A country is like a sheet of paper; it’s got two sides.  Read More 

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Travel Quotation

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware."
―Martin Buber
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Book Review: Sailing Alone Around the World

The Voyages of Joshua Slocum
Collected and Introduced by Walter Magnes Teller. Sheridan House, 1958, 1995, 401 pp.

“I was born in the breezes, and I had studied the sea as perhaps few men have studied it, neglecting all else,” wrote Joshua Slocum, the first man to circumnavigate the globe on his own. Sailing Alone Around the World is his engaging account of that extraordinary 3-year journey, which takes in the world but is dominated by two characters: Slocum and his 37-foot sloop, the Spray.

After introducing us to both of these characters in his opening chapter, which details his rebuilding of the antiquated sloop—revealing at once the absolute thoroughness of the man and the strength of the boat—Slocum begins his journey. The year was 1895, he was 51 years old, and at this point in his life, says the Slocum scholar Walter Magnes Teller, he was a “defeated” man. He was unable to acquire a new ship, he was unsuccessful as a writer, and he had lost his beloved first wife. “He owned almost nothing except the home-made Spray.

But no sense of defeat emerges from this exuberant book.  Read More 
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Antiquarian Maps as Travel Writing

Seamorse

Thinking more about the stories antiquarian maps tell. This map of Spitsbergen, 1625, is illustrated with scenes of whaling as well as bear and walrus hunting. The detail below shows one of the illustrations--a Seamorce, or, as we would say, a walrus.

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Maps as Travel Writing

Maps, Antiquarian Maps
This detail from the Spitsbergen map, above, shows the Seamorce, or walrus.
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Book Review: Greater Nowheres

Greater Nowheres: A Journey Through the Australian Bush
By Dave Finkelstein and Jack London. Foreword by Philip Caputo. Harper & Row, 1988, 313 pp.

The challenge of traveling in the Australian bush is written in the names of its locations: “Skeleton Point,” “Disaster Bay,” “Foul Point,” “Disappointment Bight,” “Useless Loop,” “Point Torment.” Inhabited by lethal snakes and insects, afflicted by weatherly extremes, endowed with a landscape typically described as desolate, bleak, and stark, and so underpopulated that the unprepared traveler risks dying unaided, Australia’s vast Outback is not a destination for the frivolous tourist.

Undaunted by the challenge, Dave Finkelstein and Jack London, two “middle-aged dropouts”—the first a former lawyer and China specialist turned sometime journalist, the second a former college instructor turned fisherman—set out to tour the bush.  Read More 

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Antiquarian Maps

Barentsz map

I've just returned from the Miami Map Fair, and I've been thinking about how antiquarian maps, which are based on journeys, represent a pictorial kind of travel writing.

This is the so-called "Barentsz map" of the arctic. It's a beautiful map--my favorite in my husband's extensive arctic collection. (I especially love the sea monsters.)

This map is claimed to be based on charts drawn by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, containing information gained from his three voyages to the north in 1594, 1595, and 1596-7 in search of the Northeast Passage. In the last of these voyages, Barentsz and his crew were trapped in the ice and forced to overwinter in Novaya Zemlya, where they fought off polar bears and struggled to survive. In the long retreat south in the spring, Barentsz died.

There are powerful stories in these old maps.
 Read More 

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Travel Quotation

"The wise traveller travels only in imagination...Those are the best journeys, the journeys that you take at your own fireside, for then you lose none of your illusions."
―W. Somerset Maugham
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