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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.

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. Read More 

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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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