An Inland Voyage
By Robert Louis Stevenson. Introduction by Ian Correa. Digireads.com. 2011. Originally published, 1878.
Although Robert Louis Stevenson is best known today for his fiction, he loved to travel, and his writings include a great deal of wonderful travel literature. "I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move," he wrote. And it is clear in An Inland Voyage—as it was in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and The Amateur Emigrant, both of which I previously reviewed—that being in motion triggered his powers of observation and reflection, giving rise to the creation of vivid scenes, characters, and stories.
An Inland Voyage chronicles a canoeing trip that Stevenson took in 1876 with his friend, Sir Walter Simpson. The pair travel from Belgium through France, each in his own canoe—the Arethusa (Stevenson) and the Cigarette (Simpson). It is Stevenson's first experience in a canoe, but he seems to manage fairly well, apart from the time the boat gets away from him altogether, leaving him clinging to a tree, still clutching his oar. He wryly imagines a future epitaph that would read: "He clung to his paddle."
The trip is rough going at times. The friends encounter wet weather and are frequently drenched. They have to deal with numerous locks. And as Stevenson explains in Travels with a Donkey, pleasure travelers are so rare at this time that people don't quite know what to make of them: innkeepers mistake them for "pedlars" and refuse them rooms.
But Stevenson, the consummate traveler, finds humor and points of interest everywhere. "After a good woman, and a good book, and tobacco, there is nothing so agreeable on earth as a river," he says. He enjoys the barges, with "their flower-pots and smoking chimneys," "ranged one after another like houses in a street," enterprises that enable their owners "both to travel and to stay at home"; he enjoys the fishermen, "stupefied with contentment," whom he sees as "an important part of river scenery"; he even enjoys the very mindlessness of canoeing, the "ecstatic stupor" he attains. "A pity to go to the expense of laudanum, when here is a better paradise for nothing," he says. Indeed, he considers this state of mind "the great exploit of our voyage" and "the farthest piece of travel accomplished."
Whether he is writing about a forest—"a city of nature's own"—or lamenting how the receipt of letters on a journey is "the death of all holiday feeling" and makes him feel like "a tethered bird," Stevenson's observations awaken a fresh and unexpected view of the world, which seems to me just what travel literature—like travel itself—should do.