The Literary Open Road

Today I went for a long drive through the farmland that surrounds the small city where I live, speeding over the rickety roads that cut between all those frozen-over cornfields. There was no real reason for this drive, and I had no destination in mind, but it was nice to listen to overly loud music and clear my head.

Nothing clears my head like a long, solitary, aimless drive.

And then I started thinking about what I was going to write for LitKicks today. I had a topic in mind, but I guess you’re just going to have to wait for it, because I’ve decided to go along the travel route instead.

While Kerouac’s On the Road is probably the most famous road story of all time, there’s a whole genre of travel literature that covers all aspects of getting away from home and seeing the world. With that in mind, I’d like to ask you the following:

1. What are some of your favorite travel books?

2. Has a book ever inspired you to go somewhere or try something or dream of a place? (For example, I’m cheating because it’s not a book, but when I was eleven, a National Geographic article on the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius inspired me to see the famed volcano in person, and when I was 21, I did.)

3. What are some of your favorite literary locales? Do you like them because of the way they were described in a piece of literature, or have you been there?

4. What do you think it is about travel that inspires so much writing?

Those are my questions. Now, go.

18 Responses

  1. Other WorldsI used to teach a
    Other Worlds

    I used to teach a course on travel literature called “Other Worlds.” We read all the way back to Herodotus. Maybe my favorite of the classics was Lucian’s “True History” and his accounts both of the moon and the underworld. Recently my eyes have turned east, and my current favorite text is Basho’s “Narrow Road to the Interior.” It is a poetic diary, pilgrimage, haiku anthology, among other things. It is a slender volume that inspired countless others to write in dense prose and poetry combined. I recommend it.

  2. Of Deserts and Rain DancesIn
    Of Deserts and Rain Dances

    In high school my talent was art. I was always drawing or creating something. I took art class every year through high school and when I learned my instructor didn’t care if I also spent my “free” period in the classroom, by 10th grade I was spending 2 hours a day working on my projects. (Really, I’m going somewhere with this) There were about 4 of us art freaks who did this. One of those was Gordon Wilson.

    Gordon’s passion was the American Indian. Now I loved Indians but my only exposure was from western novels (I read them avidly) and movies so my spin on the Indian was highly romanticized. Gordon studied the Indian, and his art project subjects were usually Native American. As he would work on a project he would regale me with facts about Indians, the person he was drawing or just Indian lore and history. I don’t know how he became interested in Indians, but he exposed me to Osceola, Chief Joseph and many others. I began reading about Native Americans seriously.

    As fate (whatever) would have it, my first college room mate lived on an Indian reservation in Nebraska. At the end of our freshman year she invited me to spend the summer with her and her family. Well there was no way I was not going to do that. So off I went to Winnebago to spend the summer living on a small farm and working with Indian kids. That summer lasted 2 years, when I finally returned to college to finish my education.

    When I graduated college I moved to Phoenix Arizona working as a teacher in a theological seminar for Indians who wanted to be pastors/ministers. Our students came from all over the US. Through my students and with them I traveled to the Whitewater and San Carlos Apache Reservations; also the Hopi, Papago, and Navajo, among others. They took me to out-of-the way places. I was shown a small hole high in a cliff that appeared totally impossible to get to and told that Geronimo had used it as a hiding place while the foolish calvary tromped around looking for him.

    I spent time in Shiprock NM where each morning when I stepped out my door I could stare at the postcard image of that famous ship rising out of the desert. I spent 2 weeks living among the Pueblo Indians just north of Albuquerqe NM. We parked the car, then walked into a village where the streets are too narrow for a vehicle. The family I stayed with owned the local market. I slept in a tiny house they used only during festivals which set atop part of the wall that built the recesed square where their Indians danced during ceremonies. No cameras were allowed in these villages.

    My regret now is that I didn’t journal then. I have vivid pictures and memories of these adventures but just like old photos they fade with time. I wish I had recorded my impressions so that by rereading them I could be there again.

    I wrote a drama my students performed on many of the reservations we visited. We needed an Indian ceremony and one of the kids knew the Rain Dance and music for the ceremony. Well, if this was being performed in front of Indian audiences had to be authentic. The kids learned it and everyplace they performed that spring it rained. Must have been powerful magic, eh! This filled us with delight and ons of laughter. The kids were magical.

    I became educated as to the myths and realities of our Native Americans. I lost my perspective based on nonsense and the movies. I found cultures rich beyond imagination filled with beauty and lore. I will always be in love with the Native Americans. I always want to go back, find my students and visit the reservation again.

  3. Travel can be a
    Travel can be a Backbone

    Travel can be a backbone for many stories — not necessarily travelogues, either. I’ve read considerably on the travels of those trying to discover the North West Passage and also those who travelled to the Yukon Gold Rush. Wonderful stories — history yet rollicking. They developed a love of the north in me that has been consummated numerous times, once with a trip by sea up the Labrador coast, numerous trips by sea up the west coast intracoastal waterway to Ketchikan, Alaska, another trip into the Bering Sea and the Aleutian island of Adak, and just last fall, a trip by plane to Iqaliut, the capital of the recently formed Canadian territory of Nuavut. I still want to retrace the Gold Rushers’ steps by water up the ice steps of Skagway, Lake Bennett, the Yukon River and on to Dawson. Author Pierre Berton did this in the 70s with his family, capturing the trip in his excelent book Drifting Home (Berton was born and raised in Dawson).

    Also, there is no doubt my reading of travel literature, the places I came to learn of, the sights I saw through print, had a factor in my decision to join the Navy and see the world. After returning home from a long trip, it only takes about 4 months before I am itching to get back out there.

    I particularly enjoy seeing places I have read about. I’ve read about and seen most of Newfoundland that borders the sea. Turkey and other Middle East locales — brought to me courtesy of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Just a couple weeks of ago, I was standing on Juno Beach, the site of the Canadians’ landing at Normandy on D-day, 1944. The next day I stood at Dieppe, where 1000 of a landing force of 5000 Canadians were killed in an irresponsibly planned landing. 2000 more were taken prisoner. The tears flowed like rain on a window as I toured the neighbouring cemetary, reading the same names from the same towns — entire families wiped out so the British could learn about German tactics using Canadian boys as experimental fodder. I had read all this history previously, but being there, seeing the Dieppe cliffs, feeling the insanity of a landing attempt on this particular beach as the Germans sat laughing atop their cliffs picking off easy targets with machine gun fire pre-positioned to cover the entire beach. The experience was necessary, the books incomplete until that moment.

    So yeah, travel books can bring us someplace, sometime, somewhere. Occasionally a personal visit is required to finalize things, I think.

  4. ‘Why ain’t here like home?’1.
    ‘Why ain’t here like home?’

    1. As a teenager, your correspondent was attracted to the 1960s and 1970s radical movements portrayed in the media and in 1981 went to People’s Park, Berkeley and was sorely disappointed that there were no protesters or demonstrations and only street people and small time drug sellers. Traveling has been mostly a disappointment because expectations seldom live up to reality and it isn’t fun vacationing alone or traveling for work, both the cases for your poster except last year on short sight-seeing trips to Shanghai and Beijing, and a guided tour to the Shaolin Temple. Another guided tour was to Nagasaki. At their ground zero, one can see shadows on the wall, all that’s left of some people after the blast. To be in a place where tens of thousands died at once, “Poof!”, was eerie and sad. What was even more sad was to return to the USA and finding out no one cared about personal tales of discovery.

    2. The natural wonders of the American West and the artificial brilliance of Kyoto’s Ryo-anji Temple and gardens must be experienced first-hand because they can’t be captured on paper.

    3. The Canterbury Tales is told on the road. Travel is a convenient vehicle for an author. Huckleberry Finn’s on the Mississippi, making it easy to introduce new caricatures. Humanity has more experience as hunter-gathers than living in settled communities so traveling’s in the DNA.

    4. As for traveling, the longest journey one can take is the the space between one’s ears, viz., what’s out there that going somewhere else will change you? Can one search and find happiness?

    a. Your correspondent has listened to countless expatriate conversations with the common topic: “Why ain’t here like home?”, while they ignore the Hollywood DVDs for sale everywhere and the Golden Arches and Starbucks, not listening to the local hip-hop in the native language.

    b. Airports and sea ports, train stations and bus stops are just places to say good-bye to your loved ones and that is the difference between the tourist and those trying to get off the bottom rung of the global economic ladder.

  5. Thanks Beth. I’ve heard it
    Thanks Beth. I’ve heard it said that Basho was one of the first travel writers. I really think I should read him.

  6. Yeah, and all of your great
    Yeah, and all of your great stories about life on the reservation inspired me to go spend some time on a reservation myself. Granted, it was an entirely different part of the country, but it was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything and I have your road stories to thank.

    When it comes to stuff you read now, do you think there’s anything that comes close to capturing that experience for you?

  7. Hey Knip, thanks for your
    Hey Knip, thanks for your answer. I like this statement:

    “So yeah, travel books can bring us someplace, sometime, somewhere. Occasionally a personal visit is required to finalize things, I think.”

    But of course, I have a follow-up question —

    In your experience, have you ever found that going someplace that you’ve read about hasn’t finalized it for you so much as it opens it up or begins something for you? Perhaps because things are different than expected, or because you learn something (about yourself, about the place) that you hadn’t thought about before?

    Just curious.

  8. “What was even more sad was
    “What was even more sad was to return to the USA and finding out no one cared about personal tales of discovery.”

    I’ve found from experience that this is true, but then, I had to make myself not be sad about it by realizing that experience is experience and story is story and sometimes the two just don’t translate. I guess perhaps it’s impossible to make your own personal discovery truly real (at least in the way it is to you) to another person, because personal discovery is, well, personal.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and perhaps that’s one of the places where writing (travel or otherwise) comes from.

    And maybe that’s a tangent.

  9. On the RoamI too have enjoyed
    On the Roam

    I too have enjoyed how National Geographic paints a landscape. One of my favorites was a spread they did on India. They took you down the grand trunk road, and then you’re traveling with the nomads. It really made me want to go there. I also want to go to Hawaii. The Geographic not only takes you to Hawaii, it takes you into volcanoes, and has you learn the names of ancient gods.

    After reading books like Love Thy Neighbour a story of War about Yugoslavia and Bury Me Standing about Romanian gypsies, I want to go to those places in Eastern Europe but cannot explain why.

    My favorite travel books so far, are titled, originally, “East Asia” and “Southeast Asia”. The books are so chock-full of info and colorful pictures that you almost don’t need to go there.
    My favorite stories of other lands are told by expatriates and the like. I think people who are from one place and then travel to another have a different perspective on a place than the locals. Being an expatriate or stuck in a foreign land, you will see things, details, others will not. I remember reading about all those American authors who escaped to Paris around the early to mid century and produced works from it. I’d like to escape to another country and write about it. Perhaps a book. Travelling inspires writing, or improves it, I think. I think this is because more exciting stuff happens when you travel or the things you see and people you meet are more interesting. Maybe this is because you are not used to it.

    I like any locale whether it be Russia or Japan, as long as the story is interesting. And stories about people visiting London or Europe and their perspective and confusion since I was there once.

  10. Oh yes, although for a
    Oh yes, although for a different reason. Rarely do I get closure, because the nature of naval life is that your visits are only for short periods. Add to that the fact that most sea ports are essentially the same — one sees little if one doesn’t go on a bus tour or rent a car.

    Some examples. We went to El Ferrol, Spain for a two-week work period. Spain is fun enough, and the sea ports aren’t as nasty as some places. But I still got away for a few days simply by going to the bus depot with a friend and asking the ticket seller where she thought we should go. She recommended Lugo, which was in the hills on the Basque border, a walled city with Roman aqueducts skirting the city. Now I was expecting bull fighting and the like, and didn’t expect the aqueducts. So it opened a desire to explore the culture of northern Spain more, which I couldn’t really finalize, as I only had a few days away.

    In the Ukraine, I managed to get to the Partisan caves from which they fought the Nazis, but wasn’t permitted to see Chernobyl, even though I was so close. But I did read a book on the famous steps of Odessa and saw Barber of Seville in Russian at the famous Odessa Opera.

    I fulfilled a goal in Japan by weekending at a Buddhist retreat in the mountains, but after visiting a village on the way, I wanted to explore village life more.

    And although Toulon, France was a typical dirty, prostitute-and thug-filled sea port, a bunch of us rented a car and went to Cannes and Monaco. Unfortunately the Riviera is not much to look at out of season and we didn’t bring nice enough clothes to get into Casino Royale, so we missed out on that (although not considered that big a loss, really).

    I think travel opens more doors than it closes, because it promotes a thirst for more. And I see this as a good thing. It isn’t always necessary to have closure.

  11. Sherman Alexie is the Native
    Sherman Alexie is the Native American who wrote the screen play for Smoke Signals. I loved this movie. I think he captures life on the “res” quite honestly. He has a novel out Reservation Blues which I haven’t read yet, but want to read. He has several lots of stuff out. Google him. He is worth reading. I have heard him interviewed a couple times and find I like what he has to say. I really want to read more of his work.

    And I have recenlty read the 3 books published by Nasdijj. His writing is powerful and I have gotten carried away a couple times talking about the impact of his work when I read him and was challenged to read everything he had published. He is extemely honest about the current hardships of the Native American. He is angry that most of those living in this country are totally ignorant of conditions on the reservation and the extreme problems Native Americans face. He should be read. He really should.

  12. placesThis isn’t highly

    This isn’t highly original, but I have to vote for the two classic psychological travel novels, in both of which the outward journey is an obvious metaphor for the inward exploration: “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville and “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. Another one that occurs to me is “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is actually more of a generational epic than a travel novel, but it includes two memorable river passages, a journey to a different kind of heart of darkness.

    I haven’t travelled a whole lot in my life, but I’ve made it to the West Coast a few times, and I always feel aware of the spirits of Kerouac, Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch and Lawrence Ferlinghetti when I’m in California.

    If I ever make it to Europe, I’ll probably lit-geek out to an incredible extent. Maybe that’s why I’m reluctant to go out there — there’ll be no holding me back once I get started. My first goal would probably be to look up Rimbaud and Verlaine’s Paris haunts, or to find the house where Henry Miller and Anais Nin lived.

  13. re: National Geographic —
    re: National Geographic — Ever since I was a kind, maybe 11 or 12, I wanted to be a travel writer and write articles about all of these exotic places for that magazine. But I must’ve gone wrong somewhere, because what I do now is not even remotely close to that, but life is funny sometimes, I guess.

  14. Europe is definitely a
    Europe is definitely a lit/art geek mecca. Being a total geek about these things myself, I’m certain that I was more than slightly irritating to my friends on more than one occasion with my insistence that we just had to go to (insert name of artwork or writers’ haunt — or in the case of Rome, movie location — here). But in the end, I think the experiences were absolutely worth all the getting lost and the slight arguments and the nearly getting killed by oncoming traffic.

  15. I’d agree with that. I think
    I’d agree with that. I think that with travel, the more you see and experience, the more you know you need to see and experience.

  16. Travels and booksSpace-time
    Travels and books

    Space-time travels & books

    . Luisa Calcumil, folk music, Darwin diaries, Jules Verne, Hern

  17. Readings and TravelsI guess
    Readings and Travels

    I guess the first travel book I ever read was Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Ted Geisel, aka The Notorious D.R. S.E.U.S. I was but a wee lad at the time, so it didn’t inspire much in the way of journey’s, but I did, the summer after I learned to write, write a bunch of stories about a penguin who rode an iceberg to imaginary places around the world.

    I have had one journey so far directly inspired by a book I read though.

    I was living in a hotel in San Francisco when my friend Mac, who was serving in the Peace Corps in Guatemala at the time, emailed me and asked 1)Why are you living in a hotel in San Francisco? and 2)If you aren’t you anything, why don’t you come and hang out in Guatemala for a few weeks? I figuratively looked at my calendar, and seeing it figuratively blank, I went to the bookstore to read up on Guatemala. I happened upon a book by Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express. It’s about Theroux’s project to hop on every train in sight from his starting point in Boston to the bottom of South America.

    I like trains as well so I thought it would be fun to take trains from Chicago to Guatemala. However I quickly discovered that passenger rail service in Mexico had essentially ceased to exist in the late 90s (this was late 2000) and in Guatemala trains had gone the way of the dodo in the 80s. I thought about buses, but I had never been South of the Border, and if your sole cultural window to Latin American travel is 20/20 or Dateline NBC, you might understandably be under the impression that the odd of your being robbed, shot, or hacked to death by a machete while traveling there were about 3 in 5. I was discouraged and consigned to a pedestrian flight into Guatemala City, when Mac reassured me that bus travel would be just fine, so I bought an Amtrak ticket from Chicago to San Antonio, rode buses the rest of the way, and so on and so forth and it is probably up to this point the best thing Ive ever done, all thanks to Paul Theroux and Mac.

    Paul Theroux is probably my favorite travel writer, for reasons among those discussed here. He inspired a realized trip to Latin America and monetarily contingent future trips to Southeast Asia and Japan (The Great Railway Bazaar and around the Mediterranean Sea (The Pillars of Hercules), though I’m not sure I have the nerve to emulate his Egypt to South Africa journey of Dark Star Safari.

    Other journeys only waiting for some source of independent wealth; Australia (The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin); The Himalayas (The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen); Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey makes me want to return to the Canyon lands of Arizona and Utah; and Barry Lopez makes me see it all through different eyes. Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen and Desolation Angels made me go out and find a book called How to Rent a Fire Lookout in the Pacific Northwest for a sometime to be realized trip. Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon made me yearn for a crappy old car and empty two-laned roads, though his River Horse instilled in me no desire to hop in a boat. And The Journals of Lewis and Clark inspire me to Go West, still somewhat youngish man! and record my thoughts on my travel in idiosyncratic spelled journals.

  18. For very different, popular
    For very different, popular fiction set on the Navajo Reservation, you could try Tony Hillerman’s work. He has wriiten a well-known crime series about the antics of the Navajo Tribal Police.

    It isn’t what I would call “quality” literature – it’s lightweight airport book stuff – but it’s interesting for its Navajo perspective.

    Hillerman has taken the time to learn about the Navajo culture, and incorporate it into what would otherwise be unremarkable crime fiction. His stories refer to many real places in the Four Corners area.

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