May 17, 2006

Great travel narratives: Marco Polo to William Least Heat Moon

"Would you come on the air and talk about travel books?" asked the host of a local TV show. "I think people would be interested in that. " I outlined some possible discussion topics and titles and e-mailed them to the host. She named the program "Great Travel Narratives from Marco Polo to William Least Heat Moon." That's a lot of ground to cover in a 30-minute show, so I spent a few days with my travel library deciding what to leave in and what to leave out.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on the growth of audio travel guides that you download, from vendors like iToors, to your music player or cellphone, noted that the new technology, while interesting and useful to some, poses no immediate threat to the printed page. Citing Nielsen Bookscan statistics showing that 14.2 million guidebooks were sold in the U.S. alone in 2005, up eight percent from 2004, the Journal confirmed "there’s a general boom in travel literature."

For the show, which has a suburban boomer-senior viewer demographic, I decided to focus on well-worn, well-told classic travel narratives. Prepping for the taping and whittling my huge collection of travel literature down to the few volumes or authors we’d be able to discuss during the half-hour segment was, itself, a wonderful journey. I paged again through books that transported me to some of earth’s farthest corners in the company of some of earth’s finest wanderers.

"Whoa! What’s with all the books?" asked Dana when she came home from school to find me at a table covered in three-foot stacks of volumes whose spines tempted with place-names like EGYPT and Peking; TIBET and Timbuktu; ANDES and Alhambra; Rajasthan and GRANADA; West Africa and ARABIA PETRAEA.

"Just catching up with old friends," I said, and dove into the piles to pull out Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta; Wilfrid Thesiger and John Lloyd Stephens; Washington Irving and Mark Twain; Freya Stark, Mary Kingsley and Alexandra David-Neel; Lowell Thomas and T.E. Lawrence; Gerald Brenan, Geoffrey Moorhouse and Graham Greene; Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron and Peter Matthiessen. Through the centuries, through the world, through their eyes.

In the end, I opted to bring to the set accessible, reasonably contemporary works likely to be found on the shelves of most small town libraries: books by Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin , Paul Theroux and William Least Heat Moon (or Heat-Moon -- he's sans dash in his early years, avec dash now).

Not surprisingly, the half-hour ended before even this limited trip could really rev up and get going. We barely scratched the surface of Chatwin (In Patagonia, What Am I Doing Here? The Songlines), Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Kingdom By the Sea, The Pillars of Hercules), and my two favorites:

William Least Heat Moon – He tried for years to get it published, and thankfully Blue Highways eventually was. Heat Moon’s tale of his U.S. road trip in Ghost Dancing, his workhorse van, is a classic of American road trip literature. Heat Moon’s journey was both escape and discovery. Job loss and a failed marriage led him to set out on a trip that would, as the best journeys do, let him both leave and find himself. He sank into America’s small places and let them and their people sink into him. Through his life, Heat Moon has explored most of back road America. River-Horse, a vivid but more cerebral read than Blue Highways, takes us across America from the Hudson to the Pacific on a water route that took Heat Moon years to map out. When he ran out of roads, he took to the rivers.

Eric Newby: I discovered Newby in a newsstand in London’s Heathrow airport. On a long layover to somewhere far, I needed reading material. I picked up Travelers’ Tales, an anthology that Newby had compiled and edited. Arranged geographically by continent, then chronologically within that framework, the selected snippets and stories told me Newby was a traveling man with a sense of humor, and I wanted to know more, so I devoured everything Newby I could find. In Love and War in the Apennines, WWII soldier Newby walks out of an Italian POW camp on Armistice Day and hides in the mountains. He meets Wanda, the village girl he’d marry and the soulmate who’d accompany him on many of his adventures. The Newby books I managed to mention on the air – On the Shores of the Mediterranean, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Slowly Down the Ganges – are joyous delights.

"All travel is circular...the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home."
- Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

"...who can say where a voyage starts – not the actual passage but the dream of a journey and its urge to find a way? For this trip I can speak of a possible inception: I am a reader of maps... I read them as others do holy writ; the same text again and again in quest of discoveries, and the books I’ve written each began with my gaze wandering over maps of American terrain. At home I have an old highway atlas, worn and rebound, the pages so soft from a thousand thumbings they whisper as I turn them."
- William Least Heat Moon, River-Horse

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely, on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime."
- Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Dream. Read. Go.