As a reader, one of the most inspiring things to me is to find an author that seems so beyond me as a writer, a sort of icon upon which to emulate. I remember this feeling when I first discovered Kurt Vonnegut, gobbling up near half a dozen books in a couple of weeks. The simplicity of insights, the simplicity yet punch of his sentences, enchanted me. I was dying to think that way, to imagine worlds so succinct in their reflection of our own. I’ve never come close.
In this year’s exploration of travel writers, I’ve had a similar experience with Tim Cahill. Cahill is a decent enough writer, no Vonnegut we’ll say, but what I came to admire in him was his prowess as a traveler. Reading one of Cahill’s classics (He’s been around for decades), Hold the Enlightenment, I was struck by how differently two people of similar tastes—Tim and me—can travel: Somehow he manages to get himself involved in these missions where the destination is an afterthought.
Sometimes, I get caught up in my own experience as a globe trotter, losing myself in the list of countries I’ve lived in, seen, and bookmarked for later reference in chronicling. I know about street food in Thailand, hiking on the Great Wall of China, snorkeling Shark and Ray Alley in Belize…but I tend to travel to a place much more than with a specific purpose. The latter of the two seems to yield the sort of wild adventures that I only get by chance and bad luck.
Hold the Enlightenment, however, is a series of tales of high jinks. Cahill is one of those people, at least via his stories, that seems to sniff out mischief, from seeking out the last tiger in Turkey (“The Search for the Caspian Tiger”) to putting himself through a yoga retreat (“Hold the Enlightenment”) to swimming with great white sharks in “Swimming with Great White Sharks”. Wherever he is, it seems more about the adventure than the place. And, that’s a place I’ve not yet reached.
I suppose at some point, say over thirty years into the biz, you’ve been around more than once and the draw of ticking another beach, ruin, or world wonder off the list just isn’t important. As pleasing as his stories are, full of research and interesting facts and crazy characters, it’s the thought of having the gall that often drives me through them and on to the next one. I still try to stay out of trouble while traveling, but Uncle Tim just puts on a helmet and runs toward it.
However, as the cliché goes, there’s always someone who’s seen and done more. Even Cahill gets to meet his match. In “The World’s Most Dangerous Friend”, Cahill travels with Robert Young Pelton, bestselling author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a guidebook for the kamikaze traveler. Pelton takes Cahill on a hilarious press trip turned to ill-advised mission to interview guerrillas in the jungles of Columbia. Cahill is out-of-his-depths from day one.
This adventure into the world of travel writers has been mostly about me learning the craft, the journalistic values of successful authors. Though Tim Cahill certainly has merits as a penman, what I took away from his book were new ideas on the craft of traveling. It’s been a long time since my vagabonding ego got slapped with “you’re just not adventurous enough”. It’s been an inspiring feeling and one that I hope I can harness better than I did Vonnegut’s short sentences.
Having spent much of my twenties in the classroom, subjecting myself to the harsh workshop feedback of fellow aspiring writers, all of us snooty in a our pre-professorial tweed, I learned to look down my snout at anyone who lowered themselves to work in a genre, to pen less than literary articles for the purposes of sale as opposed to purebred art. I spent years in recovery, sitting before my computer screen with those haunting, judgmental voices in my head.
It wasn’t until a little over a year ago, with much trepidation, that I finally buckled down to writing with the intent to really sell the product. I declared myself a travel writer and began using—as so many say we beginners should—what I’d come to know best. It was a difficult admission at first. Like maybe I’d sold myself short. Like maybe I’d admitted defeat, owned up to not being able to hack it as a fiction author. In other ways, in the long run, the switch has reinvigorated a piece of me that had gone dormant after years of constructively critical abuse.
Recently, I’ve found myself in good company. Travel writing is undoubtedly filled with its own great voices, but I’ve also rediscovered some of those classic caricatures of literature—Twain, Hemingway, Hunter S.—were all into my new scene. These were authors of the highest caliber who’d found purpose in writing about the great exploits of their lives abroad. So, how pleased was I to discover that John Steinbeck, one of the most readable fogies I can think of, also took some fine diversions into the genre of travel.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America finds the aging authorial superstar loading up a custom-designed camper truck and hitting the open road with his best friend, Charley, an expressive canine companion also just a smidge past his prime. Steinbeck, a most astute observer of American life, wanted to go out and rediscover the muse that had inspired his gaggle of great works. What lucky readers we are that he also felt inclined to bring along a journal.
One the great parts of this book is that it seems to happen so organically, like a crafty veteran going about what he does best. Unobstructed by the linear length of a novel or the trappings of any particular plot, our old friend John is left to reflect in whichever ways he feels fit. From the tiptop of Maine, across the country, down and back, he partakes of the idiosyncrasies each state has to offer, slices of culture that are pure Americana but also purely Californian, Texan, and several other –ans.
Beyond the insight into 1960s USA, there is also a portrait of real travel, something more honest than “living the dream”. Steinbeck ponders some of the great quandaries faced when existing out of backpack (or camper truck in his case). In each vignette, he intertwines his own up and down of emotions with what’s around him and what’s to come. He anticipates the next adventure, dreads the next long leg of the journey, and provides a reality that mixes the mundane, incredible, and uncertain—what exactly it is to be vagabonding, even forty years later.
Before ever picking up Travels with Charley, a tattered coverless copy my friend Drew lent me, I’d come to terms with my new creative endeavor, completely at ease with writing pieces less artistic though more publishable. The bulk of my reading came from online travel magazines, save for the occasional good find on a “leave one, take one” shelf of our hostel. If I must admit, the envious oohs-and-aahs calling myself a travel writer elicited, even if loosely earned, had felt better than any recognition I’d received over a short story.
I took the borrowed copy with me on a trip back to the States this past December and found it hard to put down. It was making me examine my own trip, even if it was only to my father’s house in rural Texas, in refreshing new ways. I was thinking differently about the politics, belt buckles, and easy-moving oil rigs. My perception of the world around me was changing a little, if only in that I was developing one for places less than ostensibly amazing. That, perhaps, is the literary-side of travel writing. It’s not all press trips and ten-best lists.
It hardly seems necessary to recommend a John Steinbeck book, even if Oprah once did and set new audiences all a flurry for one of the great authors of the last century. However, lost in the world of literary fiction, in the bright light titles associated with the Steinbeck brand, I had simply never heard of this book. Amazingly, it reads with humbleness appropriate to its place amongst the classics, as if penned—as it was—by an author who had nothing more to prove but simply wrote from the heart.
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my travel writing training was to read travel books and take from them what I could. These are thoughts on some of those travel books.