You’re Not Going Anywhere: My #COVID19 Armchair Travel Book List
Dear Friends Around the World: So many people I know are addicted to travel – for work, for family holidays on the beach, for those adventures in distant lands that we dream about, Walter Mitty-like, while stuck in traffic. And now here we are, in a world where staying close to home has become pretty much an ethical duty. Since that is not going to change any time soon, and since you may find yourself with a bit of free time on your hands, I invite you to take a virtual journey, or several, with my Top Ten Armchair Travel Book List. My goal is not to introduce “obvious” books you’ve likely already seen or read (no Bill Bryson or Eat Pray Love on this list), but some overlooked classics of the travel and adventure genres. I hope you’ll not only enjoy a few of these, but also share the list with others in your life who may need a distraction from the constant alarming news feed. For more reading inspiration, my Top Ten Books of the Year for 2015-19 are available at www.johnjwood.com As Amy says: Be safe, be strong and be sane! All the best,
The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux
It’s nearly impossible to choose the best book on train travel written by Theroux, and I could just as easily recommend The Great Railway Bazaar or Riding the Iron Rooster. What breaks the tie for me is the opening scene in this compelling travelogue. It’s a Monday morning in recession-plagued 1979, and our narrator is on a suburban train, making the slog through wet winter weather to downtown Boston. Almost everyone in the car looks like they hate their job and their life, but not Theroux. He’s not clutching a purse or a briefcase – he’s got an overstuffed backpack. He’s not clean-shaven, but in the early days of growing a moustache that he hopes will help him to fit in south of the border. This, it turns out, will not be the only train Theroux will be on. His plan is to ride the rails all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point in the hemisphere. Across the US, Mexico, Central and South America, Theroux meets interesting characters, allows us to get inside his own head during the endless hours on slow trains and shares the glory we feel when we have freedom of movement and few adult responsibilities. A true travel masterpiece.
Country Driving – Peter Hessler
I originally fell in love with Hessler upon reading River Town, his debut memoir of two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English at a small college perched on the banks of the Yangtze River. Shortly after The New Yorker hired him as their sole Beijing correspondent in 2001, he managed to snag an almost-impossible-to-acquire Chinese driver’s license. He celebrates with a Chinese version of the Great American Road Trip – in this case by embarking on a 6,000 mile romp across northern China. Following the Great Wall all the way to Tibet, Hessler is a most entertaining road trip partner. He profiles interesting people he meets and conversations he has along the way, while also chronicling how the rise of the car culture inevitably changed a previously isolated and mostly rural nation. As a bonus prize, his anecdotes on Chinese driving test questions are laugh-out-loud funny.
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot – Robert Macfarlane
Having covered thousands of miles in dozens of countries, I’ve long believed that hiking is one of the best ways to recharge the mind and the soul. The challenge is – how to write about it and make it interesting? Robert Macfarlane, by day a Cambridge professor, pulls off a stunning answer to this question in a series of essays. Macfarlane takes us on his solitudinous walking adventures in picturesque locations ranging from Scotland to Spain, occupied Palestine to Tibet. The “ways” are ancient walking tracks – pilgrimage paths, trade routes, ancient rights of way – that have existed for thousands of years but have been largely overlooked in this modern era of high-speed transport. Macfarlane goes at his own pace, and we the reader are better off for it. Along the way he manages to even make rocks interesting! Also highly recommended is his debut Mountains of the Mind.
A Passage to Juneau – Jonathan Raban
Raban is a fascinating character. A Brit who made America his adopted home, a prolific writer, and enough of an introvert that he once sailed the entire length of the Mississippi River solo. This time around the author is embarking on another solo sail, this time following the >1,000 mile Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau. Each day he smokes his pipe, reads books, spends hours in his own head and over his nightly glass (or two) of whiskey shares his observations with us. Having recently had a son and buried a father, he has a lot on his mind and moves at a pace quite conducive to meditation, and we the readers are all the richer for it.
Tracks: A Woman's Solo Trek across 1, 700 Miles of Australian Outback – Robyn Davidson
Davidson opens the memoir of her perilous journey across the hostile Australian desert with this intriguing observation: "I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there's no going back." She had never before been in the desert or led a camel (let alone driven a team of these notoriously prickly animals). The locals all told this city girl that she would certainly die a lonely death before she reached the sea. So, what could possibly go wrong? Dive in, and you’ll find this adventure hard to put down.
The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places -- William Atkins
From Corsica to Namibia to Utah, some of my favourite spots on earth are deserts, so I could not resist picking up this travelogue. One-third of earth’s surface is classified as desert, and yet we mostly think of them as blank spots on the map. Atkins journeyed to eight deserts on five continents and wrote the perfect armchair travel book -- he may be dusty, hot and parched, but you can be drinking a chilled glass of white wine while he brings these spaces to life. He takes the reader with him from China’s Gobi Desert to Sonora in the American Southwest and onward to Australia’s Great Victoria. This book is guaranteed to dial up your wanderlust, and hey, don’t forget -- deserts are fantastic places for social distancing. ☺ The White Darkness – David Grann
The most brutal and unforgiving desert on earth - Antarctica - is the scene for one of the most inspiring travel books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Henry Worsley was a devoted husband, father and decorated British special forces officer obsessed with the legacy of Ernest Shackleton (partially because one of his ancestors was on some of Shackleton’s voyages). In November 2015 Worsley said goodbye to his wife and sons (one of whom was so pissed at his father’s leaving that he refused to communicate with Worsley during his journey) and set out to conquer a challenge that Shackleton had unsuccessfully attempted – to walk across the entire breadth of Antarctica alone. David Grann tells this inspiring story in a manner that makes the book un-put-downable. The physical book (be sure to buy the one with the color photos) is gorgeous to hold and gaze upon, and is the perfect pay it forward regifting opportunity.
West with the Night – Beryl Markham
Trivia question: Who was the first person to fly the Atlantic Ocean non-stop from west to east? You may know that Charles Lindbergh did it east to west in his famous plane The Spirit of St. Louis. But did you know the tougher (due to prevailing headwinds) crossing was done by a woman? Beryl Markham was not only a daring pilot, but also a fascinating writer. Born in Kenya in the opening days of the 20th Century, Markham first served as a racehorse trainer and bush pilot. Amongst the fans of her writing was none other than Hemingway, who opined: “She has written so marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. She can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book”. This is one of the first books I bought for Amy when we started dating and was the one she was reading the weekend we got engaged, so female empowerment once again pays life dividends!
Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
If there was ever the sign of a perfect friendship, it might just be giving someone the right book at the right time. My friend Kim handed this little gem of an adventure to me as I was embarking on yet another two-week round the world journey to raise funding for Room to Read. I’d be sipping wine and reading in a pressurized cabin while gobbling up Saint Exupery’s tales of the (much tougher) early days of flight. A pioneering aviator, he shares his memories from the early days as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aeropostale, flying treacherous routes across the African Sahara and South American Andes. The book's themes include friendship, death, heroism, camaraderie and solidarity among colleagues, humanity and the search for meaning in life. I did not want it to end, and envy anyone who will have the experience of reading it for the first time.
The Right Stuff – Tom Wolfe
I’ve lifted this review straight from the Guardian because I can’t say it any better:
“In 1972, Rolling Stone commissioned its star reporter to cover the launch of NASA’s final Apollo moonshot, one of many moments that marked the end of the 60s. Tom Wolfe responded with what he later described as just “some ordinary curiosity”. What was it, he wondered, that would make a man “willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?”
Wolfe decided “on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17.” He had stumbled on a “psychological mystery” – the motivation of the men involved, and his fascination with his own response. “I discovered quickly enough…that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question, or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.”
And so, with his unfailing instinct for a good story, Wolfe spent the rest of the 70s in “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps”. Wolfe’s account of one of the most extraordinary and most secret dramas of the 20th century became The Right Stuff, his best book in any genre.”