“Often I feel I got to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I am.” – Michael Crichton
This quote is from a book that probably doesn’t enter many people’s list of favorite travelogues, but it tops mine. The book aptly named Travels, was written by Crichton in 1988, nearly 20 years after Andromedia Strain and two before Jurassic Park. It would be another 10 years before I had heard of or read Travels.
By that time, Crichton was a household name. Still, I hadn’t read any of his books until a friend of mine suggested Travels. We were sitting on the beach in Koh Samui, Thailand; he was reading it and intermittently laughing out loud. A book about travel, written by an author known for sci-fi, is funny? I was intrigued.
I’ve since read and re-read the book and currently own my third copy. I’ve often recommended and too-often loaned it and never seen it again, hence the need for new copies. What I love about Travels is not just how Crichton combines wry humor and raw honesty while lightly weaving in education about the places and culture he visits. Nor is it the quantity or exoticness of the locales, though they are many and far-flung. It’s the fact that he zeroes in on the experience of travel in a way that I have rarely found in other travelogues.
As he says in the book’s preface, “Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of food, your closet full of your clothes — with all of this taken away, you are forced into direct experience … I eventually realized that direct experience is the most valuable experience I can have.”
1. Travels — Michael Crichton
Travels is a collection of experiences. Organized not chronologically but more thematically, Crichton’s short stories span his time in medicine, through directing his first feature film, climbing Kilimanjaro, and chasing auras. (Yes, auras.) They come together as an exploration of what has challenged him intellectually, physically, and even spiritually. Travels is about finding himself, and therefore yourself, through experiences.
Which is another reason I enjoy Travels: Crichton shares enough of his own narrative to provide perspective but balances the writing so that it isn’t all about him. He leaves room for you to insert yourself, rather than to distantly observe someone’s journey to eat, pray, love and then ask, so what?
Since Travels, I’ve binged on travelogues and am always looking for new favorites. The following are a few:
2. A Walk In the Woods — Bill Bryson
Not long ago someone had recommended Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, and I’ve since been working my way through his books. A Walk follows Bryson and his out-of-shape friend Katz as they (sometimes) hike the Appalachian Trail. While I myself have no interest in hiking it (or other trails, for that matter), I found Bryson’s writing highly informative, insightful and incredibly humorous, with lines like: “What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die of course. Literally shit myself lifeless.” And: “I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth.” Published nearly 20 years before Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, it is finally being made into a movie, starring Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as Katz. So you could wait to watch it later this year if reading isn’t your thing.
3. The Sex Lives of Cannibals — J. Maarten Troost
Under the theme of “funny stories about places I’d never visit” is The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost. When his girlfriend is offered a job on Tarawa, a remote island in the Republic of Kiribati, Troost follows her and his sense of restlessness for a little adventure. Instead, he falls into a series of misadventures as the South Pacific paradise he had hoped for is revealed to be anything but. One of the funniest scenes is when he first jumps into the ocean behind their new home and realizes that the island’s beaches also serve as its outhouses. While the writing overall is just okay, The Sex Lives of Cannibals is a fun beach read … unless you’re on Tarawa.
4. Into Thin Air — John Krakauer
For a better written (but ultimately tragic) story, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is, for me, another favorite. The book unfolds through Krakauer’s own participation in an expedition to climb Everest in 1996. On the day when many were pushing to the summit, a storm came in and claimed the lives of eight climbers — the most in any single day on Everest. While sometimes criticized for lack of objectivity (Krakauer was on assignment for Outside magazine), his personal account of the events pulls you in and puts you on that mountain. And he has an undeniable gift for suspense: Though you know the ultimate outcome, you’re still wondering what will happen next.
5. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon — David Grann
Another excellent example of adventurous, narrative nonfiction is The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Author David Grann follows the footsteps of famed British explorer Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 left with his sons and a team of other men in search of a legendary lost civilization in the Amazon jungle. They were never seen or heard from again. Grann brings you along his own quest for the city’s remains while delving into Fawcett’s personal story and clues as to what may have happened on the expedition.
6. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — Cheryl Strayed
Around the same time Bryson was writing about hiking the Appalachian Trail, Cheryl Strayed was taking a walk of her own on the West Coast. Published much later, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is the resulting memoir and travelogue. After the first couple of chapters, I found myself wanting to not like this book. I tried but could not connect with Cheryl the character. But with the writer, I did. While she doesn’t quite cut the balance that enables me to step into her painful hiking boots, I found the writing compelling overall.
Before I’m accused of omitting obvious choices, I want to point out that some I’ve done so intentionally — others, maybe not. I’ve somehow gone until recently without reading anything by Paul Theroux (I understand apologies may be in order). I’m reading The Tao of Travel now, which is a collection, really. So I plan to read another work that’s wholly his. Suggestions, please.