It’s spring—wanderlust time! Time to travel—or at least to read about travel. When I started thinking about my favorite travel books, they came to me two-by-two, for some reason. So, that’s the way my list of travel top-ten picks rolled out.
Notes from a Small Island (1997) and In a Sunburned Country (2001) by Bill Bryson. A slight edge goes to Small Island, if only because I read it while visiting the “small island,” England. As a British resident raised in Iowa, Bryson has the perfect vantage point for examining the peculiar differences between us and our neighbors across the ocean. Sunburned Country is about Australia and, despite Bryson’s unceasing references to peril and discomfort from flora, fauna and weather, the book still made me want to visit. Bill Bryson is not only my favorite travel writer—I find him to be the most consistently entertaining of all writers.
Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1982) by William Least Heat-Moon, and Names on the Land (1945) by George R. Stewart. My favorite book about traveling America is Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, a true classic about the author’s peripatetic journey down the roads less-traveled, the “blue highways” on the map, in search of inner peace, which he seems to find in every encounter along the way. And what better book to take along on your “blue highways” tour than Names on the Land, a classic look at how different American places got their names? One of our states’ names, for example, comes from the Siouxs’ name for the St. Peter River. It meant “muddy water,” and was variously anglicized as Menesotor, Menisote, Minnay Sotor or Menesota.
Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages (2003) by Mark Abley and Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (2008) by Daniel Everett. I read about places I can’t visit, but I’m also a linguist wannabe, so when I find a book that combines treks to far-off lands with explorations of vanishing languages, I’m in word-nerd heaven. In Spoken Here, the author visits with speakers of vanishing languages around the globe, from the Mohawk, Huron and Inuktitut speakers of Canada to the Boro speakers of India. Daniel Everett spends decades among the Piraha people, whose language relies so much more on pitch than on consonant and vowel sounds that it may be whistled or hummed, rather than spoken.
The Longest Walk (1988) by George Meegan and Road Fever (1992) by Tim Cahill. Two guys make the same journey–from the southern tip of South America to the uppermost reachable point in Alaska. One drives it in 23 days; the other walks it in seven years. In The Longest Walk, author Meegan describes his arduous endeavor, during which his wife gave birth to two children, as almost a spiritual journey, full of trials and rewards. Cahill, on the other hand, is hell-bent for a speed record, and encounters lots of corruption, calamity and car trouble along the way. Both authors spend most of their words on wild and unpredictable South America.
Desert Solitaire (1968) by Edward Abbey and To the Foot of the Rainbow (1927) by Clyde Kluckhohn. Two worshipful accounts, four decades apart, of the Southwest desert and canyons. Anthropologist Kluckhohn visited the Rainbow Bridge area when it was still pristine wilderness; Abbey spent time as a park ranger in the area when civilization had begun encroaching.
It also couldn’t hurt to check out Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers (2010) by indefatigable book recommender Nancy Pearl. She not only breaks her picks down geographically, but includes sections on train travel, hiking, “Travel to Imaginary Places,” and other non-place-specific categories.