Travel Books That Go the Distance
It’s no big secret–books serve as escape hatches to dream destinations. They are portals to our passions. Sometimes a single book can act as a lodestar for decades. I recently read a Zoomer article about “literary tourism” by Kim Honey. For Honey, it was a copy of James A. Michener’s The Drifters that left her “hell bent on Marrakech” since 1986. She revisited his novel about three American university drop-outs and a British debutante who drive a VW pop-top into Morocco seeking a drug-hazed adventure before her trip, curious as to what sparked her so long ago.
As part of her “experiment” she stacked her iPad with e-books about Morocco, to add depth and palatable history to her trip where literary déjà vu unfolded in landscapes, souks and medinas that were familiar places she had read about but not yet seen. Naturally, after returning home and longing for the courtyards of lemon trees, Roman cities of mosaic tiles and bread still warm from the wood-fired ovens, Honey revisited Morocco by book.
Maybe it’s time to write your own new chapter and visit a destination that you’ve only read about. Or, if you’ve already booked a trip–why not immerse yourself in a few memoirs before you go? If you’re still unsure about where you’ll land in 2024, books are like Magic 8 balls. They can unexpectedly point you in a new direction.
From Spain to the Northwest Passage to Japan, here are a few incredible books (and destinations) to ooze into!
Walking the Camino: On Earth as It Is
by Maryanna Gabriel
What a gift this book is! Gabriel uses so many elegant turns of phrase, it’s whimsical loveliness all the way to Santiago. There are endlessly fun, fascinating and heart-squeezing bits that recount the time birthday champagne was delivered by helicopter to the time her ear was nicked by a bullet–to dear grandma wearing pants on her head. Her daily observations and emotional impressions of the Camino experience are beautifully stitched together.
Her fatigue on the Camino (and from life’s weighty obstacles) is palpable and also all too familiar. I nodded along when she was ready to collapse into her carbonara. Stirred memories of being flatlined by the dreaded “Camino Cough” flood back in an instant for those who have endured it!
Whether you are planning to walk the Camino or reflecting on the time you did, this memoir is rich with imagery and spirit. For those who choose to walk the Camino with Maryanna, you’ll be well-nourished and motivated by her words.
Thinking about the Camino de Santiago Hiking Adventure? Take a long walk with Maryanna first! You can walk with me too—Trail Mix: 920km on the Camino de Santiago. My wife and I walked the Camino Frances in 2018 and there are so many parallels with Maryanna’s memoir–and totally opposite experiences! No two pilgrimages are alike–you’ll see.
Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage
By Kathleen Winter
This memoir recounts Winter’s 2010 journey across the Northwest Passage. She paints a gorgeous journey of suspended days interspersed with captivating imagery, Inuit history and the internal conflict of traveling to such a remote and fragile place. Her reflections on the luminosity of the Far North are that of an artist–and her careful observations of the incandescent light, muskox bones, diminutive Arctic plants and shifting ice are precise and precious.
Winter’s musings loop in a lifetime and her own navigation across emotionally turbulent waters—her family transplanted from England to Newfoundland when she was a wide-eyed child. The personal thread will resonate–and she patches the nostalgia in seamlessly. The migration of ice and Winter’s own journey run almost parallel but in different directions, leaving fragments and calving unexpectedly.
There’s lots to learn too about the Danish influence in Greenland, climate change, colonialism, and the embarrassing failed attempt at the Canadian government’s “Inuit Relocation Experiment.” You can almost hear the chorus of sled dogs that outnumber the human population. The weight of the RCMP’s ruins and the island graves of early explorers are true “wrinkles in time” just like the rocks below.
The land of two names is intelligently introduced from all angles–from its mineral depths, colonial ties, sovereignty battles, military interest, explorer graves and polar bears.
A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations
By Pico Iyer
If you’ve ever wondered about Japan and all its juxtapositions, this “guide” offers intel that can only be gleaned from someone who has lived over three decades in the country. There’s lots of quirky bits about love hotels with curtained parking lots, the country’s affection for mascots, vending machines (5.6 million!), silent concerts and theme parks.
Far from a Lonely Planet guide, Pico Iyer’s perspicacious observations describe bizarre rituals—like when a train is taken out of service in Japan, locals gather and commemorate the train with presents and teddy bears. He also introduces readers to seemingly fictional concepts like the Mr. Monk delivery (a Buddhist priest is sent to perform cheap funeral chants). In easy to digest blurbs, Iyer investigates the spare Japanese aesthetic of sushi bars and severe minimalism; the hard and fast baseball rules (high school baseball championships are so sacred that women are not allowed to set foot on the ground), the philosophical difference between European and Kyoto gardens (in Kyoto, a garden enters you, versus you entering it) and how mother-in-laws are chosen with the same care as a husband (because she’s going to around way more often!).
It’s a fascinating and smart examination of manga, mascots, bento boxes and Marie Kondo–even Meryl Streep has a cameo!
Wanderlust: Extraordinary People, Quirky Places, and Curious Cuisine
By Karen Gershowitz
This memoir is guaranteed to trigger the urge to travel (and remind you, simultaneously, of all the delicious comforts of home). I found myself reading at warp speed, eager to compare notes on destinations that I had also been to like Borneo, Iceland, Newfoundland, Tanzania and Patagonia.
Gershowitz’s conversational tone is breezy, curious and fun–stories of tipsy nights (and bunk bed mishaps) in a Switzerland hostel, seriously lost in translation moments in China, Hong Kong menus, firewater taste testing (seemingly everywhere!) and driving down STAIRS in Sicily reassure that travel comes with its shares of hiccups, dupes (Turkish rugs sellers!) and outrageously priced martinis (a $75 minimum bar bill at Dubai’s 7-star Burj Al Arab hotel–in 2017!)–regardless of how seasoned a traveler you are. And sometimes, adventure includes a one-pot dinner of sardines, fruit cocktail, crushed saltines AND sardines and Vienna sausage.
Her travels over the decades are impressive and addictive–from the 70s to current day, I loved the ride. I’m certainly going to dig deeper into wacky Wisconsin and the state’s outdoor art scene and South Korea (which was never on my radar).
Wherever you’re thinking of going, go to your nearest library or bookstore first! There are endless books that go the distance. Book it!
Literally, a few more ideas…
Butter Tea at Sunrise: A Year in the Bhutan Himalaya is a fun way to celebrate booking Wild Women’s Bhutan Hiking Adventure. Feeling a magnetic pull to Morocco? How about A House in Fez? Get in the Newfoundland Active Adventure mode with Marlis Butcher’s Park Bagger: Adventures in the Canadian National Parks!