Monday, June 22, 2009

The Travel Writers

I recently finished Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck's automotive trek across America. While it provided some interesting observations and a wide slice of life in America, it wasn't as compelling as I had hoped, being the writer that he is. There are some great quotable lines, though, a few of which are listed below:

On the passing of time and the visitation of old haunts: "'Let us not fool ourselves. What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What's out there is new and perhaps good, but it's nothing we know.'"

On Montana: "The next passage in my journey is a love affair. I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love..."

On journeys: "A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike."

Steinbeck eventually grows weary of his journey and his choice of subject matter deteriorates alongside his waning enthusiasm. Entire passages are dedicated to conversations with his dog Charley in which Charley actually responds to Steinbeck's inquiries in English. I suppose it's meant to be funny, but it ends up being a grand letdown. I don't think I'm unreasonable to have wanted more.

The transformative powers of a trip are difficult, in some cases impossible, to describe, but it pays to try. Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert does a fine job in Eat, Pray, Love. She allows her readers some insight into her personal journey to be a better person while simultaneously dragging them around the world. Sarah Erdman does a nice job as well describing her Peace Corps experience as a health worker in Nine Hills to Nambonkaha. I would reread these works any day.

I will probably not reread Travels with Charley, though I might as above quote the occasional stirring sentence. Contrasting Steinbeck's trip to both Gilbert's and Erdman's, you can't help but feel sorry for him. His prose might lead one to believe that he made no meaningful friendships or acquaintances, just interesting encounters. He goes so far as to quote people when he's asking for directions, his trip so lacking in human interactions. Maybe that wasn't the case, but you'd never know it reading his book.

I have since read a few pages from three other travel narratives: 1) A Vagabond Journey Around the World by Harry A. Franck, 2) The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux, and 3) Solitude by Robert Kull.

Harry Franck wrote his narrative about a century ago on the premise that he could travel around the world on close to no money at all. I am only in the first few pages of this book, but at over 500 pages, it seems he succeeded. I am curious about attempting the same in Texas.

Paul Theroux decided to travel across North and South America by train. I read Dark Star Safari in which he traverses Africa, and it was immensely entertaining (no doubt in part because of my own time on the continent). After the first few pages, Theroux restored my confidence lost to Steinbeck in male travel writers.

Robert Kull is an iffy bet. The book, a gift to me from Annie's aunt Satschu, is mainly a bunch of journal entries. Kull traveled to an isolated island in South America and camped a year. I'll give it a good shot, but I'm already skeptical of my ability to trudge through this.

I don't know what kind of travel writer I will become, but my goals are simple: to walk and learn. I want to reacquaint myself with the place of my birth and upbringing. I have spent much of ten years outside of its influence, traveling and seeing the world. I am returning now to see this old place with new eyes. If I start writing about my conversations with rattlesnakes, feel free to shoot me.

Until next time, wanderers...

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