Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Best Travel/ Adventure/ Nature Books of All Time

[While it might seem like I’ve crammed three genres into this list, I believe that each transcends the others, (or at least they’re too similar to break apart).]

Like any experience—and I use the word “experience” broadly—the books we read shape our characters no less than our parents, community, and culture. Some books settle like dust into the corners of our subconscious: memories, sometimes, as inconsequential and soon-to-be-forgotten as the blur of faces seen on a city street. Other books haunt us forever, staying with us like the eyes of our first lover. The books that stay with us are no longer just books; they, having saturated our identities with ideas and images and insights, are now as much our own as they were the author’s. They've become a part of us.

There are many influences behind my decision to live adventurously. I’m not sure to what extent, but the unhealthy amount of travel books I’ve read probably has something to do with it.

I’ve read a lot of travel books. A couple years ago, I went on a travel book reading binge that was borderline pathological. It was my goal to find the greatest travel book of all time. Once I realized I couldn’t read them all, I thought I could assemble several trustworthy “best of” lists compiled by popular travel magazines (National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Condé Nast, etc.) and create an equation to figure out what book was best based on those. The Snow Leopard topped it off. While I wasn’t blown away by that one, the list that I created led to many fine literary discoveries.

There are thousands of travel books and no one—especially someone of a mere 26 years—can taste them all. But, of those that I’ve read, here are my favorite ten.

One last word of warning: Be careful what books you read. They may change who you are.

10. A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins (1979)

A guilty pleasure, for sure. This book, by far, is the least “literary” on my list, but it was my first travel book. And it inspired me not just to read more, but to dream big. Also, Jenkins, the author, who walked the breadth of our country, graduated from my freshman year Alma mater, Alfred University.

“For the hundredth time I am going to answer someone’s questions about why I’m walking across America. It wasn’t that I minded talking about it or answering questions, it was just that I really didn’t know why myself.”

9. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (1974)

I remember a passage where she looks at some tiny microbes that make her ponder the infinitesimal, never-noticed kingdoms beneath us and the larger ones in the celestial heavens above us. Like the microbes that broadened her perspective, Dillard’s book did the same for me.

“The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock -- more than a maple -- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you.”

8. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (1979)

I wasn’t sure whether to choose this or Chatwin’s The Songlines. Both are exceptional, but In Patagonia is far weirder and creepier—adjectives not normally used to describe travel books. It starts with a description of the skin of a giant sloth—an animal that was thought to have been extinct for centuries. It doesn’t get any more normal after that.

“I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.”

7. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby (1958)

Newby, a professional dressmaker, set off to climb a 20,000 foot peak in Afghanistan. Less notable is the attempted feat than is his relentlessly entertaining writing style. Perhaps the father of all modern-day comic travel writers?

“It was a nightmare room [in Istanbul], the room of a drug fiend or a miscreant or perhaps both... The bed was a fearful thing, almost perfectly concave. Underneath it was a pair of cloth-topped boots. The sheets were almost clean but on them was the unmistakable impress of a human form and they were still warm. In the corner there was a wash basin with one long red hair in it and a tap which leaked.”

6. Arctic Dreams
by Barry Lopez (1986)

Lopez is one of those writers that make you feel like you know nothing. I can’t even begin to describe what his book’s about. Let’s just say it’s about the arctic. And a lot more.

“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

5. The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost (2004)

Troost is the funniest writer out there. He makes world-renowned comic travel writer Bill Bryson sound as dry as an evangelical preacher on the verge of the retirement home. (And I like Bryson.) This book was the first one I’ve ever laughed out loud to and I did so almost every other page.

“‘A story is like a car trip,’ tutored my editor. ‘You, the writer, are the car that takes readers from point A to B to C without leaving the road.’ As careful readers may have already surmised, I favor the ditches of digression.”

4. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)

Like a fundamentalist reading the Bible, I took in almost every word as dogma. Abbey has lots of opinions about our precious wild and he’s not afraid to share them. PS: Why has The Monkey Wrench Gang—his other major work—yet to be adapted into a film?

“No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

3. West with the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)

Oh, Beryl. How I would’ve loved to have been your lover in your later years, bringing you toast with jam and tea while you plugged away at your writings with a scattering of papers and an inkwell on your desk. However, Marham—an aviator, horsewoman, all-around badass, not-to-mention one of the finest writers of her age—probably would have been too free-spirited for me to tie down.

“You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents—each man to see what the other looked like.”

2. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery (1939)

Some of the most eloquent writing I’ve ever read. A French aviator and WWII surveillance pilot, Exupery flew over the Andes, the Sahara, and in storms that would have sent lesser men to careers in cubicles. He, rather, chose to live and die in his beloved planes. If there’s any book that can do it, this will be the one to awake the “sleeping prince” inside you.

“But you, by the grace of an ordeal in the night which stripped you of all that was not intrinsic, you discovered a mysterious creature born of yourself. Great was this creature, and never shall you forget him. And he is yourself. You have had the sudden sense of fulfilling yourself in the instant of discovery, and you have learned suddenly that the future is now less necessary for the accumulation of treasures. That creature within you who opened his wings is not bound by ties to perishable things; he agrees to die for all men, to be swallowed up in something universal. A great wind swept through you and delivered from the matrix the sleeping prince you sheltered--Man within you. You are the equal of the musician composing his music, of the physicist extending the frontier of knowledge, of all those who build the highways over which we march to deliverance. Now you are free to gamble with death. What have you now to lose?”

1. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (1950)

It’s every boy’s dream to find five gentlemanly comrades and shove off on a nonsensical voyage fraught with peril, hardship, and a slim chance of glory. Well, it’s mine at least. Heyerdahl did the undoable: he took a rickety wooden raft across the Pacific and lived to tell his story.

“The world was simple—stars in the darkness. Whether it was 1947 B.C or A.D suddenly became of no significance. We lived, and that we felt with alert intensity. We realized that life had been full for men before the technical age also—in fact, fuller and richer in many ways than the life of modern man. Time and evolution somehow ceased to exist; all that was real and that mattered were the same today as they had always been and would always be. We were swallowed up in the absolute common measure of history—endless broken darkness under a swarm of stars.”

Honorable Mentions

I’d probably have Walden in the Top-10 but I think I’ve given it enough advertisement. Here are some other favorites:

Old Glory by Jonathan Raban (1981)
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

Please feel free to share your favorite travel/ adventure/ nature books in the comments section.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sounds of Vandwelling

My latest idea is to compile a set of tracks and market them to the relaxation music industry. I'll call the CD "Sounds of Vandwelling."

Here are some clips from my impending compilation:

1. Autumn showers
2. Serenading crickets
3. Birdsong medley
4. Econoline hymns
5. Monsoon minstrel

Turn your volume up all the way and let yourself become entranced with the soothing sounds of vandwelling!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Held captive in the van

I was held captive in the van yesterday afternoon.

It was a nice day so I was in no hurry to walk to campus. I spent the afternoon—all alone in my parking lot—reading, eating, and napping.

At about the time I was ready to walk to the library, a family of three parked two spots over and had a picnic next to my van. FOR FOUR HOURS. All my windows were open so I could hear everything outside, which meant that they could potentially hear everything inside. For hours, I had to stifle all biological emissions—coughs, sneezes, farts, in all—while remaining fixed in the same sprawled-“I’m about to get disemboweled”- position on my bed for fear of making it creak.

After an hour, I thought about sneaking under my curtain into the front seat where I could start the engine and escape unnoticed like someone furtively inching to freedom beneath a cardboard box.

Alas, I determined that it be more prudent just to wait the family out.

Luckily, they were good company. Though I didn’t get a look at them, I figured they were in their early thirties. The child babbled incomprehensibly and giggled like a fool when the father dropped the toy truck on the ground. He must have been less than a year old. During an impromptu game of tag, the starboard side of my van became the “safe zone.”

They seemed like a throwback to an era when families were perceived to be happy and nuclear. I pictured the father in a white tee shirt, sporting a fedora next to his wife whose hay-colored hair matched her yellow sundress. Their child, of course, was dressed in a sailor outfit.

After a while I grew familiar enough with them to the point where I fantasized about walking out of the van (after donning a pair of pants, of course) as if I was a close, avuncular neighbor. I’d shake hands with the man, asking him if he saw the “game” last night before complimenting his wife’s Dahlias this year and lofting a mini football into the stomach of their progeny.

They devoted a considerable portion of their picnic to teaching their son how to talk. The father, as if lost in spiritual rapture, repeated the word “grape” with a persistence of a Buddhist seeking enlightenment through incantation.




“Sweetie, say ‘grape,’” added the mom.

“Grape,” continued the father.

“Sweetie, no crying.”

Much to our displeasure, the little guy never got around to saying it.

Eventually they took off at dusk. Upset to lose the company, yet relieved to have them gone, I quickly scampered out of the van, weaving around trees and fire hydrants like a kick returner evading tacklers en route to the nearest public urinal.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My First Peeping Tom

I was sitting cross-legged on my van floor reading a book in a pair of sky blue boxer briefs that had rolled up to my upper thighs.

I had just finished cooking a pot of spaghetti stew that was cooling atop my storage container.

That’s when I saw his silhouette trying to peer through my tinted windows and shades. He looked like an alien. I could see spaces between his gangly fingers before he cupped them together and pressed them against the glass. His head was long and oval. He moved from window to window, peering in each one.

Did he wish to be—like some dragon-slaying knight—the first to confront the infamous vandweller in his lair? Or did he just appreciate a good set of tinted windows?

Whether he spotted me or not, things, for my peeper, must have looked awfully strange. My laundry area by the front passenger seat was open to view, my windshield (on this balmy afternoon) had fogged up from the steam of my meal, and I don’t doubt that odors of broccoli and onion were leaking out of the windows I left ajar in great profusion.

Or maybe his interest was piqued by my thighs that—not having seen sunshine in years—might have had a phosphorescent glow that lit up the van like a candle in a jack-o-lantern.

If he could have seen me—sitting as still as a stone—he probably would have thought I was a Buddhist monk deep in meditation. But I was far from a state of Zen. My heart raced and sweat beaded on my forehead.

I felt vulnerable. For fear of being heard, I couldn’t move or cover myself up. I realized I left my doors unlocked. What would I do if he opened them? Should I slam my cooking knife into him or invite him in for a bowl of stew?

In all my days in the van—in a town renowned for bums and high crime rates—not once has anyone tried to break in.

I really would be a car-burglar’s worst nightmare. I doubt—upon breaking into a van—that the typical burglar has ever had a half-naked male with a chest as white as death thrash out from under covers with the fury of a mongoose defending his hole.

But this was no burglar. I'd be curious, too, if I saw what he saw.

I’m not sure whether he spotted me or not. Between my tinted windows, shades, and the black cloth I hang behind my two front seats, I have adequate privacy. But, if someone really wanted to see inside, they probably could.

As you can see, the shades leave a slight gap, and my sheet doesn’t entirely span from wall to wall. I’m usually in the van only at night, so this has never bothered me.

He walked away and got in his car. I lifted up my shade ever so slightly and while I didn’t catch a glimpse of him, I was relieved to see that he wasn’t campus security.

I had no say in the parking lot that was assigned to me. I worried that they might place me somewhere in the middle of campus where lots of people would be coming and going, which would make my secret a lot harder to keep. Instead, they put me on the outermost fringe of campus, where no person—as far as I know—has ever seen me enter or leave the van.

My parking lot is almost always empty but if someone is around I simply keep walking past the van or I’ll read under a nearby tree. In the mornings, when I get out and walk to class, I look out all the windows to make sure no one’s out there.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I thought about writing "Kids, I have candy" on the side of my van, but I figured that would get me in a lot more trouble than just illegally sleeping in campus parking lots.

Instead of handing out candy, I went to two Halloween parties this past weekend.

The first was at my travel writing professor’s house with a guest list dominated largely by people older than me. Predictably, I dressed as Henry David Thoreau.

No need to point out the pitiful state of my neckbeard—I only had a week to grow it out.

I presumed that I had the best “literary costume” award locked up but I got shown up by someone dressed as Edgar Allen Poe. I carried a leatherbound notebook and had my mom ship up my clothes from when I wore only 1700’s period outfits for a summer. I was probably 100 years behind the fashion of Thoreau’s day, but I didn’t think anyone would know any better.

Ordinarily, I avoid parties altogether. Because I have the dance moves of a cinderblock and the social awkwardness of someone who’s spent his childhood locked in a damp basement, interacting with large groups of people can sometimes be daunting.

This time, though, I made a point to be gregarious. And opening up about the van has helped foster engaging discussions, considerably. More than I ever would have thought, people love hearing about the van, bear encounters, and tales of hitchhikes. I think that’s largely because discussions in academia can oftentimes become esoteric to the point of incomprehension. I’ve found that there’s nothing better than a story of a face-to-face grizzly encounter or throwing up in a van to bring the conversation back down to earth.

I went to another party with the graduate chemistry department. (I joined their intramural dodgeball team this past semester because my department didn’t have one.) I gave four of them a tour of my van before we went to a bar.


I don’t know the people in this picture too well. The guy on the right, Mr. T, was particularly enamored with my van, given his evident fondness for The A-Team. In a couple hours, alcohol would reduce his IQ to that of a babbling lobotomy patient. The guy toward the left complained about paying $1,900 a month for living expenses. He said he has no idea where his money goes, despite having spent nearly $100 on his costume and $20 on a belt buckle alone.

To go on an aside:

Let me just say that I’m happy I’m not in a chemistry PhD program, a physics, or even in a PhD program studying a subject I’d actually enjoy studying. My mere 2.5 year master’s program seems like a long commitment, yet these people have to go to school for five straight years, summers included, with noses stuffed in books for practically every waking hour. Almost all dreams and desires must be postponed. And they’re miserable. Well, maybe not miserable, but they’re certainly not happy.

I too believe in striving for something bigger than yourself that doesn’t result in immediate gratification, (such as stretching the bounds of knowledge in a doctoral program), but their uncertainty and ambivalence about what they were doing was palpable. And it was saddening. It was as if they were living inside one of their chemistry formulas: that five years of struggle and sacrifice will somehow make happiness the same way two H’s and an O make water.

They look upon life without skepticism and creativity, enrolling in grad school because it seemed like the right thing to do or because it was the best option at the time. Many of our (often long-term) decisions are made with these same thoughts in mind. I did the same thing. Years ago, I applied for ten PhD history programs, not because that’s what I thought I was meant to do, but because it was my best idea at the time. Thank god I was embarrassingly underqualified and got rejected from every single one. My life, before I reentered college last semester, wouldn’t have nearly been as fun, interesting, and educational as it has been in a far larger classroom: the world at large.

Wasn’t this entry supposed to be about Halloween?

Anyway, they loved the van. The girl in the middle called me her “hero” and I caught the one on the left looking at me with googly eyes, which I doubt had anything to do with the neckbeard. The van, to them, wasn’t just a van; it was the embodiment of all their wildest dreams that they’ve “put on hold.” It was a momentary glimpse at the freedom they surrendered long ago. It was, I hope, a reminder that a dream on hold will always be just a dream.