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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.


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