“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”
— Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Go on a journey or live a life? Same or different? Discuss.
The image of travel as a metaphor for Life is very well-established. I would say it is so well known as to be threadbare if I didn’t find it so very rich. Epic characters Odysseus and Beowulf gave us early examples of fortitude and perseverance in the face of life’s challenges. Centuries later Pilgrim’s Progress provided an allegorical journey through a maze of distractions and detours as poor Christian struggled to arrive at the Celestial City. Even later we open a book, read “Call me Ishmael,” and set off on a search for a whale of mythic proportions.
If you are in the mood for biography but want extra scenery and exploration, pick up a good travel story.
If you want to “see America as it really is” or was – but without using the gasoline — consider John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America. Or consider THE road trip book of the 20th Century, On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
To read about everyday life in other parts of the world, Paul Theroux’s books about train travel on several continents are landmark works. I have read The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas in which he follows the rails from Boston to southern Argentina. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown covers much of Africa. The Great Railway Bazaar takes him through most of Asia.
If you are interested in historical travels of heroic scale, Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West is just plain amazing. Another true story to make you appreciate getting home safe every night is Ordeal by Hunger: the Story of the Donner Party by George R. Stewart. I am not familiar with any books about the exploits of Ernest Shackleton or Roald Amundsen exploring Antarctica, but there really should be some. Another memoir that does not take you so close to the edge of life is still instructive —Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto Che Guevara.
How long has it been since you read Call of the Wild by Jack London? Do you remember that Buck was dog-napped away from California then sold to pull sleds in Alaska? His journey from the Bay area to the Klondike is worth picking up again. (Share it with children if you need an excuse.) A more troublesome story about a young man’s life search that ends in Alaska is Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Here we are back at “Life as a Journey” again. What did I tell you?
But if you really need to escape into fantasy, there are some excellent stories based on maps which are “elastic” or totally imaginary. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (or the Oscar winning movie by the same name) takes you on an amazing journey through life and ocean travel which is almost believable. On another plane entirely, you could go to Middle Earth. Excellent maps help you follow the exploits of Bilbo, Frodo, and their cohort through The Hobbit and The Ring Trilogy. In all of these “make believe” books, though, you will still be offered observations about life as a journey. Can’t get away from that!
There is a very interesting website that started me down this road, so to speak. It maps twenty-three different routes of famous fictional or historical travels, including some I have mentioned above. (Seriously, check it out!)
Which routes would you like to follow, in person or on paper? And which monuments of travel writing have I overlooked? Please share your favorites!
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
19 February 2015