It’s hard to find great travel writing, but it does exist. Part of the reason for this is that a lot of travel writing is also naturalistic or non-fiction writing. Part of the reason is that the field is so competitive with so many good authors competing for a relatively small market space. But there are a whole lot of great travel novels out there, and here is a list of the ten best travel novels I’ve read over the past two years.
10) Through Painted Deserts, by Donald Miller. This one I actually found in the “Christian Factual Books” section, which may be unfair. There is no doubt that Miller is a Christian, but he is a writer first and foremost, he is not a preacher, and his questioning of his faith, his reasons for being, who he is and what he is or will become is reminiscent of the fascinating soul searching that came from the travel writings of the Beat generation. Miller’s account of his journey is fascinating, as he experiences moments of beauty, the necessity of good road trip music, and acknowledges moments of embarrassment and fear as freely as any other part of his journey.
9) Sacred Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald. Early reading of this book can be difficult, because after the first few chapters there is so much Western perspective, whining about living conditions and poverty, the kind of disdain you don’t bother reading from travel writing. I’m glad I read the rest, because like Through the Colored Deserts, Sacred Cow is about the author’s journey. Sarah develops chapter by chapter in front of you as she unleashes the pejorative nature of the “too smart” atheist to fall in love with superstition, opens up and travels across India experiencing all the different religious beliefs and practices as she becomes a humble believer who learns happiness, learns to grow and learns that exotic cultures have so much to offer the open-minded traveler.
8) Into the Wilderness by Jon Krakauer. I first saw this book at Barnes and Noble on one of the feature tables. I was on a winter break from Alaska visiting family in Iowa. I picked up the book, sat down, and read the entire work in one sitting. A travel book, a journalistic book, a nature book, an adventure book—whatever you call it, this is one read, and the discussion this book causes is deep and passionate. As an avid wanderer, I understand the drive the main character feels, as an Alaskan, I understand the native perspective of irritability, not understanding that nature is brutal, and especially Alaskans need to be respected as such.
7) Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux. Paul Theroux is at his best in Dark Star Safar, where his observational skills and dry wit are on full display. Paul takes readers across Africa via a crowded rattlesnake bus, dugout canoe, livestock truck, armed caravan, ferry, and train on a journey that is hard to forget. There are moments of beauty, but there are also many moments of misery and danger. This is a narrative of Africa that goes beyond skin deep to dare to look into the deeper core of what is often referred to as the ‘Dark Continent’.
6) The Blue Highway: A Journey to America, by William List Heet Moon. This is an autobiographical travelogue that Het-Min took in 1978. After separating from his wife and losing his job, Het-Moon decided to take an extended road trip across the United States, sticking to the “blue highways,” a term for the small, off-the-beaten-path roads connecting rural America (which were painted blue in old Rand-McNally atlases). So Hit Moon packed up his van called “Ghost Dancing” and set out on a 3-month soul-searching tour of the United States. The book chronicles a 13,000-mile journey and the people he meets along the way, as he strays from cities and highways, shunning junk food and exploring local American culture in a journey that is as amazing today as it was when he first set out.
5) The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson. There are so many great Bill Bryson books out there, any one of them can hold their own here. The Lost Continent is Bryson’s journey across America, where he visits some common places (the Grand Canyon), but also explores back roads and searches for that familiarity that helps him remember his homeland.
4) Wanderlust: True Tales of Adventure and Romance by Pico Iyer. Possibly one of the best collections of travel writing released in recent memory, this collection is under the name of Pico Iyer, who helped edit this collection. These stories come from the “Wanderlust” section of Salon.com and create a diverse tapestry of travel writing that will keep the reader wandering from one writer to the next.
3) A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. This is one of the modern classics of travel literature, as Peter Jenkins recalls the story of his 1973-1975 walk from New York to New Orleans. For many readers, this remains a rare travel book that grips and keeps you going. “I started looking for myself and my country and found both,” says Peter Jenkins, best known as a travel writer who will walk anywhere, including Alaska and China. This sums up what travel writing should be about.
2) Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck. It was this novel that helped John Steinbeck win the Nobel Prize in Literature. “Travels with Charlie” is a fascinating travel story that gets to the heart of travel, the point of the journey, the strange encounter and the realization that the places and people you remember are gone once you’re gone. As he revisits the places of his youth on which many of his books are based, he realizes upon seeing old friends that they are just as uncomfortable with his return as with him being there. A wonderful story about travel, about home, about mourning lost history, about aging, and about America–this should be required reading for every high school student.
1) Dharma Booms, by Jack Kerouac. The beat generation was filled with great travel narratives, and Jack Kerouac was a master of powerful, poignant, and emotional language that unfolded stories like few people ever did. While “On the Road” is the most cited travel novel by Kerouac, “The Dharma Bums” is a better book. Filled with the passion, characters, engaging stories, the kind of soulful language, and powerful prose that made beat generation books popular, this Kerouac book is exceptional and deserves first place.