Expanding Boundaries: Pioneers of Travel Writing

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

In a quote that has traveled extensively since it first appeared in Four Quartets: Little Gidding in 1942, T.S. Eliot wrote,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The urge to travel and a desire to discover new places dates back centuries, long before the invention of the printing press. Indeed, travel writing itself predates the printing press, and among modern writers, the notion of combining a love for travel and writing — and being paid to travel and write stories — can be an enticing fantasy.

Thankfully, many writers who have achieved this goal generously offer advice to those just setting out on the journey, and I’d like to take a high-level view of the diverse and widespread terrain that characterizes different types of travel writing, with examples of books that span the genre in imaginative ways.

Conventions in travel writing

Unlike most other genres, the conventions that govern travel writing are fluid. Part of the appeal of writing travelogues is that you can tell your story using any number of approaches, employing the same kinds of literary devices that are customarily used in fiction: vivid imagery, symbolism, metaphors, dialog with individuals encountered during travel, historical references, and more. The full gamut of techniques available to a writer are in play for travel writers.

The subject can be varied: a road trip across the American South (Paul Theroux, Deep South), a journey over the back roads of America on a consistently unreliable Russian motorcycle (Carla King, American Borders), the mountaineering experiences gained while completing the Seven Summits (Sylvia Vasquez-Lavado, In the Shadow of the Mountain), or the rigors of a space flight from the Earth to the moon and back (Michael Collins, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys).

Mark Twain said in the Preface to The Innocents Abroad (his personal impressions of Europe and the East), “I offer no apologies for any departure from the usual style of travel-writing that may be charged against me—for I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written honestly, whether wisely or not.”

Are travel stories adventure stories?

Is there a difference between a travel story and an adventure story? Perhaps only in the depth of human misery and scope of the travails along the way. For example, Ernest Shackleton’s writings — compiled in the Endurance Expedition Diary — as he and his crew marched across Antarctica after ice crushed their ship, the Endurance, is extreme travel where human survival was on the line for an entire crew.

The full diary of Shackleton’s expedition journal and notes is available by appointment only at the Scott Polar Research Institute. Scanned diaries and notes by other crew members, such as Thomas Orde-Lees, are available on sites across the web. The story is all the more riveting as the crew managed to reach Elephant Island, surviving for weeks on sea leopard meat while a small contingent of the team took one of the small boats across hundreds of miles of rough sea to seek assistance.

Of course, the journey in a gripping travel writing story doesn’t have to cover prodigious distances, harsh elements, and life-threatening experiences. William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth confines the physical movement to the exploration of Chase County, in Kansas. Subtitled “A Deep Map,” Heat-Moon covers the tall-grass prairie by foot, interviews residents met along the way, consults geological information, and delves into historical records to patiently reveal the deeper nature of one county in Kansas.

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Blue Highways, Heat-Moon’s first book, published in 1982, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning work often cited as a masterpiece of travel writing. It’s the story of a three-month solo road trip across America in the 1970s, following the blue lines — aka the less-traveled routes on the early Rand-McNally maps. The conversations with diverse characters met along the way add a measure of vitality to the journey and historical details of places visited, which Heat-Moon researched after the trip.

Characters can be the heart of good travel writing

The experiences and discoveries of the traveler/writer in a new place are at the backbone of any meaningful travel writing piece, though the encounters and conversations with characters along the way can be the heart of the story. The characters don’t even have to be humans.

Jane Goodall’s book, Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, takes place in and around a single location, Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Over many years, Goodall followed the chimps, observed their behaviors, and became an accepted member of their community. She discerned individual personalities, documented behaviors that had never been known before, and charted their complex social interactions.

While this book doesn’t fit within the strict definitions of conventional travel writing, it does illuminate in vivid detail the nature of a place and its primate inhabitants, a fundamental goal of much travel writing. Besides this book, Goodall has documented her journeys to other parts of Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe.

Notable women engaged in worldwide travel

The accomplishments of women who are inveterate travelers make it clear that travel writing is not exclusively the domain of men. Wikipedia has complied an extensive List of Women Explorers and Travelers, offering a glimpse of some of the noteworthy accomplishments women have made.

Annie S. Peck

Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1850, Annie S. Peck was an adventurer and author of four books extolling the virtues of exploration and travel. The sport of mountain climbing drew her in from an early age and during her education in Europe, she gained skills ascending mid-sized mountains. Peck graduated to more challenging peaks after returning to the States, including Mount Shasta in California (14,380 feet).

The Do's and Don'ts of Planning a Book LaunchPeck’s travels in South America led to what became touted as the definitive travel guide to the region. The South American Tour, published in 1913, was described as a way of introducing those dwelling in the northern hemisphere to marvels and rarefied experiences south of the equator.

Her accomplishments grew over the years, as did her quest for attaining high-altitude records, which she appeared to have with her trip to the peak of Huascarán in Peru — 24,000 feet according to the altimeters carried by her team. Fanny Bullock Workman, the holder of the high-altitude record at the time, paid engineers to triangulate the actual peak height and stated that it was off by 2,000 feet. With a calculated value of 22,000 feet, it was below Workman’s record of 22,740 feet on the Himalayan Pinnacle Peak.

At the age of 61, Peck, an enthusiastic suffragist, climbed one of the peaks of the Coropuna in Peru and planted a banner at 21,083 feet reading “Votes for Women.” This achievement was described in a later her book titled Conquest of Huascarán, with Some Observations on the Country and People Below.

Isabella L. Bird

English naturalist Isabella L. Bird was a prolific author and world traveler, who chronicled and photographed trips between 1850–1900. Her journeys included America, Australia, Hawaii, India, Kurdistan, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, the Persian Gulf, Japan, and China.

Despite chronic health issues, Bird extended her interests and expanded her itinerary, scaling mountains and volcanoes, riding horses and elephants, digging into different cultures and writing about them, and founding a hospital in India.

Because of her accomplishments and writing, Bird was inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London. Among the Tibetans and The Englishwoman in America are available for free download from Project Gutenberg.

To travel is to be human

Paul Theroux succinctly summed up the essence of travel in his book The Tao of Travel: Enlightenment from Lives on the Road:

The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances of your life, to be a stranger, to experience an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown.

In this book he delves into his own passion for travel writing and experiences while travelling, as well as perspectives from Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Freya Stark, and others. Combining travel with a love of writing are perfect complements, and is something all adventurous writers should explore.

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