It’s necessary for a writer to get out and view the world through new perspectives. Sometimes that means observing the regulars at your usual coffee shop or talking to folks in a different part of town, and sometimes it means undertaking something more substantial, something long enough to get lost in. A long journey can be transformative, healing, frightening, amusing, or all those things at once. That range of experiences makes travel tales interesting to even the most sedate readers. The titles on this list are meant to inspire a long journey of your own.
1) To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret by: Jedidiah Jenkins
The fear of living an over-structured, predictable life has probably struck most of us at some point. There’s even a word for it—Koinophobia: The Fear of Living an Ordinary Life. Few people respond to koinophobia by quitting their job and cycling across two continents, but that’s what Jedidiah Jenkins did. To Shake the Sleeping Self is Jenkins’ personal account of a journey that took him from Oregon to Patagonia by bike.
Amongst the endless hours spent staring at his front wheel, the author contemplates his childhood in a conservative Christian community and reckons his faith with his sexuality. He also draws connections between his adventure and his parents trip crossing America on foot in the 1970s, which his father captured in A Walk Across America. This meditative element to the book makes it as much an internal journey as an external one.
2) Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by: Porter Fox
The United States and Canada share the longest border in the world, more than 4,000 miles of territory. Porter Fox paddled, hiked, drove, and sailed the line from Maine to Washington (an expedition through the wilds of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon will have to be a different book). He also follows the timeline of history along the border, expertly weaving his personal experiences with the tales of French explorers and industrial tycoons. For writers, Northland is a great lesson in incorporating historical research. I started purposefully marking Fox’s transitions between narrative and history to understand his technique.
3) Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier by: Mark Adams
Alaska books have been written, it’s almost its own genre with a predictable pattern—man (usually a man) goes to Alaska, runs into a few interesting characters, encounters a bear or two, and rediscovers that the last frontier does still exist. Mark Adams’ new book doesn’t avoid that pattern but makes a worthy contribution to the form. Tip of the Iceberg follows Adams as he traces the route of the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition.
Funded by a railroad tycoon, the two-month expedition around the Alaskan territory included some of America’s leading geologists, botanists, ornithologists, taxidermists, and zoologists—even the conservation godfather John Muir was in attendance. Some of the most unique parts of the book are found in Adams’ comparisons between the concerns of the 19th-century scientists and the effect of global warming on Alaska today. Adams encourages readers to see the state before the permafrost thaws and the glaciers recede to snowpacks. There’s a sense of urgency to the book.
4) The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by: Rinker Buck
This book isn’t brand-spanking-new but it’s too good to leave out of a long journey list. In 2011, author Rinker Buck, his brother Nick, and Nick’s Jack Russell Terrier, Olive Oyl traveled from St. Joseph, Missouri to Baker City, Oregon by wagon. This modern recreation of the famed Oregon Trail recounts the brothers’ arduous journey and the history of one of the largest migrations in the world. The book also gives a surprisingly interesting lesson on mules. Each member of Buck’s three mule team develops into a character as the brothers learn to drive the wagon (they take lessons from an Amish farmer since the Amish are among the very few American farmers still using animal power).
I first read this book on my own journey to Oregon (by car) and found myself making a dramatic U-turn in the middle of an Idaho highway to investigate a historical marker advertising “Oregon Trail Ruts.”
5) Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by: Kate Harris
Growing up, Kate Harris wanted to be an explorer, and she didn’t let modern cartographic methods or completed maps get in her way. Between Oxford and MIT, Harris and her childhood friend, Mel covered the entire Silk Road by bicycle. The adventure took them across little-known regions like the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous area in Azerbaijan and into the Himalayas. Harris’ debut novel elegantly mixes unashamed wild adventuring, historical accounts, and scientific explanations to create a master class on the flawed idea of political borders.
All the authors on this list would probably identify with Harris’ explanation of the word “explore.” She writes:
“The root word of the word explorer is ex-plorare, with ex meaning “go out” and plorare meaning “to utter a cry.” Venturing into the unknown, in other words, is only half the job. The other half, and maybe the most crucial half for exploration to matter beyond the narrow margins of the self, is coming home to share the tale.”
In 2019, the world seems small; the blanks spaces on the map have long been filled. Formerly far-flung destinations sit just an online search away and likely already have their own hashtags. But these five titles prove that there is still room enough on our blue planet for long journeys which inspire tales of adventure. Read them and give into the wanderlust they create.
Victoria Sanderson is a freelance currently working on a project that will take her across the country documenting America’s surviving drive-in movie theaters titled Stars and Screens. Victoria holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Oregon State University and has previously been published in Mental Floss, Hidden Compass, and The Smart Set along with other publications. Follow the Stars and Screens journey at www.starsandscreens.com.