The Importance of Elsewhere
As a child, yearning to leave home and go far away, the image in my
mind was of flight — my little self hurrying off alone. The word “travel”
did not occur to me, nor did the word “transformation,” which was my
unspoken but enduring wish. I wanted to find a new self in a distant
place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was
something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be. Too
young to go, I read about elsewheres, fantasizing about my freedom.
Books were my road. And then, when I was old enough to go, the roads
I traveled became the obsessive subject in my own books. Eventually I
saw that the most passionate travelers have always also been passionate
readers and writers. And that is how this book came about.
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 make a friend, to experience
an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown, to bear witness to the consequences,
tragic or comic, of people possessed by the narcissism of minor
differences. Chekhov said, “If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.”
I would say, if you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t travel. The literature of
travel shows the effects of solitude, sometimes mournful, more often enriching,
now and then unexpectedly spiritual.
All my traveling life I have been asked the maddening and oversimplifying
question “What is your favorite travel book?” How to answer it? I
have been on the road for almost fifty years and writing about my travels
for more than forty years. One of the first books my father read to me
at bedtime when I was small was Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in
Maine. This 1930s as-told-to account described how a twelve-year-old
boy survived eight days on Mount Katahdin. Donn suffered, but he made
it out of the Maine woods. The book taught me lessons in wilderness
survival, including the basic one: “Always follow a river or a creek in the
direction the water is flowing.” I have read many travel books since, and
I have made journeys on every continent except Antarctica, which I have
recounted in eight books and hundreds of essays. I have felt renewed
inspiration in the thought of little Donn making it safely down the high
The travel narrative is the oldest in the world, the story the wanderer
tells to the folk gathered around the fire after his or her return from a
journey. “This is what I saw” — news from the wider world; the odd, the
strange, the shocking, tales of beasts or of other people. “They’re just
like us!” or “They’re not like us at all!” The traveler’s tale is always in the
nature of a report. And it is the origin of narrative fiction too, the traveler
enlivening a dozing group with invented details, embroidering on experience.
It’s how the first novel in English got written. Daniel Defoe based
Robinson Crusoe on the actual experience of the castaway Alexander Selkirk,
though he enlarged the story, turning Selkirk’s four and a half years
on a remote Pacific Island into twenty-eight years on a Caribbean island,
adding Friday, the cannibals, and tropical exotica.
The storyteller’s intention is always to hold the listener with a glittering
eye and riveting tale. I think of the travel writer as idealized in the
lines of the ghost of Hamlet’s father at the beginning of the play:
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
But most are anecdotal, amusing, instructional, farcical, boastful,
mock-heroic, occasionally hair-raising, warnings to the curious, or else
they ring bells like mad and seem familiar. At their best, they are examples
of what is most human in travel.
In the course of my wandering life, travel has changed, not only in
speed and efficiency, but because of the altered circumstances of the
world — much of it connected and known. This conceit of Internetinspired
omniscience has produced the arrogant delusion that the physical
effort of travel is superfluous. Yet there are many parts of the world
that are little known and worth visiting, and there was a time in my traveling
when some parts of the earth offered any traveler the Columbus or
Crusoe thrill of discovery.
As an adult traveling alone in remote and cut-off places, I learned a
great deal about the world and myself: the strangeness, the joy, the liberation
and truth of travel, the way loneliness — such a trial at home — is
the condition of a traveler. But in travel, as Philip Larkin says in his poem
“The Importance of Elsewhere,” strangeness makes sense.
Travel in dreams, for Freud, symbolized death. That the journey — an
essay into the unknown — can be risky, even fatal, was a natural conclusion
for Freud to reach, since he suffered from self-diagnosed Reiseangst,
travel anxiety. He was so fearful of missing a train that he appeared at
railway stations two hours ahead of time, and when the train appeared at
the platform he usually panicked. He wrote in Introductory Lectures on
Psycho-Analysis, “Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train
This has not been my experience; I associate my happiest traveling
days with sitting on trains. Some travel is more of a nuisance than a
hardship, but travel is always a mental challenge, and even at its most
difficult, travel can be an enlightenment.
The joy of travel, and reading about it, is the theme of this collection —
and perhaps the misery too; but even remembered misery can produce
lyrical nostalgia. As I was rereading some of the books quoted here I
realized how dated they were, and how important as historical documents
— the dramas as well as the romance of an earlier time. Yet a lot of
the old-fangledness of travel ended very recently.
This book of insights, a distillation of travelers’ visions and pleasures,
observations from my work and others’, is based on many decades of
my reading travel books and traveling the earth. It is also intended as a
guidebook, a how-to, a miscellany, a vade mecum, a reading list, a reminiscence.
And because the notion of travel is often a metaphor for living
a life, many travelers, expressing a simple notion of a trip, have written
something accidentally philosophical, even metaphysical. In the spirit of
Buddha’s dictum “You cannot travel the path before you have become the
path itself,” I hope that this collection shows, in its approaches to travel,
ways of living and thinking too.