In this issue: two men of different eras toss comfort out the window and face risks to feel alive through traveling and exploration. A new collection of great travel writing from women is not afraid to explore the shadows around the next bend.
The Lunatic Express
By Carl Hoffman
Fooling around with the "agents of death and destruction" throws you into dicey territory, bumping not only into physical edges, but spiritual abyss. At first glance, Carl Hoffman's The Lunatic Express spins as an adventure story by a journalist on a mission to find out about real travel. "To experience travel not as a holiday, but as it is for most people a simple daily act of moving from one place to another on the cheapest conveyance possible." Circumnavigating the globe in five months time, Mr. Hoffman jumps aboard not only the cheapest conveyances, but also the most hazardous—Cuban jets that crash, Peruvian buses that plunge into ravines, overcrowded Bangladesh ferries that sink, Kenyan minibuses that run off the road, Indian trains that crush humanity, American greyhound buses filled with lost souls.
But, Carl turns out to be one of those lost souls, only he is taking advanced geographical therapy. Underlying the whole adventure is his search for a deeper existence, a search for reconnection. "The very gulf between me and everyone staring at me made me feel that much more alone and hungry for genuine connection that I wasn't getting constantly moving through the world." Alone, he is a man trying to find himself by throwing himself in harm's way and surviving.
Oh, he survives all right, but at whose expense? This reader finds Carl's story to be arrogant and self–centered, leaving a family in the dust in order to "find himself." Vacant and needy, he tries to fill his life with temporary experiences that verge on the sensational. This gets tiring. The non–stop hyper–drive leaves the reader numbed and wanting some more reflection, some more down time, some more depth. The Lunatic Express derails before getting to the station.
The Wandering Lake: Into the Heart of Asia
By Sven Hedin
(First published in 1938, and again in 2009)
What possesses someone to leave the comforts of home and forge into the unknown, unsure if he will return alive? Sven Hedin gives us a glimpse in his adventure tale, The Wandering Lake. At the turn of the 20th century he strikes out into the heart of Asia on the hunt for the lake of Lop–nor, a lake and its tributaries that had drifted south enough to dry up commerce and villages in the old Silk Road kingdom of Loulan. Over the course of the next 40 years this peripatetic lake haunts him and he vows to return. In 1934 he gets his chance.
A Swedish Merriweather Lewis, Sven and his team go through a myriad of harrowing events on their journey, but never waiver in their commitment to find, once again, "The Wandering Lake" and circumnavigate it. The story swirls with moments of lush observation, rich in imagery and discovery, as they explore the waterways, mesas, and yardangs of inner Asia. Written in a time when there were few roads and modern conveyances in this desert expanse, Mr. Hedin guides the 21st century reader into a world that no longer exists. "We had been dwelling in a part of the world to which men never stray, and where there are no roads. The only signs that here, too, life once beat in veins long calcified are the cairns erected on hillocks, terraces and mountains to show merchants and caravans the way along the old Silk Road ….The traveller who in our time journeys over these obliterated tracks hears only in fancy the echo of the caravan bells dying away in the distance, and the camel drivers shouting at their beasts."
Hedin leaves the reader with a longing for unknown expanse, for a taste of 2000–year–old Silk Road adventure, for water in the desert, for camel travel, for an infinite dark of night filled with stars, for majestic silence; a longing to leave the comforts of home and forge into the unknown, a hearty and hallowed explorer.
The Best Women's Travel Writing 2010
By Stephanie Elizondo Griest, editor
Travelers' Tales, the publisher of many volumes of award–winning anthologies, gives us a new pearl, The Best Women's Travel Writing, 2010, edited by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. It is an edgy Lake Wobegon of travel where all the food is fiery, all the men are swarthy, all the women are feisty, and all the children are tiny and crusty, but still above average. Not afraid to enter the shadows, this collection of stories by gutsy women goes beyond the romance of travel into the viscera of journey—the journey of seeking a fresh awareness, a new understanding of self in the world, an edge to the impossible.
Laura seeks the truth about her sexuality in Nova Scotia.
Jennifer tries to find light in a dark Russia.
Kendra seeks, "…the right words: words to operate both at face value and simultaneously convey or conceal subtexts never explicitly expressed," in an inscrutable Asia.
Beebe discovers her place in a long line of saffron–grinding Iranian aunties.
Laurie seeks an authentic and deep farewell to Burma in "Ordinary Class."
And the searching continues with Mary, Colette, Alison, Johanna, Landon and the other storytellers in this collection who all wander the world looking for their true selves in one way or another. Some discover truth in moments of danger, of intrigue, of possibility, of delight, of disappointment, of otherness, of "out–there." But, looking "out there," becomes an addiction for many. The wanderlust of travel leads its victims on a search that leaves some empty and panting on the shores of disillusionment, while others come full circle back to "here," where the profound has been waiting for them all along.
"I've met people," writes Elisabeth, "who can't separate love and lust; for me the tricky distinction is between love and wanderlust. They're both about wanting and seeking and hoping to be swept away, so lost in the moment that the rest of the world recedes from view." She wrestles with this travel seduction throughout her journey. This wanting, this seeking, this hoping, she knows, can lead to an endless quest or bring her home. She seeks the wisdom to discern which path to take. Does she come full circle or wander, forever, looking for that moment?
This anthology embodies both routes. Read it and laugh. Read it and cry. Read it and grouse, "How naive can she be?" But mostly, read it and let it stir up in you a visceral reaction to your own seeking. Tap into your own journey. Be careful, for wanderlust may grab you and throw you into the unknown. Let the spirit rumble.
Amy Greimann Carlson is coeditor of Travelers Tales' Japan and has also written for or edited other anthologies in the award–winning series: A Woman's Path, The Gift of Birds, Australia, and A Woman's Asia. She lives in the Cascade Mountains with her husband and rabbit.