Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2019
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Travels with the great explorers of history, in words and sketches, plus an overview of a sprawling U.S. national park that is also the most popular in the 50 states.

The Great Explorers
Edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

The Great Explorers is a collection of essays by a group of eminent historians and writers. Editor Robin Hanbury-Tenison has offered us a wide-ranging survey of the history of discovery and exploration, with profiles of most of the names you remember from school: Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernando de Soto. . .. Then, he jumps forward to Lewis and Clark, Richard Burton, David Livingstone, Roald Amundsen, Gertrude Bell, and even further to Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Yuri Gagarin. Forty names in all, representing every aspect of courageous pioneering: on sea, land, and in outer space.

Most of the profiles are brief: four to six pages. A few of the bigger names run longer. The editor has included twenty-five photographs and illustrations, both color and black-and-white.

For today's travelers, The Great Explorers makes for a useful reminder that faraway places were not always so easily accessible—via a few computer clicks, a few hours aboard a 747, and the rental of a Land Cruiser, with your GPS and Rough Guide at the ready.

Also, it's obvious that the early days were considerably more dangerous. Starvation, shipwreck, disease, hypothermia, mutiny, suicide-the early explorers were subject to every sort of risk. Both Magellan and Cook died violently at the hands of Pacific islanders. African explorer John Hanning Speke died of a gunshot-perhaps an accident, perhaps suicide. Roald Amundsen's airplane disappeared somewhere in the frozen far north.

On the other hand, Fridtjof Nansen led an exemplary life after his exploring days in the Arctic. He was an ambassador from Norway, an international diplomat, and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

Looking for a favorite among the explorers, I chose England's Marianne North (1830-1890), a painter, conservationist, and naturalist. In South America, the Caribbean, South Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and elsewhere, she "slogged through jungles, hiked mountains, trudged along mud-choked tracks, rafted rivers and endured bugs, snakes and heat." She left hundreds of paintings and specimens to the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where today one of the galleries bears her name.

She was one of the truly fortunate people who discover what they love to do, have the means and the courage to follow their passion, and the gift to share their discoveries.

Explorers' sketchbook

Explorers' Sketchbooks
By Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert

Explorers' Sketchbooks makes a fine companion piece to the above title, filled to over-flowing with illustrations, maps, drawings, and paintings-the contents of historic notebooks, fieldbooks, and journals—many of which are from the same people profiled above.

Published in hardback at 320 pages, Explorers' Sketchbooks is a handsome, sturdy edition, comprising seventy profiles of both famous and less-known adventurers. In addition, the authors invited five present-day explorers to write first-person accounts.

Here is Wade Davis, for example, on setting out for South America for the first time when he was in his twenties:

I left for South America with a one-way ticket, and no plans. I had just a small backpack of clothes, and two books, George H. Lawrence's Taxonomy of Vascular Plants, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In the frontispiece of my journal I wrote: 'risk discomfort for understanding...'

The brief profiles of the explorers are highly informative and interesting-much like those in the previous book, but, as you'd expect, the illustrations take center place. Here are paintings of Antarctica and Africa, of birds and plants, of elephants and alligators. Here is a map of the east coast of the present-day United States, drawn in the sixteenth century. Here is a page from Robert Scott's journal dated March 29, 1912, as he awaited death while bound in a blizzard in Antarctica: "Last entry. For God's sake look after our people."

Along with Scott, the featured explorers include names like John James Audubon, Gertrude Bell, Adela Breton, Howard Carter, Charles Darwin, Thor Heyerdahl, Robert Peary, Ernest Shackleton, Freya Stark, Alexandrine Tinne, Edward Wilson...

A sample from one of Bruce Chatwin's notebooks contains plant sketches, arcane phrases, strike-throughs. He was known for his black-covered notebooks, "but in the early days he used almost anything that came to hand; most were cheap and easily available: spiral-bound red school books; yellow-paged 'Evidence' legal pads; blue Azmat journals carried on journeys in Afghanistan; or obscure notebooks purchased at train stations in Russia or Peru."

A few lines later, the authors report that Chatwin "hated the thought of writing on a computer and never owned or wanted one." Explorers' Sketchbooks is an ode to pen and pencil, to watercolor and oil, to hands-on, real-time reportage, the kind that, when you think about it, is as achievable by the likes of you and me as by world famous explorers.

The Great Smoky Mountains
By Carl Heilman II

These days, when asked to name the most visited American national park, many travelers might guess Yellowstone or Yosemite or Grand Canyon, but it's actually the Great Smoky Mountains, located in the densely populated eastern United States.

The Great Smoky Mountains is a coffee-table book, albeit a small one, measuring about 7-1/2 by 7-1/2 inches. It is a collection of beautiful color photographs, which are so stunning that I wished the book had been published in a larger format; nevertheless, the author/photographer has given us a four-season sweep of mountain, forest, snow, and wildlife.

Along with the Smokies, the book contains sections on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park, and the Blue Ridge Region. In his introduction, the author explains that the Smokies are one constituent of the Blue Ridge mountain range, which "stretches some 615 miles along the southeastern border of the Appalachians from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, through Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina to Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia." This book, then, is a photographic journal of the time the author spent traversing the Blue Ridge mountains, with the Smokies holding down the title spot.

Picking a favorite image from the book is difficult. You get waterfalls, hiking trails, butterflies, deer, elk, bears, rocky outcrops, horses, birds, a gray-brown lean coyote crossing a gravel road, a herd of curious cows, every sort of tree and leaf, the 2017 solar eclipse, every hour and season of light, and more.

For many of us, the iconic Smoky Mountain shot will be a landscape: the long mountain ridges arranged in tiers; one row after another, as far as the camera lens can reach; with clouds and fog and valleys; and the blue-gray mountain peaks feathery and weightless.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and he's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

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Explorers' Sketchbooks

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The Great Smoky Mountains

Buy The Great Smoky Mountains at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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