Choose your own summer adventure with a trio of travel books that explore life off the beaten path.
There are tourists, and then there are travelers. You can usually tell them apart by their luggage — spiffy rolling bag versus beat-up backpack. There’s also a certain attitude that distinguishes true travelers. They tend to eschew itineraries, see the whole world as a “must experience” instead of a collection of “must-see spots,” and never, ever leave vacation days unused. Even among travelers, though, there are a few subcategories, and below are summaries of a few fresh, compelling books to inspire each one. Choose your personality type, and let the transformation begin.
If you’re the type to roll your eyes when a travel companion trots out an agenda of the day’s activities, your adventure style likely leans toward taking whatever comes. If so, you’ll find a kindred spirit in Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story (Gotham Books, 2013), by J. Maarten Troost, author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals.
Troost creates a mission for himself: to retrace the journey of writer Robert Louis Stevenson through the South Pacific. The book’s title is inspired by Stevenson’s work, and Troost manages to accomplish his aim — eventually, albeit somewhat loosely. (And without running into any headhunters.) Mostly, he wanders. The result is a collection of anecdotes that are often hilarious and touching, including getting a crooked tattoo from a teenager, and racing a brawny Swiss woman up a mountain path.
Much like many who reject a specific plan, Troost begins to find that he’s traversing his inner landscape as much as he’s exploring South Pacific islands. Newly sober, he spends time on a rustic ship where they serve rum punch at breakfast and keep the libations pouring freely throughout the day. His realizations about his alcoholism are funny and insightful, pairing especially well with his sojourn to Kiribati, where he lived for two years.
Travel, for better or worse, tends to bring us up close to ourselves. By seeking bright new vistas, we also illuminate those little corners in our minds that we can’t see in the midst of daily habits. Troost happily plunges into those shark-infested waters and, more dangerously, his own tendency toward drink. Both adventures seem equal here, and certainly worth the exploration.
When recounting your travels, do you tend to describe meals more than landscapes? Smoked puffin in Iceland, goat kebab in Zambia, yak-cheese pizza in Nepal: These are the kinds of memories that linger, and you wistfully scroll through your photos wishing you had just one more bite.
If that desire makes you contemplate actually moving to a new country, then check out The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese (The Dial Press, 2013), by Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert. In his early 20s, Paterniti proofread the monthly newsletter for Michigan’s famous Zingerman’s Delicatessen, where he first read about Páramo de Guzmán, a Spanish cheese lovingly crafted by a man who sought to carry on his family’s centuries-old traditions. The story charmed Paterniti, and years later he sought out the cheese maker, only to find so much more than a sublime slice of cheese.
Rich with intrigue and distinctive characters, the tale recounts what happened in the tiny Guzmán village that drove Paterniti to keep returning there, as he and the cheese maker sat in “the telling room,” a space reserved for story-telling. Eventually, the writer and his wife pack up their children and move to Guzmán, knowing almost no Spanish and having only a book contract as income. Although the adventure is suffused with multiple narrative threads, it’s really the cheese and wine that take starring roles here.
Any true gourmand will understand: Travel isn’t just about what we see; it also relies on what we taste, and what we share. Paterniti’s tale brings a family’s story to life, but it also emphasizes that a journey can all come down to a single, exquisite moment that ties the whole trip together. And if that moment involves cheese, all the better.
Maybe you’re not the type to wander happily or spend hours rhapsodizing about manchego; instead, you’re ready to take on the biggest, baddest challenges in the world, and you wake up every day with the mantra: “Bring it on.”
The Mountain: My Time on Everest (Touchstone, 2013), by veteran climber Ed Viesturs, tells of the lure of scaling the world’s most famous mountain. This isn’t just a story of where to put your ice picks, however. Viesturs, the only American to have climbed all 14 of the planet’s 8,000-meter peaks, provides a riveting history of Everest’s ascents, from the tragic to the triumphant.
Climbers, in particular, will appreciate the you-are-there feel of Viesturs’s ascents, filled with thrilling tales and surprisingly compelling mundane details, like the hours spent melting snow to rehydrate. Viesturs doesn’t hold back on his frustrations, particularly his two failed attempts to climb Everest before succeeding. But as so many climbers know, failure makes that eventual summit even sweeter.
Even nonmountaineers will find the book compelling, since Viesturs demonstrates what it takes to be a true climber: motivation and persistence, sure, but also adaptability and an ability to deal artfully with disappointment. For most people, these attributes work just as well in rush-hour traffic as they do on the North Face.
There’s one element that all three books have in common: a sense of transformation. Travelers set out not just to see a certain part of the world, but also to shift a part of themselves. No matter what type of adventure seeker you might be, dig out that literal or figurative backpack, and set a resolution to pack light and travel well.