Into the Wild

10.23.12

Book Bag: Timothy Egan’s Five Favorite Travel Books

The new book by the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter is Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, in which he tells the epic story of mountaineer and photographer Edward Curtis, ‘the Annie Leibovitz of his time.’ To celebrate the adventurer, Egan picks five must-reads.

Roughing It
By Mark Twain

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Travel writing isn't what it used to be, but a young, smart-ass Mark Twain set a standard with his romp through the wacky West, published in 1872, that has rarely been surpassed. By horseback and hoof, Twain takes us from the Mormon Theocracy of Utah to the wide-open craziness in the Sierra mining fields. Twain and his brother get drunk, get skunked, and end up—and one point—naked, with nothing but their own laughter. He may have made up half the account, but it rings true, still.
 
Riding the Iron Rooster
By Paul Theroux

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Here is a year exploring China by train, with Theroux showing off his powers of observation before he came cranky. Weather, culture, weird food, fabulous encounters, and more than a whiff of terrific history.
 
Great Plains
By Ian Frazier

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In a journey of 25,000 miles, Frazier makes flyover country a magical place. Here is Dorothy's Kansas, but also the flatland of Sitting Bull, Bonnie and Clyde, and In Cold Blood. The test of a good travel book is whether you like the author enough to follow along. Frazier, rambling down the open road in his van, is a great companion.  
 
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

By Tom Wolfe

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Not really a travel book in the traditional sense, but I would place this story up there with the great road trips of all time. A cast of iconic 1960s characters—led by the charismatic Ken Kesey—on a pharmacological tour of the Big Land in a painted, psychedelic bus. Wolfe's prose is supercharged, and he has great detail. The book gave rise to the phrase "on the bus—or off it."
 
Wild
By Cheryl Strayed

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Well before Oprah sent this book to the stratosphere, I was singing its praises, and not just because I'm rooting for a fellow Pacific Northwesterner. Her funny, sad, sexy slog along the Pacific Crest Trail does what all great travel writing does: gives you a sense of place, but more importantly, a sense of person. As a hiker, I thought Strayed was a knucklehead—but a likable one.