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A Brief History of Travel Writing: The Adventurers' Stories Through Time

Why do people love travel books so much?

For as long as Earth has had borders, people have striven to move beyond their limits, both personally and geographically, learning not only about themselves but also about the vast and unique cultures of this world. And all throughout this ever-growing chain of human adventure, people have been taking pen to paper, and recording their various tales of life on the road...

 

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Image via Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps

 

According to Tony Perrottet of The Smithsonian in his article titled "The Top Ten Most Influential Travel Books," the first real travel book (someone actually traveled to write it) was by Herodotus in 440BC, whose works culminated in the book Histories, and created “the archetypal story of a lone wanderer.” Herodotus launched a tradition of traveling the world, capturing both the known and unknown beauties of human existence and nature in writing. The lone travelers’ mystique, though waning at times, always resurges with vigor, and has lived on, tempting would-be travelers from around the globe to hit the road.

 

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Image via History Fangirl

 

And thus expanded the art of travel writing, now tried and tested by a number of well-known figures, some of whose works still impact our society today. The likes of Marco Polo (The Travels of Marco Polo), Mark Twain (The Innocents Abroad), Freya Stark (The Valley of the Assassins), Jack Kerouac (On the Road), and many more have dipped their pens into the adventurer’s inkwell. Freya Stark’s experience as a travel writer is certainly exceptional, being only one of a few women travel writers in the 1930s, and yet managing to capture a constantly changing Middle Eastern landscape with vibrant imagery and expert dedication.

 

Image of Freya Stark via Tim Best Direct

Image of Freya Stark via Tim Best Direct

 

Today, travel writing has evolved in step with the digital age, becoming more accessible to not only readers but also writers. There exists countless travel blogs, utilizing both personalized websites and social media to draw and update followers on not only their alluring tales of discovery and adventure. These blogs serve as inspiration to the countless dreamers of the road, and even give expert advice on how to make that seemingly unreachable goal reachable. Two travel blogs that I've particularly enjoyed lately are Dan Flying Solo and A Broken Backpack which I found with this awesome listicle

 

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Despite the increasing volume of travel bloggers, the travel novel still exists and has made its appearances in awe-inspiring film adaptations. The 1996 novel Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer was adapted to the screen and released in 2007. It’s darn good, and available for streaming on Netflix (check it out here!). Then there’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest. It was published in 2012 and written by Cheryl Strayed. Here’s a brief description of the book, as written by Jon Foro for Amazon’s Best Book of the Month:

 

At age 26, following the death of her mother, divorce, and a run of reckless behavior, Cheryl Strayed found herself alone near the foot of the Pacific Crest Trail--inexperienced, over-equipped, and desperate to reclaim her life. Wild tracks Strayed's personal journey on the PCT through California and Oregon, as she comes to terms with devastating loss and her unpredictable reactions to it. While readers looking for adventure or a naturalist's perspective may be distracted by the emotional odyssey at the core of the story, Wild vividly describes the grueling life of the long-distance hiker, the ubiquitous perils of the PCT, and its peculiar community of wanderers. Others may find her unsympathetic--just one victim of her own questionable choices. But Strayed doesn't want sympathy, and her confident prose stands on its own, deftly pulling both threads into a story that inhabits a unique riparian zone between wilderness tale and personal-redemption memoir.

 

Strayed’s book was adapted to film in 2014, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, and simply promoted as Wild. Though I’ve neither read Strayed’s book nor watched the adaptation, Wild has been on my reading/viewing list for sometime now. Of course, some books written long before the 21st century might also meet the screen in our generation. Such is the case with James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which appeared on screen in 2013, and for which I will also employ the phrase: darn good.

 

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Image via Burlington County Library System 

 

It goes without saying that wanderlust is a defining characteristic of the 21st century. iGeneration, Millennials, Gen Xers, and just about everyone loves the idea of packing their bags in haste, finding the next flight out of a local airport, and touching ground on a spontaneously chosen destination. Though the advent of social media can pose a challenge to the hyperconnected, making people feel restless when they see that every single one of their friends is posting pictures of the Eiffel Tower, traveling has never been easier and serves to make the world a more unified and peaceful place. For those who dream of backpacking across the globe but can't seem to find the time or don't yet have the funds, travel writing and blogging serve as vehicles of exploration. These works deliver a diverse set of experiences and growth through both the written word and digital space, and even provide expert tips on traveling, making awesome adventures more accessible to everyone. 

 

           

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