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5 Great Books About the Beauty and Horror of Backcountry Travel

The best travel stories are captivating models for personal change.


What’s the point of travel? Is it merely a break from our tethered existence? A distraction from the crushing boredom of everyday life, a way to recharge, to retool ourselves in the bosom of five-star decadence while contemplating the salutary effects of jalapeño margaritas? Or should travel be something more? Not a diversion or indulgence but a personal responsibility? A psychic stock-taking of where we stand in the world, morally, metaphysically, spiritually?

Most travel, of course, is the former kind. Maybe even most travel writing — I’m thinking of the high-flown appraisals of, say, Fiji’s finest eco-resorts or Seattle’s newest microbreweries that tend to fill travel publications. Which is fine. We all need to unplug from the matrix now and then, trade our over-lit, under-ventilated, faux-wood-laminate cubicles for same-day laundry service and the mini-bar.

But there’s another kind of travel — and travel writing — which, at its core, dwells in the frontier between life and death. Out there, away from it all, in unabated wilderness, lies a landscape strewn with meaning, some authors seem to be saying. It’s by reckoning with our fears, with our failures, with how much of our sense of decency we’re prepared to discard when faced with obliteration, that we can come to know our secret hearts. This isn’t suffering for suffering’s sake, or nostalgia for an age of exploration when men flung themselves into the vortex for Queen and Country. It’s a technique, as William Kittredge says, for staying in touch.

The best kind of travel — and the best travel stories — are models for change: shedding the veil of modernity, seeking alternatives to our thoughtless striving and errand running, escaping the eternal present even for a moment, is the goal. Very rarely does a travel book come along that points the way. Here are five that do.

The Fearful Void, by Geoffrey Moorhouse

Geoffrey Moorhouse had never set foot in the Sahara or ridden a camel when he embarked on a 3,600-mile eastbound trek across the world’s largest desert, a feat that no one, not even the ancient caravaners, had ever accomplished. Nor did he speak Arabic, or know how to celestial navigate, or care much for North African food. Friends and family questioned his sanity. But Moorhouse, who died in 2009, insisted that crossing the great Sahara from the Atlantic to the Nile wasn’t a blind ordeal of courage or some kind of “because it’s there” trial. Rather, he wrote, “It was because I was afraid.”

At 40, Moorhouse felt himself to be literally sick with fear, and he attributes the end of his marriage to “this most corrosive element attacking the goodness of the human spirit.” By bringing him closer to fear, the desert, he hopes, will help him come to terms with it. “Fear should be met and faced,” he writes, or “the result can sometimes be catastrophic.” For Moorhouse, the “fearful void” isn’t so much the Sahara — although the desert very nearly kills him and his guides several times — but fear itself: fear of loss, fear of being unloved and unwanted, fear of not being missed when you’re gone. It’s a fear that exists within all of us, he contends, and is so commonplace that we often can’t admit it or even recognize it for what it is.

If all of this has a religious ring, it’s because Moorhouse’s ordeal is largely a spiritual one. Consequently, the book can be hard to read at times – Moorhouse flagellates himself like a penitent, writing of his everyday meanness, pettiness, irritability. But it’s equally hard to forget. The desert, of course, represents the ultimate, biblical leap of faith, and on the eve of his plunge into the interior, Moorhouse has a spiritual epiphany: “Until that moment I sensed that I had come to some bastard place…But [then] I felt the old thrill of the strange, the mesmerizing and the faintly intimidating, come creeping up my spine. I knew I was on the track of what I was after.” Still, until the very end, it’s an open question how much of him will make it through.

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The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard

If you were bummed to wake up yesterday to 30-degree temperatures and a crust of snow on the ground, as I was, it might be a small consolation that things could’ve been far worse. You could’ve been a member of the doomed Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1910, frozen stiff in reindeer skins in a -70-degree gale, surviving on stale biscuits and tea 10,000 miles from home. Cherry-Gerrard, or “Cherry,” as he was known, was just 24 when he signed onto Scott’s second stab at the pole (the first, with Ernest Shackleton, had been an appalling disaster). The Age of Empire was at its dwindling end, and for a nation of failure-weary Brits, Scott’s team represented a last big fat heroic middle finger to the rest of Europe. If only they could beat Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to the pole, well then, that’d be something (Spoiler alert: they made it in January 1912, only to find a Norwegian flag snapping in the wind — Amundsen had bested them by a few weeks. One might argue that England has never recovered).

The Worst Journey in the World recounts the entire three-year expedition, including the gruesome discovery of Scott’s five-member team, who had perished on their return journey only a dozen miles from safety. But the title comes from an earlier side-trip that Cherry — who’d been too sick to take part in the final polar push — undertook with two others to collect emperor penguin eggs. Their 134-mile “Winter Journey” took three weeks. The men trudged through a pitch-black, wind-scourged landscape, with temperatures hovering in the -60s and -70s. Cherry’s biographer, Sara Wheeler, notes that “it took [Cherry] 45 minutes to chip his way into his sleeping bag each night, as during the day it froze flat like a slab of tombstone granite.” His teeth clattered so violently that they shattered. At one point, after their tent blew away, the men simply laid down to die, only to have the tent miraculously reappear (“Our lives had been taken away and given back to us,” Cherry writes). On seeing his men’s wind scarred faces when they arrived back in camp, Scott proclaimed that theirs had been the worst journey in the world.

In his book, Cherry asks but doesn’t answer whether the whole expedition had been worth it. Not only had Amundsen won the race to the pole, but a few decades later, advances in aviation and snowmobile technology would make their suffering look archaic. To Cherry, it was never about being first, but rather about something tougher to gauge — call it the bonds of human fellowship: “How good the memories of those days are,” he writes. “We did not forget the Please and Thank You, which means much in such circumstances…I swear there was still a grace about us when we staggered in. And we kept our tempers — even with God.” Sooner or later, Cherry implies, we all have our winter journeys. How we face them says everything.

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Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum

When Joshua Slocum set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1895, to attempt the first solo circumnavigation of the Earth, he had no GPS mapping system, no satellite beacon, no survival suit, no bottled water or high-protein energy bars, or basically any of the stuff that offshore sailors today consider indispensable. His boat was a tipsy 37-foot oyster sloop called Spray. He couldn’t swim. But after three years at sea and 46,000 miles — during which he fought through countless storms, was nearly captured by Moorish pirates, suffered digestive upheaval and occasional hallucinations from a paltry diet of plums and cheese, and had to carpet his deck with tacks at night to ward off aboriginals who slipped aboard while he was sleeping — he landed in Newport, Rhode Island, in high spirits but to almost no welcome party. (One of Slocum’s charms is that he was a terrible self-promoter.)

Sailing Alone Around the World, published in 1900, did succeed in making Slocum famous, but never rich or happy. He was, for much of his later life, a troubled man — the death of his first wife, Virginia, is thought to have been the impetus for his circumnavigation — and remained more or less perpetually at sea, literally and figuratively. In 1909, broke and alone, and with his mental health failing, Slocum, at 65, set off once more, this time for the West Indies, in the hopes of gathering material for another book. He was never heard from again.

Since Slocum’s day, the list of solo circumnavigators has grown to inauspicious lengths. In the last five years alone, two 16-year-olds have done it in less than half the time it took Slocum, and penned memoirs about it to boot. What makes Slocum’s tale different from all the rest — besides the crude, almost suicidal nature of it — is that the guy could write. Considering the lunacy of his exploits, you might’ve forgiven him for a swashbuckling, purplish turn of phrase or two. But here he is on entering the Straits of Magellan at Cape Horn (the most treacherous seas in the world), at his sly, musical best, a darkly intelligent narrator who was always writing on the edge: “Night closed in before the sloop reached the land, leaving her feeling the way in pitchy darkness…Hail and sleet in the fierce squalls cut my flesh till the blood trickled over my face; but what of that?…the sloop was in the midst of the Milky Way of the sea…This was the greatest sea adventure of my life. God knows how my vessel escaped.”

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The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers, by Moritz Thomsen

“I am living with the kind of emptiness that perhaps only death can fill,” writes Moritz Thomsen in the opening pages of The Saddest Pleasure, his memoir of expatriate life in Ecuador and wanderings through Brazil. “Death is very much on my mind; if I no longer see it as that flashy and operatic affair with the machete and the jungle vines, if the possibility now exists that it may come in a squalid way on a street in Rio or a cheap hotel room at the edges of the sertão, I still regard it in a friendly way…I know that death is beautiful and pleasant.”

Thomsen, who was 63 when he wrote those words, was lucky to have lived so long. A chain-smoker with chronic emphysema, he had chopped a rugged and perhaps brutal existence out of the Ecuadorian jungle, farming and fishing and writing books for 20-odd years. Hunger and illness were omnipresent. Death struck his friends and neighbors with unspeakable casualness. When Thomsen finally died in 1991, in a tiny apartment near Guayaquil, it was from cholera, a poor man’s disease.

The son of a Seattle millionaire, Thomsen had fled the corruption of his class and homeland (it was the era of Nixon and carpet-bombing Cambodian villages) to become a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, where he decided to put down roots. The Saddest Pleasure, published the year before his death, is a splintered tale of placid farm life and wilder roamings. It’s a quiet book, and a sad book, as the title suggests, but a riveting one at every turn. “There is a fish in the Amazon,” Thomsen mentions during his first encounter with the river, “microscopic and evil, who will swiftly climb through the curving stream of a urinating man, enter and work her way up through that interminable length, and what she does up there I don’t remember, except that it is extremely unpleasant.”

Thomsen was a writer of rare gifts, someone who could plumb the mysteries at the heart of life with eloquence and moral precision — Tom Miller called him “one of the great American expatriate writers of the 20th century” and “a man of almost insufferable integrity.” Despite its morbid shades, The Saddest Pleasure is readable in all the right ways.

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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann

Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky, once described the message of his fiction as: “Everything gets worse.” Percy Fawcett, the British explorer who vanished in the Amazon in 1925, might’ve described the nature of his travels in similar terms. As David Grann writes in his excellent biography of Fawcett, the man spent a lifetime combing the world’s most forbidding jungles in search of ancient treasures, encountering a roster of everyday horrors: cyanide-squirting millipedes, biting ants that tore clothes to shreds, chiggers that fed on human flesh, natives flinging poison-tipped arrows, parasitic worms that caused blindness, kissing bugs that tunneled into people’s lips and resurfaced in their brains years later, and the penis-burrowing fish that Moritz Thomsen described, which, we learn, is called the candiru, and is indeed extremely unpleasant.

Fawcett, as Grann writes in The Lost City of Z (which is being adapted into a film starring Robert Pattinson), was “the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass and an almost divine sense of purpose.” A contemporary of Robert Falcon Scott, both men were afflicted by the same thing: Not only a lust for glory but an insatiable thrill — an addiction, Grann calls it — for the unknown. While treasure-hunting in Sri Lanka, Fawcett heard of a forgotten civilization in the Amazon, a kingdom half the size of the continental US filled with riches. This was El Dorado, the legendary city that had lured Gonzalo Pizarro four centuries earlier. Amid a media frenzy, and with his son and family dog in tow, Fawcett struck out for Z with the hopes of England on his shoulders (after Scott, the Brits were jonesing), and promptly disappeared forever. Many others vanished searching for him.

Almost 100 years later, the flabby, couch-bound Grann decides to pile on, flying from Brooklyn to Brazil in search of Z. “Let me be clear,” he writes, “I stand less than five feet nine inches tall and am nearly 40 years old, with a blossoming waistline and thinning black hair…I have a terrible sense of direction…I like newspapers, take-out food, sports highlights (recorded on TiVo), and the air conditioning on high.”

Nonetheless, Grann not only survives but finds Z. Well, sort of. An anthropologist from Florida beat him to the punch by a few years. But still, Grann winds up more or less where Fawcett had been headed, at the edge of an ancient Amazonian metropolis, half buried by jungle, stretching 200 miles from Brazil to Bolivia. An irony of the environmental destruction in the Amazon since Fawcett’s time, Grann tells us, is one of the greatest archeological discoveries of our age: the uncovering of a third century civilization, larger and more complex than any in Europe at the time, with a bustling capital on the banks of the Xingu River called Xingu City. None other than the lost city of Z.

Learn More: Here

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