Travel And A Sense Of Place

Although the writers quoted below all write about their travel experiences, they are not, in the usual sense, travel writers. Travel writers intend to help us plan our trips to places they discuss, letting us know important information about transportation, sleeping accommodations, restaurants to seek out (or avoid), passport/visa requirements, and the costs of everything. Their purpose is pragmatic.

The writers collected here have a purpose more poetic than pragmatic. They try their best to give us a vicarious sense of place—they give us its feel. The best travel writers also try to give us a feel for the place, but they don't consider their purpose literary. Perhaps those quoted here do not think themselves literary, but their nonfiction writing is creative and entertaining as it informs. The traditional travel writer transports us; the creative travel writer speaks of transport.

At starlight we dropped down the stream, which was a dead-water for three miles, or as far as the Moosehorn; Joe telling us that we must be very silent, and he himself making no noise with his paddle, while urging the canoe along with effective impulses. It was a still night, and suitable for this purpose—for if there is wind, the moose will smell you—and Joe was confident that he should get some. The harvest moon had just risen, and its level rays began to light up the forest on our right, while we glided downward in the shade on the same side, against the little breeze that was stirring. The lofty, spiring tops of the spruce and fir were very black against the sky, and more distinct than by day, close bordering this broad avenue on each side; and the beauty of the scene, as the moon rose above the forest, it would not be easy to describe.

Henry David Thoreau

"The Moose Hunt," The Maine Woods

And so we walked, hour upon hour, over rollercoaster hills, along knife-edge ridges and over grassy balds, through depth-less ranks of oak, ash, chinkapin, and pine. The skies grew sullen and the air chillier, but it wasn't until the third day that the snow came. It began in the morning as thinly scattered flecks, hardly noticeable. But then the wind rose, then rose again, until it was blowing with an end-of-the-world fury that seemed to have even the trees in a panic, and with it came snow, great flying masses of it. By midday we found ourselves plodding into a stinging, cold, hard-blowing storm. Soon after, we came to a narrow ledge of path along a wall of rock called Big Butt Mountain.

Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods

Even in the dark sky, the big rock seemed to cast a shadow over our course. I thought this reach a terrible place to die, and that turned me again to the depth finder: under us lay the Catskill Aqueduct, large enough to carry a locomotive and deep enough, were the Empire State Building placed on the tunnel floor, to leave only the top hundred feet of the skyscraper rising above the river surface. Inside the aqueduct each day, transverse to the flow of the Hudson, five hundred million gallons of cold mountain water rush down to New York City. Could tourists see that immense thing under the river, they might visit to gawk there as they do at Hoover Dam.

William Least Heat-Moon

River-Horse: A Voyage across America

It was not a popular train, this Simla Mail. Its odd twisted route was undoubtedly the result of the demands of the imperial postal service, for the British regarded letter writing and mail delivery as one of the distinguishing features of any great civilization. And Indians feel pretty much the same.

"Use the shutters," the ticket collector said, "and don't leave any small articles lying around."

The whistle of the Simla Mail drowned the sounds of music from the bazaar. I was soon asleep. But at midnight I was woken by rain beating against the shutters. The monsoon which had hit the Punjab only the day before had brought another storm, and the train struggled through it. The thick raindrops came down so hard they splattered through the slats and louvers in the shutters, and a fine spray soaked the compartment floor.

The guard knocked on the door at 5:20 to announce that we had arrived at Kalka.

It was green and cool at Kalka, and after a shave in the Gentlemen's Waiting Room I was ready for the five-hour journey through the hills to Simla. I could have taken the small, pottering "Simla Queen" or the Express, but the white twenty-seat railcar was already waiting at the platform. I boarded, and snoozed, and woke to see mists lying across the hills and the heavy green foliate in the glades beside the line.

Paul Theroux

"Making Tracks to Chittagoing," Sunrise with Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries

For all these reasons, to come to Kathmandu expecting it to resemble a spotless mountain city like Zurich or Geneva would be foolish. Apart from anything else, the largely Hindu community lets a plethora of sacred cows wander unobstructed in the middle of the steadily growing vehicular traffic. By changing blocks, one can transport oneself back and forth over various centuries in a way that is almost unimaginable in a Western city. In the course of a few streets, I encountered a Tibetan wearing a T-shirt that said "The University of Hawaii"; a Nepalese who tried to sell me hashish or his sister; and a poster in the window of a travel agency describing a night-club act called "Rags to Riches." The poster read "Rags to Riches roaming around the world now in Kathmandu.. .featuring Jonathan from France on guitar and Philip from Iceland on flute. Cheering you up with folk music, jokes, and skits in a friendly atmosphere." I also overheard a woman in the elegant Chinese restaurant in the Annapurna Hotel say delightedly, "Oh, they have American chop suey."

Jeremy Bernstein "The Himalaya Revisited," New Yorker (February 3, 1986)

The guesthouse really did exist, but two men stirring a tureen in its open-air kitchen explained indifferently that the owner was away and all the rooms were locked. We sought assistance at the mayor's house (an old trick), and the incumbent, well-fed man of Pickwickian geniality listened to our story, took a key from a hook next to his front door and led us to an unoccupied adobe cottage on the other side of the street. "Have you got candles?" he asked, scratching his crotch. We had, and we fetched them from the jeep and followed him inside, seeing off several dozen mice. Matthew lit the candles, and we sat on two camp beds positioned in the middle of the front room.

The mayor eyed a mouse in the corner. "I hope you'll be comfortable here," he said, his expression indicating that he thought this was unlikely. "When you leave, pay me whatever you like. If you want food, ask for Violeta at the top of the street. Er, I'll be off now."

Sara Wheeler

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey through Chile

It is as though the British Isles are tilted permanently to one corner—the southeast corner, bottom right, where London stands seething upon the Thames. Everything slithers and tumbles down there, all the talent, all the money, and when I got on the M4 motorway that morning I felt that I was being swept away helter-skelter, willy-nilly across the breadth of England. Around me all the energies of the place seemed to be heading in a single direction—the trucks from Cornwall and South Wales, the tourist buses, the ramshackle No Nuclear estate cars, the stream of expense-account Fords, their salesmen drivers tapping their steering-wheels to the rhythm of Radio One. London! London! Shouted the direction signs. London! Screamed the blue and white train, streaking eastwards beside the road, and when I turned off to the south and made for Dover, still I felt the presence of the capital tugging away at me, as it tugs commuters from their mock-Tudor villas day after day from the far reaches of Surrey and pastoral Hampshire.

Jan Morris

"Not So Far: A European Journey," Journeys

Writers frequently use a "run-up" of several lines to set the environmental context for the scene or narration and to provide a sense of place. Tobias Wolff uses this technique effectively in This Boy's Life: A Memoir, as does Ian Frazier in On the Rez.

We drove farther into the mountains. It was late afternoon. Pale cold light. The river flashed green through the trees beside the road, then turned gray as pewter when the sun dropped. The mountains darkened. Night came on.

Dwight stopped at a tavern in a village called Marblemont, the last settlement before Chinook. He bought a hamburger____

Tobias Wolff This Boy's Life: A Memoir

I was on the road by 6:45 in the morning. Mist rose from the Clark Fork River and hung up in the bushes beside it like packing material; a man stood on the front of a log loader and wiped the mist off his windshield with full gestures of his arm. I took

Interstate 90 almost all the way—up the Clark Fork Valley to Butte, over the Continental Divide, over more ranges of mountains, then along the valley of the Yellowstone River to Billings. Beyond Billings the road headed south into Wyoming, past the site of the battle of the Little Bighorn, then across the creased and empty near-desert in the northeastern part of the state.

Ian Frazier On the Rez

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