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Books for On (and Off) the Road


“Where are y’all headed next?” and “What are you reading these days?” are probably the two most frequently asked questions I get from our friends and family.  The second question is what I’d like to talk about today.  While I’m constantly reading a wide range of books and magazines, there are books that, when it comes to travel and adventure, I find myself reaching for time and again.  Not only do they never get old, but even better, they continue to inspire me to get back outside, get back on the road, and keep going towards the horizon. Some of these are books that first instilled in me a deeper sense of adventure, while others are newer discoveries that got me fired up all over again.  I hope that if you’ve never read any of these you’ll check out a few (or all!) of them and find your own inspiration.  In the meantime, enjoy these suggestions and leave me your favorite adventure titles in the comments section.  What books do you find yourself reaching for over and over? Which have had the biggest impact on your life? 

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Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

Joshua Hammer

First, how could you not love a book with a title like that?  Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu follows librarians and historians of Mali as they attempt to preserve, restore, and ultimately protect ancient African texts from Al Qaeda.  Written by journalist Joshua Hammer, this story is not only true, but actually an on-going effort, and delves into not only the literature restoration progress but also the multifaceted geopolitical issues currently plaguing this part of the world (and why they matter to the rest of the world).  Further, Hammer dispels myths than non-Africans tend to have about the continent, such as the belief that before European settlement, there was no written language or manuscripts.  Instead, the reader is is given a multitude of examples of high quality works ranging from poetry to cookbooks, written and illuminated on a variety of sources from sheepskin to parchment. When Hammer isn’t talking about these things, his descriptions of both the cities the countryside make *this girl* miss West Africa in a big bad way. If you’re looking for adventure with some real life Indiana Jones types covertly battling violent book burners, this is the read for you.  

West With the Night

Beryl Markham

If I could trade lives with anyone (and honestly, I wouldn’t), it would be with Beryl Markham. Taken by her father from England to East Africa at the age of four, Markham grew up among  Murani tribesman and with their children, playing, exploring, lion hunting as her father developed a working farm from which he bred and trained race horses.  She later became an aviator and the first person to fly solo, non-stop across the Atlantic from east to west.  West With the Night is her memoir of these, and many other adventures, each as fascinating as the one before.  Since I first picked up my mother’s copy as a young teen, I’m not entirely sure how many times I’ve read West With the Night, or how many copies I’ve given away over the years. It consistently remains one of my top 5 all-time favorites, not just in the adventure category, but any category. Markham’s writing is so beautiful, that even Ernest Hemingway talked in awe about her story telling ability.  

Into Thin Air

Jon Krakauer

In 1996, a freak snowstorm hit Mt Everest and took the lives of five people, leaving others, Jon Krakauer included, emotionally and physically damaged in it’s aftermath.  I was in high school when this happened, and remember hearing about it in the news.  A few months later, Jon Krakauer’s account of what happened was published in Outside magazine, of which I was (and still am) a subscriber.  I remember coming home from school and finding that issue on the kitchen counter waiting for me.  I remember taking it to my room and reading every word of that article, not being about to tear myself away from it.  

While Krakauer published Into Thin Air shortly after his article, it wasn’t until much, much later that, at the suggestion of a friend, I picked up a copy and sat down to read it.  Reading it was like a time machine for me.  Suddenly, I was that 16 year old girl again, completely absorbed in Krakauer’s words. I find it odd that I couldn’t put it down.  I knew the outcome of the story, and yet somehow, I was completely compelled to continue reading it.  When I finally finished, it felt weird putting the book down. In that same way, reading of book of real life tragedy, where man comes up against nature and loses in a big way, doesn’t make me shy away from the possibility of adventure in my own life. Instead, Into Thin Air is filled with inspiration because it is filled with people who lived their lives to the fullest.  Further, the tragedy, and Krakauer’s account of it, forced the international climbing community to reevaluate climbing practices and protocol, particularly when it comes to this most elusive summit.  For these reasons, Into Thin Air is a classic adventure book that should be on your to-do list, even if climbing a mountain isn’t.

Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson

Speaking of classics, I would be remiss if I did not include Treasure Island on this list. If you’ve never read this, a treasure in it’s own right, you’re in for a treat. There is a reason that Robert Louis Stevenson is hailed as a master storyteller.  First published in book form in 1883, this classic tail of mystery, treasure, and thrilling adventure on the high seas is still just as captivating today as it was then.  Who among us hasn’t dreamt of finding an old map leading to buried pirate treasure? Of being a hero among buccaneers?  Of setting sail with your compass pointed firmly on “Adventure”?  Stevenson crafts his story in such a way that even the most stalwart land lubber will be chanting, “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

My Side of the Mountain

Jean Craighead George

Although decidedly a children’s book, My Side of the Mountain must be included in this list. While, as a child (just like today), my wanderlust and thirst for adventure needed no encouragement from the written word, My Side of the Mountain was the first book I read on wilderness survival.  The story takes place in the Adirondack mountains of New York where fictional Sam Gribley runs to after leaving his family’s over crowded New York City apartment.  And who could blame him? The book reads like a journal of Sam’s journey to old family land in the mountains and details how he manages to first survive, then thrive in the wilderness, including penciled drawings of various traps, lean-to’s, and tools Sam makes and uses.

While I won’t spoil the book for you, I will say that this Newbery Honor book was first rejected for publication because it’s contents would encourage children to run away from home.  If you ever packed your backpack with snacks and a homemade map and set off to seek your fortune, as I did more than once during my childhood, you know that kids rarely need encouragement to explore the world around them.  However, if you never had the pleasure of reading this one as a child, read it now for the child that (hopefully) still lives inside you. 

Outside 25

Various Authors

One of the reasons I love Outside magazine so much is because it’s articles are oftentimes just as much about misadventure as they are adventure.  The writers of Outside never sugarcoat what happens to themselves or others when they set off on adventure, and quite frankly, they shouldn’t.  Nature doesn’t sugarcoat itself and adventure wouldn’t be adventure if it came in a neat, tidy package, delivered promptly and cleanly with a little bow on top.  That’s actually the definition of an all-inclusive resort. 

Outside 25 is a celebration of Outside magazines 25 years of publication and is a fantastic collection of some of their greatest articles.  Writers such as Tim Cahill, Jon Krakauer, David Quammen, and Ian Frazier—to name a few—all have articles within this compilation.  

However, one of the best features about Outside 25 is the fact that it is a collection of works.  This is a book you can keep in your car (like I do), and pull out to read when you have some time to kill, but don’t want to forget what’s happening in the rest of the book.  Like a choose-you-own-adventure book, just pick an article and get lost in the adventure.  

Out There: The Wildest Stories from Outside Magazine

Various Authors

Another compilation of articles from the good people over at Outside magazine, and features articles from the likes of Mark Jenkins, Susan Orlean, and the MeatEater himself, Steven Rinella.  Like Outside 25, Out There is perfect to keep in the car or Airstream and pull out when you want a quick read.  There’s not much I can say about Out There that’s different than Outside 25, other than the articles are different, and all are enthralling. Neither book disappoints. 

Cry of the Kalahari

Mark and Delia Owens

In 1974, an American couple named Mark and Delia Owens drove deep into the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa where they spent seven years studying the animals who call the Kalahari home. Cry of the Kalahari is not about their scientific findings, but rather a memoir of their time in this remarkably harsh yet beautiful environment. Thousands of miles from even the remotest semblance of civilization, they chronicle their day-to-day existence surviving storms, fires, droughts then floods, and the wildlife they came to study. 

The book is written from both of their points of view.  Each chapter gives you a title, then is marked either “Mark” or “Delia” to indicate who is relating that portion of the narrative. 

The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is the story of a young shepherd, Santiago, who dreams of traveling in search of an extravagant treasure.  His journey takes him from his home in Spain to Morocco, and eventually the Egyptian desert where he encounters an alchemist.  Beyond worldly treasure, Santiago obtains treasures of another sort as well: wisdom, faith, love.  Coelho’s words are as captivating as the story itself, with lines such as, “Here I am, between my flock and my treasure, the boy thought.  He had to choose between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have,” and “The boy felt jealous of the freedom of the wind, and she that he could have the same freedom. There was nothing to hold him back except himself.”

Santiago encourages even the most hesitant adventurer to look beyond his own front door and make the first step into the unknown. 

The Martian

Andy Weir

For his debut novel, Andy Weir really hits the bullseye with The Martian.  What started out as entries on his blog, Weir’s story grew in popularity and with corrections and suggestions from actual astronauts and aerospace engineers, the story grew into the novel that was eventually published. This hard science fiction novel is a modern-day marooning story packed with nail biting moments and heart warming victories.  The story is about astronaut Mark Watney who, you find out right off the bat, has been inadvertently marooned on Mars with little to no hope of escape.  The story is told from Mark’s point of view through the mission log that he meticulously keeps in the event that he doesn’t make it and future astronauts are able to access it and discover what worked, what didn’t and what ultimately led to his demise.  You’ll find yourself reeling from Mark’s defeats and in tears of joy over his triumphs, even the smallest ones.  

If you’re asking yourself, “isn’t this also a movie?” Well, yes, it is. However, I’m here to tell you the same thing your high school English teacher told you: the book is better.  Trust me. Even if you’ve seen the movie (which, by the way, is one of my all-time favorites), the book is naturally filled with more details and more insight from Mark.  Having said that, the filmmakers did an incredible job with the movie, for which I am grateful.

What are you favorite adventure tales? I’m always on the lookout for a new read and would love to hear from you in the comments section below!

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