Travel Genre by Jim Ross

Is there really a travel genre and, if so, what does it look like? Much of literature involves journey: going to one or more places, new or old, or just the possibility of travel; establishing connections or engaging in conflict with the people encountered along the way; and undergoing some level of interior transformation as a result of the encounters and a reflective process. It’s difficult to identify great works of literature that don’t fall into the travel genre, thus defined. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales capture the comings and goings of various persons as they join and attrit from a pilgrimage toward a sacred destination they hold in common. Homer’s Odyssey describes the travails and enticements that Odysseus experiences as he seeks to make his way back home, where his wife Penelope and their beloved dog Argus await his return. Dante’s Divine Comedy is an allegorical tale of travel through the nine circles of hell, followed by purgatory, en route the final destination of paradise. Similarly, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mount Carmel poetically describe a physical journey with the intent of conveying a spiritual transformation.

Much of travel literature, both fiction and non-fiction, explores man’s need to establish a deeper immersion into nature and often attempts to conquer it. On Walden Pond describes both exterior and interior transformations Thoreau experienced by allowing himself to shut out the world and remain in a rather idyllic natural setting. Among more contemporary authors, virtually everything Hemingway ever wrote—whether the he focused on war in Spain or a life-or-death battle to land a marlin—was about immersion into and subjugation of nature. More recently, Coelho’s The Alchemist—the most widely translated and printed book of modern times—described a kind of odyssey as a young shepherd, Santiago, searches for answers and a physical treasure, only to find them close to where his journey began. Such journeys almost necessarily involve physical travel, engagement with both hostile and inviting strangers, yearning to subjugate these surroundings and one’s baser instincts, and ultimately a journey home.

One of the first books I loved reading was Herzog’s story of the successful scaling of Annapurna, then the tallest summit conquered on earth. Many similar stories have been told since, often with gruesome outcomes, because a large portion of adventure seekers fail to come back alive, as shown in Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. Hemingway is often quoted as saying,“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” It is difficult to comprehend literature in any form that isn’t ultimately about journey, physical, emotional, spiritual. Otherwise, what is there to talk about?

In a narrow sense, there really is something called travel literature. It has to include travel guides, such as Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, and Rough Rides. Over the last 20 years, travel guides have transformed from lists of attractions, hotels, and restaurants into more of a compilation of micro-stories about engaging communities. In effect, travel guides have evolved into collections of abbreviated National Geographic-type stories. Then, of course, we have to include the National Geographic Traveler as the exemplar of accessible travel literature in that it seeks to offer a comprehensive sense of place, including political and economic challenges, cultural opportunities, the ways people work and live, all embedded in opportunities to enjoy nature. Nature literature has a place all its own in travel literature, such as guidebooks for surviving in the wild. So, defining travel literature narrowly, it takes many forms without necessarily encouraging or allowing for the inner journeys travelers may take. Still, this narrowly defined travel literature and the broader body of literature about journey truly intersect, sometimes rather magnificently.

I take actor-turned-travel writer Andrew McCarthy as a prime example of how the two intersect. I met Andrew a year ago and we really connected on the importance of traveling alone because only by traveling alone is it possible for an individual to truly engage the individuals met along the way. His brilliant The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down won him awards in 2012 for breakthrough re-definition of travel literature, including recognition as the best travel writer of the year. An editor for National Geographic Traveler, McCarthy truly operates at the intersection between travel literature and this broader body of literature about journey as he emphasizes the opportunities for inner transformation that travel, especially solo travel, can afford. In effect, he’s saying, “go, be Odysseus, or be Santiago.”

From my own experience, I know that two people following the same itinerary can undergo very different journeys. Four years ago, I went to France to walk solo along the Chemin St. Jacques, which is part of the route to Composella de Santiago, often known as the Way. Hours passed, daily, without seeing other pilgrims. When we crossed paths, we typically talked about where we called home, where we’d slept last night, where we hoped to sleep the coming night, why we were walking, and how far we planned to walk. Occasionally, I met preformed pairs, such as a prospective mother- and daughter-in-law, who walked to work proactively through the unspoken grudges that sometimes plague in-laws. Except in villages, I rarely met locals. Now and then, a middle aged woman wearing a red sweater ran up a hill, welcomed me and, with arms reaching up to the sky, pronounced Quel Dieu journée parfaite nous a donné! (What a perfect day God has given us!). Or, I came upon old men gathering fallen chestnuts that covered the forest trails into huge baskets they loaded onto trucks. Or, an apologetic ATV driver who nearly ran me down.

Most pilgrims fell into the first or last thirds of life. Young pilgrims confided they were going in circles—nothing stuck, they’d hit a wall, felt blocked, wanted to get their bearings, and sought guidance in careers, relationships, spirit. People contemplating the final third of life were trying to re-prioritize because work and family no longer drew on their time and energies the same way. Older pilgrims often said they searched for peace. One retired policeman said he did penance “for all the unethical things I had to do.”

Pilgrims differed widely in expectations. For many, walking on the Way had a clear spiritual aspect, though not necessarily Christian. In the middle ages, all Christians—at least all males—were expected to make a journey once in a lifetime either to the east—in crusade, carrying a sword—or to the west—in pilgrimage, carrying a staff or walking stick. The westward journey was viewed as cleansing and as a source of spiritual revitalization that restored perspective. Some “true believers” also sought indulgences to alleviate the temporal punishment for sins they or a deceased loved one had committed. A second group viewed the walk as ecotourism in communion with nature. A few times, I encountered such pilgrims sleeping-in along the trail, usually with only feet visible. For a third group, consisting primarily of younger males, the walk was a competitive athletic event requiring speed, endurance, and efficiency. Still a fourth group wanted to learn about the social, cultural, religious and artistic significance associated with every town, bridge, wall, church, hotel, restaurant, monastery, ruin, community bread oven, dolmen, monument, cross, and garden passed along the way. They were more likely to pause to visit cultural sites, drink coffee from large bowls, hitch rides around unmanageable stretches, and toss away needless belongings to fill their backpacks with priceless fallen chestnuts. Most pilgrims had a little of all four groups in them, in varied ratios.

If you read the travel journals of several pilgrims who walked the identical trail, stayed at the same lodgings, and ate the same meals, you’d see how the variations in their aspirations—what they wanted to get out of the pilgrimage—are reflected in what they thought journal worthy. For example, those viewing the journey as an athletic event would be more likely to perseverate on the wear-and-tear of the journey on their shoes and documenting day-to-day variations in speed than on immersion in the communities where they stay, largely because they grant themselves little opportunity to experience those communities. On the other hand, those who make experiencing the communities that grew up to support the pilgrimage their priority are more likely to document every detail of who and what they experienced at each stop along the way. Aspirations form the lens through which pilgrims see and document both external and interior journeys.

To illustrate this point, based on my journey, I wrote a story about my encounter with a German shepherd. Because my reasons for going on the journey were complex, and included a spiritual component, the dog ended up taking on for me a spiritual aspect of which I am still persuaded. The dog began by leading me up a long hill. She stopped on the way briefly at each of 14 Stations of the Cross as we ascended the hill. At the top, she led me into a Chapel to St. Roch, who is always seen with a dog—because the dog saved his life—and who is considered the patron saint of dogs and dog owners. The dog walked right up to the second pew and sat down for a quiet period. After we had lunch together, I said goodbye, but the dog insisted on coming with me. Repeatedly, she placed herself in between me and oncoming cars, as a shield, to protect me. Then, when a long-horned Aubrac cow charged me, and almost certainly would have done me great physical harm, the shepherd counter-charged the cow, saved my life, and returned to my side.

Later in the trip, there were paypacks: when we reached a busy, highly-traveled road, the shepherd didn’t know how to deal with traffic, and nearly caused a few accidents. I gave her the freedom to roam in the road, but when a car was coming, I called and said, “Come here now,” and she immediately returned to my side, where I placed my staff in front of her until it was safe for her to roam, saying “it’s okay now.” As the relationship with the dog evolved, we became close, and I established a kind of trust with the dog that recent events had made it difficult for me to accept with people. After a while, I speculated whether, in fact, my dog was St. Roch’s dog returned or whether my dog was actually St. Roch himself. I consider the genre I used in this story to be magical realism.

Suffice it to say, we’ve all read travel guides, such as those put out by the American Automobile Association, that offer us little more than guidance to local attractions, hotels, and restaurants. Fortunately, travel literature has evolved into something that respects the central importance of engaging the communities one visits. While some travel writers, like McCarthy, make travel an opportunity for inner transformation, in line with the central theme of journey that cuts across nearly fiction and non-fiction at some level and most poetry, it’s a tough act to capture both the external engagement and the inner transformation in works that will be comprehended by others. Sometimes, it’s easier to claim we’re writing fiction—even though it’s autobiographical—so we don’t have to field questions like, “did this really happen?” No matter, it’s all about journey. The only real question is the degree to which we want to make it explicitly about travel.

Jim Ross is a recently retired health researcher who learned to analyze the dickens out of things, but is now trying to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. To do this, he’s focusing on talking with strangers on pilgrimages, getting lost in the woods, and writing creative non-fiction and poetry. He and his wife share the near-term aspiration of becoming grandparents. They split their time between Silver Spring, MD and Berkeley Springs, WV, but aspire to spend more time in Southern France drinking wine purchased from street vendors.



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3 thoughts on “Travel Genre by Jim Ross

  1. Mr. D

    Congratulations on the publication, Jim. I was most engaged in your experiences as a traveler–motives, destinations, experiences, and emotions associated with your travel. For example, what happened in your life that led you not to trust most people and how did travel affect those feelings?

    Personally, I dislike most conversations about travel because they usually just seem to be expressions of conceit. I have lived overseas for the last 4 years and I feel that people, at least from America, just want to travel to say they have been somewhere. That’s an expensive price for pride! In this essay, you avoid those often asked questions and give a general, over-arching review of motives for travelogues. But I walk away wondering, what does Jim want from travel? Does he ever achieve those wants? Anyways, thanks for essay! I hope people join in on the convo!

  2. Jeffrey Hinton

    I too enjoyed your essay Jim, and the comments from Mr. D spark a great conversation. I am also of the persuasion that most travelogues settle into “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” dronings causing me to drink another cup of coffee to keep from nodding off.
    I have been married to my wife for 36 years, and yet when we travel I have to have to have at least some small amount of time to branch off on my own. As Mr. D points out, my wife falls into the “I’ve been here and I’ve been there” type of traveller . There’s a bit of that in me as well, but there is also the desire to meet people “with the bark off” so to speak. I enjoy talking to the homeless for instance.Visiting the backwater areas of new places gives a unique perspective and the element of danger ,as peculiar as it may seem, I find most appealing.

    1. Jim Ross

      A lot of travel over the years was done as a family. However, I believe it’s extremely important to have the opportunity to off on one’s own, and to experience a place not as a tourist, but as someone who belongs there. I liked being a pilgrim on two occasions because people from the area expect and respect pilgrims and do not regard them as tourists. In that case, one is typically getting to know other pilgrims along the way. Returning to France as a pilgrim with my family after first pilgrimaging solo was an incredible experience. Like you, Jeffrey, I like to meet people. Often, these are people whom we have built a trip around–friends who already live in a place. Going somewhere is not about seeing the sights for me but about seeing and meeting people.


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