Paul Theroux likes trains; he has roamed the world and ridden trains and written great books with neat names like "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" or "The Old Patagonia Express." In his upcoming book he brings us a spiritual sense of the meaning of travel. To be released in May, Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Roadis a Traveler's Cooperstown, a hall of fame of writings and commentary on travels from writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Freya Stark, Eudora Welty, Anton Chekhov, and Ernest Hemingway. He even includes a chapter on traveler's advice from Sir Francis Galton, who measured and contrasted human abilities and is one of the founders of psychological testing. Theroux's words will inspire the young and rekindle the old:
As a child, yearning to leave home and go far away, the image in my mind was of flight â€” my little self hurrying off alone. The word 'travel' did not occur to me, nor did the word 'transformation' which was my unspoken but enduring wish. I wanted to find a new self in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be. Too young to go, I read about elsewheres, fantasizing about my freedom. Books were my road. And then, when I was old enough to go, the roads I traveled became the obsessive subject in my own books. Eventually I saw that the most passionate travelers have always also been passionate readers and writers. And that is how this book came about.
The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown, to bear witness to the consequences, tragic or comic, of people possessed by the narcissism of minor differences. Chekhov said, 'If you're afraid of loneliness, don't marry.' I would say, if yo're afraid of loneliness, don't travel. The literature of travel shows the effects of solitude, sometimes mournful, more often enriching, now and then unexpectedly spiritual.
All my traveling life I have been asked the maddening and oversimplifying question 'What is your favorite travel book?' How to answer it? I have been on the road for almost fifty years and writing about my travels for more than forty years. One of the first books my father read to me at bedtime when I was small was Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in Maine. This 1930s as-told-to account described how a twelve-year-old boy survived eight days on Mount Katahdin. Donn suffered, but he made it out of the Maine woods. The book taught me lessons in wilderness survival, including the basic one: 'Always follow a river or a creek in the direction the water is flowing.' I have read many travel books since, and I have made journeys on every continent except Antarctica, which I have recounted in eight books and hundreds of essays. I have felt renewed inspiration in the thought of little Donn making it safely down the high mountain
The travel narrative is the oldest in the world, the story the wanderer tells to the folk gathered around the fire after his or her return from a journey. 'This is what I saw'; news from the wider world; the odd, the strange, the shocking, tales of beasts or of other people. 'They're just like us!' or 'They're not like us at all!' The traveler's tale is always in the nature of a report. And it is the origin of narrative fiction too, the traveler enlivening a dozing group with invented details, embroidering on experience. It's how the first novel in English got written. Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe on the actual experience of the castaway Alexander Selkirk, though he enlarged the story, turning Selkirk's four and a half years on a remote Pacific Island into twenty-eight years on a Caribbean island, adding Friday, the cannibals, and tropical exotica.
Travel and spirituality are linked in the world's three great religions, recorded in scriptures and recounted lovingly and longingly for generations into the future. Moses led the Jewish people through the desert; people of Islam travel on pilgrimage to Mecca. St. Paul's three missionary journeys took him to places gone but now immortalized--Galatia, Ephesus, Phillipi--and of course, finally to Rome. Paul Theroux brings to mind the unifying value of travel, more than guidebooks collected, passports treasured, or iPhone photos stored: a spiritual dimension or Tao. Perhaps we will start to think about places where we want to go, or be reminded of voyages we have made, and what they meant to us.
William Van Ornum