We’ve watched enough TV. It’s time to read some books.
One of my heroes, John Steinbeck, twice followed in the footsteps of another of my heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes is a travelogue written by RLS in 1878.
The Sea of Cortez is the travelogue of Steinbeck about an ocean journey embarked upon with his friend Ed Ricketts, on whose life he based the character of “Doc” in Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s other travelogue is Travels with Charley, the diary of his final journey across America in 1962, when he knew he was dying.
Travelogues are books without a plot, whose only purpose is to celebrate the art of great writing.
Here are a few of my favorite passages from each of those 3 books.
“A faint wind, more like a moving coolness than a stream of air, passed down the glade from time to time; so that even in my great chamber the air was being renewed all night long… I have not often enjoyed a more serene possession of myself, nor felt more independent of material aids. The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle and habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house.”
– Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, p. 90 – 91
“Ten minutes after, the sunlight spread at a gallop along the hillside, scattering shadows and sparkles, and the day had come completely. I hastened to prepare my pack, and tackle the steep ascent that lay before me; but I had something on my mind. It was only a fancy; but a fancy will sometimes be importunate. I had been most hospitably received and punctually served in my green caravanserai. The room was airy, the water excellent, and the dawn had called me to a moment. I say nothing of the tapestries or the inimitable ceiling, nor yet of the view which I commanded from the windows; but I felt I was in someone’s debt for all this liberal entertainment. And so it pleased me, in a half-laughing way, to leave pieces of money on the turf as I went along, until I had left enough for my night’s lodging. I trust they did not fall to some rich and churlish drover.”
– Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, p. 94
“A still clear light began to fall, and the trees on the hillside were outlined sharply against the sky… and looking up, I was surprised to see the cloud dyed with gold. In these high regions of the air, the sun was already shining as at noon. If only the clouds travelled high enough, we should see the same thing all night long. For it is always daylight in the fields of space… A few steps farther, and I saw a whole hillside gilded with the sun; and still a little beyond, between two peaks, a center of dazzling brilliancy appeared floating in the sky, and I was once more face to face with the big bonfire that occupies the kernel of our system.”
– Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, p. 132
Inspired by Stevenson, Steinbeck picked up the pen 62 years later.
“One thing impressed us deeply on this little voyage: the great world dropped away very quickly. We lost the fear and fierceness and contagion of war and economic uncertainty. The matters of great importance we had left were not important.”
– Sea of Cortez, p. 210
“Out in the bay the pelicans were fishing, flying along and then folding their wings and falling in their clumsy-appearing dives, which nevertheless must be effective, else there would be no more pelicans.”
– Sea of Cortez, p. 193
“The use of euphemism in national advertising is giving the hangover a bad name. ‘Over-indulgence’ it is called. There is a curious nastiness about over-indulgence. We would not consider over-indulging. The name is unpleasant, and the word ‘over’ indicates that one shouldn’t have done it. Our celebration had no such implication. We did not drink too much. We drank just enough, and we refuse to profane a good little time of mild inebriety with that slurring phrase ‘over-indulgence.’ There have been very few immortals who did not love wine; offhand we cannot think of any and we do not intend to try very hard.”
– Sea of Cortez, p. 198
“The Western Flyer hunched into the great waves toward Cedros Island, the wind blew off the tops of the whitecaps, and the big guy wire, from bow to mast, took up its vibration like the low pipe on a tremendous organ. It sang its deep note into the wind.”
– The ending his travelogue, Sea of Cortez, p. 271
Twenty-two years later, Steinbeck wrote his final travelogue.
“As he sat in the seat beside me, his head was almost as high as mine. He put his nose close to my ear and said ‘Ftt.’ He is the only dog I ever knew that could pronounce the consonant F.”
– Travels with Charley
“My town had grown and changed and my friend along with it. Now returning, as changed to my friend as my town was to me, I distorted his picture, muddied his memory. When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance – and I wanted to go for the same reason.”
– Travels With Charley
“It rained endlessly and the forests wept. The darkness fell and the trees moved closer.”
– Travels With Charley
“Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.”
– Travels With Charley
“The guardian of the lake was a lonely man, the more so because he had a wife. He showed me her picture in a plastic shield in his wallet, a prettyish blonde girl trying her best to live up to the pictures in magazines, a girl of products, home permanents, shampoos, rinses, skin conditioners. She hated being out in what she called the Sticks, longed for the great and gracious life in Toledo or South Bend.”
– Travels With Charley
“Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? … My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned. I know exactly when and where it was over. Near Abingdon, in the dog-leg of Virginia, at four o’clock of a windy afternoon, without warning or goodbye or kiss my foot, my journey went away and left me stranded far from home.”
– the beginning of the final chapter of Travels with Charley, p. 243
Other notable books of this genre are
Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)
Trout Fishing in America, by Richard Brautigan (1967)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics, by Robert M. Pirsig (1974)
It could also be argued that The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck’s epic tale of the dustbowl and the flight of the Okies to California, was a travelogue in the genre of historical fiction.
Whether you choose one of these strange and wonderful travelogues, or a book of a completely different genre, I believe you’ll be refreshed by the delightful vacation-of-the-mind you can take by looking into the pages of good literature.
Great books were written for times like these.
Roy H. Williams