In 1933 an 18-year-old Englishman with a literary bent and a nomad’s turn of mind, Patrick Leigh Fermor, set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Two years later he arrived. Even on foot that’s a long time to get between two points in Europe. But the hiker stopped to talk–and often to stay–with everyone he met. They were the oddest of odd lots of races and religions and tribes. Some were members of defunct Danube royalty–barons living in ornate Transylvanian castles with large eclectic libraries. Some were Hungarian gypsies, some were Romanian shepherds, some were monks. High or low, they offered hospitality to the English visitor and told him strange and often amazing stories. I think they were grateful that someone had made an effort to find them in their remote villages and valleys and to wonder who in the world they all were.
Long afterward, Leigh Fermor would reconstruct that odyssey in two books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), that became minor travel classics, much loved for their erudite, observant style. He was the last of Britain’s great solitaries–men and women who sought out harsh and inaccessible places–and his death two weeks ago at the age of 96 closes the door on a remarkable body of travel literature.
The region that called out powerfully to those “desert eccentrics” was Arabia, luring them to superhuman feats of endurance and assimilation, especially Charles Doughty, Richard Burton, Freya Stark, T. E. Lawrence, and Wilfred Thesiger. Doughty’s monumental Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888) remains the masterpiece of the genre, exhaustive in its cultural detail.
But it is Sir Richard Burton, as always, who captures our imagination. The glamorous explorer of the source of the Nile, who knew 24 European, Asian, and African languages, smuggled himself into the holy city of Medina, garbed as an Arab, and then into Mecca, in 1853, during the Hajj. How he accomplished that perilous feat, first immersing himself in intricate Arab rituals of dress and etiquette, is vividly told in A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1855).
Freya Stark was the first Western woman to travel through the Arabian deserts, and her many books about those trips–including The Southern Gates of Arabia and Riding to the Tigris–are models of the travel essay form. “She has a genius for traveling on her own,” one critic wrote. “It is the unexpected that brings out the best in her.”
T. E. Lawrence, another brilliant loner, wandered through the Middle East before World War I as an archeological snoop–a warm-up, as it turned out, for leading the Arab revolt in the desert. His classic book about that campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is both an adventure yarn and a meditation on Lawrence’s many enigmatic obsessions.
Wilfred Thesiger was the first white man to cross the dreaded “empty quarter” of Arabia, and in The Last Nomad he describes that journey–an excruciating tale of heat, thirst, and deprivation that he seems to have hugely enjoyed.
The last practicing member of the breed was Bruce Chatwin, whose In Patagonia (1977), a book of surprising stories about reputed mythical beasts and other legendary oddities, took him across the wild southern tip of South America. In a subsequent book, The Songlines (1987), Chatwin went still farther off, to northern Australia, where he traced the paths–heard but not seen–by which the aboriginal people sang their way from one destination to another. It now occurs to me that nothing so gladdened the heart of an English solitary as a place that had no roads.
One of those English wanderers indirectly crossed my own path. In 1944, I was a GI in North Africa, intoxicated by a culture dramatically different from my own and eager to learn more about it. But I assumed that no books had been written in English that would answer my traveler’s questions. Then one day a book came in the mail from my mother–Fountains in the Sand by Norman Douglas, an account of his walk across Tunisia in 1912. Just from its chapter titles–“By the Oued Baiesh,” “The Stones of Gafsa,” “The Gardens of Nefta”–I knew that the book would fill my need for a predecessor in this unknown land. Douglas was famous mainly for South Wind, a novel set on an island easily recognizable as Capri. But I know him best for his solitary walks to corners of the Mediterranean so plain and primitive–Old Calabria is typical–that it takes a certain perversity to want to go there.
The worlds that those restless hermits wrote about were often interior worlds, tinged with mysticism, and it could hardly be otherwise; they achieved their destiny by following trails that weren’t on any map. But what raises travel writing to literature is not what the writer brings to a place, but what the place draws out of the writer. It helps to be a little crazy.
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