by James O’Reilly
My favorite mountaineering book is The Mountains of My Life, by legendary Italian climber Walter Bonatti. While I love being in the mountains—it’s a rare day I don’t daydream about the Alps or the Himalayas—I am not a climber. It isn’t so much Bonatti’s exploits that inspire me as his attitude towards life, the preeminence he gives to the expression of his deepest instincts (which in his case is represented by a risky ongoing encounter with the natural world). “Courage,” he says, “makes a man master of his own fate. It is a civilized, responsible determination not to succumb to impending moral collapse.”
This attitude is reflected throughout this year’s Best Travel Writing volume, by the many contributors who, like renowned traveler and writer William Dalrymple (whose Introduction follows), are life-long, hardcore travelers. Whether they are explorers (Cameron Smith), expat gourmands (Richard Sterling), modern Don Quixotes (Brad Newsham), cultural bloodhounds (David Peters), or old-fashioned pilgrims (Amy Carlson), they have woven over the years a cloak of experience for others to wear, a kind of divine raiment to protect those who would follow them.
We need such protection, because travel can be hard, despite obvious rewards. It takes time, energy, and at least modest funds. It is natural to want the benefits of travel without the suffering that can accompany it—illness, heartbreak, accidents, loneliness, banditry, simply being worn down by touts and bad buses. But special places do indeed call many of us from the first time we look at a globe, and we should listen, eighteen or eighty, yet be ever mindful of heart and health.
One of my favorite ways to think about travel is jihad, a concept that has become associated, unfortunately, with suicide bombings and IEDs, that is to say the desperate expression of the brainwashed. But true jihad has always been a struggle with oneself, against one’s worst tendencies, inertia, self-deception, cupidity, laziness, falsehood. It is the struggle to become a better human being. “Discipline is remembering what you want,” one saying goes, which might be another way of looking at jihad, and the whole point of jihad, which is character formation—the thrust of Bonatti’s alpinism, and something that travel is very, very good for.
Another of my favorite books is The Meaning of Culture by John Cowper Powys, in which he makes the claim that reading creates a different kind of human being. Travel does much the same, as you can see through the eyes of the contributors to this book. I hope some of them, and their stories, come to haunt you, just as do some people whom you meet on the road, even briefly, and who then go on to become the shades of your “memory palace.” I recall a teenage monk I met in the cold recesses of the Potala Palace in Lhasa in 1988, who told me his plans to escape over the Himalayas to freedom. I recall a spiritually lost Dutch man in Bangkok, drunk with too many beautiful women and drugs; I think of the wide bewildered eyes of a young woman in Kagbeni, Nepal, who’d just seen death close hand during unseasonable late monsoon storms and avalanches. I think of marvelous, generous people in Zimbabwe with improbable names such as Reward and Never. I think of the Egyptian who whispered to me, as though it were a dark secret, near the dusty desert battleground and cemeteries of El Alamein, “I love grass.” Where are they now? They have forever enriched my inner landscape, and I bless them in thoughts and prayers.
Recently I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Rome as I read yet another classic, A Traveller in Rome by H. V. Morton. This is a book which fills me with dismay that I will ever grasp enough history, but which also fills me with awe at the tidal wash of centuries upon Roman stones. No doubt my obsession also has something to do with growing up in a Catholic family, with attending a beloved uncle, a Franciscan priest, as he died in view of St. Peter’s, and indeed with my first visit to Rome as a teenager, en route to what I didn’t know would be the last time I’d see a close friend. But what does it matter, for I know Rome is calling again, and so are Cairo, Havana, Jerusalem, Kailas, Venice, and Kathmandu, and I shall heed the call.
So onward! in clear-eyed jihad, towards foreign shores, and home again, with stories that bind, as Bonatti’s ideal alpinism does, not only “aesthetics, history and ethics,” but the mountains of your own life and the love that brought you here, keeps you here, and animates all you do and dream.
“Herein is the way of perfection, to live out each day as one’s last, with no fever, no torpor and no acting a part.”
—Marcus Aurelius, quoted by H. V. Morton in
A Traveller in Rome
Palo Alto, California