In 2001, National Geographic Adventure Magazine published a list they called Extreme Classics: The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time. Oddly, the list contained 106 books. I’d read and enjoyed a handful of them, so I decided to make it my goal to read the rest.
I just finished the final book on the list and thought I’d celebrate the occasion with a blog post.
There were some very good books on the list. There were also a lot of books I could have done without.
There were the polar exploration books. One or two of the best of these would have been fine. But they all sounded very much alike after a while — there are only so many things to say about walking on ice. The list even included multiple books about a few of the expeditions, written by different people. In any case, they were hard to keep separate since they all followed this basic outline.
- It was dark.
- We were cold.
- We ate the dogs.
Then there were the books of about exploring the desert regions of the Middle East and North Africa. They were very different from the polar exploration books. Their outlines could be summed up like this:
- It was dry.
- We were hot.
- We ate the camels.
By far the biggest category was books on mountain climbing. I have never climbed a mountain. I have never wanted to climb a mountain. I can’t quite figure out why anybody would want to climb a mountain. OK, I can understand why it would be sorta cool to be the very first person to ever stand on the top of a given mountain, but after that …
Many of these books weren’t even about first ascents. They were about expeditions on mountains that had already been climbed — just not by that particular route or at that particular season of the year. Is it really worth the expense and effort to be the first person to ascend up the previously-considered-unclimbable north face during the month of January only to stand where others had already stood? I don’t see it. And I certainly don’t think it makes a climber any kind of hero. I may be the first person to circle my block hopping on one snowshoe while wearing a Darth Vader costume and leading a llama, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a journey worth the telling. And all these books sounded alike too. The outline goes like this:
- It was icy.
- We were cold.
- We ate our shoes.
- Somebody died.
- You might think we’re stupid, but we’re proud of ourselves.
By this point, you’re probably wondering why I bothered reading the entire list. There were some excellent reads here, books in which the author told more about what he or she saw and less about what they felt; books written by authors who actually seemed to enjoy what they were doing and didn’t whine about it; books that had — and this is the sine qua non of good travel books — maps that showed all, or almost all, the places mentioned in the text.
If you think you might want to read some adventure classics, but don’t want to tackle this entire list, here are 10 of my favorites.
- A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella L. Bird — The author, an Englishwoman in her 40s, borrowed a horse and wandered about the American West in 1873 (three years before Custer’s last stand), dealing with hardship and finding adventures with understated aplomb.
- Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins — Collins’ story of his astronaut training and two trips into space — on Gemini 10 with John Young; and on Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during which Collins orbited in the command module during the first landing on the moon.
- Cooper’s Creek, by Alan Moorehead — A failed and tragic attempt to explore the interior of Australia in 1860.
- Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey — Abbey’s account of his two seasons as a park ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument in the 1950s, before it was “improved.” I disagree with him on almost every subject, but he’s an excellent writer and funny too.
- The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz — Seven men escape from prison in Siberia during World War II. 4,000 miles later, some of them made it to India.
- No Picnic on Mount Kenya, by Felice Benuzzi — Three Italians, stuck in a British prison in Africa during World War II, escape for the sole purpose of climbing the nearby Mount Kenya. They left a note that said, “Don’t bother coming to look for us. We’ll be back in two weeks.” And they were.
- The Royal Road to Romance, by Richard Halliburton — The author decided he’d had enough of college and took off on a trip around the world with no money. A great read, and some of it might even be true.
- Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum — Perhaps the best book on the list. Slocum built his own boat and then took three years to sail it around the world by himself, stopping whenever the mood struck him. Exciting and hilarious at times.
- The Spirit of St. Louis, by Charles Lindbergh — Lindbergh’s own account of his solo flight across the Atlantic.
- The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard — The best of the polar exploration books. The author accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on his famous attempt to reach the South Pole. It’s well-written and occasionally funny. In short, it tells the same story as the other polar exploration books, but does it better.