What would you ask your favorite travel writers?

Sick me and sick baby were hanging out with the radio yesterday, listening to a call-in show with a variation on everyone’s favorite vox populi question, “Which living person would you most like to meet and what would you ask them?” Since this is a thinking, reading, liberal radio audience, answers ranged from Barack Obama (several) to Cormac McCarthy and Bill Bryson.

The first person who popped to my mind was my favorite travel writer, Colin Thubron. Of all the travel writers I’ve read, he’s the one with the most intelligence, insight, collection of fluent languages, and wide-ranging worldview. He also has this odd trick (to one used to American travel writers) of effacing himself almost entirely from his narratives. You see very little of Colin as he’s taking a five-mile hike to the Great Wall of China, or braving the 1980 Iron Curtain, or taking a solo camping trip through Lebanon to visit ancient temples of Adonis. There’s only a hint of him in his most recent book (reviewed on PT blog here), Shadows of the Silk Road. But I did meet a woman in a London bookstore who said he was “an awfully nice man,” so really I’d just like to have a long lunch and conversation with him, or perhaps a weekend hiking trip through the Yorkshire Dales.

But who else? Tons of travel writers out there. I’d ask the inestimable Jan Morris about the long arc of her love affair with New York City’s Manhattan Island, which blossomed and faded through the essays and life tracked in her book A Writer’s World (reviewed here back in June).

I’d like to ask Jeffrey Taylor why someone who seems to have such a passion for adventure and discovery almost always adds a sour note to his nearly perfect travel books by forcing situations where he gets either pissed off with his guide for going off-schedule; or passes up opportunities to throw a wrench in his plans by walking the unknown road unexpected invitations might take him.

I’ve already met and taken a travel writing class with Tom Swick, but he’s not only one of my favorite travel writers ever, he’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever come across. To get together over some nice wine and discuss Nabokov would go down nicely.

MFK Fisher is no longer alive, but it would have been fantastic to get a gastronomy tour of Marseilles from one of the pioneer writers of food-and-place. Nosy person that I am, I’d like to ask about the early married years referred to in her book Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon. A writer is made of more than places visited and food eaten. She left tantalizing hints of frustration and fraught misunderstandings. What was it really like?

Wilfred Thesiger must have been packed with amazing stories of his years in Arabia, crossing desert sands and experiencing a tribal way of life now almost extinct. What about that life is inspiring and meaningful to the emancipated women of the world? Because the Arab nomadic life is attractive, no question — but it wasn’t long before I realized I never could have experienced it the way he did. Any chance he’d take a woman along and drop her off at a village to imbibe her own experiences?

So many authors, so much nonexistent time to eat, talk, and walk with them. I’d love to sit down with my own great-grandmother, who wrote delightful letters about her European travels back to the newspaper in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, and Boston, both of which she called home.

And Laura Ingalls Wilder, who may not be ranked among travel writers, but who has left a comprehensive and spellbinding chronicle of the life of American pioneers and frontierspeople like no other. She really ought to be considered a travel writer. Since I will never taste the life of a pioneer (none of us will), what did she love most about it? When a farmer asked her to marry him, what about the pioneering life versus the grounded farming life almost lured her away?

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