Recently a friend was kind enough to send me a link to one of the endless stream of “Wah! Travel writing is dead!” articles. Just to be sure I am being fair to the poor white men who feel so desperate about travel writing and the act of travel itself, I found another article that poses exactly the same theory as the first.
To summarize: There’s no place on Earth that a healthy, able-bodied white male can go where another healthy, able-bodied white man hasn’t already been. Also, trashy (and successful) travel writers now dare to write about personal experiences in fun places rather than reporting on the grimmest possible politics in the least visitable countries on the planet. Therefore travel writing is dead. In fact, travel itself is dead. We might as well all stay home and watching Maury Povich and The View, because Real, True, Serious World Travelers have no worlds left to conquer and no Real Serious Issues to Observe and Report.
Aw, those poor guys, stewing in the unconscious arrogance of able-bodied white male privilege that’s let them explore every war-torn nook and rapist-infested cranny of the planet. My heart bleeds…it’s making a puddle on my couch.
To me, Graeme Wood comes off as a pompous bore who’d probably collapse into a quivering mass of worthless jelly if he were ever put in a position where he actually had to stay put, unable to travel wherever he wanted whenever he wanted. Paul Theroux reads like a spoiled three-year-old at daycare who won’t play with any toy that another child has touched first.
Here’s what I think about the idea that travel and travel writing are dead:
1. You boys really want a unique adventure? Go back to Saudi, or Afghanistan, or UAE, and try climbing those mountains again. Wearing a burqa. Yes, that’s right, I want you guys to try to imagine exploring the Middle East while possessing XX chromosomes. Better still, bring a female travel writer with you on your next trip. Watch a woman wearing pants with uncovered hair try chatting up the native Muslim men in a tiny desert town to get directions. Observe the reaction to your female companion driving the rental car, checking into the hotel, or walking to the corner store by herself. See what happens if she tries to so much as speak to a mullah.
Perhaps some new observation-based stories about the state of the world might suggest themselves.
2. Try a month-long African walking safari from a new elevation–the seat of a wheelchair. When you roll instead of strolling, every rock in the path becomes a hazard, and every gentle slope a mountain. Bring ice packs and an orthopedic surgeon for your shoulders.
Consider climbing Kilimanjaro or Everest with diabetes. Imagine carrying a chilled container of insulin, syringes, and sterilization supplies on your back every step of the way. Be sure not to forget the sharps disposal container so that you Leave No Trace!
Perhaps you could try one of those Arctic Circle survivalist camping trips dragging along chronic pain that exhausts and diminishes you and responds to severe cold by getting much, much worse. When you gray out and lose control of your limbs as you’re bobbing about in your orange plastic suit, perhaps a new pot of prose may stir in your breast.
3. Frankly, who cares what others have done or where they have gone? So what if someone has already explored the ruins of Pompeii or strolled down the Valley of Kings or chased bright fish across the lagoons of Bora Bora?
Travel is about experience. Personal experience. Sorry Wood–a sense of individual exploration and discovery pretty much defines the universal human experience.
I hope I am never so jaded by the luxuries of my job that I cannot find joy in seeing and smelling and touching and tasting a new-to-me place for the first time. Any place, regardless of whether ten people or ten million people have gotten there ahead of me. If that happens, it will be time to consign my roll-aboard to the garage and start selling insurance. (Are you listening, Paul?)
4. No. It’s not somehow better or more meaningful to stay home than it is to leave, to travel, to explore. Period.
No one who’d spew pusillanimous crap about how narrowing and pointless it is to travel has likely ever been forced by real circumstances to stay home for more than a couple of week at a time. Boys–some of us can’t just pick up and go off to Iran or China or Brazil anytime we please. (And I find myself wondering what percentage of his soul an average Saudi kid might sell for the chance to go to Disneyland for a day.) Believe it or not, many of us lowly mortals must struggle just to go on a five-day in-state road trip. In fact, enough of us have this kind of experience that there’s…wait for it…a market for travel writing about “easy” travel that does what a thousand reams of dishwater-dull observational exposition about repressive regimes and violently misanthropic microcosmic cultures can’t possibly do. It touches the minds and hearts of millions of real travelers, tourists, and vacationers around the world.
I don’t think I’ll ever manage to take quite so much for granted as these men do. I doubt any of you my readers can be that callous either. We know what matters. Life matters. Getting out of the house, taking a trip (even if it’s to a cheap motel 20 minutes from home) seeing sights beyond my bedroom window and my TV–these things Matter. I write about them because I want them to matter to you too. I don’t write to lord it over you because I got to Wherever McAnyplace first.
The moral of this rant: Theroux & company are WRONG. Travel remains a wonderful, amazing, awesome, life-affirming thing to do. As more people have the opportunity to travel and to read about travel around the world, travel writing becomes an ever-more viable vocation and avocation.
Travel is worth the effort, the expense, and the pain. Perhaps it takes a specific perspective to appreciate the ability to travel, the opportunity to personally experience new places, to go on freakin’ vacation. If travel and travel writing inspire nothing but ennui in you, feel free to get a job at your local Jiffy Lube and leave the rest of us to enjoy the miracle of being physically able to leave home and the wonder of exploring new-to-us places.
Thank you and good night. Anyone needs me, I’ll be planning my next trip to Disneyland…