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Armchair Travel: Drop the Book and Go

When we think of so-called armchair travel books, an image of an interesting if somewhat dry travelogue usually comes to mind first — maybe a “deep history” by William Least Heat-Moon, or Paul Theroux trekking cantankerously through some remote terrain on a train (or maybe a mule if it will make things slightly more uncomfortable), or, somewhat more pleasantly, perhaps Steinbeck traveling in a campervan named Rocinante with his dog.

In my own decades of traveling and writing about travel, I have naturally read many such travelogues. However, I have to admit I sometimes found myself disinclined to finish them. Instead, I frequently dropped them on the spot to go dig up a guidebook (back in the heyday of print travel guidebooks) or, more recently, to pull up websites with fares and destination information. This happened repeatedly over several years until I started giving up on travelogues, and ultimately came to the conclusion that armchair travel is almost a ruse — there are other reasons to read these books, but it might not be to see the world from your reading chair.

In fact, it seems more likely that many traditional examples of “armchair travel” will inspire you to ditch the armchair, almost immediately. The notion that reading these books lets you skip traveling because you’re doing it all in your imagination doesn’t seem to me to be the measure of a good travel book — in fact, serious travelers might argue that the measure of success is not just where it takes you in your imagination, but where it inspires you to take yourself.

Works of Imagination Remain Inspiring

If you do a search for “armchair travel” on the literary review and recommendation site, all manner of books, even a few blockbusters, show up. Certainly many of the usual suspects appear, such as Bill Bryson and the aforementioned Theroux, but alongside them are the massive best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love,” as well as the first book in the popular “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, which takes place in Botswana and is sometimes thought to be as much a paean to Africa as it is a mystery story.

Novels and short stories can often be a deep well of inspiration for travelers. Witness a book like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” perhaps the quintessential American road trip book, which despite its unconventional and somewhat scattershot approach took on immense significance in pre-1960s America. When folks think of an “armchair travel” book, they rarely think first of “On the Road,” but it is undeniably just that, and it inspired an entire generation to stretch their wings. The book arguably usheredin a golden age of travel that ultimately included the so-called hippie trails, potentially inspired many folks to work hard for the Peace Corps and made travel for personal discovery a truly American habit.

Such inspiration need not come from “road books” per se; perhaps even “Catcher in the Rye,” a similar “cult” book with a far more static setting, could be considered this type of “armchair travel” book, as its powerful sense of place drew countless young readers to explore Manhattan. For a more highbrow example, try “Ulysses,” the Dublin map that thousands of literary partiers follow every June 16. And short stories can lend themselves exceptionally well to a travelogue format; witness Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories,” or many of the stories in Douglas Coupland’s “Life After God,” to stretch a bit for a more contemporary example.

Movies can be just as powerful a draw; see I’ll Take a Large Popcorn and a Ticket to Paris. “Endless Summer” inspired many of my own travels, and, like “On the Road,” it definitely played a part in the American wanderlust of the 1960s.

New Sources of Inspiration

Of course we no longer need to rely on publishing houses and movie producers to share travel experiences — today the Web offers an almost bottomless resource for ideas, inspiration and travel eye candy. Depending on how your pleasures tend, you can find almost any type of travel blog you want; start with a generic search for “best travel blogs,” and your Web perambulations are under way.

There is no reason to restrict yourself to narrative forms like fiction, blogs or movies — creative photos can work just as well. A recent favorite is Murad Osmann’s #followmeto series, featuring photos on Instagram of his girlfriend leading him around the world by the hand. The series is ambitious, often beautiful, creative and somehow touching as well; making it into a photo project gives some hints not only about where but also how to travel.

Certainly the Web has any number of individuals sharing their travels very nearly in real time. The most ambitious of these must be Karl Bushby, who started walking around the world in 1998 from Puntas Arenas, Chile, and now 15 years and 20,000 miles later has a website that is tracking his location by GPS as he makes his way across the United States, with 16,000 miles (and a Russian visa) left to go on the journey. At this writing he is near Taos, New Mexico, hopefully keeping warm.

What all the strongest examples of successful armchair travel (and there are countless more) have in common is that they inspire actual action — that is, these stories involving road trips have inspired folks actually to get up and leave the armchair, in some cases on a regular basis for the rest of their lives. A colleague who read “Eat, Pray, Love” notes that she wasn’t a fan of the book for reasons having nothing to do with travel, but that it was very inspirational in encouraging women to travel — seems like job done.

Today we are beset almost hourly by newsletters and emails and websites insisting on travel we will never complete — bucket lists and more bucket lists; lists of the X places you need to visit in your 20s, the XX places you need to visit before you die and the XXX places your kids need to visit before they are 10; and friends on Facebook humble-bragging about their latest exotic trip. It is enough to send you off to read a book instead.

But in the aggregate, our own internal filters figure out the stuff that resonates for each of us, and we will drop the book, or pause the movie, or open a new webpage, inspiring the cycle of happiness, departure, exploration and return that seems to be an innate urge of our nomadic yet homebound species, always looking for home, and a home away from home.

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