In Search of Elusive Metaphors

 The Art of Travel Writing

Gulf of California

TRAVEL WRITING IS JOURNALISM WITH AN EMPHASIS ON PLACE rather than events. It may or may not aim for objectivity, but almost inevitably it explores states of mind– that of the writer, and of the people who dwell along the path the writer wanders. It may even presume to convey the attitude of the land, on the assumption that nature speaks a language humans can interpret.

Apart from when it serves a utilitarian function– such as guiding tourists to exotic locales– the travel narrative stands alongside the novel, biography, poem, history, and essay as a genre aspiring to high art. As such, it requires of the author meticulous attention to detail and mood, an ability to vividly convey fleeting events, sensations, and thoughts, the capacity to sort out myriad impressions, to eliminate tedium, and to interpret information by placing it in various contexts, be they historical, environmental, or personal. Far more than news reporting, where the focus is on an issue, travel writing involves recreating an atmosphere, crafting a story imbued with dramatic tension and rendered in such a way that readers come away from it exhilarated, dreamy, despondent, amused, philosophical, or otherwise engaged.

Accomplished travel writing reveals emotions and behaviors, catching its subjects in intimate, unguarded moments. In this it resembles lovemaking. Readers will note whether the author’s attempts are adept or clumsy, sensitive or callous.

Revealed emotion is travel writing’s key. A journey’s essence must be unlocked, be it through astonishment at glimpsing a snow leopard, reverie induced by the discovery of scattered potsherds, or frustration and fear welling up from having to stop and dole out a bribe at yet another rebel checkpoint.

The critical element in each travel story is the writer’s thoughts, not the plodding details of how one gets from airport, to taxi, to hotel, to restaurant, to mosque, to moonlit shore– then back through winding streets to bed. Whole days of such monotony are better left as blurs across the writer’s canvas, while select moments stand out as flashes of color. Each detail rendered must be purposeful, an element in a scheme designed to surprise, delight, captivate, illuminate, sadden, or confound. Though the trip itself may have been random, nothing in the manuscript is left to chance. Every word is plotted, subtle phrasings are employed, humor is injected, glimpses of familiar places are afforded– all with the aim of seducing readers, enticing them to abandon their egos, follow a certain route, lose themselves to other ways of thinking and perceiving. Success is achieved when readers let their minds wander at ease through a landscape their bodies may never know, or when they eagerly revisit a known site, only too glad to see it in a new light, or from a different angle.

A fresh viewpoint is critical, for not a single castle, village, river bend, rock formation, back-alley brothel, wind-swept plain, temple, gorge, bridge, or slum has escaped being visited by English-language writers. An author seeking to publish a manuscript about, say, trekking to Machu Picchu must convince an editor (especially a jaded one, the most common kind) that their account is novel–even though it follows upon hundreds of other articles and books by writers who traversed the same trail.

To eschew banality, to somehow rise above the literary pack, is the travel writer’s greatest challenge. But in the effort to be original, the author must be wary of stretching too far, of becoming a poseur. Truth is essential. If any word in any account breathes insincerity, readers will turn suspicious, even hostile. They’ll reject a writer they suspect of posturing. Readers have no sympathy for adventurers who boast of facing danger when the thrills described seem cheap, the bravado contrived, and the threats unreal.

Certainly, though, the writer who tosses humor and cockiness into an account can afford to flavor it with a bit of braggadocio. But even in this mixture, at its base, there must be honesty, the most fundamental ingredient.


Travel writing with an emphasis on natural history:

Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, by Mark Mardon and Stephen Lyman

The Mysterious Lands, by Ann Zwinger

The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, by Henry Beston

Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat

In the Country of Grasses, by Terry Tempest Williams

Pieces of White Shell, by Terry Tempest Williams



— John Muir

Travels in Alaska

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf


— Colin Fletcher

The Thousand-Mile Summer



— John McPhee

Encounters With the Archdruid

Coming Into the Country


— Catherine Caufield

In the Rainforest

(the Amazon basin)


— Alex Shoumatoff

The Rivers Amazon


— Debbie S. Miller

Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


— Sam Wright




— Dean Krakel II

Downriver: A Yellowstone Journey


— Peter Matthiessen

The Cloud Forest


. . . with an emphasis on culture or human habitat.


— Gretel Ehrlich

The Solace of Open Spaces



— Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

(Blue Ridge Mountains)


— N. Scott Momaday

The Way to Rainy Mountain



— Isak Dinesen

Out of Africa


— Peter Matthiessen

Indian Country



— V.S. Naipaul

An Area in Darkness


A Bend in the River



— Thomas Bass

Camping With the Prince



— Mary Morris

Nothing to Declare

(Latin America)


— Rosemary Mahoney

The Early Arrival of Dreams



— Jan Morris


(essays from Rolling Stone)


— Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia


— Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar


— Marian Botsford Fraser

Walking the Line: Travels Along the Canadian/American Border


— Joanna McIntyre Varawa

Changes in Latitude



— Jeff Greenwald

Shopping for Buddhas



— Brigid Keenan

Travels in Kashmir


— Richard Shelton

Going Back to Bisbee

(southern Arizona)



. . . with a biographical or autobiographical emphasis


— Mark Mardon

Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (with painter Stephen Lyman)

(Yosemite National Park)


— John McPhee

Encounters With the Archdruid

(environmentalist David Brower)


— Curee Miller

On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet


— Timothy Egan

The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest


— Caroline Alexander

One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley

(West Africa)


— Stuart Stevens

Night Train to Turkistan



. . . with an emphasis on daring and hardship

— Tim Cahill

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh

(South America)


— Joe Kane

Running the Amazon


— David Smith and Franklin Russell

The Odyssey of an Uncommon Athlete

(North Africa)


— David Halsey with Diana Landau

Magnetic North: A Trek Across Canada


— Arlene Blum

Annapurna: A Woman’s Place


— Julie Tullis

Clouds from Both Sides



— Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen

Islands of Fire, Islands of Spice



— Galen Rowell

Mountains of the Middle Kingdom: Exploring the High Peaks of China and Tibet


— Eric Hansen

Stranger in the Forest




This essay appeared on the website of the South American Explorers Club —a geographical and outdoor adventure society — as part of its writing guidelines for contributors to South American Explorer magazine.