The Greatest Travel Writer of All Time: Richard Halliburton
This is a guest post by Adventure Travelperson
The recent death of Patrick Leigh Fermor, a guy The Guardian once called “Britain's greatest living travel writer,” reminded me of the almost-forgotten fellow who, to me, is the greatest writer and inspirer of adventure travel who ever lived.
Most chronic travellers read about travel, and--though I’m picky and a little cynical--I’m no exception. I’m a Jan Morris fan: she has never been afraid to enjoy and emotionally soak up the places she writes about. (Many travel writers, like many writers, like many people, are more comfortable critiquing than celebrating.) Just about every writer of his generation wanted to be Bruce Chatwin, a kind of half-mad prosepoet genius. Not normally considered a travel writer, John McPhee has taken me on epic time travels with his books on geology, especially Basin and Range (the book I recommend most insistently). Ian Frazier, whose Great Plains makes South Dakota as compelling as the Serengeti, is another brilliant writer not afraid to revel and enjoy himself rather than complain about bed bugs, surly customs officials, and the soul-smashing ubiquity of Starbucks. (I’ll bring Frazier’s newest book, Travels in Siberia, on my next Lodge to Lodge Heli-Hiking trip--which I’m thrilled to say begins in but a few days.)
But: back to the greatest of them all.
I chanced upon him--or his magnum opus--long, long ago, in a rented seaside house in Southern California, where my family was warehousing for the summer. I was bored, lonely, and nine years old. Exploring the house’s single dusty bookshelf, I came across a thick, green-covered book (do you remember how those old books smelled? How buzzing and consequential they felt in your hands?). My big green book was called The Complete Book of Marvels. A promising title. I began reading, as a kid does, just sitting on the floor, gulping words, impressions, and late-afternoon magic.
The pictures were wondrous and grainy and black and white (and to this day, old black and whites pack more punch for me more than ultra-chromatic travel images). I’m not sure I noticed the name of this marvel-book’s author, but I liked him. Trusted him.
I read about his enthralled visits to the new and mountainous Hoover Dam, about Popocatepetl and the Great Wall of China, the Taj and Red Square and the Hagia Sophia. I was intrigued by his swim through the Panama Canal (where, at the third lock, he dutifully payed a 36 cent toll) I was engrossed by his 18-month, around-the-world flight on a biplane called The Magic Carpet, with stops in the “weird, mysterious, wonder-city of Timbuctoo” and fabulous Petra, carved out of living rock (“Living rock,” I thought, “Wow”). And I was riveted by his somewhat distant but pioneering fly-by of Everest, during which he stood up in the open, wind-lashed cockpit and snapped the first aerial picture of the peak. (This was my first real news about a mountain I’d end up visiting a dozen times.)
I was charmed by his writing style. Instead of “I went here” and “I flew there,” he used the first person plural. He formed a fellowship: We fly there, we visit here. I could easily have found this cloying--and, looking back I admit it was a bit thick at times--but for some happy reason I didn’t. I went along for the ride.
We climbed the Matterhorn, “following the same ridge up which Whymper [the first successful climber’s] party blazed their trail” he wrote. “Every few minutes now we halt to get our breath...we are suffering from mountain sickness...You say this is much worse than Popo. Well, I warned you it would be.” And when we finally reach the summit, “We’re on the point of what seems a towering spire of ice...we can see every mountain the in Alps [and then he names a bunch of famous alps, because he cared about proper names and icons and factuality]. We are more tired than we have ever been in our lives, but, oh so proud. This crystal air, this sky, this snow and space, send a surge of rejoicing through our hearts.”
(I’ve been writing an adventure travel catalog for 25 years, for a CMH sister company in the Adventure Collection. And for all those years, instead of using what I think of as the “disembodied imperative,” i.e., “Experience the wonders of Machu Picchu! Walk the ancient Inca paths of Peru! Pet exotic vicunas!” or the slightly less irritating, but--to me--still unintimate second person: “You’ll gasp in wonder at the snowy vastness of the Himalayas and you’ll marvel at the temples of Kathmandu,” instead of those--again, to me--somewhat distant forms of address, I’ve always written in the first person plural: “Heading west, we trace the Silk Road’s northern path to Kuqa (home of the magnificent Greco-Buddhist murals of the Kizil Grottoes)...ending in the great oasis of Kashgar, where we’ll delightedly roam its fabled, rambunctious Sunday market.” You get the idea. And just now I realize where I got the idea. From Richard Halliburton, the greatest travel writer of all time.)
I devoured the Complete Book of Marvels that summer. It changed and shaped my life. And a quarter of a century later I understood how thoroughly I’d been inspired when I traveled to one of the few places on earth Halliburton couldn’t get to.
As the years went by I learned a little about the man whose books, written for a general, not very cosmopolitan public (and for wide-eyed boys and girls), were a sensation. He was a major celebrity in the 1930s, friend of movie stars, writers, and assorted luminaries. Never one to dodge fame, he swam the Hellespont like Lord Byron, rode an elephant across the Alps in homage to Hannibal, and plunged into the Mayan Well of Death...amongst many other feats, stunts, and adventures. Richard Halliburton lived a quick, swirlingly exiting, and (as a gay man) somewhat sadly circumscribed life, and in 1939 he died suddenly, mysteriously, legendarily, when his Chinese junk was lost at sea while sailing to San Francisco for the opening of the Golden Gate International Exposition. The Halliburton article on Wikepedia accurately praises his “romantic readiness, which shone through his best prose, prose at once picturesque, gently informative, extroverted (yet self-engaged), and personally confiding.”
To me, the most eye-grabbing (though grainy and retouched) black and white in The Complete Book of Marvels was a double spread on pages 250-251. It showed “The Potala, built on a hilltop above Lhasa...one of the most magnificent and commanding buildings on earth.” The great Tibetologist Robert Thurman once wrote that “Tibetan architecture sought to instill a sense of exultation, security and delight in a person’s nervous system.” My nine-year old nervous system was deeply delighted by this gargantuan yet lyric building. It immediately and forever lodged in my consciousness as the building of all buildings, the quintessence of what a building could ever be.
Halliburton, like generation after generation of adventurers, schemed and dreamed of traveling to Tibet, but could never crack its isolation. As he said in “Land of Mystery,” his reasonably accurate, characteristically cheery chapter on his...our imaginary trip to Tibet, “only the merest handful [of travelers] have ever looked upon this truly wondrous sight.”
After seeing that picture and soon falling in love with travel and mountains, I dreamed intently of visiting Tibet and did a little scheming over the decades, and in 1981 found myself, to my almost hallucinatory delight, in Lhasa, at the very dawn of its opening (by its Chinese occupiers) to the outside world. We were the only foreigners in the city, and we were on our way to the North Face of Everest, the first Americans ever granted permission to visit the Tibetan backcountry. And there I was, at the base of the Potala, vibrating with excitement. The great palace is now a carefully tended museum, but back then it was largely empty and unguarded. So, at first tentatively, then with youthful confidence and joy, I began climbing its ramps and laddery stairs, headed for...well, I didn’t know where I was headed. Just up, in exultation.
And after a lot of weaving and marveling and stopping to catch my breath in the crystalline,12,000-foot air, I emerged on the penultimate roof of the many-roofed colossus, and I looked out at the city of Lhasa, and the valley it graces, and the mountains that surround it, and the reality of realizing my 25-year old dream hit me and a surge of rejoicing went through my heart and I thought, “Here we are, Richard. We made it!”
For a list of other books that inspired this writer, read 5 Great Adventure Books. Who, or what books, inspired you to travel? Share your stories with us here!
Photos: The Complete Book of Marvels and Richard Halliburton from Memphis History.com