From Thoreau to Theroux, lighting out for the territory is a time-honored tradition in American literature—the writer setting off into a boundless landscape as backdrop for an inner quest of self-discovery. Few have mined that vein as deeply as Edward Hoagland. At 79, he is the author of some 20 books spanning a half-century of wandering. His latest, Alaskan Travels: Far-Flung Tales of Love and Adventure (Skyhorse, $23), is a hauntingly lyrical look back at a joint midlife love affair—with both the “national dreamscape” of 1980s Alaska and the sensual public-health nurse who drew him there. Hoagland’s pre-Palin Alaska is “a destination created out of anger and quests,” full of outcasts and fortune seekers mixing with an indigenous population struggling against a fast-changing world. Fur-trapping hippies, boomtown realtors, jail-breaking Eskimos, amputee Vietnam vets on snowmobiles—Hoagland gathers their stories as if laying in stores against the Arctic winter. He tries to understand what has drawn them all—himself foremost—to fall for a land of “entrenched savageries” so harsh that “the very snow emitted strange, pained, squeaky sounds underfoot, as if suffering too.” This is Alaska before the state’s frontier spirit became a pop-cultural product. The result is too dark and sharply etched to be nostalgic, but it manages to bear the sadness of a vanishing place on every page.
For a younger generation of writers, raised in a world circumscribed by Facebook and Lonely Planet, the existential allure of travel still holds, but its rewards seem more fleeting than ever. In A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful (Riverhead, $27), essayist Gideon Lewis-Kraus finds himself mired in a postcollegiate bohemian haze of art parties and dive bars in Berlin. Tortured by his absolute, paralyzing freedom, he and a friend—Outside contributor Tom Bissell—make a fateful (read: inebriated) decision to walk the 500-mile pilgrimage route of Spain’s El Camino de Santiago. He will exchange directionless choice for “pointless direction.” This is no saccharine pop-philosophy conceit, though: Lewis-Kraus is a skeptically inquisitive narrator, with a sharp eye for the slapstick agonies and gonzo seekers of the Camino, and his wit and empathy keep him attuned to the ironies and epiphanies of the long walk. Modern pilgrimage, he writes, “isn’t about freedom from restraint but freedom via restraint.” The pilgrim bug leads him to other routes around the globe, and the result is an often hilarious and ultimately moving perambulation toward an idea of what it means to be a traveler—and a person—in the modern age.