Television writer Steve Hely (The Office, 30 Rock) indulged his perpetual wanderlust by traveling from Los Angeles down through South America, then wrote a very funny book, The Wonder Trail, about it.
In fact, we read it cover-to-cover in a day—including the appendix, which is funnier than most appendices in addition to being a great list of resources on North, Central, and South American travel (with plenty of history and some conspiracy theories thrown in). In this excerpt, Hely shares a selection of the books and people that got him through his 13-country adventure.
Female Travel Writers
Writing this book and looking at my bookshelf, it occurred to me, I have a strong bias toward travel books written by guys. That might be because men are more likely to brag or write books or publish books, or they’ve historically had all the time and money and reason to travel, and most of my books are old.
But whatever, it’s like 95 percent to 5 percent. I’m sure I have all kinds of biases, but this one I noticed, and when you notice a bias, you should try to correct it, right? So I did. I tried to read books by female travel writers.
Here are, for my money, some of the best ones:
Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels. Now, that is just a baller title, by an obvious baller of a woman. Freya Stark got half her hair ripped out in a factory machine when she was a teenager. In World War I, she was a nurse. In World War II, she wrote propaganda in Arabic. In between, she wrote some twenty books about one incredible adventure after another.
Eleanor Clark, The Oysters of Locmariaquer. This isn’t really a book about a trip, but it is about a place she was visiting, on the coast of Brit-tany, where the men harvest oysters and the women have all kinds of drama happening. Sometimes she goes a little nuts with it, just sometimes, just my opinion, like it can’t possibly be as heartbreaking as she describes it. But maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age. I hope not! Anyway, great book.
Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Here’s the first sentence of this book: “On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as presents and a few days later I decided to cycle to India.” Then she did. Dervla is an Irishwoman, and she is tough and no-nonsense and sharp. I can’t help but think she’d find a lot wrong with the way I traveled, but hey: I’m not as clearheaded as she is, I’m doing the best I can.
Anyway: I love you, Dervla!
(I can picture her curtly dismissing my cheap American affection.)
Jan Morris. When he was twenty-seven, in 1953, James Morris, a newspaper re-porter, was at the base camp of the British Mount Everest Expedition when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit for the first time. He wired the news, in code, to London and broke the story. His book about this, Coronation Everest, is pretty fun. A few years later, in 1964, James started transitioning to Jan Morris. Jan has written a bunch of great travel books: To pick one more or less at random, how about The Great Port: A Passage Through New York. Or Journeys. Bow down to Jan.
Marco of Croozy Scooters. I endorse this man and his business. His patience and generosity to a traveler was one of the finer displays of coolness and good character I can remember. If in San Cristóbal, why not check out Croozy Scooters?
Owner of La Tortuga Verde, I was mad that you called TV writing pablum for the masses. But I loved being at your place, it was very special.
Captain Rich of Panama Canal Fishing. Awesome man.
The captain of the Jaqueline. Two captains in a row who seemed really competent and admirable.
Walter Saxer of Casa Fitzcarraldo in Iquitos, who told me many good stories I can’t put in this book.
Juan of San Pedro. Not his real name.
The man at the bar at Lomit’s in Punta Arenas.
I don’t think I would’ve done any of this if I hadn’t read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann (2005). This book is what got Tenochtitlán, the Maya, the Inca, the Amazon, and the whole world of Central and South America so deep into my head that finally I was like, I better go have a look at this.
The other incredibly important start was all the Lonely Planet books I used. Everyone who travels knows these books; they are amazing! Now the company is owned by an American billionaire, which can’t be good. Anyway, these guides are indispensable.
The third-most important book I read has to be Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. Coe. Just a terrific fun read packed with information that fired up my whole brain.
Oh, but maybe that book is tied with The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz. One of the most incredible books I’ve ever read, no joke. I read the translation by John M. Cohen, who must be great at his job.
More books that were important to me:
The Savage Detectives and By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. All fiction, but hugely enriched my understanding and helped me build a picture of the Mexican border, Mexico City, and recent history in Chile.
The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction by David Carrasco. Coulda been shorter.
Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John L. Stephens, engravings by Frederick Catherwood. If these guys were still alive I would want them to be my friends.
Popul Vuh by unknown sixteenth-century Mayan writer(s). I read the version translated by Dennis Tedlock. Just a Mayan romp through the underworld with talking gourds and so on.
The Aztec Treasure House: New and Selected Essays by Evan S. Connell. Fantastic book by a great American writer, who muses and considers the lost worlds of Mesoamerica.
Salvador by Joan Didion. Damn, this lady can write about a body dump without once breaking her cool.
The Columbus Conspiracy: An Investigation Into the Secret History of Christopher Columbus by Michael Bradley. Conspiracy that has it all: the Cathars, the Holy Grail, mysterious African sailors, treasure pits, FDR and the New Deal, the Masons—it’s great.
Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America by Walter LaFeber. Good book on all the messes we made and how we either didn’t clean them up or in cleaning them up made worse messes.
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870–1914 by David McCullough. This man is a complete boss and this book is astoundingly great. Something amazing on every page. I stole facts from it up to the exact level where it’d be criminal.
Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign by Stephan Talty. Most readable book about Morgan I know of.
Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden. A specific story about a specific moment and maybe a pulpy way in, but the fact is this book really helped me start to sort out Colombian history.
One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis. Crazily compelling story by the world’s most badass ethnobotanist/journalist.
Wildlife of the Galápagos by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking. How you gonna tell your boobies apart without this book?
The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner. A must-read for anyone curious about what it’s like to live with your wife on a remote island for twenty years measuring finch beaks.
Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Rusty Young and Thomas McFadden. Amazing, entertaining, recommended.
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto Che Guevara. It’s interesting how honest Che is about his diarrhea.
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson. What a huge accomplishment to write this book, on top of being one of the most badass reporters ever. Jon Lee Anderson knew more about Central and South America before I was born than I ever will.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. Way better writer than me, went farther out, wrote a better book. But: I didn’t make anything up.
Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare. The man’s true story is almost better than his writing.
I also read a lot of articles and websites and newspapers and pamphlets. I really tried not to get anything wrong, but if I did please let me know at helphely[at]gmail.com.
Excerpt from The Wonder Trail by Steve Hely. Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2016 by Steve Hely