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Tales From the Road: Montana, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, St. Vincent and the Naked Country

by Tim Patterson Aug 7, 2007

Who would have thought putting together this weekly round-up of outstanding travel stories would be such a hazardous job?

First Rory Stewart’s instant classic about walking across Afghanistan kept me from getting a wink of sleep last night, then David Farley’s Bulgarian Beach Odyssey made me laugh so hard I strained a stomach muscle and got weird looks from everyone in this coffee shop.

But I don’t mind the risk, because digging up the very best travel writing on the web is just too much fun. I learn all sorts of interesting facts about everything from hermaphroditic tropical fish to how one can treat a jelly-fish sting to the genitals.

Take a deep breath, buckle your seat-belts, stock up on coffee and make sure no one will be overly startled when you begin to giggle, gasp and guffaw.

Ready? Dive in….

1) “From Montana to Wyoming on Foot” by Matt Gross

Matt Gross is my nemesis. Last year, we were both in Cambodia. I caught amoebic dysentery; Matt scored a regular travel writing gig with a mildly prestigious publication called The New York Times.

Last month, Matt and I were both backpacking in the wilderness around Yellowstone National Park. I lost my lucky hat; Matt went skinny-dipping and drank scotch with a “little 20-year-old” named Mary Ellen.

Matt is a hopelessly untalented writer of dubious integrity and will no doubt be out of a job and searching for cubicle work by the end of the summer. Enjoy it while you can, Mr. Gross.

2) “Counting Fish in the Caribbean” by Elisabeth Eaves

“Counting Fish” is a classic ‘laugh-and-learn’ travelogue, a story that goes down easy, cracks you up and leaves you awash in tidbits of knowledge about spotted scorpion fish and flying gurnards.

Eaves is a likable traveler from the start. Even when she strays into the travel writer’s morass of self-analysis you can’t help but commiserate. After all, who wouldn’t envy the golden hamlet, a happy little hermaphrodite “that’s capable of mating with any other member of its species.”

(For another perspective on the island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, check out Sebastian Junger’s masterpiece “The Whale Hunters,” which I included in the second edition of Tales From the Road.

3) “The New Civil Service” by Rory Stewart

“You are the first tourist in Afghanistan. It is mid­winter — there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to die?”

The next time a well-meaning loved one tries to discourage you from traveling somewhere dangerous like Colombia, Zimbabwe or Saskatchewan, give them a copy of Rory Stewart’s magnificent travelogue “The Places in Between“.

Stewart walked across central Afghanistan in January of 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban. “The New Civil Service” is an excerpt from the book, which is hands-down the best travel narrative I’ve read in years. I started it last night at 10 pm and turned the last page as the sun came up this morning. It’s that good.

4) “The Coast of Bohemia” by David Farley

Maybe it’s because I haven’t slept in the past 30 hours, but I had a fit halfway through this story. I’m in a busy coffee house so it was kind of embarrassing. The fit started with this line:

“I’ve been bitten by–how do you say–fish of the jelly–in the penis!”

I recovered from that, but then the next line set me off again until everyone in the shop was wondering if I needed help. I think I’ll go somewhere else to finish this round-up. You’ve been warned – Farley’s Bulgarian Beach Odyssey is dangerously funny.

5) “A Story From the Naked Country” by Robin Andrea

“Everyday so many things happen, little things and big things, things that take our breath away, things that compel, delight, or make us scratch our heads and wonder. There are more stories than we can tell, so most of the time we don’t tell any of them at all…”

This heartfelt little story is a reminder that great travel writing is a product of curiosity, empathy, honesty and attention. You don’t need to go to Mongolia to be a travel writer. You just need to open yourself to possibility, cultivate your natural sense of wonder and take a walk – down the street or through the woods or even just as far as the backyard.

Think about what you see and feel and write it down as truthfully as you can. That’s all there is to it.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s edition of Tales From the Road! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a glass of water and a nap.

Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Matt Gross. I just want his job, that’s all.

Tim Patterson travels with a sleeping bag and pup tent strapped to the back of his folding bicycle. His articles and travel guides have appeared in Get Lost Magazine, Tales Of Asia, Matador Travel and Common Language Project. Check out his personal site Rucksack Wanderer.

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