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Which Author Made You First Love Travel Writing?

by Matt Hershberger Jan 15, 2017

ONE OF MY FAVORITE MOVIES in my 20s was The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Throughout the movie, the characters keep saying one thing over and over again:

“There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”

“In this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.”

And so on. If you’re ever bored with friends, try playing the two kinds game. “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who left their credit cards at home, and those who are buying the next round. Guess which you are.”

It’s an especially fun thing to do with the people in your profession. I, for example, have a theory that every American writer is descended from one of two people: Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Twain’s descendants are terse, funny, ironic, and prone to a sort of wounded optimism. They include Hemingway, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, and Hunter S. Thompson. Whitman’s descendants are more poetic and lyrical, and tend to see the world through an artist’s eye rather than a journalist’s. They include Faulkner, Bob Dylan, Kerouac (actually, pretty much all of the Beats), and Cormac McCarthy.

The Big Three in travel writing

I’ve developed a similar theory for travel writers: that every travel blogger today is descended from one of three writers — or, more specifically, from one of three books. The first (from which I am descended), is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.

The HST writer uses raw, Hemingway-like language and likes to do self-destructive things. They go to a new place and say, “What will happen if I get irresponsibly loaded here? Let’s find out!” The writers who I’ve worked with who try to be HST are typically more focused on the drug-taking aspect than the writing aspect, but they do tend to have pretty great stories.

The second book is On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The Kerouac writer is similarly dedicated to drinking, doing drugs, and having sex, but is more of a free spirit, and is more prone to optimism than cynicism. The Kerouacs are flower children or attendants of Burning Man, and they are the most likely to be caught wearing a fedora and calling their friends “Mad Ones.” Their writing style is often word salad, with moments of actual poetic beauty.

The third book is Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. EPLers are the most likely to produce readable content (as content, rather than style, is what they are focused on), but they can get a bit insufferable, as they tend to see the world as a playground that has been designed for their own personal enlightenment.

How did you get here?

I personally rediscover travel writing every three years or so. It started with Hunter S. Thompson, whose language electrified me. After that, it was Che Guevara, who struck me as the ideal person until I read his biography. After that, it was Anthony Bourdain, who’s like Hunter Thompson for people who are gaining weight. After that, Hemingway, and after that, George Orwell.

I imagine the On the Road people have a similar trajectory — perhaps from Kerouac to Henry Miller to Jon Krakauer, while Eat, Pray, Love fanatics run from Gilbert to Cheryl Strayed to Pico Iyer to Peter Mathiessen.

All of this, I’m sure, is incredibly easy to pick apart (I remember shouting at the TV the first time I watched The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, “THERE ARE SO MANY MORE DIFFERENT TYPES OF PEOPLE THAN THAT!”) . But Matador’s readers aren’t just connoisseurs of travel — they are connoisseurs of travel writing. And the books you love say something about who you truly are. So, tell me in the comments: who was the first author to make you love travel writing?

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