Photo: Mario Mancuso
MEN SEEM TO DOMINATE TRAVEL LITERATURE… or at least the popular culture of it. When we think of travel writers, authors like Jack Kerouac, Bill Bryson, and Paul Theroux come to mind. We know them. We respect them. We see them in lists like this and this and this all the time. But what about the women?
Of those specific lists, only 3 out of 25, 1 out of 20, and 0 out of 10 authors are female. In a collection of 55 books, that’s just 4 women travel writers represented.
Despite these lists’ obvious lack of ladies, there are women who are arguably more intrepid adventurers than Steinbeck was (like Alexandra David Neel who ate her leather boots to survive a trek into Tibet), and others who are more eloquent writers than Kerouac or Hemingway (like Beryl Markham… after Hemingway read her work, he said he felt ashamed to be a writer).
So here’s to the ladies. We’ve rounded up some of the best travel writing not penned by men. All books in this selection are non-fiction, and focus on place, experience, or the notion of travel itself. This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are plenty of other women travel writers, and plenty of other books by the authors on this list that are valuable and marvelous reads. But it’s a start.
1. The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt by Isabelle Eberhardt
Eberhardt’s story alone is reason to read her writing. She was born in Geneva in 1877, then moved to Algeria, converted to Islam, and before her drowning at 27 in a desert flood, she lived her short life dressed as a man, traveling North Africa extensively and writing stories. This journal chronicles her life and exploration in the Sahara desert as a 19th century woman disguised as an Arab man.
“Now more than ever do I realize I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”
2. Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy
Based on Murphy’s daily diary, Full Tilt is the gritty Irish woman’s account of her 1963 solo ride from Dunkirk across frozen Europe and through Persia and Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan into India, during one of the worst winters in memory.
3. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
This isn’t a traditional travelogue, but rather a well researched and precisely articulated meditation on traveling through the world. In this field guide, Solnit bounds between topics to explore issues of place, wandering, being lost, and the way the distant horizon blurs blue into the sky, where future turns to present and past on the edge of the unknown.
4. West With The Night by Beryl Markham
Markham was a remarkable woman. She was a bush pilot who also bred and trained racehorses in colonial Africa, and in September of 1936, she was the first pilot to fly solo non-stop from Europe to North America. This is her memoir. After reading her lyrical prose, Hemingway said, “…she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”
5. Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail by Suzanne Roberts
Fresh out of college in 1993 and with two girlfriends in town, Roberts set off into the Sierra Nevada, ill prepared, but seeking enlightenment. Through a month of snowy passes, broken equipment, run-ins with bears and strange men, what she found was her own experience of nature, distinctly different from the male version we so often read about.
“Women don’t enter the wilderness in the same way men do; we constantly return to our physical bodies and the ways in which they could be threatened, not by bears or bugs but by men. Our bodies become a filter between us and the landscape, preventing us from enjoying both.”
6. On The Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica by Gretchen Legler
Legler was chosen to spend a season in Antarctica with the National Science Foundation Artists and Writers Program. This book is what came from withstanding -70 temperatures and months of near-total darkness and isolation at McMurdo Station. On The Ice is part memoir, part nature writing, and part nonfiction account of the barren but beautiful landscape while Legler also faces the darkest coldest parts of her soul.
7. Six Months in the Sandwich Islands: Among Hawaii’s Palm Groves, Coral Reefs and Volcanoes by Isabella L. Bird
Bird took a ship from San Francisco bound for New Zealand, and decided to get off at Hawaii instead. She stayed for six months, living among the locals, learning about landscape, horsemanship, vegetation, and Hawaiian culture. (She also approached volcanoes close enough to burn shoes and gloves!) Originally a collection of letters to her sister, this book is valuable not only for her audacity and vivid descriptions, but also for the record of 1872 Hawaii she captured before US subjugation of the islands.
8. Four Corners: A Journey Into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak
Traveling alone in 1995, Salak became the first western woman to traverse the remote island nation of Papua New Guinea and write about it. Four Corners is her account of this trek across the jungle island, called the last frontier of adventure travel, by dugout canoe and on foot. “To Whom It May Concern — Only four words of advice: It can be done.”
9. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
This book has gotten a lot of hype lately, but for good reason. On her own at 26, Strayed hiked more than a thousand miles of the PCT from California’s Mojave Desert to the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon/Washington border, all the while carrying the weight of a massive backpack and the grief of losing her mother too young. She writes about the journey as a physical feat and a mental one, and braids in bits of her past with reflection on how the journey eventually healed her broken spirit.
10. Miles From Nowhere: A Round The World Bicycle Adventure by Barbara Savage
Barbara and Larry Savage spent two years (from 1979-1980) riding 23,000 miles across 25 countries, just because they felt the need to explore the world. Not everyone they met understood that urge, though…
“The man saw no adventure, no challenge, no conquest, no sweat, and no sense in what we were about to do — only stupidity. There was no way to explain to him our need to explore, to find out about the rest of the world, and to discover and develop ingenuity, endurance, and self-reliance — that pioneer spirit that had been buried under the comforts of modern society.”
11. Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn
Gellhorn was one of the most remarkable journalists of the 20th century, covering every military conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Nicaragua. She doesn’t name the “other” in the book, but for nearly ten years, Ernest Hemingway was her travel companion and then husband. This memoir from 1979 chronicles her globe-spanning adventures, both accompanied and alone.
12. Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson
It begins with this: “I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.” Then Davidson treks nearly 2,000 miles across hostile Australian desert over nine months. Besides brief periods with a National Geographic photographer and an Aboriginal guide, the journey was a solitary one, consisting of Davidson alone with four camels and a dog. She didn’t intend to write about her experience, but we’re glad she did. Tracks beautifully captures the fleeting moments of clarity Davidson found among the sweltering heat and poisonous snakes of the Australian Outback.
13. Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River by Ellen Meloy
Meloy is one of the beloved nature writers of the American West. Along with her other writing and environmental ventures, she spent eight seasons annually floating the 84-mile gorge of Desolation Canyon on the Green River, the Colorado’s longest tributary. Raven’s Exile is a record of observations of the canyon intertwined with the history of the wild river and its people.
14. My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David Neel
David Neel was an early 20th century French explorer, and the first western woman to enter Tibet’s forbidden city, Lhasa. Using her fluency in Tibetan dialects and culture, and a disguise of yak hair extensions, she hiked through chest-deep snow and survived for long periods on butter tea to get to Lhasa. At one point she was so hungry she ate her leather boots, but she made it.
15. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris
In this memoir, Morris, a Welsh writer and trans woman, weaves historic detail with personal memories of the Italian seaport town, Trieste. It is a moody and changeable city, somewhat isolated, but a refuge as the author writes with melancholy on topics of growing old, history, and the peculiar concept of nowhere.
16. The Valley of the Assassins by Freya Stark
Stark independently explored places where few westerners, let alone single women, would go in the 1930s: Syria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Yemen. She was a trained geographer and cartographer, and in her travel writing, she was a vivid describer of scenes and landscape. She also knew how to draw people out of themselves and listen closely when they spoke. Written in 1934, Assassins chronicles Stark’s travels into the mountainous terrain between Iraq and Iran, documenting the nomadic people and the landscape of the Middle East.
17. Travels in West Africa by Mary Henrietta Kingsley
With a small inheritance in 1893, Kingsley traveled alone to remote areas in West Africa as an explorer and scientist. She canoed up ravines and rapids, walked through swamps and mangroves, visited villages and dealt with missionaries, traders, and locals, including cannibals. And if that’s not enough, she also waded through chest deep swamps, collected samples of fish, wrote about her exploration, and climbed Mount Cameroon in a cumbersome Victorian dress.
18. Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl
Byl began her tenure with the National Park Service on the Glacier National Park trail crew as a brief jaunt in the outdoors before starting grad school. She fell in love with the wilderness and the work, though, and spent the next 16 years as a seasonal park ranger in Glacier and Denali. Broken into vignettes on each region, Dirt Work also explores what Byl discovered about nature, gender, and the value of hard work.
19. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
This is not a travelogue, or even typical travel writing for that matter. But while A Small Place isn’t like most of the other books on the list, it is inherently about place, and the toll of traditional travel (read: conquest) from a local perspective. Kincaid is a native of Antigua, and she writes (with what some call bitterness) on the lasting effects of imperialism, shaping a work that is more like travel literature in reverse that meditates on the darker sides of exploration.
“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere… But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go–so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they enjoy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”
20. No Hurry To Get Home by Emily Hahn
Originally published as separate essays in The New Yorker, this collection that makes up Hahn’s memoir showcases a lifetime of testing the limits of what women “could do” in the 1920s and beyond. Hahn majored in mining engineering, basically to prove that a woman could. She traveled cross-country by car, pre-interstate, pre-Motel 6, and pre-7-Eleven. She walked across Africa, and lived alone in the Belgian Congo. She was an independent traveler at a time when independent travel was usually called “exploration” and done by men. By the ‘30s, she ended up in Shanghai, eventually riding out WWII in Hong Kong, under Japanese control, before returning to New York to write from Greenwich Village.