Joe Sanderson arrived in El Salvador as a white American traveler with ambitions of writing a novel. But during his journey, he became something else entirely: a revolutionary, fully enmeshed in the culture he’d set out to document. The journalist Héctor Tobar’s The Last Great Road Bum chronicles this transformation, interrupting Sanderson’s real journal entries with commentary from Tobar. The resulting work sharply questions the nature of travel narratives and what people owe to the places they visit.
Readers often look to travel writing for practical information, but the strongest offerings in the genre do so much more. Take, for example, the writers of the New Deal–era American Guides, who sped through any useful advice on where to stay and instead delved into oddities of local lore. In doing so, they offered a diversity of compelling lenses through which to understand the country and its inhabitants. Many modern writers situate their work within the context of climate change, encouraging readers to consider how environmental factors shape the places they visit. Barry Lopez brings these concerns to the forefront in his book Horizon, which emphasizes the existential threat of the climate crisis. The threat is also present in Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, a pioneering “swimmoir,” which followed the author’s efforts to swim in bodies of water across the U.K.—even the most polluted. The book encourages readers to confront the sadness of what humans have done to the environment and take up responsibility to protect and restore what remains.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma considers the instability not only of the environment, but also of the traveler. When Obioma’s protagonist, a poor Nigerian farmer, journeys to Cyprus, he is met with racism and other unjust treatment. The novel demonstrates the vulnerability—for both places and people—that pervades the most enduring kinds of travel narratives.
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