So I was sorting through pics of a trip to Greece for last month’s post and came across this little still life:
It’s Dad’s glasses and book sitting on the edge of an Athens hotel bathtub. He would sweetly retreat there in the mornings to read while Mum and I slumbered a bit longer in the cradle of democracy. Especially while traveling, Dad was ever ready to greet the day early (by my standards, anyway) so he always needed a good, lengthy read when I was along!
The photo didn’t make the cut for the Greek section of my post – but it reminds me of those days on the road before we could stay informed, connected and otherwise distracted via phones and tablets. Back then, we had to lug around a book or five –
And I still can’t quite imagine traveling any other way.
It was impressed upon me pretty early to consider books a travel necessity right up there with toothpaste:
While I was probably still looking for my blankie here, big brother Jack looks ready with his reads. On family trips, Mum also used to dispense comic books at intervals in an attempt to keep the hoard in the back seat tame – and I remember annoying the boys by demanding equal time with each new comic even though I couldn’t quite read it yet.
In my college years, I had two amazing summer adventures traveling around Europe with just a backpack – which seemed terribly romantic until the first time I had to get the thing into overhead storage in a train compartment. Even so, I still carried around a fair amount of books for research and recreation – but I did a fair amount of ditching too.
Like I read about King Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King while touring Britain which I thought was pretty awesome! According to my journal though, I ended up giving my copy to a “Karl from Delft” who I met later in Munich. Um, yes I thought it was nice to share this classic tale with a fellow traveler. But lightening my load even that tiny bit? That was pretty awesome too!
As a student on a budget, one book I couldn’t do without was the latest edition of Let’s Go Europe – my bible for where to stay and what to see! Since these books were kinda big however, I wasn’t above irreverently tearing out and tossing away cities and even whole countries if they weren’t on our itinerary.
But I still have every page of the copy of A Tale of Two Cities that I devoured on one of those trips – even though it became a source of conflict:
Timing truly is everything. It happened that the death-carts at the end of the novel began to rumble through Paris just as my train was rumbling through a spectacular section of the Alps! I was so wrapped up in what would happen to Sydney Carton that it was actually a tough call to set the book aside and catch the breathtaking view. But given that I haven’t passed that way again and that Carton’s fate pretty much stayed the same, I look back on it now as a far, far better thing that I did.
I think my most treasured travel read memory though is of a book I didn’t even pick up at the time – a claim author William Goldman made as well.
The book that I didn’t read but that became an instant favorite was The Princess Bride.
During my teens, Dad used to take my buddies and me on pack trips in the Emigrant Wilderness near Yosemite National Park. Heading out into beautifully remote country where the only comforts were what we carried in could be quite the challenge. No shops. No restaurants. Still no wifi, I expect. Yup, hitting high altitudes with a full backpack was tough on the limbs and lungs – but it was also a grand adventure! Just us and unspoiled nature:
Well – us. Nature. And one embellishment left by those who came before us, once upon a time.
We discovered it at one end of a small jewel of crystal clear water set among vast and gleaming granite faces. Apart from the odd “duck” trail markers we encountered and followed on our way, this tree-cloaked spot contained the only evidence of human intrusion perhaps for miles around.
Taking advantage of the abundant stone, someone had constructed a sturdy fire pit and ringed it with makeshift chairs. Each “chair” consisted of a granite base with an upright stone slab for a back, secured in its spot by another stone behind. Wilderness purists probably wouldn’t approve of these unnatural additions to the otherwise pristine landscape – nor would Goldilocks since they weren’t especially luxurious. But for relaxing around a warm fire at the close of a rigorous day, our little band found them juuust right!
On one particular trip, we came across this site for the very first time and immediately claimed it as our own! Once we’d reveled in that indescribably liberating feeling of shedding our packs and boots for the day, we girls pitched our tents while Dad commenced to build a fire in the pit to heat water for a freeze-dried, traffic-cone-orange noodle dinner that stuck to our ribs, our Sierra cups, our utensils, and I believe our very souls. We then settled down in our (yes, our) concrete camp chairs as Dad expertly (and safely, of course!) coaxed the campfire to a cheery roar.
Exhausted as we were, I don’t think anyone wanted to call it a night and let go of the magical ambience we felt: the pleasant crackle of the fire; the mingled aromas of trees and brush; and the heavenly twinkling of more stars than we ever saw in the sky back home!
So backpacking buddy (and lifelong friend) Kelly offered to share with us the read she’d packed in – a purported “good parts” version of the Florinese tale, The Princess Bride.
Ending each night with Kelly’s reading became an instant must! After a day of hiking, fishing (as always, not to be confused with “catching”) and exploring our temporary wilderness home, we’d enter that circle of granite thrones and prepare to be transported.
There was no movie version yet, so we relied on Kelly’s skill and our own imaginations to bring Goldman’s characters to life. Every night, the dashing Westley, beautifully dim Buttercup, wily Vizzini and brooding Inigo all danced, dueled and in some cases (spoiler alert…) died within the firelight.
While Kelly led us brilliantly through the tale within a tale, I do think she enjoyed a little too much being able to choose where to close the book for the night. I remember doing some serious tossing and turning (no easy thing in a mummy bag) the night she left off with the chilling line: “But they broke him anyway”…
There are differences between the book and the movie (each of them a classic, in my opinion, though). For one, it’s the boy’s father who reads him the story. And the through line of the book is decidedly darker. Both versions tell us that life isn’t fair – but the book kind of relentlessly drives this home along with the tag that it’s just fairer than death. Not any kind of comfort – but not untrue.
Still, experiencing the book the way we did was pure joy! There we were – immersed in nature, warmed by fire and fellowship, and taking part in a ritual that might be as old as humankind itself –
That of sharing a story.
Life may not be fair. But when you’re granted moments like these – just like with good books – you always want carry them with you!