I finished The Cruise of the Snark, a collection of Jack London essays recounting his cruise on a sailing boat he had built from scratch in San Francisco. He, his wife Charmain, and several sailing companions sailed to Hawaii, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, and eventually the Solomons between 1907 and 1909. The plan was to go around the world, but various picturesque island maladies overcame the crew, including London, while in the Solomons, which ended the adventure. Surprisingly, reading travel narratives is a little like reading early LDS history. How so, you ask?
LDS HISTORY MOVES AROUND a lot in the 19th century. From New York to Ohio to frontier Missouri, then to Nauvoo in 1839. In Nauvoo, Mormons built a bustling city from empty fields on the banks of the Mississippi in Illinois when Chicago was hardly more than a town, only receiving its charter in 1837. And all this was only prelude to the grand move to the Salt Lake Valley, a communal adventure hauling thousands of women and children as well as men across the plains and over the Rockies. It was like extreme tourism, except no guides or cell phones, just man against nature, and sometimes nature won. It was tough, but these migrants saw America like few of their generation did. They came, they saw, and they conquered the Great American Desert.
I finished Brigham Young's biography recently, too. The man made the trip from Winter Quarters (in Nebraska) to Salt Lake and back a half-dozen times—imagine the sights to be seen! He wasn't just sightseeing, like so many travel writers; no, Brigham was a builder. Joseph's city-building never really settled down into stable society, but Brigham managed that, against considerable odds, first with Salt Lake City, then neighboring settlements. I always get sort of a panorama sense reading early LDS history, as if wide open fields are just outside the door where the sermon is being preached or the dinner served. It's an odd backdrop for denominational history.
MY FIRST TRAVEL BOOK was the classic The Sea and the Jungle, by H. L. Tomlinson, about his adventure up the Amazon. I tried Theroux, but he was too touristy. Maybe Into Thin Air, but there's more than travel going on there. I guess that was about it until I stumbled onto this London book.
It is said that The Call of the Wild is the American novel read most widely by foreigners. When I was a kid I thought it was about dogs. London was a wanderer who escaped a difficult childhood by travelling, and all his Alaska writing came out of just a year or so in the North. He wrote prolifically, knocking out two or three novels per year at some points. Said he: "I finished everything I started. If it was good, I signed my name and sent it out. If it was bad, I signed my name and sent it out." Sounds like a blogger to me. Neither dilettante nor gentleman, he wrote for money because he started out poor. But he succeeded admirably. He became a writing celebrity, and in his prime commanded the highest fees of any writer in the country until his early death at age forty.
OH YEAH, THE CRUISE. In 1909, the Pacific was still way out there. In Hawaii, London wrote stunning descriptions of surfing, the first to reach America, and of exploring the interior of Maui. In Tahiti, he met the Nature Man, a California expat who sounds like the original back-to-nature guy. Gleaming reefs and turquoise water, friendly locals and armed raiding parties, idyllic scenes and ravaging sickness, London and his companions saw it all, and London wrote about it. I'd give some excerpts—London wasn't a great character guy, but could write stunning natural descriptions—but I've gone on long enough. For an armchair tour of the Pacific from the days when touring it was still an adventure, you can't do better than The Cruise of the Snark.