This post consolidates several travel book reviews that I published over the years. Scroll down to read about each book.
Survive: My Fight for Life in the High Sierras by Peter DeLeo
I’m a big fan of survival stories. I’ve seen nearly every episode of the Man vs. Wild and Survivorman adventure TV programs. The thought of trying to stay alive with no food or shelter has always struck me as a fascinating challenge. So when I spotted a book from 2005 with the giant title “SURVIVE!,” I was intrigued.
The blurb on the front cover is what hooked me: “In late November 1994, my single-engine plane crashed in the Sierra Nevadas with two passengers onboard. For the next 13 days, in subfreezing weather, with 16 broken bones, I trekked across the frozen wilderness, with no emergency supplies, hoping to bring back help. This is the story of what happened.”
Though I had never heard of the author, Peter DeLeo, this tale sounded like a fantastic read, and it was. I won’t give away all the details here, but I will reveal enough that if you think you might want to read the book yourself, you may wish to stop reading at this point.
The thing that most amazed me was that DeLeo’s experience sounded like it was straight out of a movie – in fact, if I saw a movie like this, I’d be cynically yelling at the screen, “No way! That’s too far-fetched! It’s not realistic!”
Yet, amazingly, DeLeo’s tale was all too real. The plane crashed in an area so remote that DeLeo realized they’d never be found, so after leaving his plane and its injured passengers behind, DeLeo began walking. He had no food and nothing to make a fire with. The lack of fire is perhaps the most remarkable thing about DeLeo’s tale. Survival experts always stress the importance of making fires to stay warm in freezing environments, but DeLeo found other ingenious ways to keep warm overnight.
Not only did he survive for 13 days without food, shelter and fire and manage to hike more than 20 miles through waist-deep snow while seriously injured, but take a look at the other difficulties he experienced: He encountered a hungry bear that circled around him close enough for him to smell the bear’s breath. He weathered a two-day blizzard that dropped several feet of snow by hiding in a hollowed-out tree trunk and building a shelter around the trunk to keep the snow away. He located abandoned cabins, possibly with food and matches inside, but was unable to break into them due to locks on the cabins and his weakened state, leaving him demoralized. He spotted a few planes and helicopters, including one that flew very low and seemed to look right at him, yet all of them somehow failed to see him. And he slipped on rocks and plummeted down a snowy hill, coming to rest just inches before falling over a steep cliff to likely death.
Again, I would never have believed such a tale if Hollywood had told it. But DeLeo lived it and survived. In the end, he hiked all the way to Highway 395, where he finally convinced disbelieving authorities that he was the airplane pilot whom they’d given up for dead days earlier.
After months of rehab, DeLeo recovered and began riding motorcycles and living life again to the fullest. The book is inspiring and educational and highly-recommended for outdoors enthusiasts and those who enjoy adventure stories. The book is 10 years old now, but if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
101 Places Not to See Before You Die, by Catherine Price
Putting a twist on Patricia Schultz’s 1000 Places to See Before You Die, Catherine Price’s 101 Places Not to See Before You Die is a fantastic idea. But the execution doesn’t live up to its potential.
Price aims to write about 101 inhospitable places, boring tourist attractions and other awful places you wouldn’t want to go. Many of her choices are right on, like Wall Drug, Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and Rush Hour on a Samoan Bus (you’ll literally be sitting on someone’s lap.)
Others miss the mark, like “the entire state of Nevada.” Really? An entire state? She also includes Mount Rushmore and Stonehenge, two attractions which, while not the most interesting places in the world, are certainly worth a token visit. And she includes quirky attractions like the Wiener Circle in Chicago, which is an absolute must-visit, in my opinion.
Price starts including places that are literally impossible for any human being to visit. A sampling: “Jupiter’s Worst Moon,” “An island off Germany’s east coast on January 16, 1362,” “The bottom of the Kola Superdeep Borehole” and “Hell.” Others are feasible but abstract, like “An AA meeting when you’re drunk” and “Your boss’s bedroom.”
I’m not sure why such bizarre selections were included in the book. Evidently, they were an attempt at humor. But they only serve to irritate the reader. Imagine if Schultz had included in her 1000 Places to See Before You Die selections like “Heaven,” “October 1492 in the West Indies” or “A supermodel’s bedroom.” Wouldn’t that be annoying?
And then there’s the strange series of “guest entries” – as if this is just a blog and not a real book. As a reader, I feel ripped off because I was promised 101 places and I only got about 65.
When she does present legitimate choices, Price writes with an easy, natural voice and a wicked sense of humor. It’s a shame she bothered with these gimmicks, because she clearly doesn’t need them.
Turn Left at the Trojan Horse by Brad Herzog
I was really excited to read this book, because it’s a narrative story about the author’s month-long solo cross-country RV trip. I took a similar trip for four months in a van, and while many people suggested that I turn my experience into a book, I didn’t see any particular angle that was book-worthy.
So I was eager to see how Herzog did it. His angle is that he’s trying to discover what it means to be a hero in modern society. He ties this in to Greek mythology by constantly interspersing mythological stories with his travel tales.
On one hand, the mythological angle is a clever writing technique to tie the whole story together. But for people like myself, who have zero interest in mythology or ancient Greece, it pretty much ruins the book.
The story starts off great, with a humorous tale of Herzog’s experience on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. But as I keep reading, Herzog loses me. He writes about all the people he meets on a northerly trek from Washington state to Ithaca, New York. The problem is these people are boring. They don’t have compelling stories.
To keep alive the book’s flimsy premise, everything gets compared to Greece. Herzog’s hair loss reminds him of Hippocrates. A tractor pull becomes a rumination on midlife crises involving the theories of Socrates and Aristotle. Spotting a bird with a snake in its mouth causes him to launch into a discourse on the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Occasionally, Herzog relates his tale to the travels of Lewis & Clark, when he passes through towns where the famed explorers visited. Those parts are interesting. But inevitably, he goes back to the Hercules, Achilles, Homer and Olympus references, and I tune out.
By the end of the book, the neverending Greek references are downright comical. I’m laughing at the author, not with him. The ridiculousness peaks with this sentence: “I feel like Prometheus, who suffered the retribution of Zeus after stealing from Mount Olympus.”
Just what is this huge, life-changing event that inspires such a strong reaction in Herzog? He’s flipping through the radio dial and keeps hearing Rush Limbaugh. Seriously. That’s it. Somehow, that insignificant occurrence causes Herzog to exaggerate his experience to the point that he feels a sense of kinship with a Greek figure.
While the unintentional hilarity of Herzog comparing every mundane event to the events of Greek history and mythology can be a bit entertaining at times, it’s a huge drag on the story. Toss in the fact that the people he interviews aren’t particularly interesting, and you have a book that just doesn’t hold my attention.
Then again, I didn’t like On the Road, either, so what do I know?
States of Confusion: My 19,000-Mile Detour to Find Direction, by Paul Jury
Paul Jury’s goal was to visit 48 states in 48 days and to find himself at the same time. That’s very similar to the road trip I took several years back.
Both Paul and myself came out of our trips realizing that we wanted to be writers. But aside from that, very little about our journeys was the same. For one thing, Paul made the mistake of not taking along a portable electrical outlet, so he had to sneak around at night looking for outlets outside convenience stores and in motel lobbies. It’s also bizarre that Jury walked into his local AAA office and asked for maps for all 48 states, when a simple GPS would have been a lifesaver.
Paul was on a journey of self-discovery. He was dating a girl who he wasn’t sure was “the one,” and he wanted to use the trip to do some soul-searching. The ending, in terms of the relationship, was not what I expected, but the details of their phone conversations and how they dealt with being apart are fascinating to read.
Jury had a goal of doing something interesting in every state, but he skipped most of the big cities, instead opting for small towns and back roads. He had to make his own fun, which often resulted in taking unnecessary chances, like hopping a fence at night to wander through a corn maze in Kansas after hours, then getting lost and having to nearly destroy the place to get back out. Or getting stopped several times by local police for sleeping overnight in his car. (He should’ve followed my sleeping in your vehicle tips!)
I found States of Confusion to be an easy and engaging read. Jury did a much better job than I did when it came to engaging the locals, which resulted in a lot of interesting tales. Those who have ever taken a great road trip – or wanted to – will enjoy this book.