Get Out of Town!
Gift them with a Chance to Travel the World, One Page at a Time
January, 2009 - Issue #51
If your mother, or mother-in-law, is anything like my mom, then she expected you to have your Christmas list compiled and submitted weeks ago.

And if you are a son, or son-in-law, like me, you have more urgent priorities during the holiday season - like making your college football bowl picks for the office pool.

But I'm here for you. Simply rip this page from the magazine, hand it off to whichever pesky present-buyer is demanding a list and get back to your wagering. That way, when you receive one or two of these volumes as gifts, you'll have something to do during the second half of the UCLA bowl game.
But first, the disclaimers.

One: My editor limited me to travel books since this is a travel column.

Two: I'm not claiming these are the best travel books of all time. They are a subjective sample of some that I've found useful or enjoyable, and I think you might, too.

OK, let's get this show on the road.

If you stay-cationed this summer, get your penny-pinching behind off the couch and plan yourself an affordable and enjoyable 2009 summer vacation in the great outdoors. Tom Stienstra's California Camping is 936 pages of guidebook nirvana. Best scenic campgrounds? Page 564. Best family destinations? Page 148. Best boat-in campgrounds? Page 429. Best nude beaches? Happy hunting! Seriously, I never go camping without first seeing what Tom has to say.

For learning how not to camp, study Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. What happens when a middle-age, out-of-shape writer attempts to hike 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine with an eccentric friend? Read for yourself. In between the laughs, Bill enlightens us with the history and geography of the regions crossed by the trail.

Into beach houses? In God and Mr. Gomez, former Los Angeles Times columnist Jack C. Smith recounts his adventures in building a get-away in Baja with the help of his Mexican landlord. It's a study in people, a place, and the problem-solving power of tequila.

Since we're talking about the beach, let's keep rolling with Bicycling the Pacific Coast. Tom Kirkendall and Vicky Spring lay out the route, recommend the gear (yes, you need more than a beach cruiser and flip-flops), point out what to see and make you believe that you too can pedal 1,816 miles from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Mexico. What they don't share is the forehead-slapping "Oh crap!" realization that you miscalculated the distance of your 165-mile, three-day mini trip from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo and now have to squeeze another 15 miles into your already-optimistic schedule.

What would travel be without the sea? There's a raft of ocean-going books to choose from, but ask for Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban's narrative of sailing from Seattle to Alaska via the Inside Passage. Though filled with rich details of the people and places he encounters, the book is a contemplative memoir in which he grapples with deeply personal issues.

Calling Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower a travel story may be disingenuous, but he lays out with great care the voyage made by the Pilgrims across the Atlantic. It is a harrowing tale, and speaks to the courage and perseverance of a hearty band of people looking for their place in the world. The rest of the book takes up the next 50 years of American history in New England and provides an illuminating look at an era that modern Americans think begins and ends with Thanksgiving.

A visit to the South leaves you with a hunch that, for some folks, the Civil War is still on. Reading Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic will confirm your suspicions. Join him in the trenches - literally - as he soldiers with modern-day Confederate re-enactors who think nothing of starving themselves to look the part, and criss-crosses the South meeting folks who didn't get the memo about Lee and Grant's meeting at Appomattox.

And finally, the story of a travel writer: Ernie Pyle's War by James Tobin. If they've heard of Ernie Pyle, most folks identify him as a famous World War II correspondent. But he became a household name to the Greatest Generation by spending almost seven years exploring the Western hemisphere and sharing his travels with readers in a syndicated column. He took that experience to war, first in Europe, and then in the Pacific (where he was killed on assignment), and sent back some of the most compelling and insightful pieces of wartime journalism ever.

Now, remember to act surprised and grateful when you unwrap these. If that's hard for you to pull off, practice by imagining that UCLA won their bowl game.

Eric Harnish is a professional writer who lives in Newhall.
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