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The Way of Wanderlust: A Delightful New Book of Travel Essays

By their very definition, travel memoirs introduce readers to corners of the planet they may never get to themselves. But The Way of Wanderlust, a collection of travel essays by accomplished travel writer Don George, not only allows the audience to “mind-travel” to Pakistan, Paris and Peru (among many, many other places), it takes them on a poignant journey through the long and eventful life of George himself. Most of the major milestones are touched upon—getting that first career break, the birth of a child, the death of a parent—making the book a far more moving read than the travel memoirs in which the author struggles to build that perfect Tuscan villa or climb a famous mountain.

Not that George doesn’t climb mountains, he does—Kilimanjaro and Half Dome, in this case. But the usual machismo inherent in those quests is supplanted by rueful, and often very funny, commentaries on George’s frailties and fears. (Watching his wife and kids scamper up Half Dome in Yosemite ahead of him, he thinks to himself “None of them seem to realize that what we were doing was inherently suicidal!!”).

It’s that sensibility, which is at once clear-eyed and open-hearted, that makes Don George such a delightful travel companion. He says “yes” to many adventures others would balk at, but he does so in a way that acknowledges the risks, while keeping faith in the inherent humanity of the people he expects to encounter. This is especially true in his essay on Pakistan, a favorite piece of mine, where he encounters a myriad of dangers—landslides, gun and opium smugglers—but ultimately finds redemption in the encounter he has with average Pakistanis. In a small village, he’s invited into a very basic local home and ends up sharing a meal with the family and leaving them, at their request, a picture of his family in front of their Christmas tree, which they then hang up on their otherwise bare walls. Reading about it will give you chills.

George also tackles the knotty problem of how to have meaningful experiences in the places that everyone, and their grandmother, has already visited, written about and filmed. During a visit to Notre Dame in Paris, for example, he decides to try and better get into the spirit of the place by making the classic gesture of touching holy water to his forehead. He writes “Somehow that simple act had forged a palpable contact with ages past, had put everything into startling focus: the ceaseless flow of pilgrims to this special place, the ceaseless procession of hands to water and fingers to foreheads, all sharing this basin, this gesture….Sometimes you feel so small and insignificant in the crush of history that you lose all sense of purpose and self. Then something will happen to make you realize that every act and every encounter has its own precious meaning and lesson, and that history is simply a sum of all these.”

In looks, the book is a simple one: black and white text with a few sketches (no photos), and a cover with a childlike watercolor. But I can think of no better holiday gift for the wanderer in your life.