The best adventure travel books with a quirky narrator

Jill Franks Author Of Every Stranger a God: Hiking The English Moors
By Jill Franks

Who am I?

I'm an English professor/long-distance hiker who loves both the experience of walking in cool places and then writing about the adventure. I've hiked across several European countries and odd sections of the Appalachian Trail—such as New Jersey. As for the "quirky narrator" part, apparently I'm brave, brazen, or bizarre to explore the world unescorted. I find I meet more people when traveling alone and pursue my thoughts to a greater extent. I love it when a writer finds a way to put their vulnerabilities on the page in a way that doesn't alienate others (or themselves). I love books with strong, individualistic narrative voices that draw you into their stories.


I wrote...

Every Stranger a God: Hiking The English Moors

By Jill Franks,

Book cover of Every Stranger a God: Hiking The English Moors

What is my book about?

The Coast-to-Coast trail is rated among the top five hiking trails in the world. The narrator sets out to learn why. Besides its sublime beauty, it's the opportunity to meet people as compelling as characters in a novel: Brits as eccentric as Monty Python, and Americans loud and final as baseball. The narrator's seriocomic voice makes this traversal of northern England a rollicking read. From tech nerds to old-fashioned explorers, from romantic couples to fighting families, from trail angels to curmudgeons—the smorgasbord of humanity is served on the trail. At night, the feast is amplified by strange hosts. Why do people open their homes to strangers when they appear to lack interest in their fellow humans? The narrator-cum-culture-sleuth solves this mystery in the satisfying denouement. 

The books I picked & why

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The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

By Nan Shepherd,

Book cover of The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

Why this book?

For a devotee of mountaineering books, this one holds a special place in the canon. Whereas other narratives might accentuate the numbers or other data of the climb, this one emphasizes the author's internal, subjective experience of sublimity in nature. This pilgrim loves—but I mean deeply and faithfully respects, reveres, and revisits—the mountain range that is just outside her home village. Nan Shepherd was a native of Aberdeen, Scotland (1893-1981) who made a living teaching English but whose true vocation was to be on top of the Cairngorms. Just to be, not to prove anything. I've not found an explorer more respectful of Nature. She notes, "However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them." 

The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

By Nan Shepherd,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Living Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain' Guardian

Introduction by Robert Macfarlane. Afterword by Jeanette Winterson

In this masterpiece of nature writing, Nan Shepherd describes her journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. There she encounters a world that can be breathtakingly beautiful at times and shockingly harsh at others. Her intense, poetic prose explores and records the rocks, rivers, creatures and hidden aspects of this remarkable landscape.

Shepherd spent a lifetime in search of the 'essential nature' of the Cairngorms; her quest led her to write this classic meditation on the magnificence of mountains, and…


Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

By Rosemary Mahoney,

Book cover of Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

Why this book?

Mahoney's courage, intelligence, and eloquence make her an intimate companion on my armchair journeys. I knew I could follow this woman anywhere when she wrote of camping in Israel to the sound of bombs in Palestine (A Singular Pilgrimage). The dangers are even greater when she decides to paddle down the Nile in a rowboat. She presents such a persistent challenge to Egyptians—a woman traveling alone, buying a boat, talking to strangers—that she ultimately concedes and dons a masculine disguise. She often leavens the dread that readers may feel with irony and humor. When an Egyptian man complains of the "whorish" British women who hire gigolos, Rosemary levelly replies that it must be the gigolos who are prostitutes since they are the ones selling their bodies.

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

By Rosemary Mahoney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Down the Nile as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Rosemary Mahoney, in 1998, took a solo trip down the Nile in a seven-foot rowboat, she discovered modern Egypt for herself. As a rower, she faced crocodiles and testy river currents; as a female, she confronted deeply-held beliefs about foreign women while cautiously remaining open to genuine friendship; and, as a traveller, she experienced events that ranged from the humorous to the hair-raising - including an encounter that began as one of the most frightening of her life and ended as an edifying and chastening lesson in human nature and cultural misunderstanding.
Whether she's meeting Nubians and Egyptians, or…


The Salt Path: A Memoir

By Raynor Winn,

Book cover of The Salt Path: A Memoir

Why this book?

This travel memoir is profoundly engaging. Before reading it, I had never thought of the archetypal Trail—that magnetic beacon of healthy recreation—as an actual home for those who couldn't afford a house or apartment. It is precisely Raynor and (husband) Moth's precarious economic situation that gives a cliff-hanging appeal to this tale of hiking the South West Coast trail through Somerset, Cornwall, and Devon. At quaint village stores, this couple doesn't just resupply with noodles, tea, and Marmite. They actually pick up their weekly dole check, which isn't always enough to keep them in Cadburys. On the Salt Path, British class snobbery is alive and well: many people snub them instantly upon learning their circumstances. I felt both humbled and uplifted by this inspiring story.

The Salt Path: A Memoir

By Raynor Winn,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Salt Path as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Polished, poignant... an inspiring story of true love."-Entertainment Weekly

A BEST BOOK OF 2019, NPR's Book Concierge
SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA BOOK AWARD
OVER 400,000 COPIES SOLD WORLDWIDE

The true story of a couple who lost everything and embarked on a transformative journey walking the South West Coast Path in England

Just days after Raynor Winn learns that Moth, her husband of thirty-two years, is terminally ill, their house and farm are taken away, along with their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South…


What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela

By Jane Christmas,

Book cover of What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela

Why this book?

Christmas's tale was one of the two narratives (out of dozens I read) that inspired me to make pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, the other being Emilio Estevez's film, The Way. What I admire about Christmas is that she is unafraid of criticisms that will inevitably be directed towards a female writer who tells it all, just like it is: Her distaste for the women who accompanied her on a pilgrimage. Her decision to move on alone. Her unstinting descriptions of dismay about the physical challenges of long-distance hiking. Her distrust of men who have intentions on her person! Yet Christmas's experience is not all negative. Like other "true pilgrims," Christmas steps out of her western, worried, ego-centered self and finds a refreshing new perspective.

What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela

By Jane Christmas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

To celebrate her 50th birthday and face the challenges of mid-life, Jane Christmas joins 14 women to hike the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Despite a psychic's warning of catfights, death, and a sexy, fair-haired man, Christmas soldiers on. After a week of squabbles, the group splinters and the real adventure begins. In vivid, witty style, she recounts her battles with loneliness, hallucinations of being joined by Steve Martin, as well as picturesque villages and even the fair-haired man. What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim is one trip neither the author nor the reader will forget.


Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson,

Book cover of Notes from a Small Island

Why this book?

In choosing my favorite Bryson travelogue for my list, I alternated between A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Small Island. The latter's setting gives more material—no less than Britain's entire history, geography, and culture—in contrast to the Appalachian Trail's "Long Green Tunnel" of rocks, trees, and shoddy shelters. Bryson's good nature redeems his shortcomings. Even when he's taking the mickey out of individuals and nationalities, it's clear that he's playing the English national sport rather than condescending. Bryson is all voice; he is not particularly interesting when expatiating on science or history or industry (yawn!), but he is always funny when he reflects on human folly. His deft use of hyperbole, understatement, and paradox recalls English masters such as Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Notes from a Small Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1995, before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire to move back to the States for a few years with his family, Bill Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite; a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named…


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