Exploring the world that lies beyond our day-to-day realities can be a powerful, inspiring, even consciousness-shifting experience. We travel as much to connect with others as we do to deepen our connection to our inner selves. For some, our journeys are fueled by a desire to reach the most distant or dangerous places; others seek the most pristine destinations to revel in. Still others know that with the right perspective, a voyage of discovery can happen in our own backyards. The following five books offer treks for all kinds of adventurers: From America’s national parks to the world’s most polluted places, and from the Earth’s highest peaks to one small patch of forest. The journeys may all seem very different, but each leads to a greater understanding of the world around us and our place in it.




"Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks"

By Michael Lanza

Publisher: Beacon Press

Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon: The names of America’s beloved national parks conjure a sense of adventure and wildness. For many, these protected natural environments are an American birthright, destinations visited over the course of a lifetime. For outdoors writer Michael Lanza, they are some of our most climate-threatened places. With three decades of experience exploring and reporting on nature, Lanza began to notice dire changes in the world around him. From glaciers that no longer exist in Glacier National Park to the death of Joshua trees in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, the longtime backpacker was struck by the tragedy of how America’s most protected natural environments are falling victim to the disastrous impacts of climate change. As a father, he was moved to introduce his two young children to these special places before the parks changed forever. “We can only expose children to experiences that etch lasting memories; they will chart the journey of learning from there,” Lanza reflects, and it was in this spirit that Lanza and his wife took their 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to 10 national parks over the course of one year. “Before They’re Gone” recounts the family’s experiences backpacking in the Grand Canyon, Glacier, the North Cascades, Mount Ranier, Rocky Mountain, and along the wild Olympic coast; sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay; hiking to Yosemite’s waterfalls; rock climbing in Joshua Tree National park; cross country skiing in Yellowstone; and canoeing in the Everglades. Part family travelogue and part ecological observation, “Before They’re Gone” encourages us to engage with nature, expose our children to wild places, and ask ourselves a question: Are we willing to change our behavior not only for our parks, but for our children?




"Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places"

By Andrew Blackwell

Publisher: Rodale

Pristine destinations and ecotourism may be all the rage, but New York-based journalist and filmmaker Andrew Blackwell is more intrigued by the Earth’s most polluted places. Blackwell’s interest in our most gruesomely degraded ecosystems and worst environments was piqued years ago, when he spent six months in India. Though most of that trip was spent visiting exotic sites, what he irreverently refers to as “the usual crap,” he was unexpectedly inspired by a random visit to Kanpur — India’s most polluted city. He spent three days touring dysfunctional sewage treatment plants, illegal industrial dumps, poisonous tanneries, and feces-strewn beaches. “Inexplicably,” he writes, “Kanpur became the highlight of my entire time in India. ... In Kanpur, I had found something. Something I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. I couldn’t shake it: the sense of having stumbled into a wholly unexpected place. Of having seen something there, among the effluent pipes and the open latrines. A trace of the future, and of the present. And of something else — something inscrutably, mystifyingly beautiful.” When Blackwell discovered that there was no mention of Kanpur in his Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, he realized that for any traveler curious enough to find a place like Kanpur interesting, there was no mainstream way to find out about it. Fusing immersive first-person reporting with satire and analysis, “Visit Sunny Chernobyl” takes readers along as Blackwell travels through a rogues' gallery of environmental disaster areas. Equal parts travelogue, exposé, environmental memoir, and faux guidebook, “Visit Sunny Chernobyl” offers a grand tour of the world’s most degraded, despoiled, and ruined environments.




"To The Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes"

By Francis Slakey

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

By his mid-teens, Francis Slakey had learned not to form attachments. The loss of his mother to brain cancer when he was 11 left him wounded and guarded. A few years after his mother’s death, that early loss was compounded when a good friend died suddenly. “Two people had been torn out of my life,” he explains. “The lesson I drew then, as a teenager, seemed so obvious, so unmistakably clear: don’t form attachments; avoid more loss.” Over the next couple of decades, Slakey achieved much: By 37, he was a distinguished faculty member at Georgetown University. He lived his life with rational detachment, avoided intimate relationships, and spent his free time surfing and scaling mountains. Then, in 1997, he had an idea: He would climb the highest mountain on each continent and surf every ocean. “To The Last Breath” takes readers from the peaks of Mount Everest, Denali, and Puncak Jaya to the beaches of Bali, Morocco and Norway. Slakey faces danger and death as he conquers each milestone, eventually becoming the first person to summit the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean. Of course, the rigorous 12-year quest challenged and changed him in ways he never could have imagined. Slakey found that the journey completely unraveled him, and then bound him back together into someone who could feel and care. “By crisscrossing a world of mountains and oceans, I would eventually discover my humanity,” he writes. Along the way, the formerly detached professor develops a new appreciation for interconnectedness — something he brings back with him into both his classroom and personal life. “To The Last Breath” is as much a travel memoir as it is a story of spiritual and emotional awakening. As a Buddhist monk says to Slakey toward the end of his journey, “If you get to the end of your life and you have regrets that you could have done better, then you blew it.”




"Two Winters in a Tipi: My Search for the Soul of the Forest"

By Mark Warren

Publisher: Lyons Press

Must we travel great distances to reconnect with nature? Naturalist and educator Mark Warren believes that the wild places of the past still exist in our everyday lives — we just have to shift our awareness and invite ourselves in. His memoir, “Two Winters in a Tipi,” chronicles a two-year adventure that brought him closer to the land that he called home. It all began one stormy August night, when a lightning bolt struck his tin-roofed farmhouse, burning it to the ground and destroying all of his possessions. When the tent that friends lent him began to break down after just one month of use, Warren decided to follow a childhood dream and live in a tipi. “When you live in a tipi, it’s not the same world you see when the average person steps from his house to assess the weather. Turn the knob, crack the door, stick your head outside, and look at the sky… Living in a tipi, you already know. You never left.” More than just a story about appreciating our natural surroundings and living off the grid, “Two Winters in a Tipi” offers the history and use of the native structure, and presents ideas for how you can go back to the land, whether for two days or two years. From the river running through your city to the woods in your neighborhood, “Two Winters in a Tipi” shows that a renewed connection with nature can be right in your own backyard.




"The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature"

By David George Haskell

Publisher: Viking

Just as traveling to far-flung locations can change our view of the world, so can seemingly ordinary places be made special by our focused, consistent and concentrated attention. In the spirit of William Blake, who pondered the possibility of seeing the world in a grain of sand, professor of biology David Haskell was moved to visit a 1-square-meter patch of old-growth Tennessee forest multiple times weekly for a year. Regularly visiting the small circle of forest, which Haskell called his mandala, gave the naturalist a window into the ecology not just of this specific place, but also of the world at large. “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature” is the product of that quiet journey of careful observation. Forty-five short essays combining intricate natural-history exploration and philosophical meditation take the reader through the seasonal changes in this small forest patch, much of which Haskell observes while lying on his stomach and peering through a hand-lens. “My rules at the mandala are simple: visit often, watching a year circle past; be quiet, keep disturbance to a minimum; no killing, no removal of creatures, no digging in or crawling over the mandala. The occasional thoughtful touch is enough.” Written in the tradition of John Muir, Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau, “The Forest Unseen” explores life at all scales, from microbes to mastodons, offering a grand tour of nature in all its profundity.


Teaser photo: Amelia-Jane/Flickr

Books that travel the world, from extreme adventures to contemplative journeys
MNN's occasional book roundup focuses on 5 unique memoirs and travelogues ranging from America's national parks to the world's most polluted places.