wayfarer's handbookOur book today is a handy pocket-sized thing from semi-pro ex-pat Evan Rice, The Wayfarer’s Handbook: A Field Guide for the Independent Traveler, new in a pretty blue-lettered hardcover from Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. Rice is a handsome young Baltimorean who early on in life discovered a deep passion for travel, and according to his book’s bio-note, he’s spent more than two years on the road, visiting 32 countries on six continents. In the pages of this little book (extra-sturdy, no dust jacket, clearly designed to be carried to the back of beyond and consulted liberally en route), Rice distills the practical wisdom he’s distilled from all that moving around, and from the interactions he’s had along the way with that peculiar sub-category of traveler that will be well-known to anybody who’s ever strayed for days or weeks from the well-lit tourist pathways of the world – the tumbleweed sub-category of Rice’s fellow semi-pro travelers, carrying their battered possessions and scuffed-but-reliable tech in sun-stained rucksacks, pausing in one place just long enough to work a bar job in order to restore funds, then scabbing up the cheapest gray-market plane or train tickets and moving on to the next place. Rice is clearly taken with his fellow vagabonds:

In seeking out these gems of nature and culture and unexpectedness, I also found a group of people who chose to experience life in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Independent travelers of all ages, who went to wondrous places for indeterminate amounts of time, driven by reasons that even they didn’t seem to understand. They were so effortless in their movements: relaxed but aware, self-reliant but blissfully aimless, improvising their own spontaneous paths through the world. And best of all, they were free. Truly, completely free, in a world that increasingly opposes that notion.

(They’re free from conventional 9-to-5 jobs, these blissfully aimless souls, but it should be noted that they’re not free from chemical addiction; they are, universally, roasting tobacco addicts)

But at the same time Rice seems well aware of the specific brand of sheep-dip these non-itineraried travelers often like to sling about, and he’s having none of it:

It has become increasingly fashionable among the backpacking set to romanticize the act of travel at the expense of others, to deride anyone less adventurous as “conformist” and in doing so subtly imbue oneself with some kind of enlightenment. This is a comforting but false superiority; to judge others based on your own goals is reductive and foolish.

The Wayfarer’s Handbook has no time for such snobbery (although evan & friend“fashionable” hardly does justice to how ubiquitous that snobbery is – even on a weekend-trip dip into the Appalachian Trail’s more suburban locales, you’re sure to find a pod of backpackers who have nothing but disdain for people who don’t have eyeball-piercing body stench); instead, it’s packed with every last little detail of world-traveling that anybody would ever need to know – and plenty of stuff that nobody needs to know but that makes for entertaining reading even so. This little book is clearly intended to be a companion as well as a handbook, a source of interest and a conversation-starter for all those long, rattling train-rides our author likes so much.

Readers learn the different types of shipwreck, the ancient place-names of dozens of modern spots, the kinds of mirages, the taxonomies of various mythical beasts like the jackalope, and the best remedy for eating extra-spicey food (it’s not water – try honey or even chocolate instead). The pages are dotted with fun trivia about travel and great quotes from the vast literature of travel, and also with mottos Rice has snatched from the more sedentary world and applied to his vocation, such as a bit of instruction printed on a jar of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise: “Keep cool – but do not freeze.” Some of the items he relates will be jarring to his more stay-at-home readers, like finding the United States right alongside Uzbekistan and Iran under the heading “Enemies of the Internet” (“countries who engage in the most severe Internet censorship and surveillance”), but the ultimate effect is wonderfully mind-expanding. This is a book that will delight armchair travelers every bit as much as their more peripatetic brethren.

“The world has never been safer, easier, and cheaper to explore than it is right now,” Rice writes with the bouncing optimism that characterizes the whole book. When he does his duty and offers advice on what poor luckless travelers should do in the unfortunate event of disaster, he’s always eager to keep things in their proper perspective, reminding his readers that a little simple preparation goes a long way, reminding them of the value of a good hand-wash and a trusty roll of mosquito-netting, and, very reluctantly, giving some pointers for, say, a bear attack:

If the bear begins charging, remain still, stand your ground, and begin yelling. Most initial charges are bluffs and, regardless, attempting to run will likely have far worse consequences. If the bear makes contact or remains focused on you, clasp your hands on the back of your neck, lay facedown with your backpack on, and “play dead.” Most bear interactions with humans are defensive: they simply want to ensure you are not a threat to their cubs or food source. However, if the bear does not leave the area and begins attacking, immediately fight back with any weapons available while making as much noise as possible.

If a bear does “make contact,” I suspect readers won’t have any trouble with the “begin yelling” part – it’ll come naturally. But here’s hoping it won’t be necessary.

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