I have always treasured the stories of old-age explorers. They made tremendous and unimaginable excursions in the most uncomfortable, technologically void way possible. Many were trekking through undiscovered territory or battling the weather of the high seas.
Explorers have always held a special place on my bookshelf because of what they represent: independence, defiance, confidence, curiosity, political savvy, strategy, and imagination.
This is my list of old-school visionaries whose stories need to be remembered and their hard-fought lessons be utilized today.
Lewis and Clark: iconic American heroes, friends for decades, and ordinary men tasked with a national agenda. This book is fantastic as it traces their trek as closely to truth as possible. Given from both Native American and “newly” American points of view Ambrose has a way of creating the backdrop for how our country was geographically, politically, and socially over 200 years ago in a time that no present person will ever see.
The Great “Teddy” Roosevelt met his equally larger-than-life, natural counterpart in a tributary of the Amazon River. Roosevelt was one of those men who could never be tied down, and even in his later years was always off on expeditions and hunting trips. This is one that would not go as well leading to three men dead, Roosevelt’s son sick, and Teddy himself considering suicide. Even when things went very wrong, however, Roosevelt could still command an entire expedition party back out of danger and back to civilization.
Henry Morton Stanley, most famous for finding Dr. Livingston in Africa, embarks once again to “save” Emin Pasha, an imprisoned Sudanese governor. However, in true 19th-century, colonialism style Stanley had alternative reasons for venturing into the heart of the Congo: territorial expansion. His story proves once again the fine line between hero and villain, the manipulative way of politics, and the dangers of ignorance and pride.
This is by far one of my favorite books on exploration. Percy Fawcett is a character that everyone roots for in a story, but he sadly never makes it back from the depths of the Amazon (this is not a spoiler since the whole book is written as Grann tries to find evidence of their trip). For decades, over 100 more people disappear in the jungle trying to find Fawcett and his son. It sounds like a mythical fiction story, but is completely true. This book will explain the full spectrum of danger explorers undertake.
Less of a geographical adventurer and more of a curious journalist, Allen sets off across the world starting in Africa and then tracing the coffee beans history through Yemen, Italy, France, South America, and finally the United States. It is a great cultural read and one for history, food, or travel enthusiasts. It also leaves a reader with a strange sense of how Americans have bastardized the coffee process.
For me, I remember vague facts from my youth’s school years. I hate to admit that I actually did not know that Magellan never actually sailed around the world even though company names are devoted on that singular notion. Instead, this book exonerates the vilification Magellan’s name faced in Europe after his expedition, but also gives a pretty heavy-handed account to Magellan’s story. On equal par with Stanley’s expedition in terms of political manipulation, ignorance, and prideful curiosity, it also sheds light on what a “true” exploration meant: a trip to an entirely unknown area of the world based on assumed facts and how leaving your comfort zone produces very real, harsh conditions.
This may seem a bit of a stretch, but exploration to me means discovering the essence of concrete ideas. Fisher is best known for her food writing, but this book in particular captures her total exploration into the “art of life”. She was a pioneer for the 20th-century cook who had to endure two world wars, depressions, and the modernization of the kitchen. Her quote can sum it up most appropriate;
“There are very few men and women, I suspect, who cooked and marketed their way through the past war without losing forever some of the nonchalant extravagance of the Twenties. They will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted; meats, too, and eggs, and all the far-brought spices of the world, take on a new significance, having once been so rare. And that is good, for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts.”
This article previously appeared on Thought Catalog.