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Booking It

These travel narratives are as much about the teller as the terrain

Speaking of fame, maybe just about anybody could have written a book about plying the Strait of Magellan in Lycra suit, cap and goggles, then the cold Bering Strait and the iceberg-studded seas even farther south, but Lynne Cox's status as a world-champion swimmer makes Swimming to Antarctica all the more bracing.

Gimmicks beckon many a beginner. John Pollack was a Capitol Hill speechwriter who suddenly realized, a few years ago, that "I had to get out before the rising bile of my cynicism poisoned the last of my idealism." Switching careers, Pollack built a boat out of 164,321 wine corks. This caper, as the self-effacing sailor calls it, resulted in a voyage down Portugal's Douro River and Cork Boat, a book about crazy dreams coming true.

Fresh out of college, Houston-bred Sam Apple found the mother of all gimmicks in middle-aged Hans Breuer, who is Austria's last wandering shepherd and a traveling Yiddish folksinger. In a nation whose residents "know little, if anything, about The Sound of Music," Apple spent several seasons following ex-radical activist Breuer, his wife and his girlfriend and his flock ("a 625-headed lawnmower...the world is their salad bar"). Schlepping Through the Alps finds its author waxing philosophic: Why, he wonders, are sheep "so willing to follow around a man in a big hat who cuts off their testicles and periodically slaughters them?"

John Gimlette is hilarious too, and a first-time author to boot. The London lawyer's witticisms in At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig are limpid jewels sewn into a thick, richly textured fabric. This Paraguayan saga is old-school travel narrative, not so personal but panoramic in scope. Vast currents of history, scenery and society swoosh fully formed from each page. A folk doctor recommends alligator fat as mosquito repellent. A native chief's statue resembles "a great brass socialist, bare-chested and bulky with muscles and balls and a chin like a plough." At a bullfight, a miniskirted little girl "danced in time to 'Sex Bomb.' Her mimicry of an adult world was compellingly hideous. The stadium seethed and wobbled with appreciation: Sexy! Sensacional!" It's the brooding lyricism of a traveler who has wisely taken enough time to see everything and then enough time to say everything.

History, mystery, celebrity and gimmickry: They all lined up for Melody Maker reporter Christopher Dawes in the mid-'90s when he discovered that his spliff-sporting oddball neighbor was Rat Scabies, ex-drummer for the iconic London punk band the Damned -- and that Ratty, as Dawes came to call him when the pair became fast friends, was fixated on the 19th-century legend that entails a French priest, hidden treasure, murder, Jesus, the devil, kings and a pet monkey, and that later inspired The Da Vinci Code. Dawes's account of their fevered rambles, Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail, is madcap proof that the worst things that can possibly happen on the road sometimes turn out for the best: As Dawes puts it, not finding the Holy Grail can teach us what really matters most.

Mark Abley, too, went on a treasure hunt -- for disappearing languages, hundreds of which teeter on the brink of extinction at any given moment. In Spoken Here, among the sparse speakers of ProvenÁal, Welsh, Manx, Yuchi (spoken in Oklahoma by "an unrecognized tribe within a nation within a state within the most powerful country in the world") and other fading tongues, Abley parses the connection between words and culture, and rages against the coming silence.

And in a way all travel books are elegies for places lost or almost lost, moments caught in time on some railway platform or isthmus, almost but not quite yet in sight of a new world to come.

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