Jonathan Raban
Jonathan Raban; drawing by David Levine

The travel narrative is the most accepting of genres—if it is a genre. It can accommodate almost every mode or style, from the epic to the textbook, the travels of Alexander von Humboldt being perhaps the best example of the textbook approach. Those who make journeys and write them up can stuff just about anything they happen to know—history, folklore, literary criticism, architecture, art, biography, anthropology, natural history, politics, even gastronomy—into the commodious duffel bag of the travel book; and we, the readers, usually follow along gullibly, swallowing all this lore, in the childish hope of eventually finding out where the road goes and what happens along it or beside it.

About the only thing that can thwart our childish hopes, not to mention the yearnings of the restless traveler eager to head out for the high lonesome, is the arrival of a real child, in this case Julia Raban, who might well have other imperatives, such as keeping a full complement of parents—two—at her disposal.

Here is Jonathan Raban, acute and highly skillful English writer, informing Julia, his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, that he is leaving her for twenty-one days—could as well be twenty-one eternities—to sail his boat up the famous Inside Passage, from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska:

Traveling always entails infidelity. You do your best to mask the feeling of sly triumph that comes with turning your back on home and all it stands for; but disappearing into the crowd in the departure lounge, or stowing your bags in the car at dawn, you know you’re a rat. I was an experienced deserter, but never until now had I been squarely faced with my treachery.

The colors in Julia’s face had run together. Lower lip thrust forward, eyes brimming, she stared down into the carpeted green depths of the stairwell; she seemed suffused with her own powerlessness. She didn’t have a vote on this, and at three and a half, she had no idea how to gain suffrage.

This is a most unusual scene, for a travel book. Jonathan Raban is determined to go, and goes, but Julia—far from powerless, elemental as a riptide, keeps sucking him back; his body moves, his ship sails, but emotionally he’s held by the riptide. The plan is for Jean, his wife, Julia’s mother, to bring Julia up to Juneau, once he arrives, for a family holiday. In anticipation of this visit, once he’s nearly to Alaska, Mr. Raban scrubs his boat to a high state of readiness and mentally inventories the supplies he must lay in so Julia won’t be disappointed when she comes:

Four days short of Juneau, I now could see beyond it to our floating family holiday…Julia and the porpoises…Julia and the icebergs…Julia and the bears. We’d need a fishing rod—buy it in Juneau. We’d need more kids’ books for bedtime reading. We’d need a ton of macaroni, and the hideous yellow cheddar considered by Julia to be the only cheese worthy of the name.

Before Meyers Chuck, I hadn’t dared think like this. Now I indulged myself in a happy mental shopping list. Better get sunblock—tangerine soda—Kleenex—matzohs—candied ginger for the seasick—Beanie Babies—peanut butter—tunafish in water—Travel Scrabble—crayons—M&Ms and herbal tea. Just framing the words in my head made me smile, and my elation spread to include everyone in the little settlement.

The adoring, indeed enraptured daddy is not a common figure in travel writing. The only young daughter I can think of who actually gets to go along on a parent’s trip is Rachel, daughter of the Irish writer Dervla Murphy, the bicycling author of Full Tilt and many other appealing books. When Rachel was six she accompanied her mother in midwinter to the Indus; and, what’s more, Rachel did fine, livening up her mother’s book just as Julia Raban lifts and livens this one.

It may be that interrupted domesticity is the dirty little secret of travel writing; even more likely is that the hope of interrupting domesticity for a bit causes many travelers to hit the road. In English travel writing, at least, the most radical departure from this undomestic norm is made by Eric Newby, who actually takes his wife with him on his travels, his wife being Wanda, the woman who rescued him from the Nazis in World War II. Wanda seems to be a great wife, but certainly she is a great character, saving Eric Newby’s books from being what so many travel books essentially are: one-character stories, with an occasional stubbly brigand or helpful peasant thrown in to satisfy the conventions. The book which most brilliantly exhibits the value of having a second strong character in a traveler’s tale is Slowly Down the Ganges, an account of a trip the Newbys took down India’s holy river in 1963-1964; it’s one of the few travel books that is both hilarious and wise.


Jonathan Raban, father of Julia, is constantly, oppressively aware, in Passage to Juneau, that his new status as a parent has greatly compromised his old freedom as a traveler. The change is so serious that at first he won’t reveal, or even admit, the name of his boat; he even wants to deny it the convention of gender.

It was it, not she. Its first purchaser had given the boat a woman’s name, sign-painted, with curlicues, across the stern. But the name meant so little to me that it would take me a moment—a catch of breath—to recall it. It was just the name of somebody else’s wife or girlfriend, and anyway, the couple had probably split up now.

A little later, however, when he has entered Canadian waters and is undergoing a rigorous inspection by the Canadian authorities, he admits, with much reluctance, that his boat is named Penelope: at which point the reader may fairly wonder what is going on. Why conceal, and then admit, that your boat is named—perhaps accidentally—for the most famous faithful wife in all literature, a woman who waited out her wandering husband for nineteen years? Several reasons suggest themselves, the simplest being that Mr. Raban knows he’s going to be lucky to get away with twenty-one days, forget about nineteen years. Nor does he really much want to get away with them; even before he’s worked his way out of the Seattle waterways he has begun to seriously miss his family. He’s depressed, and it doesn’t help that he isn’t exactly skipping across sunny seas.

The Inside Passage is a notably gloomy waterway, famous for its mists and fogs, bordered by dank forests, some of which receive more than 160 inches of rain a year: good for the forests, perhaps, but not so good for a homesick mariner who’s in low spirits anyway. The old joie de vivre, the broad, intense curiosity that drew Jonathan Raban from England to America, that took him down the Mississippi River (in Old Glory) and across the country (in Hunting Mr. Heartbreak) and that even survived the harsh record of homesteaders’ defeat so hauntingly traced in Bad Land, is not easily available to a man who misses his family a lot more than he had expected to.

Mr. Raban must be aware, too, that by allowing us to share in Julia’s sense of powerlessness he has put most of his readers squarely on Julia’s side. From then on it’s his inside passage, not the Inside Passage, that we are most interested in; and if we root for him at all—hope that he won’t get drunk and fall overboard, get smashed by a big cruise ship, get lost, misjudge a wave or a tide, get sunk by a rock or a raft of logs—it’s mainly because we don’t want Julia to suffer another, more lasting disappointment.

Despite sagging spirits, which perhaps make him a little less tolerant, a little less of a good listener in the low dives and waterfront honkytonks where he seeks sustenance, Jonathan Raban has lost neither his acuity nor his descriptive powers. Here he is on the effects of the constancy (and inconstancy) of water in the art of the Northwest Coast Indians:

The maritime art of these mostly anonymous Kwakiutl, Haida, and Tsimshian craftsmen appeared to me to grow directly from their observations of the play of light on the sea. Trailing through the museums…I saw a water-hauntedness in almost every piece….

The simplest way of retrieving order from chaos is to hold a mirror to it…In the sheltered inlets of the Northwest, the Indians faced constant daily evidence of the mirror of the sea as it doubled and patterned their untidy world; and it’s no wonder that their art is possessed by a rage for symmetry. It’s full of spatchcocked animals—ravens, wolves, whales—sliced down the middle and laid out flat so that the left half of the creature is an exact reflection of the right. In most boxes and blankets…an invisible seam runs from top to bottom down the center of the composition, the two sides mirroring each other like a butterfly’s wings….

Water plays tricks on whatever lies within its reach. It distorts and dismembers, then restores an extravagant wholeness, making two of one—which is exactly what the Indian artists of the Northwest were doing in their designs. Living on water, as aquatic in their habits as sea otters, the coastal tribes couldn’t help but see in the water’s playful games a true reflection of their own instinctive worldview. Rippled surfaces exposed a restless and inconstant nature, in which things continually swapped places and sudden, mysterious transformations abounded.

Moving on to a discussion of the place names along the Inside Passage, he considers the influence of Pilgrim’s Progress:


There was a Bunyanesque ring to many of Captain Van[couver]’s names, like Desolation Sound and Deception Pass…. One could write a pilgrim’s, or rake’s, progress from the chart. The infant hero would be born at Incarnation Point, with Hardscrabble Point the first milestone in his babyhood. His course would take him past Sunshine Island, Luck Point, and an early trial at Liar Rock. Trouble Island would lead to Seduction Point and a rough passage through Peril Strait, past Grief Islet and Ford’s Terror, braving Point False Retreat and coming through the Eye Opener, where Cape Decision loomed through the mist, Point Escape hard by. For the shriven pilgrim there’d be Port Conclusion, with Harmony Islands, Happy Cove, and Paradise Flats. Given names like these, the wilderness became a three-dimensional allegory….

The extravagant scenery of the Inside Passage inspires him to a few sharp pages on high-Romantic notions of the Sublime, and reflections on Barry Lopez and other Northwest nature writers remind him that their preachiness finally puts him off:

Reading the Northwest nature writers, I found myself an agnostic in their church; embarrassed, half-admiring, unable to genuflect in the right places. I wished there were more jokes. But humor was not their line. I liked the microscopic particularity of much of their writing, their intent and well-informed gaze, as they tried to penetrate the veil of the natural world. I thought individual passages were beautiful. But I couldn’t join in their hymns, and after a few pages I grew restless and began to ache for more profane company.

Mr. Raban edges on north, out of Seattle and past Vancouver Island, but his head and his heart are not in harmony. To get himself going, or to keep himself stable, he summarizes or quotes rather too extensively from the Voyage of Captain George Vancouver, the tedious, sometimes odious, seaman who charted this difficult coast in 1792-1793, meanwhile dispensing some of those Bunyanesque place names.

As he proceeds up the coast, Mr. Raban struggles to find working pay phones, from which to call Jean and Julia. At one such phone he calls home to England and discovers that his father is dying. Immediately he docks his boat and flies to England; Jean and Julia come and Julia just gets to see her grandfather before he dies.

The pages Jonathan Raban devotes to his father’s death are very moving, somber but not solemn; attending upon this death lodges him deeply in the domestic world again. Though Jean and Julia exhibit a willingness to stay and help with the aftermath, he sends them home, deals with it, and goes, not happily, back to his distant boat, where, not many days later, he finds himself talking to a new ghost:

Sprawled on the settee, evading unwashed dishes in the sink, I became aware that my lips were moving as I phrased my thoughts. I was talking to a ghost. I supposed that I’d go on argufying with him until my own time came to die, and that this was as close as people ever really came to enjoying a life after death. Someday Julia would find herself talking to my ghost as I was talking to my father’s. I hoped so, anyway.

If at this shaky point on his trip up the Inside Passage Mr. Raban’s progress were shown as a caricature from the time of Captain Vancouver—perhaps a caricature by Gillray or Rowlandson—it might be called something like “The Traveler Twice Trip’t”: first by his daughter, then by his father. The trip up the coastline, which must have been long anticipated, won’t quite stay in focus; family matters fog the view, and there’s no looking in the water and seeing symmetrical relationships here. He left Seattle in a misanthropic mood; though the misanthropy is mainly directed at himself, the seediness and squalor of the little shoreline villages begin to offend him. If there’s poetry in them he can’t find it—even the sharp pungency of local conversations, of the sort that made Old Glory such a delight, mainly eludes him; here it merely seems crude. As a solitary mariner Mr. Raban is pretty much the exact opposite of that old scoundrel Joshua Slocum, author of Sailing Alone Around the World—Captain Josh traveled 46,000 miles and seemed to be have been entirely happy with himself every mile of the way.

Jonathan Raban does finally get to Juneau and Jean and Julia do come, at which time Mr. Raban relearns an old, bitter truth, which is that the more intensely and particularly one anticipates a certain happiness the more likely it is that life will deny one exactly that happiness, in the yearned-for and anticipated form. Though Julia’s radiance is undimmed, Jean is a different story. As soon as they get Julia safely busy at a playground she informs her husband that she wants a separation. Mr. Raban, by his own admission always the one to leave, learns that he is to be left. Jean and Julia soon fly back to Seattle, leaving Mr. Raban, a very chastened Odysseus, to bring his boat Penelope back down the long littoral.

The travel narrative has begun to accumulate studies—Paul Fussell’s Abroad, Mark Crocker’s Loneliness and Time, Jane Robinson’s Wayward Women (this last bio-bibliographical) but as yet has little in the way of theory. Perhaps little is all it needs. It does seem the case that extreme terrains—the deserts, the poles, the jungle—inspire the best travel books. Arabia alone has provoked Richard Burton’s Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah, C.M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, and that short list mentions only English travelers and leaves out a great many good books. It is also lucky when a traveler comes into an old, local culture a little before the moment when that culture ceases to be itself. Wilfred Thesiger felt that he had arrived at such a moment when he wrote Arabian Sands; the book reads like an elegy to the desert Bedouin. Jonathan Raban wrote his book about Arabia some thirty years after Thesiger made his crossings, and Mr. Raban found nothing so pure, spare, or heroic.

A recent beautiful example of a writer, in this case an anthropologist, locating a native culture more or less at the last minute and being adequate—intellectually, morally, and physically—to grasping something of it just as it disappears is Philippe Descola in his smart, sad, elegant book The Spears of Twilight, about the Achuar, a Jivaro people of the Ecuadorean Amazon: a book to read and reread.

Mr. Raban, of course, did not arrive on the Northwest coast at any such moment of turning—the native cultures of the Inside Passage were broken into two centuries ago; they have left us, however, their fine, enigmatic art. Jonathan Raban has looked at this art as intently as anyone, has looked at Bear, Whale, Wolf, Raven, Whirlpool, and Wave, presences not without relevance to his personal inside passage. In one sense—a good sense—Passage to Juneau is a gift to Julia Raban: it will help explain those twenty-one days, and many other things she may eventually want to know.

This Issue

January 20, 2000