Traveling immerses us in the world, but sometimes in the less eventful moments in between destinations, we just need to escape. “The Layover” is a weekly roundup of books, music, podcasts, and other forms of entertainment brought to you by your favorite world travelers.
This week, we reached out to Devon Shuman, a freelance writer and traveler who works for Passion Passport. Today, he discusses the entertainment he turns to during travel’s quieter moments.
“Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer
“It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.”
I picked up Krakauer’s legendary first-person account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster while I was thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail. My hiking partners and I had stopped in town to resupply, and the paperback’s menacing front cover peered at me from the adventure books section of Eastern Mountain Sports. For the next three weeks, every spare moment on the trail saw me fishing it out of my pack so I could return to the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain.
The book was written and published soon after the infamous tragedy on Everest. Krakauer was climbing the mountain on assignment for Outside Magazine (dream job, anyone?) when a ruthless blizzard struck high up above camp, killing eight climbers (including his guide, Rob Hall) and leaving the rest to make their way back down in a harrowing fight for survival.
“Into Thin Air” introduced me to two new obsessions: Krakauer, himself — whose stellar reporting and staggeringly beautiful prose has been featured in such classics as “Into the Wild,” “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Where Men Win Glory,” and “Eiger Dreams” — and the world of mountaineering. Those who choose to climb the world’s most inaccessible peaks do so in the face of immense risk. They push themselves to unreal limits, understanding where the line should be drawn but then taking a few more steps in pursuit of their goal. Some say that this is immature and irresponsible behavior, and they have a point. But to me, the willingness to throw themselves at the mercy of Mother Nature for the joy of the outdoors makes mountaineers some of the last true adventurers on the planet. Traipsing along Vermont’s comparatively meager Green Mountains, I knew I didn’t exactly measure up to these explorers, but their spirit and passion pushed me forward nonetheless.
“Babel (Deluxe Version)” by Mumford and Sons
“Where are you now? Do you ever think of me in the quiet, in the crowd?”
With complex instrumental arrangements, poetic folk lyrics, and frontman Marcus Mumford’s crooning voice, Mumford and Sons never fails to inspire me — and there was never a moment I needed that inspiration more than during my summit push on Kilimanjaro. Summit day on Africa’s tallest mountain is a lonely affair: the biting wind and diminished oxygen at that altitude render conversation virtually impossible, so you’re left alone with your thoughts while trudging up 4,000 vertical feet over eight hours. If not for the comforting melodies of “Lover of the Light” and “Whispers in the Dark,” I may not have lasted to Uhuru Peak. Not to mention, at that elevation, Mumford’s insistence to “keep the Earth below my feet” took on a much more literal tone.
“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern
“And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead.”
As much as I enjoy train travel, something about the overnight trek I took from Boston to D.C. a couple Christmases ago seemed unbearable. Maybe it was the fact that the train’s journey spanned from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., or that I didn’t get a window seat — all I knew was that I needed something to occupy my mind for those seven hours. “The Night Circus” was just the escape I needed. Following a lifelong duel between two young magicians who begin to fall for one another, and set against the magical backdrop of a circus that arrives and disappears without warning, the illuminating novel transports the reader all over the globe, from the cobblestoned streets of Prague to the grassy fields of Massachusetts. Morgenstern’s prose is as enchanting as the subject matter, bringing these characters and their love for one another alive. As my train pulled into D.C., I secretly wished I could stay seated and keep riding so that the pages would continue to turn.
“His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman
“Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, just tell them stories.”
I first read Pullman’s classic fantasy trilogy about a decade ago, but I’ve been savoring the opportunity for a re-read ever since. Few books have enchanted me as much as these — each page is delicately woven with magical details and adventurous settings as Pullman describes the perilous and captivating journey of his protagonist, Lyra Belacqua.
The parallel universe in which he sets his story is not too different from our own, though a few small differences become evident — Texas, for instance, is a sovereign nation, and the Church exerts much more control over society. Additionally, the soul of every human takes the physical form of a talking animal that stays by their side. Despite its magical overtones, however, the trilogy is less a fantastical romp than a slow-burning philosophical journey, subtly championing a very mindful, secular way of thought. And, at its heart, it’s an adventure. As Lyra’s journey takes her across worlds and universes, she explores awe-inspiring settings, such as chilly Svalbard and the quietly abandoned tropical city of Cittàgazze. Each turn of the page fills the reader with a sense of wanderlust, making it the perfect companion for a long flight to a new destination. And, with a new addition to the series recently released and a BBC adaptation in the works, there’s no better time to get started.