“After five years’ travel,” veteran guidebook writer Geoff Crowther once recalled, “most of us went feral.” So did the books they wrote. Jammed into backpacks, ripped into pieces, guidebooks escape into the wild to get lost or abandoned for the next edition. Here are 10 that are so transfixingly odd that they’ve remained readable long beyond their original itineraries:
1. The Truth About Hunting in Today’s Africa, and How To Go on Safari for $690.00, by George Leonard Herter (1963) Equal parts Hemingway and Cliff Clavin, mail-order hunting goods retailer George Herter was one of America’s great oddball writers. His self-published guide—bound in tiger-print cloth—is a malarial fever of anecdotes, family safari photos, and horrifying advice: “Baboons are simply too small for leopard bait. … A live dog is one of the best leopard baits.” Hunting with a phonograph of distressed goat calls is encouraged; so is the importation of animals: “Leopard farming would be far more profitable than mink farming,” he proposes. As the corpses of rhinos, lions, elephants—and one of their guides—pile up for more than 300 pages, Herter never misses a chance to sell his sporting goods with such photo captions as: “A Masai warrior admires a pair of Hudson Bay two point shoes.”
2. A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England, by William Wordsworth (5th edition, 1835) A travel guide by Wordsworth? It’s true: Alternating between practical information and rhapsodic stanzas, the Romantic poet muses upon such sublime sights as the “almost precipitous sides of mountains with an intermixture of colours, like the compound hues of a dove’s neck.” Try finding that in Frommer’s. His guide drew so many tourists that Matthew Arnold later recalled, “one of the pilgrims, a clergyman, asked him if he had ever written anything besides the Guide to the Lakes.” The guide embodied tourism’s contradictions. Wordsworth, ambivalent about the gawkers that he succeeded too well in attracting, eventually grumbled about “the railway with its … swarms of pleasure-seekers, most of them thinking that they do not fly fast enough through the country which they have come to see.”
3. Das Generalgouvernement, by Karl Baedeker (1943)
The iconic Baedekers of Leipzig, pressured by the Nazi government into producing a vacation guide to occupied Poland, published the most inadvertently creepy guidebook ever, complete with Reichminister General Governor Hans Frank promising visitors the charms of home—”ein stark heimatlich anmutendes Gebilde.” Those charms include an Adolf-Hitler-Platz in the foldout Warsaw map and a brief entry for Auschwitz listing it only as a “train station.” Although Germans lost no time in producing vacation guides to their newly captured territories—check out this 1940 guide to non-Blitzkrieg visits to Paris—it’s still hard not to be struck by the inner cover’s sale listing of prewar Baedekers. They include guides to Großbritannien and Rußland—destinations most Germans could only view through a bombsight.
4. Fodor’s Indian America, by Jamake Highwater (1975) Fodor’s one attempt to get down with the 1970s got them more than they bargained for. First, there’s the author: Jay Marks, a rock critic who, after claiming Indian ancestry, changed his name to Jamake Mamake Highwater. His book is as much a history and a personal essay as a travel guide. Beginning with a visit by his mother to Central Park (“So they put the trees on reservations too!” she snorts), Highwater dispenses cultural advice (“[B]eating the hand against the mouth and making a wow-wow sound is deeply racist”) and modern updates ("Certificate of vaccination against smallpox is no longer required”) among his travel facts. The only Fodor’s to contain a 20-point position paper and appendix titled “A Note on Cultural Relativism” and “Fifteen Questions About the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie,”Indian America remains a unique experiment: It never had a second edition.
5. Bollocks to Alton Towers by Robin Halstead, et al. (2006) This lyrical look at British eccentricity covers such oddball attractions as a leech-operated barometer and the Cumberland Pencil Museum. Whether mourning the military-requisitioned village of Imber (“The saloon chalk board that would normally advertise Today’s Specials is busy with military scribble, all arrowheads and flanking formations”) or dryly summarizing Mad Jack’s Sugar Loaf (“The man behind this stupid structure is a fascinating figure”), Bollocks captures British anoraks in ways no conventional guide could. Who else would lovingly redeem the famously awful likenesses of Louis Tussaud’s House of Wax in Great Yarmouth by pointing out its perfect 1970s-vintage games arcade? “The whole experience,” they muse, “is a time machine—you are an eight-year old visiting the seaside with your nan.”
6. Travel Guide of Negro Hotels and Guest Houses, by Afro-American Newspapers (1942) Like The Negro Motorist Green-Book, the Travel Guide captures an era when African-Americans had to be mindful of where they vacationed. Alongside bucolic listings for shoreline getaways, the Manhattan listings are an urban time capsule: Small’s Paradise (“presenting Chock Full o’ Rhythm Revue, starring Tondelayo and Lopez”), the Savoy Ballroom, $1 rooms at the Hotel Crescent, and Bowman’s Most Ultra Bar and Cocktail Lounge over on 135th Street. The 1942 edition includes an exhortation to wartime travel—”Vacations for Victory. You can do your job better after recreation“—and to modern eyes is striking for what hotels emphasized in the early 1940s. There’s no TV, of course, and rarely any AC. So what’s the most common amenity promised in the hotel ads? “Hot and Cold Running Water.”
7. Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations, by John Ryan et al. (2006)
This may be the only Lonely Planet guide in which armchair travel is probably assumed—for the countries themselves are about the size of an armchair. Self-proclaimed “micronations” include a kingdom of Danish schoolteachers, the spherical Republic of Kugelmugel, and the Copeman Empire—which, the guide helpfully explains, “is actually a small caravan in Sherringham, England.” Amid the whimsicality—Whangamomona’s combination border control/outhouse, say, or the Royal Wheelbarrow of the Kingdom of Romkerhall—the book’s a meditation on just what it is that drives people to want to get away, even if only for a few square meters, from the hassles and history of the land they were born into.
8. The Night Climbers of Cambridge, by “Whipplesnaith” (1937)
“A game of roof-climbing remains the same, changing scarcely, if at all, from generation to generation,” proclaims Night Climbers, a legendary guide by University of Cambridge students so catlike in their reflexes that their identities remain unknown 71 years later. An urban sport guidebook to what might be called rooftop tourism, Night Climbers has earned a cult following for decades from its droll narration (“Crying ‘boo’ at people is not consistent with good climbing”) and transfixing photos of campus mountaineers ascending the O’Hara Tottering Tower, dodging police, jumping rooftops, and climbing, spring-loaded, between the columns of the Fitzwilliam Museum. A recent reprint ensures a new generation of mad climbers will bedevil the campus porters.
9. A Tramp Trip: How To See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day, by Lee Meriwether (1886) One of the original college-dropout backpackers, Lee Meriwether figured out in 1886 how to travel across Europe on 50 cents a day: namely, by couch surfing (or, sometimes, pile-of-hay surfing). Half-starving worked pretty well, too. Meriwether possessed a brilliant knack for bizarre travel options—like his attempt in Italy to combine sightseeing with free lodging. Instead, he reports, “I was lodged in jail, and the next morning brought before an officer of justice, and charged with the heinous crime of sleeping in the dead city of Pompeii.” When he died in 1966 at the age of 103, Meriwether was still writing travelogues; he retraced his old routes with a Van Winklesque view of the changes in European peasant life wrought by electricity and the automobile.
10. Overland to India and Australia, by the BIT Travel & Help Service (1970)
A century after Lee Meriwether traveled on 50 cents a day, there was the BIT—a communal crash pad/happening on London’s Elgin Road that stapled together hundreds of letters from hippie travelers on where to crash cheaply, catch freak buses, and generally boogie across continents on … well, about 50 cents a day. Fueled by ‘shrooms and wine and sometimes sold as a sheaf of papers in a plastic bag, Overland to India and Australia became a hippie trail bible. Founding editor Geoff Crowther later discovered BIT “taken over by a bunch of petty crooks, speed freaks, rip-off artists, winos and cider freaks”—but from its alumni and customers grew much of the colossus that is Lonely Planet. Overland, though, is now the scarcest title in this list. Few books have a worse life expectancy than travel guides, particularly ones abandoned in Katmandu hostels or converted page-by-page into rolling papers. Even Crowther himself lacks a copy, and only one library in the world is known to have preserved this proto-hippie guide. To see it, you’ll have to go—where else?—to the University of Amsterdam.
Which, come to think of it, might make for a great trip.