My 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Taylor, introduced us to the Dewey Decimal System and assigned us to read books from each category. I was amazed to find nonfiction books existed in libraries. An avid reader, my previous book selection skills consisted of choosing series books.
For the travel books requirement, Mrs. T. told us about Richard Halliburton. I read The Royal Road to Romance, tore through the rest of his books, grieved that his last adventure proved fatal, and vowed to follow my hero’s footsteps and hitchhike my way around the world—after graduating from college. If Richard Halliburton could write and sell articles about his travels to pay his way, so could I.
Of course, I didn’t hitchhike around the world after college. But I’ve kept the interest in foreign lands and peoples which Halliburton stirred. I tried to locate his books for my own kids, but the books were long out of print. Recently, I found a used Royal Road to Romance at ABE Books and ordered it for my 11-year-old grandson. Naturally, I had to reread it. Now I realize what a weird 13-year-old I was.
I’m amazed that I related to the first part—the European travels. I’m sure I didn’t know anything about the historic battlegrounds Halliburton visited. I couldn’t have known who Charlemagne was nor understood any of the poetic references to the Matterhorn. Traveling without money and hoodwinking train conductors and ship officers sounded romantic to me at age 13. Now the arrogance and dishonesty bothers me. As an adult, I also note between-the-lines evidence of the author’s homosexuality.
Halliburton was a product of his time—an educated, upper-middle class white man who didn’t bother to conceal his disdain for people of other races and culture. He had no problem whipping his rickshaw coolie in order to win a race with friends. An Indian conductor who catches Halliburton with no ticket is pushed from the train with no recorded pang of conscience—hopefully the train was moving slowly.
Once I recovered from my disillusionment with the author of this pivotal book of my adolescence, I enjoyed rereading it. As an adult, I appreciate Halliburton’s gift for description as he chronicles adventures including a surreptitious moonlit visit night spent atop the pyramid of Cheops and a clandestine overnight stay within the locked gates of a ghostly Taj Mahal. He undertook a hazardous sampan journey in a violent storm to reach Angkor, location of the massive, intricately carved ruins which, in his view, surpass the majesties of Greece and Rome.
Halliburton’s sense of humor works well when directed against himself—skinny dipping in the Nile and being carried far downstream from where he left his clothes—firing an elephant gun at a panther, missing, and being knocked from the tree by the recoil. Fortunately, the panther was more frightened than hungry.
The world Halliburton describes no longer exists, of course. His book was published in 1925. Kashmir is no longer the peaceful Shangri-La of his visit. Bali is no longer a remote island undiscovered by tourists where funerals of prominent persons are celebrated by a battle between the Friends of Heaven and the Friends of Earth. I suppose hiking through the jungle on the Malay Peninsula during the rainy season could still bring a person face to face with a cobra.
My grandson is probably not weird enough to enjoy this book, but I think his mother will. She inherited my itch for adventure—taking a hiatus after her freshmen year of college to teach English in Taiwan and travel in Southeast Asia. Now a busy mother of four, her world travels have to be vicarious. I’ll have to order the rest of his books for her—and me.