One of the finer books I read this year was John Kaag’s Hiking With Nietzsche, in which Kaag, a professor of philosophy, rekindles his passion for the German thinker while tracing picturesque hiking trails in the mountains of Switzerland. It’s a near-precise rendering of the travelogue as a self-help book. A young Kaag was an avowed Nietzsche acolyte but given the ravages of responsibilities and adulthood, the writer put his affinity to test by undertaking physically enduring hikes through the Alps, revisiting haunts that the philosopher escaped to, in search of solitude and salve. The journey’s demands, coupled with his own inner turmoil, are catnip for anybody feeling at cross purposes with their own life.
In the book, Kaag quotes Neitzsche writing to his mother after he had spent time in Splügen, “I was overcome by the desire to remain here… this high alpine valley… There are pure, strong gusts of air, hills and boulders of all shapes… But what pleases me the most are the splendid highroads over which I walk for hours.” Travel as the answer to searching questions is hardly a radical idea but what’s endearing about the book is that it subtly confirms a basic tenet of why we go on these journeys in the first place. Sometimes, being on the move matters more than anything else. Meandering through his hikes with his wife and child, Kaag faces endangering moments. He doesn’t always accomplish what he set out to do. “Slipping” is as important as climbing, he insists, and he persists.
Travel writing’s bogeyman, I have been told again and again, is the Internet. Information and narrative are in abundance from tourists traversing to parts of the world that were once inaccessible with frequency. Where to go, how to go there, and what to do once a person is there is now easily definable. And if more catastrophic visions of the future are to be believed, one day an algorithm will do it better than any of us.
What must then a travelogue accomplish? Kaag’s book reminded me that it was to establish an intimate and immediate human connection to a place. This can never be rated highly enough. Travel is as much about geography as it is about people, in lands that don’t inhabit our minds as often. It’s an urgent hammer taken to the numbing solipsism and drudgery that modern living descends into. It is storytelling, which never gets old.
As another year dawns, NGTI has an exhaustive compendium of places, beloved and obscure, from across India and the world that should find its way to any adventurer’s 2019 itinerary. Travel, for all its ubiquity, still has plenty of seduction left in it.
Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.