I first picked up Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure by Julian Smith not so much for the author’s recent route across a continent in the footsteps of some old explorer, but more for Smith’s journey from the guidebook shelves to the more exclusive “Travel Literature” shelf, that holy mish-mash of memoir, adventure-logue, and other curious bits of travel-related nonfiction.
As a writer who spends way too much of his time fact-checking hotel prices and bus departure times for my four guidebook titles — while my own book-length narrative percolates on the back burner — I sympathize with Smith’s journey from guidebook jockey to storyteller. I understand why, after penning successful Moon guides to Ecuador and the US southwest, he gave it all up to try his hand at a narrative tale. In Crossing the Heart of Africa, he succeeds brilliantly.
The book weaves together three compelling, efficiently-spun narratives, simultaneously relating (1) the exploits of Ewart Grogan, a little-known bad-ass Victorian-age adventurer, (2) the author’s modern trip in Grogan’s footsteps, and (3) the story of Smith’s relationship with his wife, who awaits him at home with wedding bells.
Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because of the many parallels with my own life, so that it was partly my story; or perhaps the storytelling really is that good; or maybe it was because I read most of it while flying on airplanes, where one appreciates everything and weeps more freely. In any case, Smith grabbed and held me for 320 compelling pages, leaving me both grateful and inspired, and, with the final hopeful line, a tear in my eye. I also learned a few things.
For instance, Smith informs, “‘To travel,’Â originally meant to ‘suffer.’ A thousand years ago, life was dangerous, but leaving home was worse. The word itself comes from the Old French travailler, meaning to toil, as in ‘travail.’ It’s rooted in the Latin tripalium, a torture device made of three poles tied together, to which victims would be attached and lit on fire.”
That reminds me of a definition of adventure I once read, that at least once on your trip, you have to say, “What the #$@! am I doing here?!?” Smith’s African trip fits this definition; and so does Grogan’s, though the latter at least always had an answer to the question: he was walking across Africa to win the hand of the woman he loved.