One of my favorite “pilgrimage” books.
Author: Robyn Davidson
Publisher: Vintage Departures
Publication date: 2014 (first published in 1980)
Ray’s rating: 5 stars
This is a marvelous little book. It is at once, inspiring, scary, and thoughtful. For me, it has earned a place beside Wild (Cheryl Strayed) and The Camino (Shirley MacLaine) among my favorite works of personal enlightenment found through the seeker’s journey. It is distinctive, however, in being grittier, less “ethereal,” than is usual in such memoirs. I think that comes from the honesty of Ms Davidson’s self-examination. As such, the book tells a tale that many people will be able to identify with, even considering the scope of what Ms Davidson did.
What she did was to travel across 1700 miles of the Australian outback in 1977 when she was 27 years old. Tracks is her memoir of that journey.
Ms Davidson spends very little time on her life before the journey. There was no single event that she relates as being the reason for doing what she did. She simply starts at the time when she arrived in Alice Springs and began looking for someone to teach her camel-handling, and for a job (in that order). It was her intention from the start to make the trek with camels (to carry her provisions; she mostly walked the trip) and she spent the most of two years learning how to do that (and she’s an obvious animal lover). This prep time is a major part of her story and she spends almost the first half of the book on it.
As for her reasons for making the trip, she tells of two major ones. The first is that aspect of self-discovery that was her main driving force. As she says, she did it “to unclog my brain of all its extraneous debris.” Like Thoreau, she wanted to be alone and vulnerable so she could see reality in its unmitigated form. In recounting this, she provides the reader with an intimate picture of the Australian desert of the 1970s.
She also wanted to know the Aborigines in their natural environment. She wanted to discover their culture in their own context. She offers a lot of commentary on this. What she finds is, to me, a residual of a tribal culture that the current global culture is hell-bent on exterminating (I refer you to Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael books for insight on this).
Tracks is very well written. You can see why Ms Davidson went on to be an author and travel-writer. Her prose is solid and her storytelling is engaging enough to pull the reader along (there are a few Australian colloquialisms that necessitate explanatory notes, but they just add color). She is not as metaphoric as Cheryl Strayed or as ethereal in tone as Shirley MacLaine, but she is a pleasure to read. She is also brutally honest in what she relates, whether it be the trials of working with camels, suffering the idiocy of boorish Outback men, dealing with a psycho camel-handler, or balancing the purity of her journey-of-discovery with her relationship to National Geographic photographer, Rick Smolan (who beautifully photographed Ms Davidson’s journey).
Ms Davidson’s memoir is very introspective and she weaves her observations throughout the narrative. You would expect this in a “personal discovery” book, but she does it very convincingly. Following her thoughts in trying to understand her journey is very compelling and the postscript essay she added in 2012 shows that process still going on with her.
What really grabbed my attention, though, was a few mentions of Ms Davidson’s encounters with the paranormal. They are outstanding because they are in such stark contrast with the rest of her writing, which is very no-nonsense and down-to-earth. I take this as another confirmation that most people don’t believe in the supernatural until they experience it.
I highly recommend Tracks as a memoir of an epic journey of enlightenment by a very capable writer. It’s also a window into a particular time before CGI movies, the Internet, and chem-trails. It is a powerful addition to the literature of self-discovery, and to my list of favorite books.