Over the past three decades north London (variously West Hampstead, Cricklewood and Muswell Hill) has been my base for sorties across the globe as a travel writer. My latest book, Alaska Lonely Hearts Club: And Other Unlikely Travel Tales, collects together 26 of the quirkiest of these trips in an A-Z format.
The title story records a dead-of-winter visit to Talkeetna which sits in the shadow of Mount McKinley, America’s tallest mountain. The town grew up at the turn of the century as a supply point for prospectors and hunters who’d visit, in the words of trapper Gary Hermes, owner of The Dutchman’s Gunsmith, “to get drunk, get laid, get a haircut and stock up on provisions”.
The perennial problem for wilderness man then as now, however, was finding a woman willing to share the wilderness with. Every year, in order to temporarily overcome this problem and stave off cabin fever, locals organise a bachelor auction and wilderness woman competition to draw in female visitors from other US states.While there are tales from the far corners of our world from Alaska to Australia’s Red Centre, these are interspersed with stories from our home shores that range from attending a healing and dowsing weekend in the Basingstoke Hilton and a George Formby bash in Blackpool, to running aground in the Thames near Fulham on the first day of a four-month solo narrowboat adventure.
I remember once a travel writer telling me he could happily walk a whole continent without talking to anyone. What I didn’t get then, as I still don’t today, is why anyone would read a book charting such a journey, as it is the people that inhabit places that I believe make travel so memorable.
I’m lucky in that my journeys have been populated by characters ranging from a Tuareg magician, Zimbabwean witch doctor, Irish matchmaker and a Scotsman who taught me the art of gladiatorial combat in Rome.
Fakirs, fakers and even the occasional fucker populate the world and are the cast of my book. Which you’ll hear more of next week at the Owl bookshop.