"Baboons Are Simply Too Small for Leopard Bait"
The 10 oddest travel guides ever published.
"After five years' travel," veteran guidebook writer Geoff Crowther once recalled, "most of us went feral." So did the books they wrote. Jammed into backpacks, ripped into pieces, guidebooks escape into the wild to get lost or abandoned for the next edition. Here are 10 that are so transfixingly odd that they've remained readable long beyond their original itineraries:
1. The Truth About Hunting in Today's Africa, and How To Go on Safari for $690.00, by George Leonard Herter (1963) Equal parts Hemingway and Cliff Clavin, mail-order hunting goods retailer George Herter was one of America's great oddball writers. His self-published guide—bound in tiger-print cloth—is a malarial fever of anecdotes, family safari photos, and horrifying advice: "Baboons are simply too small for leopard bait. ... A live dog is one of the best leopard baits." Hunting with a phonograph of distressed goat calls is encouraged; so is the importation of animals: "Leopard farming would be far more profitable than mink farming," he proposes. As the corpses of rhinos, lions, elephants—and one of their guides—pile up for more than 300 pages, Herter never misses a chance to sell his sporting goods with such photo captions as: "A Masai warrior admires a pair of Hudson Bay two point shoes."
2. A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England, by William Wordsworth (5th edition, 1835) A travel guide by Wordsworth? It's true: Alternating between practical information and rhapsodic stanzas, the Romantic poet muses upon such sublime sights as the "almost precipitous sides of mountains with an intermixture of colours, like the compound hues of a dove's neck." Try finding that in Frommer's. His guide drew so many tourists that Matthew Arnold later recalled, "one of the pilgrims, a clergyman, asked him if he had ever written anything besides the Guide to the Lakes." The guide embodied tourism's contradictions. Wordsworth, ambivalent about the gawkers that he succeeded too well in attracting, eventually grumbled about "the railway with its ... swarms of pleasure-seekers, most of them thinking that they do not fly fast enough through the country which they have come to see."
3. Das Generalgouvernement, by Karl Baedeker (1943)
The iconic Baedekers of Leipzig, pressured by the Nazi government into producing a vacation guide to occupied Poland, published the most inadvertently creepy guidebook ever, complete with Reichminister General Governor Hans Frank promising visitors the charms of home—"ein stark heimatlich anmutendes Gebilde." Those charms include an Adolf-Hitler-Platz in the foldout Warsaw map and a brief entry for Auschwitz listing it only as a "train station." Although Germans lost no time in producing vacation guides to their newly captured territories—check out this 1940 guide to non-Blitzkrieg visits to Paris—it's still hard not to be struck by the inner cover's sale listing of prewar Baedekers. They include guides to Großbritannien and Rußland—destinations most Germans could only view through a bombsight.
4. Fodor's Indian America, by Jamake Highwater (1975) Fodor's one attempt to get down with the 1970s got them more than they bargained for. First, there's the author: Jay Marks, a rock critic who, after claiming Indian ancestry, changed his name to Jamake Mamake Highwater. His book is as much a history and a personal essay as a travel guide. Beginning with a visit by his mother to Central Park ("So they put the trees on reservations too!" she snorts), Highwater dispenses cultural advice ("[B]eating the hand against the mouth and making a wow-wow sound is deeply racist") and modern updates ("Certificate of vaccination against smallpox is no longer required") among his travel facts. The only Fodor's to contain a 20-point position paper and appendix titled "A Note on Cultural Relativism" and "Fifteen Questions About the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie,"Indian America remains a unique experiment: It never had a second edition.
5. Bollocks to Alton Towers by Robin Halstead, et al. (2006) This lyrical look at British eccentricity covers such oddball attractions as a leech-operated barometer and the Cumberland Pencil Museum. Whether mourning the military-requisitioned village of Imber ("The saloon chalk board that would normally advertise Today's Specials is busy with military scribble, all arrowheads and flanking formations") or dryly summarizing Mad Jack's Sugar Loaf ("The man behind this stupid structure is a fascinating figure"), Bollocks captures British anoraks in ways no conventional guide could. Who else would lovingly redeem the famously awful likenesses of Louis Tussaud's House of Wax in Great Yarmouth by pointing out its perfect 1970s-vintage games arcade? "The whole experience," they muse, "is a time machine—you are an eight-year old visiting the seaside with your nan."
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.