If there ever was a year in which being an armchair traveler kept us in our place, 2020 owned it. The novel Coronavirus massively curtailed vacation wanderings. Yet our wanderlust continues to crave new horizons. For now, feel inspired while staying at home by diving into a new far-flung travel memoir that energizes, entertains, enlightens and encourages you to ask yourself: What do you want most for your traveling tomorrows?
Facing a personal catastrophe after an accident in New York City, Mary Morris laid frustratingly flat on her back — her doctor unsure whether she would walk again — when a life-goal epiphany grabbed her heart and wouldn’t let go. So she determinedly gathered strength, strategized options and put wheels into motion to journey solo to India in pursuit of the world’s most elusive apex predator: the Bengal tiger. This is not a typical response to overcoming repercussions of major injury, for sure, but there were other demons for Morris to brave and conquer as well. And travel can be a potent therapy. The compelling why and how of jumpstarting her epic adventure launches a multilayered story unfurled in 100 brief chapters — like little pearls expertly strung on an intricate necklace — somewhat similar to a journal, skipping back and forth in time and place, which Morris delivers with grace and grit. Author of the stellar travel escape, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, as well as numerous novels, including Gateway to the Moon, The Jazz Palace and House Arrest, Morris ties together descriptions of recovery, resilience, revelation and renewal in All the Way to the Tigers (Doubleday/Penguin Random House).
Her quest to globe-trot across the Earth in order to spy an endangered creature that is rarely seen drives the book’s narrative and reveals multitudes about Morris, who grew up in Chicago, steered single motherhood and bit hungrily into the Big Apple’s literary scene. As detailed intimacies unfold — anecdotes about her childhood, relationships with her parents, husband, daughter and others who have played pivotal roles — the book meditatively beats. For you, the reader, this memoir’s personal draw is to take a gentle pause to think about how family, friends, colleagues and strangers have affirmed and altered your trajectory along known and unpaved paths.
Her longing for personal freedom is powerful, as is her comforting commitment toward those she holds most dear. Morris’ reflections might mirror some of your own life’s questions — inner yearnings to pursue a dream, however fantastical, or to make a change. Following Morris to India and through its kaleidoscope of pleasures and treasures, challenges and complications, frustrations and fascinations is eye opening.
For starters, navigating India’s roadways can be daunting — and yet it almost always works out. Her driver “honks his horn endlessly as he weaves his way around every car, motorbike, truck, taxi, child on a bike, and beast of burden,” she writes. “Vehicles rush toward us, head-on, while we careen in and out of whatever traffic is before us. It is like a video game that’s real. Pedestrians amble along as well. Women in saris of saffron, emerald, and salmon walk behind hay trucks, tending the load. Two friends meet on the opposite sides of the road and decide to have a chat. So they just step into the middle of the road and stand there, talking. They aren’t fazed by the innumerable vehicles that veer around them, beeping, and shouting drivers, as they catch up on how the family’s doing.”
Curl up with this book to appreciate travel’s grand expanse and embrace — of opportunities, insights, passions and people. “That’s the thing about travel,” she writes. “The point isn’t to stay in one place. It is to move on. It is about seizing the moment, the hour, the day, with the understanding that it isn’t forever.” Carpe diem is Morris’ rallying cry — guided by a “travel is growth” missive. Move “with a child’s sense of wonder and surprise,” she adds. “To move as if you’ve never been somewhere before, even if you’ve been there a thousand times. As if you are experiencing something for the first time. This is what my husband often says about me….”
Morris deftly captures both India’s remote resplendence and urban poverty. Her journey is bedeviled by mishaps and revised expectations. For the length of her trip, a lung infection replete with frequent coughing settles in — concerning and painful for her. As jeep-driven jungle days over distant ranges tick off without a tiger spotting (though with plenty of other animal encounters), Morris faces a possible fate to have traveled so far only to find an empty finish line, her Bengal tiger-sighting goal unmet.
And then, finally, with her window of time rapidly closing, her vision opens wide: “Sonu brings the jeep to a halt…. He’s pointing. Deep in a ravine the bushes are moving, and whatever is making them move is coming closer to me,” she marvels. “The tigress is now walking. I catch a glimpse of her. I can make out her stripes. And there she is. She is large and sleek and moves like a well-oiled machine. Orange and black. Just as I’d envisioned her. I stand up, gripping the frame of the jeep, when she jumps on the road, not twenty feet from me…. As she looks around, I gaze into her amber eyes. We stare at each other, and there it is. A creature truly wild, truly free. No longer hidden, she stands in the middle of the road, brilliant in all her glory. Then she gives a long feline stretch, crosses the road on her white fluffy paws that could, with a single swat, break a person’s neck…. I watch her go…staring until…she has moved back into the dense jungle from where she emerged and where she belongs.”
Morris leaves India shortly thereafter, maneuvering through yet another traffic jam on her way to the airport, giving whatever rupees she could spare to a begging child alongside her roadway-stuck car. “The child drifts away, her palm print still on the glass,” she remembers.
And like that print, this memoir that chased a fleeting tiger leaves lingering thoughts about what travel can yet do for you. Once we are able to go, go, go again.