ELEVEN YEARS AGO, during my first year as an English professor at a small private college in Kansas, I took six 21-year-olds to New Orleans as part of a January-term class that explored the craft of travel writing. Hurricane Katrina had flooded the region four months earlier, and outsiders had just recently been allowed back in. When we arrived, the city was barely functioning. We found lodging only because of friends of friends who had empty rooms in a house a couple blocks from Bourbon Street. Roughly half of the French Quarter’s establishments were more or less open, but neighborhoods beyond the Quarter were still awash in debris. Public transportation wasn’t working. Because I’d never been to New Orleans, I didn’t fully realize how profoundly abnormal the conditions were, despite the news coverage of the preceding months.

When I look back now, with the perspective of a decade and several subsequent travel-writing classes, I see the trip was risky, if not exactly irresponsible. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was. I didn’t have contingency plans in place. And even so, that first travel-writing class proved to be the best teaching I’d done to that point in my career, in part because — as was the case with my students — I learned to figure things out as I went. I was astonished at the substance of the interviews they collected, humbled by how the people they met — a resident in the Ninth Ward who had just returned to his leveled property, a gay couple at the edge of the Quarter gutting their house, a man in the street reciting T. S. Eliot’s poetry as his own — helped them to map the city. And I was struck by how the work of traveling parallels the work of writing — the making sense of a story as you move your way through it.

Tom Lutz’s Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World: Wandering the Globe From Azerbaijan to Zanzibar demonstrates how travel writing in the 21st century often hinges on exploring uncertainty — landing the resulting narrative in that open essayistic territory that avoids both the enforced objectivity of hard journalism and the forced cheerfulness of touristic promotion. A collection of essays within essays, the book brings us along on hard-to-find, lonely, and generally unsung routes of the open road. But this isn’t just a book about travel: it’s also a memoir about Lutz’s four decades of “dropping in and out of places.” In the opening essay, “The Magic Land at the End of the Road,” he identifies himself as “a voyeur, a collector […] an amateur sleuth into the human condition,” and then goes on to describe how he started traveling (just out of high school and peering into his 20s) and why. This book, his fifth work of nonfiction, features “a record” of encounters “unpredictable, brief, incomplete, true,” most of which revolve around characters he meets along the way. “What we carry, years later, I’ve realized, no matter what else,” he writes, “are memories of the people we somehow, despite all odds, fall into accidental intimacy with, the people we make some indelible, brief connection with.”

A solo traveler always, Lutz seeks out places where he knows neither the language nor a single living soul, and challenges himself not only to discover his way but also, more ambitiously, to find good company. As noted, he’s particularly drawn to the remote and difficult. For instance, he admits he went to Boğazkale, Turkey, “a tiny, one-street town below the ruins of Hattusa, an ancient Hittite city,” because “it was about as far east as the roadblocks permitted one to go.” At the core of this strategy is a talent for the kind of hardscrabble improvisation necessary for physically getting from one place to the next. Transportation and lodging and food must be purchased, and the providers of those goods and services generally have agendas of their own. Over and over, Lutz must rely on people he doesn’t know or trust, with communication methods that are scarcely adequate.

Certainly, there are anxieties that accompany such excursions. For example, in the title essay, “Hitching Across the Roof of the World,” Lutz recounts his trek along the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan, a spectacularly isolated part of the world, where “yurts are still more common than buildings.” Although every guidebook warns against traveling the 14,000-foot mountain road (the only way across is to hitch a ride with trucker), where almost no one speaks English and all labels are in Cyrillic, this is precisely what Lutz chooses to do. Relying on a combination of hand gestures and drawings in the dirt, he negotiates his passage with the “high mountain transportation cartel,” where accommodations are personal residences, bathroom facilities are outhouses, and the road periodically “would die altogether, only to be reborn a mile later.” Midway, Lutz becomes convinced he’s been kidnapped, and the vigor and tension of his internal dialogue conveys his disquietude as well his sense of isolation.

He has these sorts of doubts in other places, too: in Johannesburg, when his impassive B&B hostess recommends a restaurant on a street corner populated by dozens of aggressive prostitutes; in Sri Lanka, with a “sad-sack” guide he suspects is operating in conspiracy with the lagoon boatmen to extort $50 for a ride advertised for two bucks; in Azerbaijan, where having been broadsided in a rental car means being taken hostage by the local police.

Mishaps and close calls aside, however, Lutz does make intriguing connections. Several times this occurs when his guides turn out to be overqualified for their work, like the Moroccan plumber and musician who supplements his income by giving tours of the medina in the city of Fez, and the cab driver in Yangon, Myanmar, who identifies his BS in physics on his business card. Both men invite Lutz into their families and communities — each offers him access to the political and philosophical assumptions of his particular culture and place.

It’s implicit that Lutz’s status as a solitary man shapes his narrative. He regularly takes risks a lone female wouldn’t or shouldn’t — getting stoned with a group of Moroccan men he’s just met, for instance, or getting in a vehicle on the lonely Kyrgyzstan road with a “menacing” guy, a “malevolent shadow” he refers to through the rest of the essay as “Crazy Eyes.” These examples illustrate male privilege as necessary to the particular kind of travel he’s chosen. However, in his account of a trip to Swaziland, where gender roles take a surprising turn, he’s upfront about his position and perspective. It’s an important and interesting shift. The visit begins with the annual Reed Dance, a ritualistic but purely symbolic event during which the Swazi king selects a new virgin bride from among hundreds of young women dancing topless in grass skirts. In this same country, though, women freely confess to relative strangers (often within the opening paragraphs of conversation) that “Swazi men are quite useless.” Only hours after the dance, a woman and her 19-year-old niece befriend Lutz in order to assess him as a potential replacement for the teenager’s husband. But Lutz doesn’t even realize what’s happening (he has to be clued in by the proprietress of his B&B) — women are used to being sized up, after all, men not so much — and his reflection on the inversion of the cultural and gender gaze is nuanced and funny.

The potential downside of Lutz’s regular MO becomes most evident in Moldova. He goes to the capital city, Chișinău, partly at the recommendation of a cabdriver he met in Ukraine, partly because of a “pouty, self-possessed” Moldovan girl he’d met years before in Greece. But the brief time he spends in the country disappoints in this case. He finds the people “sullen, depressive, brusque, and utterly incurious about strangers.” Lutz uses this episode as an opportunity to explore and assess the possibility that travel is “pure perception,” something like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” where the traveler watches, sees, but stands apart. In Moldova, Lutz abandons this possibility: “The last hopes for my theory, the idea that travel liberated through invisibility, evaporated. I had never been so invisible, anywhere, and I felt not freed but bereft.”

This dispiriting sort of episode brings attention to the limitations of winging it in unfamiliar places. It’s a method that doesn’t necessarily work every time, and the haphazard nature of interactions (or, as in this case, the lack thereof) means the traveler sometimes winds up unfairly characterizing a place and its people. As it happens, I once spent five days in Moldova visiting a young woman named Anna who’d been an exchange student for a year at Bethany College, and who’d repeatedly invited me to come. Seeing the country through the lens of our friendship made all the difference. The people I met ranged from Anna’s father who, proudly clad in a Bethany T-shirt, spent an entire afternoon driving me through the countryside, to Anna’s Chișinău friends, who argued enthusiastically in three languages (Romanian, Russian, and English) about the best car models, the best recipes for making superior borscht, and their favorite American novels.

This is not to discount the validity of Lutz’s experience, or his larger aim to examine and test what drives and sustains him as an independent traveler, thinker, and writer. To be sure, he never takes the easy route. Rather, the path he chooses — on the ground and on the page — is relentlessly humbling, and exacting in its reminders of what he still doesn’t know. Early in his narrative, Lutz admits he writes because he is, “in any given moment, inarticulate.” If the journalist or historian offers an overview, the travel writer — like the personal essayist — is purposefully subjective in his confrontation with the landscape, inner as well as outer: here’s what was seen and felt, he might say, here’s what it might mean, how it might matter. In this way, Tom Lutz offers his readers not careful instructions or directions or advice, but, rather, an invitation to get to know him as well as the terrain.

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Kristin Van Tassel’s work has appeared in literary, academic, and travel publications. She teaches writing and American literature at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Tom Lutz is the editor of LARB.