Long before anyone talked about gap years, John Steinbeck left his desk, hopped in a car with his French poodle and set out to see what he could see. The result was Travels With Charley: In Search of America, first published 50 years ago and still an evocative account of a Nobel Prize-winning author and his time adrift.
Some books inspire you to hit the road; others tell you exactly how to do it. Here's a collection of books that may shape your thinking about your own gap-year adventures.
The philosopher and author of The Architecture of Happiness muses on the broader themes of seeing the world -- the art, landscapes, even your motivations for going. Though not exactly breezy, the book provides an interesting examination of some well-known wanderers, including painter Edward Hopper and why he liked stopping for gasoline.
Major routes appear in red on a map. Heat-Moon's travels, after he lost his job and his wife, followed the obscure, blue-colored roads in a van he named Ghost Dancing. Twenty years after Steinbeck, Heat-Moon achieved a narrative that some critics label a masterpiece.
The renowned travel writer, who also wrote Video Night in Kathmandu, waxes lyrical when he's not offering biting, Twain-esque observations about places that are mainly off the beaten path -- from Iceland to Bhutan and beyond. Also check out 100 Journeys for the Spirit, a compendium of mystical spots by Iyer and other writers that includes the megaliths of Carnac in Brittany and the giant medicine wheel in Bighorn, Wyo.
Looking to broaden your travel options? The best sampler of ideas might be this full-color, map-filled volume compiled from the society's stable of writers. Among the suggestions: hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro and mountain biking in Transylvania.
Expanding on the gap-year concept, Potts stresses touring the world on your own terms. That means going cheaply while maintaining a keen spirit of discovery. Practical suggestions include how to volunteer overseas, finance your travels, handle adversity on the road and adjust to life at home when you return.
Many who take long, midlife journeys are deeply affected by seeing undeveloped parts of the world. Wood, a former software executive, was trekking in the Himalayas when he encountered the poverty and illiteracy of Nepal. Out of it emerged an extraordinary second-act career as founder of the global nonprofit Room to Read, which distributes millions of free books to children who otherwise wouldn't have them.
A gap year isn't always about perpetual motion. Flinn tried out a new city and a new career, traveling to Paris and enrolling in the highly competitive Le Cordon Bleu chefs' academy. Onions, she found, weren't the only source of tears.
[Related: SecondAct.com interview with Flinn]
Gilbert's memoir, which became a movie starring Julia Roberts, is a classic travelogue of self-discovery, tracing a divorcée's path through the indulgent pleasures of Italy to the rigorous asceticism of India. Plenty of self-effacing humor and a love affair keep the narrative lively. Here's an excerpt.
If shorter stories appeal to you, pick up this collection compiled by Theroux in celebration of his own half-century of globe-trotting. Besides Theroux's own essays, the book contains material from an all-star cast of roaming scribes: Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh and Eudora Welty, among others. The accounts deal with Sahara crossings, shipwrecks and even trips that were miserable disappointments.
Read more: SecondAct.com series on Midlife Gap Years:
Part 3: The Life of a Road Tripper
SecondAct asks: Are you planning a gap-year journey? Or have you taken one? Tell us about your own experiences and favorite reads in the comment field below