A list of philosophical, practical, and just plain good reads for travelers of all stripes

When I originally encountered A Reasonable Life by Ferenc Mate in the 1990's, it helped to solidify my thinking on what really makes a great life. My wife, Sherri, and I had both read Thoreau's Walden in high school, but re-read it together as we became friends. We would hike together in the Cascade Mountains every weekend, batting around ideas about just what a 'simple' life would look like. We decided that sticking to our 'needs' and adjusting our 'wants' would free us from having to spend time working at unfulfilling jobs. That would allow us to pursue things we really enjoyed, like self-directed projects, travel, the outdoors, reading, playing music, making meals with friends, and generally enjoying the company of the people we love.

 

As the years have come and gone, I've occasionally needed a little help shoring up my resolve to live differently. Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't give up the flexibility that frugality has provided, but no one escapes that 'grass is greener' feeling once in awhile. Enter Ferenc Mate with A Real Life. Once again, he reminds us of what really matters, and how our ferocious rush for more and more stuff separates us from genuine experiences. On top of that, our consumerism has detrimental effects on the environment, security, and civility. Mate encourages us to get back to basics and make meaningful, human connections with one another and the places where we live.

 

Why post this on a travel web-site? Because the same advice works when you're on the go. Over the years, Sherri and I have noticed the inverse relationship between travel spending and genuine experience: the more you spend on a trip, the more you insulate yourself from the real place, and the less you see, feel, hear, taste, and touch. Read A Real Life, and get more out of every day, at home or away.

Okay, so I know this author. Actually, this author is me. I figured that you might want to get to know me better, so this book is one way to do that. For those of you who don't know me, I've been a carpenter, remodeler, and home improvement TV host for nearly 30 years. I take environmental issues very seriously, and want to ensure that there will be clean air, clean water, wilderness, biological diversity, and all that comes along with it for my children and theirs.

 

The Greened House Effect is the story of my family's Deep Energy Retrofit (DER) of our 70 year old home to reduce our energy bills by 85%. At the same time, we make our home a much more comfortable and healthier place to live. The book tells our story, of course, but also the story of others who have undertaken DERs in all climate regions around the country. I give advice on how you might design your own DER with plenty of drawings, diagrams, and product suggestions, and I point to more detailed information in print and on the web if you really want to get serious about reducing your energy use.

 

So you're getting a pretty good story about my family's quest to use less as well as some advice on how you might do the same. Then I talk about how DERs help to solve the wider problems in our world today of our Economy, Environment, and Energy Security. I consider the DER of older homes to be a foundation upon which we can build a more prosperous, cleaner, and safer future - it's a positive, actionable solution, told at a hammer-and-nail level, to many of the major problems of our time.

 

Ambitious? Sure. But it's an approach that works, and as more and more people DER their homes, the effects are wide ranging. It's a positive effect. It's what I like to call, "The Greened House Effect."

McPhee's in depth study of the Swiss army is at once interesting, baffling, and very funny. I read it on the plane to Switzerland, and it was great fodder for conversation with our Swiss guide, Ursula. Without it, my understanding of the compulsory military service and, indeed, much of Swiss society would have been much less rich. With it, I understood the Swiss as a group of people living at the literal crossroads of Europe, a points-of-the-compass melting pot, unwilling to be dominated by one single language or group.

 

While our  Real Rail Adventures: Switzerland crew traveled the country, I was constantly reminded that Switzerland's army is first and foremost a defensive force - according to McPhee (and some local Swiss I talked with), many of the tunnels and bridges are, to this day, wired with explosives that can be tripped in case invaders try to drive their tanks into the country. On mountainsides, false, camouflaged faces hide anti-aircraft artillery. In nearly every home, there's a rifle in the closet, awaiting the time when the Swiss will be called to defend their country at a moment's notice.

 

McPhee follows Luc Massy, and unlikely soldier who is more interested (rightfully so) in the quality of the grapes in his vineyard than the well-being of the Swiss army. Massy's exploits are part of what make this book a delight to read, even while you're ingesting what might be considered dry Swiss history. Heading to Switzerland? Try La Place de la Concorde Suisse.

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