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Finding adventure

One of the problems I have discovered that I face in writing up our experience from two years of mobile living is that we have had an almost uniformly good time. From a writer’s standpoint, it’s boring. The best travel stories, it is said, come from the worst trips, or at least travel to the worst places. We had a lot of sunshine and few mishaps, poor fodder for a travelogue.

Our travel was through the settled and safe USA, where civil war is an unlikely experience. Nor is being stranded deep in the veldt, or having our passports held by a foreign consulate, or other classic tales of globe-trotting reporters. Political intrigue, bomb-shattered cities, attacks of dysentery, unreliable cabbies, or even airport delays are not contained in our experience. The State Department has not issued any frightening cautions about the places we’ve been.

If I were writing for National Geographic Adventure or Outdoors magazines, I suppose we would have taken the Airstream overseas and tried to find a campground with amoebic water and sparking electrical outlets. Or we might have set up rope and climbed the Canyonlands of Utah in the thunderstorm season and hoped for a flash flood adventure. If none of these things worked disastrously, we’d write it up in a breathless Gen-X style that at least made it seem exciting.

But I’m not seeking adventure solely for the sake of a good story, so instead we have roamed the 48 states and parts of Canada and Mexico in perfect safety, enjoying good food and friendly natives at every turn. Nobody has died or even been injured, and in fact nobody has gotten an illness more worrisome than a bad cold or a migraine. We’ve suffered no financial disasters, haven’t been ripped off by an unscrupulous mechanic, haven’t been strip-searched at the border. We haven’t even been short-changed by anyone. Our trip is almost defined by the lack of dramatic things that have happened.

This is, of course, a good thing for us. We had a nice time. But in reviewing other travel books, I find that the authors celebrate the angst of the trip even if they are really having a pretty good time. In Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” he manages to tell a funny yarn about what would otherwise be a monotonous hike up the Appalachian Trail, thanks to his dysfunctional hiking companion. The companion becomes his comic foil, and revealing his many faults is a big chunk of Bryan’s writing. If I did that, I’d be facing divorce. It is not for me to pick at my travel companions. They might write a book about me someday, too.

Paul Theroux, in his under-appreciated story of hiking the coast of England (“Kingdom By The Sea”) sees black and ruined industrial towns, threatening nuclear plants, strange and dishonest innkeepers, football hooligans and skinheads, and dismal seaside resorts virtually every step of the way. This is his interpretation and he’s welcome to it but while I can imagine a dark perspective on everything we’ve seen and done, I prefer not to go there. I am unwilling to suffer as I travel, or view everything with the eyes of a critic. I can do that, but it takes the fun out of the trip for me, and I feel no particular need to poke holes at the fabric of American society. Plenty of other people already manage that job.

Although I must confess I’ve considered it. At one time I was thinking about writing two blogs, this one and another “dark side” blog in which I revealed my most satirical, cutting, and no-holds-barred impressions of our experiences. I didn’t do this and didn’t even keep notes, but believe me there was plenty of material.

For example, we have seen hundreds or even thousands of examples of the lingering “white trash” mentality and behavior that forms the basis of the popular image of RV’ers. There’s a lot of truth in the stereotype, but I am looking for and documenting the exceptions to the rule, the people who travel with purpose beyond a quest for the local Early-Bird Special. The world of RV travel has changed already but the popular media are just now catching up with it. The Boomers are not doing it like their parents did, and I want to document that.

Still, I find myself wondering if we should take some sort of risk in the waning months of our full-time travel, to create a startling tale as the centerpiece of the trip. We could go backpacking with open food containers in bear country, join a research trip to the Arctic, scuba dive the sunken airplanes deep in Lake Mead, or at least smuggle a ton of prescription Zyrtec out of Canada. Any one of these would likely give me that sort of dramatic opening line that writers strive for: “I remember clearly the glaring sun over the ice when the polar bear began to chew on my leg.”

Nah. I’ll cure this problem the old-fashioned way. A good story can be told of any adventure, no matter how hum-drum it might at first seem. The writer is responsible for telling the tale interestingly, and every tale has an angle. Several friends who are avid readers — and even a few writers — have written inspiring emails with fantastic advice. I am saving those emails and reviewing them periodically as I digest the events of the past two years.

Of my first attempt at an essay, my friend Tom (a professional writer) said: “I think you netted the whole panoply of what moves people to take to the road, and how you pare down to essentials, and see more clearly what means something and what doesn’t. If you’re able to put that kind of theme and structure in the book, it will be a winner.”

My legal advisor, Don “Nacho Grande” says, “The characters and situations you encounter along the way make for the most interesting read to me. Tell me more about the Victor Valdezes of the world singing by their homemade walking sticks; Boots Hinton and his Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum; and of course, Ayres T. Reem.”

He also went on to say, “Rich, what I really want to say is write whatever stirs your soul. To hell with the ultimate consumer. Forget about making a buck on this one. This should be for you. Take a page out of Eleanor’s book and go a little crazy with your herbs and spices. Listen to the bread’s crust. Poe’s meter. Hemingway’s metaphors. Take some literary risks and try to SCARE yourself by your own audaciousness. Use a pseudonym if you’re afraid of tarnishing your good name. Make Jonathan Swift roar with laughter!”

I think the pseudonym is a particularly good idea. I’m thinking of using the name “Don.”

My medical advisor, Dr. C, was helpful also, with a detailed suggestion that I go find Paul Theroux in his home, roust him out of bed, and shake him roughly until he confesses all his secrets of writing to me. Well, actually, the good Doctor didn’t quite go that far but he did provide Theroux’s home mailing address, quite a handy feat. I’m supposed to write him for advice. Instead, I’m thinking of asking Dr. C for the home address of some of my other heroes. Perhaps they’ll have courtesy parking.

By the way, Theroux completed an overland voyage from Cairo to Cape Town a few years ago, at the age of 60, and wrote the book Dark Star Safari about it. You can read his interview about the conditions in Africa here. It may be particularly relevant to those planning the Cape Town to Cairo trip in 2009.

Now there’s an adventure in the making. Never mind that public and private caravans traverse Africa routinely. It’s still a rough journey and the spirit of exploration calls all the more loudly because of it. That hasn’t been our experience but I’d sure like to do it, and in fact we are reserving the option to drop in for at least a portion of the trip.

“When travelers, old and young, get together and talk turns to their journeys, there is usually an argument put forward by the older ones that there was a time in the past — fifty or sixty years ago, though some say less — when this planet was ripe for travel. Then, the world was innocent, undiscovered and full of possibility. The argument runs: In that period the going was good. These older travelers look at the younger ones with real pity and say, ‘Why bother to go?’ ” — Paul Theroux, Sunrise With Seamonsters

I think if you are reading this you already know why to go.

Yes, our North American voyage has been relatively free of strife but nothing is 100% free of risk. I tell you about my writing challenge because Nacho Grande’s and Theroux’s advice applies to you, too. You have to “hike your own hike” as they say on the Trail. Nobody can define what your travel will be, or the product of your travel. When people tell you what they fear will happen, they are telling you their fears, not what will happen. So don’t worry about what other people think, or whether they will find your trip interesting. Just go — and find your adventure on your terms.

4 Responses to “Finding adventure”

  1. Lois Grebowski Says:

    Bravo! Bravo!

    Excellent post, my friend…a fine piece of writing! :-D)

  2. Randy Godfrey Says:

    If your book is as good as these prologs, it will be a best seller. BTW: It’s Bill Bryson not Bryan. He’s one of my favorite authors.

  3. Brenda Hart Says:

    I am not an Air Streamer nor a full-timer, but I still enjoy reading your blog. Your posts are always very interesting and informative, plus very easy reading. We are recently retired and plan to visit some of the places you have written about. Keep up the good work! Thanks.

  4. Tom Says:

    I appreciate that you have avoided the “dark side” of full timing and the stereo types. I can find that in my own travels, brief as they may be.

    I prefer to view the glass as half full while some see it as half empty. When my kids complain I tell them, “Somebody’s glass is half empty.” because nearly all of us have a good life in this country. We have too much to bring ourselves, and others, down by being pessimistic. Thanks for keeping it positive and thanks for taking us along.