Life's a Wild Trip

Exotic Places Made Me Do It

Meteora Monestery, Greece     Photo: Abrahm Lustgarten

"A SUBMERSIBLE VOYAGE under the North Pole?" The radio host was leafing through a copy of Outside, reading off destinations and activities in tones of rising incredulity. "Trekking with pygmies in the Central African Republic? Backpacking in Tasmania? Swimming with sharks in Costa Rica?"

Talk-show hosts, I've discovered, often think confrontational interviews are audience builders. I said that the magazine strives to put together the ultimate traveler's dream catalog. It wasn't all about diving with sharks.

"A dogsled expedition in Greenland?"

"For instance," I said.

"My idea of a vacation," the guy declared, "is a nice oceanfront resort, a beach chair, and a pi-a colada."

"Mine, too," I said. "For a day or two. Then I'd go bug spit. I'd feel like I was in prison. I'd want to do something."

Who, the host insisted, wants to, say, trek across Death Valley? His listeners wanted to lie on the beach and drink sweet rum concoctions.

The urge to grab the guy by the collar and slap him until his ears rang was nearly overwhelming.

But I didn't. "I think that's a serious misconception about who listens to this show," I replied. It was, I thought, a serious misconception about human beings altogether.

So I did my best to defend all of us who aren't in our right minds. These—I said of the destinations and adventures mentioned—are dreams. Everybody has them, though they often come in clusters when we're younger. A lot of us first aspired to far-ranging travel and exotic adventure early in our teens; these ambitions are, in fact, adolescent in nature, which I find an inspiring idea. Adolescence is the time in our lives when we are the most open to new ideas, the most idealistic. Thus, when we allow ourselves to imagine as we once did, we are not at all in our right minds. We are somewhere in a world of dream, and we know, with a sudden jarring clarity, that if we don't go right now, we're never going to do it. And we'll be haunted by our unrealized dreams and know that we have sinned against ourselves gravely.

Or something like that. Who knows? I was just sitting around talking with some doofus on drive-time radio.

Then it was time to take phone calls. It would be satisfying to report that each and every caller agreed with me, that they excoriated the host for blatant imbecility, and that the host, convinced of my superior perspicacity, apologized then and there.

It didn't happen quite like that. But many of the listeners did, in fact, reject the pi-a-colada paradigm. Several seemed positively gung ho about the idea of travel under stressful conditions in remote areas. It gave me hope that somebody might even call in and ask The Question—the one that anyone who's been writing about travel for any length of time gets asked. And then someone did:

"Can I carry your bags?"

THE MAJORITY OF THE PEOPLE I meet and chat with have their own peculiar travel fantasy. The dream varies from individual to individual, but it almost never involves seven endless scorching days in a beach chair.

Sometimes, after public-speaking engagements, it is my pleasure to sit and sign books. I speak with people then, and often they tell me about these fantasies, sometimes in hushed voices, as if the information were embarrassing and someone might hear. I suspect they fear the scorn of people like the radio talk-show host. They imagine they will be thought immature. Adolescent.

That's why the words "Let's go!" are intrinsically courageous. It's the decision to go that is, in itself, entirely intrepid. We know from the first step that travel is often a matter of confronting our fear of the unfamiliar and the unsettling—of the rooster's head in the soup, of the raggedy edge of unfocused dread, of that cliff face that draws us willy-nilly to its lip and forces us to peer into the void.

I'm convinced that we all have the urge in some degree or another, even the least likely among us. And we've never needed to respect and reward that urge more than we do now. Consider the case of my literary agent, Barbara Lowenstein, a stylish New Yorker, a small woman, always perfectly coiffed, tough and straightforward in her business dealings, and a terror to any ma"tre d' who would dare seat her at a less than optimal table. Still, every year for the last decade, she has taken a winter trip to this river in Patagonia, or that veld in Africa. She's been in places where baboons pilfer your food and monkeys pee on your head.

This year, after the September 11 attacks, people were, initially, amazed that she was still going anywhere at all. "It's Spain and Morocco," Barbara told me in October. "Not my usual. But people still think I'm crazy to go."

I spoke with her just before she left on her trip in late December. I asked if people still questioned her sanity.

"No," she said. "New York seems to be getting back on track. People have stopped asking 'Why?' and have started asking 'Where?'"

What follows is the best answer to the latter question we've ever compiled: a life list of destinations, of dreams that won't die. Read it. Try to refrain from drooling.

Can I carry your bags?

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Comments