Ben Hewitt made his name writing paeans to rural food systems and the iconoclasts who create them. Now, in Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World($25), Hewitt covers his efforts to step away from the American financial machine, with the help of a 28-year-old wilderness-skills tutor named Erik Gillard, who survives on a four-digit income, lives in a handmade shack, and wears “McEnroe-era tennis shoes,” Hewitt writes. Occasionally, Gillard is heavier on platitudes than depth, but he’s a fun guy, and so is Hewitt.
Outside: When did you realize Erik might be onto something? HEWITT: One thing that interested me was his enviable lifestyle. He surrounds himself with people and things he loves. He has time for his friends. There are a lot of potlucks, a lot of singing.
How does he get away with it? He found ways to meet his needs outside the money system. He doesn’t earn enough to pay taxes.
Your title is Saved. Was there a moment when you felt saved by Erik? I can’t point to an epiphany, but processing my experiences has been transformative. Erik is the most innately generous person I’ve ever met. We went mushrooming for morels. Now, mushroomers are generally a secretive lot, but Erik took me to the best spots. To him these are things to be shared. When you get stuff for free or because of the abundance of nature, it’s such a rush. Who doesn’t like being able to forage a meal? That’s free food!
You now barter beef and chickens with your neighbors and try to source your meals from the wilderness. Any tips for those of us who might not live in the sticks? I highly recommend dumpster diving at colleges the day after the semester ends. Wear gloves. The amount of stuff frat boys throw away is unbelievable.
Do you ever think you might be romanticizing Erik? I do, but I try not to let him off the hook and to look at some of his contradictions. I’ve been privy to enough of his personal quandaries to see that his contentment is real. More than anyone I’ve met, he’s in control of his time.
You refer to the financial system as the “unconscious economy,” but you must hope some never quit it. I need people to consume enough to buy my books or I’m screwed.
Monday night, HBO will premiere Josh Fox’s new documentary, Gasland II, (9 p.m. EST) about the controversial practice of drilling into bedrock in order to tap natural gas deposits. Fox’s first film, 2010’s Gasland, became a runaway hit, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary thanks to compelling characters in hard-hit places like Pennsylvania and Wyoming, and shocking images of tap water on fire. Gasland II expands the focus to places like Louisiana and Australia, but still has plenty of footage of burning tap and ground water.
Fox is a leader in a growing army of fracking detractors, many of them environmentalists and community leaders who claim that it contaminates groundwater, makes people sick, and causes earthquakes. But the fame has brought him detractors of his own. His first film came under attack from the oil and gas industries, which released 2012’s Truthland, an industry-sponsored, pro-fracking film, as well as an 11-page document titled “Debunking GasLand.” Nevertheless, Fox’s image as a daring, muckraking filmmaker has remained intact (although the New York Times Greenwire blog said that Fox and the industry had “each made errors”). We caught up with him at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado, where Gasland II played to standing-room-only crowds, to talk about the fracking industry, his transition to activism, and how he keeps it up after five years on the road with his films.
Outside: Were you an activist before all of this? Fox: I wasn’t a professional activist. I’m a theater guy and a filmmaker. So when my community was thrown up in the air by the gas industry, the way I could contribute was to do something in the film world. I never thought it would be a big deal at all. I thought it was just for the Delaware River basin. That changed.
How many miles have you driven in the course of these films? I’d guess 100,000 miles in two crappy Toyotas. One of them died. The other is the son of the first. And unfortunately you have to drive in that situation. We try to be fuel-efficient. It’s an old car. Not a new car.
Do you ever step back and think how much this has consumed your life? Do you ever think, “Oh shit, this is the only thing I do now”? Like Frank Finan [a Pennsylvanian who opposes fracking in his community] in the film says: To some people we’re just someone in the news. But this is a fundamental transformation of where you’re from. When you have your home on the line, you don’t have a choice. Today, I’m living in a completely different world than the one I was living in before I did this. And this is the simply the most meaningful way to live. I’ve been doing this for five years, now. But that doesn’t mean that life has been taken over by it. It means that life has in some ways become more full.
What motivates you? Making a good film? Exposing the truth? The film is just a tool, a thing that you craft. The film raises awareness. You have to obey completely different rules as a filmmaker and a journalist than you do as an activist. As a filmmaker, you have to tell a good story. You have an audience sitting there, emerged, wanting to know what’s next. As a journalist, you have to double-check all of your sources, all of the things you’re reporting on. You have to do the scientific investigative work to support what you’re reporting on. But, as an activist, you have to spend every single day of your life devoted to it.
Are you able to do that? When the camera is in your hands, you’re a journalist, but when you’re here at a film festival, you’re an activist? Of course. Because I’m going to be taken to account for any mistakes. Certainly, we don’t want to open up ourselves to a real mistake. There are no real mistakes in either film. The industry has spread a lot of misinformation. The film is about journalism. Once the film is done, you can go out there and talk to people.
Activism is just meeting people. Look at John [Fenton, a Wyoming cowboy and character in Gasland]. A six-foot-four-inch rancher and rodeo champion from Wyoming in a white cowboy hat, and me in a funny glasses and a Yankees cap. We’re a ridiculous odd couple. But he’s one of my closest friends in the world. That’s because we’re meeting not in a culture of something shallow, we’re meeting in a culture of something really important. That’s what real activism is.
When the industry came after you, were you surprised? I was deeply surprised that they attacked the film. It got us so much attention. The best thing they could have done was ignore it. We had no chance to win the Oscar. But when they wrote the letter attacking the Academy Awards, trying to get the nomination rescinded, all of a sudden we had a chance.
How do you deal with the attacks? Everybody has a different reaction. Tony Ingraffea gets super fired up when they attack him. He’s one of the geologists who used to work for the industry who we feature in Gasland II. He loves it. He’s the cement guy. The godfather of cement. You have to understand that they attack because they’re afraid. Because we can [create energy] another way.
And we know that. The fossil fuel industry perpetuates this myth that if we don’t use oil and gas and coal, our standard of living will go down. But it’s exactly the opposite. If we keep using oil and gas and coal, our standard of living will go down. What we’re talking about is two million projected new wells in the United States of America. That’s one well per 150 people. That’s insane. That’s handing over our quality of life to become an oil and gas extraction zone.
What do you see as that other way? I think it’s a question of consumption. We have to make some really clear cultural choices here. When you’re facing down the oil and gas industry, it’s pretty clear what matters in life. And when you see the waste in everyday life ... I remember when I was flying back from New Orleans from looking at the BP oil spill. I was on Jet Blue, which gives you unlimited snacks. And each of those snacks is wrapped in a plastic thing, made from natural gas. When you’re out on the Pacific and encounter all of those wrappers, that’s going to make an impression.
We have to start processing what we’re really made of in America. American character is not dead. American integrity and honesty are not dead. When we’re backed up against the wall against the largest corporations in the history of corporations, it’s there.
The last big news most Americans heard about Bear Grylls was his very public breakup with the Discovery Channel, in the spring 2012. At the time, headlines screamed that the charming British host of the hit survival show Man vs. Wild had been “fired.” The truth was more complicated, as I reported in a feature profile of Grylls for Outside that fall. But still, it was a critical moment for the king of adventure television: What does he do now?
The answer, it appears, is everything. On July 8, NBC will premiere his first-ever network series, Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls, a weekly reality game show that plays out (roughly) in the Survivor model: Ten two-person teams try to prove their mettle in the wilds of New Zealand. Each week, Grylls sends one team home. The duo left standing at the end wins $500,000. Later in the fall, Discovery will debut another brand new series, Bear Grylls Escapes from Hell, which has him retracing horrific real-life survival tales. (The cable giant has also purchased the rights to air Get Out Alive after the show runs its course on NBC.) The 39-year-old also has a new book (his 12th), A Survival Guide for Life, new gear (including a boat), a growing network of survival schools (Bear Grylls Survival Academy), and, coming towards the end of the year, an obstacle race (BG Survival Run).
I recently phoned Grylls at his family’s barge on the River Thames in London, where he was enjoying a brief break with his wife and three sons, to talk about Get Out Alive and his life as the world’s busiest and best-known survivalist.
OUTSIDE: It’s been an interesting year for you. When we spoke in the spring of 2012, you really weren’t sure when you’d be on TV next. GRYLLS: That was a pretty tricky time for us—we were right in the heart of all those tricky negotiations but we steered our way through it. Ultimately I really wanted the freedom to make some of our own shows. It’s a bit like a teenager leaving home, there’s a certain amount of pain. But I always said to them, Let me make Get Out Alive, you’re going to love the show, and then we’ll come back and make some other shows for you. We’ve done that and it’s so nice. I feel much lighter now.
Get Out Alive is a big departure from Man vs. Wild, which was all about you. It’s the show that I’ve always wanted to make. I get the biggest kick from taking other people out, whether it’s people on expeditions, or the few cases where I took celebrities with me on Man vs. Wild, or what we’re doing with the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. So I wanted to take 20 regular Americans on these big journeys and guide them and help them to fly. There are ten couples, whether it’s mother-daughter, father-son, married couple, best friends. Each week I send one couple home that least shows the qualities that I’m after.
So what qualities were you after? It’s everything—not just determinations and courage. It’s just as much about humility and kindness and going that extra mile for your friend. You see people arrive wide-eyed without any knowledge of the values or skills that matter. And then they click in and realize it’s about digging deep.
Was it hard for you to send people home? It was easier at the start. But as they really went through hell and I started to restrict the gear they were taking and the journeys got bigger, I got really close to them. In the last episode, we had three couples. We were in the rainforest in torrential storm conditions. They had no gear at this point—no sleeping bags no tents, nothing. It’s very moving when you see people with real relationships go through that together.
When you were casting the show, did you have a specific idea of the kinds of characters you wanted? I didn’t want just classic reality TV melodramatic whining. I wanted people who had a real reason to go through this with me. Not just the money, but the fact that they would get to know each other in a way that sometimes you have to be married 20 years to get to know someone like that. People who wanted to prove to themselves and each other that they had heart and they had soul and spirit. That they could put up with hardship and get on with it.
Given your habits, I assume the hardships included eating disgusting things I’ve always said: Wild food is never going to be pretty and it’s never going to taste nice but it’s a big part of surviving. It was interesting seeing people who’ve never done anything like this drinking their own pee or eating worms and maggots and fish eyeballs and all of that. But it was all for a purpose. If you don’t eat then you lack the energy and you suffer and your performance is weaker and you can’t help people and other people have to help you.
What can you tell me about your other upcoming new series, Bear Grylls Escapes from Hell? We’ve almost finished it. I follow the most incredible stories of people who’ve got into nightmare situations in jungles, deserts, mountains. I redo their journeys and show what they did right, what they did wrong, and champion their stories. They’re really moving stories of everyday people who should have died, really. We did one in the Rockies, in the Guatemalan jungle, in the Sahara. We’re about to go to the Alps.
Two new shows and you have time to oversee the Bear Grylls Survival Academy? We’ve seen incredible growth this year. I didn’t expect it. I thought it, Oh, it’ll be a nice run with a couple of schools around the U.K. But it’s just gone crazy. We’ve started these father-son, mother-daughter 24-hour survival courses and they’re booked out for four years in advance now. We’re also opening up a couple of school in the U.S. and we’re licensing out as well to other schools.
How involved are you in the curriculum? And what would I actually learn on a course? I totally wrote the course initially. But it wasn’t hard—stuff I do in my sleep. I know exactly what pushes people and builds people. Then we brought a lot of ex-military guys we’ve worked with and ex-Man vs. Wild team that I’ve worked with. And then we got them to train people. It doesn’t take long to get the brand and the style and the stuff that matters. Instead of just boring bush crafty survival things where people are whittling a spoon out of a bit of wood we have them doing river crossing in the Scottish Highlands and unarmed combat up a mountain by lantern at night.
That sounds more like an obstacle race. Have you thought about creating one yet? We’re doing it! We’re devising one at the moment called BG Survival Run at the end of the year in the U.S.
Of course you are. It’s gonna be a really fun 12K, big numbers of people, and all based around survival and teamwork and having fun. So many people over Twitter and Facebook over the last year have been saying, “You should do one of these! You could do it in such a cool way.” You see so many companies clutching at ideas—Grecian races or whatever. But it’s so logical for us to do a really gritty, muddy, dirty survival-based run.
Anything else I’m missing? ASurvival Guide to Life, my new book, has done well over here in the U.K. and is launching soon in the U.S. It’s all the lessons of life I’ve learned. It was voted the most influential book in China in 2012—beat Obama! Oh, and we’ve launched our RIBs.
What on earth is a rib? Look it up: bgribs.com. They’re the most incredible hardcore offshore rigid inflatable boats—RIBs. And then we’ve hugely extended all our gear ranges, from tents to backpacks to sleeping bags.
It’s safe to say you landed on your feet after last year’s breakup with Discovery. We’ve been super lucky. We’ve worked hard. But for me, all off these things—the TV shows, the books, the gear—are about inspiring people to be better, stronger, and be braver in the big moments. I get such a kick out of hearing and telling these stories. It’s all good fun.
Is nuclear power the answer to the wicked problem of climate change? Many people believe we can’t hope to have a viable future for human civilization without it. Nuclear technology, they argue, is the only currently available option that can replace the world’s ubiquitous coal-fired power plants, which are the leading source of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Robert Stone agrees, and he’s made a documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, that aims to convert viewers on the issue. Stone is no nuclear-industry hack: he came to this subject after a long career making documentaries on a wide range of subjects, including environmentalism and the horrors of nuclear weapons. (His first film, 1987’s Radio Bikini, was a critical look at the history of atomic bomb-making and testing.) To help press his case, Stone has selected five similarly converted people—iconoclast and futurist Stewart Brand, author Gwyneth Cravens, British environmentalist Mark Lynas, nuclear-weapons expert Richard Rhodes, and environmental gadfly Michael Shellenberger—to tell the story of this potentially last best hope for restraining CO2’s relentless buildup.
As Stone admits, existing nuclear technology—the kind that could be deployed in a hurry—has shown a worrying susceptibility to failure, whether at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima Daiichi. Then there’s the issue of waste. The more advanced reactor technologies discussed in the film—breeder reactors that in theory would be able to use waste as fuel—exist primarily on paper, and the National Academy of Sciences has deemed such waste-recycling efforts impractical in the past. But there is no question that harnessing atomic fission in a reactor to boil water, spin a turbine, and generate electricity emits far fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal for the same purpose. Of course, there are other options, too, such as capturing the CO2 from fossil fuels or tapping the Earth’s heat to generate clean electricity.
Pandora’s Promise has angered antinuclear activists and is likely to provoke intense discussion as it opens in select theaters this week, and Stone has already had heated exchanges with environmentalists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. DAVID BIELLO spoke with Stone on the day when news broke that California officials would permanently shut down the two nuclear reactors at San Onofre, suggesting that, in the United States at least, nuclear power might not be headed in the direction Stone would prefer.
OUTSIDE: Why did you make this film? STONE: I felt a growing concern and alarm that the proposals advocated by the environmental movement to deal with climate change over the past 25 years—the idea that we’re going to replace fossil fuels entirely with renewable energy, that we’ll have an international agreement on carbon, and that we’ll reduce energy use worldwide with radical energy efficiency—are all failing to address the crisis. CO2 concentration in the atmosphere just passed 400 parts per million. That’s higher than it’s ever been in human history, and it’s accelerating. That should be a wake-up call to environmentalists that we need to stop doing the same things over and over again while expecting a different result.
In 2009, I made a film about the environmental movement called Earth Days, and I got to know a bunch of heavy-hitting environmentalists. All of them would tell me privately, over a drink or lunch, that they think we’re doomed. All of them, despite what they might say in public. I found that rather appalling. Meanwhile, Stewart Brand, who I knew quite well, had written a book in which he started to reconsider some of the core principles of environmentalism—including opposition to nuclear power—in the face of climate change. As I got into it, I found out that there were a number of other people like him, including James Hansen and James Lovelock and Mark Lynas, who had a very different take on this. They were looking at climate change as a problem that we need to solve with the tools we have available, in the time frame we have left. Why do you think all those doom-saying environmentalists don’t embrace nuclear power? I think most people who are liberals, Democrats—their default position is to be antinuclear, as part of the program. This is all part of the political polarization that has gone on in this country around everything from climate change to gun control. But, as I found out, this broadly shared antinuclear view is very thin. The overwhelming majority of people who come to see this film feel very positive and enthusiastic about its message. What do you find attractive about nuclear power as a solution? I don’t care about nuclear power specifically. If we could power the world on algae, that would be cool, too. I’m also in favor of wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal. But if you do the math, you see that you can’t start shutting down one of the most extraordinarily productive, non-CO2-producing sources of energy at the very moment when you need to reduce CO2 emissions. Nuclear energy can produce incredible amounts of clean electricity without emitting CO2, and it can be scaled up far more rapidly than any other non-CO2-emitting energy source that we know of. If you factor in the new technologies—third- and fourth-generation reactor designs that could come online in the years ahead—you realize that nuclear power is going to be a very big part of the solution. You cannot solve the climate crisis without it.
What do you make of the news that San Onofre will be shut down? It’s a 40-year-old reactor. The problem they had there was with the steam turbine, not with the reactor itself. But, OK, it’s going to be taken offline and replaced with a power plant that burns natural gas instead. Is that a victory for the environmental movement? No. That’s the equivalent of putting two million cars on the road, and if your primary goal is to save the planet from extinction, it’s not such a good thing. Right now, all the action in nuclear energy and CO2 emissions is happening in Asia. In the U.S., we’re probably going to burn gas for about 20 more years and then buy all our nuclear reactors from the Chinese.
That’s sounds very pessimistic. Well, I’d be happy if we didn’t go down that road, but I think the only way not to is if people who are up in arms about hydrofracking and the Keystone XL pipeline get behind a viable alternative. If they got their head behind advanced nuclear energy, and we brought this stuff online and made it economical by mass-producing it, you might have one.
Let’s go through some of the challenges with nuclear power. The first that springs to mind, given your film-making background, is the production and proliferation of plutonium. Do you worry about the stockpiles of plutonium we might amass if we build, say, a thousand reactors? Yes. And there are only two ways to get rid of plutonium: you either bury it for 100,000 years, or you put it into an advanced fast reactor—a novel nuclear design that can use plutonium as fuel—and turn it into another element, which happens as part of the transmutation process that goes on inside these reactors. There’s a lot of excitement in Great Britain about building one of these. They’ve got the backing of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and all that.
You’re talking about the PRISM reactor, which would transmute plutonium into other radioactive elements. But with the PRISM design, you’d still be increasing the overall amount of waste that has to be dealt with in one form or another, whether through geologic burial or— All that stuff can be recycled, and what you end up with is waste that’s far smaller in volume and is only radioactive for a few hundred years. I think you might want to check your physics. The physics has been checked left, right, and center. That’s what these reactors do. You end up with a very small amount of waste, and within a few hundred years, not thousands of years, the material’s radioactivity is down to the same level as natural background radiation.
You might want to change “hundreds of years” to “thousands of years,” but let’s focus on the bogeyman you just mentioned: radiation. Why does it scare people so much? You can’t see it, hear it, or smell it, and it causes cancer. That’s as scary as it possibly gets. What could be scarier than that? But it’s not really so scary if managed properly? Not at the levels you’re ever likely to be exposed to. There’s this perception out there that any amount of radiation will give you cancer, and therefore radiation is to be avoided at all costs. What I demonstrate in the film is that there are wildly different levels of background radiation occurring naturally throughout the world at all times, some of them far stronger than what you would encounter standing next to a nuclear power plant. One of the better touches in the film is when you’re carrying around your dosimeter—a device for measuring radiation levels—and taking readings at various cities and places, including a beach in Brazil that has a high level of natural radiation. How did you come up with that? After the Fukushima disaster, I saw lots of news reporters in full radiation gear using the same dosimeter I have. It would start beeping, and they’d say, “We’ve reached our limit, we have to get out of here!” But they would never tell you what the numbers were or put those numbers in context. After reading more about radiation and talking to experts, I thought the best way to demonstrate the different variations was to travel around with a dosimeter. You get more radiation in the air, traveling from New York to Tokyo, than you do near Fukushima. You and Mark Lynas went to Fukushima after the accident. When you were standing on the seashore, not far from where a couple of reactors were melting down, what were your thoughts? We were there a year later, and it was a deeply emotional experience for both of us. We’re both steeped in this subject; we’re both publicly pro-nuclear at this point. And yet here we were at this area that’s been evacuated, and there were levels of radiation far and above what there had been prior to this event. It’s one thing to sit at a remove, thousands of miles away, and say that the levels of radiation aren’t so bad. It’s quite another to be there and see what happens. And it’s inexcusable. Fukushima should never have happened. It should never happen again. I think it made me understand something better: the need to connect with the audience at an emotional level and understand that emotional fear of radiation. That had to be dealt with in making the movie. Another big challenge for nuclear advocates is that the technologies you’re talking about—the PRISM reactor and the rest—are not available yet and won’t be anytime soon. With nuclear, we have troubled, existing technology that we could deploy quickly, or we need more R&D, which takes time. The reason newer technologies are not available today is that the antinuclear movement halted their development 25 years ago, so let’s get that straight. The newer technologies will probably be available in around 2030 to 2040. Between now and then, we would need to deploy light water reactors or small modular reactors, which are almost ready for commercialization. Probably not here, but in China and other places that have different regulatory environments.
You also have to back up and look at how “troubled” the current technology really is. We’ve got 440 reactors operating around the world. That’s 440 nuclear plants and 50 years of nuclear power with three accidents, only one of which caused a loss of human life. In terms of scalability, the French went nuclear and virtually decarbonized their entire electric grid in 20 years. So it’s already scalable to a degree that no one’s been able to do with renewable energy.
The French did it because, essentially, their government said, “We’ve got to get off oil.” The Chinese are building a lot of nuclear power plants and a lot of wind operations and anything else they can build. But it’s not really having a huge impact on their coal emissions, and in both cases these moves required massive government support.
The most promising nuclear technology in a free-market society like the U.S. is the small modular reactors, which are smaller than conventional nuclear power plants and can be assembled in a factory. They can be built at lower costs. They cost a billion dollars, not six billion, so you can scale up.
But then you don’t get the big climate benefits you’re looking for. The reason we went for the big technology in the first place was economies of scale. If we’re going to spend all this money on nuclear, we better get at least a gigawatt of electricity out of it.
That’s true, but if you can manufacture these things like you manufacture a commercial aircraft and churn them out in a factory, you can put one next to another, next to another… You would have a safer, more stable grid by distributing the energy, which environmentalists have always been for. And different countries have always done different things. There may be large areas where solar is great. Offshore, wind looks very promising in certain place, like the North Sea. You’re going to need to do everything.
So you’re an all-of-the-above guy, like Obama. Yeah, I think you have to be if your goal is to solve the climate crisis.
Given nuclear’s track record, its complexity, its unforgiving nature, what convinces you that this can be done more safely going forward? Every day, millions and millions of people whiz around in aluminum tubes at hundreds of miles per hour, crisscrossing the globe. Air travel is safer than it’s ever been in all of aviation history. These are extremely complicated pieces of technology and an extremely complicated and potentially dangerous system.
That’s how it should be with nuclear reactors. We should not make these one-off, gargantuan things that we’ve made in the past, where every design is different. The French mass-produced them, and they’ve got a remarkable safety record. If one little gauge goes wrong, a valve, they take it apart, find out what went wrong and why, and then replace that valve in every one of their reactors. That’s how you engineer safety.
My film is quite critical of how we developed nuclear power in the U.S. It was dumb. But even though it was dumb, nuclear power has never killed anybody here. Hand over fist, it’s the cheapest form of energy we produce. It’s amazing.
As he’s setting out for the west coast of Africa, travel writer Paul Theroux likens travel to dying. “When you’re only a dim memory, a bitterness creeps into the recollection, in the way that the dead are often resented for being dead. What good are you, unobtainable and so far away?” But Theroux’s writing is firmly rooted in the land of the living, and the sparsely traveled locations he writes from are exactly what make it compelling.
In the just-released The Last Train to Zona Verde, a follow-up to 2002’s Dark Star Safari, Theroux recounts with characteristically vivid prose one last, ambitious trip from South Africa through Angola. It may be the last he sees of the continent for a while, but it won’t be the last we hear of him. We spoke to Theroux about his nomadic career, his beef with the “big, horrible cities” of the world, and his next great adventure.
OUTSIDE: You’ve been doing this for almost 50 years now. How have your adventures changed since you first started? THEROUX: I joined the Peace Corps in 1963 in Nyasaland, which became Malawi. That was really the beginning of my adventures in the world—I mean, the real world. At that time, African countries were just becoming decolonized. It was very hard to get to Central Africa. All in all, about five flights. I knew I was going into a country of troops and no paved roads. All that’s changed. The two significant periods I can think of are before the jumbo jet and after the jumbo jet. After the jumbo jet, travel became much cheaper, available to more people.
I understand you’re not a huge fan of planes. Do you know anyone who is? It’s just awful. It’s a quick way of getting from one place to another, but if anyone really wants to see a country, you have to see it on the ground. You want to see Mexico, you go from Arizona into Nogales, Mexico, and travel by road. You don’t fly to Baja. I’m an advocate of overland travel. No matter where you go, there’s more reality to it. Sometimes more difficulty, but it’s not a distorting mirror of going from one national capital to another.
You seem to have a skill for finding those non-touristy places, and moments of serendipity. Where does the planning stop and the luck begin? I think you do basic planning—you have to get yourself to the place. The advantage that I have is time on my hands. If you have unlimited time, you can go anywhere, find out things, and serendipitous things take place. I don’t do a lot of planning. I don’t look people up. It’s a question of I suppose moving on. You get on a bus, walk somewhere, meet someone—you keep moving until you create this sort of vortex of energy, and things happen. But four of the people I met died, so I also had this gloomy feeling about travel, that if you push your luck you might be making a fatal mistake.
Is there anything else you really fear on the road? Meeting a young person carrying a gun. I do not like that. It’s happened a few times—well, half a dozen times. It could happen to you in New York City. But it could also happen to you in Kenya, in Angola. Someone pointing a gun. Everything else is sort of negotiable.
Does it change how you feel about traveling after things like that happen? No, I’m not turned off travel. I love it, I need to do it. The things I don’t like are the big, horrible cities of the world. Outside magazine is a proponent of adventure travel, wide-open spaces. Outside magazine is not committed to the urban nightmare, am I right? So the trouble is that Africa, to use an example off my book, is becoming much more urbanized. It’s become going from one big horrible city to another big horrible city. There’s nothing to report. They’re places that people are trying to escape from as well as trying to get to.
What animates me is getting to a landscape that I can travel in, doesn’t matter safely or unsafely—your luck is your luck. But you want to feel that you’re not confined in a city. I want to feel that, anyway.
What do you think constitutes a successful trip? What I look for is a sense of liberation. The fact that you’re away from home, you’re managing, making some discoveries about the place, about yourself. You just have the sense—even though it might be a struggle—of personal freedom. And then seeing things before they melt away. The world is changing, traditional life just disappears. So see it before it goes away.
That reminds me of the first chapter of the book, where you visit the Ju/’hoansi people, who were living traditional lives in Namibia. But you got the sense that they were putting on a show. There is a certain romantic illusion that people are living traditional lives when they’re really not. There are very few places in the world that live as they used to. So that was certainly an illusion. I thought that I was seeing traditional life, not just seeing people putting up.
But you still appreciate it, even if you know it isn’t exactly real. I met an old man and he was telling me about his life, and I thought, however false this other aspect was, at least I met this guy and he was leveling with me. One of the things that I value in travel is talking to people who remember the way things were. They may be dressed in a Chinese T-shirt and wearing a baseball hat, but they have sort of a sense of continuity that’s not obvious in the way they dress.
Is there anywhere in particular you’d still like to go and learn about that? When I joined the Peace Corps in 1963, if I had tape-recorded, say, a 70-year-old person—they would have been 10 years old at the turn of the century. They would have remembered the First World War, the way it was fought in Africa too. No matter where it is, memory of the past; it’s extremely valuable. In so-called travel-writing, that’s what interests me. The traveler is not going to museums or churches, but actually talking to people and hearing about their lives.
What is it that you want to give your readers, as a travel writer? I’m sharing my experience such as it is, no matter how trivial. I’m also doing what writers ought to do, which is to give some shape to the world. What am I doing really, writing about some far-off place? It’s just a letter to a friend, telling them what happened, and trying to be as truthful as possible. The basic pursuit is to enlighten—and also to divert.
When you decided not to complete your trip at the end of Zona Verde, did you feel you weren’t going to get that out of the rest of the journey? I felt at the end that it would be repetitive. For some people, the metropolitan experience is very thrilling. It’s not for me. The idea of rootless people trying to leave the country, it’s not my line in writing. And I found that I was taking 10-hour bus rides from one big horrible city to another big horrible city, and I was thinking, What’s there to write about it? It would all be a complaint. You know what I mean?
In Zona Verde and Dark Star Safari, the tone does seem to take a bit of a downward turn. Some take issue with your assertion that you’re “not an Afro-pessimist”. I don’t know what people think, but if anything, I feel positive about Africa. I feel down on people trying to save Africa, if that’s what you mean. My general feeling is a lot of people in the rescue business are really trying to rescue themselves—rescue a reputation or make themselves prominent. In the big green beating heart of Africa there’s a lot of hope, so I’m not down on it.
It’s the interest of a lot of people to portray others as more desperate than they really are. I’m not sentimental. All I want to do is try to see things as they are, not as I wish they were. And if you do that, you know, sometimes what you say is unpopular. But that’s my role as a writer.
It doesn’t seem like you plan on retiring anytime soon. What’s next? When I was having an interesting time in Africa, I was thinking how little I’ve seen of the United States. What I’ve seen is, there are parts of America that resemble the third world. They have the same problems of access to health care, high infant mortality rates, serious poverty. They’re often ignored. I’m not a sightseer. I’m interested in seeing the world as it is. So if you ask, something in the South, in the Deep South.
I’ve done a bit of traveling there. I find, in general, that the people I’ve met are very welcoming. People have great stories to tell. I’m gonna give it a try.