If it’s true that greatness must be experienced in the first person to be truly appreciated, then writer Rick Bass was on to something with his latest project. Bass spent three years sitting across the dinner table from some of the finest living writers of the 20th and 21st centuries, basking in their light and collecting a few clues to their genius.
In The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes (Little, Brown and Company; $28), Bass took to the road with some of his past and present students to prepare meals for writers who helped him learn his craft—Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, and Lorrie Moore, among others.
Jim Harrison was not among the mentors treated to one of Bass’ elaborate meals for the project—he died a “poet’s death” in 2016, pen in hand—but his presence in the book looms large. Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, perhaps the best novella of the past century, inspired Bass to take the leap three decades ago from someone who reveres the written word to one who wields it daily.
Surely Harrison, whose legendary appetite for fine food and drink remains unequaled in the literary world, would have approved of Bass’ offering: made-from-scratch meals often incorporating meat that Bass himself hunted, as well as berries, greens, and mushrooms that he and his mentees foraged. They commandeered their hosts’ kitchens to prepare ambitious fare like antelope shoulder grilled over mesquite coals, smoked salmon and sweet potato hash, elk burgers with blue cheese and arugula, and grilled turkey stuffed with jalapeños and onions. Dessert was equally decadent: feta and goat cheese cheesecake with homemade gingersnap crust, huckleberry and rhubarb pie, pine nut tart. Although a few failed dishes make for great comedy, the meals are mostly successful. I advise against reading it while hungry.
The fundamental question Bass strives to unravel through all those miles, over so many seared elk backstrap appetizers and glasses of Bordeaux, is a simple one: What makes for a life well lived? At this stage in his life, confronting the heartbreak of a divorce he describes as “neither my idea nor my wish,” Bass pursues a related question: How does the good life change after weathering an unexpected loss on the lee side of midlife?
Bass visits Denis Johnson, a highly acclaimed writer with an indisputable wild streak who was twice divorced but contentedly partnered when Bass dined at his home in Idaho. During the meal, Bass nearly comes out and asks if Johnson had ever given up hope and what one does with the scar tissue of past relationships. He shied from asking—too intimate, he feared.
Like Bass, Johnson chose to make a home in a remote and heavily forested valley. It’s not lost on Bass that many of his heroes are hermits, “to the point where they remove themselves so far from society and civilization that not even the curls and tendrils of electricity can reach them.” But living completely alone in such a remote valley—even an intensely beautiful one—asks something different of a solitary psyche. With his two daughters grown, Bass often finds himself reluctant to return to his beloved but empty home in Montana’s Yaak Valley. “It’s a hard place to be single,” a Yaak native told me years ago in a dim and smoky Missoula bar.
Even the suggestion of doubt can wreak havoc upon contentment. Thus, The Traveling Feast lacks the Zen-like clarity of earlier Bass nonfiction classics like Winter: Notes from Montana and Why I Came West, but there’s levity in the obvious pleasure that Bass, a self-professed hermit, draws from conversations with his mentors and peers. And the ancient act of providing proves nourishing to both Bass and his heroes. Some (Doug Peacock, Terry Tempest Williams, Tom McGuane) have become old friends; meals with others (David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates) have the jerky, halting feel of a first date. Three of Bass’ mentors have died since he broke bread with them: Peter Mathiessen, Denis Johnson, and John Berger each succumbed to one form of cancer or another.
How does the good life change after weathering an unexpected loss on the lee side of midlife?
One of the central themes of The Traveling Feast is time. Earlier in his life, Bass harbored a deep curiosity about the roles fate and chance played in his life’s trajectory. It seems he’s decided to lay that question to rest and instead search for clues about what might remain, how best to use one’s finite allotment of days.
What Bass finds applies to any number of undertakings, creative and otherwise: Be disciplined with your time and attention but generous with your good fortune. Make space—physical space—for your chosen pursuit. (Several of Bass’ mentors write in completely separate quarters that they disappear into daily.) Commune with others who share your passion. Find allies to strengthen and champion your work. Pay it forward.
Perhaps none of these practices can ignite the spark of brilliance, but they can certainly nurture it. “Writing may or may not be able to be taught,” Bass writes. “But being a writer—which is to say, growing the unguarded heart, and inhabiting the exhilarating layer of atmosphere just above us as well as the sometimes frightening subsurface barely a spade’s stroke beneath us—this can be taught, or at least encouraged.”
One way a writer achieves greatness is by leaving behind a text that will transcend his or her death. The author of 30 books, several of which have become cornerstones of the West’s literary canon, Bass has earned a prominent spot in our cultural consciousness. By participating in the age-old mentor-mentee tradition, he does something else to achieve a form of immortality—he passes on the torch. Accompanying him in that endeavor is a great pleasure indeed.