Do you remember when you first fell in love? Or the day you first glimpsed something you knew would change your life forever?
That happened to me two decades ago today. June 5, 1991. My 22nd birthday. Two weeks out of college, I awoke in New York City with a hangover, stumbled to JFK with a passport and backpack, and spent the next 14 months globetrotting across 14 countries. Lots of young people do this and move on with their lives. I’ve never quite gotten over it.
It’s fair to say I think about the trip every day, surround myself with music from that time, still treasure clothes I wore then (or on return trips to some of my favorite spots with my wife). I’ve become a father, which is the most important thing I’ve ever done or ever will; and I’ve written columns that have been read by hundreds of thousands of people. But I tend to think of that roadtrip as my most meaningful experience, in terms of things I’ve personally achieved.
I had been fortunate to have traveled abroad as a kid, but discovering the backpacker underground and the expat lifestyle opened my eyes to life possibilities I’d never considered. I encountered cultures that were more ancient and unique than I’d imagined. I felt privileged to be walking on a new planet, one so much larger and richer than I’d realized in my twentysomething wisdom.
And I felt free – free to discover, to experience, to find myself, to be. I wanted to keep living on the road, even as, over time, I found myself missing my family and my culture. I don’t know how many times I grabbed a Big Mac on my way to my English-teaching job in Osaka, but to this day, McDonald’s reminds me of Japan (a sad statement, I admit).
Life, of course, is about making choices and choosing paths, and I wouldn’t trade the one I’ve trod in the two decades since that trip ended. I married my dream girl, moved to New Orleans and then California, worked in a profession I’ve loved and have had many more opportunities to see the world. But I still feel jealous of those rootless wanderers I met back in the day, the Europeans and Australians who’ll light out and travel for two years at a time. And as I settle into my 40s, sweat the bills and watch my hairline recede, I wonder if my wife and I will ever again have the freedom to live abroad and travel at length (at least, while we’re young enough to really enjoy it).
There’s one other thing that both keeps the trip alive for me and, I sometimes fear, keeps me unable to move past it: a travelogue I worked on for years but have so far been unable to publish. If you were to grant me one wish, I’d ask for safety and good health for my family; but if you offered me two, the second choice, the selfish choice, would be to see my book in print before I die. Sure, I know about self-publishing, and I understand first-hand that the traditional publishing market is tighter and tougher than ever (I’m a journalist, remember). But a writer I admire once opined that a vanity press is like paying for sex. And while I don’t delude myself to think my book would ever be a best-seller, I do believe in it – I believe it has something to say and says it well – and I crave the validation of knowing a publisher feels the same.
At times I tell myself to drop it and move on, but then I hear a voice inside me weakly cry for art, and passion, and dreams. I kick myself for not finding or manufacturing the time – getting up at 6 each morning, say, to send out agent letters or craft chapters into stand-alone short stories to pitch. Nobody’s going to walk up to me and ask, “Hey, do you have a book I can publish?” Yet I also know my life is so committed and co-opted by the responsibilities of work and parenthood and bill-paying that it was all I could do to sit down tonight and peck out these thoughts. Even as I write them, I debate the wisdom of shouting them into the void, lest I expose myself as too pathetic to either let go or take charge.
But as I was thinking the other night about writing this, a wonderful thought occurred to me. I was rocking my son to sleep, and I suddenly realized that 20 years from today, he’ll be almost exactly the age I was when I began my trek of a lifetime. He’ll be, in all likelihood, just a few months out of college. And, I told my wife, I hope that he’ll be spending that day somewhere on the other side of the world, with a backpack and a dream. That realization gives me hope – if not for my book, than for an accomplishment far more enduring.
A POSTSCRIPT: The night after I posted this blog, my wife, son and I drove up to Napa -- which for my money is one of the most beautiful spots on earth. As they napped in the backseat, I looked out at the rows of wine grapes, with Atlas Peak looming in the distance, and thought, "If I had to choose between this drive or bouncing through some Himalayan valley in a bus, I'm not sure I'd choose the latter..."
As I was putting James down that night in our hotel room, he whispered to me, "We're having an adventure." And then he whispered something I've never heard him say before: "We're traveling."
He could not have given me a better birthday gift. And I hope in sharing our passion for travel, my wife and I have given him one that will last a lifetime.
Causes Peter Delevett Supports
Board member, Books and Authors Vietnam, a national nonprofit that fosters literary exchange between the US and Vietnam and seeks to publish writing by...