Summer is coming to a close and fall is right around the corner. What did you do this summer? Did you go on vacation, travel somewhere exciting? In celebration of unscheduled time, freedom, and that infectious little travel bug, we are beginning the new season here at DoY by reminiscing about travels of yore. Because among the over one hundred artists and writers we have spoken with over the past two years, a whole lot spread their wings and soared far away at some point during their early years. Travel was often transformative, offering new perspectives, new insights, and new courage.
Over at the Yore, we’re excited to be back in action with new in-depth interviews every Monday. Next week we will begin for real with a truly marvelous tale from a truly remarkable writer. But first, some travels of yore!
Enjoy! Then go book a ticket somewhere exotic. It’ll be good for you.
Heidi Julavits I went to southern Thailand, I was on a beach in my own little hut. It cost nothing – like five dollars a night. And as with a lot of these communities, they cut the electricity at, like, eleven at night and then there is none until the morning. All these places have mosquito netting over the beds because the bugs are so bad. I had noticed when I checked in that there were all these holes in my mosquito netting. I didn’t really think much of it. I just thought it was old, what can you expect for five dollars a night? Literally, it was like a horror movie. The lights cut, boom! I’m in the dark and all of a sudden I just hear, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble…! It’s a thatched hut, you know? So the little claws are clicking away. I hear rats, rustling on the mosquito netting.
This is on your bed…?!
Yes. I am beating it with my hands to make them go away. I was up all night, it was so horrible.
And you know they can get through because there are holes…that they have made…
Oh yeah, there are holes! There are holes!! I literally had to sit there all night and beat the sides of the mosquito netting to scare them off. So, I get up in the morning. I go over to my suitcase. Of course, I’ve been traveling for quite some time so it has a lot of, you know, clothing in various states of filth. And the rats had chewed holes in all the crotches of my underwear.
[Bursts out laughing.] Kind of an indictment, huh?
Such an indictment! “Do your laundry!”
Jennifer Egan I got a backpack and went to Europe and bought a Eurail pass. I was eighteen. I would recommend that to anybody. Although it would be different now because no one is really ever cut off from anybody anymore. To do that then was really to be severed from your ties. To make a phone call I had to wait in line at a phone place and it was not easy.
Were you alone?
Yes. It was actually really hard. Of course you met people along the way, it was a freewheeling summer, lots of European kids— it’s normal for European kids to do that. It was kind of incredible to be so isolated, and in a way to be thrown into this very old and different world. But what I found was that it was actually very tough. I started to kind of flip out to some degree. In retrospect, I think I was having panic attacks, but I had never heard that term. I think now people would know, but then I thought: “Drug flashbacks, insanity, Go Ask Alice!” It was the summer of 1981.
When would these panic attacks come on?
It was usually when I was alone. The nature of a panic attack is that you’re just terrified and you don’t know why. Anyway, that became very tough. They would strike and I wouldn’t know when they would. And I was desperate to be with people, and that’s not a great way to be traveling. (…)
It is very uncomfortable to be alone, and I think that is why we, as a globe, have fetishized connection the way that we have. But I think that we are losing a lot by losing the experience of solitude. Many people have said that, but I feel that very viscerally. That was not the only time that I traveled that way. I went to China later, the former Soviet Union. I remember my birthday in China, I couldn’t make a phone call. I couldn’t speak to a single person I knew on my birthday.
I will always remember those times because they were so extreme. I was lucky to have had those experiences. They made me know myself in certain ways that I might not have otherwise.
Trey Ellis My friend and I were going to take a bus across the country to visit Stanford when I was a junior in high school, but four days before we were going to leave, he said he hadn’t asked his mom permission, so he couldn’t go. I begged my dad, and he still let me go.
I took a Greyhound by myself from New York City to Los Angeles and San Francisco, then back to New York. On the way back, I met an old beatnik named Ted Jones, who introduced me to the Beats and their wanderlust and aesthetic.
How did you meet Ted Jones?
We met in a classic Beatnik way. I was getting on the bus to go home from San Francisco, and I walked by this older black man who had his fingers in his nose. I thought, “I’m not sitting there,” but I sat across the way. There weren’t many seats. We started talking, and he said, “I travel on buses a lot, and you want to have two seats together so you can sleep. So when people are coming onto the bus, put your fingers in your nose or your pants or do something that makes them not want to sit with you.” It was good advice. And he said, “Have you ever heard of Lawrence Ferlinghetti?” I’d heard of Kerouac, but nobody else. He showed me this poem where Ferlinghetti used the word “siren” as a verb: police cars sirening down the street. All this crazy Beat language.
It’s three days across the country on the bus, and for three days we talked and talked. He told me about his adventures with Kerouac and Ginsberg and living in Timbuktu and Paris, and it opened my eyes. That’s who I wanted to be.
Tell me about the jobs you had in England.
Oh, everything. The main thing was washing dishes in the kitchen of restaurants. But then I got a very interesting job as a post woman. I had this ugly English uniform. And I had to deliver letters. And I speak very bad English, so I would end at three in the morning still delivering letters in the streets. It took so long to read and find the streets and everything. Then, after about four weeks of this job, I made a very important decision. I said, “Okay, every letter that is written with a typewriter machine means something official and is bad news— I will throw it away. Only the ones written by hand mean love and emotion and something very romantic— I am going to deliver those.” So, my job became much less complicated.
[Laughs.] Were there any repercussions?
After about two weeks, something was going very wrong and they asked me to leave. They could not prove anything, but they just asked me to resign.
Tom McCarthy I got this grant and it wasn’t much to live on in London, but in Prague I could live like a king! I had an enormous apartment. It was a fantastic time. The revolution had happened the year before and the country was being run by artists and writers. The president [Václav Havel] was an absurdist playwright who filled parliament with his friends. You know, you’d go to a gig in a bar and the drummer smoking a joint with five earrings in his ear was, like, the minister of whatever. It was a very good time. (…)
Where were you living in Prague?
I kept moving around. The way apartments worked then was that something would come up, you’d live there for two months, then you’d need to move…it was all very unofficial. I spent three months with this artist who was borderline crazy, and he was kind of part of [Václav] Havel’s outer circle. The whole art world of Prague would drop by and you know, hang out. Then I was living in a French painter’s atelier, very high up, the rooftop, with slanting roofs and very large windows, paint all over the walls. Then, for a while, I was living in some Catholic bishop’s place where some strange Rosicrucian, kind of Yeats types, would meet and discuss some sort of Zoroastrian stuff.
In the apartment?
It was a very big apartment. I had two rooms and they would meet in the rest. There was so much furniture in it that a lot of it was to be burned. They gave me an axe and said, “Smash anything and put it in the furnace to heat the apartment. Apart from things that say nechat,” which means “don’t touch.” If it got cold at night, I’d just go out with my axe and chop some things up and burn them.
William Finnegan I grew up in Los Angeles, which came to seem like a toxic place, a place that required escaping. So my friends and I mythologized the Road, and we all lit out early. I had hitchhiked through fifteen or twenty countries before I turned eighteen. I seemed to be always going coast to coast for some urgent reason, always on no money at all. And it continued after college. I probably spent most of my twenties overseas. When I was twenty-five, I took my railroad savings and left for the South Pacific. I was gone nearly four years.
That trip was a last blast, the apotheosis of my restlessness. My other obsession, besides literature, was—and still is—surfing. So I set off with a friend, also a writer and surfer, and we bummed around the South Seas, on yachts and freighters and local fishing boats, camping on uninhabited islands, looking for waves. This was in the late 70s. Western Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the New Hebrides. There weren’t many other surfers in those places in those days. We found some great empty waves. When we weren’t surfing or bushwhacking, I was working on my railroad novel. We ran out of money at some point and made our way to Australia, where we got jobs on the Queensland coast. My buddy cooked in a Mexican restaurant. I bartended, washed dishes, dug ditches. We were working illegally, but the pay was good. The surf was good. I got a lot of writing done.
From there we pushed on to Southeast Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka. First we were living on our savings from Australia, and then by various scams. My friend finally called it an era, as he put it, and went back to the U.S. I kept going, with a girlfriend, living very cheaply. In Sri Lanka we rented a house, near a good wave, for twenty-nine dollars a month. No electricity or running water. I wrote and surfed. I don’t suppose I could do it now—I have a family, a kid, a very full life here in New York—but I think it’s still true that, if you need time and cheap digs to get your writing done, there are plenty of bolt-holes in poor countries where you can live for a long time on very little money.
From Sri Lanka I went to South Africa, where I got a job teaching high school in Cape Town. I wasn’t able to write while teaching. The job was too demanding. I didn’t know what I was doing as a teacher, and my students deserved my best effort. I planned to finish my railroad novel that year but just couldn’t do it. When the school year ended, I stayed on in Cape Town, living on savings from teaching, and finally finished the novel.
That was when I decided it was time to start making a living from writing. No more job jobs. I traveled north through Africa, made my way to Europe. By the time I got to the U.S., I was broke again. Also really sick of being a foreigner. So I went back to live with my parents in L.A. I was twenty-nine. I turned thirty there. That was some pretty humble pie. But I stuck to my little private vow. I started making money from writing, got out of L.A., and, except for a little college teaching and public speaking, have been writing for a living since.