Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Theroux’

Oh, the places you’ll go…

In Adventure, Travel on January 14, 2013 at 6:00 am


The travel section of yesterday’s New York Times reminded me that I was once a traveler. The specific article prompting this observation is called, The 46 Places To Go in 2013. Of the 46 places listed I’ve been to eight. That is not a bad average, I guess. I used to be a regular and steady country counter and was full of myself a few years ago when I had to have more pages sewed into my filled passport. Bragging rights no longer motivate me, and the travel bug, as some call it, has lessened, albeit, all but disappeared. As I said I was once a traveler, which is like saying, I was once a dancer but don’t have the legs any more.

(Perhaps some day we will discuss the distinction between the traveler and the tourist.)

In the same Times section is an article by Paul Theroux (b. 1941) called My Travel Wish List. The piece was tagged, “The Man Who’s Been Everywhere, Except These Places.” I was pleased to discover that I’d been to at least two places on Theroux’s wish list, places he has yet to visit, Bhutan and the Seychelles. (Seychelles travel piece.) He also comments that he’s never been to Maine’s northern-most, and remotest county, Aroostook; nor has he climbed Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. (“Come ‘on, Paul. I’m a Maine Guide, let me show you!”) I’ve admired Mr. Theroux’s writing for years, and applaud his curiosity-driven life.

“Travel is a state of mind,” he writes in his essay collection, Fresh Air Fiend. “It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almostfresh.air.fiend.001 entirely an inner experience.” To the non-traveler this might seem odd, even contradictory, but it rings true to my experience. First travels taught me the artificial nature of conventual education. History, geography, language, literature, culture–they all combine into a monolithic “inner experience” when one travels. “Experience and travel,” wrote Montaigne, “these are as education themselves.” Travel of the right order affords one a unique perception regarding the net of experience. In that way it is not unlike a hallucination, where one caresses the stars while sipping champagne. Odd things are perceived, understood, and accepted, transforming the traveler. The world will forever be perceived differently henceforth.

What happened? Where did my passion for the world go? There is no answer at the ready for that question. Travel has been as important to my life as the books I’ve read, if not more so. Is it, as a friend suggested, that in coming to Maine I arrived at my destination? Perhaps, but that seems too pat an answer–and does not lessen the sense of mourning. Perhaps the restlessness of a younger man has been exhausted–at least the physical restlessness. I find this answer close to truth and sadly disconcerting, for I value the quality of restlessness and think it an attribute worth cultivating. It seems not much of worth is accomplished without a healthy dose of it. I do not know an antidote, nor think one likely, for this condition. I find it quietly upsetting and do not think too long on it.

I invite Mr. Clemens to contribute the last word:

1244“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Thanks for reading,


The attraction of hard places.

In Adventure, Books, The Examined Life, Travel, Writing on June 25, 2012 at 6:00 am

Morning, Grand Manan, New Brunswick, from my tent.

Observation of last week while driving north through Maine into New Brunswick: Each mile affords another degree of remoteness. Every hour leaves more people behind, presenting in their place, more trees. This feels very right.

I can not help but wonder what it is about such places that appeals to me so deeply. Perhaps it is the consolation of an only child.

* * *

Years ago, after reading my first Paul Theroux book–I think it was The Happy Isles of Oceania–I fancied the notion of molding myself into a travel writer. Theroux’s style appealed in a significant way. His mix of travel, literature, and the personal experience resonated. His books are not so much travel books as they are a peak inside the head of an astoundingly erudite and observant man on the move. The Pillars of Hercules is the narrative of his adventure walking–yes, walking–the rim of the Mediterranean, Gibraltar to North Africa. His classic The Old Patagonia Express records his journey by trains–one connecting to the next–linking his home in Massachusetts all the way south to Terra del Fuego. His other books follow suit. And they all appeal. (It is not lost on me that he leans to places I like.)

That one appeal of literature: Reading as a function of the elsewhere.

There is something about being on the move to a hard place at the extreme that I can hardly resist. Last week, crossing the 45th parallel gave me a thrill. We’re getting there now, I thought. I would like to have continued north to the magic that is the roaring forties.  It must be obvious that I long to dwell in another place and time, when everything and everywhere are not just different, but less than they are now.

I exist in a fictional region of northern New England where I live in a state of wonder and want and where everything tilts to metaphor.

A couple of years ago, I composed an audio-photo essay (the two-minute video is on Vimeo here) on a canoe maker in Northern Maine. Rollin Thurlow of The Northwoods Canoe Company lives in Atkinson, Maine, and makes wood canoes by hand. Atkinson has a population of  323 (2000). Roland told me that in the summer, when the village gets crowded, he escapes north into the Provence of Quebec. He wondered what the good folks in Quebec do when they feel hemmed in. I know what he means.

My notion of becoming a writer of travel adventures got very little traction. The reality became crushingly apparent while floating in a catamaran four hundred miles off the coast of Kenya. I was a million miles away from home. It was my daughter’s homecoming dance. My satellite phone had no connection. I was adrift, figuratively and literally. Nothing appealed to me so much as home.

Then it was, I think, I truly came to first understand the compromise that is life.

“Only an animal does useful things.”

In Adventure, Books, The Examined Life, Writers on June 16, 2012 at 6:00 am

“Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful–not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do.”

It’s Saturday–again–and I want to leave you with a quote. (I see a pattern forming.) What you read above are the words of adventurer Gérard d’Aboville. His book, Alone, was being published in the U.S. and Paul Theroux was writing the introduction. The book is the account of d’Aboville’s single-handed 1991 journey rowing across the Pacific. Theroux was pressing d’Aboville: Why? Why take such a dangerous voyage? I very much like the nuanced answer, it’s “something only a human being would do.”

It’s the weekend. Go do something only a human being would do.

The last best place.

In Books, Curiosity, Reading, Travel on March 27, 2012 at 7:00 am

I mentioned in a previous post, Leaning into Wisdom, the three major influences in my life: books, nature, and travel. I read a lot books and write about many of them here. I write less about my forays in nature; and least about travel. Today, I wish to focus on travel.

I recently discovered a travel blog, Fabulous 50’s, by Sherry Lachelle. Sherry is clear-eyed and writes with verve. Her posts reminded me of the adventures I’ve enjoyed (well, most were enjoyed). She got me thinking.

I embrace phases, wild crazy enthusiasms and reckless occasional diversions of direction. One of the longest lasting of these phases–for lack of a better term–has been travel. During my travel years I nurtured an insatiable urge to see the world, whereby I was planning one adventure while on another. I traveled to fish. I traveled to climb mountains. I traveled to take photographs, to find writing subjects. I traveled as an excuse to travel. I was restless and thought of myself as a proto-Bruce Chatwin nomad. I saw a lot of the world, including some of the most beautiful and exciting places you can imagine. Patagonia, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, the Seychelles and so on. Then I moved to Maine in the spring of 2009 and put away my passport.

The travel phase, after thirty years, came to a self-defined stop. It was, as a friend observed, as if I’d reached my destination. Indeed, over my travel years I was often asked where in the world I would drop my “favorite place” pin. Always, and without hesitation, I responded, Maine. Now I reside in my favorite place and I do not take that for granted.

There are places that resonate. And there are places that don’t, places that seem dead of vibration. Maine resonates with me. It is a profound lesson: place matters. I am a baby-boomer raised in post-war America. The notion was that one can pick up and go, put down roots, then simply pick up again without repercussion. But I’ve discovered, contrariwise, that place matters. And when you find your place, take note. You’ve made an important discovery.

Now the restlessness is gone, but curiosity remains. The value of travel, whether to far-off locations or weekend getaways, is a thing I understand first hand. It’s hard knowledge realized of action. The best travel effects me as a journey of a hyper-aware self in accelerated space and time, an experience where the senses are fed and the energy is loaded. It is a profound way of building experience and sparking curiosity. At times there is even wisdom to be realized.

Among travel writers, Paul Theroux, is, to my taste, our best. He is a master of the genre. Writing of his youthful travels, he says, “I wanted to find a new self in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith.” We are remiss when we ignore the importance of elsewhere.(Theroux’s last travel book, from which this quote is taken, is  The Tao of Travel. I reviewed it for MostlyFiction last year.)

Three years after retiring the passport, I am gearing up to set out again. I’m planning a big trip, an adventure into the world’s biggest mountains and the juices are starting to flow. Place is settled, but remnants of wanderlust fortunately remain. Stay tuned.

Got a favorite place? I’d like to hear about it.

Thanks for reading.