Sample Chapter: Let’s Get Lost

Adventures in the Great Wide Open

When he turned fifty, my father ran away from home. He was a big Texan in a big Lincoln driving whichever way his mood turned, a man temporarily no longer responsible for a wife and a mother and a job and two kids, and whatever else was on his mind. Like almost all runaways, he ended up going back home after about a year of meandering, but I guess that wanderlust stays in the blood. Today, there’s nothing I like more than lighting out for the territories and running as far away from our world as possible . . . traveling to places where the airport windsock really is a sock.

There is another world, and only going there yourself reveals its life. I learned this on my first trip to a foreign country, when I was an obese pre-teen and my family decided to visit the border towns of Mexico. As we crossed the Rio Grande river, under the bridge was a mob of wet young men in their underpants, hopping up and down, shaking Dixie cups nailed to sticks, so that tourist would throw pennies at them. Then, in Matamoros, while my parents shopped at stalls filled with colorful piñatas and molded-jadeite Aztec calendars and other festive momentoes, I’d be approached by shadowy figures of all descriptions, and when I used my grade-school Spanish to pass on their offers of girl whores, they’d immediately counter by offering to set me up with boy whores. I wasn’t even shaving yet for chrissakes, but at that age it was in fact exactly the right thing to see and hear, since it was such an important message:

The world you know isn’t the only one;

in fact, maybe it’s not even the real world after all . . .

I’m not the Jon Krakauer “let’s climb Mount Everest for fun!” kind of guy; I’m a middle-class, pudgy white person, who grew up in the suburbs and spent twenty-five years thinking cigarettes were one of life’s greatest pleasures. Since I never met a meal I didn’t like, at plenty of times I’ve been the size not included in “one size fits all,” and to this day, I’m convinced that the best exercises to do are sit-ups because, in between, you get to lie down. If you’re not an Ethel Merman lookalike (and she’s dead), you’re easily in better physical shape than I am, and probably a lot braver, too.

On my trips, though, I’ve been threatened by an orangutan in Borneo . . . taught American dance steps to Stone Age cannibals in New Guinea . . . climbed a mountain to get an aerial view of Machu Picchu . . . taken psychoactive pharmaceuticals with a Jivaro shaman in the middle of the Amazon . . . gone hunting with the last of the African Bushmen . . . had a run-in with the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square . . . seen the total eclipse of the sun from the roof of an eighteenth-century Indian palace . . . and stalked gorillas through the montane forests of Uganda.

I’ve held hands while walking with a Maasai through his Kenyan lands, as well as with a sign-language adept orangutan and her nursing baby on a tour of the Borneo jungle. It is one thing to gaze, in real life and in their own home, on the upturned face of a young gorilla, and it is quite a different and remarkable experience when they gaze back at you . . .

You go as a sightseer, but you come home as the sight seen.

Whenever I tell my family where I’m off to next, in fact, my mother always has one question: “Why on earth would you want to go there?”