Travel and Angst

Destination: Various Book: The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down by Andrew McCarthy (NEW September 2012) This travel memoir surprised me.  That’s a good thing.  The Longest Way Home started out with three strikes again it:

  1. Andrew McCarthy was a movie star (St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink and lots of other sensitive young man roles in the 1980’s and 90’s) before he wrote about travel.  I generally do not like books by celebrities since publishers buy them for the author’s name instead of the content.
  2. The subtitle tipped me off that this is one of those “all about me” books disguised as travel.
  3. I’m supposed to be sympathetic with a famous wealthy person, who publishes in national magazines and has won two Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism. His biggest problem is marrying a woman he loves–the mother of his children–the woman whom he has been living with for seven years. Really?

But McCarthy somehow managed to make me set aside my predisposition to–what?–jealousy, maybe?

Andrew McCarthy
Andrew McCarthy

It took me a while to get into The Longest Way Home, maybe because the first couple of chapters are “me story” than “travel story.”  Once McCarthy gets his foot in the door at National Geographic Traveler by a long wooing to friendship of the editor-in-chief, Keith Bellows, he has a legitimate excuse to exercise his wanderlust. And the NGT assignments led to other national magazines. See, here is where my jealousy raises its ugly head.  It took me more than ten years of querying, begging and cajoling to get published in NGT and when I did the articles were short–not features.  Furthermore, I could not afford, and NGT did not offer to pay for a trip to a far-off destination like Patagonia. When I pull myself up and look at the book honestly, I must say that McCarthy had a smart approach.  And lest every wanna-be contributor descends upon Keith Bellows and buys him a drink, I will warn you.  It will not work unless you can actually write and write well.  Furthermore, I must say, in regard to The Longest Way Home, that McCarthy is not only a brave and adventurous traveler, but he is also brave and adventurous in sharing his life the way he does. There is, after all, a saying (with many variants) :”Writing is easy. All you have to do is open a vein and bleed on the page.” McCarthy’s wise Irish fiancé, “D”, gives him plenty of room to roam although she clearly is not happy with the perpetual postponement of a wedding. When McCarthy is preparing to flee to Patagonia, she says:

I found a poem by Hafiz today that reminded me of you, want to hear it?  It’s called “This Place Where You are Right Now.”

“This place where you are right now/ God circled on a map for you...”

´Picturesque´, Argentina, Patagonia, Mt. Fitzroy
Mt. Fitzroy, Patagonia, Argentina Photo by Christopher Schoenbohm, Wandering the World

Once he gets to Patagonia and describes incidents and people–I started to find the book enjoyable.  Here is an excerpt from a really wonderful paragraph describing a ride across an Argentine lake and his feelings about it:

The metamorphic rock glistens. The boat passes a small blue iceberg–an orphan from the Upsala Glacier.  It feels too warm for snow, yet snow begins to fall  A rainbow forms on my right: an austral thrush darts past, just above the whitecapping glacier milk… the wind ripping across my face, the spray from the lake biting my skin, and the rapidly changing light are so exhilarating that it’s difficult to breathe.  I’m aware of storing the moment away, like an emergency supply of food.

Andrew McCarthy’s enthusiasm for places is contagious.  I love the way he reveals his awe and vulnerability instead of presenting a cool, sophisticated demeanor. His trips–travel assignments and marriage avoidance–take us to the Amazon, Costa Rica, Vienna, Baltimore and Mt. Kilimanjaro.  With each story he unravels a bit more of his personal story and he comes closer to understanding his own angst.  Of course, the author totally won me over with his story of why he wanted to go to Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was a book.  As a child, he saw a copy of Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro with its cover picture of the famous mountain. He says:

I knew that one day I would go…this is a date I’ve had with myself since I was ten.

Although he has not convinced me to love the soul-searching branch of travel memoir in general, and I could have done with less of existential angst and more of the travel stories, The Longest Way Home is well worth the read. Please join a discussion here. (Click over to the website if you’re reading this in your e-mail.) Andrew McCarthy says that travel can be a form of infidelity.  Have you ever felt that you have double purposes for travel? And how do you feel about the travel memoirs that focus on personal problems and a search for solutions? Note: The publisher provided this book for review, but my opinions are definitely my own.  The Patagonia photo comes from with Creative Commons license. Please click on a photo to learn more about the photographer. The portrait of Andrew McCarthy is from his web page. Links from the book title and cover take you to Amazon because I am an Amazon affiliate. Even though it costs you no more, you are supporting A Traveler’s Library when you shop through our links. THANK YOU.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

16 thoughts on “Travel and Angst

  1. Andrew McCarthy. Those eyes! That’s what I first thought when I saw his name if NGT. Could a Hollywood star actually be a good writer, too? I don’t remember what the article was, but I recall that it was a well written one. This book has been on my To Read list, and your praise for it will move it higher in priority.

  2. I actually have this book on my wish list though, at first, I was skeptical. Like you, I also wondered: can a celebrity write a book worth reading, or did he only get the book deal because of his big name? But then I read some excerpts online, and I was intrigued.

    There’s been a lot of talk lately about who “deserves” to have a book deal. (I’m thinking mostly of the Lena Dunham convo in the media.) Sometimes, I have to remind myself that, as Whitman said, we contain multitudes. If I can be a sex writer|yoga teacher|funeral singer, then a celebrity can be a talented writer.

    As for introspection in travel books, I love travel memoirs. Heck, I love memoirs in general.

  3. Personally I thought this was a great review of the book. However, I think there is a little missing to the Andrew McCarthy/Keith Bellows story. From a few interviews I have seen, Andrew worked on Keith for a long time before he agreed to give him a chance. Also, Andrew said that if Keith didn’t like his story, he didn’t have to pay him. I understand that many people would not be able to afford an offer as such, but I bet there are more people than you think who would be up for the challenge.

    I think you have to remember that Andrew had a large fan base who wondered what happened to him. People missed his work. It would be a no-brainer to give him a chance, given there was no financial loss incurred if the story didn’t work out.

    In my case, I wish there was more travel pieces devoted to travel with special needs kids. Not the coping mechanisms or how tos, but stories that let me know that others experienced the same or similar happenings and survived…and maybe even got a good laugh from it along the way. I have no illusions that my story would be more compelling than someone like Holly Robinson Peete. She would have far more ins because she is well known. However, if I ever got my in, at least I go away with the knowledge that I did it on my own merits–not some past version of myself.

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you liked the review, Zoomer. You’re absolutely right, I abbreviated the many meetings over drinks to “chatted him up”.As far as “if he didn’t like the story, he didn’t have to pay him” that is standard operating procedure. If the editor does not like the story presented, and the writer cannot make suitable adjustments, it will not be printed, and at most the writer will get a kill fee which is a fraction of the assigned price.

      1. Thank you for the reply. I didn’t realize there was such a thing as a kill fee. And I was under the assumption that in Andrew’s case, it was an all or nothing proposition with no contracted fee. I am probably way off on this because of my naïveté of how the industry operates.

        However, I too had the same initial reservations prior to reading Andrew’s book, and I consider myself a big fan of his. I have often had the “holier than thou” attitude that travel was a luxury and for people who were more well-off than me and had money to burn. But his travel writing/interviews/book talks really showed me how narrow-minded I was being. It doesn’t hurt that Andrew is one of the most humble and genuine persons I have met, which made his arguments for the necessity of travel more convincing.

        I look forward to reading many more of your travel articles.

  4. Thanks for sharing how your skepticism turned to adoration. Although I can sympathize with you on working your tail off to get somewhere whereas a famous name gets you there in half (a quarter?) of the time…

  5. I agree with Germaine (hi Germaine)!

    When I tried to post the above, I got an automatic response telling me I have to write more words before my comment will be accepted, so here they are – more words.

    1. You get the “not enough words” message,Edie, when you post fewer than nine words. It deters the spammers and encourages thoughtful replies, which you are very good at, anyhow. At any rate, thanks to both you and Germaine for your kinds words.

      1. I didn’t want to have this review turn into a story of my life, but I’ll put a P.S. here, based on Edie and Germaine’s comments. 15 years ago, when I was just a greenie new writer struggling to get a handle on proper querying, I sent an ambitious query directly to Keith Bellows. Had not learned to direct queries to the proper editor! But he responded with a personal, page length letter which gave me hope and gently explained that since I was practically unpublished, attempting to place a feature might be a little overly ambitious. I was eternally grateful for being treated like a “real” writer.

        1. Fifteen years! How far we have all come.

          I too remember the occasional generosity of editors who took the time to volunteer advice. During those early years, even a kindly worded refection letter was cause for celebration.

  6. Thanks for an interesting review — and an interesting question. First, though… you can meet Keith Bellows at a travel writing conference, Travel Classics (and probably others). I did. I didn’t get an assignment from him but I did get one from one of his fellow editors at the conference, and although it wasn’t a feature it was two pages with lots of pictures. And others did get assignments through him.

    Ok. Travel is always about the traveler. Wherever you go, there you are (I don’t remember who said that, do you? It’s probably a rock song). So if you’re a person who has problems that need solving, they come with you; if you’re a person that wants to connect with others to learn about them, that’s also a personal quest. Although I’m generally annoyed, as you are, by famous people getting book contracts by virtue of being famous, it sounds like McCarthy deserves it.

  7. Having met Vera back when she was painstakingly laying the foundation of a successful travel writing career, I can well understand her ambivalence toward a writer like McCarthy. This review speaks volumes for Vera’s honesty and fairness. McCarthy writes well, she acknowledges. Would he have succeeded without his glamorous past and connections? Maybe, maybe not.

    If anyone deserves a high-end assignment to Patagonia, it is Vera. Are you listening, Mr. Bellows?

  8. You’ve done a masterful job in reviewing this book! You’ve assured me of Andrew’s ability to write, but you’ve again reminded me of the adage, ‘not what you know, but who’. I guess it is like that in the writing world. . .I should be glad for those who manage to use the right connection to achieve their goal, right? Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I see my name on a feature article in NGT or similar. . .of course, I might miss it because I was watching the pig fly by overhead. . .

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