A life in 7 journeys

A Life in Seven Journeys

1. The Soviet Union, 1986
This was my first overseas trip. I’d been saving my babysitting money for five years, and found an anti-nuclear war organisation that took students to Moscow and Leningrad. Although it was controlled and pretty grim – there was nothing to buy, and it was a gray November – we did get to talk to Russian teenagers and professors. One asked if we could name any Russian cities other than Leningrad or Moscow, or any living Russian authors. And we couldn’t. I discovered then that you could learn about places without going there. When I got home I enrolled in Russian and International Relations college courses. That was a mistake: it was like marrying the first boy you ever kissed. I wasn’t in love with Russia; I was in love with travel.


2. Wyoming, 1992
After college I did a road trip with my then boyfriend to the Rocky Mountains. It was so exotic; after Connecticut, where I grew up, Wyoming was the real Wild West. People had guns. My job as trail cook was to take up to ten people into the mountains on horses, hunting and fishing and exploring glacial lakes. I had no experience, but I had more capacity than I thought. And my first story was based on those experiences, and launched my career as a writer.


3. Texas, 1994
I’d heard about these rodeo groupies called Buckle Bunnies, and so pitched an idea to an editor about doing a piece on them. It was my first paid assignment and the pressure was huge. I had to learn to walk up to strangers and get them to tell me about their lives; in this case, their sex lives. I learnt something I have used ever since: if you are straight with people, tell them what you’ve come for and what your boss expects from you, and confess to your stupidity, they’ll often tell you what you want. I learnt then I could be a journalist.


4. China, 1998
At that time, journalists weren’t allowed into China. But I was naive and cocky. I said on my visa form that I was a housewife and bribed people to take me to the Three Gorges Dam, so I could write a story. It was only on the plane on the way back that I realized how stupid I had been. I knew then I didn’t have the stomach for hardcore reporting. Sometimes you have to make a journey to realize you’re on the wrong journey.


5. New Zealand, 2000
This time I thought: forget about global politics, let’s do something fun. So I went on a research vessel with scientists off the coast of New Zealand to go in search of giant squid. Although looking for a sea monster was exciting, on the ship I realized that I could not have children and that I did not want to be married to the person I was married to. The results of that personal journey were so devastating that I didn’t go traveling for quite a while.


6. India, 2004
When I went to an ashram in India, I was at a real crossroads. It was a point at which I changed enormously: there was me pre-India, and there was me after-India. I stayed in the same ashram for four months, and the greatest lesson I learnt was to be still. It wasn’t fun, but it was a great spiritual journey. There are many reasons to travel: to have adventure or to run away or to be exotic or to learn about another culture. Sometimes only a pilgrimage can help you find out about yourself.


7. French Polynesia, 2012
This last journey was glorious: traveling around islands to do research for my most recent novel, The Signature of All Things. Up a volcano, in the rain, on a remote island, I suddenly realized, at the age of 43, that I was exactly where I wanted to be in my life: collecting fascinating pieces of information to write up. It’s a great position to be in. The quote I love is, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live a perfect imitation of someone else’s life.” In 2000, when I was married, I wasn’t. So it’s gratifying to see I’ve learnt those lessons.


The Signature of All Things is published in paperback by Penguin

A Life in Seven Journeys

P. J. O’Rourke

1. Across America in a ’56 Buick, 1977
I hadn’t traveled much until I was 30 and drove a very used car from Florida to California. It couldn’t go fast enough for Interstates so there was lots of scenery. I got stranded in most of it. The car broke every day: fuel-pump failure between a New Mexico cattle roundup and the only liquor store for miles; Mid-Mojave, a radiator leak. The transmission locked itself in reverse on Santa Monica Boulevard. I had to drive the last two miles backwards. There’s something to be said for staying home.


2. Into the Beqa’a Valley, 1984
During Lebanon’s Civil War I went with journalist Charlie Glass to Ba’albek to interview the ferocious leader of an extremist Shiite militia. I was terrified. After a day spent largely being held at gunpoint we went to the magnificent, if bedraggled, Palmyra Hotel, where we were the only guests. Charlie bribed a waiter to bring us a bottle of arak, which we hid under 
the table. Over surreptitious swigs we managed to piece together from memory the whole of Yeats’ The Second Coming. Poetry is great solace, if you’ve got something to drink.


3. The Baja Peninsula, 1984
Later that year a pal and I took our girlfriends on a Jeep ride down Mexico’s Baja peninsula, off-road, sleeping in tents. The only flat place in the Baja is where you land after rolling off something steep. Every living thing has a prickle, a thorn, a fang or a stinger. The temperature was 110F. The food was… “Sea turtle is like beef,” said the poacher/cook, “except for the smell.” By La Paz the women insisted on a hotel. The Jeep’s undercarriage collapsed at the door. The women flew home. Some journeys are for couples. Neither couple is together today.


4. Driving Around in South Africa, 1986
Apartheid was still in ugly force. I visited English suburbs, Soweto, Boer settlements and various “homelands”. An American seemed welcome any-where; I don’t know why. I especially enjoyed the KwaZulu capital, Ulundi: world’s smallest Holiday Inn with maybe five rooms. No television reception but a VCR at front desk, wired to bar-room TV. Just two tapes: Zulu and Zulu Dawn. Many patrons had been extras in the latter. I brought an illustrated history of the Zulu War to the bar. All were fascinated. Let us not discount journeys taken on barstools.


5. Through the Gulf War into Kuwait, 1991
When the ground war began I was in Saudi Arabia with a convoy of reporters. Our plan was to stay behind the front line as troops advanced. But in modern warfare there is no front line. It was midnight. The oil wells were aflame. Iraqi tanks littered the road. Explosions could be heard. The only map we had was in a Fodor’s guide for businessmen. Buildings began to loom. Was there another city between the Saudi border and Kuwait City? There wasn’t. At dawn we were in liberated Kuwait, greeting the troops liberating it. Nothing wrong with getting ahead of yourself.


6. The Trans-Siberian Railroad, 1996
My wife asked, “Will the trip be fun?” The lady behind the counter said, with Russian poker face, “It will be long remembered.” The train was filthy, stuffy, slow. No hot water in the bathroom. Dining-car fare inedible. But amazing sightseeing. Mountains to awe Sir Edmund Hillary. Forests to daunt Paul Bunyan. We stopped at Lake Baikal. Gorgeous. Empty. I stuck a toe in the July water: 32F. Because a place is beautiful doesn’t mean you have to go there.


7. From Islamabad to Calcutta, 1998
Land Rover sent two vehicles around the world promoting its Discovery II. I joined the leg across the Indian subcontinent. The Grand Trunk Road was a combination of highway, front parlor, playground, factory floor, barnyard and emergency room for one billion Indians. India’s trucks seemed to lack brakes, lights, speed limits or anyone awake at the wheel. We bet on how many fatal accidents we’d see each day. The top score was more than 25. It’s wrong to say, of certain places, that life there is cheap. But it can be brief.
P. J. O’Rourke’s latest book, The Baby Boom, is published by Grove Atlantic