P. J. O’Rourke

The author of Holidays in Hell and Driving Like Crazy reflects on the expeditions
that have shaped his droll view of the world

Illustration: Vanessa Arnaud

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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