Note to Readers: This piece launches what I hope to be a series of personal anecdotes about travels I have undertaken (or suffered, as the case may be) during the course of my life. All cartoon illustrations are my own.
“A traveler has a right to relate and embellish his adventures as he pleases, and it is very impolite to refuse that deference and applause they deserve.”
Rudolf Erich Raspe, Travels of Baron Munchausen
I gazed adoringly at my brand new 1967 Volkswagen beetle, the Blue Bug, and sighed. It was probably the first thing I had ever owned, paid for in easy installments, with my very own money. I was feeling perfectly mundane and didn’t care if everybody knew it. The Beetle didn’t yet spell El Dorado, but once you’ve learned the ABCs, it’s just a matter of time before you have the whole blooming Thesaurus at your fingertips. It was Thursday, July 27th, 1967, and in my hot little hand I had my Army papers discharging me from active duty. I was a free man-boy once again, and I even had my very own set of wheels.
It was a heady experience. I even forgot for a moment those pesky butterflies that always fluttered just below the sternum whenever I was in transit somewhere. By George, I thought, this really was the first day of the rest of my life—whatever that meant.
Bidding adieu to my comrades-in-arms (actually, I think I thumbed my nose at them—poor suckers), I hopped into my car—ironically the first and last I was ever to own—started it up, and waving one last time from the open sun roof, put-putted over the horizon. The war was over for me. Good-bye Vietnam. Good-bye Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Hello California. Kill the fatted calf. Your native son is on his way back at last!
I was determined to get home just as soon as I humanly could, and I intended to drive all night long. Which, of course, was not exactly human. But I had hot coffee in a thermos, sandwiches in a sack, and a stack of eight-track stereo cassettes to keep me company on the way. The desert lay ahead. All was right with the world. Little did I imagine what was in store for me.
There is a difference between travelers and tourists. According to writer Daniel Boorstin, the traveler is active, goes “strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’” Up to now I had pretty much been the touristy type—passive, expecting interesting things to happen to me, but at the same time hoping they wouldn’t be too interesting. I would shortly become a traveler, though how active I was at it is a moot point. Most of the time I seemed to be strenuously dragged in search of people, of adventure, of experience.
My life continually teeter-totters between Hardy and Homer—i.e., Thomas Hardy and Homer the Greek poet, not Oliver Hardy and Homer Simpson, though maybe that too.
Have you ever thought about what happens to perfectly unextraordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances? This was the great poser of nineteenth-century British author Thomas Hardy, and nearly all of his novels showed everyday sorts very melodramatically being ruffled, scuffled, and reshuffled by Nature, bad luck, machinations, and so forth, all quite beyond the bounds of their control or understanding—and more often than not, there was a grim ending in store for somebody. In my youth, when I first read Hardy’s The Return of the Native, a crawly feeling prowled along the nape of my neck, and I began to wonder if I hadn’t stumbled onto something personally prophetic. This seemed to confirm itself in his Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Tess of the D’Ubervilles. In these novels I kept running into characters with an uncanny resemblance to myself, the Hapless Half-wit, but with Mother Carey’s chicken flying somewhere overhead and storms abrewing on a cloudy horizon. Being a susceptible lad, I just knew that Hardy was trying to tell me something, and that I was doomed. I could already see myself laid out, not in the welcoming, furry grass bosom of Forest Lawn, but in a cold, lonely, barren, off-the-beaten-track cemetery—if not on Egdon Heath, then some other equally nasty, howling wilderness somewhere in the world, just one more untimely victim of Fate.
When I was a child, however, it was different. Different because notions of impending doom had not yet molded my character. Different because I’d not yet met my English teacher Miss Meese and delved into the foreboding worlds of Hardy and of Rölvaag, and later on, of Homer. Different mostly because it was vicarious. I would glue myself to (or more decorously, sit before) our old Hofman television set as Martin and Osa Johnson, Frank Buck, Lowell Thomas, John Gunther, Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore, Cecil and Beanie, Johnny Weismuller (and, of course, Maureen O’Sullivan), Percy Dovetonsils, the Nairobi Trio, and Buster Crabbe would transport me to alien realms all the way from central Africa to the planet Mongo. The tube was a particularly glorious invention for a middle-class California suburbanite kid of the ‘50s. It opened up unimaginable worlds. Ah, to travel! To visit foreign lands! To speak with strange and fascinating people in their native tongues (or better yet, to speak with strange and fascinating people in my native tongue, which seemed a whole lot easier)! To savor their exotic food, share their day-to-day struggle for survival, wear their colorful native costumes, experience their bizarre and sometimes shocking customs, celebrate their boisterous holidays, operate their alien toilet facilities!
Until I actually got out there, however, it never occurred to me just how miserable and treacherous travel could really be (that’s the folly of television—it gives you a false sense of security that whatever bad happens can’t really hurt you and in any case will disappear by changing the channel). And when I say miserable and treacherous, I don’t mean just the physical accommodations or lack thereof, though that is certainly a consideration. I have never been a good tourist, keeping my nose to the trusty Baedeker or paying attention to the hired guide. I always look in the wrong direction and see something I shouldn’t see, or wander, or am forced, off the beaten track and find myself somewhere I shouldn’t be. And then I am faced with a different world, a world that sometimes I wish wasn’t there (or, at least, I wish I wasn’t there), but which cannot be ignored and forgotten once seen, even if I try. It’s always there afterward. Serious travel, not tourism, is very uncomfortable, because it makes you think, and, boy, do I hate to think! It shames you and questions your every belief and opinion about yourself and about all that teeming humanity surrounding you.
Over the past half century I visited 14 countries and crossed through, landed, or disembarked in another 12 (these latter ones ordinarily don’t count, but they do if you miss your connecting flight or are accidentally rerouted to Beirut when you really had intended to go to Anchorage, or if you get dragged round and round and round on a conveyor belt at the baggage pickup and for all that have your luggage switched with somebody else’s, or if you are suspected of trafficking contraband and are denuded at Customs for a look-see, or mistaken for Carlos at Immigrations, mistaken for Madonna or Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the case may be, in the waiting lobby, or if you get your camera’s carry strap caught in a subway turnstile and have to fight back ten thousand disembarking commuters who don’t speak your language while you attempt to extricate the thing, or any number of other interesting milestones of modern-day travel). I have lived in five different countries, traveled through 31 states of the US, sojourned in at least 3,000 cities, towns, villages, hamlets, truck stops, cross roads, mud puddles, and cattle crossings around the world, and covered I suppose somewhere between 140,000 and 160,000 miles, much of it by land, and all unfortunately before the airlines began rewarding their frequent fliers with mileage bonuses.
There is something faintly epic about all this. Not just the Wessex of Thomas Hardy and all that traipsing about Egdon Heath waiting for something nasty to happen, but something imperceptibly Ulyssean as well. Nothing that Homer could put his finger on, possibly, but still, my story does incorporate many of the same elements: war, monsters, sirens, sea-going journeys, agonizing excursions into caves, mysterious lands, intolerable accommodations, lots of reflection and atonement (“What in heaven’s name am I doing here?”—that sort of stuff), the inevitable return to Ithaca (well, in my case, Temple City), even dogs. Yes, decidedly Ulyssean, and therefore legendary (some might prefer the term mythomanic).
Now, if you are at all familiar with The Odyssey, you know that it commences following the Trojan War. The Greeks win it, by the way, though they get pretty well trounced by the gods afterwards for having forgotten their due. All who had not been killed are now home and safe, all but Ulysses, who lives in captivity on the island of Ogygia, unable to escape Calypso, the radiant nymph, who has fallen in love with him. It is when he is finally released, several years later, that things really get rolling for him. By then he is no longer a young man and is anxious to get home to his wife and son.
All this, of course, is fraught with metaphorical meanings.
My travels begin at a much earlier age, and long before I get involved in any wars. There are a number of astounding parallels in our respective stories. One of these is our shared reluctance to be away from home for long periods of time, although I was ready to quit Happy Trails surely twenty years before Ulysses.
Deep down inside, however, I guess it’s not so much that I hate to travel: it’s that I hate the anticipation of the thing. It’s the same reason why I won’t voluntarily watch suspense or horror movies. Heads, once they start rolling, don’t bother me quite so much as all the apprehension beforehand. I can hardly bear it (which is probably why Ichabod Crane has remained for me such an endearing, albeit bird-brained, archetype of myself). For example, the only reason I ever went to see the movie Jaws in the first place was because it was playing together with a Marx Brothers film festival (now there’s an interesting combination). Well, one does have to make sacrifices in life. As a result, I ended up witnessing the great white shark chomp on Robert Shaw seven times in one week. By then, of course, I’d become so callous about his gory demise that Chico, Harpo, and Groucho now seemed somehow more menacing than the shark, which, when you think about those three, shouldn’t be so surprising.
Once I’m on the road, however, and haven’t vomited or experienced hot flashes or migraine, I do admittedly enjoy the mystic monotony of riding over miles and miles of miles and miles. I kind of get into the “Route 66” mood of things then; you know, dah-daddiyah-dah-dah, dah-daddiyah-dah-dah, followed immediately by dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-daah, dah-daddiayah-dah-dah, dah-daddiayah-dah-dah, tearing up the highway from one end of the country to the other in a red Corvette or Thunderbird, or whatever it was, etc. But it’s the prospect that chills me to the bone, the premonition of possible disaster somewhere down the road that saps my ardor for the long haul.
The Old Road to Ojai
I have been told that this eccentricity of mine is quite possibly due to a disturbed childhood. If that be the case, then without too much reflection I would say that The Old Road to Ojai was the catalyst that solidly entrenched the behavior model for all my future journeys. This is too bad, because Ojai (that’s pronounced Oh-hi, by the way) is a beautiful little California town and a delight to visit. While it has been about thirty-five years since I last visited, I’m guessing that it has retained its congenial rural town charm even today (wishful thinking!). Then it was a small, bucolic farming community, nestled in a small, green valley (my grandfather said the best in California), whose gently sloping hills were lined with orange trees and fruit orchards and cabbage patches and vegetable gardens.
My grandparents lived in Ojai (on El Centro St.) for many years. I have tender and affectionate memories of cavorting (cavorting?) in their apricot orchard with my brother and sister and cousins, of playing anagrams against my grandmother on the floor in her dining room, of her infectious laughter as she beat us each time, or even when she lost (which wasn’t often); of eating gobs of delicious Concord grapes right off the vine Roman style (though I drew the line about sticking my finger down my throat); of scalding myself every time I turned on the hot water (my grandparents’ house was, and is, the only one I have known where the hot water would instantaneously come out of the tap at two hundred eleven and a half degrees Fahrenheit); of getting severely mauled by my grandmother’s vicious cat Greyhound every time we would visit (you might be interested in my feline allergies as a result of these encounters); of taking long walks along the hilly, country roads outside town and of exploring the surrounding woods; of getting shot in the tush by my brother, who was anxious to test out his new Daisy BB-gun (this was not allowed at home); of waking up each morning in surely one of the coldest bedrooms in all of Southern California and needing a whole hour to work up enough nerve to get out of bed; of dreading the customary presentation of my grandfather’s solely known evidence of possessing a sense of humor (this consisted in removing his false teeth from his mouth before his assembled grandchildren, grinning the while as we squealed in horrified awe); of celebrating Thanksgiving with all the family, and tasting Grammy’s delicious mincemeat and pumpkin pies, her crab apple preserves, the best turkey stuffing in the whole valley (a small boy’s exaggeration, since I had never set foot in anybody else’s house in that valley), and mashed potatoes and gravy, and cranberries and sweet potatoes, and, of course, the turkey itself; of sneaking down into her basement and finding myself in a hushed, weird and murky world of canned fruit and faded squash gourds and wheat still on the straw and bags of rice and sugar and scary dark corners and cobwebs and Black Widows and maybe a rat or two and certainly a nest of mice—it was like descending into my own private catacombs, and if I could get past the spiders, I just knew I would find somebody’s ensconced crypt, probably that of an unknown relative who hadn’t cut the mustard and was duly dealt with—Ojai-style. Ojai was a great place, and I’ll never forget it.
But as a small boy, the travel part to Ojai was always a race to see who would throw up first from car sickness: me or Mary Margaret, our Irish terrier (named after twin cousins on my father’s side of the family, and also known as Maggie). At the time, my parents owned a 1951 Chrysler, a large, six-cylinder, two-door, metallic blue bathtub nicknamed “The Clop-Six”. The “clop” was the result of a defective Hydromatic transmission. This was long before Lee Iacocca revived the Chrysler Corporation, of course, and, as its epithet somehow implies, the car was a lemon from the start. In effect, it lasted a mere three years.
There was a stretch of switch-back mountain road between Santa Paula and Ojai. This was known as “The Old Road”. “The Old Road”, by the way, should probably always be written with Old English black letter typeface, I think, to properly convey its gothically sinister undertones. It’s an interesting side note that whenever anybody mentions “The Old Road” to me now, no matter what the context, I break out in a cold sweat, my eyeballs glaze over, and a queer tic that bats out the letters O-J-A-I in Morse Code takes control of the larboard side of my upper lip and nostril and reveals intermittent flashes of my superior left incisors, canines, and bicuspids. Dah-dah-dah, dit-dah-dah-dah, dit-dah, dit-dit (my grandchildren love it). Since Ojai, I have seen enough “old roads” throughout the world to know that they are synonymous to torment and abuse. By the way, quite by coincidence, I recently chanced across a 1992 sci-fi farce on television called “Mom and Dad Save the World” (starring Teri Garr, Jeffrey Jones, and Jon Lovitz). A typical Southern California suburbanite couple (wouldn’t they be?) decide to go on vacation, and the route they take—and this is no lie—is the Ojai Old Road! It’s not surprising that they are sequestered by extraterrestrials and transported, via their own station wagon, all the way to the planet Spengo.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, here we are, still in the “Clop Six”, a-winding and a-winding and a-winding (as Gertrude Stein might have expressed it), back and forth down into the Ojai Valley, the gasoline sloshing about in the car tank and sending its noxious odors up through some untraceable hole, directly to my impressionable nose and regurgitatible stomach.
Visualize, then, a gaunt, still blameless, towheaded little boy—a child Odysseus, as it were, upon a fateful voyage—his small, delicate hands clasped angelically in his lap, sitting on the back seat alongside his big, blue-eyed, freckle-faced brother and tiny, cute-as-a-cucumber, honey-blonde sister and between his spindly legs a panting Irish Terrier, and all listing to the left as the car lurches right, and then to the right as the car tilts left, and then forward as their father slows down, and then backwards as he accelerates. A hypnotic pattern is established which mysteriously connects the inner ear directly to the viscera. And from some secret, malefic orifice deep within the bowels of the metallic beast emanates invisible fingers of some miasmal effluvium—the processed remains of extinct tyrannosaurs still trying to get their last bite into the mammalians which finally ousted them from their ranking as heavyweight champions of the world—growing, stretching, elongating until they touch the sensitive olfactory cilia of this little boy’s innocent nostrils and reach further in and caress the brain and roll the eyes and finally make contact with that mysterious, hypnotic pattern of motion which has wedded the labyrinthine canals with the kishkes. Get the picture? I also should mention that along the way we must pass by a particularly nauseating sulfur springs, as well, that makes rotten eggs almost a thrill to be actively pursued.
That ethereal combination of refined and natural fumes and rocking car invariably sent me to the window, where Maggie and I would vie for first place. The winner all depended on who could roll down the glass faster.
Perhaps I should interject here as a cultural side note that the French physiologist, Francois Magendie, who wrote his famous Mémoire sur le vomissement in 1813, demonstrated conclusively that vomiting is not performed by the stomach as such, but by the voluntary muscles of the diaphragm and the abdominal wall. This all may very well be, but I think he missed the point entirely. Diaphragms and tummy walls are incidental. Gas fumes and movement are where it’s at. I know. Mary Margaret knew.
You might wonder what became of my brother and sister during these intervals—or for that matter, my mother and father. Well, the truth of the matter is, I haven’t the slightest idea. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t very well concern myself over their qualmishness, now could I? And, after all, they did have windows of their own to roll down.
Afterwards, even after my dad and mom had purchased a more hermetic Mercury station wagon, an association had already been well-established. Often it didn’t matter whether we were traveling over winding roads or not, or even if we had already begun the journey ― I was sick before I could even climb into the car. My mother, who simply attributed this to a childish excitement to be off to faraway places, let me barf to my heart’s content, and once sapped and desiccated, I would weakly crawl into the car and off we would go. But the truth of the matter is, I was simply obeying more Pavlovian urges. The dog salivates when he hears the little bells
After Ojai, riding from time to time in my brother Dave’s second-hand—possibly third-hand—Hillman Minx reinforced this feeling of dread. Dave, once he had grown past the mortifying having-to-sit-in-the-back-seat-with-my-creepy-younger-siblings-for-the-rest-of-my-natural-life phase and had progressed to the more heady steering-up-there-in-the-front-seat-with-God-as-my-copilot phase, discovered he was a hotrodder at heart and keen to illustrate it. And while the Hillman in his eyes was a beautiful little convertible, alas it was also old and beat-up, and certainly no match for his racing instincts. Nor was I. But he tried. You might say that while the Old Road to Ojai was my turbulent, Odyssean sea ride on a boat keel to Ogygia, Dave was my Poseidon, and the Hillman was his ragtag version of the Four Winds.
 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, 3.2.
 Read O.E.Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth, if you think your life is difficult.
 And then again, you might very well not be. Suffice to say that for many years after Greyhound, I couldn’t get near a cat without feeling mangy; I would have such violent coughing attacks that my eyeballs would threaten to pop out and bounce around on the floor like ping-pong balls. Being clawed by one would raise the kind of welts normally associated with keloids. My four-month long confrontation several years later with my daughter-in-law’s five cats finally cured me, and I am happy to report that today it is the cat, not me, who runs in the opposite direction when there are any close encounters (of the third degree).