In 2010, the Society of American Travel Writers named former Brat-Packer Andrew McCarthy their Travel Journalist of the Year.
Apparently McCarthy ventured away from Hollywood and out into the world to embark on his new career as a travel writer. He published his first article in National Geographic Traveler in 2006 and has since had his work appear in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic as well as many more times in National Geographic Traveler. It would be so easy to jump to the conclusion that his famous name is what attracted these publications to publish his work, but if you read his stuff, you’ll see that he’s the real thing. His name may have opened some doors, but the resulting accolades are a result of his writing.
In a Writer’s Digest interview, he said, “One of the biggest mistakes travel writers make is they write about destinations. But it’s storytelling that grabs people. It is how we communicate, and that is how we should approach travel writing.”
That point-of-view intrigued me enough to pick up his travel memoir The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down and see how he mixed storytelling with travel writing. I found out immediately.
McCarthy’s memoir is a story. It’s the story of a man who is afraid to settle down. It’s the story of a loner who is unsure of his ability to connect completely with another human being. It’s the painfully honest story of a man who is afraid that he won’t be able to live up to other peoples’ expectations. He becomes engaged to “D”, his Irish girlfriend. But as soon as they begin to plan the wedding, he pitches several queries to magazines and gets assignments that will take him away from home, away from wedding preparations, and away from the imminent commitment he is about to make. It sounds selfish and frankly, is selfish, and he admits this. But it is also a part of his personality that he cannot ignore. He needs to travel solo, test his self-reliance and grow.
“I stand on the precipice of the rest of my life…And so, I’m going on these journeys, not to escape the commitment I recently made — but quite the opposite, I’m going to use them the way I have always used travel: to find answers. I’m setting out in order to gain the insight necessary to bring me home.”
During each of the trips he takes during the year leading up to his wedding, he discovers something new about himself. At home with his solitude, he wonders why he is the way he is, and what shaped him to be that way. He contemplates his relationships with his family growing up versus the relationships that enfold him in his new Irish family. He wonders why he feels easier with them than his own family even as he wonders whether he can really engage in such close-knit relationships. His writing takes us to his destinations and we get to experience those exotic spots in the world, but we also get to wander through McCarthy’s thoughts. He takes us with him on that journey, too.
“Whenever I’m about to leave on a trip, I’m distracted and overcompensate. I’m too solicitous and overly interested. Morning departures are easier — I just get up while everyone’s still asleep and slip away.” Later, “Out on the corner in the fading light, I search for a cab. My arm, extended out toward an approaching taxi, feels frail and insubstantial in the still-too-cold March air. I’m aware suddenly that this is my departure, the moment my trip begins. I look at my watch. I toss my backpack across the seat, climb in, and experience my first flash of excitement about the journey ahead.”
I could relate to so many of his insights about himself and solo travel. Like McCarthy, I’m sometimes overwhelmingly introverted and feel a guilty pleasure when I can roam the world alone.
“The uncomplicated joy of meeting a new day with no past, with no plan, and with no one in the world knowing where I am can be compared only to waking up on Christmas morning when I was a child. It’s the closest I have ever come to understanding the word freedom.”
I know EXACTLY what he means.
I read McCarthy’s book and wished I could travel along with him. It was easy to see how The Society of American Travel Writers chose him as their Journalist of the Year. He embodies the curious spirit of a nomad, the quest-seeker that so much of travel writing depends upon, and the gifted ability to put his thoughts and feelings onto paper. Travel writers would do well to read both the interview with him in Writer’s Digest and to study his book. Readers will simply enjoy his story. Armchair travelers are in luck; they get the best of both worlds — tales of adventure in far-flung corners of the world, and a trip through McCarthy’s psyche. You’ll have to read The Longest Way Home to see where that particular journey ends.
What travel memoirs would you recommend?