In his book The Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles gives the best distinction between a traveler and a tourist I’ve ever come across. He defines a tourist as someone who, having had their fill of wine and song and unsafe sex, will invariably return home, while a traveler simply winds up somewhere else, not stopping until they run out of not money but days and roads and world.
Ten months now in the desert, and I’m still traveling, I think.
In the movie Heat Robert DeNiro’s character says to never get attached to anything you can’t walk away from forever in thirty seconds flat. As a career criminal he was referring to relationships, but the basic principle also applies to traveling. Never accumulate so much baggage, both literal and metaphorical, that you can’t disappear for good carrying all of it on your back. I try to abide by my own zero-sum rule: departing with the same amount of possessions I had when I arrived. If I leave with something new, I leave behind something old.
I’ve found that in most places a cigarette’s a fair trade for a story.
A good story can be told in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. (Palahniuk wrote once that a story can be told in about as much time as a person can hold a particularly deep breath. I smoke too much for that, unfortunately.)
In a hotel bar outside Rio I shared Marlboros and vodka tonics with a retired Israeli expatriate who told me tales of his days in the IDF. He wouldn’t tell me his last name or what he was doing in Brazil, and — as I had just read some Ira Levin a few weeks prior — I could only conclude that my new friend was a Nazi hunter.
Some days later I told him of my experiences from the night before, when my drugs were stolen and, following a bad lead, I briefly wreaked mescal-induced havoc in what I had been told was a whorehouse but was in fact a youth hostel. He chuckled and handed me a St. Moritz, a brand I had only ever seen advertised in old Playboys from the sixties and seventies.
I like stories. I like hearing them more than telling them, and I like creating them, which as a profession is slightly older than prostitution, and probably less rewarding as well. Sometimes when meeting new people they’ll ask, “What’s your story?” and I’ll shrug and say that I’m still writing it. Which is kind of pompous and insufferable but also true. There aren’t many things I enjoy about being on the wrong end of my twenties, but I am thankful that I’ve finally become wise enough to realize that I’m not wise at all, that I still don’t have a damn story of my own worth telling.
Charlie Russell did. Charlie had a lot. Kicking around Europe with some of the biggest names in music during the eighties, handling back room gambling operations for the Russians in the nineties; the kind of stories where a lone survivor comes paddling back to shore having emerged half-dead from some hellish night out in deep water; the kind of stories that wouldn’t have been possible without one more shot of bourbon, one more hit of nitrous; the kind of stories that, when given breath and shape and form, coalesce into places like East Jesus.
I love East Jesus, have come to love it in a way I’ve never loved that tenement squat in Bonn or the boathouse in Ushuaia, but it’s obviously not my story, and if I do have one then it’s most likely not going to be found all the way out here at the end of the world. Ten months. That’s too long to be standing still, to be moving at the speed of regret and what-ifs.
I’m nearing the end of my time here. Ten months. Two more before the summer ends. Time enough, I hope, for that last tilt-a-whirl affair, that last big fight, that last beer and blunt in the hot springs under a moon as still as it is bright.
‘All shall be well,
And all shall be well,
And all manner of thing shall be well.’
Ten months in the desert.
My god. How am I still alive?