To help celebrate our twenty-fifth year of being on the information superhighway, we have reached out to some of our favorite former columnists for check-ins and updates. Today we reconnect with globe-trotting, pint-drinking Kevin Dolgin, who wrote a travel column about out-of-the-way places for this site from 2000 to 2011.
I was recently contacted by the editors of McSweeney’s, who informed me that they had not forgotten I exist. In fact, they invited me to write another installment of my column Kevin Dolgin Tells You About Places You Should Go in Europe as part of their twenty-fifth anniversary festivities.
I will take advantage of this unexpected opportunity to address a question that arose frequently over the years I wrote that column: Why did I think that Brazil, Japan, Cambodia … and all the other myriad places I visited across five continents were all in Europe? The answer is that I did not; I was aware that neither Medford, Oregon, nor Ho Chi Minh City were European destinations. It is simply that the editors at the time had decided it would be … I don’t know, McSweeney’s-like to title it so. It was all I could do to convince them not to name it “Kevin Dolgin Tells Y’all About Places You Should Go in Yurp.”
There, that’s been settled. Now for this dispatch.
It wasn’t easy to choose a subject for this one-shot column. (I had noticed that the editors had not suggested that I actually start writing regularly for them again.) Which enticing destination should I describe? And then, what place hadn’t I already written about in that column or in the subsequent book? I had fond memories of many destinations but never wrote the column from memory. I had always done it on the fly, as it were, so what trips do I have coming up? There are a few: Barcelona (but I wrote at least two columns about Barcelona); London (in fact I’m there tomorrow, but I’ve covered London repeatedly); Paris, where I live and which I’ve amply described; Istanbul (covered several times); Budapest, about which I don’t believe I’ve ever written, but if I’m going to do just one more column it shouldn’t be about Budapest, as much as I like the place. Then I thought I should borrow some inspiration from Italo Calvino and his incomparable Invisible Cities and make up a city, one that smooshes together all the things I love about my favorite places. I thought about naming it “New Barceloromistaris” or something, but that seemed a bit contrived, and now that I’ve seen it on paper, it seems very contrived.
I thought about all this as I sat alone in a gastropub in a very small town just north of Cambridge. I had also considered writing about Cambridge, since I was there (it’s a great place, go there), but again, one parting blaze (spurt) of glory (adequacy) about Cambridge? Might as well do Budapest.
As I thought about all this, night fell. I had walked to this gastropub from the hotel/inn/B&B at which I was staying that night. The hotel/inn/B&B in question is kind of in the middle of nowhere and can only be walked to with difficulty. It had taken me about an hour and a half to walk there from central Cambridge, where I had been invited to a thing at Westminster College (which is an entirely different and irrelevant story, but which allowed me on the previous evening to have dinner in a hall that could have hosted a grey-bearded wizard and a sorting hat). I may have been the first person to actually walk to this hotel/inn/B&B from central Cambridge in quite some time, and the journey had involved some ungainly sprinting across a major road with no crosswalks. However, in their promotional materials they touted the existence of a footpath from the hotel/inn/B&B to a local gastropub in the tiny town nearby. After dropping off my things, I had set off on said footpath to go to dinner at the pub. It had been quite a pleasant walk.
The footpath was entirely unilluminated, so when night fell, I started thinking about getting a cab to take me back. But then … no. I LOVE to walk. I walk every place I can; I discover things that way, which is why I had walked to the hotel/inn/B&B from Cambridge in the first place. I was also loath to impose such a short fare on some poor local cab driver who might not actually exist. As for Uber, my socially conscious French wife has instilled in me a healthy disdain for how the company exploits its drivers and ruins the livelihood of the aforementioned taxi drivers. So I paid my bill, downed the last dregs of my pint, and headed back down the footpath in the dark.
The footpath had some public lighting at first, but as I left the last house behind and entered the woods, so did I leave behind the lighting. Of course, we are never really without light anymore, but when I turned on the torch of my cell phone (I was in the UK, so it’s a torch, not a flashlight), I realized that it doesn’t generate the kind of light you want when walking through woods on a poorly marked footpath at night. It was vaguely sufficient, though, as long as I thought about what differentiates an unpaved footpath from just the ground. Intent, I suppose, but I discovered that intent is difficult to see in dim light.
I haven’t been alone in the woods at night in a very long time. A certain primal fear started creeping into the periphery of my mind, the kind of fear that says there might be wolves, or bandits, or ghosts or something in the thick darkness just beyond the reach of your fingertips. I found that interesting. I pride myself on being a pretty rational human being, and I had almost forgotten that irrational fear is sometimes inescapable.
I then came out of the woods onto the edge of a large empty field. I realized at once that the moon was full. I turned off my torch, put my phone in my pocket, and just stood and looked at the field in the night. I was completely and utterly alone. There was no chance anyone else would be coming down that footpath in the dark (unless they really were a wolf, a bandit, or a ghost), and I reflected that it’s rare for me to feel so separated from everything and everyone. It’s kind of delicious. Very quickly, my eyes adjusted to the light, to the degree that when I looked up at the moon, I was almost blinded. As I stood there, I started thinking again about the subject of the column I was to write for McSweeney’s, and it struck me that this footpath was a pretty good topic.
I mean, it’s there—and under the full moon, it produced the undeniable stirrings of a travel-related emotion. A pretty complex emotion at that, one that will probably be the source of a memory. When you are fast approaching the age of sixty, as am I, you come to realize that the most precious things you can collect are memories, and here I was in full memory-creation mode. I’ve visited cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants that left me with absolutely zero memories, including some cities I’ve been to multiple times (yes, I’m looking at you, Stuttgart), and here this modest path was pushing me into full memory-creation mode. What more could you ask for as subjects go?
I decided to add to the whole memory-creation thing. I hesitate to be honest since you might find it kind of gross, but I decided to pee. Those of you with penises know there is an inescapable urge to pee against something when you’re outside. You find yourself a tree or a wall or at least a bush (or a dumpster if you’re eighteen and staggering out of a bar you snuck into three hours before with some friends you can’t find anymore), but there was so clearly no one around that I decided for once just to pee into the empty air. In an effort to maintain some shred of dignity, I offer the excuse that it’s a latent mammalian trait, an instinct buried deep in the limbic system that pushes us to mark our territory or something, but either way, it seemed a way to nail the memory indelibly into my brain. Plus, I had just drunk two pints.
I looked around again and set off across the field. I decided not to use my cell phone torch; I would navigate by moonlight. I strayed a few times, but I managed to recognize some of the landmarks (read unusual trees) that I had noticed on the way to the pub in the first place. As I walked, I debated whether I would actually write this entire column about an obscure footpath just north of Cambridge, but was increasingly convinced that this was the right subject. If you’re interested in palaces and great walls and fortune-telling bunnies and the like then feel free to peruse McSweeney’s archives (or, ahem, buy my book) and read about them, but no, as I marveled at the clarity of my moonshadow on the grass and enjoyed the titillation afforded by my instinctive fear of the dark, this footpath seemed to be the right subject for this particular column.
After decades of traveling all around the world, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not really so important where you go. It’s the going itself that changes you. Yes, I have stood astounded on the Parthenon, I have descended into catacombs to stare death in the eye socket, I have haggled with merchants in the twisting streets of markets throughout the Middle East and run my finger along the carvings at Angkor Wat … I have had the great pleasure and privilege of visiting more places and countries than I can count and have made acquaintances and actual friends in a great many of them. In this, I have been extraordinarily lucky. I implore you to do your best to do the same—it will forever change you for the better.
One of the few Mark Twain quotes that actually has Mark Twain at its origin is “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Remember, though, that you need not always visit great things. You can have just as profound an experience and build just as indelible a memory picking your way over an unfamiliar country path on a moonlit night and peeing against nothing.
Kevin Dolgin’s compilation of McSweeney’s travel columns, The Third Tower Up from the Road, can be purchased here.