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The Worst Trips Make the Best Stories

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

The travel writer Paul Theroux said that when everything goes smoothly you don't have much to write about. On the other hand, when you manage to book a flight home after sleeping the entire night on the floor of the Las Vegas airport, or you are in Macon, Missouri, and you notice your rear right tire is so worn you can see those metal wires coming out of the treads, or you are driving through the Mohave and the temperature gauge seems glued to red even with the heater running full blast, those make good stories.

Yes, I've had those experiences, but they weren't close to being the worst. More on that later.

Theroux says there are three kinds of travel. The first type is done by tourists who go to places that entrepreneurs have prepared for them. I live near the quaint little town of Jim Thorpe. You can take a steam engine train ride along the Lehigh River or hop on a raft for a white water trip. You can hire a horse-drawn wagon, or buy a seat on a motorized trolly, or see a show at the old opera house, or rent a bike for a ride in the Lehigh Gorge State Park. Those activities are ready for you; all you need is the ticket.

My cousin vacations in the Dominican Republic. He goes to a resort with pools and restaurants. The only Dominicans he sees are the staff. The only part of the country he sees is from the airport to the resort. That is the epitome of tourism.

The second type is what Theroux calls traveling. Travelers don't depend on the GPS on their phones but use a road map. They'd look for old U.S. highways that parallel the interstates. They don't make reservations at a Hilton, but keep an eye open for a vacancy sign at the Dew Drop Inn along the highway. Travelers ask a gas station attendant or a local cop for restaurant recommendations. At night in the motel they read On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

The final category is the explorer. These are the backpackers who climb the Peruvian Andes or through hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail. A vacation might involve hunting Burmese pythons in the Everglades or an archeological dig in Morocco.



The late Anthony Bourdain would fit the explorer category. So would Bill Bryson, who wrote the hilarious A Walk In the Woods detailing his adventures on the Appalachian Trail. William Least Heat-Moon, writing about his 13,000 mile meander across the U.S., would also qualify.

Being an explorer is far more difficult than in the past. Climbing Half Dome is not exactly routine, but it is no longer newsworthy. Outfitters will safely raft you down the Colorado. You can hire a guide and reach the top of Mt. Everest for about $40,000.

But I promised to tell you about my worst trip. In 1971, two of my friends and I decided it would be a good idea to get out of the Bay Area and spend Christmas in Death Valley. Bart had a VW "hippie bus" to make the trip; Bill had marijuana. As we drove south through the Central Valley, the rain poured down, but we assumed Death Valley would be sunny. After all, it's a desert.

It rained the entire time we were there. Not a drizzle, but a cold driving rain. The day after Christmas we decided to go home by way of the eastern side of the Sierra. The rain turned to snow, and Bill slid the bus into a ditch. We were towed to June Lake, where we spent the night. The next morning Bart and Bill proposed to deal with the bus. By that point I was so irritated with the two of them that I decided to hitchhike home.

I was picked up by two good ole boys headed to Reno. They were drinking vodka. I sat in the back and mixed screwdrivers as we drove north. In Reno I stood by an on-ramp to I-80 for about an hour in freezing cold. I finally went into a casino to warm up, heard about a guy who was headed to the Bay Area, and bummed a ride. That guy was not drinking, and he dropped me at our house in Alameda. Bart and Bill arrived about an hour later.

~ Roy Christman


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