I made friends with books at an early age. As a child, I read all the books in my room and in my brother’s closet and the National Geographics in the living room and the books I could find in my parent’s room. Reader’s Digest and my mother’s cookbook collection and the atlas and Webster’s dictionary. I read the shampoo bottles in the bathroom and the comics from the Sunday papers, the Bible in Sunday school, the hymnbook in the church pew, instruction manuals, lists of ingredients on food packaging, posted rules and regulations, street signs, bumper stickers. I read all the library books on my grade level and above my grade level and then smuggled books from my teachers’ classroom libraries, reading them half-shoved into my desk during boring, endless classes, on the bus, treading water in the swimming pool. I loved to read.
When we were very young
I had real friends, of course. Swim team friends and friends from the neighborhood. Amanda, who lived next door and whose birthday was exactly one year and one day after my own. Friends from church and friends from school. Kids who came over for swimming pool parties and ice cream floats. But I spent a lot of time by myself. And when I was alone, if I wasn’t making up stories, I was reading them.
My brother’s closet was a kind of treasure trove, really, full of all the books he had read when he was younger, and I devoured them page by page. My Side of the Mountain. Where the Red Fern Grows. The Incredible Journey. White Fang. Call of the Wild. Books about heroic animals who returned to their masters, or not. Books about heroic boys who lived barefoot and tramped through the woods. Julie of the Wolves, about an Inupiaq girl who runs away into the arctic and lives with the wolves and dreams of meeting up with her pen pal in far-off California. Perhaps not as sustaining, but certainly novel were the one-hundred-and-one copies of Choose Your Own Adventure, a series of paperback stories with which the reader could interact. When you came to a decision point in the story, you could make a choice. Let’s say you were cornered between a man-eating python and quicksand in a jungle in Brazil. If you choose to fight the python, turn to page 65. If you choose to risk the quicksand, turn to page 43. You might die both ways, but at any rate, it was more interesting than a normal book because the reader experienced agency, even if vicariously.
When not reading and not in school, I remember spending most of my time outside. I built treehouses from my father’s scrap lumber in the mesquite trees in the empty lot next to our house, filled buckets with mulberries for my mother’s pies from the trees in the park across the street, explored storm gullies and mysterious dirt paths, collected bouquets of wildflowers and wondered at the remains of old buildings I came across. When my brother was around, I would follow him through drainage routes under roads, with a flashlight, avoiding broken bottles and expecting at any moment to come across a bum from the ghetto. Some of these outside hours were spent with friends, but many of my memories are solitary ones, filled with my own imaginative play. In this way, my daughters and I are very similar, for they also love to lose themselves in daydreams and play-acted stories, creating little worlds within worlds.
My brother and I, being seven years apart, were never close, and by the time I was eleven, he had joined the navy and disappeared from my world, apart from the stories which were told about his own adventures around the outside world. For me, he became something of a legend, a world-traveler with a house in Sicily. A diver and a bomb expert. Despite the fact that the five years I remember us spending together were plagued with strife, I idolized him. He had, after all, escaped. And that was an achievement in itself.
My father also had somewhat of an exotic profession which took him to lands beyond, which influenced my own desire to travel. From the time I was in seventh grade until after I graduated from high school, he worked overseas in month-long hitches, first in the jungles of Nigeria, then in the Persian Gulf, and then in the Sahara desert region of Algeria, 400 miles inland. Odds and ends of these global perambulations filtered down into my childish brain. Evidences of his layovers in various airports gathered in the nooks and crannies of our home. Amaryllis bulbs from Amsterdam. Woolens and Victorian lace from London. Expensive perfumes for Christmas. And the flotsam and jetsam from Dubai: silks and fabrics for my mother the seamstress, a hammered plaque from a co-worker with Arabic script and a desert motif. Strange recipes for Nigerian bean pot with hard-boiled eggs appeared at family barbeques. Other details I’ve forgotten. During the months my father spent at home, while I longed for stories of far-away places, he longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the familiar. So he worked on his model airplanes and I returned to my books. I was, frankly, convinced he was a spy, which naturally explained his understandable reticence to speak on matters professional.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” They put the question to me again and again. I could only imagine the surreal, the elusive, the glamorous. By the age of 17, I had settled on botanical field researcher in the rain forests of Costa Rica. I figured there were plants down there that could probably cure cancer, and I could be responsible for identifying various species and sending them off to a pharmaceutical lab for analysis. I envisioned myself working in the canopy, on one of those enormous inflated platforms which sits atop the trees. Like Bilbo high above Mirkwood, I would see for miles, as tropical butterflies fluttered around me. Clearly, I had not yet developed the practical side of my character, and preferred to dwell in realms fantastical.
All of this is to say that my penchant for travel is somewhat of a natural outgrowth from many of the influences of my childhood. From books I learned about parts of the world I wanted to experience, which tantalized me and drew my curiosity. My freedom outside engendered a desire for more of the same, in more complicated and intimate ways. Climbing is perhaps the most advanced expression of this, because of the level of risk and the closeness one feels both to one’s own mortality and to the wildness of the environment. My brother and father indirectly affected me, probably in ways they didn’t expect at the time. Certainly there is enough in the experience of traveling which always leaves me wanting more. More could be said in this regard, as these are but the threads of a more complicated tapestry, but perhaps this is enough for now.