[GCC: Travel has a way of opening us up to the world around us and the people in it. The connections and friendships found on the road are some of the most longstanding and powerful we have. Early Retirement Dude abides.]
Early retirees like Jeremy and Winnie and I get to travel a lot. And as you know, we like to talk about it. So hear me, O My People.
Once upon a time there was a bicycle tourist—I, your humble narrator—who was riding section four of the TransAmerica Bicycle Route from West Yellowstone, Montana to the Adventure Cyclist Association headquarters in Missoula. I’d climbed all 7,241 friggedy feet of Chief Joseph Pass in a hellacious headwind on a fully-loaded bike, and I was now laboring down the steep slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains. Yes, laboring down, because that’s how bad the headwind was. Thirty MPH? At any rate, it was impossible to coast.
It was a low, low, moment in my life. I was sweat-crusted, jelly-legged, cursing plate tectonics IN A THUNDEROUS VOICE, and as physically exhausted as I’ve ever been.
I came to a random campground, so I gave up and pulled in and found the host’s RV and knocked on the door. A grandmotherly lady poked her head out. As I was registering I told her I was famished and asked her if there was a restaurant close by. There wasn’t, she said, but then she looked me up and down and with a kindly smile said I should set up camp and come back in twenty minutes for dinner. I raised my palms in polite protest—oh, it’s OK, I don’t want to be a bother—whereupon she threatened me with the Rod of Correction, literally a spanking, and reminded me that we’re all on Earth to take care of each other.
Who’s gonna argue with that?
Twenty minutes later on the dot I knocked on her RV door again and she invited me in and introduced me to her husband and ordered me to sit down at the table. Then she whisked an enormous shrimp salad out of the fridge and set it in front of me alongside a sliced baguette and a craft beer. Presently she brought me another such beer, and then another.
We sat at the table talking and laughing for hours. I told them about my life and times as a bike tourist, of course, but her husband gave me lessons on fly-fishing in Montana, she explained why Siamese cats are the best mousers, and they both got misty-eyed telling me how their son had stayed sober for three years. Before we knew it it was midnight, so we friended each other on Facebook, hugged, and I promised to check back in on them if I was ever in the neighborhood. The next day my jelly-legs were better, as was my general disposition, and I pressed on.
Haven’t seen that couple since, but I’ve certainly met others like them. And I hope as travelers we all have. Hit a town for a resupply, spark the interest of the locals, and soon they’re asking us about our trip and offering us hospitality. Devices get put away, food appears, and maybe there’s the offer of a shower or even a guest room. All we have to do in return is share our stories.
This is far from a new phenomenon. In Ye Olden Times, back before speedy travel and mass communication, people treasured visits from the wandering storyteller. You know how it worked: the greybeard tottered into the village on his walking stick, gathered everybody around the evening fire, and entertained them with myths and legends and oral history and news from afar. And in return they fed him and sheltered him and tended to his arthritis and wished him well when he split.
It’s an ancient social ceremony; one we’re hardwired for.
Joseph Campbell, an American Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College and expert in comparative mythology, described the heart of this ceremony in his truly seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. His theme was that all great stories arise from the One Story, so to speak. The human monomyth. As Campbell summarized it:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Doesn’t that sound like my bicycle tour? Abandoning the daily grind, experiencing the magic of the road, overcoming internal and external conflict, and coming home with good stories to share?
Yeah, that’s it exactly…and interestingly, it’s also the plot of Star Wars. Boy goes on a journey, embraces the supernatural, assaults the black knight’s castle, defeats various minions, finally fights the black knight himself, emerges victorious, and uses his newfound abilities to free the galaxy from evil.
The similarity’s not accidental. George Lucas has often credited Hero for being his main inspiration. And when you hear the opening line of every movie in the franchise—”A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away”—you’re hearing Lucas say “Once upon a time.”
Sadly, though, Star Wars illustrates that these days it’s the stories that wander rather than the storytellers. But as social beings we still feel that primal need to—what, culturally cross-pollinate?—by sharing our stories in person. Attend a renaissance fair, for instance, and you’ll find the bard singing to the patrons in the alehouse or the wise old woman telling fables to the children in the shade of the old oak. Witness such a thing and I’m guessing you’ll come away having satisfied a fundamental need…the need for human connection.
And so the moral of the story—and you should’ve seen one coming, because a proper story always has a moral—is this. As travelers we’re well-suited to play the wandering storyteller’s role: touching people’s lives through the art of narrative. It’s a fun pastime and a great way to broaden our collective horizon, but it’s also a heavy responsibility. Our stories empower us to teach, learn, inspire, and be inspired.
We’d better not screw it up, because sharing our stories also empowers us to set our differences aside and remember what we have in common. Meaning now, when neighbor so grievously strives against neighbor, the wandering storyteller can bring an evening’s peace to a global village that sorely needs it.