Points of Departure

I. Riding the Rancid Raven

I HAD THOUGHT THAT traveling by train to Ulan Bator with a tour group might be relaxing. I would be invisible in this crowd of overstuffed leisure suits. I would be anonymous, sipping tea in the coziness of my compartment, reading underrated American novelists, and watching undisturbed as the awful monotony of the steppe, like a chromatograph, faded into the nauseatingly dreary tedium of the desert. How wrong I was.

On the first day my cover was nearly blown when I was recognized by Charles Kuralt and his camera crew. Kuralt bellowed from the other end of the car, “Isn’t that Paul Theroux?” Then he lunged and gave me a boneshattering bear hug. I slunk back to my compartment to nurse my wounds.

None of my other accidental companions could be trusted with the slightest bit of information. One evening, after another bowel-crushing meal of putrid mutton fat and dried goat’s ears, I was cornered in the dining car by Bernice, a pimply thirty-twoyear-old dwarf of a woman. Bernice was totally bald and shaped like a barrel. After skillfully blocking my only exit, she embarked on a thirty-minute Gestapo-style interrogation — What did I do? Where had I been? Was I enjoying myself? Her shiny scalp reflected the naked bulb above us directly into my eyes. I wondered if this was a conscious tactic. In any event, it must have broken down my resistance: I revealed my name. Within hours everyone in the group was calling me “Paul.”

My compartment-mates for the first three weeks of the journey were a decrepit old country doctor called Doc Campbell and an elderly man who wanted to be known as Blind Al. I lay deeply engrossed in my second underrated American novel when, with no excuses, Blind Al sat on my bunk and began to tell me his sad story. He said that his oculist had told him he would soon be completely blind. He was on this trip to “see the world,”as he put it. I cast my eyes back to my novel, but Blind Al’s vision was too far gone for him to pay heed, and he went on.

When Blind Al finally finished, he set off for the squalid lavatory down the corridor. He never made it. I had forgotten to remove my valise from the doorway. Blind Al tripped, did a kind of double flip, and landed on the floor in a semiconscious heap. Eater, as the pig-faced, bowlegged porter carted him away, I pitied Blind Al that his last visions of things on this earth would be of fetid mounds of animal waste, noisome crowds of jabbering natives, and other doughy-faced tourists.

While Blind Al lay in the makeshift infirmary, his place was taken by a randy little couple of Uighur newlyweds. The man had annoyingly protruding buttocks. Upon entering, he attempted to bow and smile in my direction, but I crouched behind my underrated American novel. He and his runtish, bandy-legged wife hopped onto the upper couchette. They giggled together and sang songs endlessly. Later they broke out their provisions: rock-hard Uighur bread with crusty pustules and a fresh tin of rancid yak butter.

I closed my book, shut my eyes, held my nose, and tried to imagine I was back on Cape Cod.

H. On the (Rail)Road

’D BEEN ON THE road in these fiftyodd United States of ours for over twenty years, and I knew something was wrong. The old middleAmerican well seemed to be running dry for me. Grandma’s apple pie with its sourdough crust and brown sugar and whipped cream had gone stale. The aroma of fresh molasses in the morning had lost its sweetness. In other words, I needed a new road to follow. So I joined a score of my fellow Americans on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

My first welcome came from a great big bubbly barrel of a woman named Bernice. We got along like brother and sister. It was as if we were made from the same mold. Upon first seeing her, I must confess, I felt pity—for Bernice was totally bald. But there was no selfpity in Bernice! She polished and buffed and burnished her scalp until it shone like a golden mirror. No maiden has ever taken more pride in her tresses than Bernice took in her hairless pate. It was the jewel in her personal crown.

In the corridor I ran into another well-known professional wanderer— the writer Paul Theroux. We gave each other a great big bear hug. How wonderful it is to make new friends on the road!

And then there was Blind Al. Al wasn’t blind yet, but he soon would be, and he wanted to see as much as he could of this glorious world while he still had the chance. How wonderful, I thought, that Blind Al’s final memories would be of gaily dressed crowds of natives; of endless fields scented with the aroma of fertilizer that farm boys like Al and me love so well; and of his fellow American travelers, who, without fear or favor, lent him their ears and eyes and hands and hearts and heads.

But it was the oldest man on the train, 102-vear-old Doc Campbell, of Missoula, Montana, still spry and healing townsfolk after eighty-four years, who touched me the most of all. He didn’t have a lot in the way of book learning, and maybe his diploma did come from a mail-order house! But all the same, babies were delivered, legs were splinted, and many a whimpering little child was comforted by old Doc Campbell. Oh, yes, from time to time Doc would make a mistake—and another middle-American soul would meet his Maker a little early. When the casualty list got too long‚ Doc would shrug his shoulders, pull up stakes, change his name, and send away for a new sheepskin; he would settle in a new town, and serve his new flock with the same care and love and devotion as he had all the others—until it was time to move on again.

I asked Doc Campbell what was the most important thing he had learned in over a century of living, and he told me: “Stick with what you know.” That’s good old American common sense. So I bade a fond farewell to my companions and returned to the American heartland, which I know best.