Andrew McCarthy drew a large crowd last April at The Boston Globe Travel Show (which is, incidentally, the largest newspaper sponsored travel show in the US). McCarthy, an actor best known for his appearance in St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, and Less Than Zero as one of the Brat Pack, has recently taken up travel writing. He is a contributing editor at National Geographic and has twice been awarded Travel Journalist of the Year from the Society of American Travel Writers.
At the travel show, McCarthy spoke about the transformative power of travel. “Travel changed my life—who I was and how I saw myself, even when I wasn’t traveling,” McCarthy avowed. He talked about walking across the Camino de Santiago in Spain, feeling lonely and miserable.
He hit bottom and wanted to go home.
The next day he realized that fear had run his life, and he felt like himself for the first time. He has discovered in his travels that he is more at home in himself the farther he gets from home.
He reported that 30% of Americans have passports, but only half ever use them, and even then to travel only to Mexico and Canada. Americans are a fearful people, he asserted, but travel obliterates fear. He was terrified to travel to Sudan but didn’t want to be deterred by fear. Kids have no fear, he noted. He took his eight-year-old son to the Sahara, even though people thought he was crazy to do so, and it turned out well. He believes that when you travel somewhere with small children, it’s a way of saying ‘I trust you,’ and people respond favorably to that.
McCarthy prefers to travel alone because when he’s lonely he’s apter to reach out for help, which opens him up. He makes connections with people more often. It is the interactions with people that he remembers about traveling. “You break through barriers and connect,” he said. “When you become engaged and turn your attention out, you become alive. Travel is an easy way to do that.”
McCarthy showed a video of himself driving around Ireland on a quest for the “magic road”—a road that defies gravity, where a car left in neutral goes uphill.
The video was a great illustration of how McCarthy sees travel as an opportunity to reach out to others.
In it, he asks numerous people, young and old alike, for directions to the magic road. Each has a different idea of where it is and how to get there, sending him helter-skelter across the Irish countryside. After being told to take a right (he can’t miss it) he finds himself at a few six-way intersections all marked in Gaelic. Confused and lost, he decides it’s time to get a cup of tea. Refreshed, he sets out again undeterred, asking directions of everyone he passes. Eventually, he finds the magic road, as his car coasts uphill for a thrilling moment.
But it is apparent that for McCarthy, the memorable part of his travel experience was not reaching his destination but rather relating to people along the way. He remarked about one elderly man he spoke with who had a thick Irish brogue, “I had no idea what he was saying, but it sure was fun talking with him!”
Travel is a romantic experience, according to McCarthy. “You have to love where you travel,” he opined. “Stepping out and entering a new place is romantic. But travel is not always pretty, glamorous, or fun,” he added. “It can be a jarring experience, encountering people’s suffering or deplorable living conditions.”
For McCarthy, writing taps into his excitement and engagement in the world. Even though travel writing wouldn’t seem to be a lucrative endeavor, McCarthy reports that his passions have always rewarded him thirtyfold. He got his start when Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations suggested that he write a travel article. McCarthy initially demurred but gave it a try, and Bourdain liked his work. McCarthy has since written a multitude of articles in such magazines as “The Atlantic,” “Travel + Leisure,” and “Bon Appetit.”
When he’s interviewing someone for an article (in which he too is a character), he doesn’t pull out a notebook. Instead, he runs to the bathroom periodically to take notes (which may give rise to some interesting speculations). “I try to be a traveling fool,” he proclaimed.” “God takes care of babies and fools.”
For McCarthy, the world is a wondrous place. He affirmed that children naturally have wonder but that adults long for it too. He closed with words that seem unquestionably true:
We travel to feel wonder, to tap into it no matter how old we are. I think that’s why we travel. To get that wonder.