Author’s note: In 1950’s Southern California, Mom didn’t have much money to spend on my birthday, so boys were invited to wear tattered clothes, smudge their faces, and join a nighttime gathering of “hobos” roasting hot dogs over a crackling campfire in our backyard. No wonder I later thumbed around America and hopped freights to New Orleans. My wanderlust eventually led me to haul my backpack around the world….as you’ll discover.
In A Common Sea
“I feel we are all islands—in a common sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Tom Sawyer Island, Disneyland – 1960
WE ADOLESCENT BOYS march down Disneyland’s Main Street dressed as Christmas trees, ringing out carols on handbells in the Parade of Toys, fearful the wind will topple us, and delinquent kids will snatch at our bulbs and garlands. Our earnings go into the treasury of our church choir, so our reward comes on those afternoons when we shed our costumes and roam the park. Dismissed from the backlot, my friends dash to the Autopia cars and the Matterhorn bobsleds while I hurry to Frontierland rafts that bear me across the Rivers of America to Tom Sawyer Island.
I clamber across the pontoon and suspension bridges spanning Smuggler’s Cove, wave to riverboat passengers from atop Castle Rock, squeeze into Injun Joe’s Cave, study teepees and a burning settler’s cabin from Fort Wilderness. I’m happy surrounded by fake rocks and plastic deer, but I’ve been reading my Grandma Day’s water-stained National Geographic, and I hunger to hike real islands with jungles and volcanoes, Maori warriors and hula dancers, emus and wild horses.
Hawaii – 1967
IN MY CHILDHOOD, I grow wistful learning about Grandma Molen’s disappointment. She was born in 1895 and grew up in Santa Barbara, with its old Spanish mission and view of the northernmost Channel Islands. By seventeen, Grandma was a paid companion for an elderly widow who invited her along on a steamship voyage to the Territory of Hawaii. Her mother wouldn’t let her go. Instead, she went to work at a beauty salon. She was bobbing hair when she could’ve been riding a mule to the Molokai leper colony founded by Father Damien or watching Duke Kahanamoku surf giant waves on a longboard.
With Grandma in mind, I’m elated when—after graduating from a state college in ’67—I learn I’m going to be sent as a volunteer to Hawaii by VISTA, the national service organization. I’ll live simply, hanging out with native youth, finding ways to build their cultural pride. But before I begin my assignment, my dream is devastated by mononucleosis. Instead of going there, I read James Michener’s novel, Hawaii.
Decades later, unlike Grandma, I finally reach Hawaii. I drive the winding Hana Highway and stare into the crater of the Haleakalā volcano, but by now I’m no more than another paunchy tourist wearing a necklace of puka shells.
Catalina Island – 1968
ON A CLEAR DAY IN THE EARLY ’60’s at Newport Beach, my body-surfing buddies and I glimpse Santa Catalina before we yelp, sprint, and leap into the waves. From the Four Preps’ song “26 Miles,” we’re convinced across the sea lies the “island of romance, romance, romance, romance.” We’ve also heard that William Golding set Lord of the Flies on the mountainous island whose wilderness is inhabited by wild boar and buffalo. It’s an island where, during the Great Depression, Mom and her teenaged classmates danced the foxtrot and two-step to the music of Pinky Tomlin and the comedic cornet player, Ish Kabibble, in the Avalon Ballroom.
Without an income because I didn’t go to Hawaii or sell my first two novels, I ride a ferry to Catalina to spend the summer directing a YMCA camp. I deliver homilies and crack jokes at campfires, counsel boys in the uplifting ways of the Rags Society, and learn to water-ski and snorkel in a realm of garibaldi, sea bass and moray eels. The next-to-last camp is held for girls, followed by a coed gathering of high school and college kids.
A vivacious eighteen-year-old former cheerleader, Nanci—a cabin leader one week and a camper the next—slowly transforms Catalina into an island of romance.
Because Nanci’s the Muse with whom I’ve always wanted to share an island, I write, “I am glad now I did not lie / I love you to the easy girls / I took to the Edgewood Drive-in / or to the well-built chicks at those dances / who gave me their kisses in dark corners, / for when I said I love you, / I didn’t think of the dark corners / and the Edgewood Drive-in…”
Alas, like my tan, our relationship fades away.
Japanese Islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Shodo – 1974
TOYOKO’S A REBEL IN MANY WAYS. She’s nineteen, and in a country where men and women travel in groups, she’s by herself. She seeks a tan instead of keeping her skin as white as she can, like her sister. In her halting English, she introduces herself at a youth hostel and we spend the next day at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, where I imagine Toyoko staggering through the ruins, burned, irradiated, and dazed.
She wants an adventurous week of vacation before school starts, so we reunite in Shimonoseki, and begin thumbing in a country in which I only see one other hitchhiker, a gaijin like myself. On a rainy afternoon at a hilltop shrine, I teach her to dance and give puckered kisses, things she’s never done with her boyfriend.
Toyoko wants to try beer so I buy a single can from a vending machine. Though she only takes a few gulps, I have to walk her in circles and lightly tap her face, so she won’t stumble into our youth hostel. Another day, we skinny-dip in a secluded cove.
Our journey ends at her house, where I spend a few days with her family, who had been reluctant to invite a foreigner into their lives for the first time.
When we’re bidding each other sayonara, Toyoko says, “Thank you, teacher.”
I wonder how soon she’ll be giving a kissing lesson to her boyfriend.
Bali – 1980
ON A FLIGHT TO HONG KONG on my way to India, intoxicated by wine and the thought of four weeks away from my newspaper reporting job in Orange County, I write on the first page of my journal, “I am aloft. Freed of the tie, the dress shirt, the slacks…the typewriter, the condo, the stereo with a rack of records…the responsibility of the work week…free, I am light…I soar above the clouds in a sky that will take me to India.”
Smiling at my literary excesses, I look up from my words into the eyes of a pretty sandy-haired woman reclining in a neighboring seat. Linda from Palos Verdes. Twenty-one, thirteen years younger than myself. The stewardess brings us white wine.
Linda tells me she saved money working as a waitress so she can return to Bali, where she’ll live for many leisurely months. A hut costs fifty cents a day, including tea and bananas for breakfast. We kiss. Volleyball on the beach. Balinese dancing at night. Magic mushrooms served in a soup. A coral reef for snorkeling amid stingrays and scorpion fish. We kiss some more. I love volleyball. I love to body-surf. I could love this woman.
But I’m going to India, and I have a nice job and live in a rented condo with a swimming pool. She asks if I’ll go with her to paradise and share a hut. She kisses me while I ponder my answer. What would happen to my Super Beetle and my belongings and my journalism career? I can’t. I simply can’t. I tell her no. We kiss again…without passion or promise.
Taquile Island and Los Uros Island, Peru – 1984
ON THE TRAIN BACK TO CUZCO from Machu Picchu, though I’m poised to spring after any thief who grabs a bag, I flirt with a curvy dark-haired Chilean named Ana. The next day, I convince her to follow me to Lake Titicaca and take a boat to Taquile Island, which is known for its pre-Inca ruins and the traditional lifestyle of its Quechuan-speaking inhabitants.
On the way, we pass Uru Indian women—wearing bowler hats, blouses, and skirts—poling boats made of totora reed, tar, and rope. Once we arrive at the foot of the island, Ana and I climb a steep mountain path to reach the pueblo, where we’re assigned a host garbed in a knit cap and clothing that’s been described as Spanish peasant. He leads us across terraces and around low piled-rock walls to a home roofed in thatch. For a dollar and a half in soles, we’re given a bedroom and use of a small bathroom that contains a clay pot with a narrow neck that requires an expert aim I don’t possess. Every time I enter or exit a door, I bang my head.
After we take a short nap, Ana claims she’s visited the island twice and can lead us to the pueblo even though the sky’s darkening.
We’re lost by nightfall, and I nicely tip a local who guides us back to our room, where we’re served a starchy yet tasty dinner. Once we’re snug under a pile of blankets, I make Ana smile—as I always do—by crooning “Summertime” and “House of the Rising Sun.”
After the rain lets up in the morning, we slog to the pueblo and listen to a Taquileño strum a harp before climbing down the mountain. On the way to Puno, our boat stops at the biggest of the floating islands. Our feet bounce as we explore the church, houses, and soccer field, all built on reeds that constantly need replenishment.
The next morning, before I board a bus for La Paz, Ana and I kiss goodbye, and I press into her hand twenty dollars, a relatively enormous amount, especially when you change money—like we all do—on the black market. She rides away in a cart in front of a large tricycle pedaled by a Peruvian. She doesn’t look back. Her eyes are firmly set on El Norte.
Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego – 1984
TO REACH USHUAIA, the southernmost city in South America from Southern California, I’ve been riding buses—many of them arthritic and crowded—for six months. I watch a revolutionary being led off to be executed in the mountains of Peru. I console a backpacker after her bag was snatched as she sat on the rim of a fountain, absorbed in her journal. Inside a Bolivian prison cell, I chat with gringos eating my pastries while smoking cocaine. I gain empathy for those who don’t have a person to hug.
By enduring sickness and loneliness and bumpy rides, I’ve earned the landscape of Tierra del Fuego: a lake with black water, rugged mountains draped in snow, and a channel named after the Beagle, the ship that in 1832 brought Charles Darwin here on his way to the Galapagos Islands.
By now I understand these words of Rainer Maria Rilke: “The only journey is the one within.”
Orkney Island – 1987
MISSING THE FREE-SPIRITED DAYS of my youth, I fly to Europe at age forty-one without an itinerary. After three weeks of travel in the Netherlands and the British Isles, I reach Scotland and meander to the mainland’s northern coast. A short ferry ride puts me ashore on Orkney.
Every misty morning in Stromness, I hope to meet a single woman in my B&B, but inevitably I end up conversing with pensioners who praise the great deal seniors get from Brit Rail. After staying up late Saturday drinking too much hard cider and listening to traditional tunes wafting from fiddles and an accordion, I plod into the dining room for breakfast.
I eat sausage and fried eggs across from Arthur, an English retiree traveling the world. He was mugged in a Colorado YMCA and, while sitting on a toilet in a Canadian bus terminal, watched a hand reach under the door of his stall and snatch his camera. The likely culprit? The shoe shine guy who could’ve slipped the camera beneath his box.
Arthur tells me he cared for his wife until she died. Then a girlfriend fell deathly ill and he tended to her. Now he’s determined to find a woman who won’t force him to be a caregiver again. I tell him in life, we repeat lessons we don’t learn the first or second time, so don’t be surprised if his next girlfriend sickens, too.
I’m told I can buy a three-room stone cottage for less than $8,000…but it wouldn’t come with a Muse. I leave this island possessing memories of its twelfth-century cathedral of red and yellow sandstone, and its Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle. More importantly, I carry a book by a native son, George Mackay Brown, who wrote: “Monday I found a boot – / rust and salt leather. / I gave it back to the sea, to dance in…” The shore, he concluded, “was cold with mermaids and angels.”
Mallorca – 1996
WHEN I TAKE THREE WEEKS OFF from my hospital public relations job and fly to Barcelona alone, I already have a girlfriend, so I’m not looking for a muse. My doctor doesn’t want me to board a plane because I have an ear infection requiring antibiotics, and, at any moment in the air, my eardrum could rupture.
I have no itinerary. I just know I won’t celebrate my fiftieth birthday wearing a silly hat and opening gag gifts. Maybe I’ll clap my hands and click my shoes while a raven-haired flamenco dancer swirls her red dress and slaps the air with her fan.
My semi-deafness, my inability to speak Catalan, my lack of fashionable clothes, and my forced abstinence from sangria and beguda de pobre (oranges, anise and sugar), though, turn me into a hermit. I only communicate to purchase air-cured ham and bread and to pay for my room, fares and museum tickets. Given a choice between wandering out into a drizzle and reading Robert Hughes’ book about Barcelona, I read the book. Whatever happened to the guy who climbed Croagh Patrick—Ireland’s holy mountain—in a cold mist?
Finally, I force myself to take the ferry to Ibiza, an island known for its throbbing discos and topless sunbathing…in the summer. But this is winter, and hotels are empty and inexpensive, and everyone bundles up. Days later, when a ferry leaves me in Palma, Mallorca, my throat is sore, and my nose is runny. On the bus to Port de Sóller, I decide it’s a divine directive when a road sign points into the mountains to Santuari de Lluc.
The sanctuary was erected in the thirteenth century at a place where a shepherd discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary. The monastery was erected later, and I sleep in one of its austere cells. Though I was raised a Methodist and not a Catholic, I celebrate my birthday listening to boy choristers in blue cassocks and following pilgrims to outdoor Stations of the Cross. I contemplate the triumphs and failures of my life near bell- jangling sheep nibbling on grass. Instead of blowing out candles, I light five of them—thick and red—for the dead, the ailing, and a baby in a friend’s womb.
Islands in the Mississippi River – 2002
I’M FIFTY-SIX, old enough to be Huck Finn’s grandpappy, and I’ve never paddled a canoe that wasn’t circling Tom Sawyer Island. Paige, a young poet friend I met in California, has been trained by Outward Bound, so she’s the brains behind my brawn on our two-month voyage from St. Paul to New Orleans. I paddle in the bow. She’s in the stern with the map book.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wrote, “Huck spends three peaceful, lonely days on the island, living on plentiful berries and fish and able to smoke whenever he wishes. He spends his nights counting ferryboats and stars on the tranquil river.”
We don’t spend peaceful days on islands plucking berries and hooking catfish. I’d never smoke because I need my lung power to stroke hour after hour like a beast of burden. We don’t have time to count boats—riverboats, barges, motorboats— because we’re too busy keeping their wakes from capsizing us.
Maybe Paige counts stars, but I don’t because not long after nightfall, I’m curled into a fetal position inside my one-man tent. We pass many islands, and sometimes Paige calls out their names. Arsenal Island. Grand Tower. Nine-Mile. And we sleep on a few less prominent ones…on their clear edges or sandbars. We certainly wouldn’t claw through thick foliage and risk angering a nest of cottonmouths. We rest on one island that’s clearly been the scene of both family gatherings and drunk fests. By the time we paddle past our last island, I’m muscled and confident, and I’ve lost thirty pounds. Early on, though, Mark Twain pretty much described me: “I felt like a skinful of dry bones and all of them trying to ache at once.”
Caribbean Islands – 2008
MOM’S EIGHTY-NINE AND I’M SIXTY-TWO when we board a ship in Florida for the weeklong Sylvia Browne and Friends Spiritual Connections Cruise in the Caribbean. Mom inherited money from an aunt, and she’s spending part of it on separate “Mommy and Me” trips for her four children.
My younger sisters have Dad’s introversion, and I’m a glad- handing extrovert like Mom, who’s got a “Whatever” T-shirt identical to mine. On the Crown Princess and in port, we attract crowds that grow with every burst of laughter.
Mom joins a conga line on deck, plays the slots, coos at every baby in sight, and bobs her head to steel drums and Jimmy Buffett. I joke that we’re a team: while Mom’s hugging someone, I’m picking their pocket. I tell everyone about my idea for the perfect souvenir gift for oldsters: a granny thong, an adult diaper dyed a shocking pink and greatly reduced in size.
To hundreds of us, psychics deliver lectures and conduct readings. When it’s my turn, I tell Sylvia—a frequent TV guest and author of Conversations with the Other Side—that I’m not gainfully employed and expend all my time and energy writing stories, poems, and essays for literary journals that pay nothing.
I ask if I should worry about money. She answers, “Absolutely not.”
Even as my savings are being depleted over the years, I’m not concerned until I discover that Sylvia once predicted a missing eleven-year-old boy was dead after being kidnapped by a dreadlocked Hispanic man. Five years after being kidnapped by a short-haired white man, the boy was found alive.
Paul Theroux, who’s written books about his journeys to Sri Lanka and Singapore, Easter Island and the British Isles, has said, “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”
As Mom and I reclaim our luggage in Florida, I recognize I’m no longer a traveler, but a tourist. While I can probably list the islands where we stopped—the Bahamas, St. Maarten, the Virgin Islands, Grand Turk—I have no idea where we’ve been.
Assateague Island, Maryland and Virginia – 2014
MAYBE THESE FERAL PONIES ARE DESCENDANTS of domesticated horses loosened from the hold of a Spanish galleon during a wreck centuries ago. Or maybe their ancestors belonged to colonial settlers who cast them out on their own to forage.
On a day when wind ruffles cord grass and wavelets, I want to be buoyed by the sight of these wild ponies cavorting in the sea and galloping across the dunes, stirring sandpipers and osprey into flight. I want to see a vigilant egret—hungry for biting insects—standing atop a pony, and two stallions trying to master the other beside a salt marsh.
But what catches my attention is a lone brown pony—with a protruding ribcage and hair baring scars and sores—shuffling and resting in the parking lot. The pony doesn’t approach my car window to silently plead for my apple and ham sandwich, a breach of the posted rules. It seems too weak to look for rosehips, persimmons, and bayberry twigs.
The pony’s back hasn’t been bent by riders, and its spirit was never broken by a bit and reins, but it looks forlorn after living on an island on which only the fittest can survive bitter storms and scorching heat. Though my own wanderings came at considerable cost, I still believe that given a choice when it was a foal, this pony would have chosen freedom over a corral, a saddle, and a bale of hay.
Cuba – 2018
FROM THE MIST-SLICK RAILING OF A CRUISE SHIP slowly nearing land one morning, my young traveler self and my old tourist self-gaze across the sea at Havana.
My young self wonders what he’ll find once he struts on to the port. Will he meet effusive señoritas and invite them to ride to Moro Castle and the Gran Teatro in the back seat of a ’55 red Chevy convertible while smoking cigars and sharing a bottle of Havana Club rum? Will he pound conga drums in a jam session with Aguaje Ramos on trombone, Eliades Ochoa on guitar, Chucho Valdés at the piano, and Omara Portundo singing and swaying? Will he salsa for hours at a club and then sit beside the sea at the Malecón and, inspired by Jose Marti (“Sane love is not love”), scribble odes in bad Spanish to Eva’s smoldering gray eyes, the hypnotic shifting of Pilar’s ribcage, the grace of Bernita’s bare shoulders? At dusk, will he curl up in the ruins of a colonial building and sleep for a few hours before awakening to the drifting aroma of Café Cubano?
My seventy-two-year-old tourist self shakes these images out of his head. He needs to be careful of his blood sugar and lung capacity, so he won’t be sipping rum and Coke, or inhaling a Montecristo No. 2, savoring the taste of leather, wood, cinnamon, and nutmeg. He won’t be strutting but tottering when he walks through immigration. He’ll board a luxury bus with his partner, Debbie, so he can forget señoritas and a romantic ride in a classic American car reminiscent of his teenaged years. He’ll watch Cubans play music while tapping his arthritic fingers against his thighs, and Cubans dance while he tries to wiggle life back into his slumbering toes.
And this old self—grown mellow—knows that after the sky darkens, he’ll be spooning on his cabin’s soft bed while the vagabonds of the world are doing what he once did: sharing kisses on Catalina Island, getting tipsy on grog with Fiji’s taxi drivers, imitating Zorba the Greek on a taverna’s dance floor, meandering through islands guided by chance, not by a printed itinerary.
Orman Day has lived a life ruled by wanderlust and a love of writing. As a young man with little money, he hitchhiked and hopped freights. Eventually, he hauled his pack to dozens of countries. His prose and poetry have been published by Creative Nonfiction, Potomac Review, William and Mary, Passager Journal, Portland Review, and others. He lives in Laurel, Maryland.
Delmarva Review is an independent literary journal selecting the best of new poetry and prose from thousands of submissions nationwide. The thirteenth annual edition, released in November, features sixty-four authors, many from the region. The nonprofit journal receives partial financial support from a Talbot County Arts Council grant with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Readers can buy copies from specialty booksellers like Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford, or from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.