Fresh Eyes: Into the unknown

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by Daniel Wirtheim

On family-vacations my mother would line us up by some monument that she had read about in her tourist book and snap away until no one was blinking. In those moments of excruciating stillness I planned my reactionary-adventuring years.

My high school friends and I became the adventurers I imagined we would, the type of people who didn’t give a damn about collecting memories or eating real food — we let the chips fall where they may. We would pack sleeping bags, cans of food and CDs in a car and as my mom waved from the front door we would turn up the Velvet Underground, waving suburbia goodbye as we set our sites on the vast unknown. And when we finally arrived starving at our hostel or campsite, we would silently thank my mom for slipping zip-locked snacks into our canvas bags.

In film and literature “adventure” is a word typically reserved for backpacking and often bearded young people who give up well paying office jobs to fling themselves into the unknown. But as I realized in Portland, Ore., the thrill of the unknown is meaningless without the ones we know.

My mother bought her airline ticket for Portland six months in advance. It was her first time going to see my brother who’s lived there for 10 years, and she wanted me to come. I knew it wouldn’t be the kind of adventure I had come to associate with Portland, the kind that usually involved magic mushrooms and naked bike rides. But I would do all I could to ensure that when we got there my mother would find herself in the greatest adventure she never knew she wanted.

These days my brother, who once sculpted a pile of televisions in his front yard as a protest against mass media, is married and has a legitimate business. His idea of adventure has changed, too. Upon arriving he suggested we drive his minivan to the coast. But it was only an errand run.

We drove my sister in-law Taylor to her high school reunion in a small fishing town called Newport, Ore. A tourist brochure showed the side of Newport that travel companies want us to see, a quaint fishing village — one might even call it charming. What Newport had going for it was the surrounding area, which was supposed to be some of the most scenic of the entire Oregon coast — Richard Donner filmed The Goonies nearby. But when we got to the docks there were only fish smells and gray, flabby people.

Our hotel room was mid-priced, the kind with an underlying chemical smell and dull abstract paintings that might be covering up holes in the wall. The three of us tuned into a James Bond marathon while Taylor drank with her high school friends.

We laid on the bed surrounded by crumpled fast-food containers, our eyes focused on the television where James Bond was blowing up some building in Venice. My mother fell asleep while my brother and I lay on the other bed. There’s a 15-year age difference between us. He remembers our father and I don’t. Our father had adventured away before I was born and now no one really knows where he is. We could talk about our father’s absence but it feels better this way, us together, sitting on the precipice of the unknown while James Bond saves the day in a crisp, white shirt.

What I really wanted out of travel was to become someone whose personality rests in ambiguity, someone who always knows the perfect reaction to any situation. But adventuring doesn’t happen like that, at least for anyone who’s not James Bond.

We wait around for near-death experiences or a meeting with the divine to put our priorities into focus but we’re deaf to the voices of those who love us. My father was so fixated on finding meaning in the unknown that I never once saw his face. Adventure without love is aimless wandering. Just imagine the kind of narrative flaw The Odyssey would have if Odysseus had no desire to return to Penelope.   

The three of us spent our last days together back in Portland. We walked through the city while the professionals were at work and the eccentrics wandered the streets. I pointed out great photo opportunities for my mother: a toothless man selling bottles of water, children playing beneath a statue of Roosevelt — photos that encapsulate both human suffering and the struggle to become more than our mortal shells. She doesn’t share an appreciation for that search of elation in the unknown, but she is here with us. She’s here along with her goldfish and pretzels. And when she turns to take a picture of me I smile, and give her the photo that I know she really wants.