The old hunger for voyages fed at his heart….To go alone…into strange cities; to meet strange people and to pass again before they could know him; to wander, like his own legend, across the earth–it seemed to him there could be no better thing than that.
–Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel
In May 1974, toward the end of my first trip away from North America, I traveled into Afghanistan’s lofty Hindu Kush to the valley of Bamian. Bamian had once been a great center of Buddhism, but in the thirteenth century Genghis Khan’s army swept through and slaughtered every living thing in the valley. Even the mice, it is said. Now Bamian was home to a small community of farmers, fervent Moslems all, tending crops beneath the image of a 175-foot-tall Buddha carved into the valley’s sheer wall fifteen hundred years earlier.
On my second day in Bamian a pair of Australians drove into town and began asking around for directions to the lakes at Band-e-Amir, farther up in the mountains. Their Land Rover was packed solid with gear, but after seeing my wistful look one of them cocked an eyebrow at me and drawled, “You can ride up on the roof.”
“What’ll it cost me?” I’d been nursing my last $250 since Athens, five weeks earlier.
“If we get stuck, you push.”
We spent the afternoon bouncing up a dry riverbed that wound through a narrow canyon. I clung to the roof rack and stared up at the rock walls, at the thin stripe of cobalt sky visible beyond the canyon’s rim, and at the many circling hawks. In late afternoon we popped out of the canyon onto a great broad plain surrounded by jagged, white-tipped mountains. A stubble of fresh spring grass was turning the plain from brown to green. I thought: On the roof of a Land Rover, on the roof of the world. I was twenty-two years old. Soon we spotted a series of royal blue lakes in the distance, and then came upon a herder trying to calm his spooked flock. Ours was the first motor he’d heard inwell, he wasn’t sure just how long.
We slept curled up on the floor of the herder’s hut that cold night, and the next morning stood outside it, scanning the vast and empty landscape. Both Australians had spent the night vomiting (the food? the altitudeno one knew) and decided to head back to Kabul. While they rested and gathered their strength for the trip back down the mountains, I went for a hike up and over a series of barren, light brown hills, until I came to the edge of a sheer cliff some three hundred feet above one of the lakes. Far below, golden sparks of sunlight exploded off the lake’s blue velvet ripples. Around me, miles of flat, lifeless sand stretched in every direction. The shiny, snow-capped incisors of the Hindu Kush jutted from every point of the horizon. I sat on a boulder, engulfed in a silence so intense it seemed to vibrate, and marveled.
I had left America expecting to spend a month, maybe two months, touring European castles, museums, and bierfests. Instead, the stories told by other travelers lured me first to Morocco, then toward the Middle East, across Turkey and Iran, and, during my seventh month, into Afghanistan. I recall my younger self as a dazed longhair gazing slack-jawed day after day at monuments, ruins, beguiling countrysides, and strange new cultures. From the bazaars of Marrakesh to the mosques of Istanbul and into the Hindu Kush, I could feel history and geography transforming me, and I fell stupidly in love with travel. I met other globe-roamers, and with them shared meals, beaches, and bus seats, and climbed peaks to celebrate sunsets. At night we huddled in cafes or around campfires, swapping tales and swearing that travel was the best thing that had ever happened to us, the best thing that could ever happen to anyone.
From my perch on the boulder, it seemed that for a long time–five minutes, ten minutes, an hour?–nothing in the entire vista moved. And then, in an area of desert that had been empty the last time I scanned it, I noticed a thin black line. It was about a mile away, and from that distance looked like a shoelace laid out in a child’s sandbox. I got up off my boulder, moved around for a different angle, and shaded my eyes for a better look.
It took awhile, but when I finally identified the lumpy shape at the head of the line as a camel (Ah, I thought, caravan) the rest of the shapes–dogs, goats, humans–all seemed obvious. As I watched the line glide slowly across the desert and disappear into the foothills, I wondered: What would these nomads make of my culture? What would they think of New York City? The San Diego Freeway? A Las Vegas casino? Wouldn’t the Grand Canyon or a redwood grove or a Safeway store, gleaming and fully-stocked at two o’clock in the morning, amaze them the way their culture and all the other cultures I’ve stumbled into recently have amazed me?
When I returned to the herder’s hut, the Australians were ready to go. As we lurched back down the canyon, I became lost in thought about the seemingly capricious manner by which each of us is allotted our particular life. What formula had deposited me into a crib in an apartment in the suburbs of post-World War II Washington D.C., and–almost inevitably–to the top of this jolting Land Rover in central Asia? With one more turn of the cosmic tumblers might I not have swapped destinies, identities, with one of the other young people I’d met on this trip? With the woman, perhaps, who served me couscous every night in the square in Marrakesh, covered completely in robes except for her fiery eyes. Or the Turkish university student, desperate to improve his English, who hid from the conductor in the second-class train car I shared with five other hippies? Or the herder, last night’s hospitable herder–he’d been about my own age. What would it feel like to be living one of their lives? What would I be thinking today if I were one of them? What would they be thinking about if they were me?
Halfway down the canyon we stopped to let one of the Australians retch. I used the break to jot down some of these thoughts, plus what at the time seemed like a throwaway line. But back then I had only an immature sense of the staying power of ideas, had no true inkling that this one would rattle around in my psyche until years later, when it would pop to the surface and change not only my life but also the life of an as-yet-unmet stranger. I wrote: Someday, when I am rich, I am going to invite someone from my travels to visit me in America.
Brad Newsham believes that the reason none of his careers – underground miner, newspaper reporter, waiter, bank secretary, and San Francisco cab – have lasted more than a couple years has something to do with the fact that he wandered into Afghanistan when he was twenty-two years old and made himself a promise. Take Me with You is Newsham’s second book; his first, All the Right Places, is also a travel memoir. Newsham is a guest columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and lives in Oakland, California, with his family.