We (ahem, me) all fell for Andrew McCarthy onscreen in ’80s classics such as Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire, as he often played the sensitive, pensive and soulful guy. These days, in reading Andrew’s travel memoir, The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down, it isn’t hard to see him again as that same thoughtful and conflicted drifter.
Living a life in Hollywood’s shadow hasn’t made Andrew any less relatable as the characters he often played onscreen in his younger years. He is just like us: vulnerable, fearful at times, and looking to escape to a place, at least for a moment or two, where “no one knows who you are or where you are.” He’s the guy you could find yourself sitting across from on a train and talking with for hours about travel.
I did get to talk to Andrew about travel, maybe not on a train, but on the phone while he was at home briefly in New York. Find out how Andrew changed his label of “Brat Pack” actor and “‘80s heartthrob” to New York Times best-selling travel author and National Geographic Traveler editor-at-large. Plus, learn what his travel fears are … and why he hates travel stories that involve taxis.
When did you decide you wanted to be a travel writer?
I started travel writing about 10 years ago. I had been traveling a lot and a lot of what I was experiencing wasn’t captured in what I was reading … it was more “go here, do this.” I thought travel was more important, to me it was a life-changing thing … it opened my place in the world. I knew someone who knew an editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine (Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief). He agreed to have a drink with me and I said you should let me write for your magazine. He said, “Well, you’re an actor.” I said, “But I know how to tell a story. That’s what I do (in acting and directing).” He thought that was a good answer. It took me a year or so of stalking him and sending him pitches. I told him if it didn’t work out he didn’t have to pay me. I did a story for him about Ireland and it worked out well, so he asked me to do another one and then it just took off from there.
What was the first moment that travel hooked you?
The trip that changed my life — I walked across Santiago and Spain, 20-odd years ago. That was a very big experience for me. It changed me in a large way. Then I began traveling after that.
You’ve managed to have the 2 coolest jobs in the world — acting and travel writing. Did you ever feel like you had to prove yourself more as a writer because you are an actor?
I was very conscious when I started writing that I was doing this for me, because I wanted to, because I had something to say. I knew that if I was outed — “the guy who was in Pretty in Pink thinks he’s travel writer, oh right” — that it would be very easy to dismiss. So I was very conscious to write for very good outlets, so that by the time I was outed I was writing for places like The Atlantic, New York Times, National Geographic Traveler.
I didn’t really want to write a travel book. Travel helps me personally with things. And it’s what I bring to travel — the personal in travel. I don’t care about Patagonia, per se. (Although, I love Patagonia, I can’t wait to go back.) I wasn’t interested in writing a travelogue. All I wanted to do is get the reader to identity, to nod their head and say, “Yeah, I feel that way, too.” If you aren’t going to reveal yourself, then why should the reader invest all that time in reading? It’s not a tell-all; it just reveals humanness, I hope.
You said in a National Geographic live interview something that really stuck with me, “People don’t travel because they are afraid.” How can people overcome their fears?
The only way to overcome fears is to go — to do it, to walk through them. Fear is fear, fear is irrational. Fear masquerades as many as other things — prudence, wisdom and all sorts of other things. Not every fearful decision I’ve made has been bad, but every bad decision I’ve made has been fearful. Fear dominates people in a way that they will not acknowledge. Because they think it makes them weak.
Travel obliterates that … travel is optimism in action, faith in movement. The minute you ask someone for help you are a different person and you are closer to the person you really are. Travel is the quickest and the most fun way to challenge your fears. I’m afraid of flying, but I fly all the time. I’ll be damned if I am going to let fear stop me from doing things I want to do in my life.
You touched on this in your book. Is being alone in a foreign country where no one knows you part of the reason you love to travel?
Yes, I do find that a wonderful feeling: No one in the world knowing where I am or who I am. Oh, I love that. It’s just a relief.
Do you get recognized when you travel?
All the time. But it’s opened great doors for me. I can be withdrawn in certain situations. People approach me and sometimes we’re not far from their home and suddenly I’m at their house for dinner because they saw me in Weekend at Bernie’s.
How do you prepare for traveling? Do you leave things open for serendipity? Or is it all planned?
Depends who I am writing for. Some editors may want a detailed pitch, some might say: Do Tahiti. Bring us back 3,000 words. Go. I try to prepare a fair amount and then the more prepared I am the more room there is for happy accidents. The final product is usually about 50/50. I’m following my basic story arc but always the more prepared I am the more relaxed I am.
What is it like traveling with your family? Have you taken any trips with your kids?
I took my son to the Sahara Desert a few years ago and Morocco. He liked that much better than Disneyland. I took my daughter to Tahiti.
I think creating citizens of the world is the best thing that we can give them. My parents said they would take us to Europe when we were old enough to appreciate it. Whatever that meant. We never went. My kids have been traveling since they were little kids. It’s a pain in the ass with kids, but showing up with kids in a foreign place is an amazing act of optimism. You are basically saying to the world, “We trust you, receive us.” It’s not like I see the world through their eyes, I don’t know what that means. But I see their eyes — their eyes explode — and that’s a thrilling feeling. And they’re thrilled by things that I would walk right past. Kids are fascinated by details and details are also what make a great travel writer.
What’s the best way to discover a place?
I walk everywhere. I don’t take taxis. One of my pet peeves: If I see an article start with someone talking to a taxi driver or even quoting a taxi driver I put it down. You’re lazy. I’m not interested in what the taxi driver has to say. The only way to find a place is to walk it.
What did you find on your travels that helped you get closer to “settling down”? What about you leaving to travel made you more connected to your life back home?
The more you feel like yourself the more at home you are. I don’t think of home as a literal place. Geographic home means nothing to me. I grew up in New Jersey and I have never been back. I have lived in New York for 35 years and never call myself a New Yorker. Home is a feeling. I feel most like myself when I am traveling. So when I bring that sense of myself back home I am a better version of myself.
Want to hear more about Andrew’s adventures? Don’t miss his talk about “The Transformative Power of Travel” at the Travel and Adventure Show in Washington, DC, this Sunday, Feb. 23.