“Shit Joel. Tony Bourdain.”
The text from my wife—you know her as Rollerbag Goddess—came at 6:53 a.m. on a Friday morning, and because I had just dropped her off at the airport, I figured that she had encountered her hero lounging in a concourse bar or preparing to explore Tucson.
Instead, she relayed the heartbreaking news that Bourdain, one of the most recognizable travel hosts and writers in the world, a world that he opened up to millions with observations about the human condition through food, exploration, and meaningful conversation, had taken his own life at 61.
Throughout the day, tributes to Bourdain poured in on social media. He often cultivated a world-weary, cynical style in front of cameras and in print, but it seemed this was a man who had found his calling, relatively late in life and was happy. He did not flit through European cities, staying in high-end hotels, mugging for the cameras at tourist traps. Instead, he went there. And those of you who seek authentic travel experiences know what I mean by “there.”
As I continued to scan online news sites and Twitter, I noticed that while many outlets chose to run photos of Bourdain looking serious, or even a bit sinister as he held a knife over a comically-large side of beef, there were plenty of him smiling—he had a great smile, a twinkle-in-the-eye, come-join-me-on-an-adventure kind of look—and it made the news cut even deeper.
Bourdain always seemed very alive. In the book that made him a star, “Kitchen Confidential,” he wrote: “Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
Of course, cruise lines, all-inclusives, Disneyland, Branson, and Las Vegas continue to thrive; they are the fast-food offerings of travel. But Bourdain invited us to join another club, whose motto is: Get out there. Now.
Although it wasn’t necessarily Bourdain-inspired, I had the chance to take in a sampler platter of the nomad traveler’s life some years ago, a seven-week trip through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. It absolutely changed me. If you were to ask me, “When were you your best self? When did you feel most alive?” I would not hesitate to answer, December and January of 2013-14. Having voluntarily left a 20-year career in newspaper journalism, I was at loose ends, and not-so-gently prodded by Rollerbag Goddess, I set off for the dark side of the globe.
I lost my debit card on the first day in the steamy tumult of Bangkok. I spent an entire morning in a hammock overlooking the most incredibly beautiful beach I’ve ever seen in my life, listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” double album from start to finish … twice. I’d just always wanted to do that. I turned 44 in Laos. I experienced evil—real, tangible evil—in the hot, stale Khmer Rouge torture rooms of Toul Sleng, also known as S-21, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I spent two days touring Angkor, bouncing around in the backseat of a tuk-tuk driven by Ken (his Americanized name), who invited me to his home for lunch and to meet his wife and infant daughter.
And I found Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, now one of my favorite cities in the world, a place whose streets felt almost as familiar to me as those of St. Paul, Minnesota, my hometown. I can’t explain it. It’s a travel thing. I doubt anyone ever feels that way at Six Flags.
So Tony, we get it. We are and always will be your tribe. Happy travels.
This one’s for you: