Some of Those Who Wander Are Lost

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When I was a little girl, I journeyed to distant lands. I went on archeological digs in Egypt and on expeditions into the steamy jungles of the Amazon. I hung out with the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert. When I stepped out of the back door of our house, the backyard and the neighboring fields transformed from small town Michigan into the world beyond. Sometimes, I was accompanied by my stuffed animals, my guinea pig, or my little brother Billy. Sometimes, I trekked alone into the wilderness.

When did curiosity turn into escape? Maybe it was always that way. Things were tense at home from the beginning. I have vague memories of thuds, screams, and my mother’s muffled sobs. School was hostile territory. The teachers and the other children made it clear that I was an unwelcome foreigner. My desk became a portal to Easter Island. A place almost too remote for their ridicule. In the third grade, when school became unbearable, I went to a place that doesn’t exist, a place from which I’d return exhilarated and uneasy. I called this place There. I had no memory of it after I returned. It was a void. Every time I went There, less and less of me came back.

As I got older, the internal voyages became less frequent. Life got better for a while, and then took a dive. My father defeated alcoholism only to be overcome by schizophrenia. I had a brief period of relative success in high school, but then I became the subject of vicious rumors. I got a job, saved my money, and planned my getaway to California. Everything would be better there, in a place where no one knew me. As soon as I graduated, I hit the road. And I’m still running.

dromomania
n.
An uncontrollable impulse or desire to wander or travel. – The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary

We receive the messages that we need to hear when we’re ready to hear them. Several years ago, I happened upon this word in a magazine article. It appeared before my eyes during a random jaunt across the internet. The words knocked the wind out of me. I knew this behavior. Running away from the pain of loneliness and the fear of being rejected. Travel as self-medication. Always making preparations to flee. I was not an enigmatic vagabond, but simply a wounded person who was running away.

Dromomania is considered an impulse control disorder. With these types of disorders, there’s a buildup of anxiety and pressure that can only be relieved by performing a certain task – gambling, starting fires, cutting your own flesh. I don’t agree with the trend of designating every eccentricity as a psychological disorder. There’s probably a pill for this ill, but I refuse to take it.

Not all those who wander are lost. So said Tolkein. This quote has been so overused that it’s become a platitude. Whenever I come across it on travel blogs, I wince. Most people who travel a lot have healthy wanderlust. Some of us, however, have drifted into the murky territory beyond. Some of us who wander are lost.

Behavior becomes a problem when it interferes with a productive life. By the time I had lived for thirty years on this Earth, I’d had just as many jobs and residences. Every city I lived in eventually sucked, but the next one would be better. And, for a little while, it was. I attended five colleges, but I received no diploma, because I couldn’t bring myself to stay for one more semester. I flitted from job to job until I finally just signed on with a temp agency. As soon as I started to settle in, the assignment would end and I could disappear into the anonymity of a new post. It was perfect. Because once people got to know me, they’d turn against me.

In the worst years of my depression and misfortune, I went without food so that I could save up for a trip to Thailand. The malnutrition caused painful red cysts to erupt on my face. But the two weeks of escape from my normal existence was worth it.

I would stare for long periods of time at maps, transfixed, running my fingers down highways, from country to country, across mountains ranges and deserts and seas. So many empty spaces to fill. Once, a colleague caught me staring at the office wall map of the United States. I was so mesmerized that I hadn’t heard him come up behind me. Where are you going, Julie? His smile was kind, curious. I shook my head in annoyance and walked away. Nowhere. However, within a couple of weeks, my possessions were packed in a U-Haul trailer. I left that job without saying goodbye, as I had done so many times before.

You seem so lost. You’re running away. People told me this over and over. Even my colleagues at the travel agency thought I was extreme. I had hardly returned from one trip and I was planning another. I was devouring places rather than savoring them. I fled as if I was being pursued by a predator. And I was. The monster was myself.

There are worse afflictions to have. At least with dromomania there is discovery. From the ruins, I’ve unearthed that original joy of exploration. The solitude of the road is not a lonely place. I’ve managed to be married for fifteen years. These days, the itch of restlessness is less frequent. When I roam, I linger and luxuriate in every moment. Rejoicing in the bliss of finding my way back.

What I Was Doing in Guam

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When I tell people that I used to live in Guam, the usual reaction is, Guam? What were you doing in Guam? I tailor my replies based on the person asking the question. If there’s a risk of my husband or family being hurt or embarassed, I say, Oh, I worked in a bar. If the risk is only that the person may sneer or refuse to associate with me, I say, I was an exotic dancer. A stripper. Both statements are true. One is simply more precise than the other.

Guam. Oh, Guam. Haunted vortex of contradictions. I spent six months there in 1995. Six nights a week, I danced in seven inch platform heels. Vikings Tavern was on Tumon Bay, where most of the luxury hotels are located. At the time, it was considered the cleanest club on the island. If guys were looking to paw the dancers, they best go elsewhere.

The Japanese tourists, who often were accompanied by their wives, treated us like movie stars. The American military men treated us like sisters. It was easy to forget that I was naked, because they didn’t seem to notice. The club was tiny; the number of dancers hovered at around seven. Those of us on short term contracts lived in dancer housing. The other ladies, most of whom were married or in a relationship, had their own places. We had no choice but to get along, because the island was too small to escape from each other.

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During the day, the other dancers were active. They’d go shopping or snorkeling or just lie on the beach. I was invited to do these things, but I usually prefered to lie in bed with the curtains drawn, too exhausted to be envious of their energy. In my six months on the island, I managed to make it to Two Lover’s Point, Jeff’s Pirate’s Cove, and to an eerie, hidden water hole that was known only to the locals.

Women sometimes become strippers to feed an addiction – to drugs, alcohol, sex, attention, etc. Looking back, I see that I was no different. My addiction was travel. Escape. But I couldn’t even hide from myself in Guam.

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In 1998, I went back to Guam for six weeks. I’d been working as a travel agent for a couple of years, so I knew that I was capable of having a respectable job. My friends talked me into one last quick fling on the stage. Besides, my new job had fallen through and I needed the money.

Vikings Tavern was different. Breezy Ryder, the dancer whom I was closest to, had died of an overdose. Two of the ladies I worked with were still there, but the others were new. Guam was different. Tahiti Rama and Wet Willie’s beach bars were slated for demolition, making way for high rise hotels. I was different. Two days after my arrival, I met the man who was to become my husband. Though I didn’t know it yet. After he went home, we communicated via staticky phone calls. Alone or with other dancers, I spent the days exploring the places I missed the first time: Ritidian Point, Piti Bomb Holes, War in the Pacific National Park, the Umatic fiesta. One day, all of us met up for a stripper field trip to Talofofo Falls. We promised ourselves that we’d make these outings a regular occurence, but it never came to pass. I left Guam shortly thereafter.

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**A short passage about Guam is in my memoir, but I thought I’d post a short excerpt from my novel, Blue, which was published by a Canadian small press in 2006. The novel is about the world of exotic dancing and some of it takes place in Guam. It’s not autobiographical, but some of the characters are based on the colorful people I met. This is a relatively tame excerpt, but it’s best avoided by those who are offended by adult language and situations.**

As I stepped off the plane, bleary-eyed from jet lag, the humid air hit me like the hot breath from a giant beast. It had a ripe, organic, and not altogether unpleasant odor. It smelled like foliage in a state of constant decay.

“Who are you?” said Annie, the manager of Castaways, when I called the club. “What do you want?”

I could have been concerned about this, but since they’d already paid for my ticket, I figured they’d have to give me a job.

I passed through the sliding opaque doors. A man emerged from the crowd. He lifted his chin at me, “You Blue?”

I nodded.

“The car is this way.”

I followed him outside the terminal. The dense air clung to my clothes and body, adding to the dinginess I had already acquired from the twenty-hour journey.

“We gotta go to the club and get the key for the condo,” Horace said. He had bulging eyes and a twitchy smile. I would soon learn that they were the result of an ice habit. At least the place had bouncers, I reminded myself. Not like the Pink Palace, where the girls had to fend for themselves.

Metallica bounced out of the doors into the nearly empty parking lot. The beach was across the street.

“It don’t get pumpin’ until about eleven on weeknights,” Horace informed me.

I reached for my suitcases.

He said, “Leave them. We’ll only be a few minutes.”

I looked at the entrance of the club. The doorway was partially hidden by fake foliage: palm trees and hibiscus flowers. As we approached the door I saw the flowers had faded from red to a coral peach color and were covered with mold. The plastic coconuts on the palm trees had graffiti written on them like, Maria’s hooters or My balls after looking at Maria’s hooters. The Castaways sign hung over the door by one hinge. But I figured it was meant to be that way.

There were two fish tanks inside the club. In the brochure they were brightly lit and filled with jewel-colored fish. Times had changed. The one behind the bar was dark and empty except for boxes of straws and stir sticks. The one that formed the wall between the entryway and the club was inhabited by one enormous, sickly orange-colored carp that barely had enough room to turn around as he made lazy laps back and forth in his murky home. He was the sole survivor of what were once the pretty little fish.

Everything had lost its color. The candy-colored walls were mere pastel shadows. The neon palm trees gracing the sides of the stage glowed inconsistently so one’s imagination was needed to see that they were, in fact, palm trees and not abstract designs there just for the hell of it. The neon tubing around the base of the stage was still intact, as was the shower that was set into the wall above the left side. At the bottom of the stage, in the middle of the bar, was a giant glass pole. Bubbles frothed inside, and the color changed hue every few seconds. To the right of the stage was the red curtain hiding the dressing room.

A tall brunette whipped the curtain aside and screamed, “Put me up will ya, goddammit, Annie!”

A gaunt redhead with breasts like overripe watermelons stood behind the bar. She squinted behind her glasses and dug through a box of tapes. She put in a tape that moaned with the strain of countless plays.

The dancer, who appeared to be of South American, pranced onto the stage, throwing her arms into the air as if to say, I’m here, worship me!

The guys jumped as if startled. The girl was stunning: perfect natural body and a smile so bright it hurt to look at it. She exuded hot Latin sexuality and she knew it. She tossed her wild brown curls back and forth and growled at the audience. She slapped her ass and hissed, “Oh yeah. Do it to me hard, baby.”

A guy near the stage laughed and gave her a little tap. “Harder, harder!” she yelled, bouncing up and down on her heels. Please, please, please.

He shrugged and laid a good one on her and she screamed, “Oh yeah!”

For her second song she stripped and got into the shower. She squeezed shampoo between her breasts. It curved like a fluorescent river down the length of her body. At the right moment she tilted her pelvis up so that it slithered between her legs. The guys cheered as she lathered up, massaging herself everywhere.

I felt myself getting hot and turned away, embarrassed.

She sauntered out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her head. She threw another towel down on the stage; she twisted down to the guys, mopping up the excess water. Her jubilant tits bounced up and down like those dots at the bottom of a karaoke video.

A dainty black girl at the bar said, “So what do you think?”

“I just want to go home,” I said and yawned.

“That bad, huh?”

“Oh no! I mean, I’m exhausted from the flight. I just want to get some sleep. The place is fine. Not posh, but it’ll do.” Compared to the Pink Palace, it was heaven.

She nodded and turned to her drink. She didn’t introduce herself.

“I’m Blue,” I volunteered. “What’s up with the fish?”

“Oh, that’s Otis. Our mascot. I’m Tina, but my stage name is Brandy. Blue’s not your real name, is it?”

“Actually it is. I don’t use a stage name because of it.”

“You wouldn’t have to,” she snorted. “These losers would never believe it’s your real name.” Her smile seemed a bit sad, as if she tried to psych herself up for the long night ahead. Finishing her drink in one gulp, she pushed back from the bar. “Time to get all dolled up. Welcome to Guam.”

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I’ve received hundreds of emails regarding this post. It seems to attract people who feel entitled to something – a free ebook, my time and energy, etc – but who are incapable of saying “please” or “thank you”.  I am not here to promote your stripper memoir, help you track down the stripper that you’re obsessed with, do research on clubs for you, and so on. All emails regarding this post will no longer be responded to.

Somewhere Out There in the World Someday

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Pak Chong, Thailand – April 1992

In the late afternoon, my sister Pebby and I arrive at an isolated guesthouse in Pak Chong. Our room consists of two single mattresses on the floor. We drop our backpacks next to them and head out to the patio. Two young men are already there with Tom, the safari guide. The bald one named Bones is also a guide. He’s an American from St. Louis. The other is a British boy who’s doing a gap year trip around the world.

When we say that we’re American, he says with a slight sneer, “Oh, yes. The colonies.” He chuckles and shoots a conspiratorial look at Tom, who’s Swedish. Confusion flickers across Tom’s face. The boy stops chuckling.

Pebby and I look at each other and then we get what he means. We shake our heads and snort in unison.

Soon another couple arrives. Tall, thin, dreadlocked Basil and little Natalie. He is British and she is Algerian-French. They buy clothes in Asia to sell in London.

In the late afternoon, we climb into an open-sided pickup truck and head to Khao Yai National Park with another guide, who’s from England. It’s his last day doing this safari. He leads us up a trail to a hole in a cliff. We wait at the bottom until a family of three climbs down. They speak a language that I don’t recognize.

“The Dutch language is phenomenally ugly,” the guide says.

When I start to giggle, he shoots me a so full of contempt that I flush and look down at my feet. It’s no use to explain that I’ve never heard a regular person use “phenomenally” in a sentence. Americans don’t use such colorful words, unless they’re imitating British people. And they don’t often do that. If I tell him this I’ll come across as a moron. Because I am an moron.

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We climb to the mouth of the cave and step inside. We follow behind the guide as he leads us through darkened passages. His flashlight illuminates little shrines. Adolescent monks glide by us in silence.

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Back at the entrance, we sit on the ledge and wait. As the sun begins to slip behind the mountains, a procession of bats flutters out in a long steady stream. We watch as millions of little entities fly in formation in one unbroken, undulating ribbon stretching to the horizon.

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At dawn the next day, we are awakened by a knock on the door. I jump in the shower and rinse off the night’s slime. I’ve been in Thailand for a week and still haven’t gotten used to the heat. My legs are mottled with huge red mosquito bites. When I make an appearance on the patio, everyone is already there. The British boy looks at my legs and gasps. His hand flies to his throat. “I do hope you’ve taken malaria prophylactics.”

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“No.” I smirk. Like I really care if I get malaria. I’d like nothing more than to escape in a delirium. Forever. “Anyway, is there really a risk of malaria here?”

Bones nods. “Some”

“There’a also Dengue fever,” Natalie says. “I had that once. It was horrible.”

I look around at everyone else. “I’m the only one who got bit?”

They shrug and nod.

Bones says, “I’ve heard it has to do with taking showers.”

I snort. “Yeah, I suppose I should take a shower every once in a while.”

“No. It’s from taking too many.”

I introduce myself to another couple who have just arrived. He’s from New York and works on Wall Street. She’s a Nepalese-Canadian. Her dark skin has a blue tint, like incense smoke.

We are split into two groups. Bones, Pebby, and I will take the longer trail. Tom will take the others to a different trail. We’ll meet up at a waterfall in a few hours. On the way to the first trailhead, the truck narrowly misses a cobra that’s crossing the road. The truck swerves and then screeches to a halt after it passes. We turn to look. The cobra is now standing at attention, ready to strike.

Tom grins, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a cobra in that position.”

The truck pauses from time to time next to families of gibbons and other small wildlife. When we reach the first trailhead, Pebby, Bones, and I climb out and wave to the others. As soon as we hit the trail, Pebby takes out two joints and passes one to me. She asks Bones if he wants one.

He shakes his head, but takes a hit off of mine. “Tom and his wife were freaking out last night because they smelled marijuana. They didn’t know where it was coming from, but I guessed it was you. Please don’t smoke it there. They’re worried about the police.”

I inhale deeply as we trek through the jungle. It’s the hottest, driest time of the year, so the streams have vanished. Even so, Pebby looks nervously at the withered underbrush and flinches at the slightest rustling. She’s terrified of snakes. I zone into my footsteps until my pace becomes a glide and my mind hits a strange plateau. Open, empty, entire. A clean, pure high that’s better than any drug I’ve ever tried. I pause for a second as realization hits. So this is how it feels to like myself.

We reach the waterfall about a half an hour before the others. The waterfall has dried up. The water in the pool at the bottom is murky and full of sediment. Pebby doesn’t hesitate to jump from the top. Ten meters high. She climbs back up and does a back flip. It’s her job to jump off of high things. She works in the Great American High Dive Show at Safari World in Bangkok. She has talent, and so she deserves to have a fascinating life.

One by one, the others jump off, except for the British boy and myself. I climb down a couple of meters and jump from a lower ledge.

All at once, the plateau vanishes and I’m back in the abyss. I’ll never have an interesting life, because I don’t deserve it. I have no talent. I am a loser.

We gather up our things and head back to the truck. One more short trail awaits. At the end of this trail, the jungle opens up to a cliff. The trees that seemed to lofty from below now look as tiny and frail as matchsticks. I walk to the edge, and then back away in panic. Jump off, a voice whispers in my mind, C’mon. Do it.

“Over one thousand meters,” I hear someone say.

I sit down at the edge of the jungle and put my head in my hands. My impending return to Los Angeles looms before me. Back to my pathetic cocoon. Taking refuge in the impersonal impermanence of temp jobs. No need to form attachments to people and places. Because we all know what happens when people get to know me. Rage clouds my vision. I don’t deserve to be here, either. If I want to die so much, now is the perfect time. Run and jump into oblivion. Do it. Do it. Why don’t you just do it?

Bones touches my shoulder and stares into my eyes. An ember of peace flares up inside of me. “Come on.” He leads me towards the edge of the precipice. “I want to take a group photo. You’ll be fine.”

I sit among the others, with my back to the edge, and smile.

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Dinner and then a stroll into the jungle behind the restaurant. A single flashlight beam pierces the curtain of night in front of us. We walk with our hands on each others shoulders to guide us. Pebby’s feet scuffle the dirt and every few seconds she gasps. I stride confidently into the darkness. The plateau reappears on the horizon of my mind, almost within reach. We stop on a bridge, because the animals won’t venture here. The flashlight is switched off. A tiny flicker of light emerges from the night and then another. Fireflies pirouette around us. Their dance is accompanied by rustling in the underbrush and eerie cries.

The grand finale of the safari is night shining. It’s rare to spot an elephant in Khao Yai. “If we spot an elephant, do not get out of the truck,” Tom warns us. Just in case. A Buddhist monk was just killed in Khao Yai, because he insisted on trying to get a photo of him next to a bull elephant.

We watch in silence as the truck creeps along the road and the spotlight beams deep into the jungle. Deer. Monkeys. Gibbons. The end of the road approaches. We all wear smiles nonetheless. Suddenly: a large gray mass. The truck glides past it, halts, and then backs up. A bull elephant is moving alongside the road, maybe ten meters from the truck. It bulldozes through the small trees, moving its tusks back and forth.

Whispers erupt all around. “Holy shit oh my god where’s my camera do not get out of the truck don’t shine the light in its eyes.”

Tom sticks his head out of the passenger side window, a huge grin on his face. “Hey, I think it’s the one that killed the monk!” He shuts off the truck.

Bug-eyed, frantic looks. Flashes go off. The beast pauses and glares at us. “Stop shining the light in its eyes!” someone says. I collapse into nervous laughter. He could easily demolish this truck. But he turns and crashes away into the jungle.

During the ride back to the guesthouse no one speaks. Expressions of exhausted contentment all around. I can’t remember when I’ve felt so comfortable around anyone, let alone near strangers.

The next morning, as we disperse, we hug each other and say, “See you around.” Somewhere out there in the world someday.

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**A much abridged version of this post appears in my still unfinished memoir, Wish I Were Here.  In this group photo, which I took, my sister’s (far left) face is blurred at her request.

While I was writing this, I researched Khao Yai online. Like most of Thailand, it has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. There are now golf courses and luxury resorts in Pak Chong. When you go night shining, there are dozens of trucks ahead and behind you and it’s rare to see any wildlife at all. I found no trace of Tom’s safari and guesthouse. It probably couldn’t compete with the slick tour companies that now operate in the park. I still have the safari flyer that Pebby picked up from Khaosan Road. That’s how you found out about such things in the days before the internet. **