The Longest Way Home: Q&A with Andrew McCarthy
If you grew up in the 80s—or even if you didn’t—you are probably acquainted with Andrew McCarthy from his iconic roles in movies such as Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire and Weekend at Bernie’s. As a member of the “Brat Pack” that also included Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe, McCarthy got his start in acting early and used it as an escape route.
But flash-forward a few decades and you’ll find that McCarthy is far more than the acting roles he is well-known for. After moving into directing, McCarthy turned his sights to travel writing. His writing grew from his love of exploring the world, which came about by accident. He grabbed a book that had sat on his bookshelf for months, to read on a routine flight. The book was about one of travel’s classic pilgrimages, the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and the book inspired McCarthy to make the trek. For the first part of the walk, he admits he was “miserable, lonely and anxious.” But then something happened. His fear began to melt, he started to feel at home in himself. “Every step took me deeper into the landscape of my own being, ” he wrote.
At first, McCarthy was simply chronicling this and other journeys for himself. Then one day, he met up for drinks in New York with National Geographic editor Keith Bellows, whom McCarthy had been cajoling for a year to look at his writings. Bellows finally agreed, and before long McCarthy was an editor-at-large for NatGeo. He has also written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Travel+Leisure and Afar, among others.
McCarthy recently released his travel memoir, entitled The Longest Way Home, which reveals the roundabout path he has taken in life, and across the globe, to figure out the answers to his most pressing life questions. The book jacket states: “Unable to commit to his fiancée of nearly four years—and with no clear understanding of what’s holding him back—Andrew McCarthy finds himself at a crossroads, plagued by doubts that have clung to him for a lifetime. So before he loses everything he cares about, Andrew sets out looking for answers.”
The Longest Way Home is really a love story to travel: the way it helps us discover our truest and best selves, the way it can expand our minds and souls and shape us into different people, and the way in which we must do these things in our own selves before we can possibly hope to fully share that self with another.
T+E talked with McCarthy about his book and his philosophy on travel.
Can you recall an early travel experience that fuelled your passion for travel?
AM: When I walked the Santiago in Spain, you know that changed my whole life, and really got me hooked on travel.
What has the path from actor to travel writer been like for you?
AM: It’s been a parallel career for me; I’m still acting. It’s sort of become a shadow career, a parallel one, and it’s something that happened completely by accident. I drank the travel kool-aid, as you well know, and it changed my place in the world. I found I was a better version of myself on the road, I was alive in a different way when I was travelling. It really became very important to me.
It was the same with acting, when I was a kid—that became important to me because I located myself, in a way that I didn’t with other things, and that was a surprise to me. It’s been an impractical passion that I’ve followed, in the same way that acting was.
In the book, you express that by nature you are a very solitary person. How does that work when you travel—do you prefer to travel alone, or choose to interact with others on the road or not? Does it hinder you?
AM: By nature I am a solitary traveller; I prefer to go alone, although I have kids now and travelling with them is a whole other experience. It’s great—I take my kids sometimes when I’m working. I did a story on the Sahara and I took my son and I had a big experience with him there.
But I do prefer what happens when you’re alone in the world. I could go places and not hear the sound of my voice for days, and have no problem with that. If I’m writing a story it’s different; if I’m travelling alone for personal reasons, I will probably talk to less people. But when you’re writing, you of course need quotes, and so I’m forced to come out of myself and interact with people in a way that I wouldn’t were I travelling just for myself.
If we’re travelling together, we’re having the experience of each other in a place; if you’re travelling alone, you’re intimate with yourself in the place and that’s a very different experience. I think travelling alone is a really important thing in life and I think people don’t do it for only one reason: because they’re afraid. And I think that’s unfortunate.
Are there people you’ve met on your travels who stayed with you, whom you’ve thought about frequently?
AM: I don’t think we ever know what affect we have on people. Seemingly meaningless encounters are life-changing for some people, and we have no idea how we impact others. I walked the Camino because I happened to pick up this guy’s book randomly in a bookstore. I’ve never spoken to him again, but nothing has ever been the same since I read his book.
What is your travel philosophy?
AM: I do believe that Paul Theroux theory about “Go, go long, go far, don’t come back for a long time.” I think sometimes the more out of touch we can be, the better because I think we cling to our handheld devices the second we get uncomfortable and if we can unplug them, I think that’s a great thing.
Best travel tip?
AM: Asking for help. I try to ask for help even when I don’t need it, when I’m in a foreign place. It opens me up to a connection with the people there; the minute you ask for help, you’re saying to the person, “I’m making myself vulnerable before you.” That’s always been received on my part; I’ve never had anyone say no.
I’m the guy who, at home, will never ask for help. “I know where we’re going, don’t put on the GPS. We’re fine, I know where it is.” But on the road, it’s the first thing I do. “Hi, can you help me?” When you do that, you open yourself up in a way that makes us sort of right-sized.