By the time blood puddles formed around the shop, it was already dark in Cairo. The gooey liquid, neatly collected in little pools on the ground, soon began to trickle down the enclosing alley. The air was dusty; the street was dirty. A dim and ebbing glimmer, shown from the shop’s open door, served as the alley’s only source of light. It was difficult to make out the moving head of the dead bull. A man, presumably the shop’s owner or butcher, was holding the slayed animal by its horns. He was attempting to rock it from side to side, in what looked to be ellipses. The goal was to thrust the large and heavy creature into the shop. The man would twist the bull’s head, and blood would drip onto the ground. Puddles emerged here and there.
Perhaps for the local visitor, the scene was perfectly commonplace. For Andrew Todhunter, however, witnessing it from a distance, the experience felt utterly alien. Wandering aimlessly around downtown Cairo, he had stumbled upon the live butchering of a bull, in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night. Never had he seen anything like this. Only two or three hours before, he had landed in Egypt, and more importantly, in Africa, for the first time in his life. With no contacts to speak of, no dwelling to turn to, and no command of Arabic, Andrew had no sense whatsoever of what the next five minutes, next hour, next week, or next month might bring him. He had no way of knowing whether he had gotten himself into a foolish or dangerous situation. In some strange way, “it was like landing in another planet.” Yet, rather than feeling, in any way, uncomfortable about this fact, Andrew felt joyous. He was, to be exact, ecstatic. That sense of vulnerability represented a “sort of perfection.”
* * *
As an adolescent, Andrew Todhunter had serious authority issues. He much preferred to be expelled from schools than to submit to their inane regulations. Teachers were stupid, and students were solely interested in the “whole cult of the me.” High school was “all about self-development and ‘Where are you going to go to school?’ and ‘What kind of nice, white-collar career are you going to get?’” He found that “very obnoxious.” Upon graduation, it was clear he would not “voluntarily go back for four more years of that bullshit.”
Instead of college, Andrew chose hard labor. Shortly after moving to D.C., he started working for a stonemason. His plan was to save up enough money to finance a six-month backpacking trip through Europe and Africa. During the last months of 1984, amid the cold of winter, life was predictable and simple. Wake up at six, set stone arches, split hands from the cold, hurt back from the toil, listen to other men’s anecdotes, go to sleep, repeat. The job brought not only direct engagement with the physical world, but also regular exposure to the stonemason’s stories. From him, Andrew learned of the three groups people will generally fall into. Over the years, the stonemason had seen workers take “long and fatal falls from structures he’d worked on.” He had thus developed a classifying theory for human beings. You had the sleepers: those who made no cries or movements as they plunged into the sky. You had the swimmers: those who were “swimming the whole way down” in the hope they would ultimately land on their feet. Finally, you had the screamers: those who would “let out this uncanny howl, and scream all the way down.” Andrew’s day-to-day was infused with lessons of this kind. He had traded Shakespeare’s sonnets for a fifty-year-old man’s idiosyncrasies. He found these nuggets of wisdom to be tremendously valuable information—information he would have never obtained in a classroom.
Armed with a few thousand dollars and a couple of months worth of practical know-how, Andrew arrived in the city of his birth—the only reasonable starting point to his voyage—in late 1985. Even though he was born in Paris, his initial stay there was short-lived. His family resettled in suburban New York, where he ultimately grew up, when he was six months old. In Paris, he felt a “very strong sense of connection and a deep sense of belonging.” Even so, after some weeks in the French capital, he woke up one morning and knew he was ready to hit the road again. When he entered the Gare du Nord, all he had with him was a Eurail pass and a small duffel bag. The train station’s timetable looked like a menu replete with equally delicious meals. All options were within reach and exciting, so making a choice would be tricky. Nobody knew where he was, and nobody knew where he was going. “I had all of those places laid out—Berlin, Stockholm, Rome—and I could just go.”
The decision process he developed to pick a destination ended up being straightforward: he needed fifteen minutes to buy himself an espresso and a copy of the day’s Herald Tribune. He wanted to drink some coffee and work on the crossword puzzle in the train. The freedom of it all was exquisite. This day, along with his first evening in Cairo, would prove to be the two most memorable and liberating moments of his trip.
In total, Andrew visited a dozen countries and many more cities. His favorite thing to do, everywhere he went, was to climb. “I would climb into all of these ruins at night. I climbed the walls of the Parthenon, I climbed into the Coliseum in Rome and slept inside for a night. I climbed on top of the Great Pyramid, and I climbed into the ruins of Pompeii and explored them under the moonlight when there was no one around. I climbed into the Roman Forum and slept there at night, when the ruins would come alive.” The few times he encountered guards, he managed to develop lasting friendships with them. Andrew was living off of fewer than two dollars a day. When he slept in hostels, they were third class at best. Most of the time, he preferred urban camping. All he needed was to pick a good bush and sleep on it. It was fun, and more importantly, it was cheap.
Gradually, the trip that had begun with a teenager’s notions of recreation and rebellion morphed into a young adult’s journey of self-discovery. The societal malaise Andrew had felt in America seemed to evaporate. In place, he recognized a powerful proclivity for risk-taking and a burning thirst for adventure.
“In Northern Ireland, I was in a place with sniper warnings. I managed to talk my way through these little barriers, where soldiers were behind buildings. I had a camera, and I found it extraordinarily exciting—that there was a sniper out there.” Even today, Andrew cannot exactly pinpoint where this urge for thrilling experiences came from. Perhaps it’s genetic. His father was a foreign correspondent for Life magazine, and he was shot in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, covered “Algeria in ’56 during their revolution, as well as Israel during a lot of really hot periods.” Ultimately, every kick might be reducible to a pleasure or dopamine switch.
“You know, you put someone in a really bad physical situation where things are really not looking promising, and for some reason, some of us like that. Many people hate it. You put them in a place where there are bullets whizzing around and most people would say, ‘This is hell for me.’ The thought of being in a place where bullets are whizzing around, very strangely, to me, is extremely appealing.”
His is an odd makeup.
* * *
“I don’t want to live in meetings in a building.”
Andrew Todhunter dresses in accordance with this sentiment. He might be teaching a class, speaking to a large audience at a public event, or meeting up with a college student keen on learning about his life, and chances are he will be wearing the same outfit. A long sleeve, light gray safari shirt with olive green pants, a black National Geographic jacket, and a pair of camping boots. The last place it appears he is going to is a meeting in a building. In fact, the overall look is one of explorer at the ready. The impression is given that Andrew has either just come from an invigorating hike or is about to embark on some kind of wilderness trek. “I’m very restless. I want to be on the road, I want to be in France, I want to be traveling, I want to be adventuring, I want to be climbing on something, or I want to be diving under something.”
In less than a month, Andrew will be fifty. It’s been thirty years since the end of his life-changing trip through Europe and Africa—the one in which he unmasked his lust for novelty and excitement. Some might venture to label Andrew as an adrenaline junkie. In that time, he has lived on and off in Paris, worked as an EMT, served as a volunteer firefighter, scuba dived in Bahamian Caves for a National Geographic expedition, sea-kayaked in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides archipelago, written three books, produced film projects for Lucasfilm, ridden thousands of miles (at high speeds) on motorcycles, had three children, and graduated from college. (Yes—he eventually got over his anti-establishment bent and enrolled in a reputable university.)
“I have always sought new environments. Ironically, I don’t feel comfortable in places that are familiar or safe. Comfort is my discomfort. I’m always thinking: ‘So, what can I do next? Where can I go where I can learn something new, see some other aspect of the world, and be challenged in a way where I feel alive, where I feel plucked in?’”
“The flipside of that is, when I become too comfortable, when I become very familiar with an environment, I feel that I’m kind of suffocating and going to sleep, simultaneously. It’s as if I were drifting off to sleep under the influence of some heavy sedative and someone was putting a pillow over my face. It’s kind of like dying.”
Compared to earlier years in his life, Andrew’s present certainly seems slow moving. He has lived at Stanford with his family since 2010. As a lecturer, he teaches classes on writing and creativity, often merging the craft of nonfiction with seemingly disparate practices like meditation. One of his courses is built around a four-day camping trip in the dunes of Death Valley. For the most part, reality feels sedentary and calm. Yet, a complex interplay remains between nineteen-year-old Andrew’s inclinations and approaching-fifty-year-old Andrew’s acquired circumspection.
“For years, I never went to the doctor. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I also never thought about retirement. Who wants to live in a retirement home anyway? I’d rather live under a tree, or be eaten by wolves.” As a husband and father, Andrew now pays his bills, tends to his savings, keeps the benefits coming in, and even has medical insurance. From the moment his family materialized, a life contingent on risk became unfeasible and unattractive. “It took me a longer time than most people to wake up from that delusion. I essentially have little or no authority issues anymore.”
Andrew is content with the current state of affairs. “I would trade everything I had at twenty, again and again, for my life now.”
Yet, in some other mysterious manner, it can sometimes seem like conformism has waylaid him. “By performing my duty, I’ve chewed through my own entrails and am no longer, in some essential way, entirely alive.” Sometimes, life can feel like a continual struggle. “I continue to try to find a way to balance the requirements of a family and this desire to live a life that is as adventurous as possible. If I did not have a family, I am absolutely sure I would be in some kind of other livelihood, as a journalist or as a filmmaker—as somebody who’s pretty much on the road somewhere, perhaps in the Middle East. I might have been killed in the process.”
“Why am I here and not somewhere else?” This question comes up every single day of his life. As a young man, “I thought I could both have a family and be a writer and retain much of the mobility that I had when I was in my early twenties. Now, that is an absurd delusion.” It turns out predicting the future can be complicated business.
* * *
“So, is that what’s mainly eating at you now?”
It takes Andrew several seconds to compose himself and come up with a cogent response. He has thought of a poem by Rilke, wavers as he recalls its words, and soon begins to recite it.
A man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
toward a church that stands somewhere in the East.
So his children say prayers on him as if he were dead.
And another man stays inside the cups and saucers,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
towards that same church, which he forgot.
Some seconds of silence ensue.
“One of the things I wrestle with is the great grief, frankly, that so many days when I come home, to what is my home, and see my wife whom I love and my children whom I love, it too feels more like a cell than like a safe place. I feel that pillow coming up over my face, and that deep primal desire to run. From them. Because they are stifling. I love them, but they are stifling.”
There are times when we read a novel, a poem, or even a line, and feel it has been written expressly for us, Andrew comments. “It’s like a gift from the writer.” When he first came across Rilke’s “Sometimes A Man Stands Up,” Andrew was completely overwhelmed. The poem had nailed it for him. “The desire to get up and go outside and keep on walking is very strong. And the resistance to stay inside the cups and saucers is very small.”
“But, there it is. What do you do?”