Traveling as a child in 1967 and 1969, in America, bore no resemblance to traveling now. Rest stops and highway exits were distant oasis. There was little in the way of good food. Stuckey’s and Holiday Inn made up the bulk of the traveler’s world. Holiday Inn; that green, that smell and every room the same with the paper strip over the toilet bowl. That strip which said, your room has been disinfected; we have cleaned up after the salesman from Pittsburg. We pander to Midwest paranoia.
I didn’t care, it was all crack to me. Just the idea of being out of Ohio was wonderful and when I saw the Rocky Mountains and got to sleep and fish in the Rockies and visit places like Aspen and Central City in those early years, I was hooked for life.
The road became my jones.
I went back out West when I was 19, this would be 1981, with a buddy and his younger sister. I had a head full of Kerouac and we spent several nights crashing in the urban streets of Sal Paradise’s Denver, before going to the mountains. Winos and 3.2 beer. The mountains visible on the horizon.
We ended up in Arapahoe State Park, after our car- my recently deceased grandmothers 1968 Dodge Dart Touring Car- which ran smooth and fast over the great plains, 100mph over the Kansas highways; but which became asthmatic in the mountain atmosphere, cut out wheezing and gasping, drifting to a stop before a campsite. An auspicious sign.
The first night in the mountains we went hiking by the moon light, a full moon which illuminated not only our path, but the entire front range. In the morning while drinking from a stream, I saw an elk drinking just on the other side. We had, for those years, impossibly exotic Buffalo burgers for lunch.
Later in the week, in the perfect velvet darkness, we lay on blankets in an empty visitor center parking lot watching an impossibly full sky of stars. The night alive with shooting stars and comets. The Milky Way.
They day I got home from Colorado, I jumped in a car with a friend taking his sister to North Carolina. I saw the Western and Easter Continental divide in the same week. We spend a long weekend in Hickory North Carolina where I began my complex and not all together guilt free love affair with the South. Barbeque, racism, pine trees, deep blue skies- though a different blue than western mountain skies- and girls with southern accents who, then and now, wanted nothing to do with yankee boys.
On the day I returned home from that trip I literally jumped in my parent’s car as they were leaving to take my youngest sister on vacation. That was my first trip to Canada. Windsor, Toronto and Hamilton. By day I toured with them, eating in outdoor cafes and at night I prowled on my own, drinking wonderful cold Labatt’s and smoking Canadian cigarettes.
That week led to a thousand other places. Trips and days and nights I’ll never forget. And people. The one-armed trumpet player and Hari Krishna bongo player jamming before a circle of people on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.
Paris: back alley pizza, endless bottles of wine and seeing the impressionists in person before I even knew who they were.
The mountains of Switzerland and the tram up the Jungfrau. Being trapped on the ferry on Lake Thurm with a German Ohm Pa Pa band, dressed in the requisite lederhosen. Drinking wonderful local beer, in brown one-liter bottles on the patio of Balmer’s Hermitage, in Interlaken, at the foothills of the Jungfrau Mountain Range. Cows the size of busses, watching hockey in a local rink. Buying a butter soft black leather jacket in the streets.
Montreal and Quebec City by train. Eating salmon paninis in an Arab cafe outside the city walls, while the men smoked Hookahs outside.
Riding the train around America for three weeks with all three of my sons. Seeing, over the last thirty-five years, ten thousand other big and small rural, wild and urban places across America; because even though I am willing to travel anywhere, travel to me has always been about America. Travel has always been about going to those places that the accountant in the Sheraton has never heard of.
I’ve had a hundred different jobs which had no interest or significance beyond funding travel. Along the way I tried to learn to shoot and write. Even before I knew it, this has been the purpose of my life.
Along the way, I also collected heroes, mentors of the road, and Bourdain became one of them. It’s not saying too much to say that these people, these mentors were, in many ways, my first real school, my school of life and the road.
One of the many things my beloved and I have never agreed upon is that she doesn’t have heroes. I do, but it’s an inconclusive disagreement as we’ve never defined terms. The dictionary says that a hero is, more or less, a brave person, brave man/woman, man/woman of courage, man/woman of the hour, a lionheart, warrior or knight.
Neither of us subscribe, let alone idolize, such creatures.
My idea of a hero, mentor, falls more in line with Joseph Campbell, who defines a hero, in A Hero with a Thousand Faces, as someone who leaves their home- to their own hardship and detriment- and suffers deprivation and hardship while undergoing adventures, learning one of more valuable lessons which he brings back and shares with his people thus benefiting his society.
Anthony Bourdain is/was a hero under this definition. Sort of. It’s complicated. The above paragraph might give you the idea that such a life is all Bodhisattva vows and martyrdom. And that’s wrong. I don’t know about Bourdain, but for me the key concept/word is adventure.
Bourdain, as you know, was found dead in his hotel room by close friend and French chef Eric Ripert. Both were filming an episode of Bourdain’s show. And now we’re left guessing. Under the best of circumstances, trying to write about Anthony Bourdain is like playing with a kaleidoscope. Impressions and memories change constantly.
He was, at times, a bad drunk. I recall he and his Russian real estate cum gangster friend spending the better part of an episode drinking multiple bottles of vodka for lunch. The show ended in a blur of incoherence- which was arrogant on his part. In fact there seemed a point when his entire career was about to dissolve into a blur of arrogance and drunkenness.
And then, someone or something rescued him. What or who I do not know- his Sardinian girlfriend/wife? Obviously, he would not be the first to be pulled from the brink by a beautiful intelligent woman, I don’t know. I didn’t know him personally, but we share having sent a fair amount of time on the brink. We were both saved.
I do know that at some point, someone or something turned him around and he began to make serious art. His shows from dirt poor Africa should be required viewing for all Americans. His show from Montana with Harrison is perhaps the culmination of his art.
Bourdain was a distant unknown mentor to me, but he was not the man for me. I will always, however, remember him, at the very least, as a man who faced down his demons (temporarily?) and then made art.
He was, of course, always an artist, any real cook or chef is; their art just doesn’t get the run it deserves because it’s so temporal. What a hard thing to make art which lasts ten or twenty minutes. What I’m saying though is that his art became less temporal.
Was he a hero, did he meet the definition? Did he leave his society and travel far and wide and learn new things along the way? Clearly this was his life. Did he bring home those lessons and did they have any lasting value?
That question might be answered best by those who knew him best, those who slaved and continue to slave in America’s kitchens. Me, I’ve worked on plenty of restaurants, waited tables at fifty-five. Tended bar on and off for years, but I’ve never been a pro in a place that mattered.
Summer Genetti, the Pastry Chef for Michael Symon’s Restaurant Group is such a pro; and an amazing artist in her own right. I’ve had the privilege of our paths crossing over the years. She had this to say of Bourdain’s influence over the years:
If I’m being honest most of us who do this for a living cook/bake because we’re broken. We’ll dress it up with some lovely adjectives, wax poetic about it but for those that stay; for those that put in 16 hour day after 16 hour day after 16 hour day we’re trying to fill up the holes in our spirit, the holes in our souls. It’s an outlet for or an attempt to make up for what we’re lacking or what we’ve lost.
He was the patron saint of the redeemable. Not just for kitchen misfits or addicts, but for the lost souls who are tormented and feel different. Those who are not aligned with society, that they can make it out. They can be happy and overcome the sadness and loneliness. It wasn’t his job, and he didn’t ask for it, but he gave hope to so many for a better world and a better life
If I don’t know a lot about working in top notch restaurants, but I certainly know what it’s like to be a redeemable, to be tormented and stand outside. And I agree that Bourdain did give hope to many and made that he made the world a better place.
In my travels, I travel alone 90% of the time. I rarely consult with others as to where to go. There are, were, but a handful of others whom I follow at their word. Harrison and Matthiessen and Bourdain, to name a few, I have followed for years. I went out of my way to see and experience those places they name checked because unlike most of the world, they earned my trust.
Before Eric Ripert became a regular on Bourdain’s show, I showed up at Le Bernardin. I had been on the road for three weeks. My clothes were barely cleaned and very wrinkled. I was barely shaved. I had, of course, no reservations. It was Saturday at nine o’clock. The host, after I informed him that I did not have a table but would very much like to dine in their establishment, was bemused.
I was given a table in the corner. The wait staff, and they seemed legion, seemed bemused as they poured me champagne. In time, as they came to understand that I was serious, they became helpful and kind. Decades later I still recall the Essence of Fluke Fish Three Ways. I don’t recall what that meal cost me- way more than I had. I am certain I’ve never regretted spending the money.
Earning the trust of the unredeemed is no small thing. But once you come to know such folk, once there is reciprocal trust, it’s possible to go to places you never thought you would.
That’s the payoff of art and artists, temporal and permanent. Such art and artists have the power, on the best days, to help the redeemed transcend just about all and any pain; and to take you to places, figurative and real, where money, or fame or power is of little to no use or importance.
In that beautiful dining room, of beautiful people, that night, no one was more grateful to be there, than I.
To get to the best places in the world, to meet the best people in the world- those other redeemables- you pretty much have to be broken, and redeemed, or you tend to miss the entire point, you fail to see the beauty. You’re just another consumer buying hollow experiences.
The thing I’m trying to say is that all real artists are heroes. And it’s a wonderful life, even if the cover charge is sometimes, a motherfucker. “Let the broken heart stand for the price you have to pay;” said the man. The belligerent kid from Seymour In. once said, “I do things my way, but I pay a high price.”
All of which is fine. I don’t begrudge the system or mind paying the price. But the thing is, most of my heroes are now gone.
Bourdain said, apparently to People Magazine last month, (god writing that hurt) that he was wrong in thinking that he could retire and that he knew that he would die, like so many others, in the saddle. Which, from my point of view, is fine. The decision as to when to leave the earth is every women’s and man’s ultimate human right.
But what I can’t get is why someone checks out at 61 with a beautiful 11-year-old. Sixty-one? What better gift from the universe than an 11-year daughter?
Of, course, we can’t know.
Perhaps the fact that the man could even consider checking out at sixty-one with so much to show for his life and so much ahead of him is simply a measure of the depth of his pain. It’s not my job to judge, or even guess, only to grieve the loss.
Maybe he ran out of heroes.
I once saw Peter Matthiessen speak. An environmentalist and writer, he had just returned from chasing tigers across Siberia. He was clearly disturbed and chagrinned by the world he saw, the degradation and loss. People kept asking hopeful questions looking for a bright spot. He refused to play along. He continued to speak of the ugliness and loss he had seen. He had seen too much to play Pollyanna.
Maybe Bourdain had seen too much.
Did the road wear him down, make him jaded? Did the money spoil him, bore him to death? Money on the road is not a good thing necessarily. The people who stay in Hiltons and InterContinental’s, like the people who populate music festival VIP rooms, tend to be the dullest people in the world.
Because money has a way of doing that, dulling the senses, desire, passions. I was never duller than when I was making real money.
A real meal, a real small hotel and having the money to see an old friend- on the other side of the country- means so more when you must fight for it.
That’s not my romanticized guess, but my life experience.
I remember a Part’s Unknown episode a couple years ago that featured some of the south’s better chefs including Sean Brock. He and Bourdain and Charleston resident Bill Murray dined on traditional Gullah cuisine, oyster pie, and shrimp and grits. They then made like normal folk, sitting around in a field, in front of a fire, bullshitting, trying to be funny.
The idea clearly was that if you just put these brilliant people in a field, brilliance would flow. It did not. The conversation was old and predictable and tired. There are times when having it all can be the worst thing in the world.
Even if we never crossed paths in person, our paths crossed many times. Most recently in Livingston Montana last month. Bourdain had been there to interview Jim Harrison. For years, we both had a fearsome man crush on Harrison. Not just for his sometimes purple, sometimes immature prose, but also for his poetry, love of food (Bourdain undoubtedly would not have read only his fiction, but also his columns in the short lived Spy magazine) as well as his collection of essays on food, the sporting life and the life of a gourmand.
Again, I never met the man, but I’ve lived the life. Damn near my entire life has been spent earning money to put me on the road and then going home and repeating the cycle, while attempting to write and photograph along the way.
It hasn’t grown old, because there is no way to for me to take it for granted. I pay a high price these days to travel and the places I stay are rarely luxurious, but they are wonderful, because of the people I meet. Real people making their way through the world. People who can speak on something besides their money and horses and vacation homes. People who won’t bore you to death.
Bon chance and safe travels Tony. I wish you happiness on the other side, whatever that is. Thanks for taking me to so many wonderful places, even if we were never there together. Thanks most of all for speaking for us.