Orman Day’s prose and poetry have been published by such journals as Creative Nonfiction, ZYZZYVA, Third Coast, SLAB, William and Mary Review, Los Angeles Review, and Portland Review. His essay “Memories of a Time and Place” appeared in Potomac Review #60 in spring 2017.
Former Potomac Review intern, Yemaya Alleyne, chatted with Day in the fall of 2017. It was a conversation that ranged from understanding the differences between being a traveler and a tourist, the epiphanies that can occur when falling out of a canoe, and how scenery isn’t everything, but finding the humor in the things that can go wrong is.
Yemaya Alleyne: When did you first decide to write your travel memoirs?
Orman Day: In elementary school, I vowed to be a journalist. In high school, I started writing my first novel. Since my life seemed ordinary—no abuse, no extreme poverty, a loving family free of addictions, no doubts about my heterosexuality, no discrimination to overcome, no mental or physical disabilities—I decided after college to follow the example of Jack Kerouac and go on the road to gather experiences for my novels and prove my manhood. I had no money, but my wanderlust refused to take “no” for an answer, so initially, I thumbed and rode freight trains around America. Hitching rides for tens of thousands of miles, I learned to converse with virtually anyone and became adept at entertaining my drivers with both humorous and poignant travel stories. Then I worked at various jobs, saved money, and lugged my backpack somewhere on the planet for months at a time. Now at age seventy-one, I’ve journeyed to more than 90 countries. A little more than two decades ago, after writing a good number of unpublished novels, I shifted my attention to writing essays, short stories, and poetry for literary journals. Since then, I’ve had more than twenty travel memoirs published. While some are narratives of a single trip, many group anecdotes under a theme such as alcohol, crime, pain, and boat rides.
YA: Did you keep any written record during your travels, or did you write purely from memory?
OD: I always took notes, but not obsessively and voluminously because I was consumed with my survival. Try scribbling on a scrap of paper, for instance, when you’re walking in circles to keep warm inside a lurching freight car on a wintry night in Texas or surrounded by angry, crazed cellmates in the New Orleans jail. Unlike myself, many travel writers obviously keep detailed notes about a country’s flora and fauna, clothing, history, food, conversations with the locals. When I found time to catch up on my notes, I focused on my relationships with the people I encountered. Perhaps because I’m blue-green colorblind and my attention wanders, I have little interest in rhapsodizing about the scenery. To me, it’s beautiful or it’s not…and the memory of it is fleeting.
YA: How did you decide which experiences to include in your Potomac Review piece?
OD: Since I want to mesh all of my travel pieces into a book, I decided to write “Memories” and include moments I had yet to describe, like the birth of San Francisco’s hippie scene and my cross-country road trip with my young Indian friend, Veera. Most of my book will weave back and forth in time and place because, during our reveries, our mind recalls episodes, not full chronologies.
YA: What was your primary motivation publishing your memoirs? Did you want to share your experiences with others? Evoke certain feelings from readers?
OD: At an early age in my native Southern California, I discovered the joy of making people laugh. In junior high, I wrote a joke column called “More Corn From Orm.” In high school, I wrote self-mocking columns about my tribulations as a dateless, scrawny teenager. Now I enjoy living in the past and writing about it in prose and poetry. I figure if I laugh at a memory, maybe a reader will, too. Of course, my writing strives to give readers moments of insight, too. Just after college, I spent a summer as a director at a YMCA camp on Catalina Island. As part of my duties, I gave campfire talks meant to uplift the kids. That’s when I discovered that if you can make someone laugh, you can make them cry.
YA: I really love the sense of adventure, of uncertainty that your written travels induce. Do you enjoy traveling without detailed plans or rigid schedules?
OD: Some people enjoy planning their trip as much as taking it. I would just go, opening myself up to surprises, both good and difficult. Before I spent two months canoeing the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans with my young poet friend, Paige, for instance, I wasn’t troubled by the fact that I was out of shape at age 56 and my paddling experience was limited to a couple laps around Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. As always, I was guided by my lifelong travel credo: “God protects fools.” Surprisingly, our canoe never capsized. Getting out of a canoe on a muddy embankment one morning, though, I tumbled into the water…and had an epiphany “gazing” at the river below its surface. Who could’ve predicted that? In the 1980’s, I took a month off from my newspaper job in Orange County and flew to New Delhi. All I knew of my trip was that I was going to fly home in four weeks from Calcutta. To escape the searing heat of May, I rode buses up into the Himalayas with a couple other vagabonds. We ended up in Dharamshala, the home of Tibetans who fled their country after China invaded it. Next thing you know I’m interviewing the Dalai Lama and his brother for nearly two hours. I also shared tea with a former Malibu surfer girl whose long hair had been shorn when she became a Buddhist nun. A few weeks later, I met some Europeans as I was checking into the Y in Calcutta. They were volunteers at Mother Teresa’s home for dying destitutes. The next morning I fed mangoes and stew to gaunt men who seemed to understand I was trying to surround them with brotherly love in their final moments. As a traveler, I liked to be surprised. As a writer, I want my reader to be surprised.
YA: As you were writing, collecting, and reflecting on your past travels, did any strong emotions surface (e.g. fear, nostalgia), and from which experiences or places? Traveling to countries where you do not know the local language, or are in the midst of civil war, for example, had to have been thrilling and/or daunting.
OD: Sometimes I’m amazed I wasn’t afraid when I should’ve been. I easily could’ve been murdered in my sleep in Arkansas when I was thumbing around America with my two younger sisters. I could’ve lost my legs when I ran and pulled myself into a fast-moving freight car in an L.A. hobo jungle. Though my elbow took many stitches, I wasn’t killed when I was riding a truck that rolled off the Alaska Highway. The over-crowded, decrepit paddle-wheeler I rode on the Nile sunk a few years later, leaving many dead. A guy who bungee jumped off a New Zealand bridge, just after me, was injured because an operator’s miscalculation caused him to crash into a rubber dinghy instead of diving into the river. I wish I had gotten a booster shot of gamma globulin before I left home for China because it would’ve spared me hepatitis A and I should’ve picked up at least a smattering of Spanish before leaving for an overland journey through Latin America, but mostly I regret that I didn’t always consider the feelings of others, especially women who wanted more than a brief romance with the stranger who ambled into their town.
YA: What do you look for when you read travel writing? Who are some of your favorite travel writers?
OD: I don’t like it when travel writers create characters by combining two or more real people. Some writers pretend that conversations are exact while they’re far from it and may even be imaginary. And some writers exaggerate the dangers they face. For instance, if I describe tromping through a jungle, I might mention I saw parrots and leaf-carrying ants and swung on a vine. I wouldn’t go on and on about the unseen panther that might leap onto my neck any second and rip my throat open and turn me into a feast for carnivorous creatures large and small. And it bothers me when some writers don’t earn their miles. For instance, one rode a motorboat down the Mississippi and yet he acted like he endured great hardship. He slumbered in hotels; one rainy night I slept inside my flooded one-man tent curled into the fetal position. Crazy things happen to me, but if you read some travel books closely, the writer didn’t take any chances and nothing extraordinary happened to them, but they know how to wax poetic and bring out the drama found in a place’s history. I can, though, recommend the travel writing of Freya Stark, Pico Iyer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Langston Hughes, who authored two brilliant memoirs, “The Big Sea” and “I Wonder Where I Wander.”
YA: What was your favorite and least favorite part of traveling during the ’70s and ’80s? What is your favorite and least favorite part of traveling today?
OD: When I announced I was leaving my job and Corona del Mar apartment to follow the Gringo Trail to the tip of South America, a fellow reporter told me, “You’re just escaping FROM life.” I answered, “No, I’m escaping TO life.” Everything can go right if you spend a week in Hawaii or Cabo San Lucas or Bermuda. But if you ride freight trains to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and hitchhike home via Wyoming, for example, you’re going to have difficult moments. A few least favorite parts of that trip: weeping one cold night in a phone booth because no one would give me a ride from a truck stop to a penpal’s home in Commerce, Texas; limping alone and sleepless all night through the trash-heaped streets of New Orleans; when I couldn’t seem to get a ride toward California on a desolate road in Utah, and out of nowhere, a snowball brushed past my ear. Some favorite parts: eating a single piece of unbuttered toast—warmed by a heater—in a train workers’ shack in Lafayette, Louisiana; sleeping on the floor of a storage closet in a Mississippi Holiday Inn; finding two pennies on the ground so I finally had enough coins to buy a Baby Ruth candy bar for lunch. Do you think I wish now that my journey consisted only of favorite parts? The advantage of being a writer is that even as something unpleasant happens, I know I can usually transform it into humor. For instance, on a misty evening in Cuernavaca when I was sitting forlornly in the plaza watching flirtatious hombres and senoritas stroll past my bench and thinking things couldn’t get much worse, a pigeon pooped on my head. Nowadays, I’m not a traveler but a tourist, mainly bounding across the seas on cruise ships, wincing when the Indonesian ice cream server says they’re fresh out of cookies ‘n’ cream.