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'Holidays In Heck': Traveling With P.J. O'Rourke

Author P.J. O'Rourke writes that while trekking through Kyrgyzstan's Tian Shan Mountains, he fell in love with his horse, whom he named Trigger. But that doesn't mean he loved the trip.
Adrian Dangar
Author P.J. O'Rourke writes that while trekking through Kyrgyzstan's Tian Shan Mountains, he fell in love with his horse, whom he named Trigger. But that doesn't mean he loved the trip.

When writer P.J. O'Rourke retired from his job as a war correspondent, he decided to take on a new kind of globe-trotting challenge: traveling for fun, often with his family.

O'Rourke went to some dream destinations — Disneyland with the family; the Galapagos Islands; Italy's famed modern art exhibition, the Venice Biennale — and he also took some less conventional journeys — trekking on horseback across a mountain in Kyrgyzstan; voyaging down China's Yangtze River; a couples bird-hunting trip.

But in his new book, Holidays in Heck, O'Rourke explains that all those excursions left him questioning the merits of traveling for pleasure, and yearning for his days spent under artillery fire.

He tells NPR's Neal Conan that the fact that he didn't love his trips actually makes for a better book.

"The one thing that's terrible about traveling for fun is writing about it. And that's for the very simple reason ... that the reader instinctively wants to kill you," he says.

After all, you're getting paid to write from an extraordinary locale with incredible food, while they're sitting at home reading about it.

"They're full of envy and resentment and wondering why you're taking up space in the culture," O'Rourke says. "Their cleaning up the yard, putting away the porch furniture and raking the leaves is not getting equal attention, even though it's much harder work."

Writing as a war correspondent is a very different story.

"When you're a war correspondent, the reader is for you because the reader is saying, 'Gee, I wouldn't want to be doing that,' " he says. "They're on your side."

So O'Rourke says the key to good travel writing is making sure horrible things happen to you — just to keep things interesting.

Tell us: Where should the O'Rourke family head next?

Interview Highlights

On the magic of skiing in Ohio

"I grew up in Ohio, so I'm allowed to make Buckeye jokes. No offense out there. I grew up in Toledo. It doesn't get any more Ohio than that. ... And I did ski as a kid. We didn't have any up, though. Ohio has no up. And so we skied down into a quarry. ...

"I called my editor at Ski Magazine, and I was kidding around with him. I said, 'Oh, you're always doing these posh places, these beautiful places, you know, that half your readers can't afford to go, and the other half can't find because they're so obscure. Let's go Ohio. Let's go ski where the readers are.'

"And I was just kidding. He said, 'Great idea.' And the next thing I knew, I was in Cleveland.

"[It was] great. I mean, first, they're filled with Ohioans. You know, so ... no Paris Hilton showing up, no matter what. So it had that whole aspect going for it. The other thing was that, for the first time in my life, I felt like I could ski, because I was surrounded by Ohioans.

"Some of them, in point of fact, actually were better than I am. But ... I realized after a while what the problem was — that Ohioans do know how to ski, except they know how to water ski. And so when they get on snow skis, they ape and emulate the technique and the posture of the water-skier, putting their hands way out in front of them and hoping that gravity will be the Evinrude [boat motor].

"And so by comparison I looked positively like [Olympic skier] Jean-Claude Killy."

On discovering the secret of winter sports: We'd all rather be sitting down

"What my family loved most — and, hey, frankly, me too — was riding the great big inner tubes. You all get in the inner tube and you get spun around and bump into other people in other inner tubes who are quite good-natured about it because it's Ohio and people are good-natured. And, yeah, what a ball — we would all rather be sitting down. And of course, the way I ski, I spend quite a bit of time sitting down, anyway."

On going to the Galapagos Islands with his fellow Republicans

"There's this idea that Republicans don't love the environment. And that's just because we don't call it the environment, we call it the outdoors. And actually we're very fond of the outdoors. Except what we like to do is go outdoors and kill things. I don't mean other people, of course. I mean game birds and deer, moose, antelope — you know, whatever's in season.

"So there [is] this group of friends I have in Texas [who] spent a couple years getting all their friends together, getting everybody's schedule coordinated so that we could all go to the Galapagos at the same time. And we got the largest cruise boat that goes through, Lindblad Tours, wonderful tour people. ... It was all filled with friends or, at the very least, friends of friends.

"And so it was a party barge, except we were going around to see all these marvelous things. But I think we puzzled the guides a little bit, because every time they'd talk about something being endangered, our first question, as Republicans, was: How does it taste? ...

"It's not that we wanted to eat the poor endangered thing, but our theory is that something, if it's endangered, it must be because it's delicious, and hence other creatures are gobbling it up. And we had this one guide who was sort of shuffling his feet and sort of looking abashed and finally got around to admitting that he knew. He claimed [that] his parents — when they were very young, long, long ago — had eaten a tortoise.

"[They said it tasted] delicious. Absolutely, yes. He said [it] with a little bit too much conviction, you know, for somebody who had merely heard about this one occurrence.

"Then, in another case, we were being shown where the habitat is being wrecked in the Galapagos, mostly by imported animals, by junk people have brought over from the mainland — pigs, and particularly goats. And so this island [is] overrun with goats. The goats are taking up all the space and wrecking the habitat for all the precious, delightful things that people come to the Galapagos to see.

"And he's telling this to a group of hunters, and we said, 'We can fix this goat problem, you know, especially if you have some good goat recipes. Just leave us alone on this island for a little while and you'll be rid of your goats.' "

On getting out of war reporting

"I was watching [the] Arab Spring happening and thinking ... 'I am nostalgic for the camaraderie.' There was something about being in the field with people where ... your little petty differences, one round of mortar fire takes care of those. And all of a sudden it's we few, we lucky band of brothers, you know — and sisters, of course — we lucky band of persons.

"And I do miss that, but I was watching the Arab Spring, and I was thinking, 'Why am I not feeling like I should be there?' I did this stuff for so many years. And part of it was all the screaming, all the screaming and yelling. And I felt like I'd heard everything screamed that I ever wanted to hear screamed in my life, and that I was ready to go home and hear new things screamed by my kids, who were at least screaming because their hamster died, not because they wanted to kill all hamsters everywhere.

"I looked on that, and I thought, 'Gee, you know, I don't miss that a bit.' "

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