Pretty in Pekin


by Billi Casey

I fell in love with Andrew McCarthy in 1985 after watching St. Elmo's Fire for the first of many, many times.  I had been out of high school for a couple years and wanted, like most of my friends, to be like at least one of the characters in that film and have friends as cool as the rest of them.  He continued to cement a place in the section of my heart reserved for "celebrities that I will never meet" over the next two years as Blane McDonough, ahhhhh, in Pretty In Pink and Jonathan Switcher in Mannequin.  He seemed so charming, so cute and oh so sweet in these and dozens of other roles.  Of course there was that episode of Law & Order: SVU where he locked his Russian nanny in a customized trunk under a bed and would have left her there to die if Stabler and Benson hadn't been so great at their jobs and rescued her.  He was pure evil in that role, but no one can be nice all the time.......right?  I recently had to evict him from the "celebrities I love but will never meet" spot in my heart when he came to the Pekin Public Library and, by the end of the evening, was transferred to the area reserved for "celebrities I love and was lucky enough to meet".


I wasn't at all surprised that he was nice.  That seemed like a given.  What made the evening really wonderful was that he was interesting too. So, so very interesting.  He was in town talking about a book he wrote called The Longest Way Home which came about as a result of his traveling to distant places and in doing so learning to be comfortable making a commitment to the woman that he would marry.  It really is a love letter, not only to her, but to the different cultures and people of the world whom he meets and embraces during his journeys.

He not only has fantastic stories, he is a fantastic story teller.  The anecdote about how he went from being an actor and director to writing for National Geographic Traveler and eventually writing his book was my favorite.  He was in a book store about twenty years ago standing at a table of books when he looked up and saw an incredibly attractive woman.  When she caught him gawking at her he became flustered, grabbed a book off the table pretending that it was exactly what he'd been looking for, paid the clerk and made a bee line out of the store.  When he got home he took the book out of the bag (to find out what he'd purchased) and saw that it was Off The Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down The Pilgrim's Route Into Spain by Jack Hitt.  He read the synopsis, decided he couldn't be less interested, and put it on a shelf.  About a month later he was packing for a flight from New York to LA and, needing something to read, grabbed the book and put it in his bag.  By the end of the flight he was determined to make the trek of Camino De Santiago and, to make a long (fabulous) story short, he contacted the author for all the advice he could get out of him, bought the equipment he needed-including hiking boots that he purchased on the way to the airport- and he flew to Spain, transforming from Brat Packer to backpacker and eager to get started on what he was certain would be an incredible journey for mind, body and spirit.

And he hated it.  Every bit of it.  After only a couple days he had had enough, but his friends and family were expecting that he would be gone for six weeks.  Not wanting to give up and not wanting to go on he did what any reasonable man would do.  He had a tantrum.  From the way he described it, quite a tantrum indeed.  When it was over he picked himself up off the ground (literally), walked to the village where he was spending that night and went to bed.  The next morning when he woke up he said that everything was different.  He felt fully awake, things seemed very crisp and something was missing.  That something was fear.  A fear that he said had been with him his whole life and that he wasn't aware of until it was gone.  It was an experience he described using a line from A Streetcar Named Desire:  It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow. 

With this epiphany he finished the pilgrimage which would be just the first of many all over the world.  As he traveled he began to journal and, by his own account, sucked at it.  He was just writing about the places he was seeing until a boy in Saigon talked him into being a passenger on his motorbike.  This boy showed Andrew "his" Saigon: where he was born, where his grandfather worked, where his mother got their food and so on.  It was at this point that he realized that the places were great but only in the context of the humans who were experiencing them and that's when the focus of his writing changed.  He contacted Keith Bellows, the editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler, and, in a proposal that included the promise that if he didn't like what he wrote he didn't have to pay him, Andrew McCarthy added "travel writer" to his resume.

When you listen to him talk about traveling it's clear that his passion is not just in the destinations or even the journeys, but in his firm belief that international travel obliterates fear.  The fear we have about different countries and cultures and people as well as the fear they have about us.  And the conviction that we can change the trip at a time.

Subject: Andrew McCarthy