As a small boy playing alone in my yard, I sometimes imagined television cameras hiding behind trees and under bushes, filming my every move. My secret reality show (long before the existence of reality TV) pacified me and helped me feel less alone. As I grew and began to venture out into the world, I found a similar form of relief from the very specific solitude brought on by travel far from home: listening to music. But lately I’ve begun to question the curation of my encounters on the road. What exactly might I be missing by shutting out the world I’ve come to experience by retreating behind some greatest hits?
A few years ago, while in a remote village in northern Sudan, I surrendered to the solace brought on by my earbuds. Today, my overriding memory of that village (the name of which is long gone, thus proving my point) is of the Patti Scialfa song I played over and over during those few days. Nearly lost in the iShuffle of significance are the three soldiers with AK-47s and toothy smiles with whom I sat and smoked hookah in a cinder-block shed, and the old woman who made me ful medames in her kitchen and nodded with knowing pride as I sat on a three-legged stool and forced the stuff down. These incidents might well be charged with more meaning had I not arbitrarily orchestrated my experience with the comforting sound of a familiar tune that now dominates my recollection of that very particular time and place.
Luckily, just a few days later, in the northern desert not far from the ancient city of Old Dongola—now only a few crumbling and lonely pillars jutting up from windswept, shifting dunes—sleeping on a mat in the sand under a gauzy sky, I had no access to the music I yearned for to lull me to sleep. I cursed not budgeting my battery supply, and was left in deafening silence, staring up into the Milky Way. After an uncomfortable and unknowable elapsing of pliable time, with no way to control my environment or modulate my experience, I felt a sense of expansion and connection not only to my surroundings but to the entire planet and the constellations above. I was filled with a sense of continuity and belonging that still feeds me years later.
And what might have happened had I been listening to a consoling playlist to ease my homesick ache while in the high plains of northern Spain? Halfway into a 500-mile walk along the Camino de Santiago, lonely and despairing of myself, in a field of chafing wheat, I burst into tears and dropped to my knees. My tantrum punctured my shell of cynical disappointment and revealed a simmering depth of fear that lurked beneath my cool facade. In the moment of my unexpected and unaccompanied collapse came a liberation from a lifetime of discomfort that I daresay might never have been possible had I been strutting down the trail, singing along to Bruno Mars.
There are, of course, times when I allow myself a vacation from my vacation. When I’m flying, Tom Waits often accompanies me at 35,000 feet with his melancholy rasp, my mind drifting in a reverie it only seems to achieve while gazing at the curve of the earth. But more and more, while in alien territory, I try to resist dictating how I might best experience the Patagonian steep or Saharan dunes by deciding what music I’ll filter my experience through.
I’m no longer that little boy needing pacification during a lonely afternoon, and time has shown me that my uncomfortable state is often the first indication that something big and worthwhile is on my doorstep. It is our sheer aloneness, our dependence on the kindness of strangers, our having to put ourselves out on a limb—both emotional and physical—without any mollification that makes travel truly, deeply potent. Sidestepping that, short-circuiting it by hitting play, is the last thing I’m interested in doing. So the next time I’m in Rome and tempted to turn up the Rolling Stones and tune out the sound of Italian street noise, I’m hitting the off button to let the wide world rock my socks to its unpredictable, singular, transcendent beat—even if there is a camera hiding behind the Pantheon.
Andrew McCarthy’s memoir, Brat: An ’80s Story, is due out May 11 from Grand Central Publishing.