Ryan O’Reilly is the author of the travel novel Snapshot and his latest book, To Nourish and Consume, which examines the awkward journey of returning home after a long period of being away. A freelance contributor to various newspapers and periodicals throughout the country, O’Reilly divides his time between his business in Austin, Texas and a small farm in Clever, Missouri. www.RyanCOReilly.com
-Why did you decide to become an author and world-traveler?
Like any good lifestyle change I just kind of fell into it. Prior to vagabonding, I was all about the conventional. In the summer of 2004, I was working in an office, had a fiancé, and a little house with a picket fence. I played golf on the weekends, had a few extra pounds and was heading towards a quiet existence as an everyman. Thus was the hour of my discontent. In August of that same year I visited a college buddy of mine, who was living in Austin, Texas and working for a touring band. After a weekend on the road with him, I went back home and within a month I had broken off my engagement, sold most of my belongings, quit my job and moved to Texas. Somewhere around the Oklahoma/Texas border, with a backseat full of books and suitcases, I stopped at a rest stop and cried for a half hour. At the time I thought it was regret, but now I think it was my body purging the illness of a long-lived life that hadn’t been my own. Since then, I’ve seen the entire country and many countries beyond, started two successful businesses, written two books and many articles and essays. Though I gave up a lot to live this life, I have never once looked back.
–What is the most thrilling place you’ve ever visited?
I don’t know about the most thrilling, but the most surprising has been right here – America. For the longest time I equated serious travel with going to Europe or Africa or the Far East. I thought those who restricted themselves to traveling in their own country were limiting their exposure to different cultures. Now, I see that I was wrong. Having been all over the world – and all over the United States – I can definitely say that the most thrilling and surprising thing one can do is to expose themselves to the separate nuances of their own country. Everyone knows that America is a melting pot and that our culture is about diversity. But until you see it, you don’t really understand the extent. I’m not talking about seeing the statue of liberty, hiking the grand canyon, or walking down Sunset Blvd. in LA.
I’m talking about having a beer at the Stockman bar in Walden, Colorado; going to the weekly farmers market in Livingston, Montana; Going to Frontier Rodeo Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming (the one Kerouac wrote about); or sitting front row at a Key West drag show wearing a pink stole. It’s all there, and it’s all thrilling.
-Where is the best place in the world to have a blast on a dime?
For me, the national park system, for sure. For $80, one can purchase an annual pass that includes admission to every spot in the park system (The daily use fee is much less, but I like to buy in bulk). My favorite, by far, is Yellowstone National Park. With YNP you have 33,000 square miles to explore. You can tour Old Faithful Geyser and the Firehole River with the multitudes in the morning, and by evening you can be in a place so far removed from the civilized world you think yourself on another planet. Plus, Yellowstone is a place covered with geysers, mud pots, fumaroles and other geothermal features. Nowhere else in the United States are you reminded of the temporary nature of the ground under your feet. At Yellowstone, the traveler is constantly reminded that the most stable thing we have, the earth, is a living, breathing and evolving thing. Perspective is YNP’s most valuable resource as far as I’m concerned.
-When was the last time you returned home thinking, “I probably shouldn’t have survived that trip”?
Most worthwhile adventures yield at least one come-to-Jesus moment. I have a short list of things I’m good at, and the ability to identify potential threats isn’t one of them. Whilst on the road, you’re more likely to find me adapting to a given situation rather than planning ahead to avoid it. One example of that would be a couple of years ago when I paddled all 2,341 miles of the Missouri River in a 16-foot canoe. The river itself isn’t technically challenging – the little whitewater it has never goes beyond Class III – but it goes on and on and on through some fairly sparse parts of the heartland. Once I was stuck on the side of an isolated beach for almost four full days while the wind blew at 40 plus miles per hour. There were no clouds, no trees and the temperature didn’t get below 80 at night. A weather radio probably could’ve prevented falling into this situation but it was ultimately one of the most cathartic periods of my life. On the second day, I went for a walk. Less than a mile from camp I heard a rattle, took a step back and felt a sharp, searing pain in the back of my heel. I won’t give away the end of that story quite yet, but I’ll simply say that I made some fairly extravagant promises to God.
Other than that I’ve contracted malaria, had a gun pointed at me, broken my ankle severely while alone in the woods, watched someone wave a knife in my face, ridden an out of control airplane off the end of a runway into some trees and fractured my scapula in a motorcycle wreck. If we’re given nine lives, I may have used most of mine already.
–Which locale inspired your latest novel, To Nourish and Consume?
TNAC is set in the fictional town of Charleton, Michigan. Charleton is loosely based on the real town of Charlevoix, Michigan. Charlevoix is a town I’ve been to once, but have heard stories about for a long time. The first time I ever fell in love was in college with a girl whose family frequently summered there. Her descriptions of the town and of spending summers there could’ve been taken straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel – Possibly the most passionate descriptions of any town I’ve heard.
It wasn’t until years after that relationship ended that I finally went there myself. I spent a week just walking around the town and letting my imagination swirl around the beaches and the buildings. Of course, finally seeing the town brought the memories of that first love flooding back, so I hold a sense of nostalgic romance about Charlevoix that I’ve never felt anywhere else. And I’ve only been there once! I just knew, once I saw its lazy streets and quiet houses, that there was a novel there.
-What travel memoir are you working on now?
I mentioned my trip down the Missouri River. That’s the story I’m working on now. The first draft is finished, and now I’m heading across country to take a break before revision time. In 2008, I started at the Missouri River’s headwaters in Three Forks, MT with a canoe and paddled for two months and 2,341 miles to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi.
Aside from the tried and true travel motifs (adjusting to life outside the modern world, learning to live with the self, and adapting to the trials of the natural world) I tried to get into why a person is mentally and emotionally drawn to wander. To figure out why people are drawn to the adventure, and to the adventure story.
One of my favorite writers, Joseph Campbell, says that the adventure story is the symbolic expression given to our unconscious desires, fears and tensions that underlie the conscious patterns of human behavior.
We have only to read it, study it’s constant patterns, analyze its variations, and come to an understanding of the deep forces that have shaped man’s destiny and must continue to determine both our private and public lives.
That’s why people are drawn to the adventure story. We are attracted to adventure stories not necessarily because of what they say about the characters in them, rather it is how those aspects relate to the reader’s own experience and journey. If we are all really drawn psychologically to the adventure story, and if the adventure is a lens that give us an alternative perspective through which to view our own lives, then perhaps travel stories and memoirs can act in part as a cloth to polish that lens.