My father suffered from chronic wanderlust. When I was 14, he set out on a yearlong road trip across Europe and Asia—and decided to take me along for company. Beside a remote desert lake in the heart of Afghanistan, I finally got the chance to prove that I wasn't just along for the ride.
We stood on the edge of the bluff, my father with his morning cup of instant coffee, and watched the light creep down the cliffs on the far side of Bamian Valley. It would be some time yet before the light reached the two giant Buddhas carved into the rock wall opposite, longer still before it reached the valley floor. For now, both the statues and the mud-walled town below were obscured in the murk of dawn shadow and smoke from early hearth fires.
Every few minutes an Afghan man on foot or bicycle would appear over the lip of the bluff and pass by our campsite. They were workers at the ramshackle hotel at the far end of the escarpment, coming up from town to start their day, and even though we'd been in Bamian for less than 48 hours, my father seemed to know all of them by name.
"Hey, Amin. You're up early," he'd call out in his broad Western drawl. "Mornin', Mohammed. Damned cold last night, wasn't it?"
That none of these men spoke English, nor my father a word of Pashtu, didn't seem a problem for anyone. To his incomprehensible greetings, the men would grin and shout back something equivalently incomprehensible, to which my father, evidently working off some inscrutable set of visual cues, would either laugh or give a hearty thumbs-up signal.
"You got that right, pal!" or "You can say that again!"
During one brief lull in all the banter, my father turned back to the view, took another sip of his coffee, and his face settled into a more somber expression. "So you really got your heart set on this, don't you?"
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"This" was Band-i-Amir, a string of five pristine lakes improbably set in the high desert some 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the west of Bamian. For reasons I couldn't fully explain, even to myself, I'd been obsessed with going to the lakes ever since we'd arrived in Afghanistan a month earlier.
My father had never been as enthusiastic about the idea and had grown markedly less so in recent days. Fifty miles may not sound like much, but this was Afghanistan, and the road to Band-i-Amir, we'd been told, was a rugged dirt-and-rock track through river gorges and over several high passes, including one of nearly 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). In a four-wheel drive, the journey might take three hours each way, but we were traveling in a low-slung Volkswagen camper. What's more, if we did run into any trouble out there, it could be a long time before another vehicle came by. Even though it was only late October, winter was coming on fast in the Hindu Kush—the previous night, the temperature had dropped to well below zero in Bamian, freezing our water tank and making sleep nearly impossible—and everyone was starting to hunker down. During our time in Bamian, my father had acted as a one-man Band-i-Amir tourist rep, trying to entice any of the few foreigners still lingering there to accompany us to the lakes. He'd found no takers.
But to the extent that any of this presented a duel of wills, the deck was pretty heavily stacked. To one side, you had a headstrong 14-year-old boy. To the other, you had a 52-year-old man whose entire life had been given over to finding out what lay around the next bend in the road.
"Well, all right then," my father said. After one last glance over the bluff, as if making sure no one was trying to sneak past without a morning chat, he dumped the rest of his bad coffee in the dirt and started for the car. "I guess we better get going."
The events that brought me to that morning in Bamian had been set in motion five months earlier, on a weekday afternoon in May 1973. Finding me lounging in our living room, my father had asked if I felt like taking a drive. We ended up in a small seaside town on the coast of Dorset, the county in southwestern England where we were then living, and he suggested a walk along the pebble beach.
A year earlier my father had abruptly quit his job with the United States government and moved the family—my mother, me, my four siblings—to Dorset with the vague notion that it would become our new home. That this scheme hadn't really taken root was apparent even to me, a particularly oblivious adolescent, and I suspected the purpose of that morning's walk on the beach was to fill me in on where we might be headed next.
Of course, the importance of this father-to-son talk didn't mean it would proceed without intermissions; from force of long habit, my father felt compelled to call out cheery, if inane greetings to everyone we passed on the beach. "Hi there, how ya doing?" "Nice day for a walk, isn't it?" or alternatively, "Kind of a lousy day for a walk, isn't it?" because engagement was his goal, not consistency.
Despite all the interruptions, what gradually emerged was that our family now stood at the cusp of something very different. Not just another move like all those that had come before; instead, a kind of scattering.
My father explained that my mother and two younger sisters would soon be leaving for Florida, where my mother had been offered a university teaching job. My eldest sister would attend college in France, while my 16-year-old brother would stay on in England by himself to finish his last year of school. As for my father, he was planning a trip—quite a big trip. Completely unbeknownst to me, he had recently put in an order for a new Volkswagen camper from the factory in Germany; once it arrived and everyone else had been packed off to their various destinations, he intended to spend the next year or so tooling through Europe and the Middle East, ultimately driving all the way to India.
On the beach, my father drew up to face me. "So your mother and I have talked it over, and we figure you're old enough now to make your own decisions. You can either go to the States with her, or you can come with me."
Weighing this choice—moving to Gainesville, Florida, versus spending a year on the road; starting my freshman year in high school versus no school at all—probably took the better part of a nanosecond. For however long it took my disbelief and glee to exhaust itself on that beach, I was probably the most excited 14-year-old kid on the planet.
Afterward, my father struggled to assume a properly paternal demeanor. "One thing that does concern me, though, is what this'll do to your education."
"What education?" I countered. "I barely go to school anyway."
I had him there. Having been bounced through five different school systems in four different countries by the eighth grade, my formal education lay in tatters, and I'd done my utmost to keep it that way; through a combination of truancy, illness—both real and feigned—and sheer recalcitrance, my absences in any given school year generally fell in the 60- to 80-day range. In fact, as I reminded my father on the Dorset beach, that very day constituted what was commonly referred to as a "school day," as had the previous two, and I'd stayed home for all of them.
"Well, OK," my father said. "Those are all good points." He fixed me with his wide grin and draped an arm around my shoulder. "Welcome aboard, pardner."
Did it occur to me that there might be something slightly odd in all this? That a set of parents would blithely scatter their teenage children across the globe, leaving one here, one there? Or for that matter, that a man married for over two decades would choose to embark on a journey where he wouldn't see his wife for a year? Nope, not at all. Not on that morning with my father on the beach or at any point in the next 12 months we spent knocking around Europe and Asia. I simply never thought about it.
That's because everyone's childhood is perfectly normal to them, and mine had been one long series of arrivings and leavings, an ever changing blur of schools and countries and friends. And in this, even my family had lent no constancy; someone was always heading off or being left behind somewhere. We led lives of permanent impermanence, and this was merely the next chapter. The big difference this time was that, of the various straws my siblings and I had drawn, I'd been the luckiest.
Bamian village was just beginning to rouse, the first shepherds moving their flocks out to the surrounding fields, the land still coated in white from the thick morning frost. The men opening the chaikhanas along the main street stared vacantly after us as we passed. Even at that early hour, the familiar scent hung heavy on the air—a blend of charcoal smoke and dust and animal dung with something vaguely perfumed, like sandalwood—the scent of Afghanistan.
The dirt road cut west across the valley. From a distance, it appeared to have nowhere to go, that it would simply end at the base of the sheer western cliffs. But then a narrow cleft appeared in the rocks, a gorge just wide enough for a fast-flowing stream and the one-lane track.
The shadows in the canyon were far deeper than they had been in the valley—deeper, I think, than any I'd encountered before. With the cliffs towering hundreds of feet overhead and just a thin ribbon of sky visible far above, it was like a place of perpetual twilight, one that cast the rocks, the water, even our skin, in a peculiar blue-gray gloom. The higher we climbed, the narrower the gorge became, and I was struck by the irrational thought that we were no longer on a road at all but passing deeper into some ever closing cave, its walls squeezing in around us, that we might simply be swallowed up in there.
In my growing claustrophobia, I thought of telling my father that maybe we should skip it, that maybe we should go back to Bamian. Something prevented me. Part of it was pride—I'd made too big a deal out of this trip to turn back now—but I was also held by the sense that the journey was important in a way that I still could not articulate. So I said nothing and we continued on into the tightening twilight.
The first one was Eva. She was 21 and very pretty, a college friend of my eldest sister, and when Eva heard that my father and I would be stopping off briefly in Vienna during our ramble across Europe, she insisted that we stay with her. It was a welcome break from our usual car camping in the van, and each morning, I set off on my own to explore the city. I went to museums, saw the Lipizzaner stallions. I didn't much know or care what my father was doing and was quite content when our stopover, originally planned for three days, stretched to a week. My most distinct memory of Eva is from the morning we finally left Vienna. As we started away, down the quiet street of dignified Habsburgian town houses, she flung open the windows of her fourth-floor apartment and, amid great wailing and sobbing, begged my father to come back. I remember he grinned up at her, blew a kiss and then fluttered his fingers in farewell. At the end of the block, Eva's continuing cries at last growing indistinct, my father noticed my questioning stare.
"Austrians," he shrugged, "they're very emotional people."
Even with the maturity or cynicism of the intervening years, I'm not sure my father actually had an affair with Eva; if I had to put a bet down, I'd still tilt toward no. Rather, I think she was just the first person—and during that year on the road there would be many more—to fall under his peculiar spell.
He was handsome, but it was more than that. He had an open-faced friendliness, a wide grin and warm blue eyes that combined quite nicely with his large frame and his Western twang. He also had a very limited notion of personal space. When talking with someone, whether a longtime acquaintance or a complete stranger, he had a habit of standing close and constantly reaching out with his right hand as if to take hold of them by the arm or shoulder, and was only truly content when he had succeeded in doing so. It sounds kind of creepy, I realize, but I can't recall anyone ever taking offense.
I think it was because he had a genuine and uncomplicated fascination with people, a curiosity they found deeply flattering. He would pepper them with questions about their lives, where they were from, what they did, what they hoped to do next, and if this was especially pronounced around pretty women, it was, in fact, quite indiscriminate. Waitresses, soldiers, rickshaw drivers, old ladies selling vegetables, my father would schmooze anybody. He was Clintonesque before the word existed.
And, of course, it paid dividends. Ill-tempered guards at the most notorious border crossings waved him through with cheery smiles. Haughty maître d's fawned over him. He might well have been the only Westerner in history to get the better of rug merchants in Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, and left them happy at having been taken advantage of.
In short, his personality was perfectly suited to the unusual life he had chosen. Because at his core my father was a wanderer, and wanderers everywhere ultimately must live by their wits and their charm, by instinctively knowing how to read people.
He was born in Fresno, California, into a ranching family with deep roots in the San Joaquin Valley, and whatever it was about that environment—the pastoral setting, the comfortable ease of it all—he'd gotten the hell out the instant he had the chance. Within days of graduating from high school, he had set out across the country with a buddy in an old Model T, then spent a couple of years working construction jobs in the South Pacific. After World War II—during which he served in the Navy, naturally—he'd drifted around the West for a while, until he had the good fortune of meeting my mother, a kindred adventurous spirit, but one with a more practical side. It was she who convinced him to go to college on the GI Bill; coming out with an agronomy degree and a specialty in coffee cultivation, he was hired on by the U.S. government as an agricultural adviser and, through the 1950s, they bounced from one foreign posting to another in Central America and the Caribbean.
Before long, though, my father's innate restlessness started kicking in again, the burning itch to go somewhere completely different. By the time I, their fourth child, came along in 1959, he'd already set his sights on Asia and was busily reinventing himself as a rice expert. It worked; by my ninth birthday, we'd lived in Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia.
But even if he was happier in Asia than he'd been in Latin America, the wanderlust still worked on my father's insides like a disease. One of the most recurrent memories of my childhood is of him sitting in his armchair in the evenings, poring over atlases the way other fathers read newspapers or books. He also had the habit of musing aloud at the dinner table about where we should maybe live next. "What would you all think about going to Jordan?" he might say. "Or how about somewhere in Africa?"
Instead, it all came to an ugly end. In 1969, after nearly two decades of adroitly jumping from one foreign assignment to the next, my father finally drew the death card: Washington D.C. Moving from Indonesia, we settled in a northern Virginia suburb, and for the next three years he dutifully took the commuter bus to his downtown office every day, his perseverance fueled only by the hope of another foreign posting that didn't come. Viewed in this light, it was really not all that odd when my father quit the whole deal and moved us to England; the job had always been more a means to an end, what he had to do to keep himself—and by extension, us—on the road.
The difficulty, at least in my case, was that I didn't have my father's personality. The peculiarities of my childhood, of constantly moving through so many different cultures, of always being the outsider, may have made me extraordinarily self-sufficient, but it had also bred a certain detachment, a sense that the world was a place to explore rather than truly inhabit. This manifested as a kind of shyness, even timidity.
If anything, my passivity seemed to grow even more pronounced during the trip with my father. In the company of such an outsize personality, it was very easy to stay quiet, to always let him make the first overture. I was quite conscious of this and tried to counteract it, but the farther east we drove and the more alien our surroundings—Western Europe giving way to Eastern, Europe left behind for Turkey and then Iran—the more detached I became. To me, the world had always felt a bit like a collection of moving pictures passing before my eyes, some pleasant, some not—but now it had truly become that, and I was just along for the ride.
The cemetery spread over the entire hillside, the graves mere mounds of gathered-up stones. Wedged between these stones were poles to which flags and ribbons had been tied. These pennants were all different colors and sizes, and they beat so furiously on the windswept hill that they made a sound rather like that of water cascading onto rocks.
We had at last climbed out of the river gorge and emerged into the sunlight of the steppes, and then there had been the long, slow climb up 9,950-foot (3,033-meter) Shahidan Pass. It was while coming down off Shahidan that we had rounded a bend in the road and suddenly, implausibly, come to the cemetery. We hadn't seen a person or a car since leaving Bamian, and it was easy to imagine we were all alone out there in the sweep of hills and rock.
For some time my father and I walked among the graves. From that vantage point we could see many miles in all directions, but everywhere was the same: great expanses of rolling brown steppes, jagged snowcapped peaks beyond, but nowhere a house, a village, any sign that a person had ever come this way save for the narrow scar of the road and the graves. It was as if a city had once been here, but even its ruins had been swept away, leaving only the dead behind.
We continued on. I don't remember what we talked about, if we really talked at all or just dwelled in one of those long, comfortable silences that often held between us on the road. Whenever we came to high ground, I watched for a flash of blue in the brown distance, for some sign that we were getting close to the lakes, but I think I already knew it wouldn't happen that way, that, like the cemetery, they would simply appear as if by miracle.
Even after all these years, I still remember the first person I saw in Afghanistan.
We were very late crossing the Iranian border, dusk settling over the barren scrubland, and my father was speeding down the empty, arrow-straight highway in hopes of reaching the city of Herat before nightfall. In the far distance, I noticed a small, stationary object alongside the road, darker than the surrounding desert, the only break in color for many miles around. As we neared, I saw that it was a man standing stock-still on the edge of the blacktop. He was in his 30s or 40s with a long, black beard and a white turban, a rifle slung over his shoulder. What struck me most were his eyes. They were dark and very intense—fierce, even—and for that brief moment as we whizzed by, they locked onto mine. Friendly? No. But not really unfriendly, either. Something altogether different, a look I'd never quite seen before: challenging and guarded and opaque, all at once.
Other questions arose in my mind. What was he doing out there in the middle of nowhere? What was he watching for? And in these questions that had no answers, I had an intimation that we'd just crossed into a land utterly unlike any I had known.
We camped that night in the garden of a small hotel in Herat, and in the morning we set out to explore the city. It was an assault on the senses—dusty, smelly, shockingly poor compared to Iran—and wherever we went, packs of young boys followed us, shopkeepers watched us with the same hard stares as the man on the highway. Yet, I didn't feel intimidated, I didn't tuck in behind my father. Instead, I felt a deepening affinity, as if I'd finally come to a place that, on some subconscious level, I'd always hoped existed. Afghanistan was medieval, feral, severe. For a certain kind of 14-year-old boy, it was a dream come true.
My father's plan was for us to spend a couple of days in Herat, then overnight in the southern city of Kandahar before pushing on to Kabul; from there it was just a quick run down the Khyber Pass to Pakistan. By the end of that first day in Herat, however, I'd neatly scuttled that itinerary. While roaming through the bazaar, I'd come across a small bookstore, and there I'd found a dog-eared guidebook to Afghanistan written by someone named Nancy Hatch Dupree. By that night I'd already read most of the book and marked a dozen places where we had to go.
"Just so you know," I informed my father over dinner, "it's going to be at least a month before we get to Kabul."
What transpired over the following days was an incessant series of negotiations. My father would patiently remind me that we still had a lot of ground to cover, that whatever we missed on this pass through Afghanistan we could see during our return trip in the spring. For my part I drew on the mulishness I'd honed during my eight-year anti-school campaign to wring out every concession I could: one more day here, one more side trip there. Our stay in Herat stretched to a week, Kandahar to nearly as long, and when at last we reached Kabul, I had another whole expedition mapped out for the northern part of the country.
"First off, Nuristan," I began that haggling session, "also known as Kafiristan. Alexander the Great's men settled up there and were cut off for 2,000 years. It's still one of the most isolated places on Earth."
"That's because there's no roads up there," my father pointed out.
"Right, so we can hike in. We're looking at two, maybe three weeks."
My father shook his head. "We are not hiking into Nuristan in October. What else have you got?"
That was OK; I'd floated Nuristan as a loss leader anyway. "The Buddhas of Bamian," I said, sliding the tattered guidebook across to him. "Dupree says they're not to be missed."
My father skimmed through the pertinent pages, arched an eyebrow in interest. "All right, we'll go to Bamian. Is that it?"
I shook my head. "Band-i-Amir. It's this wild series of lakes to the west of Bamian."
"Lakes?" My father winced. "Christ, you want to see lakes, I'll take you to Crater Lake when we're back in the States."
I shook my head again. "If we're already going to Bamian, then we've got to go to Band-i-Amir." I pointed to the guidebook. "Dupree says they're not to be missed." I had taken to citing Nancy Dupree the way some Christians quoted the Bible.
My father sighed. "All right, we'll see about the lakes. No promises. We'll have to find out about the road, but we'll see."
I think my desire to go to Band-i-Amir had less to do with actually seeing the lakes or with whatever it was I imagined I might find there, than it was a symptom of how I'd changed since reaching Afghanistan. The land had roused a fascination in me, an engagement with my surroundings. On this trip, I was no longer merely along for the ride. For the first time, I was pointing the way, leading my father.
"Well, I'll be damned," my father called. "Come take a look at these guys."
We had parked in a meadow just below the last lake of Band-i-Amir, and he had strolled over to the little stream nearby. I walked to his side, looked down to where he was pointing. In the pool below, perhaps three dozen extremely large fish, brown with orangish speckles, lazily circled. I asked if they were trout.
"Hell if I know," my father replied. "But they're close enough to trout for me." He turned and hurried for the camper.
An avid trout fisherman, he'd carried his fly rod all the way from England, but over the 7,000 miles (2,134 kilometers) we had traveled so far it had only come out twice and to disappointing effect. In Switzerland he had no sooner begun casting into a mountain stream when a farmer showed up to run him off. The one fish he'd hooked in a fast-moving river in eastern Turkey had been so large it snapped his leader. Beside this brook in Band-i-Amir, he excitedly set to work assembling his rod, debating which fly to try first.
"Those fat bastards aren't gonna know what hit 'em," he said merrily. "Gonna be like shooting sheep in a field."
We had reached Band-i-Amir by late morning. At least for me, the journey had definitely been worth it. Each of the five lakes was a distinctly different color—one turquoise, another jade, a third almost milky white—and the eeriness of their setting, simply dropped down amid the empty brown hills, was made even more unearthly by the enveloping stillness; not a bird, not a person.
I think my father, worn out from the hard drive there and no doubt already contemplating the grueling return, was considerably less impressed. For that reason I was pleased when he found the fish.
Standing over the stream, he whipped his line through the air a few times and gently set his fly down in the middle of the pool. Some of the fish lolled over to check it out, then swam slowly away.
"Maybe they don't like flies," I said.
"They love flies. They're just being cagey."
He cast a few more times. The fish seemed more disinterested with each attempt.
"You know," I said, "they're moving so slow we could probably just go down there and catch them with our bare hands."
"Shut up," my father instructed. "You're spooking them with all your dumb-ass talk."
I don't know who saw them first, but over a hillside perhaps half a mile (one kilometer) away there suddenly appeared five horsemen galloping down in our direction. They were coming on so fast that they kicked up a great cloud of dust behind them, and there was something in their urgency—or perhaps it was that they were the first people we'd seen all day—that carried an ominous note. For a little while, probably not more than 10 or 15 seconds, we simply stood there, watching them bear down on us, and I imagine we both had the same thought: that there was no getting away before they reached us, that we could only wait and see what might happen.
"You better get in the car," my father finally muttered.
I turned, dutifully took a couple of steps, but then stopped. "No. I'll wait here."
"Get in the damned car," my father raised his voice at me for the first and only time on the trip.
"No. It won't make any difference anyway."
I think part of it was that I felt responsible. I'd brought us to Band-i-Amir, so whatever was about to happen was my doing. I suppose there was also an element of pride; I wasn't going to sit in the car like some little kid while my father dealt with the situation.
And then I did something without really thinking. As the horsemen closed in on us, I stepped away from my father and walked out toward them. I didn't go far, maybe 30 feet (9 meters), and then I stopped. The horsemen drew up before me. Each had a rifle slung over his shoulder. The horses were panting and snorting, and the riders peered down at me with that same opaque, intense stare I'd seen on that first man at the border, which I'd now seen a thousand times across the breadth of Afghanistan. I tried a smile, but I could tell it was hesitant, not at all the easy welcoming grin of my father.
"Mornin'," I said, trying to put some of his Western twang into it. "How ya doing?"
It got off to a rocky start. One of the men proceeded to shout at me in whatever his native language was, punctuated with angry gestures toward my father and clicks of his tongue; the others just glared. Gradually, though, I came to understand that the stream was sacred water and that the fish in it were not to be caught—not that my father was actually doing that, but I suppose it was the principle of the thing.
"You've got to stop bothering the fish, Dad," I called to him.
Once he put away his fly rod, the mood became far more relaxed. The men dismounted their horses and gathered around to peer into our camper as if it were the most exotic thing they had ever seen. My father brought out a jar of peanut butter and crackers, made mini-sandwiches, and passed them around; the horsemen ate them out of politeness, but with expressions ranging from bewilderment to revulsion. After a few minutes and a hearty round of handshakes and backslaps all around—by now, we were all fast friends—the five men mounted up and galloped away with the same urgency as when they'd come. My father watched them recede with a weary shake of his head.
"Christ's sake, here we are in the middle of Afghanistan, and we still can't get away from the fisheries types."
The shadows were growing longer on the surrounding hills, and we packed up for the return to Bamian. As he started the car, my father reached over and patted me on the shoulder. "Nice work, pal," he said. "You handled that really well."
My father and I were on the road for eight more months. Leaving the camper in India, we flew on to Southeast Asia, went as far as Taiwan, and then turned around and started the long drive back. On the return through Afghanistan, I managed to get to a couple of the places I had lobbied for the first time, but nothing very ambitious. I think at that point even I was a bit tired, ready to get on with whatever was coming next in my life.
In hindsight that was a mistake. Shortly after we reunited with my mother and sisters in Florida in the summer of 1974, my parents divorced; my father took off by himself, and that fall I found myself starting tenth grade at Gainesville High School.
It was not an easy adjustment, and it was made more difficult by my father's periodic phone calls from the road. Each time he had a new plan, a new place he was thinking of heading, and he wanted to know if I was in. Fiji was one that lasted for a while.
"We'll get a little place on the water, buy a sailboat, sail to some of the other islands. What do you say?"
But then Fiji was replaced by Alaska—or maybe Argentina or Portugal. Each time, my hopes of escaping Gainesville were raised, and I'd come up with my own schemes of what I'd do in my new home—be a spear fisherman, a gaucho—but then it always fell through. I didn't really blame my father. I knew he was drifting and that he missed me, but after a while I told him to stop, that if he wasn't coming back to get me, he should quit talking about it. By the end of that school year I'd pretty much reconciled myself to my fate and decided that sticking it out through high school was kind of like serving out a prison sentence: not fun, certainly, but things would only get worse if I tried to go over the wall early. In all this, the trip with my father hung like a peculiar curse: the greatest experience of my life, but one that had ended and that in all likelihood would never be repeated. In my own way, I suppose I did try to replicate it. Right after graduating from high school, I took to the road myself and spent the next four years drifting around the country, taking any odd job—fruit picker in Michigan, casino worker in Reno—that would allow me to keep drifting.
In 1981 my father had a stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side. He had remarried and was living in Arizona at the time, and I went out there to help him with his therapy. I watched him learn to walk again, took him up to the municipal pool every day so he could swim. Whether due to the medication he was on or the damage to his brain, he was a very different man than I had known, given to crying jags and violent rages. After two months I decided my staying on wasn't doing either of us any good. On the day I was leaving, he came into my bedroom at 3 a.m. with a rifle in his hands. For a moment I thought he was planning to shoot me, but it turned out I had it backward: He wanted me to kill him.
"Because I can't live as a cripple," he said. "How can I travel if I'm a cripple?"
I took the gun from him and helped him sit on the edge of the bed. I tried to cheer him up, assured him that he was getting better, but he kept shaking his head.
"We never should have come back, you know that?" he said. "We should've just kept moving, kept moving, kept moving."
He started talking about our trip and his spirits lifted. He even chuckled at some of the things that had happened. Eventually the conversation turned to Afghanistan, to that day in Band-i-Amir.
"Remember those guys on horseback coming down off the hill?" he said, smiling now. "Damn, you were scared shitless."
"What are you talking about? I bailed you out. If it hadn't been for me, they'd have strung you up."
"Yeah, yeah," he laughed. "Punk-ass kid facing down the fish wardens; what, you want a medal?"
For a moment his face creased into that broad, happy grin I remembered so well, but then it was gone, and he slipped back into somberness. He shook his head again. "We never should've come back. That's where we screwed up. We should've just stayed out there forever."
I didn't know what to say, so I put my arm around him. I thought of telling him that, in a way, we hadn't come back, we were still out there, but I didn't say this because I wasn't sure it would be helpful.
Eventually my father made an almost complete recovery from his stroke and lived for another 19 years. Marrying for a third time, he moved to Maui—or more accurately, that's where he set up his base camp, for he was always in the midst of planning his next trip, poring over his atlases. These trips were no longer to places like Afghanistan, but to easier destinations: England and New Zealand.
What never changed was his habit of cornering anyone who crossed his path into conversation. Supermarket checkout girls, Maori truck drivers, honeymooners strolling the beach in Maui—no one was safe from this compulsion.
"I just like people," my father said. "And damn it, they sure as hell better like me."
In the summer of 2000, at the age of 78, he died from a brain aneurysm. He was planning a trip to Ireland at the time.
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