On Traveling Local — Etiquette for the Dirtbag Diplomat

Look at the face. Make eye contact. Smile. Nod.

These four simple acts may garner a return smile, invaluable advice, a conversation or at least a wider piece of sidewalk or trail from which to observe the habits of the local fauna. While wandering the urbanized wilderness of our too-often-fearful empire, extensive personal research of the above techniques of diplomatic behavior has led to free meals, drinks, lodging and more than my fair share of opportunities to participate in activities best described as “of dubious legality.” (Except, of course, from members of a techno-benumbed control group of cell-phone tapping, ear-budded zombies. These are best avoided like a leprotic orgy-crasher on a Roman holiday.) Oh, and the life stories. There is something irresistible about a friendly stranger when life’s good or bad days breach walls of discretion and inhibition, which can sometimes lead to sticky situations. Artful dodging skills are best learned early, lest the peripatetic dirtbag become a sedentary bit player in someone else’s tragicomedy.

The Artful Dodger, by “Kyd” 1890

(The Artful Dodger, by “Kyd” 1890)

A minor, usually pleasant side effect of “traveling local” is being mistaken for an actual local by other (usually better-dressed) fellow travelers. Often, good-sounding information just gleaned from an actual local can be re-packaged on the spot to improve your questioner’s day, and in some few instances may change his or her life. Sort of like backcountry guiding, without the tips or glory. In recent years, as my travels take me mostly to locales visited at least once before, being misrecognized as a seldom-seen local has wrapped me in a diplomatic pouch of graybeard immunity from suspicion. Even the occasional enforcement type smiles at me when I least expect it, and except for a scattering of embittered aging males who assume I’m disappointed with life too, most tragedians seem to lean on other, younger, broader shoulders.

There is another complication though, that budding travelers a la “local” should expect. Among the chaff of smiles, nods and pleasantries are a few unforgettable kernels. A face, a voice, a story that will come back on you during long night drives between the leaving and getting there. You’ll wonder how a life has gone, whether the tragedy or comedy you unobtrusively slipped away from at intermission ever had a happy ending. Short of seeking out the players later (seldom a good survival tactic for one’s own emotional equilibrium), the odds of closure are slim, unless your unforgettable kernel was a storyteller, able to evoke just how it felt.

While slipping through the stage-sets of my earlier lives, these days I’m hunting stories. In bars and cafes, in the yellowed pages of old newspapers or books, in magazines with dead addresses peeling from the covers, in names overheard from casual passersby and in current publications that are worth reading. Occasionally, a story connects to a remembered face, or tells of a universe where a traveler’s life has paralleled some parts of my own. Now it’s time to note that the tribe has lost another of our storytellers, and learning of this has me remembering an extensive life list of long-gone faces and landscapes, and the winding down of seasonal jobs and well-spent lives.

Some reading reminds me that all the kernels have not been lived yet though, that ever more people are now playing out their own dreamed lives on mountains and in canyons some of us thought, for a while, to have made our own. Peripatetic young dirtbag diplomats are even now massing along the ragged edges (the wildernext) of the empire’s sprawling urban/suburban/New Urban chancres, and some younger fellow travelers are telling stories by turns lyrical, outrageous and all points in between, on pages my own stories are sometimes privileged to precede or follow, and in the conversations and returned smiles that sometimes reward practitioners of the ancient diplomatic arts.

This spring, when a seasonal job or school year ends and the faraway beckons, go traveling local, and then let your story run free as Toby T. Tyler and his namesake.