The Accidental Tourist in Baltimore

While armchair travellers dream of going places, travelling armchairs dream of staying put.

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.

January is a time for armchair travelling. When we sit out the early days of the year whilst thinking of being somewhere else. Somewhere new and afar. In 2005, I took my first trip to America; to Baltimore, hometown of Anne Tyler and setting for The Accidental Tourist.

I’d gone to a Creative Nonfiction conference to try my hand at this hybrid style which Lee Gutkind argues enables writers to be “poetic and journalistic simultaneously.”

Being a writing conference, you had to write. Tell us about your favourite sin they suggested. Oh, and then read it out at conference. I did, and this is what I told them….

The Accidental Tourist in Baltimore

My favourite sin is to think I am in control. From my cockpit in the world, I am not the problem you are. But there is no better test of the belief that you can control anything than to put yourself on a plane, and travel three thousand six hundred and thirty-six miles from home. Even if you have made preparations. Particularly if you have made preparations. In fact, it’s the preparations that will cause the problem.

I have been lying about why I am here in Baltimore. ‘You’ve come all the way from London, just for the conference? delegates ask me. Sometimes I say yes, sometimes no. But what I do not say, is that my real intention, my prime motivation, is to continue stalking, a man with whom I have a long-standing infatuation. Obviously, I have some discomfort about this. But it’s not the stalking part. It’s that this man does not exist. You see, I am closely following the footsteps of Macon Leary. A man only fully formed within the pages of a novel, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.

Macon Leary is a Baltimore man. A man undone by life but who believes it is an unravelling he can control. But then he is a writer. And one who writes travel guides for businessmen who do not want to travel, or to remember having been somewhere else. Macon Leary is a man so wrapped up in himself, that when his son is murdered and his wife leaves him, he simply pulls himself in a little tighter. However such stricture has useful domestic consequences. With his wife gone, he invents the Macon Leary Body Bag. An intricate enveloping and stitching of all the bed sheets he possesses into one single sleeping bag, so that he might slip into bed, and into oblivion, with minimum effort.

Obviously I have more than just a problem with control if this is my idea of a dream man. But then, they say, you can’t help who you fall in love with.

I have a copy of The Accidental Tourist with me, here in Baltimore. Not accidentally of course. I packed it in my suitcase, as though it were a Macon Leary stipulation from The Accidental Tourist in Baltimore. A book he did not write but really, Anne Tyler should have made him. I would like to add, that I have a frequently run copy of the film adaptation of the book. It has my approval. It grants fidelity to Macon’s lines and, better still, has actor William Hurt saying them. I had not considered until now, that maybe its not Macon Leary but William Hurt I am in love with. But it’s probably too late to start stalking another man. And it would ruin my itinerary.

For Macon Leary, good travel guidance is learning how to control your expectation. I imagine he would tell me in his guide to Baltimore: ‘No visit to Baltimore should be entertained without a copy of this guide. Particularly for writers. However, they should not expect to use it to locate this author. He does not wish to be found. If you try, you will be disappointed and a perfectly good trip ruined.’

This is how far control will take you. These are words Macon Leary did not write and William Hurt is not saying them. But I have made it so.

I spent much of my time on the plane from London looking at my watch. I refused to set it to local (American) time, especially as the pilot kept telling us what local time was. This is what you do when you are flying across the Atlantic. It is what Macon Leary did going the other way from Baltimore to London. And I quote: ‘when the stewardess announced what time it was in London there was a stir as people reset their watches. Macon adjusted the digital alarm clock in his shaving kit. The watch on his wrist- which was not digital but real time, circular-he left as it was.’

Consequently, I conjured with hours and minutes. Time then (back in London) and time now, which really as we had not landed at Baltimore, could be anytime. I refused to believe in the reality of those chimerical five hours that appeared and disappeared according to where I wanted to be. If we are supposed to live in the moment, then time as a long stretch does not exist. I came to believe on flight BA 0229 that I had control over time.

But back on the ground, I lose my powers. As I leave the airport I am hit by a heat that neither my clothes nor I had adequately planned for. My expectations continue to reduce when I check into the Ramada Hotel. It is empty of guests and a welcome. There is no engagement with the shy Englishwoman who came prepared to drop her reserve. It is clear that neither staff nor the few transients there think it is a good destination. It is a throughway along Parkway Drive to somewhere else and somewhere better. They too, must be fans of Macon Leary’s travel guides.

And then I remember that Macon Leary also wrote that ‘travellers should be forewarned.’ This is not about planning; it is about what really happens.

When Macon is on that plane to London, he drifts off and remembers taking his son to the movies, and telling him why choosing your theatre seat is so important.

‘Ethan. It makes a great deal of difference. Aisle, you can get out quicker. So if you plan to buy a snack or go to the restroom, you’ll want to sit on the aisle. On the other hand, everyone’ll be squeezing past you there. So if you don’t think you’ll be leaving your seat, then I suggest-‘
‘Dad, for Christ’s sake, says Ethan.’

None of this consideration to seating plans stops Ethan, age 12, getting shot in Burger Bonanza on his second night at Summer Camp. An accidental bystander to a robbery going wrong.

It is a thought that eventually occurs to Macon Leary when he takes a different journey, through grief.

And after that, I wish I could say that I too, have given up on my need to control or my infatuation with Macon Leary, but I would be lying. Again. And lying is another favourite sin on which I could write but my tightly controlled schedule does not allow it.

Published in ABCtales Magazine in March, 2008