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The Hairpin Travel Serial, Part Three: “The Last Great Adventure”
Episodes One, Two, and Three of The Hairpin’s eight-part Kindle Serial “An Experience Definitely Worth Allegedly Having” are now available in full via Amazon. Excerpts from the first two episodes can be found here and here.
1. The guy sitting next to us on the plane to Mexico looked like he’d been dropped in a pot and boiled — his face and chest bloomed in a glorious bouquet of pinks and reds. He was a mess of peeling flesh, so sunburned that when he rubbed his cheeks and chin, long strips of skin came off, and he rolled those pieces between his fingers, making little pill-shaped balls that he dropped absentmindedly on his tray table next to empty minibottles of rum.
We were unfazed. San Francisco had conditioned us to a particularly special breed of weirdo: exotic strangers imbued with a little bit of crazy that was, more often than not, harmless. We were receptive to their nuttiness; most of the time, we liked it. Sometimes we felt like we were tuning into a different human frequency when we talked to these people, picking up a mystical message delivered from an otherworldly oracle, even if we didn’t always understand it.
His name was Andrew, I think, and he wanted to buy us drinks. He didn’t like drinking alone, he said, and after all, weren’t we celebrating? We were on our way to paradise! He ordered four pineapple rum drinks for the row: two for him, one for each of us. We accepted our drinks, raised them in thanks, and drank. He described his business as real estate and said he liked adventure. Did we like adventure, too, he wanted to know. I felt my boyfriend Alex’s hand on my thigh — a gentle, persistent pressure — and I had to swallow a giggle. The last time someone asked us that question in that way we were buying groceries in a Harris Teeter in Charlottesville, Virginia. The cashier eyed us while she rang up our food. She gave us a wicked kind of smile and leaned across the scanner, her breasts spilling out of the top of her work shirt. Her hair and makeup were a carnival of crazy colors: bleached blonde cotton candy swirled on top of her head, electric-blue smears above her eyelids, swipes of cracking cinnamon-red across her lips. She asked us if we liked to party and if we liked adventure. Then she asked us if we liked to swing, and before we could answer, she quickly slipped a faded flyer with an address into our bag, between the avocados and the bread. We ran out of the store, laughing, holding hands, elated by the encounter. We never went to the party, or back to that Harris Teeter, but we kept the flyer on our fridge and giggled about it for months after.
But this was different; our planemate had a different kind of proposition he wanted to share with us. He said he liked the look of us, the honeymooning type (even though we weren’t), and he wanted to help us have the time of our lives. By now we were on our second round of drinks. We told him of our plans to explore the towns around Tulum, and he began jotting down an itinerary for us, describing places where you could swim in caves, the best beachside spots for an afternoon drink, and the bizarre but authentic (he swore) Italian enclave where you could get Mediterranean-style Mexican food. He told us which bars to go if we wanted to get a little fucked up and the roads to avoid on our way home if we did.
Then he smoothed out a damp cocktail napkin and started drawing a map to a freshwater lagoon, a tiny geographical treasure nestled a few miles past the main bay. Most tourists skipped it, he said, because it was hard to find and there was a much bigger, flashier river park just up the road, where you could see sea turtles, float in giant yellow tubes, and hike around the inlet. But this other place, Yal-Ku, was the real deal, he assured us, a great way to laze away a day. You could bring sandwiches, rent snorkels, and explore the tame lake and island, which was dotted with beautiful iron sculptures and attracted schools of colorful fish that wandered in through the narrow inlet that wedded that body of water to the ocean. I studied the napkin and nodded, then placed it carefully between the pages of our earmarked guidebook.
After we deplaned, we shook hands and waved good-bye. We never spoke to him again, but for the rest of the weekend, we would see Andrew lingering on various street corners, talking to people in doorways, ordering drinks in bars, his shirt half-buttoned, face and chest forever lobstery. We always tried to catch his attention, to nod hello or just acknowledge his presence, but his eyes always seemed to land everywhere but on our faces.
We forgot about Ya-Kul until our second to last day of the trip. We were trying to decide how to spend our time — whether to drive into town, lie on the beach, or take a day trip. I rifled through our beach tote looking for our guidebook, found it, and flipped through. The folded napkin, now crumpled, fell out. I picked it up and waved it at Alex. We were without a plan, and one had manifested itself in my hand — practically begging us to go, promising to deliver the kind of excitement we craved, the kind of uniting adventure we had headed to Mexico in search of.
2. We needed something, anything, to shake us out of our funk. We’d been living in California for a year or two when we decided we needed a break. The funny thing was that we’d gone to California in search of the same kind of fresh start: neutral territory to claim as our own, since the tiny college town we’d been living in felt like it was closing in around us, with all of our bad habits, exes, and their familiars harder and harder to evade. We drove south first, then west through the dry vastness of the deserts and canyons of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before heading north, toward San Francisco. We traced our journey on an oversized foldout map with a pink highlighter and scribbled big black circles over each city we slept in. We used triangles to mark the towns where we saw old friends or made new ones, and put big X’s over the swaths of highway where we were followed or stopped by the cops. This was the kind of thing we were good at: conspiring on silly, flash decisions that bordered on irresponsibility, our safety net consisting of little else than each other and a meager shared bank account.
More pictures from the series can be found on the collection’s (also free!) companion Tumblr.
Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter for the New York Times who would give anything (literally, anything) to see Blue Ivy IRL. She is also working on a recipe zine and a side project about selfies.
Illustrations by Molly Templeton.