In December 1972 I quit my job at Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly and flew to Argentina with my girlfriend. There we met up with 30 other travellers of all nationalities and stripes who had signed up for a trip with the adventure travel company, Encounter Overland.
With its fleet of orange-painted, blue-canvased three-ton Bedford ex-army trucks and trailers, the company had been driving the hippy trail to Afghanistan since the late 1960s. Now Latin America beckoned. At £500 a head for a five-month itinerary that would take us from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, we were the guinea pigs.
In the event, my journey lasted nearly a year. Encounter Overland had miscalculated and by the time we got to Lima, three months into the trip, they realised they were going to have to drive 18 hours a day to make their deadline. My girlfriend and I jumped ship and continued on our own, eventually flying home from Toronto the following September.
It was a momentous year in more ways than I can describe. I was 23 and very unsure of what I wanted to do. I had a law degree but no interest in continuing with the law, I’d allowed myself to be shoehorned into articles with an accountancy firm which had lasted only a few months, and I’d tried bookselling which had just left me feeling restless. I’d had a couple of short stories published and had the vague notion that I wanted to write full length fiction, but not the faintest idea about what. So when, to my father’s dismay, my mother sent me an advertisement for the trip, I jumped at it. What I didn’t know, of course, was that on a journey like this one tends not so much to find answers as more questions. When I got back to the UK I was still none the wiser, but I was profoundly altered and the experiences are with me vividly 40 years later.
Apart from some articles published shortly after I returned, I’ve tried writing about it twice since. In both cases I’ve fictionalised the Latin American experience; and while I don’t know what will eventually happen with The Artefact, in the first instance the trip provided the backdrop for the one novel I’ve written which remains unpublished. And this, Dear Readers, is what I believe lies at the heart of the dilemma and my request for help – to which you responded so generously, almost overwhelmingly.
Some of your thoughts came as comments to the blog, others as emails or phone calls – and I’m deeply grateful for them all. Roughly a third of you said Carry on, for reasons ranging from ‘An unfinished story is a pitiful thing’ to ‘We’re desperate to know what happens’ to ‘At least give it one more try’. The other two-thirds said the more difficult thing: ‘Look within’. Well, I did – with the help of a patient wife, a long frosty walk and, among many splendid and considered pieces of advice, the words of Gillian Clelland who wrote: ‘Yer heart doesny always get it right, neither does yer head, I find yer tummy always tells ye whit tae dae. Listen tae yer tummy. You will feel what is right for you…’
I consulted the entrails, Dear Readers – my own – and divined that I need to revisit the journey more fully, more personally; that it would be valuable to understand more deeply the many ways in which that year shaped me, and that to fictionalise it is to trivialise it when it has quite clearly been knocking at my door, demanding my serious attention, for some time. Put simply, I need to connect with the emotion of the experience, rather than holding it at one remove.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t at some stage return to The Artefact. ‘It will wait if it’s really right,’ counselled Faye Sharpe, ‘artefacts do, believe me, I’m an archaeologist, remember?’ But it does mean that for the time being I have another writing job to do which may, as Neil Baker suggested, turn out to be something closer to memoir; though at this stage I’m reluctant to give it form. Meanwhile, my heartfelt thanks once more to all of you who responded to my plea. I’m flattered that there are that many of you who are even interested in my ruminations.
And now I shall obey Andy Milligan, who wrote: ‘… enough of this self-reflection, man. Away with you and start writing!’
As a remarkable postscript to this, I have just Googled Encounter Overland to check some facts, and discovered that on YouTube there are three 10-minute episodes of a film made during our trip by the cameraman Peter Sinclair who travelled with us. I had completely forgotten about it and am not even sure whether I saw it at the time. I’ve just spent an utterly surreal half-hour watching my younger self and others pushing a three-ton truck out of axle-deep mud on the Bolivian altiplano. See here.