My Favorite Notebook

What movie had the biggest impact on your life?

If you’d asked me yesterday I probably would have told you something like Poltergeist. I watched that movie with my dad when I was seven and hardly slept again until I could legally drink. The last four places I’ve lived were completely without bedroom closets, and I’d be lying if I said there was no connection.

Or perhaps I’d have pointed to Man of the House with Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. After watching that I spent the next ten years trying to pull off Jonathan Taylor Thomas’s cool-guy attitude and his haircut.

But the truth — which I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this — is that the movie which has had the most powerful impact on my life is one that I hardly remember anymore.

I was ten the first time I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and now, nearly two decades later I recall just two things: The fight scene where Indie throws a man out of a zeppelin and tells onlookers it was because the guy had “No ticket”, and the grail diary. Dr. Henry Jones senior’s Grail Diary was a battered leather-bound book in which he’d recorded every clue gleaned from his lifelong quest to find the Holy Grail. Its pages were filled with notes and sketches from a hundred different adventures in places all around the world.

What is it about the leather-bound notebook that’s so powerfully linked to the life of the traveler? Even now when I see one on the shelf at a book store I’m transported to places yet unseen. Gypsied away to the heat and chatter of a bustling Turkish market square, or to an Amazonian lodge when the rains are about to come and electricity is in the air. Not unlike real books, notebooks have a special power all their own. From the moment I saw that book I wanted one of my own. Perhaps more importantly, I wanted to lead the kind of life that could fill those pages.

I must have talked about it endlessly because on the morning of my eleventh birthday I unwrapped a beautiful leather-bound sketchbook.

“Dear Ethan,” a note on the very first page read, “Thought you could use a place to record all your adventures! Love, Mom & Dad”.

That simple gift changed the direction of my life forever.

It’s not easy to lead a life of adventure. Going places means you have to leave other places behind, and when those other places are filled with the people you already know and love it’s hard to make the move. It’s much easier on the heart (and the wallet) to simply dream of faraway places.

But when someone hands you an empty notebook, they are in a way telling you “go”. They’re telling you to get out of your head and into the world. They’re telling you it’s okay to leave them, so long as you bring back a story from out there. And once you have an empty notebook, you can’t very well leave it empty. An empty notebook is a constant reminder of all that you haven’t done.

Your life changes when you have an adventure journal to fill, even if you’re just a kid — especially if you’re just a kid. At least a couple of times a day you find yourself pausing to think about whatever it is you’re doing, wondering does this count as an adventure? Can this go in the book? I began looking for adventure everywhere, if only to have something to write down.

And of course the secret, that only eleven-year-olds with empty adventure notebooks and even emptier bank accounts learn, is that adventure can be found anywhere. Even the most remote jungles are home to someone. Far-off mountains lie in someone else’s backyard, and somewhere there’s a little kid who’s bored of seeing that same Turkish market square every day. They dream of a far-away place that looks just like your backyard. And so it’s not the setting, but the mindset that makes for an adventure.

Those early experiences, scrounging for excitement in the bushes around my house, shaped me as a traveler. But I don’t think it’s necessary to start young. Just that you should have an empty notebook.

And if you’re in the market for a notebook of your own, you could hardly do better in my opinion than the Canson 180 artbook. I won’t pretend to be an expert on paper. I don’t know what acid-free really means. But there’s one thing I do understand and that’s writing in awkward places. In the years since my eleventh birthday I’ve been lucky enough to scrawl notes while holed up on the floor of a frozen mountain shelter while snow piled up outside, and in the back of a truck in the jungle. I’ve made do with the desks in a hundred hotels and motels, and with the balcony of the Queen Mary II as she made her way from New York to England. I’ve written by firelight, and head-light, in the rain, and after not seeing rain for a month.

Write in enough places and you begin to appreciate the little things. The Canson 180 is the first notebook I’ve ever found that will not only open but lie perfectly flat on every single page. There’s no awkward grappling with the binding or paper in order to keep it open. Simply lay it down, and put pen to paper. They accomplish this using a unique technology called a “coptic” binding and it’s truly remarkable. I’ve been carrying one every day since September of 2015, when I left for a month on the Appalachian Trail. That notebook lasted more than six months before I finally filled it, and went with me everywhere from the southern states to posh English country estates, rural France, Mexico, and many places in between.

After so long on the road, as you can imagine, the notebook had seen better days. The people at canson were nice enough to send me a brand new one so that I could photograph it. But lest you think this is just a product plug, you should know this — I was in France when my first notebook ran out. The replacement they sent me was six-thousand miles away in my home in the US. Rather than waiting a week to pick it up when I was home, I walked to the nearest art shop and spent $25 to replace it then and there. All told I’ve spent well over a hundred dollars on these notebooks, and plan to continue spending that money for as long as they continue to work, which based on my experience so far seems to be forever.

On Life’s Big Fucking Hills

Adventure starts at the place where your plans end. Sometimes, you set out with the goal of having an adventure, and so you purposefully avoid planning. Nothing more than a blank spot on the calendar, a sacked lunch, and an inkling to wander in one direction or another. Other times you’re thrust into adventure when you take a wrong turn, or the power goes out, or any of a thousand other things happen that shake you from the fragile web of your own carefully laid plans. This is more commonly known as misadventure.

Of the two, I tend to find the latter more enjoyable.

For nearly six months I had been traveling in Europe, doing work-trades in exchange for hot meals and a roof over my head. It wasn’t a bad way to live. Staying with local families felt authentic, and I’d lucked into some pretty posh digs. One house had two kitchens, and bedrooms overlooking the sea. Another had a walled garden with its own heated indoor pool. I was living like a millionaire without spending a dime.

Then, suddenly, the work dried up. As my stay at a house in the french countryside neared its end, I’d reached out to nearly a dozen other potential hosts. None returned my message. I widened my search, but still came up dry. The master plan which had kept me housed and fed for nearly half a year on foreign soil, suddenly fizzled and died. I was thousands of miles from home, in a country where I didn’t speak the language, with no intention of going backwards, and no clear route forwards. After nearly six months, I was finally on an adventure.

It’s always a little nerve-racking when you suddenly find yourself at the beginning of an unexpected adventure. Even if you’re used to living near the edge. Civilized life has a way of dulling the senses, and lulling us into softness. Your first thought is always Where will I go? What will I do?

But as the time for departure draws near, that old long-toothed dog comes back out and reminds you that it doesn’t really matter. You’ve fended for yourself before, and you can do it again. This ability to stare off into the abyss, into a world without shelter, or cars, or microwave dinners, and to be comfortable in the knowledge that you can keep yourself alive there is the biggest advantage of the venturing life. It primes you for hardship; Inoculates you against fear of going without. When you know in your soul that no matter what you can simply start walking, the world seems brighter, and filled with more opportunities. All of your resources become magnified. Little things become big advantages.

My advantage in France came in the form of an eight-speed Raceway Venise, sky-blue with a cargo rack on the back and a mirror on the left handlebar. It was one of a half-dozen beaten up old bikes that lay rusted and cobwebbed in my host’s garage, and she’d offered it to me for my travels.

I didn’t want the Raceway. I’d wanted the Giant, a black ten-speed I’d pulled out and fixed up while she was away. But she insisted that her granddaughter was coming to retrieve the Giant any day now, and wheeled the Raceway out into the sun for me to inspect instead.

“That’s a girl’s bike,” I said.
“No it’s not” she said.
“Yes it it,” I said, “That’s a girl’s bike. You can tell because of the shape of the frame.”
“Pfff,” she said, “There’s no such thing anymore.”
I looked at her incredulously.
“European men don’t care” she said.
“Oh, we know all about European men in America,” I said, “with their pointy shoes and their scarves.”
She didn’t laugh. I sought a different tactic.
“It’s just that I don’t think it’s really made for adventures. Look,” I said pointing to the words printed on the frame just below the brand name, “It says right here it’s literally from the comfort ville series.”
“It’s sturdy,” she said, bouncing it on its flat tires.
It was clear, it was either the Raceway, or the walkway. I sighed.
“I’ll take it.”
“Bon courage,” she said, “Bon chance.”

The chain and gears were orange with rust, and the walls of the tires were cracked from age. But the tubes held air, and before long I was pedaling off, cargo rack loaded down with everything I owned, and the front basket filled with a tent and my scarf. I looked very European.

I was headed for Dol, a nearby town where I’d finagled a few nights’ stay in a trailer park. Trailer park really gives the wrong impression, for Dol is everything you could want in a rural French town. It has cobbled streets and artisanal bakers that turn out warm baguette twice a day. It has bars that open at eight in the morning and sell tiny cups of coffee alongside hand-rolled cigarettes and Coca-Cola in glass bottles. It’s a place that bustles with business and tourism, but isn’t too busy for the shops to close for a few hours at lunch, or for people to take Mondays off.

The ride was hard, but hard work is always made easier when it’s paired with a sense of adventure. I didn’t have a map, but I’d once seen a sign in a nearby village pointing toward a place called Dol de Britagne, which I assumed was the same Dol. I also assumed that by following one sign I’d surely see more.

I was right, for the most part. Though I did climb one enormous fucking hill, only to find that the signs had disappeared. A game of charades with a local woman was enough to convince me I had to go back down to continue on the right path.

There is a line that pops into my mind whenever I find myself in a situation like that. A half-forgotten text from a girl I knew who, despite having a stable job, and a graduate degree, is probably more of an adventurer than I am. “You can’t always have a plan, and sometimes you need to be okay with that.” It’s always haunted me. Partly because I’m a planner by nature and I find it difficult to put the pencil down, and partly because I think I loved that girl, and I wonder if my need for plans is part of what drove us apart. Either way, these days, when I find myself uncomfortable at the volatility of my situation, I just remember those words, and continue on. I’m usually surprised by how well not planning works out.

Once I was back on track, the rest of the ride was comparatively smooth sailing. I peddled past corn fields and cow pastures, and through little villages where kids still play in the streets, and say bonjour monsieur when you go by, which is weird because I still think of myself as one of the kids in the street, rather than a monsieur.

I peddled into the afternoon sun, rolling along the cobblestones into Dol with a little time left before the bakers, and the tabac, and the creppiere closed down. So now I’m sitting here in the front of a bar, with the last of the day’s bread, a half-empty coke, and a cigarette I can’t light. And I’m just thinking about how some times in life we go up gigantic fucking hills that end up being detours. They don’t seem to move us any closer to our goals, but in the end they make the other hills seem small by comparison, and maybe that’s enough.

On Small Deaths and the Need for Adventure

Why do we go away? This is the question that every adventurer wrestles with at one point or another. Why can’t we be happy with a settled life, a quiet town, a loving partner, a stable job? What pushes us out the door again and again, away from home and into the punishing reality of a life “out there”? Makes us draw taught the sails, and point the bow towards the irresistible siren song of a distant horizon? What are we hoping to find?

For me the answer, in a word, is clarity.

Clarity of mind, and of purpose. For I am never so clear as in those days just before the beginning of some new and uncertain enterprise.

There is a certain noise to civilized life — a clashing and clanging of the grand machine; of politics, and bills, and appointments, and grocery lists, a ruckus of obligation which grows louder with time. Death alone brings escape from the noise.

Each big adventure is like a very small death. Unlike a vacation, an adventure is filled with risk and contains within it at least a small possibility that you may never return. It’s this possibility that allows you to step outside the life you’re currently building, and examine it as though you were about to leave it behind forever. As a trip draws near, the volume on life’s noise goes down each day until soon you’re left with the pleasant hum of nothing but the essentials; the stuff you really care about, the people you want to spend time with, the things you want to say to them.

And then you go out to the edges of the map, the places unknown. There you live a different sort of life. It’s difficult, but not in the same way as life back home. You eat less, and sleep less. You’re colder than you want to be, hotter than you think you can bear. You come face to face with your own smallness, and realize that the world truly doesn’t care whether you live or die. And somehow, in the face of that, your own will to live is rekindled and fanned.

The world you left behind no longer seems chaotic and full of noise, but colorful and set to music. Life, you realize, is full of possibilities. It’s there for the taking, and there are no rules except that you must be willing to reap whatever it is that you sow. Your eyes turn once more towards civilized life and the sweet promises of building a place for yourself, falling in love, shredding endless piles of junk mail, and watching TV talent shows.

And so in this way adventure is partly about escaping civilized life so that you can learn to love it once again. It is the winter that strips away all the excess, so that spring can usher in a new bloom. We go, not just because adventure is out there. We go so that we can come back.

Editing Your Life with Graham Hill


Graham Hill speaks in the slow, confident tone of someone who works too hard to be enamored by their own success. He doesn’t say much. But when he does talk, he mentions amazing feats, like his time on the Plastiki – a catamaran made from recycled water bottles which sailed across the Pacific – with such passing simplicity that you might think he was merely recounting an interesting article he’d glanced over, rather than a once in a lifetime adventure he’d undertaken. He is, in short, a very nice guy who does very cool stuff. His newest project, LifeEdited, is no different.

“So the basic concept behind LifeEdited,” he said, Continue reading Editing Your Life with Graham Hill