Go ahead, dive into the world that is Brad Newsham.
It’s a very big-hearted world. And the story that makes up Take Me With You is just one corner of his travel-writing, cab-driving, make-the-world-a-better place life.
I’m just going to leave the URL here: https://www.bradnewsham.com/
I read Brad’s first book, All The Right Places, years ago. Then his third book, Free Ride, and now I’ve caught up with his middle entry, Take Me With You, which features one of the most unusual travel concepts you’ll ever run across and which generated tremendous national publicity when it was first published (finally published!) way back in 2000.
Spoiler alert: Even though 21 years have passed, the insights about humanity and all the ways we live on this planet are as fresh as morning milk on a dairy farm. It’s a very satisfying read in 2021.
A full review follows this thoughtful and very funny Q & A with Brad, mostly about Take Me With You, a bit about Free Ride (Brad has a tremendous offer far below for those who might be curious) and a little bit about the late Gary Reilly, too.
Question: You clearly have a talent for wandering, which seems like an art all by itself. How did you acquire the skill?
Brad Newsham: One afternoon when I was still just four years old, I was home with my mother. This was in 1956 in northern Virginia. World War II was still almost visible in the rearview. The populace of Washington, D.C., was starting to spill out into the countryside, and my family had just moved into a new house. The paved road ended right at our driveway, and immediately beyond our house was a stretch of pine woods, one mile by one mile, dark and mysterious.
My older sister was at school. My younger brother wasn’t even two yet and he just napped all day. I asked Mom if I could go walking in the woods. I expected she would say, “Maybe when you’re a little older,” but she said, “If you’re sure you can find your way back.”
It was a fall day, low dark clouds. The woods were silent, and empty, and I remember all my senses being on total alert – for what felt like the very first time. I’d take one step, stop, listen for a while… Take another step, stop, listen for a while… Each tree seemed like a presence – immobile, thoughtful, sizing me up. By the time I’d gone ten steps everything else in my life – our new house, my parents, my sister and brother – it had all vanished. Exhilarating. And so terrifying that before long I pooped my pants. I tried staving it off, but when I knew it was inevitable I just stood there in the woods wide-eyed and filled my underwear. It was a slow, awkward, embarrassed walk home. When I was a little older I realized I was never more than seventy-five yards from the house, but I was four years old, and walking those seventy-five yards seemed to take a lifetime. When I got home I told Mom what had happened, and she said, “Well, go into the bathroom and clean yourself off.” And I did.
I believe all my wandering somehow fell directly out of that afternoon. In my teens I hitchhiked long-distance in the US. Then went to Europe. At twenty-two I spent a month in Morocco and a month in Afghanistan. Next I lived in a cabin at 8,500 feet in the Colorado Rockies and worked in a molybdenum mine for a year and a half. Then built a log cabin in the backwoods of Idaho. Then India. Trekking in Nepal. The Trans-Siberian Railroad. Africa on the cheap. At thirty-eight I spent a year living in Mexico and writing Take Me With You. It seemed natural to do all that when I was younger – to me, it almost seemed like a requirement. By the time I was forty, that period of my life felt – I don’t want to say over, because I do still go places now and then – but I can say it felt complete. I turned seventy last month, and even if I never go anywhere else again, I had my fair share of travel.
Question: Was cab driving sort of a substitute for travel for you?
Brad Newsham: Bingo! There are so many common elements – especially in San Francisco. World-class scenery all day long. Foreign tourists speaking foreign languages every day. You never know what’s going to happen next. And whether you’re traveling or working a cab shift, your ultimate goal is the same – to come home alive. I loved traveling. I loved cab driving.
Question: Do you have any nuggets of wisdom for younger travelers?
Brad Newsham: Not really. I think we mostly learn our lessons on our own. A compatible travel partner is a tremendous thing, but after I started traveling alone I learned more about the people and the places I was seeing – and more about myself. I came to really like traveling alone.
Question: How did you structure your itinerary for Take Me With You?
Brad Newsham: I wanted to have real conversations with my visitor, and wanted him to be able to talk with people in the States – this seemed crucial, better for everyone. So I filled my itinerary with places where English was widely spoken: the Philippines, plus several countries from the old British Commonwealth. India, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa. But I don’t like to over-plan things. I like to build a skeleton of a trip, but not flesh it out too much. Get myself underway and let serendipity take over. On my first flight, San Francisco to the Philippines, someone several rows ahead of me was reading a Lonely Planet guide, and when he put it aside I asked to borrow it. Other than chatting with a few friends who’d been there, that was my research on the Philippines.
Question: The paperback version of Take Me With You includes a brief but epic account of your adventures with the individual you ultimately invited to join you in the United States.
Brad Newsham: Thank you for keeping the surprise, Mark. The reader “meets” people in each country along the way, but it’s not until the end that you learn which of them comes to the States. Ever since Afghanistan I had fantasized about inviting a foreign stranger to visit my country, and by the end of my new friend’s visit, as I watched him disappear into the terminal, I had spent twenty-seven years nurturing that notion into a reality. And that whole month exceeded almost all of my dreams.
Question: What would you do differently in approaching the Take Me With You concept if you were to do it again?
Brad Newsham: If I may say, I still find the concept brilliant, hypnotizing – it certainly hypnotized me. My whole life I had hoped for something magical to drop into my lap. Why not drop something magical into someone else’s lap? The longer I hung out with the idea, the more obvious it seemed. “Do unto others…” The Golden Rule. Why not put it into action?
I could not be prouder of the whole thing. Including the book. I have read tons of travel literature, and in my own humble opinion I think it’s as good as anything I’ve read. I read it again last year, and it shocked me that all of that had happened in my life! Things like that happen in other people’s lives, people who actually know what they’re doing. Not in mine! But when my friend and I were driving our taxicab from the Golden Gate Bridge to New York City, and my phone was ringing with calls from NPR and NBC and CBS and the Christian Science Monitor and the San Francisco Chronicle and a long list of others, including my friend’s ambassador inviting us to a special reception in our honor at the embassy in Washington, well… I about pooped my pants.
Question: Did you two get along?
Brad Newsham: He was a great sport and we became great friends, but I do wonder how it was for him to co-star in a fantasy dreamed up by someone else – by me, in his case. He was pretty much in a state of overwhelm the whole time he was here, and then on the day he arrived back home his country’s biggest newspaper ran a front-page story about our month together. Even though I’d dreamed the whole thing up, it was still a lot for me to handle, and it had to be even trickier for him. But I thought he did great. Beyond great.
Question: Later you wrote an article for Afar that was quite blunt about how that relationship soured or, at least, led to challenging conversations.
Brad Newsham: The aftermath of a fantasy… Now what! I think my friend and I had different ideas about what my invitation and his trip meant – or should mean – as our lives rolled forward. I’d fantasized that everyone involved would just naturally live happily-ever-after, me included, but that hasn’t happened. It nearly cured me of believing in happy endings. These days I settle for happy moments. And in fact there’s been no ending. The trip still rolls along, an enormous unstoppable iceberg floating in and out of both of our lives. During the month he was here we climbed to its tip – total thrill – but icebergs are mostly hidden underwater. It’s hard for me to talk about, really. Someone else could probably do a better job articulating all of this. I would like to see someone else write about it someday.
Question: As a sort of cautionary/inspirational tale, could you recap the long road to publication for Take Me With You? And some of the highlights promoting it when it came out?
Brad Newsham: I could go on for hours about this – I could write another book!
For twelve years the publishing industry told me, “Buzz off, kid! We can’t make any money off these stupid travel books. Quit bugging us.” If I could roll things back I would have believed in the project more, in the manuscript, believed in myself more. I’d have gone in there and said, “You shitheads! You sit up here in these tall towers in the middle of Manhattan and you have no clue how much ‘all the little people’ down there want to believe that their ‘little lives’ actually count. They want to read about human kindness and human connection and they want to know that there is a chance for miracles to happen in their own lives…” – I mean, come on, who doesn’t know all that? – “Instead you keep pushing celebrity memoirs and political trash talk and car-chase-shoot-em-ups and psycho-murder-thrillers down the public’s throat! How the hell do you sleep at night?” I learned that people in publishing houses don’t necessarily know jack. They just run the industry, and the industry’s function is to make money.
Recently I had dinner with the head of sales for one of the publishing behemoths. He’s long retired, but from the start he’d been a big fan of my manuscript, and even he couldn’t get it past the accountants. And now I asked him, “What would they have said if my agent had gone in and said, ‘We guarantee it’s going to be on All Things Considered – three times. Live nationwide on CBS for six or seven minutes. The front pages of newspapers, in magazines, on every travel website.’ What would they have said to that?”
And this guy said, “They’d be reaching for their checkbooks and saying How much?”
God, look at me! I’m almost trembling. Two decades have passed, and look what this always does to me.
Comment: But I know there were some highlights.
Brad Newsham: While my friend and I were driving down an L.A. freeway, we got a call from the BBC wondering if perhaps we could take a few minutes out of our busy schedule to chat up their global audience? And we pulled over to the side of the freeway and did just that. When the agent/editor/publisher/bookstore/library industrial complex throws some weight behind you, it is breathtaking. Mind-bending, ego-inflating. Good thing I’m married. My wife and daughter keep me plenty grounded. I’m nobody’s media darling at home.
But maybe the most powerful moment in the whole process happened ten years later, long after all the media disappeared. In my taxi one morning, a flight attendant and I were talking about travel, and the subject of India came up, and she – we hadn’t even touched the subject of writing yet – and she said, “The best book I ever read was by a guy named Brad Newsham.” I felt like I’d been hit in the back of the head with a two-by-four. And she looked pretty shocked herself, realizing that I’d been driving her cab for the last few minutes. Blew us both away.
Comment: You wrote about that in Free Ride.
Brad Newsham: That little vignette – I think readers have cited it, more than any other, as their favorite.
Question: Let’s come back to Free Ride later. In Darjeeling, you wrote: “In more grandiose moments I had viewed my trip as a glimmer of hope in a grim world: If I couldn’t fix all the world’s problems, or even my own, I could at least add some small joy or surprise or delight to someone else’s life.” No matter what happened, in the very end, mission accomplished?
Brad Newsham: My overall feeling: A grand slam walk-off home run to win Game Seven of the World Series. Bottom of the ninth. Three runs behind. Two outs. No balls and two strikes. I would really like to be that thoroughly engaged in something again before I die. I think.
Question: You’ve written that travel is good for everything, especially the soul: “The being needs travel—new sites, new people, new experience—the way the body needs food, touch, an occasional soak in a backwoods hot spring.” How do we go about keeping a little bit of that traveling mentality with us when we’re moving through our routine lives?
Brad Newsham: Being on the road was always the place where the miracle of existence seems the most easily accessible for me – especially when you’re in some place you’ve never been before. I know it’s a cliché now, but I just keep trying to take one conscious breath as often as possible and remind myself that each one is part of some awesome unknowable phenomenon.
Question: In South Africa, you wrote, “From afar it is tempting, even easy, to romanticize or trivialize a country’s problems. Surely, thinks the optimist, goodness will prevail. Over time, hearts will change, equitable systems will develop. Things will work out.” Has your optimism been challenged?
Brad Newsham: I think everyone’s optimism has been challenged. When I was young, circling the world with my backpack, it was unthinkable that in my lifetime, in 2021, we’d be on the brink of ecological collapse. At the same time, it’s a huge opportunity for transformation, for our species to mature and learn how to cooperate and play and dance with each other – how to survive! How to evolve!
Question: Do you wish you had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro?
Brad Newsham: By the time I got to Tanzania I had been on the road for ten or eleven weeks. A month earlier I’d been pretty sick in India. I looked up at Kilimanjaro, more than 20,000 feet high, and thought about the five or six brutal days needed to climb it, and it just wasn’t there for me. I remember being relieved.
Question: Do you read other travel writers? Have any favorite travel writers as role models?
Brad Newsham: Paul Theroux! When Theroux was twenty-five he told himself that if he was going to take this writing thing seriously, he would have to write a book a year – and for fifty-some years he’s done that! I’ve read just about every one of them. The man deserves a Nobel. My favorite is The Happy Isles of Oceania. Talk about an intrepid traveler – Paul Theroux would have climbed Kilimanjaro! I also read everything Pico Iyer writes. And Jeff Greenwald. And I’ve recently discovered Ryzard Kapuscinski – oh my!
But let me not forget Travelers’ Tales! Back in the 1990s, as international travel was exploding, this little upstart publishing house from San Francisco became, I thought, the gold standard in travel literature. And I was totally flattered when they read my Take Me With You manuscript and immediately said, “We want this!” 9/11 came along just two months after our cross-country cab ride and kind of punctured every balloon in sight, including Travelers’ Tales’ – and my own. But I love pulling those old Travelers’ Tales books off my shelf and getting lost in them.
Question: And, while we’ve got you, can you give us an update on the ever-expanding readership for Free Ride?
Brad Newsham: First let me say something mushy here. My friend’s visit happened twenty years ago – summer of 2001. Thank you for this unexpected chance to look back and reflect – and vent. Writing can be so lonely, not just for me, for all of us. For the past decade I’ve been watching you champion other people’s work, and I know how much every one of them appreciates it, appreciates being noticed. You’ve built quite a community here. And what you’ve done for Gary Reilly, the gift you’ve given that man – it’s like you’ve resurrected him. Doing good is supposed to be its own reward, but I can’t help hoping that all of this comes back to you in bushels. I can get mushier, but I think I’ll stop there.
Comment: Yeah, you better stop there. But, thank you! Let’s hear about Free Ride.
Brad Newsham: Back in 2006 I set out to write The Great American Taxicab Book. It wound up taking me a full decade, and by the time I finished, in 2016, I was sixty-four, and I could identify not a single part of me willing to expose my precious baby to the whims of the publishing industry. Twelve more years of rejection would have simply killed me. I think it’s my best book. It’s at least my current sweetheart. It’s full title is Free Ride: Mercy and Madness on the Streets of God’s Favorite City. Thank you for the over-the-top review you gave it a couple of years ago. Back in the beginning I told people that the book wasn’t for sale – my only goal was to have it read by “a thousand of my closest friends.” I used to wonder if I was just bluffing. But five years along, I have to believe I’m serious. Just yesterday I heard from satisfied Reader #446. The book is still not for sale, but for anyone who has made it all the way to the end of this interview, if you’d like to read it, I’d be honored to send you a copy. My email is email@example.com.
I think that’s it.
Thank you so much, Mark.
Take Me With You: A Round-the-World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home is two books in one. It’s a beautifully-written, warm-hearted journey from The Philippines to India and then down the east coast of Africa. Brad Newsham travels easy. On a budget. He’s affable, adaptable, amiable. He fills notebooks with colors, scenes, smells, food, and musings.
For those who read All The Right Places, Brad Newsham’s earlier adventure (Japan, China, and Russia) you know Newsham is in search of real people, new experiences, fresh encounters, and new ideas. Newsham wants to lose himself, as all good travelers like to do. And he reflects on the life and world he left behind. Newsham, a veteran San Francisco cab driver who also wrote the brilliant volume Free Ride, has a special affinity for his fellow hacks. Newsham plans 100 days and a daily budget of $25 for the journey that is told in Take Me With You. Trains and buses (and cheap cab rides, too) here we come.
But Take Me With You is also a search. Newsham has this idea to meet and invite one individual (someone who otherwise would never have the opportunity to travel) to visit the United States for one month—on his dime.
This seemingly simple notion has complications. In a rural train station in India, Newsham writes: “In my more grandiose moments I had viewed my trip as a glimmer of hope in a grim world: if I couldn’t fix all the world’s problems, or even my own, I could at least add some small joy or surprise or delight to someone else’s life,” he writes. “But the need I saw in the New Jaipalghuri station overwhelmed my vision, reduced my plan to a frivolity—a lotto. The aspirations of these people were far more immediate and practical than a trip to America. A five-rupee rickshaw fare, a masala dosa, a lumpy bedroll, thank you.”
Newsham is a pea-size pinball in a machine the size of, well, the planet. He bounces about with an easy stride, soaking in moments, relishing conversations, taking opportunities when they come—and fully aware that his process is the very definition of random.
“I like to think that every human life is significant, each equally valid. But I could see no rebuttal to the nagging suggestion that these desperate lives were, like my own, quite pointless. What on Earth was I doing in the new Jaipalghuri train station? And wasn’t it grossly unfair that I had a first-class ticket out, while these people were condemned to stay and rest up for another day dominated by the struggle for food? Surely they were human the same way that I was. Surely each of them had some niggling physical problem. Surely each hurt and felt and braced against life the same way that I and everyone I knew in America did. Maybe they had some Indian philosophy, some matrix of beliefs on immortality, afterlife, karma, luck, that allowed them to make sense of it all. But there was no way I could imbue the scene in front of me with higher meaning. In my own intellectual matrix, hunger trumps philosophy every time.”
This keen awareness of the underlying hubris, the appearance of white savior, the appearance of “playing God” adds another layer to the journey.
“So was this whole thing, as usual, all about me? Of course it was. Is a truly unselfish act an actual impossibility? Falling on a hand grenade in a crowded foxhole—now that, I thought, might be a genuine act of unselfishness. But maybe the unselfish act can be performed only on impulse. Maybe the act of considering or planning one—as I certainly had—automatically contaminates it.”
As he travels, Newsham reveals his plans to precious few. He slowly starts accumulating a list of candidates. Going into the book, you might assume that the selection happens mid-way through but (spoiler alert) all of Take Me With You is devoted to the search. (The paperback edition includes an epilogue about the chosen individual’s exhilarating trip to the United States; it certainly could have generated a full-book sequel. In other words, read the paperback! And Newsham recounted how the relationship later went south in a thoughtful piece he wrote for Afar.)
So Newsham isn’t merely traveling, he’s planning to change someone’s life or at least give them a peek at another way of life.
The nature of the project might weigh heavy on Newsham as he travels, but it doesn’t impact his ability recount the side-trips, the moments, the people—a Filipino mountain guide, an office worker in Zimbabwe, a donkey-riding teenager in Egypt, a shopkeeper on the slopes of Tanzania, a translator from Cairo. Take Me With You becomes a series of thoughtful portraits of everyday life. Newsham keeps an eye out for those with less (particularly in India) and how they stitch their lives together, make them work. And he regularly wonders about fate.
Here he is in the township of Tembisa, north of Johannesburg, with a guide from a local church (Ian):
“From afar it is tempting, even easy, to romanticize or trivialize a country’s problems. Surely, thinks the optimist, goodness will prevail. Over time, hearts will change, equitable systems will develop. Things will work out. But a quick dash of Tembisa will sober up the most bubbly optimist. Can hope exist, I wondered, in a place awash in trash, a place whose population keeps increasing exponentially? As we rolled through Tembisa’s depressing scenery, saying little to each other, I imagined Ian must be thinking a version of my own thought: Thank God I don’t live here.”
Sterling prose, an eye for detail that never grows tired, and a fascinating project with pure generosity at its heart, Take Me With You is terrific armchair travel. A big bonus: it will make you appreciate everything you’ve got.