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Author, historian, and Librarian of Congress Emeritus Daniel J. Boorstin once ruminated, “The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him.”
The members of Washington’s Travelers Circle are travelers of the first water, and there can be a Forrest Gump quality to their tales: Wherever something big was happening, one of them was there.
In 1997, when an airliner crashed due to thick smoke from massive forest fires in Indonesia, one member was on the first plane in the area to take off afterward. A firsthand account of the recent economic collapse of Zimbabwe conjures the sight of houses and shops set afire by Robert Mugabe’s troops. Another member, the owner of an aerospace company, clicks off a cell-phone call and announces, “Somebody deliberately crashed an airplane into our building.” And if the attack turns out to be an accident, well, newcomers should be warned that there is no fact-checking required to tell stories.
Mark Laxer, who founded the group more than nine years ago, welcomes patrons of K Street NW’s Mayur Kabab House with a few strums on the guitar and a greeting, “We’re having a storytelling meeting. Come join us!” (Laxer himself has been on a journey of one kind or another since he was a teenager. His book, Take Me for a Ride: Coming of Age in a Destructive Cult, details his seven years following “yuppie guru” Frederick “Rama” Lenz.)
Before the meeting, the two dozen members of this close-knit group—the Circle comes together the first Wednesday evening of every month, and about 500 people receive the group’s e-mails—write alternate lyrics to such campfire classics as “Kumbaya” and “El Condor Pasa” and kick off the meeting with a group sing. “Someone’s passport is lost, Kumbaya,” gets knowing laughs from the gathered trekkers. Such seemingly improbable announcements as “Jakarta is fun” and “I was supposed to go to Malawi tonight” ring true in this room.
This July evening, because of the heat
outside, Laxer chooses “cold” as the theme for stories. Members compare altitudes at which people they know suffered pulmonary edema—on Mount Everest, on Mount Whitney. Andrew Johnston, a geographer at the Smithsonian Institution, shares a lesson learned from a cold night in the Andes: “When a sleeping bag is rated zero degrees, it means it keeps you alive. Not warm.” Other, more prosaic, advice is also traded: how to get to an IKEA via Zip Car and Metro.
There are no competitions among the storytellers, no “who’s been in the most danger,” no “who’s eaten the worst food.” Just the fellowship of those who, as Laxer sings, would “rather quit [a] job and seek the grail.” Johnston sums up Travelers Circle: “a good excuse to sit around, eat good, cheap food, and tell some stories.” Kumbaya.