Peggy Orenstein is familiar to most readers thanks to her best-selling book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape as well as her TED Talks about bridging the generation gap. In August, when she appeared in San Francisco at AFAR Travel Tales, a special event series with The Moth, she shared a story about a different type of navigation. Orenstein recounted a trip she took following the Kumando Kodo network of pilgrimage trails in Japan. There, she forced herself to unplug and reconnect with nature, while also gaining insights into the lives of women in Japan.
After the event we sat down to learn about how she approaches her craft and where she is headed next.
When did you first realize you loved to travel?
When I was 13, my parents let me go with two other girls to Winnipeg to visit friends. It was beyond exciting. We went to Manisphere, which was kind of like a state fair, and got sick on the Zipper ride; we saw the movie Phantom of the Paradise—twice—because people in Winnipeg are inexplicably obsessed with Paul Williams (Google it, it’s a thing); we gorged on local delicacies (that is: Coffee Crisp candy bars). And at night we passed around Jaqueline Suzanne novels—the era’s version of 50 Shades of Gray—and read the steamy parts out loud. O, Canada! I was hooked.
How did you become a travel writer?
Travel has actually not been my main focus as a writer, but I write a lot about my life in general and since I love to travel, it has become part of that. It lets me exercise a different part of my writer’s brain, since a lot of my work is heavy, deeply reported, issue-based writing. The connection, though, is that I think everyone’s life can tell a larger story about who we are as human beings at this moment in history. Travel writing tells that story through a combination of external place and inner journey.
Who are some writers whose work you admire?
Oh I don’t know. So many that none spring right to mind. But I do tend to like writers, both fiction and nonfiction, who have a direct style, who don’t need to call huge attention to their writing in order to have it land strongly. So, for instance, the last novel I read was Stephan Macauley’s My Ex-Life (which is partly about a woman who rents rooms in her home via Airbnb). His writing is all at once deceptively simple, immensely entertaining, and heartrendingly deep.
Do you have a travel philosophy?
I’m pretty non-stop when I travel. My husband and daughter would tell you that I have a tendency to want to do everything and be moving every single minute. Because I fret: what if I never get to come back? And what if I don’t do the one thing that would be the best experience ever? That’s probably not great, to be honest. I appreciate that they force me to slow down. However, I’m still holding a grudge against certain people for refusing to leave the pool and visit every single tailor shop in Hoi An, Vietnam just because it was 110 degrees and 100 percent humidity.
You normally work with the written word. Was the experience of telling a story for The Moth challenging?
So challenging! Terrifying! Writers are temperamentally people who like to sit alone in a room and send our missives out to the world. It is a totally different skill and, honestly, a totally different impulse to stand up in front of an audience and perform a piece, let alone have to perform it from memory. My legs shook the entire time I was doing it. And… it was exhilarating.
Where was your most recent trip? Where are you headed next?
I just came home from four days of horse camping in the Grand Tetons with my teenage daughter, which was spectacular on every level (and which I am writing about for AFAR). My Kindle still smells like a campfire! Coming up, I’m planning to go to a friend’s house in Tahoe for a few weeks this fall to try to finish a book. And hopefully to Japan for a couple of weeks in the winter or spring.
Do you have a favorite destination?
The places I return to over and over are Tokyo, Honolulu, and London. I dream of living in one of them some day: Honolulu being probably the most realistic possibility. I’m really a Pacific Rim kind of girl. I also carry a deep, deep love for Madeline Island in the Apostle Island chain in Lake Superior in Wisconsin. I spent at least part of every summer there well into my twenties. Friends of my parents had a dilapidated, Victorian inn with cabins on the water, and I have such warm memories of fish fries on the beach, bicycle rides to the library, rainy days with endless games of hearts, reading books of plays out loud with my brothers, and watching my parents and their friends—most of whom are gone now—socialize at sunset. There was no TV or movie theaters or other modern conveniences (there was barely electricity and most of the cabins were infested with bats). I tried taking my California-born husband up there once but he didn’t get why you’d voluntarily go to a place with mosquitos, black flies, horse flies, deer flies and 50-degree water temperatures. Wimp.
Besides your article on the Grand Tetons for AFAR, what else are you working on?
I am currently writing a companion book to Girls & Sex that will, unsurprisingly, be called Boys & Sex.
Do you have a favorite memory at a Marriott hotel?
Sure. Nearly 20 years ago, my husband, who is a documentary filmmaker, was nominated for an Emmy for a film he’d made for HBO—the ceremony was at the Marriott Marquis in New York. I wore a floor-length, form-fitting burgundy dress (which unbeknownst to me became transparent when photographed with a flash, but that’s another story) and sparkly silver Barbie-heel sandals. He didn’t get the award but that was ok—he already had an Oscar and a Peabody and he would win a Prime Time Emmy a few years later. We had a great time celebrating anyway at the View, the hotel’s revolving rooftop bar, sipping cocktails with a bunch of filmmaker friends and watching the changing array of city lights below.
Listen to more first-person accounts of life-changing travel experiences in a travel podcast series by The Moth at afar.com/traveltales.
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