TRAVEL LESSONS FROM WALTER MITTY
Updated: Sep 12
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I’ve spent the better part of the last fifteen months in Mexico, although that time is quickly coming to an end. I planned to move on the first week of August, but due to a shortage of the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine, I must return to the U.S. border the first week of September. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Brazil will have to wait another fortnight. This weekend is being spent inside, focusing on writing blog posts, and constructing my Kenya travel guide. A moderately powerfully hurricane is causing all day rain here in Mexico City, after wreaking havoc in other parts of the country. Sitting here today creating, I was pondering my favorite travel movies. There is a multitude to be considered. Possibly my favorite travel film of all time is the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. For the benefit of any readers not familiar with the tale, originally the Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a short story, published in 1939. It was written by James Thurber and portrays a mundane, meek man on a shopping trip to Connecticut with his wife. The main character, Walter Mitty, imagines a series of five heroic scenarios as he endeavors to pass the miserable shopping day. The last scene in the story depicts Mitty picturing himself as a soldier facing the firing squad and smoking a last request cigarette, as he leans against a wall in real time also smoking. The 2013 movie attempts to characterize a man living a banal, monotonous existence in present times as a “negative asset manager” at Life Magazine. Spoiler alert: Life magazine went out of business in 2000, not 2013. Lucky for us, travel plays a major role in the movie and the development of the character. Walter Mitty the 2013 version, spends his days toiling in what appears to be a basement, processing photos for the magazine with one other employee. The movie begins with Walter (played brilliantly by Ben Stiller) sitting in his monochrome, drab apartment at breakfast, reviewing his eHarmony account. It is made apparent he joined the dating site because a woman at work he has a crush on, Cheryl Melhoff, also recently joined the site. Walter is a timid, reserved 40-something who clearly lacks the confidence to approach her in person. He attempts to send a wink to Cheryl but the wink fails due to a technical error. Walter contacts eHarmony before leaving to catch the train for work. While standing on the train platform, speaking to the eHarmony love expert, Walter begins to daydream about jumping through a window of a burning building and saving Cheryl’s dog. He even advises her that he built a false mechanical leg for her dog while saving him. The day-dreaming causes enough of a distraction that Walter misses the train and he has to run to work. Upon arriving at the Life Magazine building, Walter discovers from his co-workers that the magazine has been sold and he is now subject to the new “managing director of the transition” Ted Hendricks. When Walter reaches his workspace, he finds that he received a package from one of the long time Life photographers, Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn. Sean sends him a leather wallet with the Life magazine motto engraved in the flap. He also encloses a kind note and we find out later a negative meant to be the cover of the final issue of Life tucked into one of the wallet’s slots. Upon examining the gift, Walter believes he has lost the afore mentioned negative, which Sean calls the true quintessence. After imagining that Sean is beckoning to him from a photograph to come search for the missing negative, Walter takes the giant step of booking a flight to Nuuk, Greenland. When Walter arrives in Nuuk, he enters a small bar which also has a helicopter pad for delivering mail to passing ships. He daydreams about Cheryl singing the song “Space Oddity”, then accepts a ride from a drunk helicopter pilot to a fishing vessel where Sean may be located. Upon arriving at the ship, Walter misunderstands the instructions from the pilot and jumps directly into the frigid waters (it’s not clear if it is the North Atlantic or the Arctic ocean) instead of a waiting dingy. He is immediately surrounded by sharks but is pulled to safety by the ship’s crew. Walter experiences the second big adventure of the movie and likely his life. While this is just a scene from a film, it is a fantastic example of taking the plunge to travel and the ascendant rewards which come from it. Walter makes friends with the fishing crew and they deposit him in Iceland, where Sean may be situated, due to his attempt to shoot a volcano. Walter sees Sean fly overhead standing on a biplane and attempts to follow him, not realizing the volcano is minutes from erupting. A kind hotel owner picks him up and they speed down the road, barely escaping the volcanic explosion and ash. Already, Walter has survived adventure number three. When this attempt to contact Sean fails, Walter heads back to New York, where his mother informs him that Sean visited. She helps him find Sean in Afghanistan; Walter undertakes a risky, tiresome journey through local chicken buses, Yemen, and Afghan warlords to come across Sean hiding on a mountain trying to get a photograph of a snow leopard, known as the ghost cat. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a simple but resplendent allegory in my opinion. The movie details the detachment between Walter’s comfortable, similar lifestyle against what he learns is his deep-rooted desire for adventure, exploration, and self-discovery. During his rendezvous with Sean in Afghanistan, Walter is informed where to find the negative. He returns home to discover his mother saved the wallet after he threw it away from frustration. He is able to take the negative to Ted Hendricks, who fired Walter earlier in the movie when the negative was believed lost. He dresses Ted down in front of his executive meeting, for his cold and disconnected treatment of the Life staff who are being laid off. Walter boldly tells Ted, “put that on a plaque and hang it at your next job.” This is meaningful because he is now able to stand up to Ted, who is really just a bully with no respect for the years of hard work by the magazine employees. The rapid personal growth Walter experiences in his quest for the negative facilitates a new confidence. I did not include every scene from the movie as it would make this blog post too unwieldy, but there are many life lessons to be learned about travel from this semi-comedy. The first is don’t fantasize, don’t dream, don’t hesitate; act! Walter summons the courage to take a flight to Greenland, which precipitates a lengthy, arduous journey of self-discovery. The second lesson is to be courageous. For me, that was leaving college when I was 21 to join the United States Marine Corps, against my parents wishes. Whether you have a Cheryl Melhoff you long for or lust after; whether you’re thinking about buying a ticket to a place remote and fantastic; or if you’re thinking about doing something crazy like getting in a helicopter with a drunk pilot; you only have to be brave for a few seconds to make it come true. A third lesson from the movie is to be present. When Sean and Walter talk in the Himalayas, while Sean patiently waits for the snow leopard, Sean tells Walter to live in the moment. It is good advice for everyone, even if you’re not at 18,000 feet.