Over summer vacation my kids were addicted to RIVER MONSTERS, the extreme fishing adventure series on Animal Planet. Jeremy Wade’s silky British accent was the soundtrack of our rental house. Mysterious fish were killing kayakers on the Amazon, spearfishermen disappearing in Malaysia. Wade spoke of the murderous creatures with awe, almost affection. When he got excited about a near-catch, he’d whisper yes-yes-yes-yes. Early mornings before the beach and evenings while we fired up the grill, there was Wade, with his white hair and weather-beaten face, like a distant uncle who’d dropped in on our family vacation.
Early one morning before the rest of the family was up, I sat on the couch with my 8- and 9-year-olds. “I’m in Argentina…. A 12-year-old girl was playing close to her village on one of the remote islands set in this huge river. She had entered the water countless times before, but this time it would be different. This time there was something waiting in the shallows.”
It’s easy to see why my boys were transfixed. The patterns of the rollout was irresistible. The thrill of the predatory unknown. The cliffhanger commercial breaks with a thrash and swoosh of bloodied water. And then finally the creatures themselves, all jaws and teeth, menacing and otherworldly as bulky-headed aliens.
It was especially potent for my 9yo, old enough not to be terrified, and young enough to see the expedition life as something entirely possible. Earlier in the summer he’d built himself a boat out of empty Poland Springs bottles and hockey tape. No matter that the Malaysian spearfish would slash it into BPA confetti. For propulsion, he would use a leaf blower. If he needed a turbo surge, he’d attach shaken-up cans of seltzer.
It was potent for me, too, but for different reasons — the cinematography, the exotic locales, the wide expanses of ocean and ice. The freedom to pursue curiosity across the planet. In the morning he’d take me to Greenland in a dogsled, and by dinnertime, a volcano in Iceland. Episode after episode was a parade of places I’d never been, but might have gone in a parallel life.
When I was in my mid-20s I worked at a glossy travel magazine. I had more journalistic assignments than I did exotic features, but there were some travel opportunities, and a few dicey adventures. After I left New York (married, baby), I stayed on as a contributing editor and would occasionally give television sound bites about travel issues in the news. Which is how I found myself as a mother of a toddler with the unlikeliest opportunity: The magazine was going to partner with a travel documentary series, and the editor asked if I would go on location regularly to narrate the story behind the stories.
Looking back now it seems like a fever dream. The details weren’t fully fleshed out, but it would entail being on location somewhere for about a week each month. I don’t remember figuring out how this would make sense with a one-year-old, though my husband says we did. Shortly after I said I’d do it, I found out I was pregnant with our second child, and the fever broke.
Travel is simpler these days. Weddings and family reunions, college tours and summers around New England. Airbnb.com is my late-night Netflix, where I curate wish lists of travel experiences in the future: A lighthouse with my husband. A converted silo with the kids. A treehouse, an airstream for a writing getaway. There’s a through-the-looking-glass quality to my life on AirBnB. Also, of a kid with her nose to the candy store window.
During a RIVER MONSTERS commercial break my son said, “I’m going to do this. This is going to be my job. ” And why not? He likes nature documentaries, loves fishing. I Googled Jeremy Wade’s background. He studied zoology. He’d been a teacher. “You could totally do this,” I agreed. Clicking around a bit more, I found out the episode we were watching was actually the final one of the entire series. After nine seasons, it had just gone off the air. Goodbye Wade, goodbye zodiacs flitting among the ice floes.
My son was disappointed, and I was, too. The plot unfurled with intelligent suspense, a puzzle wrapped in an expedition. Wade spoke to his viewers like colleagues, partners in his discovery. He met the local people and experienced their cultures, and invited the viewer in along the way. In the end, it was more about the journey than the big reveal.
My son wanted to know if Wade was going to do another series. Most of the interviews I found were vague, but in one, he expressed curiosity about distant cultures and the more psychological aspect of travel — the passage of time, nature, and aging. I envisioned something like Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder as reimagined by the Discovery Channel. Yes, this guy had his compass set to my kind of shores. Oh, yes yes yes.
But my son, he was lost at psychological. All he heard was blah blah blah, no monsters. “Oh well,” he said, and set his compass for the kitchen.