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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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November 2009 Archives

"Gardner McKay is dead?'' My sister sounded as shocked as I had been when I found the actor's obit on Wikipedia.

"Not just dead,'' I said to her. ''Dead for a long time."

McKay had died in November 2001, aged 69, and my sister and I both felt bad that we hadn't somehow known it at the time: That's how important he'd been to us when we were growing up.

The reason was "Adventures in Paradise,'' a television show that ran between 1959 and 1962. Gardner McKay was its hero.

He played Adam Troy, captain of the Tiki, a two-masted white schooner that sailed the South Pacific, carrying cargo and passengers between the islands - a different island every week, and a different plot. It was the waterborne version of "Route 66,'' and it was part of the reason I became a traveler.

Like many teenaged girls, my sister had had a crush on the actor, one of the handsomest men on any screen, TV, or movie, then or now. I, perhaps predictably, had a crush on the schooner.

Last winter, I fell in love with the Tiki all over again - and with the whole idea of plying the South Seas, going wherever the wind would take you - because last winter I couldn't go anywhere at all.

I'd broken my foot on a trip to Cuba and was stuck in a cast for all of February and March, while sympathetic friends brought me groceries, and kind neighbors walked my dogs on icy days. Indoors, I moped.

To cheer me up, my best friend tracked down all available "Adventures in Paradise'' episodes on DVD - 65 episodes, each an hour long. I watched them all, and in the process reverted to being 14 years old again.

The series ran before educational TV, before the Travel Channel, before the Internet, and longer still before good travel websites.

Surprisingly, it taught: Each episode opened with a map of the South Pacific, then zeroed in on that week's island group. "So that's why I knew where Suva was!'' I thought, watching Episode Three.

That's also how I must have learned that Pago Pago is pronounced Pango Pango, that Papeete is the capital of Tahiti, and that the word "propinquity'' - a turning point in one episode - means ''nearness.'' Strange to remember that, since I cared so much more about "far.''

I'd wanted to run away to sea for years, inspired by a square-rigged ship model my father had made when he was a boy - a replica of the famous Flying Cloud, a clipper ship so fast that its record time around the Horn wasn't broken till 1989.

About two dozen episodes into my nostalgic TV marathon, I realized that while it was getting pretty late to run away to sea, I could at least write to the former star and thank him for the influence "Adventures in Paradise'' had had on my life.

But it was too late. Gardner McKay was already gone. If only I'd acted sooner, I thought, we might have had an interesting conversation. We could even have talked about the Flying Cloud: McKay's great-great-grandfather designed the original clipper.

With that heritage, McKay had grown up sailing off the coast of New England, a background that actually helped him get his TV role, a fan website said: The show's producers wanted a lead who could actually sail.

But his real adventures began only after "Adventures in Paradise'' went off the air.

McKay headed for the Amazon, spent a couple of years traveling in South America and then began building a professional future as a writer in three genres - playwright, novelist and journalist.

A rather successful future, at that: Gardner McKay won three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for playwriting; saw his plays produced all over the country; taught university-level writing classes at UCLA, the University of Alaska and the University of Hawaii; was a drama critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, wrote for the Honolulu Advertiser, had a regular weekly show on Hawaii Public Radio and was working on a memoir at the time of his death.

At different points, he also took a turn at sculpture, became a painter and was, before his TV fame, briefly known as an international photographer: He was a passenger on the French liner Ile de France when it rescued survivors of the 1956 sinking of the Andrea Doria; McKay's photographs of the event received world-wide play.

He also managed to live all over the world: Manhattan, Paris, Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Venezuela, the West Indies, Connecticut, California and finally Hawaii, where he died.

I passed all this on to my sister.

"He had a LIFE,'' she said thoughtfully.

Yes, I said, he certainly did. He'd reinvented himself at every step of the way.

Reinvention was hardly the word for what I was doing. I was regressing. Even rationing out the episodes, I couldn't make "Adventures in Paradise'' last all winter. My foot was still in its cast when I finished the last DVD, and I felt as stuck as I had been when I was 14.

Even my journal entries now sounded like a 14-year-old's. It was as if time hadn't passed. As if I hadn't grown up. As if I hadn't spent most of my adult life as a travel writer.

"I wish I could do that,'' I'd written sorrowfully one day, as the Tiki sailed off into the watery distance yet again.

The idiocy of that lament finally snapped me back to adulthood: "You KNOW how to do that,'' I told myself. "Just pick up the phone!''

And I did. I called a Minnesota-based volunteer organization, found out that they still ran a program in the South Pacific and signed up to work on Rarotonga this winter. I had to smile at that: Rarotonga was another place whose name I first heard on "Adventures in Paradise.''