The World Over: A Profile of Rolf Potts

Frank Bures

Potts's first big story in this vein didn't have the romantic swagger of classic hard-bitten Hemingway, however. In "Storming The Beach," an essay published in Salon in 1999, Potts chronicled his attempt to infiltrate the set of the movie The Beach, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Richard, the protagonist of Alex Garland's brilliant 1997 novel of the same name. The only problem was that the movie was being filmed on Phi Phi Leh, an island off the coast of Thailand where, owing to DiCaprio's outrageous celebrity after the mega-success of Titanic, security on the set had reached "paramilitary proportions."

The story, far from being an account of a simple-minded stunt, was actually a fantastic narrative mixed with meditations on the "shadowlike ironies of travel culture," Walker Percy's "traveler's angst," and "the greater struggle for individuality in the information age." It was, in other words, a compelling blend of storytelling and reflection, a profound look at where Potts found himself, both in place and time. Not exactly the typical sweet-spot guide to luxury getaways that so many travel magazines plug on their covers.

Potts grew up in a sleepy neighborhood in Wichita, Kansas. His mother taught second grade, and his father taught both high school and college biology. Along with his older sister, he and his parents were hardly world travelers: Potts still remembers the first time he saw the Rocky Mountains—just a state away, in Colorado—at age six. And once, when he was fifteen, the family tagged along with his dad to a conference in Los Angeles where, for the first time, he saw the Pacific Ocean. That was the extent of young Rolf Potts's travelogue.

In 1989, he went off to school at Friends University in Wichita, then transferred to George Fox University, a private Quaker college near Portland, Oregon, where he earned a degree in writing and literature. After finishing his studies in 1993, Potts moved to Seattle, where he worked as a landscaper. When he had saved enough money, he and a friend headed south in an old VW bus for an eight-month road odyssey that he imagined would result in an epic tale worthy of the great American road books he'd come to love: Steinbeck's Travels With Charley in Search of America, William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, and, of course, Kerouac's On the Road.

Together, the would-be Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty spent most of 1994 driving around the country. In Houston, Texas, they rode shotgun with police through the city's Fifth Ward. In Brentwood, California, they weathered an earthquake. In Arizona, they hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on Super Bowl Sunday. In Massachusetts, they stayed at a monastery. And in Miami, Potts saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

When they finally ran out of money, Potts headed back to Kansas, got a part-time job, and spent most of 1995 off the road, at his desk, in a studio apartment trying to put together a book recounting his first road trip. It was called "Pilgrims in a Sliding World," after a line from a Robert Creeley poem.

After nearly a year of work, Potts started sending chapters out to agents and publishers. A few asked for more pages, but nothing after that. Finally, he showed the manuscript to his high school English teacher and mentor, the late John Fredin. "He reminded me that there was value in frustration," says Potts. "He told me that writing the manuscript was a good exercise, that it probably wouldn't work as a book, yet it was something I'd be glad I did."