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Planet Backpacker

Rick Coates - November 10th, 2008
Ever wonder what it is like to journey around the world? Planet Backpacker is a new release that chronicles the nearly five-month journey Bob Downes took last year at this time -- mountain biking, backpacking and hiking through Europe, Egypt, India and Southeast Asia. Downes, a first-time author, will host a book release party this Thursday, November 13 at the Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City.
Now, on the surface, some may call into question on two accounts the Express publishing this article. First, Downes is my boss and my “endorsing” comments are published on the first page of his book. So that might call into question my ability to be objective. Second, Downes is the editor and co-publisher of this paper, and so an article on his book might seem somewhat self-serving.
I’ll address the latter first. At the Northern Express we have always focused on “all things local.” Since the inception of the Express 17 years ago the paper has published numerous articles on local authors and musicians and their works of art. That has included from time to time writing about friends and colleagues. I have always disclosed my connection to my subject as have other writers here at the paper.
So with that in mind, Downes should not be overlooked because of his obvious connection with the paper. He is a local author, who coincidently owns the paper, and I am almost positive the Detroit Free Press has written with great pride about their columnist Mitch Albom’s books. Many readers of the Express followed with great interest Downes travels last year (we know from the several letters to the editor received) as he chronicled it in his columns and also on his web-blog. Now he has captured it all in book form for your enjoyment.

Now as for my not being “objective,” I don’t have to be. Sure, Downes is my friend and boss, but I rarely write reviews for the paper; personally I am not a fan of them. My approach has been to put forward the works of the subject and let the reader determine for themselves if it is of interest for them. It is from that perspective I write on.
I was at the airport in Traverse City early that morning on September 7, 2007 to see Downes off. He arrived with his good friend and co-publisher of the Express, George Foster. Downes had this look of excitement and fear all at the same time on his face as the reality of a trip he had been planning for a lifetime was finally upon him.
He was anxious about his old mountain bike making it onto the plane and arriving at his first destination, Dublin, Ireland. He also hoped that he had hid his Christmas present for his wife Jeannette well enough so she wouldn’t find it. He also asked one favor of me: “Not to be the practical joker that I typically am with his replacement Kristi Kates.”
Downes has always been a person about detail, which come through in Planet Backpacker. For readers, there are hilarious encounters and anecdotal moments on the road. Those include coming face-to-face with wandering elephants, beggers, holy cows, drugged-out street people, a ‘private dancer,’ anti-American ranters and fascinating backpackers from many lands.
Downes even sheds some light as to why there are few Americans backpacking their way through Third World countries. He writes about how those in foreign lands were more curious than furious when it came to meeting Americans.
But delving deeper, this book is about “courage” on two fronts. The courage of a man in his mid-50s to adventure by himself to lands where America is not thought of too highly, and the courage to travel down the path of self-publishing.

With the exception of a few weeks that he was joined by his wife in December, Downes made this journey by himself. He slept in hostels or a small tent, taking only the belongings he could carry on his back, including his guitar. Typically, traveling alone like this would seem more appropriate for a free-spirited 20-something. But, Downes told me that “when I was 20 I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”
Yet Downes tackled the trip as “20-something” would with little fear. He spent several months planning out as many details as possible, eliminating most of the surprises along the way.
The fact that he took detailed notes and wrote daily about his observations and experiences set the stage for this book. All of us at work and several readers of the Express followed his travels through his web-blog, which was written in 100 or so internet cafés around the world. I remember going daily to it in great anticipation of reading his adventures of the prior day. When he wasn’t able to get to an internet café, there was always this sense of disappointment as one would have if after reading a book the final few pages were torn out.
Upon his return, Downes shared shared his idea of writing a book. But he often asked the question: “Does anyone want to read about some old guy backpacking around the world?” He also wondered if anyone would even be interested in publishing it.
In typical fashion, he pondered the idea of writing this book for several months. As with any good journalist, he knew he needed an angle. He settled on a quest stated on the back of the book: “...his journey revealed that the developing world is strangely empty of American travelers – especially those willing to travel ‘close to the edge.’ Planet Backpacker is a rallying cry to take a trip to some of the most exotic & exciting places on earth.”

Setting out to get his book published, Downes learned that it might take a couple of years through the traditional approach. Circumstances had kept him waiting a lifetime to embark on this trip, and he was unwilling to delay his book. He decided to self-publish and created his own firm, The Wandering Press, in hopes of publishing “innovative works of non-fiction and fiction, with a specialty in adventure travel.”
Downes will have plenty of material for future endeavors. While long trips like the one he has written about are not in the plans anytime soon, he is resuming worldly travels in January with a trip to... ?
The book has only been out for a week and with virtually no publicity it has been selling well at area bookstores. So, yes Bob, people do want to read about some old guy backpacking around the world.
Join Bob Downes this Thursday, Nov. 13 at the Right Brain Brewery for a book release party starting at 5 p.m. Downes will read an excerpt from the book at 7 p.m. with exotic dancers to follow. He has created a companion website as well: read excerpts or post your comments and share your own travel adventures at

The American Remnants
Jan. 8, 2008
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A ruined man in his 50s walks up to me at the American Remnants Museum in Saigon and asks to shake my hand. It seems rude not to, given that he has lost both arms above the elbow, so I grasp the tender stub of his right arm.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
I look him in the eye and notice that his right orb is a wet snail, boiled away in the blast that took off his arms.
“Can you buy a book to help me out?” He has a stack of photocopied guidebooks under his left arm.
“No thanks.”
I walk off and he calls out “Happy New Year” after me. We’re on the brink of the Year of the Rat in southeast Asia.
It’s a kneejerk reaction on my part, due to a mix of horror and my resistance to being manipulated with a guilt trip by a former member of the Vietcong. But of course I feel mean and like shit almost immediately and walk back to try to find him. What would it hurt to buy a book from an old vet?
But of course, he’s gone.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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