Mary Morris is best known for her travels, but she has plenty of lessons for life in isolation

Marion Winik

THE WASHINGTON POST – “I like to think of myself as the Tiger Queen,” Mary Morris joked in a recent telephone interview, “a sort of feminist antidote to Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin” – the wacky rivals in Netflix’s hit docuseries Tiger King – “but with a somewhat more Zen approach.”

Morris’s new travel memoir, All the Way to the Tigers, which tells the intertwined stories of an accident that she had in 2008 and a journey she took in 2011, has turned out to be quite relevant to what’s happening in 2020. For one thing, there’s the tiger obsession she has nurtured since girlhood, when she had a recurring dream of a giant feline at the foot of her bed.

Long before Tiger King came to distract us in the early days of quarantine, Morris tells us, the tiger surpassed the dog, the cat and the horse as the most popular animal in the world. The intuitive equation between tigers and power is the reason that Charlie Sheen claimed to have tiger blood, that the Sanskrit word for tiger is the source of the name Viagra, and that the Chinese character for emperor copies the marking on a tiger’s brow.

“Giraffe King certainly wouldn’t have had the same impact,” Morris noted drily. “Tigers are the last truly wild thing. They don’t gather in flocks or a pride, as even lions do. They are solitary apex predators.

“There is something about that I deeply identify with,” she said.

The “solitary apex predator” gene she shares with tigers led Morris to take a journey to India alone rather than with her husband of 30 years. In fact, solo travel has long been her specialty. She made her mark on travel writing in 1988 with Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. That instant feminist classic expanded the borders of its male-dominated genre.

“Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Tim Cahill – they’re wonderful travel writers,” Morris said. “But I didn’t know why they went anywhere. I didn’t know who they were as people. I decided that as a woman moving through the world, I needed to find the emotional connection between who I am and where I am – and where I’m going.”

Fittingly, the “why” of the journey is the foundation of All the Way to the Tigers. The story begins three years before Morris’s pilgrimage to India, when the author had a serious ice skating accident days before a major life transition that she’d been working toward for 14 years. Not only was her daughter finally out of the house, but Morris was set to take a sabbatical from teaching. “I had planned to literally become a nomad, travelling the world. My biggest worry at the time was the fact that I was scheduled for jury duty. I was so afraid I would be put on a trial and have to postpone my trip to Morocco.”

Instead, Morris broke an ankle so badly that she had to stay off it for three months and was told that she would probably never regain pain-free use of the foot. This is another way her memoir connects to the current situation. “Every day for months, I cancelled another plan, tore up another plane ticket, saw another itinerary go up in smoke.”

While stuck in bed reading, she found a phrase in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice that caught her eye. “He would go on a journey. Not far. Not all the way to the tigers.” All the Way to the Tigers was the very definition of a place that was just too far. The character in the book would not go there. But Morris decided that once she recovered her travel-worthiness, she would.

And she did. The two stories, one of confinement and one of intrepid exploration, are woven together – along with plenty of tiger trivia – in 112 brief chapters.

Unfortunately, as much as Morris wanted to see tigers in India, it turned out that tigers didn’t necessarily want to see her. “At that moment,” she recalled, “I had to realise that whether I saw the tigers or not was not the point.

“There’s something my mother told me when I was 19 years old and sailed off to Paris on the SS France for my junior year abroad. Her parting shot to me was, ‘You take yourself with you wherever you go,’” Morris said. “She and I did not have a perfect relationship, but I knew she was telling me an ancient truth. And it’s one that applies whether we’re stuck at home or we’re out in the world doing what we want.”

Morris has been thinking about how to apply these lessons to the current confinement. The day the quarantine began, she opened an oversize handmade journal she had been given years ago, and she has made an entry every day since. “Order a journal,” she suggested, “write your thoughts down. Put the pain to the page. Also the funny things, the everyday nonsense. Keep making it interesting for yourself.”

Morris read recently that planning a trip can be just as rewarding as taking a trip. So, just as she came up with her India trip during her ankle-mending, she is now planning a fantasy journey to Greece. “I’m making a list of the things I want to read, starting with The Odyssey, the things I’m going to take with me, the places I’m going to go, the sights I’m going to see. I’m going to do everything but pack my suitcase.” Her husband is planning one, too, to Kenya – and they hope to go to both places together when this is over. “Even if travel isn’t your livelihood,” she recommended looking ahead and dreaming an exquisitely mobile future in detail.

The most important thing, she said, is not feeling sorry for yourself. Be productive, stay focussed on what matters to you. And share drinks with friends and family at the end of the day.