By Nancy Colasurdo
Yes was the beginning.
Yes, I’ll go to Europe with you. Yes, I’ll try this ‘no luggage for a three-week trip’ idea.
Yes, I will sign up for adventure.
For Clara Bensen, a self-described writer/explorer, ‘yes’ wasn’t exactly on the tip of her tongue on a regular basis when this question was posed. It could have easily gone the other way. She could have said no. Lots of women would have said no.
“Yes, I’ve always had an adventurous streak,” Bensen says in our recent interview.
And then she offers some proof.
“When I was 17 I hopped on a plane with another 17-year-old and went to Southern India,” Bensen says. “We framed it as a mission trip. My family was religious.”
Considering the most adventurous thing 17-year-olds in my neighborhood were doing was heading to the beach for Senior Skip Day, I’m sold on Bensen’s ‘explorer’ side. The writer in her, well, that side of this 27-year-old is just beginning to strut its stuff. She is the author of a travel memoir called “No Baggage” due out in January 2016 and it is based on the aforementioned trip; the fascinating twist is she had just met (on dating site OKCupid.com) the man she was traveling with.
“Within a few days of knowing one another, they embark on a 21-day travel adventure — from Istanbul to London, with zero luggage, zero reservations, and zero plans,” reads the synopsis of the book on Bensen’s website. “They want to test a simple question: what happens when you welcome the unknown instead of attempting to control it?”
The answer, so far, is nothing short of magical.
Because here’s how Bensen’s life went for a while.
“A few months prior to joining OKCupid, I was in a pretty severe mental crisis,” Bensen says. “I had difficulty eating, holding down a job.”
But as recovery came, she knew she needed to get out of the house and meet new people.
“I needed to shake things up a bit,” she says.
In her mind, that didn’t mean she was looking for a relationship. It just meant she needed change. So she created a profile on a dating site.
“I found Jeff [Wilson] within 10 minutes of opening the account,” says Bensen, who lives in Austin, Texas. “I saw his picture and thought, ‘that might work.’ I did a search for academics, those with a PhD or pursuing a PhD, and there were hundreds of pictures. His photo stood out. He was wearing this Mexican mariachi bowtie and had this evil goofy grin on his face.”
It was a click and before long he mentioned to her the trip he had in mind. Bensen was in. She quit a freelance job as a software reviewer for iPad apps – “I hated it” – and cleared out her bank account to buy her plane ticket. A big yes.
“My pattern, I think it’s because I was home schooled through high school for religious reasons, is that I often get an idea and try things without realizing what the proper protocol is,” Bensen says.
About six months after she and Wilson returned from their trip, Wilson suggested Bensen write about it and submit it somewhere for publication. A writer and poet who enjoys writing observations of people (i.e., on the bus or in bars), she had been writing for “years and years” but had never submitted before. Bensen had been eyeing a particular editor at Salon.com and sent a cold submission. It was accepted for publication and began like this:
We’re standing on the side of a highway in Budapest, trying to hitch a ride. I’m elegantly dressed for a proper afternoon at the National Gallery in a green embroidered dress and a knotted cotton scarf. Jeff appears to have just walked off the set of a western shot in Brooklyn. His grandfather’s 1950s Stetson, cocked lazily to the side, is accompanied by a pair of fiery red chinos and a striped navy sweater. Both ensembles are looking a little threadbare and with good reason: We’ve worn them every day since we left the Houston airport nearly three weeks ago.
Headlined “The Craziest OKCupid Date Ever”, it was shared over 70,000 times on Facebook. It also sparked a book deal with Running Press and a film deal with New Line Cinema. Screen writer Adam Brooks (past credits, according to Variety, include “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” “Definitely, Maybe” and “Practical Magic”) was hired to write the screenplay.
“I’ve been working with him,” Bensen says. “I would finish a chapter and send it to him.”
Heady stuff. It has prompted speculation from some that Bensen and Wilson planned this all along “like a stunt.” Not true at all, says Bensen. Since she and Wilson have had their fair share of media the last few years around this project, they’ve begun subscribing to the ‘can’t control it, focus on things you enjoy’ approach.
“People take a story, they tend to fill in the blanks,” says Bensen, now 2½ years into her relationship with Wilson. “They come up with their own narrative. It’s a reflection of where they’re at. We’re living our lives.”
I ask if she’d recommend to others taking that kind of trip.
“After ‘Eat Pray Love’ went so big, some readers, mostly women, went on her exact route,” Bensen says of author Elizabeth Gilbert’s Italy-India-Indonesia journey. “They wanted to find the same kind of love and transformation she did. What I tell people that ask me that question is it’s a gut thing. An intuition thing. I just immediately knew I was going to be on that plane.
“You have these opportunities that open up. They might be on a smaller scale. If there’s some kind of inner draw, do it. Take a chance.”
Do I hear a yes?