Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before

Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Rolf Potts joins Trekkies aboard a "Star Trek" theme cruise to Bermuda

By Doug Mack

To understand how the old-school Trekkies on my cruise ship regard J.J. Abrams’ 2009 blockbuster “Star Trek” movie, it’s useful to make a religious analogy.

MORE: Part One | Part Two | Video

Imagine how it might be if, as a lifelong Christian, you suddenly had access to a lost New Testament manuscript that outlines Jesus’ life as a young adult. The Jesus in this newfound text preaches the same gospel and performs similar miracles—only this time around he has wicked karate skills, six-pack abs, wisecracking disciples, a sexy Asian girlfriend, and an endorsement deal with Burger King. Just as devout Christians might find these hip new affectations unsettling, my “Trek”-loving travel cohorts seem simultaneously inspired and bewildered by Chris Pine’s bar-brawling portrayal of Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s babe-snogging version of Mr. Spock, and J.J. Abrams’ alternate-reality time line. 

“The old fans are going to get nervous anytime you try to do something new with the franchise,” Richard Arnold tells me. A former assistant to show creator Gene Rodenberry, Richard is a walking encyclopedia of “Star Trek” trivia and a perennial Cruise Trek guest-speaker. He and I are sitting in the back of a Norwegian Dawn conference room where, in a matter of minutes, New Jersey “Trek” fans Wayne and Rita Applegate will renew their wedding vows wearing crisp white Starfleet uniforms. This ceremony is the most eagerly anticipated event of the week for many Cruise Trek veterans, and—for the first time since the ship left New York three days ago—the majority of my travel companions have traded their civilian casual-wear for “Star Trek” regalia.

“Look around and you’ll notice that most of these people are in their 50s,” Richard tells me. “We were adolescents when the show first came out. We’re the generation of fans that saved the show from getting canceled in the 1960s; we’re the ones who pushed science fiction into the mainstream and made it possible for films like ‘Star Wars’ to get made in the 1970s. For all the money Paramount has made from the various ‘Star Trek’ movies and TV series, none of it would have been possible if these kind of people hadn’t gotten together and stood up for the show from the very beginning.”

Richard goes on to explain how, despite their past triumphs on behalf of the franchise, the sci-fi pilgrims on the Norwegian Dawn are the loyalist legacy of a “Star Trek” fandom that has seen a low ebb in recent years. In the early 1990s, when new episodes of “The Next Generation” had a strong TV following, there were “Star Trek” conventions most every weekend of the year. By the mid-2000s, however, as sequel movies like “Nemesis” flopped and TV series like “Enterprise” were canceled, the “Star Trek” franchise foundered. As a result, fan conventions, which “Trek” enthusiasts had transformed into a booming business the 1970s and 1980s, began to focus on more current fare, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and—most recently—“Twilight.” 

Hence, whereas the first Cruise Treks in the 1990s focused on the celebrities, recent cruises have skewed more toward the fellowship of the fan community itself. Our cruise features guests like Dominic Keating (who played an armory officer on the “Enterprise” TV series) and Robin Curtis (who played a Vulcan lieutenant in a couple of 1980s “Star Trek” movies), but many of the Trekkies on board seem just as excited to reunite with old friends as meet with celebrities. Indeed, at this moment the Cruise Trek spotlight belongs not to the stars of the franchise, but to a land surveyor and a daycare worker from New Jersey.

The wedding-renewal ceremony begins with a song and a brief processional; the audience stands at attention in their Starfleet uniforms. Wayne and Rita Applegate’s real wedding happened 30 years ago, but by all accounts it was a disaster. Neither family was supportive of the union, and the young couple had to pay for the ceremony themselves. Wayne’s parents didn’t want to take pictures with him, and Rita’s father didn’t want to walk her down the aisle. The newlyweds decided they would one day renew their vows in a more loving environment, and—nearly three decades later—they’ve chosen to reboot their marriage at sea, in the company of Trekkie friends. The vows are to be administered by veteran sci-fi actor Vaughn Armstrong, a self-described “Where’s Waldo” of the “Star Trek” franchise, who’s played 12 different characters (including three Klingons, two Cardassians, and a Starfleet admiral) on various TV episodes. In honor of the occasion, Vaughn has donned a black tuxedo and pointy plastic Vulcan ears.

As Rita walks up the aisle she begins to sob with happiness; Wayne beams shyly at the head of the conference room. The ocean sparkles outside the windows as Vaughn greets the audience with a few opening platitudes before instructing the couple to recite their vows. 

“As captain on this journey, and ‘til God beams us up,” Wayne says, “we will venture onward exploring and experiencing the many wonders in this vast universe.” 

“As first officer of this journey, we have seen and done many things,” Rita says, her voice cracking with emotion. “Your love for me is worth more than anything that any planet or universe can give.”

“Now by the power vested in me by my authority as an admiral of Starfleet,” Vaughn announces, “I congratulate you on your 30-year voyage. May you live long and prosper during the next 30 years.” 

Image courtesy of Wayne and Rita Applegate

Over the years I’ve had the privilege to witness weddings in all manner of cross-cultural settings—India, Korea, Cuba, Latvia—but I can’t recall having experienced an event so unexpectedly affecting as this quirky “Trek”-jargon ceremony. Even after 30 years of marriage, Wayne and Rita’s love for one other feels unselfconscious and powerful, as does their gratefulness at being surrounded by people who care about them and share their interests. There are few dry eyes in the audience. 

The journalist part of my brain is already at work assembling a tidy narrative to make sense of what I’ve just witnessed. To all appearances, this is a perfect “Trek”-dork love story: Wayne and Rita are heavy-set and graying; Wayne is shy and sometimes has trouble looking people in the eye, and Rita’s joint problems often force her to use an electric cart to get around. I start formulating a headline in my mind—something along the lines of: “Adorably Nerdy Pair Find Life-Purpose in ‘Star Trek,’ Each Other.” 

During the reception, I corner the bride and groom and ply them for quotes to support my thesis. At first, the interview goes exactly as I’d expected: Wayne and Rita are, without a doubt, first-rate “Trek” nerds. The doormat in front of their house reads: “Beam me up, Scotty,” and they own so many Hallmark “Star Trek” ornaments that they require two separate Christmas trees each holiday season. Some of the ornaments talk, including Wayne and Rita’s favorite—a Borg cube that, when activated, says: “We are the Borg, enjoy your holiday. Resistance is futile.”

After a few minutes of chatting, my template is almost complete. “One last question,” I say.  “Would you say that your mutual love of ‘Star Trek’ has made your marriage easier over the years?”

“Well in 30 years of marriage we’ve never had a fight,” Wayne says. He glances over at his wife. “Except for tae kwon do, I guess.”

“Tae kwon do?” I hadn’t expected to hear this.

“Used to be, whenever we decided we needed to fight, we’d just put on the sparring equipment and go. Rita has better technique, so she’d usually win.”

“We ran a martial-arts school for 10 years,” Rita says.

“Besides tae kwon do, Rita holds belts in kung fu, bōjutsu, muay thai, shōrinji-ryū, tai chi and arnis, which is Filipino stick fighting. Before she got into martial arts she was active in tap, ballet and modern dance. She’s also studied things like sign language, Hebrew, Chinese and Japanese.”

“Wayne knows some Japanese too, but not as much as me,” Rita says. “Sometimes I’ll say something to him in Japanese, and he’ll answer me in English.”

Realizing that my would-be “Trek”-misfits could probably whip me in a street fight (and out-bargain me in a Tokyo vegetable market), I flip to a new page in my reporter’s notebook and start the interview anew. As it turns out, Rita designs greeting cards and has studied theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Wayne is a square-dance caller, an amateur karaoke enthusiast and a member of the Titanic Historical Society. The two of them host regular murder-mystery dinners (“Death by Chocolate”), and they perform song-parodies as “Lord and Lady Middlesex” at Renaissance Faires. Both of them belong to the New Jersey 14th Volunteers, a re-enactment group based on an actual unit that fought during the Civil War. Rita doesn’t practice martial arts anymore because of her joint problems, so she makes up for it by inviting the young trainers from her wellness center over for monthly game-nights of Taboo, Trivial Pursuit and Cranium. 

“You name it, we’ll play it,” Wayne says. “Here we are in our 50s and most of the people who come to our game-parties are in their 20s. I like to say that I’m still 18 from the neck up.”

Wayne pauses for a moment, fixing me with his shy grin. “People think that those of us who love ‘Star Trek’ don’t have lives,” he says. “Well I say ‘Star Trek’  has nothing on things like Facebook or Twitter. I don’t understand how some people insist on living their lives through an Internet connection and a keyboard. What good is a hobby if it doesn’t inspire you to get out and do things?”

“We have a plaque hanging in our home,” Rita adds. “It says ‘There is never enough time to do everything you should. The thing is to make the most of the time you have.’”

Inspired, I pocket my notebook and head off to my cabin to prepare for the Norwegian Dawn’s impending arrival in Bermuda.

Next Page »


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


26 Comments for Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before

Megan Hill 11.16.09 | 1:18 PM ET

This is amazing. I can’t wait to read tomorrow’s piece!

Alison 11.16.09 | 1:18 PM ET

Loved this piece, very well-written!

Trisha Miller 11.16.09 | 1:50 PM ET

Well-written piece, as I expected it would be, but I’m a little surprised to learn that Rolf didn’t dig into some pre-cruise research by watching hours and hours of old Star Trek episodes, in order to understand the Trekkies culture and language, the way he would before any other trip. :)  But no matter, I’ll still enjoy his series, and I’m still envious of him and this assignment!

Lindsey 11.16.09 | 4:14 PM ET

Rolf,
You are a brave man, for voluntarily being captive on a floating ship like that!

Makye Ame 11.16.09 | 10:51 PM ET

Where’s the travel?  I mean there is so much good writing out there that goes unpublished and then to have a piece like this that is nothing special and doesn’t involve any real journey or exploration.

Is this series of articles supposed to be some cheap David Foster Wallace knockoff?

I really disliked the piece and am starting to feel that Worldhum has fallen into the comfortable groove of publishing mediocre work by writers they’ve already published before.

Makye Ame 11.16.09 | 10:57 PM ET

I just realized that this is going to be a five part series.

Mix it up a bit for heaven’s sake!

Epiphanie 11.17.09 | 1:05 AM ET

Dear Rolf,

What a brilliant idea! I think fan culture is a phenomenon worth exploring from a lot of angles, and I love your self-reflexive style, as always. Keep up the fab work! :o)

Marcy Gordon 11.17.09 | 3:13 AM ET

Ha! I wonder if the travel agent that recently booked a straight Italian couple on an all gay cruise had a weakness for counterintuitive travel strategies? I’d be suspicious of Rolf too if I was a Trekkie and found out he was writing about my theme cruise from a non-Trekkie perspective. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 11.17.09 | 11:04 AM ET

Interesting post about Trekkies at sea.  Who knew there was a Star Trek themed cruise.  It definitely is not the “normal” travel writing that we’re used to reading.  Kind of refreshing…

Aaron H 11.17.09 | 12:37 PM ET

I can’t think of two thinks I care about less than cruises and Star Trek, but this is a great article—funny and full of insight.

Lindsay 11.17.09 | 3:11 PM ET

I laughed so much while reading this. Love it!!! Great piece.

Mike Costantino 11.17.09 | 5:32 PM ET

What with all the interviews and “observations” I hope Rolf found some time to really enjoy himself. It’s gotta be tough spend all your energy channeling Lévi-Strauss.

Matt Stabile 11.18.09 | 10:52 AM ET

Nice work Rolf, really enjoying the piece. It’s always great to read travel pieces from a different angle.

@Makye Ame : I think you’re missing the point. To say that this piece “doesn’t involve any real journey or exploration” is quite narrow-minded. As most travelers know, it’s not the destination but the journey. What better way to look back on a lifetime of travel and exploration than to view it through the prism of a mundane, prosaic cruise? Yes, David Foster Wallace did this in his own way, and Rolf is doing it his.

Sure there are plenty of articles and ideas out there about the next off-the-beaten-path destination, but the danger is losing the thrill of enjoying those places and cultures. Perhaps a cruise is needed every once in a while to remind us all of that.

http://www.TheExpeditioner.com

Grizzly Bear Mom 11.18.09 | 1:27 PM ET

I loved the Wayne and Rita part of the story.  Aren’t people fascinating? 

But confess, Rolf.  Considering the adventure in your travel stories I find it difficult to believe that you volunteered to go on a cruise.  Aren’t you really serving time for some offense?

travel agents indonesia 11.20.09 | 2:17 PM ET

nice share and website..thanks for the tips.I loved to the Wayne and Rita part of the story


http://travel-tour-indonesia.com

Ben 11.20.09 | 11:51 PM ET

Rolf,

Thanks for showing, yet again, that a good travel writer is every bit as savvy as an academc anthropologist—but more entertaining and often more honest.

Well done.

Eric Stillwell 11.23.09 | 1:13 PM ET

Rolf—

This is a fantastic series of articles. My wfie and I have been on nine Cruise Treks over the years—including the original Bermuda Cruise Trek many moons ago—and you really captured the heart and spirt of this wonderful group of people. Unfortunately we weren’t on board for this Bermuda cruise, but we did go on the Blue Danube Cruise Trek in 2008 and are booked for the Mediterranean Gateway Cruise Trek in 2010. I encourage those who are interested—or even just curious—to check out the Cruise Trek fan page on Facebook!

Aly 11.23.09 | 11:27 PM ET

This was a great piece (series). Very upbeat, humorous, but I must say I was most moved by the last part.  You really did Trek fans right by including the testimonials by the fans who were not the ‘extroverts.’  I am a very extroverted life of the party kind of person now; as a jr. higher and teenager though I was just as much an outcast within my family and school as any kid could be.  Star Trek helped me hold onto my values and beliefs, and not compromise myself and who I was in some effort to ‘fit in.’  I am quite ‘normal’ now socially, and I have Star Trek to thank for it.  And I would not be embarrased in the slightest to wear my uniform at any situation.

James L. Moore 11.24.09 | 2:33 PM ET

This is an excellent piece of writing and a great idea for exploration.

There are so many communities ‘out there’ and I have always thought there should be a book just about these odd, random, eclectic communities of people—- RV parks in Arizona, Philadelphia Eagles fans tailgating before a game, WoW guilds online, bikers gathering in Sturgis, etc. etc.

All of these sub-subcultures throughout America.

Write on.

Melanie Sargent 11.25.09 | 12:34 AM ET

What a fun, interesting read!  I never dreamed that I should explore the sci-fi arena before as it has never really compelled me.  However, after reading this, I’m thinking that the underlying theme is all about the “what if’s” of life, and that’s what I’m interested in.  I liked the cultural tie-in’s as well.  Like attracts like, and we tend to “like” people when we are “like” people, sometimes it just takes a cruise ship to get in touch with the commonalities. 

And, speaking of cruise ships, I have off and on been contemplating taking a cruise (I like the idea of getting a taste of different places and then coming back later to the ones I liked the best), but they sound too much like Vegas, and I’m not crazy about Vegas…!  So, you helped convince me that it wouldn’t be a good fit for my personality. 

Thanks for sharing a great bit of information and humor with us!

Panama Hotel 12.03.09 | 10:45 AM ET

Love the piece. When I initially saw the title,  it touched, in a thematic sort of way, on a bigger theme in travel which is our need/want to go places that are ‘undiscovered’ or ‘unknown.’ For those who haven’t read it, a specialist named Stanley Plog did a report for Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly in which he defines certain destinations as well as the people who like to go there into varying categories of “adventure.” Our boutique hotel (http://www.loscuatrotulipanes.com) here in Panama is located in Casco Viejo - a slightly offbeat colonial city with quirks and downfalls. It’s gorgeous and culturally rich, but not for everybody. The people it attracts are venturers - and not the type you’d see in Cancun. Inevitably, the unknown destinations become known, and the undiscovered spots get discovered. According to Plog,  if you’re aware of the factors at play, you can manipulate a destination on this curve.

kha 12.08.09 | 2:19 AM ET

who paid for this piece—the writer or the cruise or pr company?

Michael Yessis 12.08.09 | 7:04 PM ET

Hi kha. World Hum paid the writer for this piece.

Wendy 12.18.09 | 2:34 AM ET

We need to find the new island.

Wendy 12.28.09 | 10:45 PM ET

Thanks for sharing a great bit of information and humor with us!

Onelia Herriot 12.31.09 | 9:22 PM ET

I loved this piece. I am just an ordinary Joe (or should I say Jane) I went on Cruise Trek 2007 New Zealand. I am also Australian but Star Trek is a multicultural environment so I didnt feel left out.

2007 was my first experience of Cruise Trek although I had heard of this group for many years. I was traveling solo and was amazed at how easily and quickly I was embraced by my fellow CT cruisers. Everyone made an effort to welcome the new comers and then it is up to the new comers whether they wish to mix or just have a cruise. I must admit knowing that knowing there is 100 other people on a ship of 2000 that I had something in common with was comforting.

I am far from the “hard core” trekkie that many would think would join this crowd, for example in the trivia contest I only could answer 1 out of 50 questions and that was an extremely easy one, so you dont need to be a uniform wearing card carrying trekkie to enjoy the activities. And from my perspective its not about the “stars” so much as the feeling of family among my other companions that was the best part, although I will admit that having breakfast and having a star of your favourite show ask if they can share your table was pretty cool as well. (and one which I think most people the world over would love to have occur)

I enjoyed the experience so much that i am attending the 2010 Mediterranean Gateway cruise.

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