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Sally Sears hopes travel memoir offers ‘good medicine for the pandemic’

By David Pendered

Sally Sears’ latest big story is her own travel memoir, an around-the-world journey by a budding journalist in the era when Rick Steves was just beginning to tell travelers to get off the beaten path.

Sally Sears, Thanksgiving Greetings Nepali girls & bandana

Two Nepali girls shows Sally Sears how her bandana can resemble their head scarves if it is tied properly. Credit: ‘A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World’

Sears writes in her just-published A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World, and Other Stories that she wanted to travel extensively before her career as a television journalist took off. As it did – Sears went from stations in cities including Memphis and Dallas to become a front line reporter in Atlanta, where she brings stories into the homes of millions of viewers. Today, Sears’ reports appear on WGCL-TV, CBS46.com.

Sears also has taken a stand on environmental conservation. She’s the founding executive director of the South Fork Conservancy, Inc. and has helped raise funds for conservancy projects including a $2.5 million pedestrian bridge across Peachtree Creek. This work may speak to the first quote in Sears’ book: Ruth Bader Ginsberg – “Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks.”

Sally Sears, portrait, edit

Sally Sears

The coronavirus pandemic has its part in the book. The enforced solitude raised for Sears questions of when will we travel again, how will we travel, and prompted her, as she notes in the epilogue, “to reconsider what stays alive after a journey.”

The trigger to write was a box of souvenirs from the trip she discovered in a pandemic exercise many have experienced – cleaning the basement. The journey of writing the memoir provided its own series of lessons.

“The more I wrote, the more I realized I am homesick for getting out on the road, that this is good medicine for the pandemic,” Sears said. “I realized, after I finished, that it is by seeing the world that you find yourself. When you stare hard at something outside of ‘you,’ when you pay really close attention and forget yourself, to encounter a new experience, or new person or place, it reveals something about yourself to you – just because you are observing.”

The robust journal she kept throughout the trip provided material for the precise images Sears creates. She provides just enough shading to observe, without getting in the way of her story, that far-away places aren’t always all that distant, and threads of humanity cross borders and cultures:

Lenin and Mao

Sally Sears, Renting a Flying Pigeon

Despite a ban in Beijing on foreigners renting bicycles, Sally Sears was able to rent a black Flying Pigeon brand bike for a week. Credit: ‘A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World’

  • “I could not help but compare him to the last corpse I’d seen. Mao [who died in 1976] looked a lot worse than Vladimir Lenin, who had died in 1924. … Devil beard and mustache, creepy fingers, Lenin looked to me as if he could sit up and order death to dissenters all over again. In contrast, Mao looked defeated. … The sight of Mao was proof Russia won the treatment-of-dead-revered-leaders contest.”

Singalila and Appalachia

  • “We saw few other people on the final push up the mountain to Meghma. The fog was heavier and the boulders loomed up at me from the narrow path. This was no trade route. Only the folks who live here seemed to use the road, living on the odd tourist dollar and what they raised themselves. Not so different, I realized, from the Appalachian settlers still isolated in mountain pockets in Tennessee.”

Thailand and Memphis

Sally Sears, What Color is Chinese Red?

The Great Wall of China is ‘graceful as a resting serpent [that] lies easily on the hillside,’ Sally Sears writes. Credit: ‘A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World’

  • “Thailand was artistic and lovely. We took an early visit to the floating markets in the Bangkok canals and stopped at a snake farm for the morning milking. … The venom I watched these Thai farmers milk from their poisonous cobras stocks the Memphis zoo with antivenin.”

Perth and Alabama, Tennessee

  • “Every few miles along the beach were life-saving clubs with elaborate headquarters. I imagined being a life-saving club member could be the Perth equivalent of a volunteer firefighter in Alabama or Tennessee. No pay but big social status.”

One angle Sears all but omits from the book is the impact of her childhood car trips from home in Montevallo, Ala. to destinations as exotic as Panama. On that particular trip, Sears and the rest of the family spoke into her father’s microphone to record reports that were sent on tape and aired on WBYE-AM, the radio station her family owned in Calera, Ala.

Sears recalled her foreign broadcasting assignment with a concise report that remains one of her storytelling trademarks:

Sally Sears, Jokes in the Antipodes

A man known to this day only as Jimmy the Cook regaled Sally Sears and other travelers with great stories on a ferry crossing of Marlborough Sounds, in New Zealand. Credit: ‘A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World’

  • “It was 1963. I was 10 years old. We had two weeks to do it. Dad had a tape recorder to record our experiences and play at the station in our absence. I still have the tapes, but you can’t find a good reel-to-reel player.
  • “We paid attention, to what’s familiar and what’s in contrast. We would check into a hotel. Dad would take the Ampex [brand recorder] and drape a towel over the door to make a studio. The hotels had terrible echoes. He would ask us what we remembered for the day. We’d talk for 5 or 10 minutes and he’d pack it up and send it off.”

And just like that, radio listeners in Shelby County, Ala. heard about the sights and sounds, people and places of Central America as reported by the Sears family.

The Sears were familiar and trusted. Ralph Sears, Sally’s father, served 24 years as Montevallo mayor, dying in office in 1996, following 16 years on the city council. Marcia Sears, Sally’s mother, served as editor of the family-owned Shelby County Reporter and was the first woman to head the Alabama Press Association, which in 2003 presented her in with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sally Sears, founding executive director of South Fork Conservancy, steps her way down a series of rocks selected to be big enough to make adults feel like youngsters when they play on them in Armand Park, one of the conservancy’s projects. File/Credit: David Pendered. Jan. 24, 2020

These roots in community find their way into A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World. Sears quotes from one of the letters she sent home, back in the day when letters from abroad were written on the thinnest of paper to reduce the cost of postage. Sears writes of the recorded voice she heard giving instructions to passengers on an airplane:

  • “I miss you folks a lot. Why is it the international FAA voices recorded in airplanes always sound like they’re from Shelby County? That southern twang made me realize how far from home we are. Love, Sally”

This, on an aerogram mailed home, to Shelby County, Ala. on the occasion of flying into Kathmandu.

Notes to readers:

  • Sally Sears’ travel memoir, ‘A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World, and Other Stories,’ is available at sallysears.com
  • On April 27 at 7 p.m., A Capella Books will convene Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene and Sally Sears for a virtual discussion of Sears’ travel memoir, ‘A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World, and Other Stories.’ Join from a PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone or Android device. Click here for more information.
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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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