It was March 17 in Manhattan, St. Patrick's Day 2008, when Gretchen Helmer and Elissa Gjertson walked into Tir Na Nog for a pint. The bar, an Irish establishment on 8th Avenue in Midtown, was buzzing, its patrons wearing green and hoisting beers at a pub named after the Celtic otherworld of eternal youth.
A band blasted in the back of the bar. People packed in, shouting, and Helmer and Gjertson got acquainted with a group congregated near the stage. Soon, the raw abandon of two people on vacation began to take hold.
"The freedom and energy you feel on vacation is like little else in everyday life," Gjertson said.
Indeed, the pair -- a Web entrepreneur and a life coach from Minneapolis, both friends and lifelong travelers in their 30s -- believed so strongly in the power of a vacation that they wrote a book on the premise.
"Evolution Through Vacation," a 92-page e-book downloadable at www.evolution throughvacation.com, presents a unique thesis of transformation, personal renewal, growth and betterment via the experience of travel -- be it to a bar in Manhattan or the Altai Mountains of Siberia.
"We'd go on trips and say that we weren't the same person when we got back," Helmer said. "So we thought, 'Why not be deliberate about that?'"
Two years of brainstorming and batting ideas around produced the outline of the concept. In a studio office off Dupont Avenue in Uptown Minneapolis, the pair posted magazine articles on the wall, drew diagrams, wrote essays and e-mailed friends for inspiration.
The initial idea was scattered and amorphous, a tapestry of lessons learned through life experiences and anecdotes from their travels. Helmer, at the time a counselor training to become a life coach, sprinkled in personal-development teachings.
They aggregated quotes and bits of wisdom from sources as diverse as Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master from Tibet: "In the garden of gentle sanity, may you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness."
But their No. 1 motivation was a woman named Keri Kohut, a friend from college who'd died suddenly in September 2005, less than a month after the three women reunited to attend a concert together.
"Keri's death refocused almost everything about my life," Helmer said.
Both women say they became changed, emotionally and spiritually. They shifted their careers and simultaneously leaped into new ventures. And they traveled together, snowshoeing in the mountains near Breckenridge, Colo., then following the band Great Big Sea on tour, the band they'd seen with Kohut the year before. They took weekend trips from Minneapolis to places such as Madison, Wis., just to breathe, to talk, to elevate their energy in the depths of a life reorientation.
Evolution Through Vacation, the philosophy, was coalescing. Helmer and Gjertson soon distilled a thesis they believed could change their lives. In short: Tap into the energy of a vacation. Bring that energy home. Live that way.
"Every day can be lived with the same wide-eyed wonder you have on a trip," Gjertson said.
Helmer puts it like this: "Why not engage fully in life, 100 percent, every day, in this short time we have here?"
The book, released online in May and for sale at $25, is Helmer's and Gjertson's attempt to spread the gospel of their epiphany. Touted as a "guidebook to the intangible," the three main sections -- Preparation, The Trip and Re-Entry -- work together to create a comprehensive personal exercise based around a vacation.
Combining unorthodox travel advice, psychology text, fill-in-the-blank activity pages and peppered with quotes and aphorisms meant to inspire -- "Welcome to the adventure of a Lifetime. Yours." -- "Evolution Through Vacation" is not easily defined.
It is less a book than a life coaching session in print. The graphic design is bright and the text is quick to read. Almost every page is interactive, forcing readers to get up and move around, meet people, think and grow more aware through their trip.
Evolution in action
Two months before the book was released, at the Tir Na Nog pub in Manhattan, Gjertson and Helmer decided to test a technique from the manual. Taking out a deck of cards, each one inscribed with a random phrase, the pair let people pick their fortunes.
The band made conversation nearly impossible. But Gjertson and Helmer were determined to carry out their social experiment, passing out cards and shouting instructions to the game.
One woman grabbed a card and smiled, holding up a white square with the words "No Regrets!"
Gjertson said the woman was beaming at the fortune, and then she disappeared.
Ten minutes later, at a break in the music, the woman with the card appeared onstage. She took the microphone and began belting, an unplanned cameo, her courage bolstered by the advice of a random card.
The book ends with a quote from author Marianne Williamson. "We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?"
Williamson then answers: "Actually, who are you not to be? As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."
With their book -- a strange mix of inspirational text, activities, bullet-point lists and advice, all wrapped in a manual that promotes a new kind of philosophical travel -- Helmer and Gjertson hope to inspire others to shine some of their own light on this world.
Stephen Regenold is a Twin Cities writer and author of the syndicated column www.thegearjunkie.com.