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The Incredible Journey

Staff writer Robert Salladay is based in The Times' Sacramento bureau.

On the morning of his would-be wedding day, Franz Wisner woke up in bed with John Dawkins. A raging party had left his friends scattered around him, including at the foot of his bed. Wisner wandered through the sprawling rented house on the scraggy Sonoma coast and surveyed the damage: empty Cabernet bottles, stains on the chairs, a broken deck rail.

Wisner’s girlfriend of nearly a decade had dumped him only days before, sending him into shock. Left at the altar with caterers and bagpipers and family in limbo, Wisner had become a cliche of romance novels and the object of pity among his friends. Dozens of them drove up Highway 1 to the crunchy-hippie splendor of Sea Ranch, the planned site of the wedding, without much idea of how to comfort him except to drink, chill in the hot tub and be there.

It wasn’t too long before Wisner began crafting his revenge--against the woman he was supposed to marry that day in November 1999 and against the life he was leading up to that point. He won’t acknowledge it, and neither will his friends, but what happened next has become a tale of personal reprisal, California-style, all the way through the last pregnant reel.

Dumped by his fiancee and demoted at his soulless high-paying job for the Irvine Co. in Orange County, Wisner packed it in. He left California and went on a cathartic journey with his recently divorced brother, their own relationship having become a bit soulless. They traveled and traveled, to 53 countries in two years, and Wisner returned to write a book about it: “Honeymoon with My Brother,” due out in February. A few months ago he was ready to write a sequel on the somewhat creepy subject of dating and mating women across the globe, with a working title of “Around the World in 80 Dates.”

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The first reaction to which might be: Why should we feel sorry for this playboy? Young, white, privileged Tufts graduate goes on a mind-changing bender--sells everything and uses the pile of money to find himself, traveling around the world and having romantic encounters with beautiful women, then turns his story into a national media event, with a book tour, network television appearances and a Vanity Fair photo shoot. A sweet movie deal too. Let us weep for this poor soul on his solipsistic journey.

Yet among Wisner’s close circle of friends--an eclectic group in their 30s that includes a bikini-wax maker, a hip-hop artist, a documentary filmmaker, a world-champion swimmer, a charismatic prankster and an “Animal House"-quoting Republican flack--that journey became the subject of awe and envy. They often thought about doing it themselves, just dropping out.

“Only if I’m daydreaming,” says the Republican flack, H.D. Palmer, now working for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “A lot of people, I suspect, lived vicariously through Franz, saying secretly to themselves, ‘I wish I had the stones to do something like that, if I weren’t married.’ I mean, shuck it all down--the car, house, job, everything--and be able to do that. But very few people are willing to hit the eject button.”

For this story, it’s best to begin by invoking Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” a moral fable so finely tuned to modern anxiety that it carries spiritual significance for some. Caught in a reincarnating spiral of sameness, Murray says at one point: “I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over?”

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Wisner would set out to live that day. Until something got in the way.

Franz Wisner is 38, and handsome in a George Clooney kind of way--prematurely gray, with hazel eyes and U.S.-brand white teeth. He’s confident and easygoing, and tends to attach nicknames to everyone around him. He grew up in Davis, the leafy college town near Sacramento, the eldest son of a dermapathologist father and a mother who was a school nurse.

He is two years older than his sister, Lisa, and a year older than his brother, Kurt, who is much more reserved than Franz and looks a little like a young John Kerry. A year before that day at Sea Ranch, Kurt divorced his wife and started coasting in Seattle, where he sold real estate and owned low-income rental properties. The day Franz called him about being dumped, he flew to Orange County and has been living with or near his brother ever since.

Wisner met his future fiancee while working in Washington for then-U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson. Tall and thin, with cobalt eyes, she had a wry sense of humor. Wisner fell in love. They were both 23. Wilson’s election as California governor in November 1990 brought them from Washington to Sacramento, and that’s when the trouble began.

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She began suffering from anxiety attacks, forcing the couple to see doctors, scour self-help books and seek alternative treatments. When she was driving, Wisner writes in his book, “highways became hallways without doors on high-speed conveyor belt floors. Her office seemed like the NYSE floor with everyone clamoring for her attention.”

A desperate marriage proposal complete with a Presto Log fire and Enya in the background didn’t stop her from moving out, the start of a yearlong breakup. Then she called him, wanting to get back together. His second proposal was more businesslike. She already had a ring, after all. Wisner broke up with a girlfriend in San Francisco, and they began making arrangements for the Sea Ranch wedding.

Along the way, there were signs: She rarely wore her engagement ring. The wedding invitations were sent out at the last minute. She admitted that she had been having “little” panic attacks again. To his friends, it was obvious. They said nothing, however.

“He was living kind of a Ward Cleaver existence,” says Ben Johnson, who now lives in Maine selling Bombshell bikini wax. “It was, ‘I’m going to do well, I’m going to get promoted. I’m going to have kids. I’m going to come home and she’s going to have dinner ready.’ I think a lot of us said, ‘Franz, I don’t know what changes you think she is going to make. That is not her program. She is in bed until 1 o’clock on Saturdays. She’s depressed.’ He was basically taking care of her. A lot of us thought she was kind of a drag.”

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Before he left on his journey, as he was packing up his Newport Beach house and getting it ready to rent, Wisner found one of her diaries. He didn’t have any qualms about invading her privacy, and even quotes a few entries in his book:

“Tried to talk to F today. He doesn’t seem to listen anymore. Work occupies all his time.... I took F to a seminar last night, but still don’t think he gets it. And that’s a problem. I don’t have a lot of support or answers these days. I’m scared.”

“I was definitely part of the problem,” Wisner says today. “I was not the ideal candidate to be in that situation, for a number of reasons. I was wed to my job, and I definitely put that as a higher priority than her. I couldn’t really see it. I thought, ‘Everything is all right, you are fine.’ Somebody told me I was the worst person somebody like that could be around. You wake up in the morning and see blue skies and she wakes up and sees gray skies, and it makes her feel worse.”

Five years after she jilted him--sobbing, with her brother there for emotional support--Wisner recognizes that she may have been the braver of the two, even if her timing was way off. “The truth is, I didn’t have the courage to do it,” he says. “She is the one who pulled the plug. I would have gotten married and struggled to make it work.”

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After waking up on his wedding day at Sea Ranch, Wisner headed down to the beach with Dawkins and other friends to kill some time. The scruffy-handsome Dawkins is the prankster of the group, a gregarious world citizen who divides his time between Istanbul, where his wife and two children live, and Kabul, where he does construction contracting. Predictably, Dawkins stripped naked and jumped into the chilly surf. And just as predictably, his friends stole his clothes and left him alone on the damp, smelly beach. Undeterred, Dawkins fashioned a loincloth out of seaweed and marched back to the house.

And then, at 2 p.m., someone looked at his watch and realized that it was the exact moment Wisner was supposed to get married. So they made the moment happen: Franz Wisner and John Dawkins were “wed” in a simple ceremony on the sea cliffs, attended by close friends and sealed with a real kiss. The bride wore algae.

The idea to travel around the world came to him in Costa Rica. A few weeks after the “wedding,” the brothers decided to take the honeymoon Wisner had already paid for. (The in-flight movie was “Runaway Bride.”) Wisner says he was “trying to make sense out of the overnight failure” not only of his marriage but also of his career. His bosses had recently moved him from his high-profile job lobbying state and federal politicians to one overseeing local ballot measures. He also was moved to a smaller office that wouldn’t hold a couch--the ultimate indignity in the sleek corporate world of the Irvine Co. So he proposed an escape route, an around-the-world trip. Kurt, his own life on autopilot, quickly agreed.

Franz and Kurt began a sort of capitalist version of “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Unlike that of young Che Guevara’s eight-month trip through South America, the transportation was not a temperamental Norton motorcycle but a new Saab 9-5 sedan purchased in Sweden. It would take them across Europe and down through Syria. The Saab was an almost comic luxury for “backpackers.” It would be ditched on a later trip in favor of sandals and crowded buses, including one with a vomiting little girl in the next seat.

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The journey spanned two years, with brief stops in Newport Beach to check in with friends and take care of business. For the first leg of the trip, they decided to avoid most of Western Europe--reserving that for when they are old men. They traveled to the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. The second leg would take them through Asia, and the third to South America. They finished in Africa.

At the Syrian border on the road to Aleppo, the brothers encountered only a draw gate. After half an hour of waiting, an astonished guard showed up and directed them to a fluorescent-lighted building where they passed out $20 bills to officials until they were taken to the big office. A man sat behind a desk watching one of the presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

“I rose from the couch and reached for my wallet,” Wisner writes. Inside was a photograph of the brothers with Bush, taken at a fundraiser at which the Irvine Co. had been a generous donor. Wisner had thought to bring a laminated copy of the photograph on the trip, and he handed it to the border chief--a Bush fan, as it helpfully turned out. The brothers were allowed to enter the country without paying the exorbitant fees required of those driving cars into Syria.

The photo came in handy again in Brazil, where a police officer pulled over their rental car. He kept insisting that they pay a $100 fine for not having proper permits. Kurt pulled out the photo, and the officer’s anger turned to delight. “He wants to know if you two can get him a job as a New York City cop,” a friend, Tina, translated. The officer and his partner escorted them the rest of the way to Corcovado.

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They got rid of the Saab on the Asian leg of the trip--and to Wisner’s disdain became cliche American backpackers, like the cliched socks-and-sandals wearing Germans and never-working Australians. He writes that the Third World “sees America through the actions of backpackers. They’re our diplomats in places like this, our grungy Henry Kissingers. Those folks must think we’re all drawstring-pant-wearing Hacky-Sacking white Rasta freaks. We’re doomed.”

They got rid of their guidebooks in Vietnam. “I’m sick of the cult of the Lonely Planet. And I’m sick of hanging out with Lonely Planet groupies,” Wisner exploded one day. “Plus, how can this planet ever be lonely if we all congregate in the same cafes and youth hostels sipping our teas and patting each other on the back for avoiding tourist traps?”

By the time they left for South America, nothing was planned except a plane ticket to Venezuela. They languished for days at a lush hacienda on the Caribbean, and they hiked to Machu Picchu with Americans who hired children to carry their Patagonia gear up the Andes because they were too exhausted from the thin air. They fell in love with Brazil.

And with women. Wisner’s travelogue mentions a “tan brunette with an aerobic instructor bounce” in Newport Beach, an “attractive blond” in Russia, an “attractive, Medusa-haired woman” in Lima, a “gorgeous, latte-skinned cigar girl” and an “attractive young woman with a light brown business suit and bobbed hair” in Costa Rica, a “slender, young woman and an attractive, cocoa-skinned partyer” in Trinidad. A Moscow nightclub contains “hordes of svelte, bored-looking young women in miniskirts.”

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One woman who gets a name is Jana, from Prague, a “horny starlet” Franz picked up and couldn’t shake. On day four of her hanging out at his friend’s apartment listening to the same jazz CD and clinging to him, he and his brother pretended to leave the city by packing up the Saab and driving away.

Wisner describes the brief sex scenes in the book as “fumbles,” but they come off as mostly sad and lonely. He adds that this should not be surprising after nearly a decade (of monogamy, he says) with one woman. Kurt offers a defense as well: “You were healing for the first six months,” he tells his brother.

There must have been a point to this long, solipsistic journey. Was it undertaken simply to provide a farrago of anecdotes without meaning? Was dropping out for two years worth it?

Thrown together every day in alien circumstances, the brothers became best friends. They hit their stride in Brazil, when Franz says he came to understand Kurt’s moves like one half of a married couple: He ordered ginger ale on airplanes and nowhere else. He believed that killing a single fly and leaving it on a restaurant table would scare away other flies.

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“It was just very basic,” Wisner says of their relationship before the trip. “I saw him once or twice a year. We’d talk about sports. He had just gone through this divorce, and if you asked me what was going on in his mind, I would have given you a very weak answer.”

Says Kurt: “We really didn’t need each other that much, and we both went our separate ways.” But now, after the journey, his brother “knows when things aren’t good with me and my relationships. He can almost sense it.”

Wisner also discovered that most of the world is crushingly poor. He learned that guidebooks should be thrown away in favor of meeting real people. In Thailand on Christmas, he writes that he “opened up about my growing faith, stirred by the incredible chain of events that led me to and through the trip. I was convinced the reformations weren’t happenstance but the sculpting of a greater hand.”

Of course, money helped smooth the way. Kurt financed their travels by selling his house in West Seattle, and Franz through a $77,000 bonus check he received just before he quit the Irvine Co. Franz later would sell his three-bedroom Newport Beach house for $810,000, making a $250,000 profit.

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When asked if anyone can do what they did, Kurt pauses, then says that he thinks it’s possible. At the very least, “maybe it will make someone ask for that extra week of vacation.”

As Wisner’s friends received e-mails detailing fantastic travel stories over the years, they were looking at their own lives as well, and traveling. Larry Thomas, a mentor at the Irvine Co., quit his job and “worked on things like yoga, spirituality, spending more time on physical fitness, doing reading and self-improvement things.” Thomas, who is 57 and lives in Newport Beach, says he thought he wanted to learn how to sail, but never did. Instead, he climbed the Italian Alps, took a road trip through Arizona, played golf in Palm Springs and spent more time with his daughter.

“We are the hardest-working people in the first world. We have the highest quality of life. We have great things,” says Thomas, who is back at the Irvine Co. as group senior vice president for corporate communications. “But generally you have it because you and your wife work, and sometimes it comes at the expense of your kids.”

Martha Adams, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles and another of Wisner’s friends, says, “I never feel as free as an individual as when I am traveling. Epiphanies for most of us are few and far between, whereas Franz has been living an epiphany for the past few years.”

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Like a modern day Hans Castorp in “The Magic Mountain,” Wisner found that his journey did provide one critical thing--space between himself and the disaster back home. Thomas Mann writes about the journey that “gives birth to forgetfulness, but does so by removing an individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state--indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and philistine into something of a vagabond.”

Ultimately, Wisner had done the same thing as his fiancee: He ran away. He squeezed the salve of travel over the wound she had inflicted, but he still saw reminders of her around the world. He found the space he needed, he became a vagabond, but he did not find forgetfulness. Even a year of writing the book in Los Angeles didn’t seem to help to resolve what had happened. “I would wake up every day and explore the same wounds over and over,” he says. “I don’t know how healthy that was.”

A few weeks ago, at Kurt’s new hillside house in Silver Lake, a thin young man in aviator glasses and a too-ironic windbreaker came over with some photographs he was returning. It was Kevin Bisch, the screenwriter hired to adapt “Honeymoon with My Brother” into a movie, billed by Wisner’s agent as “Jerry Maguire” meets “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.”

Josie Freedman, Wisner’s agent at International Creative Management, and Bisch’s agents, Brian Sher and Jon Huddle, had sent a brief description of the plot to producers and studios: “Man gets left at the altar and takes round-the-world trip with his estranged brother.” They received dozens of phone calls and inquiries about it within days. The screenplay rights were sold to Sony’s Columbia Pictures on April 1 for a high six figures--unusual for a first-time, untested author.

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Although Hollywood had jumped immediately, publishers had rejected the story until St. Martin’s picked it up. Wisner’s editor there, Diane Reverand, had worked on such books as “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” She was struck by his vulnerability, and she pushed him to write less of a travel book and, in his words, “to go deeper.”

“I was telling her, ‘Wow, it sounds like you’re going to have me write a chick book,’ ” Wisner says. “She said, ‘Who do you think buys books?’ ”

The book is due out next month, followed by a promotional tour. Franz and Kurt now have business cards printed with HWMB Inc.--Honeymoon with My Brother Incorporated. Under his name, Franz’s card says “writer/vagabond.” Kurt’s says simply “brother.”

At the Silver Lake house, the two climb into Kurt’s Volkswagen EuroVan (for which he traded the Saab). It’s a brilliant Los Angeles winter day, reaching 80 degrees. Wisner is wearing jeans and a Doves band T-shirt. He seems relaxed, if not a bit melancholy and wound down. They drive by the palm-shrouded Craftsman house where he wrote his book. Director and screenwriter Alexander Payne (“Election,” “Sideways”) had been the previous resident--a good sign, he figured.

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At lunch with a hipster-doofus crowd at Eat Well on Sunset, Wisner jokes about his mother reading the sex scenes: “She said, ‘Franz, honey, you don’t mention the word condom in there.’ ”

A mutual friend keeps him updated on the whereabouts of his fiancee, called Annie in the book. She seems to be OK with the book and the movie deal--for now, he says. He nods when told some tabloid might track her down if the movie gets made. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Wisner says he doesn’t know her new last name, but does know that she ended up marrying a doctor--a man from the apartment complex she lived in after their first big breakup--at a Hindu ceremony in Palm Springs. Wisner had run into her at an ATM machine a few years ago. She appeared to be just another woman--until she turned around. She had dyed her hair blond and gained a couple of bra sizes.

In the book, Wisner describes another chance meeting just before heading to Africa: “I gave her a big squeeze, partly because I said I would and partly because I wanted to feel her new breasts.”

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It was at that point that Wisner nevertheless let go, and “the dreams died.” He writes that he “felt zero impulse to ... ever see her again. And that triggered a slow, growing anger from within. Seeing [her] for five minutes immediately erased the countless times on the road I’d reconstructed the relationship in my mind.”

After lunch, Wisner drives his silver Volvo S80--the first car he has owned in five years--to the small Eagle Rock home of his girlfriend, Tracy Middendorf, a soft-spoken actress in her mid-30s who has played parts on TV for a decade, including in “24" and “Six Feet Under” and recently as Amber Frey in “The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story.” They went on their first date the day after he sold the screenplay rights for “Honeymoon.” Adams, the documentary filmmaker, helped set them up. She describes Middendorf as a “bombshell, gorgeous woman who at the core is this Earth Mama. There is a little bit of poetic justice setting Franz up with an Earth Mama.”

Middendorf is due to give birth in July to their child. Watching Wisner play with Calvin, her young son from a previous relationship, and take over a phone call from her auto mechanic, it becomes clear why he has decided to change the subject of his planned second book. The “Around the World in 80 Dates” tour is over.

Women will “appreciate the honesty” of “Honeymoon with My Brother,” Middendorf says. “He’s a guy’s guy, but I think a lot of women appreciate what he went through, and his vulnerability. I was a little concerned about the going from country to country and being with different women. But I think if most women are honest, they will admit that is how men see women a lot. Some men just stop there, and some men go deeper.”

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The Hollywood ending: Franz Wisner and Tracy Middendorf were married Jan. 2, 2005, at the Carneros Inn on a rainy day amid the immaculate green vineyards of Napa Valley. The ceremony was attended by many of the same people who had been at Sea Ranch five years ago.

As the music played, and the 100 guests waited, and Franz and his best man, Kurt, faced the doorway, Middendorf was delayed for about 15 minutes--prompting Kurt to exhale, “Folks, she is coming.”

John Dawkins traveled from Kabul with his pet ferret to meet Middendorf for the first time. “Franz has wanted a solid family for years,” he says. “She’s given him that, and she’s grounded him.” Jim Luther, a retired Mendocino County judge who performed the ceremony, says their marriage was a testament to “the importance of embracing unplanned splendor.”

The newlyweds did not take a honeymoon.

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