The Travel Writer’s Quest


“Everyone is a travel writer,” Catherine Watson proclaimed at The Loft’s first Travel Writer’s Festival in May. Watson, a former travel editor at the _Star Tribune_, was one of the featured speakers, along with Jason Wilson, series editor of Houghton Mifflin’s _The Best American Travel Writing_ series, and Dan Buettner, global explorer, television producer, and creator of internet adventures at

Then there was me, suburban housewife and mother of two pleasure-seeking teenage sons, whose fondest memory of a family trip to Washington state last summer was a day spent at Gameworks, the giant video arcade in downtown Seattle.

The Festival was a journey into a land of new possibilities, flooding me with new questions: am I too old to try this? (At 54, that question comes up about practically everything.) Do I really _want_ to do this, or would I rather remain on my back porch listening to the robins and cardinals? Is it even possible to travel with my two teenage boys and enjoy myself?

On Saturday morning, Watson courted us with quotes from all the best travel writers throughout time and place. She would know. She first wrote for the travel section of the _Minneapolis Tribune_ in 1978, back when people were doing travel writing in the third person. After getting several calls from readers asking her if she’d been to the places she wrote about, she started writing from a personal point of view. When she wrote one of her first person articles about how difficult rock climbing in Australia was for her, she got another call—this time from a reader saying thanks, you really made a difference for me, telling on yourself like that. It changed newspaper travel writing forever. She has since left the _Strib_ and has recently published a book called _Roads Less Traveled: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth._

“Look way back,” Watson said, “all literature begins with the travel journal—Noah, Gilgamish, the Norse sagas, the Hopi tribes, where Spider Grandmother, speaking to her people, said, ‘you will go on long migrations.’”

Watson started with Marco Polo and walked us through time and place, reading from Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s _The True History of the Conquest of New Spain_, from her favorite Victorian women travel writers such as Mary Kingsley who traveled to Africa after her parents died and talked about “the blessings of a good thick skirt,” from Mark Twain all the way up to contemporary writers such as Gretel Ehrlich, who, after being struck by lightening, “followed the raven’s path,” and wrote about the uninhabited islands of the fjords. And finally, she read from our own Patricia Hampl, who hates to fly, and in describing her experience flying in her book _Virgin Times_, writes that “prayer [is] my foxhole. I am always on my knees in them.”

I could pray. That might help me get off the couch.

Watson ended her readings with Robert Louis Stevenson, from _Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes_, where he says, “for my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go…to get off the feather bed of civilization…when the present is so exacting, who can worry about the future.”

Maybe, but that feather bed gets more and more comfortable with each passing year.

Saturday afternoon were the breakout sessions, one of which featured Greg Breining, author of _Wild Shore_, who told a story of traveling around Lake Superior by kayak. Breining, whose recent article appeared in the _Star Tribune_, looked so at home, happy to be sharing his hard-won wisdom. He’s published all over the place, including _National Geographic Adventure, Sports Illustrated, Audubon_, and _Minnesota Monthly_, to name just a few. I thought he might notice me when I made mention of having read and enjoyed his article, but I was competing with the attentions of someone about twenty years younger with a dimple in her chin. And she had spent two years in Africa. She was a traveler and she belonged at this festival.

_What was I doing here?_

“You must get out of your bubble and talk to people when you’re traveling,” Breining said.

Not me. Not now. Surely, not now with all the important notes I had to take, recording the names of places where the writers had been, the things they’ve seen, the tips they so generously cast on the raging waters of our hungry minds.

After Breining’s session, I traveled over to the next one to hear poet Leslie Adrienne Miller, author of _Eat Quite Everything You See._

The workshop drifted, as Miller drifts when she’s traveling, looking for surprises and writing observations in verse form.

She first traveled to Berlin. She liked it, traveling, struggling.
Next she went to Indonesia,
where she struggled even more with a language that is invented, not historical-based. She worked with Indonesian poets. She went back three more times.
She went to France after that
To a place in the woods where
she wrote everyday straight through the day
and into the night, then visiting with other writers.

She has a son now,
A family, and a house. Now she


in small
c h u n k s,

In piec




I read poetry. Even write some at times. Now I’m thinking, maybe I’ll try travel writing as a poet, writing in chunks and verses.

Details, details, they all said to get the details when travel writing. What details do I remember? Breining’s flowered rayon shirt, Watson so perfectly coifed, her black shoes polished and shining.

And Saturday evening, Dan Buettner, looking eager and handsome as he described his amazing adventures biking from one end of the world to the other, through Africa, attempting to climb Kilimanjaro. Now he is researching longevity and the cultures of the world where people live healthy, active lives all the way to one hundred years old and beyond.

The answer! Yes. I was elated. Live to a hundred. It’s easy enough. Become a vegetarian, find a religious community to embrace, and remain active, riding my bicycle to the coffee shop everyday. I’d have another fifty years to make it as a travel writer, the Grandma Moses of travel writing.

Sunday morning I heard the photographer, Layne Kennedy, speak. Bearded, in his early forties, Kennedy is full of energy and enthusiasm. Though I absolutely refuse to lie behind a pillar as he did to photograph a herd of buffalos as they stampeded past his hiding place, I decided after viewing his awe-inspiring photographs that I would add photography to my list of mid-life-dreams.

I listened to Jason Wilson’s essay on Iceland and envied him having written it. He is a wonderful romantic, nostalgic about everything. In his essay he is sad, getting ready to leave Iceland and the adventure he had there, his last night sitting under the stars and talking to his fellow travelers whom he would never see again. It was the authenticity of his voice that moved me. I needed to hear his humility to believe that I could keep writing, knowing how much of my time I spend avoiding writing, instead driving my sons from place to place, caring for the house and garden.

It was in the Sunday afternoon session that I stumbled on my real travel topic. I was in Deborah McLaren’s workshop on sustainable tourism, thinking about my ungreen sons and their unsustainable interest in video games and the great Gameworks in downtown Seattle. How might I interest them in worthier explorations?

I have decided on my future as a travel writer. This summer when I and my two sons return to Seattle, I will busy myself taking copious notes in verse form, taking hundreds of photographs with my new digital camera. I will eat raw vegetables, stay up late at night, and hang out on the front steps of the apartment where we’ll be staying with my sister and her family. I’ll stare with great longing at the stars and the moon.

As I listen, watch, and take notes, I will slowly—almost imperceptibly—become a real travel writer.

My oldest brother, who lives there, will be our guide, taking my sons to all the best restaurants, to the underground old Seattle, to Vancouver Island. He will amuse my sons, teasing them, telling them his stories and jokes. We’ll see my sister’s husband play the title role in Richard III for the Intiman Theatre in Seattle. We’ll visit the original Starbucks down by the waterfront. That will help to keep life recognizable and comfortable as it must be “at my age.”

If I’m really paying attention, Seattle might even have some of its own surprises.

_Mary Alterman is a free-lance writer, artist, and homeschooling mom. She lives in Burnsville with her husband and two sons._