Each year I attend an event known as Canada’s Media Marketplace, where those of us who promote Canadian destinations meet with some of the best travel writers in the United States. Because I work with travel writers—and have even been one—I am often asked about the life.
To the uninitiated travel writing seems so simple—writing a story pays for a trip. A few publications do indeed send out staff writers and photographers strictly on their own budget. That is increasingly rare. Usually the destination, seeking publicity, assists with the costs through a complex network of partnerships. For travel writer, publication, and even the destination, establishing impartiality despite this contribution is paramount.
Rather than try to describe the life from the travel writer’s perspective, I’ll turn over the mic to my friend Steve Lorton. Steve was employed by Sunset Magazine for almost 35 years, retiring as Northwest Bureau Chief in 2005. I first met Steve in Los Angeles six years ago, and have worked with him on three visits to Northwestern BC. He is, if you will forgive the cliché, the consummate professional. Polite and affable in his approach, patient with the inevitable glitches of frequent travel, and keenly interested in everything he encounters, Steve set my personal standard for the very best in travel writers and travel writing.
(Photographs by Lonnie Wishart)
Bruce: What led you to this wonderful life?
Steve: Back in Ohio, I grew up in a family of storytellers. The family was large and extended and full of people who had lived a very long time. I was the only child of my parents. Aunts and uncles who had retired lived with us off and on. Aunt Lee was with us often for long periods. She had been born in 1859 and she lived to be a rip-snorting 98 ½. She died shortly after I turned ten. I spent a lot of time with her. As a child she remembered being in her father’s arms and seeing slaves auctioned off in Memphis. I think she sowed the seeds of journalism in me.
It was an amazing collection of people in our big, old drafty house. Everyone was opinionated. Everyone had been somewhere, done something. And equally important, I grew up in a family of listeners. Everyone was truly interested in what everyone else had to say and then commented on it, hashed it over, got back to the source to hear more or understand better. Ours was pretty much an oral tradition. I remember when we got our first TV when I was 7. I found it pretty much boring. I wanted to be sitting at the dinner table, long after dessert was served, listening to everyone talk.
Because I’d heard so much from so many sources in so many styles and voices, I wrote my first piece in the sixth grade. Suddenly I was the editor of our class newspaper. Then my mother caught on. She was busy. “I’ve got to write Aunt Thelma [living in Arizona]. You write so well. Write a letter for me and read it to me. Then we’ll send it. Tell her all about what we’ve been doing.” Suddenly I was family field reporter and scribe. I wrote several letters a week, sent all over America and to far away countries.
Two things had happened, I was imprinted with the idea that I wanted to get out and do the exciting things my relatives talked about having done and, I wanted to write about them.
Undergraduate school followed: a degree in communications. Then, after two years in Asia with Uncle Sam, graduate school: a degree in journalism.
I walked into the offices of Sunset Magazine in Menlo Park, California (a suburb of San Francisco), and walked out with a job. It was a simple as that. And what a career! In 1990 the magazine was sold to Time/Warner and for the next fifteen years my life got only more far flung and exotic.
I’m retired now, but I’m still writing and I can’t imagine a more fulfilling or exciting life. I was just plain lucky.
Bruce: Is there any way for you to give us a sense of the highlights?
Steve: I could sit here and tell stories for weeks. There were huge adventures, things most people only dream about or see in movies. Rosemary Verey (the maven of British gardening) took me to Highgrove to meet Prince Charles. We strolled around his private garden and he was engaging, charming, a complete delight. I met the Queen twice. There were others, many of them: John Kennedy, Jr., Mae West, George Bush Senior, Roberto Burle Marx, Princess Pilolevu of Tonga, and governors of all the Western States. I once sat a dinner between Kim Campbell and Ian Tyson, Truman Capote, Anderson Cooper, and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. On and on.
There were hundreds of famous people. There was samba atop Sugar Loaf in Rio de Janeiro, jumping off a tramp steamer and swimming ashore to a remote island in the Fijian archipelago to spend a day with the descendents of cannibals. The supply boat picked me up late that evening as they headed back to Lautoka. James A. Mitchener never had a more exciting time.
I can remember singing a Korean folk song with nuns in one of the gift shops of the Vatican, singing the same song in a Korean restaurant in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and again on the long, high and scary cable car to the top of the Yellow Mountains in China. The car was filled with Koreans who had been into the mokolay and were feeling quite merry. As we sang they decided to make the car swing on the cable. Respectful folk that they are, they stopped when they heard and saw the panic in me. It goes on… and on and on and on.
But that having been said (and I know how corny this is going to sound), those were not the highlights. It was always the people and the quiet moments where I felt insignificant in the midst of a world so immense and vast that it truly made me see that I was a small, insignificant part of a great whole.
Once I was with a tribal elder, a Siberian Yupik, on the far eastern coast of Russia. He was truly one of the most brilliant and accomplished human beings I have ever met. He spoke Yupik, Russian and English. He learned the Russian and English listening to the radio and taught himself to read with magazines that cargo ship sailors left behind for him. We stood there on a cold, windy July day, looking out over the Bering Sea. I told him how much I admired his people and their way of life: they used little, they wasted nothing, they made a tiny, nearly imperceptible footprint on the planet. He stared out pensively and in measured English said: “Yes, the world is a living organism. We are all parasites. If we do not take care of the host, we will all die.”
It was riveting. I thought about that and quoted him a thousand times. Truly, I felt like I’d heard the voice of God.
There were children in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro who screamed with delight at the gift of a bottle of bubble blowing solution. I remember the postal worker in Finland to whom I commented that under their circumspect demeanor the Finns were very warm loving people. She stared back at me, poker-faced and said, “Here we think that as you shout to the forest, it will echo.” Then she touched my hand. I left without another word.
There was a Chinese man who held my arm and helped me down the steps from the Great Wall. “Oh,” he said. “I would not want my grandfather to fall. I do not want you to fall.” I didn’t think I looked that old! But I cherish the moment.
There was the family in British Columbia who invited me into their home, served me dinner, had their toddler daughter do a little performance for me, and put together a box of gifts to take home to my wife. Truly, in an evening my heart was altered.
What do you say to that? What do you do? Thank whatever spirits out there for giving it to you, I suppose.
That’s it! That’s what I’ll remember. That’s what will flash before me when I close my eyes for the last time… hoping to come back and do it all again.
On my first trip across the Pacific in 1968, I was reading a newspaper. A tiny item on the bottom left hand corner of the front page caught my eye. It was a regular feature: Thought for the Day. It said, “All people smile in the same language.” And that is so simply and perfectly true.
Once I interviewed the American playwright Edward Albee. He was unexpectedly charming and warm. Of theater and the impact of plays he said, “Every time I leave the theater, I would hope that I am somehow a different person.” And I hope that every time I come home from a trip I am a different person: stronger, wiser, happier, more grateful, more deeply in love with life and this world.
Bruce: There must be a downside to this.
Steve: Not really. Mind you, I had a very supportive wife and family. My wife never complained, even when I was gone for long stretches (should I be worried about that?). And, for the most part, I always got back for the soccer games and class plays.
Once, in Atlanta, I walked out of my hotel room and onto the street after a long series of cities and I thought, “Where am I?” When that happened, I announced to corporate, that I’d not travel more than two weeks a month and that I expected to be home on weekends. There were no arguments and, only a few exceptions.
Bottom line, I’ve been deliriously happy all my life. To quote an American Southernism: I landed in a tub of butter.
Bruce: Where do you think that the future will take travel writing? How much of a future do you see for travel writers in print?
Steve: The future? Travel writing and tourism has been going on a long time. I remember reading as I walked through the King Tut exhibit that by the time Tut came along, the pyramids were only visited by strange funerary cults. They were antiquities to those people. Wow! In Tut’s time, ancient Egyptian tourist went out to see the faraway, old and crumbling, pyramids.
People have always traveled. That won’t change. And, in the media, we’ll continue to report our trips our discoveries, our feelings.
So I believe that two truths emerge from this, pitted against modern times and the proliferation of media.
If you go, if you encourage your readers to repeat your experience, you are not involved in Objective or Impartial Journalism. If you write about it, you either want people to go or you want people not to go. So the writer’s opinion, sentimental as it may be (and mine always was), needs to come out, full steam. You cannot lie. You cannot spin. You must tell the truth. But tell your truth. That’s what people want to know. I remember when a young travel writer came into my office in the 1970s and wanted to freelance travel stories on Europe. The guy bristled with energy. Sadly, I couldn’t assign him anything. We only did one foreign travel story per issue and those were covered by staffers who had gone on press trips. But I remember that young guy, vividly, for his love of travel, his enthusiasm and the integrity that poured out of him. That was Rick Steves. Rick tells the truth… his truth.
Print will shrink, but not disappear in our life times. Electronics, as confusing as they are for me to understand, will be the future (my son works the remote on the TV for me in our house). Yes it is all changing. But the reason for it all is not changing. People want to see the world. They want to know where to go and what to do. And as long as we, the travel writers, can supply them with good, usable information, we have a job. The industry needs words and we supply the words. Add to that, you need to cultivate a gift for observation and an ability to see and articulate what other people pass by. It might be there, under everyone’s nose, but tell them about it, celebrate it in realistic terms and you’ll have an audience. I often have young folks ask me how to write a travel story. I say, “Go to your local grocery store. And when you come home, write a story about it and make me want to go.”
(For more insight into the process of selling a travel story, take a look at my 2008 tourism column about Canada’s Media Marketplace in the Solid Gold Box.)