Reflections on 35 Years of Travel Writing

When my 15-year-old granddaughter, Talya, asked me what my favorite destination was, I had to take a minute. After 35 years as a travel writer, my usual answer to that question is wherever I’ve been last, but I felt she deserved more than my usual flippant reply.

Of course, so many different places come up for different reasons. For sheer beauty, there’s New Zealand. Everyone raves, setting up high expectations — always a worry. But New Zealand doesn’t disappoint. For me, however, the country held a different magical appeal: little Stewart Island to the south of South Island that even many Kiwis don’t know about. With a population of 401, a mere 18 miles of roads and more water taxis than land ones, Stewart is 80% national park with an insulated community that still remains a little wary of outside visitors. I was glad they let me in.

A trip to Namibia, just north of South Africa, introduced me to an even more isolated lifestyle. Not often, ensconced as we are in our usually comfortable Western mindset, do we take the time to reflect upon how so much of the world lives very differently. Eighty-five percent of the world’s population lives in poverty. And there are some civilizations that have very little knowledge of the world outside their small communities. And no, Talya, you can’t text them for more information.

Although most of Namibia’s 12 separate ethnic groups have retained their own language, food and beliefs, many have been converted to Christianity and, while still very poor, have become somewhat westernized. Not so the Himbas. Clad in very little clothing and with their bodies covered daily through a lengthy ritual with red ochre pigment mixed with animal fat, the Himbas maintain a primitive culture. There are no stores in the village, no satellite dishes and no outhouses. They use the woods that border their village as their toilet. I left newly educated and impressed.

Countries are not known only for their interesting two-legged inhabitants; their four-legged creatures are equally intriguing. And although I’ve been on several safaris, I’d go tomorrow if another opportunity presented itself.

Usually atop an open-air jeep designed for ultimate sightseeing somewhere in Africa, we’d leer, gawk, ooh, ah, jump up, sit down and jump up again, all the while snapping picture after picture of a huge expanse of wild creatures surprisingly willing to share their open spaces with each other as well as us.

It’s hard to describe the wonder of a Leviathan elephant whose tusks almost reach the ground, a black-maned lion baring his teeth or half a dozen adolescent zebras cavorting around a water hole within feet of the jeep. Seeing such an infinite number of animals has often made me feel as though I had climbed into the Discovery Channel. Although I’ve been on numerous safaris, I never get tired of watching that dance.

A male lion is spotted during an African safari.
A male lion is spotted during an African safari. (Photo courtesy of Fyllis Hockman.)

Myriad adventures are to be had at home, as well. How about the five Utah parks for starters? Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion share many commonalities, including uncompromising splendor, history of both the earth and the country, and a sense of personal sanctuary. And then there are their differences.

Aptly named Arches National Park is a mecca of some of nature’s most intriguing creations: architectural designs that span space and confound logic for which no man-made blueprint was ever drawn. Nearby Canyonlands requires a four-wheel drive vehicle — preferably with a driver. At 6,000 feet, the view from Island in the Sky looks down at cliffs 2,000 feet tall arising out of a magnificently gouged and painted landscape.

Landscape Arch at Arches National Park is just one of the natural wonders in Utah's five national parks.
Landscape Arch at Arches National Park is just one of the natural wonders in Utah’s five national parks. (Photo courtesy of Tom Till.)

Although geologic history is stressed in every park, it defines Capitol Reef, which ranges from 80 million to 270 million years old. Bryce Canyon is synonymous with hoodoos — phantasmagorical images emerging from weird and wonderful rock formations. There are thousands of the little (and not so little) guys in all shapes, colors and sizes.

Arriving at Zion reinforces the idea that each park is unique. At the other parks your line of sight extends out toward the horizon as well as down into the canyons. At Zion, you look straight up — and up and up. Towering cliffs — some of the tallest in the world — flank you on either side. They meet the sky at a point that strains both the neck and the imagination.

But not all trips are to magnificent scenic areas or fascinating destinations. Some are just quirky. Enter the Cowboy College in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I channeled Billy Crystal in the classic movie “City Slickers.” I was in training to be a cowhand ready to go on a cattle drive.

Heels down. Toes out. Squeeze with calves, not knees. Lighten up on the reins. Sink your butt into the saddle. So began my first riding lesson, which was followed by instructions in grooming, shoeing, advanced riding techniques and roping. All of this was way outside my comfort zone but very much in my fun zone. In truth, most people at the college actually do then go on a multiday cattle drive. My thighs were just thankful they didn’t have to get back on the horse the next day.

So hopefully, Talya, this gives you some idea of the very rough life of a travel writer. And oh yes, there is one other place high on our list of favorites to visit: your house!

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