The Immortality of Travel Storytelling

If there is one lesson I can convey from a lifetime of travel creation it is this: Tell a good story; sculpt an arc with a beginning, middle and satisfying end, and the congregations will delight and gather at your door.

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“There Is No Happiness For Him Who Does Not Travel.”

-1500 BC, Aitareya Brahmanan, the first travel blogger.

In the metaphysics of identity, the ship of Theseus is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. Storytelling is such a ship. 

When I first started traveling, half the world was not available to us as Americans…the Iron Curtain shut Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; the Bamboo Curtain cut out most of Asia; Cuba, Mozambique, Angola were off limits. 

The airlines were yet to be deregulated, so IATA set common prices for member carriers, and they were high…$1200 for a rt to Europe. It wasn’t until 1978 that Jimmy Carter signed the airline deregulation act, which permitted competitive pricing. Discount airlines to appear, allowing medium-healed creatives to wing across the oceans. 

When I first travelled to Africa in 1973 I employed a bucket shop, joining a rugby team with a pre-dated membership card. I was a Right Flanker. Nobody on the flight had ever played rugby. Ticket price: $150 to Nairobi return.

I had always fantasized about being a writer, but the prospects seemed daunting. Publishing was for the gifted few and the well-connected, not accessible to ordinary scribblers. It was a top-down hierarchy, with fierce gatekeepers who blocked the way with weapons of reject letters. The only way to get published was to write a letter to the editor and hope for the best.

I found a back-door in. 

I had penned a few pieces about my canoeing and caving trips up and down the eastern seaboard. But they never saw the light of day. Then one weekend with my paddling partner I entered a canoe race down the Potomac River. We were good, and thought we had a chance of winning. But ¾ of the way down we hit a rock and capsized. Soaked to the bone. This was the era of streaking, when a naked man ran behind David Niven at the Academy Awards in front of 100 million viewers. We thought nothing of tossing our wet clothes in the bilge and streaking across the finish line.

The following morning there was a photo of our naked ambition on the cover of the Washington Post. I was kicked out of my canoe club but had lasting coverage of my uncovering.

I took that lesson to Africa the following year. I decided to attempt something outrageous and write about it. We made the first descent of a river in Ethiopia, boiling with hippos, crocs, capsizes, poisonous snakes, water-borne microbe nasties, and locals who took coming-of-age testicular trophies. 

We survived, I wrote up the account, and sent it to Saga Magazine, a leading adventure rag at the time. They published it, giving it great coverage, and I was officially a travel author. I knew my writing was not exceptional…I read it now and wince… but I had the exclusive story, the story of something a bit crazy and unique, and that qualified my submission. 

I rinsed and repeated that conceit for the next several years, making first descents of rivers around the world and publishing the exclusive first-person accounts. I took some time off and earned a master’s degree in journalism, and my writing improved.

In 1985 I was approached by Sierra Club to author a book, which became Rivergods, a title that did well. I branched out and probed new adventures….climbing mountains became the book Peaks; sailing and diving became the book Islandgods. All in all I published 19 books, and I now know that what I don’t know could fill a book.

And I ran an adventure travel company, Sobek, which published a beautiful annual catalogue of trip offerings around the world, featuring original essays by authors I admired, from Jan Morris to Tom Robbins, Tim Cahill, Barry Lopez and many others. By the early 90s I became frustrated, however, that despite my best analogue efforts, it was difficult to reach a large, qualified audience, and when touched, the messaging was limited, one picture depicting a two-week trek, and despite literary excellence, it was difficult to convey the sounds and moving elements of a trip.

So, when Tim O’Reilly, a digital pioneer, announced a new browser, the Global Network Navigator, I drove to Sebastopol and sat at his knees. Together we cobbled together what may have been the world’s first travel website, www.mtsobek.com. The world wide web made so many travel publishing aspects possible….we could tell multi-media stories about trips, with sound, video, graphics, and interactivity. You could hear the crunch of a boot on a glacier; the harrumph of a hippo; watch the delicate movements of gamelan dances. This was a new whistle heard by many dogs.

I next took this concept on the road, and produced something we called Virtual Antarctica, in which we took a portable satellite system on a Sobek ship to the 7th continent. We published daily dispatches, with all manner of media, and conducted live chats each evening in which, through the portals of their computer screens, potential travelers learned that no polar bears lived at the bottom of the earth, and in the austral summer the sun never sets. We experienced a surge of bookings in the wake of the expedition. We bypassed the editors and filters, the post offices and newsstands, and connected directly with our audiences.

With my return from Antarctica, I got a call from somebody I had never heard of, one Melinda French. She said she followed our virtual expedition and asked if she could fly me up to Redmond for a meeting. I did, and she asked if I would join Microsoft to create a new digital travel product. It wasn’t until the flight home that a seatmate informed me that the full name of my recruiter was Melinda French Gates.

It was a tough decision, but I accepted, moved to Washington, and created a product called Mungo Park, after the Scottish explorer who was the first European to travel deep into Africa in the late 18th century. We conducted virtual expeditions around the world, sending Martha Stewart to kayak around Newfoundland; Lyle Lovett to motorcycle the length of Chile; Dr. Ruth to report on the Islands of Love in New Guinea; Tom Clancy to cover a space shuttle, and on and on. It was great fun, but we made no money, save a little from tourist boards and a dying Kodak. So, the product pivoted to selling travel, and that scheme took off. Over my objections to the name a branding company proposed, Expedia was borne. One of my jobs was to source travel content creators and get their imagery, video and stories on the site. The Holy Grail was something we called IDA…creating a product with a seamless path from Inspiration to Decision-making information to Action, booking air, hotel, tours and cars. 

Expedia almost collapsed several times during the first years, but with help from Microsoft’s deep pockets it found traction, did an IPO, and all in the founding team left. I then launched travel sites for Slate, MSNBC, MSN and Yahoo. And created a PBS travel series, Adventures with Purpose.  

But new media brews were fermenting in the Bay Area. Facebook was founded in 2004; YouTube in 2005; Twitter in 2006; Pinterest in 2010, and Instagram later that year. Tok-tok was launched in the US in 2017. Storytelling was democratizing. 

The disintermediation that Expedia helped pioneer….allowing travelers to access information and booking without the middleman travel agent…extended to content creation. At last, the towers of media aristocracy came crashing down, and anyone with a smart phone could publish and distribute, and even make a living pursuing the passion of travel. 

Convinced against their will, the editors and publishers of old remained of the same opinion still, that they were the protectors of proper publishing. In fact, for mobile creatives everywhere, the old guard were no longer needed.

A colleague of mine at Microsoft, Richard McAniff, retired in 2014 and decided to create a social platform that optimized his passions…storytelling, photography, and travel. As a hobby he launched Steller (short for Story Teller), but to his amazement, it quickly became a home for travel tellers around the world. With two friends I joined Steller in 2018 and relaunched it as an agora for travel influencers, creators, tourism boards, tour operators and DMOs.  Just in the last 20 months we’ve created and managed storytelling campaigns for Ireland, Germany, the country of Georgia, South Australia, Scotland, Louisiana, Uniworld Cruises, Contiki, Trivago and many others. In all cases we’ve engaged talented travel storytellers from around the globe. Today Steller is the world’s largest travel storytelling platform.

And the future? The North Star? Cave pictographs and petroglyphs informed and connected communities with stories; books, magazines, radio, movies, television continued stitching the planet together with ever-widening reach; and social media does the same today. Storytelling is alive and unworn; it tucks itself outside time’s crashing momentum.  It is the eternal clamp that holds humanity together. It transcends and outlasts all technologies, all platforms, politics and pandemics, all fashions, and fads. 

Since the dawn of drawings, storytellers have dazzled and discomfited, seduced and unsettled, gliding effortlessly between high and low, among diverse cultures and environments, ricocheting off different racial stereotypes and religious beliefs, and always inspiring to set a foot out the door and light out to new places and experiences. 

If there is one lesson I can convey from a lifetime of travel creation it is this: Tell a good story; tell a great story…sculpt an arc with a beginning, middle and satisfying end…and the congregations will delight and gather at your door.

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