a conversation with Tim Cahill      


Bold Type: You've been writing about adventure travel for 25 years. Partly because of your success there's now a huge adventure travel industry that has put a lot of people out in the kinds of places you used to have all to yourself. Are you encouraged by this or does it seem like you've got this annoying horde of wankers following you around?

Tim Cahill: I have no problem with the adventure travel movement. It makes better, more sensitive people. If you get people diving on a coral reef they're going to become more respectful of the outdoors and more concerned with the threats that places like that face and they're going to care more about protecting them than they would have before. But it does make it harder for me. They go to all the best places.

BT: But where does that leave you as far as potential trips you can write about then? Isn't it becoming harder to find unfamiliar places? Might the "been there, done that" problem crop up for you from time to time?

TC: Yeah, I see guidebooks that say things like, "There's this famous article by Tim Cahill in Jaguars Ripped my Flesh, and this is how you do it."

BT: What about the piece in your new book about your trip to Colombia with Robert Pelton, the guy who does those "World's Most Dangerous Places" things on TV? You guys deliberately tracked down the FARC guerillas, people who have a stated policy of using kidnapping as part of their war against the government. Is putting yourself in harm's way like Pelton does the inevitable dystopian future of adventure travel?

TC: I don't think so. There are a lot more guns in this book, but what I'd really like to do is write about things closer to home. For me it's one of the new frontiers of adventure travel. Sometimes a backpacker will come out of the mountains behind my house and it's embarrassing that these people have been to places that I've never been in mountains I can see from my house and are the reason I chose to live here in the first place.

BT: So the dangerous stuff makes for an interesting read for armchair adventurers, but you'd rather not be in these situations?

TC: I prefer not to face the guns. Human beings are a lot more unpredictable than mountains or rivers. I can always look at a mountain or a river and say, no that's too dangerous, or yeah, I can handle that one. With human beings you never know.

BT: You were a pioneer of this kind of adventure writing. Did you think you'd be confronting hostile people with guns when you got into this line of work, or were you after something else?

TC: As one of the first editors at Outside magazine in 1975, it was my contention that most American writing going back to James Fennimore Cooper and then through Twain up to Hemingway had been outdoor writing. At that time, adventure writing meant stuff like Saga or Argosy. Death Race with the Jungle Leper Army! That kind of thing. Guys were always running through jungles and running into nymphos. Jungles all over the earth were apparently filled with women who suffered from this condition. Even the rhinos were nymphos. I proposed to get back to the fundamentals of American literature. Literate adventure writing. And in instead of Superman, I wanted the point of view and observations to be those of somebody of average abilities . My fellow editors didn't like the idea.

BT: Writing is a sedentary, solitary craft, but your stories are packed with so much activity and exertion. How do you make the necessary time for reflection and observation in spite of being so active ? You're not taking notes while you're crawling up the face of El Capitan are you? What's your method of writing?

TC: I write early in the morning. I just wake up whenever I feel awake and I have to be sitting and writing pretty soon after that. (Laughs) If I take too long to think about the impossibility of what I'm trying to, I'll be defeated by it.

BT: You just got back from Iran. Wasn't traveling there as an American at least as challenging as sitting at a desk thinking about writing?

TC: Iran is very strange. What everybody expects is three things: desert, camels and terrorists. What I found and what gets lost in all of the "Death to America" stuff in the media is the fact that right after 9/11 there was a vigil in Tehran in support of the U.S. In Iran, only 9% of the people said they supported the attacks. In Kuwait, which is supposed to be a U.S. ally, 36% did. Iran has a split personality and I got to see the candlelit vigil side. There was no anti-Americanism, quite the opposite. In the War of the Cities with Iraq, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. The government encouraged people to have children after that and that's exactly what they did. 65% of Iranians are under 25. They see everybody else their age on satellite TV doing a lot of fun things that they aren't allowed to and these teenagers are the people who are going to be agitating for reform.

BT: In one of the pieces in Hold the Enlightenement , you lay out the key tenets of your philosophy of travel. One key, you say is to have a quest. Was your quest in Iran to spend a lot of time getting to know people there in addition to doing outdoorsy things?

TC: My quest was to follow the route of Freya Stark through the Elburz mountains, which are snowy glacier-clad peaks. Freya Stark was an incredible woman who died not too long ago at the age of a hundred and one, God bless her. She did this trip when she was in her thirties.

BT: But you do place a lot of importance on meeting the local people, even though you often travel to empty places like the Black Rock desert that are interesting partly because of the absence of local people.

TC: The question that's always asked wherever I go is "What do I think of their country?" I find that even in the worst places I can always find something to tell them I like. It's about meeting the people who aren't involved in the tourist industry. The thing about having a quest is that it forces you away from tourist lodges. If you're on a quest to Argentina that involves narrow gauge trains, you won't meet tourists, you'll meet Argentines who are interested in narrow gauge trains. I've always wondered about historical accounts of expeditions that have gone bad. When I read about how 200 people died on a polar expedition, I wonder why they didn't get to know the Inuit people who were around and presumably know something about surviving in the Arctic after living there for thousands of years. Talking to people is a survival mechanism.

BT: Besides your adventures in Iran, what can we look forward to reading about from you in the future?

TC: There's caviar smuggling in Azerbaijan. And a huge cave in Thailand that hasn't been explored because of the poison gasses inside. That'll be a gas mask spelunking type of trip. I'm really hoping a trip I've been trying to put together for a while comes off. A photographer friend and I are going to kayak down the west side of South Georgia Island in January. The only way to get there is to book ourselves onto a cruise ship, get dropped off in the South Atlantic and hope to be in the right place two hundred and some miles away when they come for us on their way back from Antarctica. I'd really like to do something on the Bob Marshall Wilderness right here in Montana. It's not being threatened. It isn't burning up. A nice story. Like the one I first pitched five years ago where Tim spends a month visiting all of the Michelin three star restaurants in France. My editors never like that one.

-- Interview by John D. Sparks

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    Photo credit: William Caldwell