On 31 January 2020, a story about discovering your own road, rather than chasing a destination, won travel writer Erik Gauger the title of Travel Blogger of the Year.
At first glance, it might seem that Gauger’s story, ‘The Places Between’, is an unusual choice for the competition’s theme ‘Your favourite place on Earth’. But his narrative expresses something that rings true for many of us: the feeling of being most alive during the journey, rather than at a prescribed destination.
It’s during the journey when we’re constantly challenging ourselves, learning and growing through a process of discovery. And that feeling, arguably, lies at the heart of why we travel.
Gauger, a father, freelance web consultant and amateur travel writer based in Portland, Oregon, has been writing and photographing for his personal travelogue, Notes from the Road, since 1999. He champions the idea travel journalism plays an important role in activist issues about the impact of tourism and development. We asked Gauger to tell us more about his story, and his travel philosophy.
Can you describe what you mean by ‘the places between’? How does this relate to happiness and/or improvisation when we travel?
Today, a lot of travel influencing makes us feel like travel means a certain destination. But to me, it’s the actual act of traveling, of going somewhere, rather than arriving somewhere, where all the interesting things happen. I like discovering new places: random, off-the-map places that, in that moment are my own. When we pull into a small town, or stop the car on the side of the road and start walking in the wild, we’re really experiencing travel. I love big open spaces, the sun on my back, finding new creatures and wildflowers. I love talking to people in places that aren’t used to talking to outsiders. All of this happens between destinations.
If this sounds a bit like travel improvisation – it is. I like to keep my itineraries free and open for exploration. In fact, I am a life-long adherent of improvised music, and when I came up with the idea for Notes from the Road in 1999, I wanted it to be the travel writing version of exploratory music. I want travel to be a series of notes I play from the road.
Movement is at the heart of travel—if you’re moving, you’re experiencing a place on your own terms, your own route, and you’re seeing things through your own lens. That’s how you see, smell, taste, touch and listen to a place. Almost every moment in travel, for me, happens on the open road.
When did you first become interested in travel and travel writing?
When I was living in Los Angeles shortly out of college, I couldn’t afford the expensive restaurants that my friends would go out to on Friday nights. I needed something else to do, and I found joy in just getting lost. I could spend the weekend in the Southern California desert on a food and gas budget of thirty-six bucks. During this same time, I was really looking at maps of the world and asking, why is this place empty on the map? What’s there? I found that only travel writing could bring those places alive. In fact, as someone who is skeptical of implausible fiction and safe, happy endings, I found that travel narratives sometimes gripped me more, made me feel the drama more, because I knew that what I was reading was real. I wanted to be a part of that.
Why do you believe that honesty and research are so important in travel writing?
We internet-age travel writers have this inherent draw to the idea that we can make ourselves out to be these heroes. Look at me! I am intrepid! I made it to this far-off place! And, in the Instagram era, we can spread out our arms wide in front of a new lake, our back to the camera, and know there is an audience that laps that up.
But in the end, this sort of travel writing doesn’t add anything new or interesting to the world. It doesn’t attract intelligent readers. To do that, the writing has to abide by journalistic standards. It has to look for subjects that have never been written about. A travel writer has to convince their audience that their story is real, honest, and not designed to make the travel writer look good or to sell something. One form of travel writing I love is the survival story. But survival stories would fail if the reader felt the author was exaggerating their tale. The drama is tied to the fact that it really happened.
Travel writing is the most blank-slate form of fiction on earth. But to ask interesting questions, you need to read about your subject, interview locals and experts, and go deep. That is what I am always looking for in a travel subject – something that piques my curiosity but which is yet to be written about.
What role do you think travel blogging can play in relation to the impact of tourism and development?
Travel bloggers are often the only journalist-types to visit places that are biologically sensitive, or that face threats from large tourism developments. When travel bloggers see themselves as areas being part of their beat, rather than just offering tips on a destination, they can see that their voice can play a critical role in how that place develops. I spent 10 years writing about the effects that a golf course would have on a nearby coral reef in the Bahamas. I felt that was one of the most interesting and effective topics I’ve been able to cover on Notes from the Road. I wrote over 1,000 pages of material on the subject during that time.
How do you think travel blogging has changed over the past 20 years?
When I first started travel blogging in 1999, most travel bloggers were a bit more like me. They were just writing about their travel, and not trying to make money from reviewing destinations and resorts. They may have been elderly travelers who owned a pair of Scottish Terriers and talked about how their dogs behaved in different towns. They may have been herpetologists or botanists on a sabbatical, writing their journals. These sorts of travel journals are harder to find these days. But amongst the many destination review blogs, there are signs of strong, authentic travel writing appearing across the web. I’m thinking of sites like Roads and Kingdoms, where the content goes deep into cultures, conflicts and human stories.
What advice do you give your son when he travels?’
My family is a family of immigrants. My parents were fresh off the boat from Europe, and my wife’s parents were fresh off the boat from Asia. Because of this, there is a lot of embedded interest in cultures, international perspectives and family across the oceans for us. If I can give my son one thing that is helpful for travel, it is to keep that context that my parents gave me and that Jane’s parents gave her.
I don’t think knowing a second language is necessary for travel, and it certainly shouldn’t stop anybody from going somewhere. Living on the west coast where German is rarely spoken, my conversational German has rusted. Being bilingual is a great gift for travel, and I regret not immersing myself in German and other languages. Because of this, our son has grown up in full Spanish immersion, with French as a third language. The advice in that is: keep an international perspective a part of you your whole life.
The other advice I give my son is to put safety first; not to rush in to anything in the outdoors and travel. Know your limits, plan for safety! One of my first travel pieces with him as a travel companion was about the two-inch thorn that he stepped on. I think my repeated safety cautions really hit home when he visited me in the hospital after my surgery following a backpacking accident this fall. I should have said, right then, “See, son. I always told you to watch your step!”
What do you most hope that readers will take away from your story?
I would never be able to tell someone where to go or how to travel – everybody’s tastes are so different. But my essay on ‘The Places Between’ is a parable of my mission as a travel writer — to encourage travelers to find their own road and then to concoct something of their own from it.
Curious to learn more? Overcome with off-the-map wanderlust? You can read more about Erik on his website www.notesfromtheroad.com, where you’ll also find large format photography, hand-drawn sketches and long-form notes on out of the way destinations.
Main image: Point of the Arches, Washington. During a backpacking trip on Washington state’s rugged coast, Gauger imagined what it would be like to survive in an isolated coastal community after a climate emergency. He interviewed a survivalist, an expert of climate-friendly farming and the sourcing specialist at Patagonia Provisions. Credit: Erik Gauger, notesfromtheroad.com.