Talking travel with a RD editor and former White House correspondent

I’m here with Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of Reader’s Digest. You might ask what he’s got to do with travel. It may have a bit to do with his 15 years covering the White House (and all the travel that goes along with the job), in particular serving as the White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun during the Clinton and Bush 43rd administration.

He’s been a member of a Pulitzer Award-winning team at the San Jose Mercury News, a fellow at Stanford/Princeton/Harvard, and regular contributor to NPR.

Ahh, and he managed to dash off an insightful article on “free vacations” around the US in this month’s issue of Reader’s Digest.

What was your experience like being a part of the White House press corp?

On the White House beat, you are an observer, not a participant, but you are an observer of history in the making. Most White House correspondents keep that in mind, I think, because to cover the stories unfolding in front of you, a good journalist has to know what has occurred before. Learning about this history leads naturally to wanting to explore historically significant places that lay outside the “bubble,” as the protective cocoon of the White House traveling show is called. I did a lot of that, and thus learned a great deal both inside and outside the bubble. I tried to share a portion of that knowledge in the “25 Great Places to Visit for Free” piece in our July magazine.

Did you accompany the president on any of his foreign trips?

I accompanied President Clinton on several foreign trips, including one to Belgium, Ukraine, and Russia. I had never visited the former Soviet Union before, and found myself walking unescorted inside the Kremlin. It was amazing. I also covered one of Clinton’s two trips to Ireland at the height of the peace talks there. When he went to Ballybunion to golf, a couple of reporters and White House guys put together our own foursome. It was wonderful. I traveled event more extensively abroad during the presidency of George W. Bush: One one trip, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh, the resort town in the southern Sinai peninsula; we also went to Jordan and Qatar. I covered the 60th anniversary of D-Day, attended by President Bush, also going to Rome and Paris on that trip; and toured Asia with Bush 43 as well.
The work load for a daily journalist is considerable on such foreign trips–your editors are paying a lot of money for you to be there, so they tend to want a lot of coverage–but there is occasionally time to slip away explore your surroundings. In Sharm, I had a spare hour one afternoon before a Colin Powell press conference, and dashed down to the beach and snorkeled in the Red Sea before racing back up to the press room. I entered the news conference with wet hair, a detail not lost on then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who pretended to be disapproving. He scowled at my attire, but I think he was secretly jealous: he gave me a wink as he left the podium.

On the Asian trip, we ended it up with a day and a half in Hawaii. Many of us made the time count: I found one friend from the L.A. Times to hike to the summit of Diamond Head; and two others, one from the Financial Times of London and the other from Asahi Shimbun, to go surfing on Waikiki Beach. We rented boards from a concessionaire near our hotel, and paid the guy a few bucks to accompany us out to the breakers. We rode several waves before getting back on the press bus for the States.

How did you generate the destination ideas for this piece?

I love traveling in this country, and have done a lot of it with presidents, would-be presidents and other senatorial or gubernatorial candidates on various campaigns–and on many other stories as well. (And on real vacations, too.) I’ve been to most of the places I wrote about, either while on holiday or assignment, and keep a kind of mental road map in my head so that when I travel on a story, I start thinking what is near that place that would be interesting or fun to check out.

What were some places that got left on the cutting-room floor?

One of them was the quarries of rural Indiana. Swimming in them is not usually legal, and can be dangerous, so we left it out, but diving off cliffs into deep, clean water can be exhilarating. Another was the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley located by the old blimp hangar off Highway 101 between San Jose and San Francisco–that’s where I grew up, and as a kid, I saw that thing every time we went to a ballgame at Candlestick Park. Jimmy Stewart was stationed there when World War II started, I believe. A third site that ended up on the cutting room floor was Navajo National Monument in Northern Arizona. They are all good. A friend emailed me a 26th nomination this morning: she said you can watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearse on Thursday evenings. I’ve not checked that out yet, but I will try…

How many of the 25 places you mention in the piece have you personally been to? Which are your top three favorite?

Oh, I’ve been to almost all of them–some several times. Let’s see. I have not been to Shanksville, Pa., although I should certainly go there: I was at the White House the day that plane went down with all those heroic people aboard. I’ve been to Ellis Island, although it was my 13-year-old kid on a school trip who did the family search at the immigration center there. I’ve never seen the Iowa bike race, although friends of mine have ridden in it. Nor have I dug for diamons in Arkansas: Carol Kaufmann, a colleague in the Reader’s Digest, Washington bureau, came up with that one. My top three favorites: Well, the Big Hole battlefield in Montana makes me cry when I go there and visualize the Nez Perce being cut down in their tents, so “favorite” isn’t quite the right word. It’s very moving. It’s also on the Big Hole River which is a wonderful fly fishing stream. The Fourth of the July citizenship ceremony at Monticello is so special. My third? Might be the seal pool (or children’s pool) in La Jolla. I cherish that beach.

What’s your favorite museum in DC?

Ah, I can’t choose just one. I like ‘em all. The National Portrait Gallery has the portraits of the first 42 presidents of the United States, including Gilbert Stuart’s famous “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington; it has the cracked plate photo of Abraham Lincolns taken near the end of his life, a cast of Lincoln’s hands…and portraits and photographs of all kinds of other Americans. Right now there’s a special one-room exhibit of Katharine Hepburn that includes numerous pictures of her, the actual Oscar statues she won (all four of them) and a video kiosk with clips of some of her movies and interviews. That place is truly amazing. But so is the simple majesty of the Lincoln Memorial, where you can walk in and read, etched in stone the words of the Gettysburgh Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural. Also, I’m still a sucker for the Air & Space Museum.

What about national parks? What are some of your top picks? />
If anyone reading this hasn’t ever seen a redwood forest, they need to head to the West Coast as soon as it’s practicable. Those huge trees are something else. In the Reader’s Digest piece, I talk about the tallest trees in Redwood National Park in Humboldt County, Calif., but there are dozens of federal, state, and even some county parks with redwood stands in them, and they must be seen to be believed: My favorite national parks, overall?

Well, when you visit the famous jewels–Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Denali up in Alaska–you immediately realize why they are so popular: They are awe inspiring. I’ve been blessed enough to visit all of those, as well as some of the nation’s top state parks. (My favorite state parks are Ano Neuvo Point, Big Basin and Big Sur, all in California, along with City of Rocks in New Mexico and Nickerson State Park on Cape Cod, along with two New York state parks, Saratoga Spa State Park and Adirondack, which has something like 6 million acres.

Also, here are a half-dozen of my other, lesser known, but equally wonderous, favorite national parks, recreation areas, or historic sites:

  • Point Reyes National Seashore (California)
  • Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (Utah)
  • North Cascades National Park (Washington state)
  • Assateague Island (Maryland)
  • Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia)
  • Lookout Mountain Battlefield (Tennessee)

Finally, here are five parks that I’ve never been to, but very much want to see: Channel Islands (state park) in California, Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, Isle Royale in Michigan, Kenai Fjords in Alaska, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, which is one of only two states in America I’ve never visited.

Are you a big outdoors guy? What’s your favorite hike/trek/walk/climb?

I love the outdoor, and indoor, sports. A perfect day might be surfing in the morning in Santa Cruz, California, then driving up to trout fish the Truckee River in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at dusk…before heading into the city for dinner and maybe some cards at a casino in Reno. Actually, I once did that trip, all in the same day. It was tiring, but satisfying.

What’s the best resource for Americans who want to find out some great weekend trip ideas near their home?

Any local hiking club or outdoor outfitter will have information about great local weekend trips. So will AAA, or your local chamber of commerce. This stuff pops up on the Internet pretty easily, too.

Are roadtrips still affordable these days, with the high gas? Any tips for saving fuel on the road?

It’s still cheaper to drive than fly, unless you’re going alone. Tips for saving money on gas? Buy a hybrid. Better yet, ride a bike.

Finally, RD is quite well-known for their reader submitted content. What about travel dispatches or mini-stories? Any ways readers/budding travel writers can participate?

The staff of Reader’s Digest just completed an editorial retreat this week where we brainstormed about new ideas for the magazine. One of them was institutionalizing this travel coverage into something interactive with our readers. It’s not finalized yet, but keep an eye on our website for information on just that kind of endeavor. Meanwhile, happy travels this summer.