Talking Travel with Tim Patterson

Tim Patterson comes from the Rolf Potts School of travel writing– thoughtful, funny, and talented. But above all else, he’s a traveler.

It seems Tim is constantly on the move, whether it’s to Cambodia, Bhutan, or Uruguay. He shares his love for travel on a number of sites, including Brave New Traveler, Matador, and his personal site, Rucksack Wanderer. Tim’s a great guy and (lucky for you) a great interview.

He recently took the time to answer a couple travel-related questions via email…

1. Brave New Traveler takes a different approach to travel than a lot of other sites. What are you trying to accomplish with BNT, and were you surprised to find such a wide audience for your message?

Most travel sites are focused on destinations. This isn’t a bad thing – travel is about going someplace new after all – but the destination focus does contribute to the idea of travel as just another marketable commodity.

The BNT team finds the thought of buying a travel experience ridiculous and sad. We see travel as a spiritual journey, an almost sacred way to find our place in the modern world.

We published a really popular collection of 50 Inspiring Travel Quotes recently. Here’s one of my favorites, by Miriam Beard:

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

That quote sums up our attitude at BNT pretty well.

Am I surprised to find such a wide audience for this content? Absolutely not. People are hungry for essays and articles that go deeper than commercial fluff.

2. I want to become a guidebook writer but don’t know where to start. Any tips?

Read “Smile When Your Lying” by Chuck Thompson. Maybe read “Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?” by Thomas Kohnstamm. Definitely read “A Job With Travel But No Vacation” in the New York Times.

Guidebook writing is hard work, especially if you need to live on a guidebook writer’s salary. Plus, online destination guides like TravelFish and interactive travel magazines like Matador are cutting into the traditional guidebook market.

Start out small. Build an audience. Don’t take rejection personally. In the immortal words of Judge Elihu Smails, “the world needs ditch-diggers, too”.

If you’re a solid writer, check out open assignments on the Matador Bounty Board. At the moment there are over 20 open assignments that each pay $25 a pop.

3. What kind of research do you conduct before heading to a new destination?

It depends on why I’m traveling and for how long. I usually read up on travel literature before going someplace new. For Patagonia, I read Bruce Chatwin. For Los Angeles, I read T. C. Boyle.

I rarely buy guidebooks, but I’ll camp out in a bookstore for a couple hours and flip through Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and Rough Guide to get a sense of the place.

If I’m going to stay for a while, I look for sublets and short term rentals on Craigslist. If I’m passing through, I check out Couchsurfing.

It’s rare, though, that I’ll make firm itineraries. You can never be too prepared for a journey, but leaving room for serendipity is important, too.

4. Many first-time travelers are reluctant to embrace solo travel, and they worry that they’ll spend their entire trips in depressing isolation. What can you tell them to allay their fears?

Yeah, you’ll be lonely and miserable sometimes. But you’ll also learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible. You’ll be totally free, just you in the world, with no outside pressure or expectations. This is scary. But it’s also exhilarating.

Also, you won’t ever be far from company. Travelers are social creatures, and locals are eager to show solo visitors hospitality. All it takes to make friends is a smile and some trust.

5. Finally, where are you now and what’s keeping you busy these days?

I’m sitting in my underwear at my desk in humid Saigon at 6 pm on a Sunday afternoon. I’ve been here for about a month, but will soon move on to Thailand, Laos and northern Myanmar.

I’ve never felt at home in big cities, or even large towns, but I like Saigon. There are delicious family-owned restaurants and coffee shops on every corner. I do yoga at a studio down the street and then float through the swirl of the city in the monsoon rain to a bowl of hot beef noodle soup with herbs and lime.

Before Saigon I led a rugged travel program in Cambodia with the visionary organization Where There Be Dragons.

Dragons wants me to scout, design and lead a new Mekong River semester program for 17-22 year olds that would follow the river from Tibetan headwaters to the Delta in Vietnam.

This is a dream job, but I’m also really fired up on my work for BNT and the Matador Network. The Matador community is really thriving and I couldn’t ask for more inspiring colleagues.

Finally, I’m in the process of closing on 2.4 of the prettiest acres you’ve ever seen, right in my hometown of Craftsbury, Vermont.

Someday I’m going to build a cabin with a big front porch and a woodstove, put my rucksack on a hook by the door, plant lots of sunflowers, sow potatoes, load up a bookshelf with all the best books and really ground myself in the one place and one community that, for me, is truly home.