Editors' Choice

Working-Class Hero

An interview with writer Tim Cahill at his home in Livingston, Montana, excerpted from A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration by Michael Shapiro.

Night is enveloping the Colombian jungle camp; your traveling companion is insulting one of Colombia’s most ruthless guerrilla leaders, and said guerrilla is dropping less-than-subtle hints that you may soon be kidnapped. Leave it to Tim Cahill to defuse the situation with an off-the-cuff remark about his companion’s fondness for drink.

After more than a quarter-century of travel to the world’s most challenging places, Cahill has developed a knack for doing the right thing at the right time. Cahill doesn’t court danger, but when he encounters it, which is often, he responds shrewdly and emerges to recollect his adventures in tranquility. Whether scaling a cliff or descending into a cave, he’s the kind of guy you’d want by your side when it all hits the fan.

Cahill grew up in a small Wisconsin town. When he was ten, he joined a swim team so he could travel around the state. He put himself through the University of Wisconsin on a swimming scholarship and soon he found himself in UW’s law school. But when it dawned on him that most law students become lawyers and go on to careers in law, he dropped out and headed for San Francisco.

A San Francisco Examiner story led to a job at Rolling Stone. Later he became a founding editor of Outside magazine, where he invented the world’s greatest job: traveling to some of the planet’s most remote places and writing about them. He’s swum with great white sharks, plunged into caves with lethal levels of CO2, pursued Caspian tigers, and taken a dip in the ice-encrusted waters of the North Pole. But unlike many adventure writers of yore, Cahill’s stories don’t come from his gonads. He writes from the heart and hopes his tales make you laugh and make you cry.

Cahill, an imposing presence, stands six-foot-one and has filled out a bit since his collegiate swimming days. The New York Times has called him “a working-class Paul Theroux,” and when he’s wearing a tattered t-shirt and sipping a beer, he looks like he just got off the day shift. But looks can be deceiving. Though Cahill can joke about dog farts on one page, on the next you’ll find lines by William Blake. He’s a serious student of the craft of writing, and his stories are seamlessly structured.

Among Cahill’s collections are Pass the Butterworms, Pecked to Death by Ducks, and A Wolverine is Eating My Leg. He called his first book Jaguars Ripped My Flesh to rile colleagues who felt adventure travel writing was traditionally “subliterate.” Cahill’s 1991 book, Road Fever, recounts a caffeine-fueled road trip from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay that set a speed record recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.

“Let me know when you’re getting in and I’ll pick you up at the airport,” Cahill told me when we set a date for the interview. The Bozeman airport is thirty-five miles from his home, so I declined and rented a car. But when he said I could spend the night on his couch—“I doubt you got a big advance for this book, so you may as well save your motel money”—I accepted. I drove under Montana’s big sky to Livingston, where Cahill lives in a modest, century-old house in town, with his wife Linnea, two dogs, and two cats.

We corralled Grace the springer spaniel and Mac the 105-pound giant schnauzer and asked them that rhetorical question: Wanna go for a walk? It was a sunny, Indian summer afternoon. We circled a broad valley framed by the Crazy Mountains to the north and the snow-streaked Absarokas to the south. The dogs took off ahead of us and when a herd of antelope sprung past us, Gracie leapt after them. But even a speedy dog is no match for America’s fastest land animal.

Tim and I talked about the death of his mother five weeks before—he and his siblings had to decide when to pull the plug. I asked Tim how his neighbors felt about wolf reintroduction. “Polarized,” he said. He told me how he learned to hunt antelope by shadowing other hunters. Later he pointed to a nearby peak and said one day he wants to walk out his front door, swim across the river, scale the peak and be home in time for dinner.

Back at his house, in the company of a fearsome Dogon figure from Mali and a wild-eyed mask from Bali, we conducted the interview. Mac’s deafening barks punctuated Tim’s remarks and he often derailed his train of thought to shout “Plotz!” to Mac, figuring the dog would respond better to commands in its native German.

For dinner we went to The Pizza Garden, a homey restaurant owned by Tim’s close friend, Jim Liska. Ten people crowded around a table for eight—many were Tim’s friends—and they squeezed us in. One guy was a documentary filmmaker, another had been a photojournalist for Time. The woman across from me had helped ghost-write Hillary Clinton’s book. Our waitress, Courtney, was the young woman whose heartrending story of life-threatening spinal surgery is recounted in Cahill’s tale “Trusty and Grace” (in the 2002 collection, Hold the Enlightenment).

Halfway through dinner, an effervescent woman named Margie blew in and pulled up a chair next to mine. She told me she’d recently starred in the touring production of The Vagina Monologues. Turned out it was her birthday so we all sang for her. On the way home I asked Tim who she was and he said, “Oh, Margie. That’s Margot Kidder.” Well, my wine-addled mind thought, I might never emerge from a phone booth with a big red S on my chest, but at least I’ve sung happy birthday to Lois Lane.

The next day Tim asked if I’d like to see his cabin in the woods and help him pull his plastic water pipes out of the creek. As yellow aspen leaves rustled in the breeze, we drove on dusty roads past the small house where he lived when he first moved to Montana in the late ’70s. “See that long driveway—it wasn’t plowed in winter so I had to posthole it up that road with bags of groceries and the dog.” Nearby ranches belong to Tom McGuane, Robert Redford, and Tom Brokaw. “See that place up there on the hill—you’ll never guess who used to own it: Whoopi Goldberg,” he said. “But she sold it after a year.”

Cahill’s cabin is nestled in heavily forested woods just north of Yellowstone. PVC pipes stretched to the nearby creek, bringing water to the cabin. In anticipation of winter we yanked the pipes out from the creek bed. Tim marveled that this was the first time he’d ever managed to pull the pipes without getting his feet wet. I was soaked up to my knees. Just as he asked if I’d like to take a hike, the phone in his cabin rang. It was Linnea—they needed to leave for a dinner date in an hour.

The drive to the cabin had taken an hour and fifteen minutes. “It’d be great if we could get back in time for me to take a shower,” Tim said. “Would you mind driving?” I hadn’t really bargained for this: piloting a bulky Chevy pickup at hair-raising speeds across Montana’s back roads with a passenger who’d set an overland speed record. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll let you know when there’s a curve or a bump coming up.” My sodden foot put the pedal to the metal. We flew over ditches, kicked up clouds of dust, sped past a herd of befuddled buffalo. We made it in about forty-five minutes, as fast, Tim said, as he’d ever driven it himself.

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What are you working on now.

A very short book called Lost in My Own Backyard, which is about walking in Yellowstone. I was asked to write about my favorite place to walk so I said, “Could it be Yellowstone Park?” And they (the publisher) said it certainly could be. Good lord, what a job! They’re going to pay me to walk in Yellowstone Park—I love it.

Not everything you’ve done is travel. You started by writing for Rolling Stone.

Let me start a little bit further back, and I’ll tell you a story. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a teenager and I think a lot of my adolescent fantasies of travel were tied up with being a writer. Big-time writers in those days were Ernest Hemingway and guys who went to Africa. However in the little town that I grew up in there was nobody who was a writer, and since I really did love to read, I thought writers were some kind of gods. Now you and I know many writers (laughs) and we know this is not the case. Some of the most poetic and wonderful writers are somewhat less than gods in their personal lives.

But at the time I thought if I said I wanted to be a writer, it would be a kind of vanity. It would be like saying I want to be a god. So I never told anybody until I went to the University of Wisconsin. I went to law school and did pretty well in my first semester. A professor, one of those scary law school professors, a Paper Chase kind of guy, called me into his office and said, “This is one of the five best briefs I’ve ever read from a first-year student.”

I recall walking out of that office and feeling very depressed and thinking , Why was I depressed? What I realized was that if this kept up the way it was going, I was going to be a lawyer, and I’d never actually tried to be a writer. So I went to San Francisco—this shows how backwards I was; the capital of the American literary world is New York—and enrolled in San Francisco State in a creative writing program. I wrote a mercifully unpublished novel…

What year was that?

1968 or 1969—I’m vague on years. The Summer of Love—I got there in the fall (laughs). I was there certainly in time for Altamont. In those days in San Francisco, prices were cheap enough that young people who had big dreams, artistic dreams, could actually live in the city, and there were a lot of us. I had this friend who was an oil painter and a lithographer, and he did birds. He wanted me to write something about birds so that the popular media would carry one of his lithographs.

The only problem with that is that I have ornithological dyslexia. I can’t tell one bird from another. I have gotten better at it. What I did know were the turkey vultures on Mount Tamalpais. I used to just lie down in the meadow, and the vultures would begin to circle trying to figure out if you were dead or not. So I said I’ll write about the vultures.

So Jim—the artist’s name was Jim Gorman—said “I can do vultures” and he did some. I wrote the article and submitted it with some of Jim’s lithos to the magazine of the San Francisco Examiner and they accepted it. Now here’s the interesting thing: I’d never had a journalism course. I knew nothing whatsoever about journalism—I was going to write the great American novel.

But it was just the beginning of New Journalism. I didn’t know I was a new journalist. I was just a guy who had never been taught the proper pyramid lead, the structure of a journalistic piece. I knew the structure of a dynamic scene; I knew the structure of novels. I knew how to carpenter scenes together. At that time it turned out to be a very good idea for me to do things like that. The editor liked my story on vultures and asked what else I’d like to do something on.

I’d been told: Write about what you know. So I did one on beer, and then I did one on this guy who had won the 100-meter breast stroke in the Olympics. As it turned out, I had been a swimmer at the University of Wisconsin and I knew what swimming was like. I knew that in the big race you can remember every second of that fifty-eight seconds—you can remember precisely what you were thinking—and how much more so an Olympian than someone like me who was just a pretty fair Big 10 swimmer.

So I went and I asked him, “What were you thinking? You’re standing on the block and the gun goes off, what do you think now?” And I followed him all the way through—I did about 2,000 words on what he thought from start to finish. It was all an internal monologue, which is a novelist’s technique. And that made my work in the San Francisco Examiner stick out, because I just didn’t know how to do journalism properly. I would use the techniques of fiction, like internal monologue.

It’s always good to be in the Sunday papers because everybody reads them, even the people of Rolling Stone. I had friends who had friends and somebody said, “Why don’t you come down and ask about a job?” So I did. And they said, “Yeah, we need an editorial drudge.” That was my title. Rolling Stone was so amazing in those days because you could travel very quickly from editorial drudge to associate editor. I think almost all things are more stratified these days. Two months later I was writing about rock-and-roll stars that nobody else wanted to write about, like Donovan. So that’s how I got started, long story.

Was writing about travel a conscious decision for you, or did you just find yourself propelled by your curiosity and start going places and writing about them?

I’ve thought about that a lot. I can remember when I was a kid in Wisconsin in a little town called Waukesha. I told my dad, this guy got to go to Florida and that guy went to New York, I never get to go anywhere. I was ten at the time, and my dad said if you join the YMCA swimming team, they go all over the state. So I said O.K. I made the team and I got to go to really exotic places like Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay. I think I associated this reward of travel with hard, physical work.

What happened at Rolling Stone is they wanted to start an outdoor magazine and there were only two of us in the office who liked to go outdoors, Michael Rogers and myself, and we along with Harriet Fier started putting together the plans for Outside magazine. I said, “Let’s have an adventure travel article in each issue.” And they said, “Well, see Tim, you don’t seem to get it; Outside will be a literate magazine for people who go outdoors.” You have to think back to ’76, there wasn’t such a thing. It was either a magazine that told you how to paddle a canoe twelve times a year, very service-oriented, or there were those magazines called Man’s Adventure or Man’s Testicle, and they were all about our death race with the Jungle Leper Army, stuff that you can hardly credit as being entirely true.

I said, “Hell if I can write about lying out and watching vultures and make an interesting story, how much more interesting would it be if I went diving, for instance, and saw a shark.” In the old men’s magazines I’d have to pull out a pen knife and battle it to death. In what I saw, you could talk about what it felt like to see one, and talk about whether you were scared and the core of wonder that would be wrapped up in all that. If you did that well you would have an adventure article.

They said, “O.K. Tim, do it.” And hence I sort of invented my own job, to travel to different places and often put myself in jeopardy, hard physical work being something that travel had been about for me since I was ten.

I’m curious about how you see your terrain. You talk about the interior landscape as well as the external landscape. What do you view as your beat?

If I have a beat, it is the remote places on earth. Remote places have changed a great deal since I began writing. Twenty, twenty-five years ago you could go to places such as Peru, and as a white man from the United States, you looked a good deal different than most people there. They would grab you by the arm and take you to one of their children who might have blond hair and blue eyes. And it was just such a novel thing. Now there are adventure travel tours that go through there all the time. People see gringos all year long.

The places that are now remote are the places that cannot be visited by adventure travel companies because the adventure travel companies can’t get insurance. I’m talking about places that generally have some kind of civil insurrection going on. For me to get remote anymore, I’m being driven more and more to the lines of guns. I used to have to figure out ways to ford a river that was running high in the springtime. Now I have to figure out how to get past the soldiers with the guns.


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The air was filled with a light snow that didn’t precisely fall but seemed to drift aimlessly under a pearly, opalescent sky. Everything else under that crystal dome was flat, an endless prairie of sea ice, white with the newly fallen snow, and I could see the curve of the earth in the far distance in any direction I cared to look. That direction was south.

I was, for the moment, facing due south. Behind me, the direction was due south. It was due south to my right, due south to my left, and if I wanted to quarter off on my left side, I’d be facing south by south-south.

—Tim Cahill, “North Pole: The Easy Way,” Pass the Butterworms

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One thing that strikes me about your writing is its youthful sense of wonder and exuberance. How do you keep that alive—does travel help you cultivate that?

I talk about my travel as being sort of an adolescent dream that I never let anybody know about. The word adolescent is used often as a pejorative, but when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I was the most idealistic I ever was in my life; the most doors were open to me. Adolescence has some good qualities and I try to cultivate those qualities. The benefit of travel writing is you can always keep that gate to wonder open—it’s a great big huge world. Say you’d been to every single place I’d been to in my life except that you were ten feet to my right. You would have lived a totally different trip.


The interview with Tim Cahill continues in A Sense of Place...


Michael Shapiro is a writer who has bicycled through Cuba for the Washington Post, celebrated Holy Week in Guatemala for the Dallas Morning News, and floated down the Mekong River on a Laotian cargo barge for an online magazine. He is the author of three books about using the Internet for travel, including Internet Travel Planner, and maintains NetTravel.com, a list of top travel sites alongside some of his travel stories.

For four years Shapiro wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle travel section. His work also appears in the Los Angeles Times, Sunset, and in Travelers' Tales anthologies. For an investigation into frequent-flier programs, Shapiro won a 1998 Lowell Thomas award from the Society of American Travel Writers.

Shapiro's first travel story was about a bicycle journey he took across the U.S. the summer after he graduated from U.C. Berkeley. He's worked as a river-raft guide and is a volunteer sea kayak guide for ETC, a group that takes disabled people on outdoor adventures. Shapiro has also interviewed Barry Bonds, discussed the blues with B.B. King, and been blessed by the Dalai Lama. A native of New York, he lives in Sonoma County, California, with his wife and cat.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Michael Shapiro, Tim Cahill

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