Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding, a book that promotes "the ethic of independent travel." His writing has appeared in Salon.com, National Geographic Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside, Islands, Slate.com and National Public Radio.
Wayne: You have attributed your travel bug to a road trip you made in college with some buddies in a VW mini-bus. What was that trip like, and what memories stand out? Why did it cement your love for travel, and how did it specifically lead to a taste for "vagabonding?"
Rolf: I don't know that my initial eight-month journey around the USA was what started my travel bug, since I'd had the desire to travel from a very early age. But it was my first in-depth experience of long-term travel as an adult, and it's what made me realize the potential that travel has for making one's life deeper and more textured. At the time, I thought the USA journey would be a ritual of getting travel out of my system before I got serious and started a normal, stationary American life. As it turned out, those eight months on the American road only proved to me how cheap and easy long-term travel was, and how much more of the world I wanted to see.
It was on the American road that I first encountered the joys and challenges of creative travel. I was living out of a 1985 Vanagon, and following the advice of a road atlas and a Let's Go: USA guidebook. This was before the Internet, or the ubiquity of cell phones, and in some ways I was more isolated from friends and family than I am now when I travel overseas. But overcoming the challenges was part of the fun, and the whole experience was so new that dozens of memories stand out — including experiencing the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles; sleeping at the bottom of a snowy Grand Canyon on Super Bowl Sunday; riding as a police observer through northeast Houston; experiencing a New Orleans Mardi Gras for the first time; spending a month in Florida during spring break season; living out of the 42nd Street YMCA while exploring New York for the first time; staying with Cistercian monks in a Massachusetts monastery; and hiking through nearly two dozen national parks and forests in the American West. Experiencing so much only made me want to experience more.
Twelve years later, I'm still wandering.
Wayne: How did your travel bug lead to Pusan, South Korea, early in your traveling, and why were you willing to make temporary home there when your travel style seems more about wandering more whimsically?
Rolf: My Korea sojourn was less a manifestation of my travel bug than the fact that I didn't have any money at that point in my life (age 26). After my USA trip, I'd half-heartedly tried to fit back into American life, but it didn't feel quite right. I was trying to write a book about my 1994 American journey, but that wasn't working out, either. I had friends teaching English in Pusan, so I decided to do the same — to pad my bank account a little while experiencing another culture and buying myself some time. And, while an expat stint might not technically be considered "travel", my Pusan experience taught me so much about living and operating in a different culture. Using my money and skills from two years in Korea, I hit the road and didn't stop for two and a half years. And I the reason I did stop, eventually, was to set up camp in Thailand and write my book.
So Korea was definitely part of the process that gradually opened up my eyes to the full potential of vagabonding. I recommend an overseas work stint to anyone who's serious about travel and the experience of other cultures.
Wayne: In your book, you push the merits of vagabonding for the widest variety of people, but what kind of person most feels the need to "vagabond?"
Rolf: I think the person who most feels the need to vagabond is anyone — regardless of demographic categorization — who has that persistent yearning in his or her gut to hit the road. My book is for those people — people who've always dreamed of long-term travel, but didn't think it was possible for them, for various reasons.
In specific terms, there are several typical categories of vagabonders — including students traveling just after graduation; young twenty- and thirty-somethings between jobs or on sabbaticals; folks with seasonal or contract careers who choose to prioritize travel in their off-time; retirees, ranging from their late-forties to late-eighties, who are out having the time of their lives.
Wayne: You have said that your favorite writers include people like Thoreau and Whitman and Kerouac, writers known for their independence and sense of freedom. Why have these kinds of writers resonated with you? Among other writers you admire, which names might surprise your readers?
Rolf: Of the three writers you mention, Whitman is by far my favorite. Kerouac documented the impulsive joys of life on the road, but he was also melancholic and self-absorbed. Thoreau inaugurated a distinctively American strain of counterculture, but he was a tad snarky and self-satisfied. Whitman's writing, on the other hand, included and encompassed so much in such an exuberant and accessible way. His ideas and his joyous energy still seem fresh, well over a century later.
As for other writers, some folks might be surprised to know that I didn't read much travel writing until I started writing travel essays myself. I've made up for this in recent years, but I still gain a lot of my inspiration from non-travel sources. Not long ago, I went through a phase of writing meta travel narratives, and this was directly influenced by reading the likes of Italo Calvino and Lorrie Moore and Tim O'Brien — none of whom are travel writers. But my resulting meta travel stories were very successful: two were short-listed for The Best American Travel Writing 2006, including my second-person "Tantric Sex For Dilettantes," which Tim Cahill chose as a main selection.
One of my literary-philosophical influences that might surprise some readers is the Bible. In the current political climate, it seems almost impossible to discuss a monotheistic religious text dispassionately, since fundamentalists have distilled the Bible into this cruel little science-fiction revenge fantasy, and secularists boast their ignorance of the Bible as a sign of virtue. In reality, the Bible contains some amazing stuff, from the spiritual existentialism of Ecclesiastes, to the revolutionary humanism of the synoptic Gospels. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, he's not talking about a place where people play harps and gaze down at the damned; he's talking about the process of becoming more fully human.
In mentioning the Bible, I don't want to infer that everything I read is heavy and spiritual. I have eclectic reading interests. I like reading about history and science and evolutionary psychology. I like short stories. I like David Brooks' humorous screeds on class in America, and Chuck Klosterman's wry take on popular culture. I devour the New Yorker and the Economist and the Believer. And I read almost everything that's posted at Arts & Letters Daily.
Wayne: You have traveled all over the United States and now to many places all over the world. Recently, though, you more firmly established your home state of Kansas as your home base. Besides the fact that you have family there, what has drawn you back? How has your sense of Kansas changed as you have traveled more and more?
Rolf: Travel has taught me a lot about roots and family, and I consider it a privilege to be able to stay close to both. It's a nice psychic balance to know that I always have my 30 acres waiting for me back on the prairie. In a more practical sense, it's a remarkably cheap place to live. My family and I got two houses, a barn, a stable, and two ponds on a gorgeous stretch of grassland for less than what it would cost to buy an 800-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn or San Jose. It's a little quiet sometimes, but if I crave excitement I can drive to Wichita and fly to New York or San Francisco or New Orleans for under $300, round-trip.
As for how Kansas has changed in my consciousness, I'd say I've recently reinvented my understanding of Kansas into the adult sense. A lot people who grow up in the far-flung provinces tend to despise their home because their memories are tied to the cruelties of adolescence, or the political limitations of red-state America. But experiencing so much of the rest of the world has allowed me to rediscover Kansas on my own terms. I have little patience for people who've never been to the Great Plains, yet consider it a haven for freaks, fanatics, and fatties. Anyone who's spent time in inner America — or anyplace that's saddled with a reductive stereotype, like the Arab Middle East — knows that the reality is much warmer and more complicated.
Wayne: You have credited your high school teacher John Fredin for helping you get started in writing. How did he instill this need for you to write? How did you get started writing for Salon?
Rolf: I've felt the need to write ever since I started penning bad rip-offs of Stephen King stories at age 14. What John Fredin did was to help steer my reading and writing into a more literary direction. And, unlike some teachers who were just happy to have an English student who finished his homework with decent penmanship, Fredin refused to accept anything but the best from me. He taught me to avoid clichés, embrace reality, and use a critical and empathetic eye. And he never stopped taking an interest in my writing, even well after I was out of high school. I didn't have the privilege of going to an elite college, but I did have Fredin as a tireless and brutally honest mentor. To this day, I'm still proud of the fact that my break in the writing business didn't come through college connections or metropolitan networking, but through skills sharpened with the persistent guidance of a coffee-and-martini-swilling Korean war vet who presided over English classes in a working class Wichita high school.
I was 28 years old before I had anything published — on a cold spec submission to Salon.com's Don George (who has since become a mentor as well). But by that point my writing-voice had developed to the point that my career advanced very rapidly once I had a foot in the door.
Wayne: Can you talk about how you use photography to complement your travel writing?
Rolf: I actually don't use it much. I go through phases where I take lots of travel photos, but at this point in my travel career I don't spend much time behind the lens.
From a business standpoint, it's wise to develop a good photographic sensibility, since it is a great complement to writing. But for the most part I leave the photos to someone else when I write for magazines.
Wayne: How has the Internet made it easier and more difficult to ply a trade as a travel writer?
Rolf: I probably wouldn't have a career without the Internet. I got my start in an Internet magazine, Random House found me through my website, and my blog has solidified my presence as an authority on independent travel. From the very beginning, almost every single bit of correspondence with my editors and agents has been via email. I rarely use the phone, and I use snail mail only for contracts. Seeing as how my first article was published in 1998, I am probably among the first literary travel-writers to get his most important breaks exclusively through Internet outlets.
Wayne: Your web site is a fount of information about travel and travel writing. A great feature is your archive of interviews/profiles of travel writers. Can you mention some of your favorite profiles, and why they rank among your favorites? From which travel writers have you learned the most? Which titles or writers seem timeless enough that you reread them over and over?
Rolf: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Pico Iyer, so it was a thrill to get such a thoughtful interview from him. He's a remarkable person — someone I'd really like to emulate — not just in terms of writing, but in terms of graciousness and openness to the people who take an interest in his work. I've also enjoyed hearing perspectives from the likes of Jeffrey Tayler, Peter Hessler, Sarah Erdman, and Tim Cahill.
I always learn something from each new interview, and the scope of writers represented makes for a lot of variety. An editor like Thomas Swick will have a perspective unique from a guidebook writer like Joe Cummings, both of which are unique from a newspaper staffer like Tom Haines or a full-time freelancer like [writer/photographer] Amanda Jones. And then you have people like Brad Newsham or Robert Young Pelton, whose career paths and personalities are so unique and humbling.
As for authors I come back to, it's rare that I re-read books, apart from the classics that captured my imagination at a very young age (Catch-22, say, or Cannery Row). And my tastes are varied and distracted enough as a reader that I rarely read through any writer's entire canon. I love reading Iyer and Cahill, for example, but I have yet to read everything they've published. I try to read a new novel by Graham Greene and a new nonfiction collection from George Orwell about once a year. And a Shakespeare play. But I rarely go back to old titles, because I feel like there's so much new stuff out there that I still need to read.