21 Oct 2008, 7:17pm

Tim Cahill: The Godfather of Travel Writing

Tim Canyoning in New Zealand

Tim Cahill Canyoning in New Zealand

When I asked renowned travel writer Tim Cahill how he came to be a writer specializing in travel during a recent Travel Fun interview, he answered with all the modesty of a hippo in the bush.  “I invented the job,” he said with a glint in his eye.  And indeed he did.  As one of the founders of Outside magazine, Tim Cahill changed the way a person could read about the great outdoors and adventure travel.  

He had worked two years at Rolling Stone in the mid Seventies when the editor approached him with the idea of creating a literate outdoor magazine.  “It was a simple concept,” Tim said.  But in those days outdoor magazines were more about hunting and fishing, slaying a ferocious wildebeest or how to prime your canoe for the upcoming season.  It was generally believed that avid readers of fine prose did not spend much time outdoors.

“We were made fun of by the journalism pundits,” Tim said.  “But we did the magazine that we wanted to read.”  And not long after their launch, the founders of Outside were proven right, especially after having received top awards in the publishing world many years in a row. 

“Outside really gave me my start,” Tim explained.  The folks at the magazine realized early on that getting the best ice climber to write a story didn’t produce the results they wanted.  Instead it was much better to have someone who could write well team up with the best ice climber and that person became Tim Cahill.  (Prior to Outside, Tim was one of those guys that would head out for a weekend of backpacking, but he was no big adventurer.)  “I was the inept rookie in the wilderness the first ten years,” Tim chuckled.

Tim’s spiral notebooks grew and it soon became clear that many of his magazine stories were destined to become books.  He told me he has written nine in all (but I found way more on Amazon and hence listed ten below).  And on their pages you can read some of the most descriptive and poignant tales of adventure travel ever written.  “An adventure story does not have to be a lot of gratuitous chest pounding,” Tim said.  “If you’re diving and you see a shark, there’s some wonder behind it.”  Tim wouldn’t conclude that story with a wielding pen knife and spewing blood and guts.  His work is much more refined; he’s in the business of telling compelling stories with finesse.

Tim and I traded tales about the writer’s life and the publishing world as we shared the microphone.  We were experiencing a classic KOTO happening, yet another improvisational moment in community radio since all of the extra mikes in the studio had been removed for a special event.  We had to get so close that we sidled up to each other like two lovers on a park bench.  That definitely helped to break the ice!  Tim Cahill no longer seemed like the untouchable travel writer God I had met several years ago at the Travel Writer’s Conference at Book Passage in California.  (He was surrounded by so many people that I was barely able to say hello to him then!)

Funnily enough when I asked Tim about his beginnings he told me that when he was young he thought “writers were somehow unattainable Gods”.  We both joked about how we found out that that was far from the truth.  

He was one of those kids that stayed up reading by flashlight late into the night.  Reading is always the best primer for a writer.  Tim graciously shared many other tips with me and I’m sure that as I attempt to implement them, I’ll be thinking about him and his dedication to the written word.  He did after all invent the travel writer job, you know.

Tim Surveying the External Landscape

Tim Surveying the External Landscape

Travel Writer Tips from Tim Cahill

-Take contemporaneous notes.  

-Write about the external landscape (what you see) and the internal landscape (what’s happening to you when you see it).   

-Bring home your notes and then try to write out complete sentences.

-Try to grab the reader around the first paragraph.  “I then give the best descriptions about why I was there and I tell stories that I hope will lead the reader to the same conclusion I came to when I was there,” Tim explained.

Tim regularly conducts writer’s workshops for the Yellowstone Association, 307-344-2293, www.yellowstoneassociation.org.

The Book Passage Travel Writer’s Conference takes place annually mid August at the main Book Passage Bookstore in Corte Madera, California; 800-999-7909, ext. 233, www.bookpassage.com.

Book Picks:  Tim Cahill’s books, some of which are listed below.

“Buried Dreams:  Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer”

“Jaguars Ripped My Flesh”

“A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg”

“Road Fever”

“Pecked to Death by Ducks”

“Pass the Butterworms:  Remote Journeys Oddly Remembered”


“Hold the Enlightenment”

“Lost in My Own Backyard:  A Walk in Yellowstone National Park”

“The Best American Travel Writing”

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