100 Countries and Counting
describe them for people who don't have the time, the inclination
or the desire to find out for themselves."
Why on earth did Tim Cahill (M.A., '70), one of the best (and funniest) travel
writers around, almost become a lawyer?
"A simple lack of courage," he says. "I knew that being a writer was an iffy way to make a living." Luckily for readers everywhere, Cahill came to his senses during his first year of law school. After a professor praised his prose in a legal brief, Cahill "decided to give [writing] a shot." In 1968, he dropped out of the University of Wisconsin and headed to San Francisco ("I had flowers in my hair"), where he enrolled in SF State's creative writing program because he'd heard "it was one of the best in the country."
Finding a mentor in Professor William Wiegand, Cahill wrote a "mercifully unpublished" novel. "I had a tendency to overwrite -- purple prose -- but he was very kind," Cahill says. The novel focused on a fictional hippie exploring Katmandu, but Cahill was destined to publish stories of real-life adventure: his own.
His career took flight when he came to the aid of an artist friend hoping to place his bird paintings in a newspaper; could Cahill write an accompanying article? "I told him I knew turkey vultures," Cahill says. He wrote about lying in the meadows along Mount Tam as the birds circled overhead; his friend provided the artwork, and the piece was published in the (San Francisco) Examiner. The editor asked Cahill for more stories.
"I learned the techniques of fiction at SF State. I knew how to write dialogue. I knew how to carpenter together scenes," Cahill says. But he employed the techniques to tell true stories, unaware that he was helping usher in a movement called New Journalism.
Cahill's stories in the Examiner led to a job at then San Francisco-based Rolling Stone, where he rose from "editorial drudge" to rock journalist. He also got in on the ground floor of a spin-off publication, one that tapped into his passion for the great outdoors. As a founding editor for Outside magazine, Cahill suggested each issue contain an adventure travel article -- and the rest is history.
Despite many articles (for Outside, National Geographic and other national publications) and books (including the much-praised "Road Fever" and "A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg"), Cahill says the adventure part of his job hasn't been easy. "I'm not some Superman outdoors guy, so everything is a challenge," he says.
His globe-trotting has found him face to face with both gorillas and guerillas. But people, especially when they are pointing guns at you in remote jungles, are by far the scariest type of obstacle, he says. While he can size up a river by looking at its rapids and assess the danger of a mountain before climbing it, "with people and a trigger, it's a matter of an inch and you just don't know."
Cahill's travels to an estimated 100 countries have taken him to Jonestown just after the murder and suicide orchestrated by Jim Jones. He's chased down the supposedly extinct Caspian tiger in southeastern Turkey, on the borders of Iraq and Iran, where war, ironically is helping the wildlife in the area make a comeback. "People toting guns in the forest can be mistaken for insurgents by soldiers or for soldiers by insurgents. Consequently, no one hunts there anymore," he explains. He's even come close to time travel by visiting the Karowai people, a group of hunter-gatherers cloistered away from the outside world in Irian Jaya, now West Papua. Cahill says, "I used to travel like a hysterical monkey," but six months of yearly travel have become three or four months in a post-9/11 world. "Advertising is the lifeblood of magazines, and big advertisers didn't (and still don't) feel that most Americans want to travel abroad, and certainly not to the places I generally go."
No matter where Cahill goes, he rarely leaves home without an emergency light (came in handy in the darkness of Kuwait after the first Gulf War), a short-wave radio (to stay abreast of nearby insurrections while traveling in the African bush) and a bottle of Tabasco sauce (roasted beetles can be bland).
His next trip is to the Pantanal swampland in Brazil, before heading to Zambia for a descent of the Zambesi River. As for any aspiring travel writers who would like to follow in his footsteps, he has one piece of advice: "Write."
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