Writing about travel exposes the writer to a certain peril. It’s the same threat any writer faces, the danger of being read as not credible, inauthentic, insufficiently vetted or in the simplest terms, not having made one’s bones. Simple expeditionary bones, if not, more drastically, the bones that derive from looking for danger in exotic places (anyplace other than an American downtown of any middling sized city; multiple muggings in any one of the five largest U.S. cities might qualify, but only as a credential for writing about how to act in case you get mugged in these towns).
Writers who have more daring than brains, whatever their writing skills (which may, indeed, be prodigious) and stumble off to a war zone to rescue dogs abandoned as a result of carpet bombing or misplaced missile strikes are instant best-seller material, and, it goes without saying, may then write on any subject with the utmost credibility, no matter to what degree their activities leave their sanity in permanent doubt.
Being well-traveled is another kind of credential. And there are sub-categories of the sorts of dust one has collected on one’s boots before settling into an easy chair to record one’s experiences, if not exploits (exploits are far more interesting in and of themselves than mere experiences). Knowing the favorite local confections in the most obscure of towns in each and every one of the continental forty-eight states of the United States carries with such knowledge the potentiality for making informed, and innately rich and colorful allusions that, by their very curiosity and esotericism, renders them interesting and, more importantly, attests to the bona fides of the author. Being able to say, authoritatively, “Why this reminds me of the quaint native custom in the panhandle of Oklahoma of dosing crisped roadkill entrails with Cheez-wiz and gulping down a shot of Four Roses after each bite…” is good for a multi-book contract, and a chapter printed in Esquire, National Geographic Traveler, and the Best Travel Writing of 2007.
Living for more than two years in some far-off, hard-to-reach, if not partially inaccessible (during the “rainy or snowy or windy or war games season”) outpost is good for one’s reputation as a potential writer in this rapidly growing category. It used to be that opportunities for reporting on truly exotic locations far outpaced the common man’s ability to book passage on any means of conveyance to such destinations. Patagonia and the Aleutians, as recently as 50 years ago were subjects of some assurance that one could merely publish one’s random journal entries on the arduous passage in order to flirt with entry for at least a week or two on the New York Times Bestseller List, if only the paperback version.
Nowadays, one may arrange for an Orthodox Bar Mitzvah on a cruise ship with eighteen dining rooms (for as many classes of passenger), and whose main entertainment is watching the northernmost glacial cliffs on the Alaskan coast disburden themselves of several thousand tons of centuries-old ice as the behemoth vessel slowly and silently (save for the band blaring Hava Nagila for 200 frolicking celebrants) sails past, or there’s the monthly visit to the main sites of conflict during the War for the Falkland Islands. This significantly disenfranchises a great many would-be travel writers, with the derringdo (and the wallet) somehow to convey themselves to far-off outposts.
But we live in the days of annual counts of amateur climbing victims of Mount Everest, plus the yearly allotment of books based solely on bizarre methods of assailing this no longer daunting peak: “Climbing Everest in a T-Shirt.” Hence, durability counts for so much more than mere managed recklessness achieving rare objectives. Indeed travel writing now seems to have subsumed more abstract or virtual landscapes, many of them inner landscapes, of the growing up, not only absurd, but completely demented variety (preferably as the spawn of certifiably psychotic parents). The real world equivalent is to overcome the usual adversity, usually gastrointestinal, for protracted periods, or with significant and frequent recurrence: “Eating Unwashed Fruit on Seven Continents *plus two hundred minor islands in the South Pacific.”
To sum up, the basic virtues, superb writing skills combined with a keen observational eye, are no longer sufficient to pique interest, never mind to expect to elicit interest from any greater number of people than you can accommodate on your cell phone speed-dial (blood relatives not included).