Tim Cahill doesn’t mind a little discomfort. He’s braved Death Valley at the height of summer, walked 64 miles out of his way to see if a fish could swim the same route, and gone boating in subzero Antarctic weather. He’s had his innards wrung out by tropical gremlins and eaten things you and I would jump on a chair to get away from.
And people tell him he’s got it easy.
“I had someone give me a left-handed compliment just the other day,” says Cahill. “They said, ‘My cousin is a writer. He works really hard and you can tell it on every page. He hasn’t been able to publish anything, and you! You just have fun and they publish anything you write!’”
Like him or lump him, Cahill is pretty much living the dream. Now into his third decade as an “Editor-at-Large” for Outside magazine and a regular contributor to Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventurer and many other publications, the Livingston-based travel writer has authored eight books and made a comfortable living out of occasionally grave discomfort.
Cahill, who got his start writing for Rolling Stone, also pioneered a warts-and-all style of “average joe” adventure writing that was hardly the industry standard when Outside was first published (by Rolling Stone’s corporate parent) in 1977. Back then, says Cahill, adventure accounts were still written chiefly by the experts who undertook them, and not always to literary advantage.
“These people had spent a lot of time becoming, say, the world’s best ice climber,” Cahill says, “and not a lot of time working on writing skills, besides which they tended to address themselves to their peers—that is, people who were just about as good as they were, which is a very small proportion of the population. It seemed to work better for somebody who was a writer, who could really explain things, to go out with somebody who was really good at something and extrapolate on what it might be like.”
He got the job, he explains, because he was one of two writers in the Rolling Stone office who actually liked spending time outdoors. Another advantage to sending an average joe along on a big adventure, Cahill admits, was that it stripped away some of the infallibility credited to men of adventure less given to doubt and introspection in their own accounts.
“Back in those days,” Cahill recalls, “there was a sort of stiff-upper-lip quality about people who went on expeditions. You didn’t talk about personality conflicts or the time you sat down and decided that you really couldn’t do it. We tended to bring all that to the surface.”
In other words, Cahill says, he had discovered one of the dirty little secrets of successful travel writing: Something has to go wrong or you don’t have a story. But, he continues, things have to go wrong by themselves. He believes it’s a form of cheating to make things go wrong on purpose.
In any event, Cahill says, his editors usually afford him the latitude to switch camels midstream if something goes so wrong that he can’t get his story. When Cahill was dispatched to Irian Jaya to write about climbing and native people in the northern highlands, political strife blocked him from arriving at his intended destination. So he traveled 500 miles up a different river and encountered an indigenous group who, up until the year before, had been living a Stone Age existence. The encounter became “Among the Karowai: A Stone Age Idyll,” in part a rumination on the disruptive effect of modernity and what Cahill regards as the inevitable “homogenization of humanity.” Many insist it’s the best thing he’s written. The writer himself says simply: “Nobody at the magazine complained that it wasn’t the story they sent me there to do. And there were still plenty of obstacles to overcome.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Cahill doesn’t feel like the world is running out of remote places—in fact, new ones are popping up all over. The fall of the Soviet Union, he says, has opened up enormous patches of remoteness to the traveler who doesn’t mind the occasional interrogation at gunpoint.
Cahill, at this point in his career, considers himself an “old hand” at interrogations: Whenever possible, he says, try to negotiate from a position of strength. Also, it never hurts if your traveling companion has acquaintances in common with your interrogator from the latter’s peacekeeping days in Bosnia. This recently happened to Cahill in southeastern Turkey, when it took a little posturing and a lot of explaining to convince a Turkish official that Cahill and his companion really were on the trail of a recently spotted tiger previously thought to be extinct—and not, as the officer initially suspected, handing him the world’s stupidest cover for more illicit activities.
So much for having it easy. But if you ask Tim Cahill whether he’s got the best job in American journalism, his answer is an unqualified yes.
“The whole point of me being allowed to do the stuff that I do,” he says, “is not that I’m a better linguist than someone else or a better climber than someone else. It’s because I can write it in a way that appeals to numerous readers.
“When people ask how a trip was, they don’t usually want the whole story. If you try to tell them, you’ll bore them. If you just say, ‘It was good,’ people think you’re shining them on. But you have to say something, so maybe I’ll try, ‘It was good. We got chased around by Tuareg warlords.’ If they want to know more, they’ll ask.”
Tim Cahill will read from and sign copies of his new book about Yellowstone National Park, Lost in My Own Backyard, this Tuesday, June 15, at Fact & Fiction.