Category Archives: Essay

In Search of Elusive Metaphors

 The Art of Travel Writing

Gulf of California

TRAVEL WRITING IS JOURNALISM WITH AN EMPHASIS ON PLACE rather than events. It may or may not aim for objectivity, but almost inevitably it explores states of mind– that of the writer, and of the people who dwell along the path the writer wanders. It may even presume to convey the attitude of the land, on the assumption that nature speaks a language humans can interpret.

Apart from when it serves a utilitarian function– such as guiding tourists to exotic locales– the travel narrative stands alongside the novel, biography, poem, history, and essay as a genre aspiring to high art. As such, it requires of the author meticulous attention to detail and mood, an ability to vividly convey fleeting events, sensations, and thoughts, the capacity to sort out myriad impressions, to eliminate tedium, and to interpret information by placing it in various contexts, be they historical, environmental, or personal. Far more than news reporting, where the focus is on an issue, travel writing involves recreating an atmosphere, crafting a story imbued with dramatic tension and rendered in such a way that readers come away from it exhilarated, dreamy, despondent, amused, philosophical, or otherwise engaged.

Accomplished travel writing reveals emotions and behaviors, catching its subjects in intimate, unguarded moments. In this it resembles lovemaking. Readers will note whether the author’s attempts are adept or clumsy, sensitive or callous.

Revealed emotion is travel writing’s key. A journey’s essence must be unlocked, be it through astonishment at glimpsing a snow leopard, reverie induced by the discovery of scattered potsherds, or frustration and fear welling up from having to stop and dole out a bribe at yet another rebel checkpoint.

The critical element in each travel story is the writer’s thoughts, not the plodding details of how one gets from airport, to taxi, to hotel, to restaurant, to mosque, to moonlit shore– then back through winding streets to bed. Whole days of such monotony are better left as blurs across the writer’s canvas, while select moments stand out as flashes of color. Each detail rendered must be purposeful, an element in a scheme designed to surprise, delight, captivate, illuminate, sadden, or confound. Though the trip itself may have been random, nothing in the manuscript is left to chance. Every word is plotted, subtle phrasings are employed, humor is injected, glimpses of familiar places are afforded– all with the aim of seducing readers, enticing them to abandon their egos, follow a certain route, lose themselves to other ways of thinking and perceiving. Success is achieved when readers let their minds wander at ease through a landscape their bodies may never know, or when they eagerly revisit a known site, only too glad to see it in a new light, or from a different angle.

A fresh viewpoint is critical, for not a single castle, village, river bend, rock formation, back-alley brothel, wind-swept plain, temple, gorge, bridge, or slum has escaped being visited by English-language writers. An author seeking to publish a manuscript about, say, trekking to Machu Picchu must convince an editor (especially a jaded one, the most common kind) that their account is novel–even though it follows upon hundreds of other articles and books by writers who traversed the same trail.

To eschew banality, to somehow rise above the literary pack, is the travel writer’s greatest challenge. But in the effort to be original, the author must be wary of stretching too far, of becoming a poseur. Truth is essential. If any word in any account breathes insincerity, readers will turn suspicious, even hostile. They’ll reject a writer they suspect of posturing. Readers have no sympathy for adventurers who boast of facing danger when the thrills described seem cheap, the bravado contrived, and the threats unreal.

Certainly, though, the writer who tosses humor and cockiness into an account can afford to flavor it with a bit of braggadocio. But even in this mixture, at its base, there must be honesty, the most fundamental ingredient.


Travel writing with an emphasis on natural history:

Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, by Mark Mardon and Stephen Lyman

The Mysterious Lands, by Ann Zwinger

The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, by Henry Beston

Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat

In the Country of Grasses, by Terry Tempest Williams

Pieces of White Shell, by Terry Tempest Williams



— John Muir

Travels in Alaska

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf


— Colin Fletcher

The Thousand-Mile Summer



— John McPhee

Encounters With the Archdruid

Coming Into the Country


— Catherine Caufield

In the Rainforest

(the Amazon basin)


— Alex Shoumatoff

The Rivers Amazon


— Debbie S. Miller

Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


— Sam Wright




— Dean Krakel II

Downriver: A Yellowstone Journey


— Peter Matthiessen

The Cloud Forest


. . . with an emphasis on culture or human habitat.


— Gretel Ehrlich

The Solace of Open Spaces



— Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

(Blue Ridge Mountains)


— N. Scott Momaday

The Way to Rainy Mountain



— Isak Dinesen

Out of Africa


— Peter Matthiessen

Indian Country



— V.S. Naipaul

An Area in Darkness


A Bend in the River



— Thomas Bass

Camping With the Prince



— Mary Morris

Nothing to Declare

(Latin America)


— Rosemary Mahoney

The Early Arrival of Dreams



— Jan Morris


(essays from Rolling Stone)


— Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia


— Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar


— Marian Botsford Fraser

Walking the Line: Travels Along the Canadian/American Border


— Joanna McIntyre Varawa

Changes in Latitude



— Jeff Greenwald

Shopping for Buddhas



— Brigid Keenan

Travels in Kashmir


— Richard Shelton

Going Back to Bisbee

(southern Arizona)



. . . with a biographical or autobiographical emphasis


— Mark Mardon

Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (with painter Stephen Lyman)

(Yosemite National Park)


— John McPhee

Encounters With the Archdruid

(environmentalist David Brower)


— Curee Miller

On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet


— Timothy Egan

The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest


— Caroline Alexander

One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley

(West Africa)


— Stuart Stevens

Night Train to Turkistan



. . . with an emphasis on daring and hardship

— Tim Cahill

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh

(South America)


— Joe Kane

Running the Amazon


— David Smith and Franklin Russell

The Odyssey of an Uncommon Athlete

(North Africa)


— David Halsey with Diana Landau

Magnetic North: A Trek Across Canada


— Arlene Blum

Annapurna: A Woman’s Place


— Julie Tullis

Clouds from Both Sides



— Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen

Islands of Fire, Islands of Spice



— Galen Rowell

Mountains of the Middle Kingdom: Exploring the High Peaks of China and Tibet


— Eric Hansen

Stranger in the Forest




This essay appeared on the website of the South American Explorers Club —a geographical and outdoor adventure society — as part of its writing guidelines for contributors to South American Explorer magazine.


Winds of Peace

How do you measure Gay Pride? Its power, poetry, song, and spirituality? How it affects not only those of us who dwell in this grand Gay capital, but the masses beyond these isolated peninsula shores, to the far reaches of the globe? How is our collective spirit, so intensely concentrated during Pride Weekend, affecting the larger universe?

A sage whispers in my ear: We’re changing the planet, for good, and none too soon. Our Pride, with all its multitudinous forms densely concentrated into a mass of hopes and dreams, is a force capable of shaping human destiny, something we’re only now beginning to comprehend, much less guide wisely. All of us – questioning, transgender, bisexual, gay and lesbian – are deeply concerned about Destiny, since it seems not so far off anymore. We have to wonder where we’re going not just as as participants in a movement, or residents of a city, or citizens of a nation, but as members of a species. Fate has been looking iffy lately, and Prozac more attractive than ever, so why don’t we just shrug and go belly up to the bar? Do you ever wonder why so many queens dance on ecstasy? It’s not to reach accord with the Republicans by suddenly making them feel all lovey dovey. It’s more like trying to find a safe place in the wilderness where ordinary cares can be shed, allowing for revelations to seep in. The problem is, in that ecstatic rush of intoxicating compassion and brotherly/sisterly love, a lot of guys lose contact with something basic. All the dancing and hugging in the world won’t win us peace here and now if it doesn’t have a direction, and a solid foundation. For flighty love to work earthly miracles, it needs community support and guidance, which means everyone in the community looks out for and respects everyone else, not just those with similar hair cuts and cars.

The way of savoring the heights of gay love, or any love, is the way of savoring a fine wine – knowing it intimately, breathing it in with complete clarity, pausing to reflect on its aroma, remembering where it comes from – the kegs, the vines, the earth. What makes a peaceful bouquet? A cornucopia of Pride mixed with sweat, tears, and soil.

Imagine. Peace. Last year at this time I dared to imagine peace was at hand, but in the yin/yang way of the world, my illusion was soon to be shattered. Global turmoil has reached proportions my boomer generation always feared, but never really expected to have to witness and bear. But why sweat the End of the World? My parents went through hell and back with the Great Depression and World War II, and somehow kept dignity intact. Can’t I do as well?

As a boy, I imagined peace my whole life. I don’t know why. My family fought. It was a blue-collar household in the old Southwest. My dad was a liquor salesman, and my mom the prettiest nurse in the the territory. Dad was always jealous. Imagine. Not peace.

Love, respect, dignity – these are qualities Arthur Anderson couldn’t balance in a ledger book even if they tried honestly. Why then am I always wanting to save the whole cruel world, and not just my own sorry ass?

Because I’m gay! There’s just something about it, when your focus is not on conceiving new life, but on nurturing the life that already exists, you discover inwardly what’s needed to help the species survive outwardly. Maybe it’s in the genetics of being gay. I can’t allege it with any scientific certainty, but I feel it. It’s a poet thing. To contemplate peace is poetry, and no one is in a better position to do the task than queers, who are forever thinking outside and all around boxes. Maybe we were born to be peacemakers.


This essay appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter on July 4, 2002, following the LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration in San Francisco.


SKATEBOARDAGAINST THE YELLOW WALL there are no mysteries. There the tall man sits, the slender young man with the green sweater tied around his waist, there he sits, his back against the wall, his butt upon a skateboard, upon its non-skid surface, his legs drawn up, his arms folded around his knees. He contemplates the world. There are no mysteries. There is concrete, asphalt, and metal. There is some brick and wood. Every once in a while there’s a tree. It is no mystery why the tree is there: someone planned it, just like everything is planned–then falls apart. There is nothing natural in the City, and nothing eternal. That’s why the tall young man with the green sweater sits upon his skateboard. If there is nothing natural, there is also nothing unnatural–all is fixed, all is a facade. Skateboarding is just another facade in the City, another way of life.

 All-American punk kids on skateboards: as standard in the City as cream cheese on bagels. You see them in the skateboard shops with their parents, when they’re still squeaky clean and innocent and too young to buy the equipment on their own. They plaster their boards up and down with cartoon decals, hideous monsters and demonic faces of evil. They are delighted by the clash of flourescent greens, oranges, reds, and the black lips of hell creatures.

They wear the requisite multi-colored hi-top tennies and the standard knee-length Hawaiian-patterned shorts. They assemble on street corners, consciously cool post-pubescent boys, wanting to be looked at, never admitting it. One steps out of the circle, gingerly tosses his board to the ground, toes it, makes it pop up, steps on it, makes it squirm, dance. The others watch impassively out of the corners of their eyes; he pays no attention to them, only to his motions, to his performance. But the dance is quickly over, even before any climax to it can be made, and the boy rejoins his buddies. He hasn’t the power to leave them. Not yet.

“Skateboard” was published in “Frank,” an arts magazine in San Francisco in the 1980s, now long out of print.

The girls will thrash on the hills with their rad boys and one of them will end up bloody. It’s cool. Her boy will like her better after that. She widens the rip in the knee of her jeans and exposes the five-inch scab. That’s just one: you should’ve seen what she did to her head!

Out of the City there are the highways, even unto the Midwest. On these highways in ages past and even unto the present there sailed solitary figures in convertibles. They were loners, drifters, free spirits. They were, and ever are, American heroes.

No less, the solitary skateboarders of the City. These few, a very few, feel no tie to heaven and are ever defying the earth, but it holds them. It holds them and twists them, but they twist back, and so an antagonism of forces conspires to create a most startling and unworldly ballet on the streets. Nothing engages these women and men as the act of breaking free. They are a long way from their gangs on the streetcorners, all of whom vanished from the scene. These individuals are on their own. You and I cannot touch them.

A green sweater around his waist, a blue, torn tanktop, some well-worn black jeans, old sneakers–shoulders, arms, and neck bare, skin tanned, jaws wide, hair long, curly, dirty blonde, turned-up nose, cleft chin, high cheekbones, hardened look, wary eyes, eyes that have seen inside the walls of the City, into the cubicles of human isolation, a body that has felt the humiliating blows of ignorance and contempt. Maybe he’ll open up for someone, either a woman or a man, but someone to pound his flesh and heart hard.

This man on a skateboard lives an aesthetics, a philosophy, a sport, and he doesn’t give a damn if you or I or anybody knows it.

But I do.

Climbing as if there were no tomorrow

This essay originally appeared in Climbing magazine, February/March, 1991. It has been slightly revised.

Carl Henderson

It was during a torrential downpour nearly two years ago that I got the notion to climb with Carl Henderson. I was helping my friend move from one San Francisco flat to another when we were forced by the storm to take cover inside a rented moving van; that’s when I noticed, on top of one of his boxes, a coiled climbing rope and a pair of old E.B.s.

When I suggested doing a route together Carl was ambivalent. He hadn’t climbed in years, and the rop0e and shoes had been gathering dust in closets since he moved to the Bay Area in 1980. He let the offer pass with a shrug and a “maybe.”

Two months later, however, he gave me a call; he wanted to get back on the rocks. Little did I realize I’d soon be struggling, and eventually failing, to keep up with him as he pursued climbing zealously, like a man possessed.

At first I didn’t recognize the source of his devotion; after all, many people climb as though their lives depend on it. But now I think Carl drives himself so fiercely because he clearly sees his life’s horizon, even if he’s not at all convinced the sun will dip below it anytime soon.

In action, Carl is neither the most graceful of climbers, nor by any means the strongest. He’ll tell you that more important than strength on most climbs is balance. His main climbing exercise is something he calls “centering,” which I take it involves grabbing hold of wildly flung emotions and bringing them under control, to attain that crucial balance, not just on the rock, but in life generally.

I think I understand what he’s talking about, though I suspect his effort in bringing his emotions under control is stronger than mine. I do not have AIDS. Carl does.

Carl is also gay; we both are, which makes us anomalies in the largely heterosexual, male-dominated world of climbing. I presume most people know that being gay is in no way a precondition for having AIDS — that while the disease in the United States has hit the gay population the hardest, in other parts of the world it has stricken primarily heterosexuals. I hope most climbers also understand that AIDS is communicable only by the exchange of body fluids, primarily blood and semen. So climbing with a person with AIDS poses little risk of infection.

Some prejudices about gays die hard, of course. A few rude boys still deride other climbers as “homos.” They do so with a tiresome regularity and a carelessness born, I suppose, of outmoded habits or sheer rotten natures. And homophobia, if not rampant in our sport’s literature, is at least common; for example, a well-known guidebook to the Bay Area warns that while climbing at Beaver Street Wall, located in San Francisco’s most gay district, “you don’t want to walk around in your lycras …”

Experience tells me, though, that the climbing world is for the most part a remarkably open-minded, non-bogoted society. On a one-to-one basis, neither Carl, nor I, nor any other gay climbers I know has experienced homophobia among the straight climbers we hang out with. Not only are we open to them about our sexuality, but we mix freely in their social lives, and they in ours.

As it happens, I climb mostly with straight partners. It strikes me as odd to find myself explaining such a thing, because to me the issue of my partner’s sexuality is incidental. Cimbing itself is the goal.

But if I didn’t already have gay climbing friends, and wanted to make some, I’d have little difficuty in doing so. A nationwide network of gay, lesbian, and bisexual climbers exists, founded in Boston by Mark Mueller. Stonewall Climbers, as the group is called, takes its name from a Greenwich Villiage bar where patrons resisting police harassment in 1969 gave impetus to the modern gay-liberation movement.

Yet homosexuality is nothing new among climbers. The name John Menlove Edwards is familiar to only a few, but to his biographer, Jim Perrin, Edwards was the greatest British rock climber of the 1930s, the “father and prophet to the modern sport, one of its greatest innovators.” Perrin also describes Edwards as a “homosexual who preached openness and tolerance at a time when the laws against deviation from the sexual norm were harshly punitive.”

For those reasons, Edwards is a hero to me; I try to honor his spirit when I climb. In that same spirit, I hope, openly gay climbers will emerge at the forefront of the sport. But I also hope that climbers of all persuasions wioll take inspiration from Edwards, to continue striving to overcome barriers, to push to new levels of accomplishment, all the while reveling in the freedom that climbing brings, and appreciating the diversity of its practitioners.

I don’t know if straight climbers everywhere are accepting of gays among them. I’ve climbed in relatively few places, and with a limited number of people, mostly in the Andes and in California. My experience can hardly be considered representative of all climbers.

Instinct tells me, though, that I’d find a comfortable home among climbers in just about any place I decide to visit. In part that’s because climbing is such an anarchic scene, an ongoing rebellion against social strictures. Its practitioners seek solace in the liberating wilds from encroaching, smothering civilization. They’ve had enough containment; they want to use their muscles and wits to climb away from the stiff collars, the stuffed shirts, the passive beasts of burden who daily crowd in and try to mold them into one of their kind.

Few people living in cities and holding regular jobs keep more rigorous climbing schedules than Carl Henderson does, now that he is back at it. On most weekends, even on the coldest, most blustery days, he can be found at one of the local crags, setting up one toprope climb after another, chatting endlessly with other climbers, behaving professorially with first-timers by telling them where they’ll find their next fingerhold, or how they should turn out their toes in order to make it through the next, seemingly impossible move. Carl knows what he is talking about, having studied ballet for 12 years.

He was 19 when he moved from the washington, D.C., area to San Francisco with his first lover. Their relationship lasted a year and a half. In the early 1980s, Carl says, “I was a hippie after hippies were dead,” a classical-music freak who listened mostly to Bartok and string quartets, and whose favorite composition was Mozart’s Requiem. He lived in a group house in the middle of San Francisco’s gay ghetto, the Castro, slept on the floor, worked in fast-food restaurants, too computer-programming classes, and was always broke.

One day on Castro Street in 1981, he saw an article clipped from The New York Times and taped to the window of Cliff’s Variety Store. It had something to do with the discovery of a “gay cancer” that was killing people and had no known cure.

“People I knew started dying,” he says. “They would get sick, go in their houses, and close the door. Six months later, you’d hear they were dead.”

He went for his first AIDS test in 1987, and the result was positive: he had HIV, the virus that eventually leads to full-blown AIDS, in his bloodstream.

“I was disturbed, but not shocked,” he says. “I had been sexually active for 14 years, and only two of those were safe.”

Now he’s nearly 30, and though he foresees a cure being found for AIDS, the disease makes him live differently.

“There is no tomorrow,” Carl says. “I live for today.”

He still plans for the future — “I’d like to go traveling,” he says wistfuly — though not without some inconvenience, like having to take regular doses of the drug AZT, which interrupt the life cycle of the AIDS virus, and causes him extreme nausea in the process. Only by smoking marijuana can he ease the drug’s side effect and not continually feel sick to his stomach.

Fortunately, when all about him people are losing their heads over the tragedy that surrounds them, Carl keeps his by climbing.

“It’s a way of relieving stress,” he says. “It teaches me to overcome pain, physical limitations; to be calm, precise, accurate; to go through extreme motions when my brain is telling me, ‘People don’t do this sort of thing.’ Climbing is more than fun. It’s a necessity.”

Not long ago, four of us reached the top of Tuolumne Meadows’ Fairview Dome late in the day after a tiring climb. Trying to descend in the moonless night, we lost our way and had to downclimb exposed granite slabs in the dark. The long night ended with a stumbling thrash through the woods to camp. One of thoughts coursing through my mind during our ordeal was that the strain of our endeavor would weaken Carl’s already compromised immune system. It might even send him back to the hospital, where only a few months before he had struggled to overcome a bout of pneumocystis pneumonia he had contracted — rather foolishly, he admits — by running barefoot through the snow in Yosemite.

My fear then reflected how much I still have to learn about AIDS. Carl bounded back as quickly as any of us, and later we arranged for a November climbing trip to Joshua Tree: a sure sign that he has little intention of letting AIDS interrupt his plans.

. . . . .


Carl Henderson finally succumbed to AIDS in 1993. Shortly before his death, he wrote the following verse:


Nothing More


Masses of air on all sides

What a sight to see

It glides to and fro

With the wind

But it is just a cloud

Noting more


So lovely a shape

I have never seen

Smooth on all sides

Round and perfect

Light strikes it

And it dazzles my eyes

But it is only a stone

Nothing more



No worries left

No pain to feel

An existence of


This is death and

Nothing more


— Carl E. Henderson