Tim Cahill: Jen Meets Her Hero at Easy Going


Audrey Berger, the event coordinator at Easy Going, introduced Tim with talk of his life-threatening exploits and death-defying adventures.

He just rolled his eyes.

On a three-event west coast tour for the paperback release of Hold the Enlightenment, Tim spoke to a packed house here in the Bay Area. It was hot and stuffy and I hardly cared because this is the man who got me into the business. I would never even have thought of joining up with Travelers’ Tales way back when if it hadn’t been for Tim’s story, “The Howling,” in Outside more than a decade ago. I found it in a basket of old magazines at a mountain shop in Lake Tahoe the year I graduated from college.

Tim started off the night by telling us he had something non-travel on his mind. He told a story about a columnist in Colorado who published an interview that called him, “unattractive to the opposite sex.” I was laughing because I knew this was from his Introduction to the book, but the rest of the crowd wasn’t getting the silliness of it. Tim turned it on us for our opinion and the audience still couldn’t tell that he was joking around.

I, on the other hand, started to mentally dress him in lumberjack clothes. A little Pendleton here, a wool cap there—sure Tim, I’d rub up against you. He’s nearly twice my age, but all women have the Sean Connery factor, and Tim weighs in well below on that age scale.

The title of the book came from one of the stories—a piece Tim did for Yoga Journal. He told us that getting the assignment went like this:

Yoga Journal called.

Editor: Are you interested in yoga?
Tim: No.
Editor: So you wouldn’t want to do a piece on yoga?
Tim: No.
Editor: Because it’s going to be in Jamaica in February.
Tim: Oh, you mean Y  o  g  a

So, Tim agreed to do the piece but made sure to tell the editor, “No enlightenment for me. I think it’s a bad career path for a writer.”

After getting us in the mood to laugh, Tim told us he’d read a story for about 10-12 minutes and then take questions from the audience. I gasped. One story? Is that what’s to come from fame and fortune? Or at least fame? I had just humped Sand in My Bra to twenty-some different events across the U.S. and carefully did my best to read three or four stories with appropriate audience-catering interaction in between. Would the golden road lead me to only reading one story, or was Tim gypping us?

He read “Bug Scream,” a hilarious story about being eaten by bugs on his walk across the Congo basin with an American scientist, a filmmaker for National Geographic, three Bantu villagers, and sixteen pygmies. Boy did we laugh. I haven’t found this online to link for you, but Random House has kindly offered up the yoga story that I mentioned earlier. Read “Hold the Enlightenment” right here.

Q & A with Tim Cahill
Here are a few of the questions that Easy Going audience members asked Tim. Answers are paraphrased, not quotes unless marked.

What are you doing next?
He said that he’ll be leading a Patagonia trip with Butterfield and Robinson in November. For those interested, it’s sold out. It went so fast his friend couldn’t even get on it. But the good thing for Tim is that his wife gets to come. When asked about Patagonia, Tim said, “Patagonia is the bizarre version of the American Southwest.” It’s his first time being a tour guide. But the B&R folks assured him that all he needed to do was talk about why he loved the place and drink cocktails with the customers.

Ten bucks says this won’t be his last time as a guide.

The topic of bringing his wife on this trip led to the question about being a travel writer and in a relationship.

How do you make it work?
“It’s difficult to maintain a relationship,” said Tim, “Not only do they have to deal with you being gone for a month or so at a time. But then they have to deal with you being home for 24/7 when you get back.”

He’s been with Linnea Larson for twelve years now. I’d love to meet her. I bet she’s a real prize. I know that I probably couldn’t deal with that arrangement, but no doubt it’s different with every travel writer. I found an archive of Tim talking about his wife online. Scroll down below where it says it’s not there anymore and you’ll find the cached interview Q&A.

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How has your writing gotten better or changed over the years?
Tim said that his writing is a formula of set up, set up, set up, set up, set up, followed by a punch-line. “If I can make it mean something, it’s getting better.”

“I think we’re all storytelling creatures,” he said. “We take little bits and pieces of what’s happened to us and those become stories.” He then illustrated storytelling with the analogy of going to an eye doctor. You know how you have to look through those lenses to check your vision?

“Look through that lens and see life.”
“Can you see already? If not, let’s put another lens in.”
“All of a sudden the story has made you see something that you didn’t see before.”

Someone asked about the risks and kind of travel he does.
“I don’t take near as many chances. I’ll be turning 60 next month.”
Tim said that he won’t be climbing Everest but that there are other mountains that scare him.

The next question cracked me up. Here’s how it went:

Guy: At some point you must’ve traveled with a dog.
Tim: No.
Guy: Well, maybe you could just talk about dogs.

Then I raised my hand to ask something that had been burning all night since the intro.

Audrey mentioned that you were an editor-at-large for Outside, have you gone back to them or are you still at National Geographic Adventurer?
Tim explained to the audience that some magazines contract big name writers to write exclusively for them. He was still with National Geographic Adventurer, but in negotiations with three mags for the next exclusivity contract.

Now this is the kind of goss I like to hear. I sat there and wondered who the third was, figuring that the other two were NGA and Outside. He used to write for Men’s Journal, so maybe they are back in the running again. Time will tell.

Who are your favorite humor writers?
David Quammen, PJ O’Rourke – he’s a really good reporter and is funny, nobody beats Dave Barry, and Bill Bryson is hilarious.

How are you doing with the changeover to the internet?
“I’m ignoring it.”
“I write books. Nothing replaces a book.”

Tim continued to make us laugh with short answers to some other questions.

What motivates you?
The mortgage.

Somebody asked something about his assignments:
“It’s always good when the magazine proposes something you want to do. Then you have a champion in house that will move it along for you.”

At this point I raised my hand again.

When is your next book coming out? The Yellowstone one?
“Jennifer, did you come here just to beat me up?!”

He knows my name, he knows me, he called me by name and I haven’t even said hello yet! I was so excited. Sure I’ve met Tim several times before and had drinks with him on two different occasions at the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference. Yeah, we’ve emailed a bit over the years. But he meets people all the time and I expected to have to remind him afterwards.

And then I realized what he said. Did I just piss him off? He proceeded to tell us that the book was coming out in February and that he was running late. I hadn’t known that he was late, I was jut trying to help promote him. Ah, who cares if I ticked him off, he recognized me. I was chuffed.

What’s your advice to new writers?
“To write.”
“Some people want a magic bullet and there is no such thing.” He then went on to encourage the writers in the group to keep at it and to augment their practice with classes and conferences.

And I couldn’t agree more. I looked around the audience at all the enthralled listeners and let my appreciation set in. How cool is this that we can come to a bookstore and see someone as experienced and passionate as Tim Cahill, for FREE. How could I even think that we’d be gypped by one story. It was obvious that people were here to ask him questions.

If there are writers out there who aren’t taking advantage of resources like this, they’re wasting their own time. The fact of the matter is that several authors tour and attend conferences. Get out there and see them. Ask them your most burning questions.

I actually waited until we were down the street having beers before I asked Tim my third question of the night.

How do you spell that bug scream you were shrieking in the story?
He sort of answered my question and said that they come out different every time. But I wasn’t serious which is why I didn’t ask it at the store. Instead we kicked back with our pints of Sierra Nevada and talked with the handful of travel writers and photographers that had also come out with us for drinks. He had some time before his author escort whisked him off to his hotel in San Francisco.

At one point I must’ve said something bold. The woman to my right was shocked at my behavior. I just looked at her not knowing what I had said wrong. Tim got my back and grabbed my hand, “Ah that’s nothing. This is Boxcar Steve!”

He was referring to my story in Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why. Tim wrote the introduction to the new Travelers’ Tales humor book, and mentioned my story amidst a few others. That night at Easy Going was the first time I saw Hyenas and got the surprise of seeing my name on the cover with the other notable authors like William Dalrymple, Doug Lansky, Elliott Hester, Richard Sterling, and Rolf Potts.

On my drive home I took a stroll down memory lane. It was the winter of 1994 when I discovered Tim’s writing and dreamed of following a similar path. A few years later I told him myself when I met him at the City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco. He had inscribed my book by saying that he hoped to see my writing some day. A few years after that I had met him and shared some beers at Book Passage. Now he could pick me out of a crowd, noted my story, and was calling me by one of my nicknames. Sometimes the years drag on and I’ve thought that not much has happened. But when I think back to the seeds of travel writing dreams I had when I was in Tahoe, and then see my name on the cover of a book the same night I’m having beers with my hero, I sit back in awe. I hadn’t thought much about my path, didn’t plot it out, just followed my heart and kept the faith when times were tough.

You’re reading this story on Written Road—an effort to help you achieve your travel writing dreams. It doesn’t need to take ten years. With hard work, courage, faith, and a few social skills it can happen in no time.

Cheers Tim, thanks for the inspiration. From all of us.
# # # #

Collect Tim’s other books too:
Jaguars Ripped My Flesh
A Wolverine is Eating My Leg
Road Fever
Pecked to Death By Ducks
Pass the Butterworms
Not So Funny When it Happenededited by Tim Cahill

Tim signing books at Easy Going