Brucini started seriously travelling after attempting to move to Queenstown, New Zealand, in 1996.Inspired by drunkenly meeting a world of travelers on a Kiwi Experience bus, he changed his plans and roamed the world for a year. ...Find out more!
Some travel writings seem like you’ve read and seen it all before. You won’t feel like that when you read Notes From The Road. I suspect you’ll find it hard not to be inspired by the combination of emotive images and writing which defies cliches.
If you’re an amateur travel writer looking to record your travel adventures in a form that is more than just a travel diary, this site’s singular attitude may be just the thing to which you will aspire.
Erik Gauger, who started the site and is its sole contributor, takes his work seriously and has his own clear voice and approach to travel writing. Travel Generation recently caught up with Mr Gauger to ask him about being a travel writer and his writing process, how we travel and travel writing generally.
Tell me about your childhood and development that led to you setting up the website. You write that you “grew up with a few unusual and useless hobbies” that have influenced your ways and means of observing the world.
I grew up mostly in Minnesota, and partially in the Bahamas. My parents are both immigrants to the United States and they filled us with a sense that we weren’t just Americans, but Germans and Norwegians. I brought this idea with me when I moved to California. I wasn’t just a Californian, but a Minnesotan.
I also spent lots of time by myself in the woods as a kid. I am not a lonely person, because I really am a social, urban person. I drink lattes! But I am comfortable spending large amounts of time by myself, and it’s that comfort zone with solitude that allows me to experience the world my own way. The most unusual hobby I pursued as a child was probably underwater photography. I actually started with underwater photography before regular photography, so my approach to landscapes and seeing natural environments comes from a childhood passion. I didn’t have any photography training, so I learned everything upside down and backwards… and underwater.
‘Notes’ is certainly different because of its depth of observation to many travel writing sites. Tell me about the process behind your writing, how you follow themes, your observations and the time you spend bringing a voice to the areas you visit.
My wife and I read a lot. I get into my subject’s intensely. For example, I’ll be back in Panama in a few weeks. I make an effort to try to pick up new knowledge about the region, read new books, even new literature by authors who grew up in the region where I am traveling, and think about the place in new ways. I also dedicate a Moleskine notebook to each place I visit, and I make my own travel guide out of it. So I actually begin writing the Moleskine notes long before I get to a place.
Obviously the images of your travels are distinctive. Do you ever feel conscious of writing only so as to add to what is expressed by the images?
No. I try to make the two components work well together. Nobody cares to labor through somebody’s description of landscapes. The images are designed to add mood and SENSE OF place to the text. When I travel, I work hard on the images, but I am also traveling and talking to people, and sometimes getting into trouble. But the reality is, sometimes my images are awful. And sometimes nothing happens at all when I travel. Sometimes I meet nobody interesting, I have nothing to add and nothing to see. I still try to put something together and present it to my readers, and I think they know pretty quickly that I just produced a stinker. I do this for fun, and for myself, so I don’t get too worked up over those things. The alternative is to invent incidents, which is absolutely unacceptable in travel writing. Your readers have to trust you with the truth, and if they don’t, nothing you say is of value. Travel writing is only interesting because it’s true.
The fact is, on some trips, things just happen and the story just writes itself.
You’ve had the site up since 1999. Do you just travel and work on the website now or do you have to pay the bills in another way to fund your travels? You have a paypal donation system, but no onsite advertising. What’s your thinking behind this?
Notes from the Road doesn’t make any money. I received three hundred dollars in donations this year. It’s a hobby. I have a full-time job and a one year-old. I work hard to make the time and budget for each trip. I really feel like I can be a better father to my son if I keep traveling. It’s a personal education I can rub off on my son, so that’s one way of justifying a non-commercial pursuit.
Are you ever concerned that the remote places that you document today will be affected adversely, but perhaps unintentionally, by those who wish to experience the same things as you?
The simplest answer is that my writing doesn’t encourage people to follow in my footsteps, and I bet I do more to encourage people to travel than to travel to the places I go. Second, doing a lot of the things I do, such as outdoor photography and diving, can have an adverse affect on diminishing environments. Careless diving, especially. And photographers tend to be careless about, maybe, stepping on one of the last nesting spots of the bristle-thighed curlew, for example.
But in general, people who enjoy nature travel are very educated in leave no trace. And the more people who are interested in this sort of travel become the foot-soldiers for real environmental progress. Sometimes, people will say, “Tourists are ruining those countries!” And they will say, “Ignorant Americans!” I think the statement is incorrect. I understand that Americans work way too hard and we just need time off. I don’t disparage people for their precious two weeks off. But there are real culprits. The problem is, nobody ever taught us how to travel. We end up getting sucked in to package deals and mega-resorts.
I was at an event in the Dominican Republican a few years ago. It was at a mega-resort on the beach near Punta Cana. The resort was all-inclusive and it was all-encompassing. There was no practical way to leave the resort, and so people gorged themselves on food, and, encouraged by dozens of employees with drinks in their hands, were perpetually drunk. The group I was with was aware of the absurdity of it all. But there was no chance to see the real Dominican Republic, and everybody sort of began to submit to the atmosphere of all-inclusive luxury. It was surreal, and this is so often the experience of the American traveler. It is not that we are idiots, but nobody ever taught us how to travel.
I ended up birding during that entire episode. Trapped in a place that looked like Las Vegas, I found exotic warblers, brilliant herons, unusual parrots – somehow, the real Dominican Republic managed its way in. One guy at the event looked bored, and didn’t want to get drunk at noon. So one day I whispered for him to follow me. I took him out and walked the grounds of the mega-resort. I told him where different plants came from, and about how Captain Bligh helped this plant gain a foothold in the Caribbean, and about the types of bananas growing next to the hedges. I told him that the tiny gray bird he sees on that light pole is actually not gray. It’s gray with yellow and orange. Here’s the binoculars. See for yourself. He later told me that his walk with me made for one of the best trips of his life.
The travel industry, including professional travel writers, really push this kind of vacation on us. They push bland, big corporate tourism. And this kind of tourism is directly and definitively responsible for the cultural and environmental destruction of much of the Caribbean. Big beach resorts kill coral reefs. Cruise ship tourism kills local cultures. There are islands that were once poor, but with beautiful culture. Big tourism came, made people temporarily wealthier, but the tourism spoiled the landscape. And then the tourists stopped coming, and the island was poor, but its landscape was lost, and its culture was lost.
The drama of Great Guana Cay in the Bahamas is an amazing story. I should not be the one writing this story. It should be told by real travel writers. Why don’t they? Everything about it is amazing. It has rich characters, exciting drama, and it involves the slow death of an island’s beautiful culture. It is an island whose coral reef is being destroyed by irresponsible tourism. If tourists were educated by the travel industry and the travel media, the Caribbean would be a better place, and less of its species would be endangered, and less of its reefs and mangroves would now be lost forever.
Although your writing is very personal and with other people at the centre of the experience, your images are devoid of any self image or humans. Why?
Here’s an analogy. National Geographic Magazine, which also has text, words and maps about different geographic locations, is travel and scientific journalism that has a staff of thousands, and incredible talent and budgets. A National Geographic story, obviously, has amazing photographs. However wonderful those photographs may be, they still tell a specific, journalistic story. And a National Geographic story has about 10 photographs to tell a journalistic story succinctly and accurately. I love National Geographic, and I have been honored when a few blogs said my site’s photographs are like their photographs. But I would never make the comparison myself, because it is totally inaccurate. While National Geographic text and images are the product of the amazing talents of thousands, Notes from the Road is travel writing. It’s subjective, sloppy, the work of one person, and the photographs, like the text, don’t cover the subject journalistically.
My photographs are designed to present a mood. Landscapes may be out of favor in the world of photography these days, but they have the capacity to be incredibly powerful. Landscapes can elicit emotions and moods while offering a flavor of place. They can haunt people and make them wonder. My travelogues are designed for words first, and images second. I don’t want to photograph that person I met in the desert. I want to describe him to you, and try to make your imagination dance. That is the difference between travel writing and journalism. I have the same guidelines of telling the truth as a journalist, but my purpose is different.
There is another explanation. I shoot with one camera; a large format 4×5 film camera, the film of which costs five dollars each sheet and the format of which is incapable of shooting moving subjects. I only shoot one subject a day; I may spend six hours on that image. I have been saving for a second camera; a digital camera that will allow me to shoot images of people, wildlife, macros and even a housing that will allow me to go underwater in mangrove forests, swamps and oceans. When it happens, you’ll see more diversity in my images. But the focus will always be on landscapes. They are like blank slates; they force the focus on the travel narrative. On the reader’s experience rather than on everything I happened to see while I traveled.
There’s a feeling I have that you are documenting places and moments that you fear will be lost. That you are photographing to capture something that will not return. And you are writing a meditation on what it feels like or will feeling like to lose something that really can’t be described in the first place. That you are looking for some hope and redemption for these places.
We lived in a world that is being diminished. This is the most exciting subject a travel writer could possibly cover. Here we are, traveling through a world that is changing very rapidly. I like change, and I am a futurist. I believe that progress, democratic institutions, science, literature and so forth can make our world a better place. But as a travel writer, I let people imagine the future by showing them the present and the past. We live at a crossroads on Earth; and as a travel writer, there is no better subject than to cover it.
In the United States, a lot of small towns are being ruined by big box-stores, the rise of anti-intellectualism, fundamentalism, and the flight of industry. It is dishonest to go to Eastern Oregon, find a town whose main street is abandoned, learn that everybody is overweight and spending their afternoons at the Walmart, and then write about how great the rodeo was.
Your travels have concentrated on the USA, Central America and Iberian Peninsula so far. Are there plans to takes ‘Notes’ further a field internationally?
Have you noticed I haven’t written anything on Canada? It’s intentional, my utter disdain for the Canadians! Or maybe not. I built my regions to fit Canada, for example. Pacific Northwest theoretically includes the west coast of Canada. Great Plains, Atlantic Seaboard and Northern Seas include Canada. I just haven’t traveled in Canada for Notes from the Road yet because I haven’t been able to get the time and budget for the kind of trips I envision for Canada. I have been studying parts of the country for years, and I have about 8 itineraries. I have 12 regions to my site, and I travel accordingly. But I have also mapped out, and named regions for the rest of the world. I will pursue this hobby slowly, and I will add regions slowly, and eventually you will see me add South American regions, and Pacific island regions, and Europe and Asia. I like to view regions culturally and biologically, rather than by political lines, and I have had a lot of fun decoding the world by my own boundaries. I look forward to presenting these new places in the future.