At a conference in San Francisco earlier this week, I met a mentor of mine for the first time, eight years since he gave me one of my earliest opportunities in travel writing. I have never shared in writing the compete story of how I became a travel writer – and I won’t today – but it hasn’t been without my fair share of role models and opportunity providers. Max Hartshorne of GoNomad and I have eluded each other in person since 2010, but we finally came face to face this past weekend.
The conference took place at the rather-palatial Fairmont Hotel in Nob Hill. If Nob Hill is not at the city’s highest point, it certainly feels like it. Pretty much any direction you walk from the hotel puts you on a downward trek – and I mean downward in the sense that you would roll down the hill if you fell. San Francisco has always been charming to me in that way. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with walking its streets.
I haven’t been to San Francisco in seven years, maybe more. Not since I lived in Santa Barbara, where this blog began in earnest. Reading back on the old journals I wrote about my time here in my mid-20s makes me cringe, pretty much in the same way reading everything I wrote in the past makes me want to run and hide. It’s good to know that when you’re writing something in the moment, it will come out in a way that looks good now and makes you sick later. That’s a good feeling.
But all things considered it was good to be back in the city by the bay. I have a lot of memories from California that come up, regardless of where I am in the state. Max is a big part of those memories and tonight when I met him in person for the first time, he suggested we head down the street to Barbary Coast, a pot shop and lounge. Far be it from me to argue with a mentor.
It’s been interesting to watch the development of legal marijuana over the years. I lived in Denver when it was legalized in 2014, and have seen other states sign off on it as well. But I’ve never seen anything quite like the place Max and I went to, a dispensary that has a smoking lounge attached. The lounge is more akin to a sports bar, with televisions hung in the corner, tables, and leather-backed booths. You walk in, buy some pot, rent a bong or bowl (if necessary), and take a load off. It was interesting to see the social aspect of it, a bar dedicated to marijuana. Some people, like Max and I, gathered to pass a joint back and forth and have a conversation. Others sat with headphones in, taking bong hits by themselves. Whatever floats your boat.
The trip was a good reminder of why I started in the first place way back when. Meeting and chatting with Max brought up all that initial ambition I once had, before the idea of being a travel writer was a real thing, back when it was just a dream. Back when I would write two blogs a day and work on short stories in my free time. Back when I would celebrate each and every assignment from each and every publication. Any publication.
I don’t care if those blogs back then did suck – I miss the freedom to sit down with a vodka or whisky and let the words flow. After all, I had nothing to lose. Far be it from me to do that today. I’m a professional, you know. God forbid I put anything down that hasn’t been edited two or three times over. God forbid I show a bit of vulnerability.
Meeting Max was like encountering a ghost from the past. It was like being introduced to the old me, a former version of myself. In some ways I am glad I am no longer that person. In others, I’m trying to get back to being that guy. In many ways I’m still that same guy. It’s something to think about. The joint with Max was a good place to start.
I’m back in Hawai‘i now. Next up is a couple days in Washington D.C. for a family affair before heading down to Patagonia for two weeks on an assignment.
What I really don’t like about the travel industry is the way it makes me feel when I’m on the road. There is so much pressure to “break” a story in new media, rather than tell your own story. It is a race to discover something and to talk about it. One of my other mentors, Bruce Northam, wrote a beautiful epilogue in his book, The Directions to Happiness, about this very thing: A useful or entertaining travel story is almost always not breaking news…. The motivation of a writer shouldn’t be look at me, it should be see with me—or through me.
Travel can be very discouraging as a journalist. You show up in a foreign land only to discover that someone has mentioned this thing or that place before in publications. The magazines will tell you that it’s old news and you feel late in this regard. You have come all that way and you are led to believe that you have nothing to offer. What an awful way to live and what an awful way to travel.
I want to get back to experiencing travel not as a journalist but as a writer. If not entirely, then at least partially. It would be cool to write down the sides of the stories that don’t make the articles – and I mean really write them down – and save them for later.
It was an interesting couple days in San Francisco, meeting my mentor, flashing back to that moment in time when we first crossed paths. Talk about a chance to look in the mirror. Has that much time really passed?