Four Questions for Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts
Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts is my favorite travel writer, not just because he’s a great writer, but because he managed to do what I had thought to be impossible:  he legitimized backpacker-style travel writing in big-time mainstream travel magazines.  It used to seem that in order to be published in a high-end (and therefore high-paying) travel publication you had to travel to exotic destinations, stay in a luxury hotels, eat in five-star restaurants, and take elaborate tours–things that I’ve never been able to afford to do. Since I couldn’t afford to go on the trips that these magazines published stories about, I thought I would never have a chance to write for them.  But then came Rolf.  He’s an unapologetic budget traveler.  In his first book, Vagaboding, he communicated the richness of the backpacking experience and the philosophy behind it so well that the editors couldn’t deny his talent–or refuse his stories.  Literature is full of incredible backpacking books–On The Road changed my life like it did everyone elses–but it took Rolf to bring that kind of travel writing to mainstream travel periodicals (check out two of his most popular stories here and here).  Now, thanks to Rolf, and his writing (the best of which can be found in his second book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There) backpacking travel writers like me can travel the way we want to and still feel justified submitting our stories to magazines that pay more than the price backpack that we carry.

After finishing an interview with Rolf for (you can read that interview here), I asked him a few more questions–things I was personally curious about–for my blog.  Here are his responses.

Matt Gibson: You’ve said that, after all of your globetrotting, you’re a sucker for a good ‘ol fashioned American road trip.  What’s your best road trippin’ memory?  What road trip would you like to take next?

Rolf Potts: My best road-trip memory was the 8-month North American journey I took in 1994.  In that instance, it was a case of road-trip as lifestyle, since I was basically living out of a van and driving the States for upwards of a year.  I was particularly enamored of driving through the America West, which is one of the world’s most classic road-trip landscapes.  I don’t have my next road-trip planned just yet, but I’d love to revisit the American West for a couple of months and just camp and hike (and drive) my way through the region.

MG: You’ve been called the “Jack Kerouac for the Internet age”. Although the comparison has merit with regards to your respective philosophies about travel, it seems to me that Jack may have been a tad bit more eccentric than you are.  What do you think about this comparison?

RP:  I think the comparison to Kerouac was more metaphorical than practical or literal. Kerouac introduced a generation of Americans to the joys of open-ended travel, and I’m trying to do the same.  Past that, it’s difficult to make applied comparisons, because travel — and society in general — has changed a lot in 50 years. Biographically and philosophically I don’t always follow in Kerouac’s footsteps, but I share his belief that travel anywhere carries this amazing, potentially life-changing hum of possibility: that there is so much to be gained by just mustering up the courage and hitting the road.

MG: The growth of backpacking has resulted in an increase in rave-type parties in travel hubs and destinations worldwide.  Along with this has come an increase in drug use among travelers. How do you feel about drugs and backpacker culture?

RP: I would disagree that we’ve seen a rise in drug use among travelers, since backpackers have always hit the road in search of more permissive attitudes toward things like drugs.  This includes the Asian “Hippie Trail” of the 1960s and 1970s, of course, but you saw similar motivations in travel during the Victorian Era and before.  So whatever kind of drug use you see in backpacker hubs these days is nothing new.

That said, I like to discourage drug use among vagabonders — not only because it is often illegal and hence risky, but also because there are more interesting things to do on the road.  To my mind, drugs are something you do at home when you’re bored of workaday life, whereas on the road you’re constantly encountering these new and amazing experiences simply by going outside and walking around.  In this way, sinking time into backpacker drug scenes is the equivalent of watching TV when you’re on the road: It’s a passive and contained experience that’s not really connected to the more life-affecting experiences that travel offers.  I have no moral issue with casual drug use; I just think that an unmediated experience of reality has more to offer on the road.

MG: Hemingway wrote standing up.  Kerouac wrote like Usain Bolt runs. Vonnegut wouldn’t start a new sentence until he was sure the one preceding it was perfect.  How do you write?

RP: I’m more like Vonnegut, and in fact I often quote his observation from Timequake about “swoopers” and “bashers”:

“Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter anymore, have been either swoopers or bashers.  Swoopers write a story quickly, higgeldy-piggeldy, crinkum-crankum, any which way.  Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work.  Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one.  When they’re done, they’re done.”

Like Vonnegut, I go one sentence at a time, and when I’m done I’m done.

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7 thoughts on “Four Questions for Rolf Potts”

  1. Nice interview. The guy has started something big in the travel community. Every now and then, his book is a good inspiration to look back on and just a quick reminder of why it’s so important to travel.

  2. @Carlos – I think I’m generally a swooper, but sometimes I enjoy bashing the hell out of a single sentence for hours on end. And then deleting it.

    @Michael – Yes, he definitely has. Both of his books are great for inspiration.


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