Erik Gauger is a special kind of travel enthusiast. You can find his journeys around the world documented in engaging prose and stunning images on his travel blog, Notes from the Road, but that’s only part of the story. His vivid curiosity about place and people helps him see the exotic and adventurous all around – whether traveling 1 mile or 1,000 miles from home.
Read on to learn about Gauger’s perspectives on sustainable tourism, how you can travel on absolutely any budget, and the single most important skill any voyager should master.
1) How do you think travel can impact how we live more sustainably at home?
If we don’t travel, we don’t have context about the world in which we live. How do we really know what sustainability means if we’ve never seen a mangrove being bulldozed for a megaresort?
2) How does active and alternative transportation factor into how you travel?
Travel is what happens at street level. When you’re in an airplane or an air-conditioned rental car, that’s not travel. By definition, travel is both active and alternative, because, in order to experience a place, you need to be experiencing it on foot, or with a paddle or pedals.
I see the greatest skill a traveler can have
is simply to be good at walking, biking or paddling. Movement is at the heart of travel.
If you’re moving, you’re experiencing a place on your own terms, your own route, and you’re seeing things through your own lens. That’s how you see, smell, taste, touch and listen to a place. Almost every moment in travel, for me, happened at street level.
3) In what ways do you think travel can affect how people relate to other people and the environment?
One year, I saw a small bird species – a type of warbler – nesting nearby where I live. A month later, I was visiting a relative in Las Vegas and I saw that same species again, and I realized that it must have just arrived from the northwest. Then, a few months later, I was in Panama, and coincidentally, I saw the same species again! While I sort of knew the yearly distribution of this bird, the act of observing something across geography and time was a huge lesson for me. It made me realize that the most important knowledge you gain from travel isn’t the thing you are observing or witnessing at the time, but the relationship between things you pick up in different places.
The knowledge doesn’t come in seeing the thing, but in making inferences that come from different nuggets of observation. This is why the travel bloggers dual tropes: “People are different from us there!” and “People are the same everywhere!” are less valuable observations than the gray areas of human culture in between.
If you keep pedaling through the countryside, you are gaining a deeper understanding of the world than you may give yourself credit for, and this is critical to environmental awareness.
All of my acquaintances who are now leading environmental movements or who are creating technology to improve the lives of others or the environment were all heavy travelers first. Travel creates tomorrow’s sustainability and societal heroes.
4) Some have questioned whether travel is ethical in the age of climate change due to its carbon footprint. What are some strategies you recommend for reducing the environmental impact of travel?
Climate change and its allied issues are the most pressing ever to face mankind. I sound the call of its urgency, but I dislike the idea that people who are aware of these issues – the moral and altruistic people who want to do the most to stem climate change – should be denied travel, including airplane travel.
When Greta Thunberg, my personal superhero, opts out of airplane travel altogether and rides that sailboat across the North Atlantic, she is not really changing her carbon footprint, and her action in and of itself is not scalable. But her use of alternative transportation as a talking point for the path to real change, which is: a sense of urgency and a desire to immediate action from our world leaders, and an army of globally informed citizenry and voters.
Which is why I like to say it’s okay for travelers to continue to travel on airplanes and by automobile, but to experiment with more local travel, more lightweight travel.
If altruistic travelers just stopped visiting new places, their carbon footprint would change only nominally and they wouldn’t expose themselves to the Earth’s diverse environmental issues. Altruistic travelers should use low-carbon transportation as a tool, like Greta, to inspire others toward scalable action, like voting for green candidates. They should experiment with traveling more locally, and spend more time at street level.
But it’s a mistake to give up air travel altogether. If we could see realistic, scalable change in airline industry emissions, we would see international protocols on alternative airline fuels – yes, they exist – we would see corporations reducing unnecessary business travel, we would see regulations on sustainable aircraft designs. One of the things Greta has done is actually encouraged more Europeans to take the train. Again, her action on its own is worth less than its impact on the world. As travelers, this is a great role model.
5) Your writing style is contemplative and almost meditative. That can be missed for a lot of modern travelers attached to device screens and whirlwind itineraries. What are some ways you’ve found to slow down and stay “in the moment” when visiting new places?
I don’t think any traveler – including those travel influencers with their arms always spread out in front of a big lake – enjoy whirlwind tours. What a bore!
When I first conceived of Notes from the Road, there was no template yet for how a travelogue should be. Travel blogs back then were sort of a Wild West of ideas. I wanted to mesh a concept from Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, where he describes travel in terms of the songs he listens to. I am a lifelong fan of improvised music, and my idea was to create travelogue notes that were like jazz or jams.
Fans of the band Phish have this terminology for a certain type of jam. A “Type 1” jam generally stays in the key of the song that jam appears in. A “Type 2” jam, however, completely derails the original key and wanders off into completely new territory. I’ve always adored those concepts in music and am always trying to create travel writing’s equivalent of these themes. We can take our readers on a straightforward journey, landing them in a serene place. Or, if dictated by an experience while traveling, I might want to throw them a curveball. That’s travel writing—-our global blank slate of nonfiction.
When I start notes, it always starts within the bounds of where I am heading. But sometimes, those notes can take a sharp turn, sometimes in a dissonant way, to some new place. Travel writing isn’t about a place’s highlights – that’s what guidebooks are for. Travel writing should meditate and voyage to the beat of what actually happened when we traveled.
6) How do you choose a destination to visit?
Physical paper maps, Google Maps, Google Earth. Sitting in dim light at night and looking at the emptiest places and saying, “what’s there?” I will often look at the green spaces on maps – the protected places – and look for ones with exotic or interesting names and say: what lives here? I love this way of finding places to travel. I think it’s a huge mistake to follow the hottest trends in travel. That necessarily means you’re always going to overcrowded places, that are actually overcrowded with people who are by definition followers.
So, I start with maps, and I keep a long list of places.
7) Many travelers have limits on time, budget and distance so they default to the well-worn highlights of a destination. How do you think travelers can go beyond typical “tourist” activities for a more intimate experience with new destinations?
Limitations on time and budget are an asset in travel.
If you can’t travel on a limited budget and you can’t fit travel into the nooks and crannies of your life, you’re not going to go places. Also, traveling far away to go see a place’s highlights sounds exhausting to me. If I want to see the Eiffel Tower, I’ll learn a lot more about it by staying home and reading about it.
When I first started writing for Notes from the Road in 1999, it was at a time in my life when I couldn’t afford to go out to the hip restaurants that my friends were going to, and so I had to find new ways to entertain myself on the weekends. I literally started wandering off – leaving Los Angeles and getting myself lost in the desert. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I hadn’t gone very far but was discovering these desert wonderlands that were mysterious, filled with life and unusual characters, and I didn’t need to travel across the world to find that. Discovery was right outside my doorstep.
My travel budget was tiny, but I was trying, as I still do today, to travel 18 times a year. Back then, I would schedule trips where my total budget was $36. That included lodging, gas, and food. How did I do it? I had to quickly realize that in order to keep traveling and stay within my budget, I had to sleep in a tent, take my food with me, and keep my distances in check.
That process of dealing with extreme limitations made me realize that ordinary places, or places that weren’t that far away, held as much mystery as places that were far away. In some ways, everywhere has forests, meadows, cities, towns, and hills. While everywhere is different, in other ways, most places around the world are also similar. So, when people ask me my least favorite question: what’s the best place you’ve traveled to? I tell them that it’s my mood, my preparation, the weather – that makes a good trip, not the destination.
7) What’s the best piece of travel advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice took me most of my life to learn: layer your clothing. There is a lot of inspirational travel advice out there: not all who wander are lost! Great, but learning to have comfortable shoes, good socks, layers, a light umbrella- that takes a life to master. And, like traveling light, it is worth fussing over.
8) What does “Traveling Local” mean to you?
It has been great getting to know the content on Traveling Local, and the site’s thesis of promoting active and local travel resounds with me.
Let’s say there is a guy with disabilities and on a limited budget who lives in a small urban apartment. The requirements and expectations of his life make going outside difficult. One day, his caretaker has a family emergency and can’t make it. He needs something from a store and decides to wheel his way there. In the process, he gets lost and ends up in the wrong neighborhood – it’s getting dark, this feels a little like the wrong side of the tracks, although he’s only nine blocks from his home.
He asks for directions. Somebody understands his plight. Maybe he is even invited to dinner. He meets people he never dreamed of meeting. They are kind and funny. Maybe they are from a different part of the country or immigrants, and they share their experiences. They walk alongside him on his way home to ensure safe arrival.
Another man travels to the African island of Madagascar. He has khaki activewear and a collapsible hat, and a Land Rover awaits his adventurous arrival.
Which of these two men has just traveled? The answer, to me, is obvious.
In my early days of traveling when I had a budget of $36 per trip, I knew that travel was any day when I stepped outside and wandered aimlessly.
Today I walk five miles a day, as many people do these days. I haven’t missed a day in over a year. Walking is a broad term for me – it includes running, hiking, backpacking and “flâneuring” in the city.
I also keep a list of every bird I see on those five miles. I don’t distinguish these daily five miles with any other form of travel. I am free. I am wandering. I am meeting people in their neighborhoods and I am observing the wildlife. That’s travel, and if you wait until you’re old to see the highlights of a far-flung country in an air-conditioned Land Rover, you’re not really traveling.
Between our own personal limitations and a resounding climate crisis, the case for traveling more locally is rock solid.
Erik Gauger lives in Portland. His blog, notesfromtheroad.com, is created with digital and large-format 4×5 cameras, hand-painted sketches, watercolor maps and travel notes.