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Tim Cahill: Roughing it. Really.

Tim Cahill  
graphicPhotographer Paul Dix has captured images of Tim Cahill on the road. Well, on the trail. Well, sometimes there wasn't even a trail.
Click here to go along for the ride.

Adventures in travel journalism

In this story:

Palm feeding

To boldly go

Magazine moves

Home games

Success story


(CNN) -- "I think I have the best job in American journalism," Tim Cahill says. "I love what I do."

But what he does is hardly the stuff of the average reporter's beat. Cahill's assignments have included:

•  trudging through Death Valley on a summer day hot enough to melt your boots;

•  sailing in Antarctica in temperatures 30 below zero; and

•  tumbling into a group of mountain gorillas in a Rwandan forest.

"We made rice and one of the young men living in a treehouse burst into tears. He was crying because it was so good. He had never had rice before."
— Tim Cahill

What he does is travel to remote corners of the Earth, often enduring physical and mental hardships, taking readers with him via stories that may be lyrical or humorous or both.

A contributing editor at Men's Journal and author of several books, Cahill says he has been to at least 80 countries on his assignments. But you won't find him sipping pretty drinks poolside at a resort, or noshing with the nouveau riche in ritzy restaurants.

Let him tell you, for instance, about the trip he and a photographer made to Irian Jaya, a sparsely populated, densely forested province of Indonesia.

Palm feeding

"We heard about this one group of people called the Karowai who lived in trees. This particular group of Karowai had only been contacted by the outside world in the last year. We found somebody with a boat and somebody who could translate and went 500 miles upstream and hung out with people who I would say were truly living a Stone Age existence."

Reputed headhunters, the Karowai's diet consisted largely of the pulp from sago palm trees, which was made into a flour, shaped into a ball and heated over a fire, Cahill recalls.

Do the writings of Tim Cahill and others give you the urge to do some adventure traveling?

Yeah. Can barely finish a story before I'm online lookin' 'n' bookin'.
Sometimes. Depends on the writer, the place and the type adventure.
Never. I like reading, not road-ing. That's what armchairs are for.
View Results

If feasting on sago sounds less than ideal, let Tim Cahill tell you about one of the most memorable drinks he has encountered.
Click here for a sip.

"When I first met these people I happened to know a couple of words of Karowai. They offered me some of this stuff. It's a bland, sour-tasting thing. I ate it and said, 'Very good.'

"They all looked at me because they knew it wasn't very good," Cahill continues. "It's terrible. The first words out of my mouth were a lie."

Cahill says he still imagines what the tribal people were thinking at that moment: " 'Very good? It's sago. We eat this s--t every day, you imbecile. It's awful.' "

So much for making a good first impression.

"In the sago palms, you'll often find sago beetles which are about the size of your little finger," Cahill says, relishing the culinary memory. "The Karowai put those on the fire until they're crispy and eat them. They taste a little bit like creamy snails. But compared to sago, the sago beetle is really pretty good."

But Cahill says his visit with the Karowai was poignant, too. Cahill's group one night offered to cook for the tribe's people.

"We made rice and one of the young men living in a treehouse burst into tears," Cahill recalls. "He was crying because it was so good. He had never had rice before."

To boldly go

Cahill, 56, has made a career of describing that rich variety of experiences among people most of us will never meet in places we likely won't see.

Sea kayaking at McBride Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park (September 1984)  

"For many years I thought my job was to go to places where it would be difficult for most of the readers to ever get to," Cahill says. "Now, in the more than 20 years I've been doing this, the concept of adventure-travel trips or expeditions by groups has sprung up. The places I went 20 years ago now have adventure-travel trips.

"For me, to find a place that doesn't have an organized tour going to it is becoming more and more difficult. A lot of times it involves danger of a political nature -- places where the adventure-travel trips can't go because they can't get any liability insurance."

A place that could become Club Dead for a naive traveler. A place like Colombia, to which a recent assignment took him. More on that later.

Magazine moves

If he had stuck with his original career plan, he'd be talking today about trials not travels. But after one semester of law school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Cahill decided to pursue a more abiding interest -- writing.

Cahill moved to San Francisco in the 1960s as the hippie movement began to flower. He earned a master's degree in English and creative writing at San Francisco State University.

"I was one of the few people at Rolling Stone who liked to go outdoors. Therefore, I was one of the four people picked to come up with the concept of (Mariah) magazine."
— Tim Cahill

He also wrote a novel and showed it to a writer at a young rock culture magazine to which Cahill had sold a couple of free-lance pieces -- Rolling Stone. Next thing he knew, Cahill had accepted an offer to be a writer for the magazine. At the time, "new journalism" was coming into vogue. It utilized fiction techniques to write nonfiction. This was to his advantage, Cahill says.

"I could learn to do the reporting but I had a jump-start on a lot of people because I knew how to put together a novel, how to do interior monologues and stuff," he says.

Eventually, Rolling Stone decided to create an outdoor magazine. "I was one of the few people at Rolling Stone who liked to go outdoors. Therefore, I was one of the four people picked to come up with the concept of the magazine."

The format they decided on was that of a literate outdoor publication. "You can imagine the scorn and ridicule," Cahill says. "At the time, it was supposed that people who went outdoors were not literate. They were mouth-breathers and knuckle-draggers."

Nevertheless, the first issue of Mariah magazine was published in 1978. Two years later it was renamed Outside. In 1996, 1997 and 1998 the magazine won the National Magazine Award for general excellence.

Outside was sold a few years after its founding and Cahill remained with it, writing feature stories and columns over the years. Last December he signed a one-year contract to write exclusively for Men's Journal, but he still is listed as an editor-at-large at Outside.

What netted Tim Cahill his first writing gig at Rolling Stone and led to his career as ... a rolling stone?
Click here.

Cahill says his one-year contract with Men's Journal pays him $125,000 to produce five feature stories. He estimates he'll make another $30,000 to $40,000 from other sources such as book royalties.

"It wasn't something I got into to make money," he says. "I've only been making that kind of money for the past 10 years or so. It took me 20 years to get to that point. Twenty years of being paid really poorly."

Cahill's expenses also are paid when he's on assignment. "I'm usually pretty cheap," he says. "It's the airplane flight to wherever I'm going. Once I'm in-country, a lot of times I'm out with a backpack and tent and eating food that I buy at the markets. A lot of these stories end up being a bargain."

Home games

Riding through the foothills of the Absaroka Mountains in Montana's West Boulder Valley (May 1997)  

Cahill spends up to a month on assignment, so he'll be away from Montana -- where he owns a 99-year-old home and a wilderness cabin -- for about five months this year. Does he go on vacations when he isn't traveling on business?

"My idea of a vacation is staying home and doing short day hikes, floating the river and things like that," he says. Listening to Cahill rhapsodize about Montana, you realize why he loves writing about the outdoors.

"It's the best place on earth. The mountains. The river. The everyday scenery is great. I like to see the seasons change. I like to see the eagles coming in. It's beautiful."

But after several weeks at home, Cahill says he gets the itch to travel again. Story ideas may be generated by editors, by Cahill or by committee.

"There's a story everywhere. Being bored to death someplace is basically a funny proposition."
— Tim Cahill

"A lot of times these destinations are obscure," Cahill says. "Not much is known about what's going to happen when I get there. So I'm given a great degree of latitude on where I go and what I can do.

"There's a story everywhere. Being bored to death someplace is basically a funny proposition," Cahill says. "What you have to watch out for is you don't write a boring story about a boring place."

One suspects that Cahill isn't bored often. His travel travails have included dangling from a rope at Yosemite's El Capitan, crawling on his belly through dark caves, paragliding over the Salmon River in Idaho, kayaking through rough surf in Baja California with a wasp crawling up his shorts -- even driving a chariot.

"I'm not particularly good at these outdoor sports," Cahill says. "I have some skills. What I usually do is find an expert.

"If we're going diving with sharks, I count all his arms and legs, and if he's been doing it for 20 years, I figure he knows what he's doing. I tell him, 'Look, you're going to be the focus of this story, Mr. Expert. If I get hurt, you look bad.'"

Cahill says people scare him more than what he encounters in the natural world. "You can calculate your odds" with the latter, he says.

"You see a stretch of river that's un-runable, you don't run it. But people? -- you find yourself in a situation where guerrillas are getting drunk at night and you don't know whether they're going to turn on you at a moment's notice if you say something wrong."

Ready to take a Tim Cahill-esque flying leap into another career of your own?
Talk about going for it.

Cahill is alluding to his recent trip to Colombia. He and a photographer met one night with armed rebels at their headquarters, and said they'd be interested in visiting a guerrilla camp. Their hosts' activities have included extortion and kidnapping, Cahill says.

"They started saying, 'We can take you there right now. You can stay as long you like. You can cook for us. You might even want to stay longer than you planned.' The jokes about kidnapping and a million dollars cut a little too close. That was fairly scary. People are much scarier than mountains or rivers."

Success story

What makes an adventure-travel piece work, Cahill says, is "a narrative story -- one with a beginning, a middle and an end. I used to take miles and miles and hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes, and I still do. But now, about three-quarters of the way through the thing, I can see the structure of the story in my mind."

A lot of "Tim tales" are gathered in books for the armchair adventurer.
Here's a rundown.

Sometimes a story Cahill envisioned doesn't pan out, so he has to be nimble enough to devise a Plan B. That's what happened with his visit to the Karowai tribe in Indonesia.

The original idea was to visit an area in the same region, high in the mountains. But Cahill couldn't get a flight that would take him near there. So he improvised and wound up eating sago with a primitive tribe.

Or take a trip he made to Guatemala. Cahill got his story about some Mayan ruins in that Central American country's El Peten jungle region, all right. But he also found material for a column -- an outhouse built over a cave.

"I consider myself a writer. The travel, the adventure stuff comes next."
— Tim Cahill

When Cahill suffered intestinal distress one night, he learned first-hand that the cave's bats were none too happy about the sewage sullying their sanctum. What followed was a humorous essay on the "Throne of Terror" in particular and meditations on diarrhea in general.

People sometimes ask Cahill if they need to be fluent in several languages or in superb physical condition to do his job. No, he says. But he finds that what they really want is to find a way to travel and have somebody else foot the bills, he says. And this annoys him.

"I consider myself a writer," Cahill says. "The travel, the adventure stuff comes next. I do the travel and adventure stuff because it really gets my juices flowing and I can write well about those kinds of things.

"You have to first be a writer and somebody who loves to write. If I couldn't travel, I would still write."


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