Next Wednesday I am boarding a plane to Mongolia. Back in 2017, I’d had to cancel that trip, long anticipated, due to a broken back. A fractious horse tossed me ass over teakettle at a dead run in Kazakhstan. I not only cracked a bunch of bones off my spine, but I also seriously cranked my right shoulder.
Surgeries, rehab and one heck of a lot of PT later, I am headed back. This time, it’s going to be too cold to ride horses in the Altai Mountains, but I have a superb itinerary of home stays, local research and am heading out to the Eagle Festival to research how folks prepare. I’ll be riding camels in the Gobi and learning how to fly those eagles while living with a family.
Then I am home for five weeks hitting the gym and the stairs, only to take off for four weeks in Ethiopia. I’ll be riding Abyssinian horses at 12,000 feet, visiting Coptic churches and hiking one of the hottest places on the planet, ISO flowing lava in the Danakil Depression.
In February, I head to Africa again, to scuba dive Mafia Island, ride horses in the Mara and work for my client in Tanzania.
Sound like fun?
Of course it is. One hell of a lot of folks want my gig.
That “gig,” if you will, is living my entire life like a Gap Year.
That “gig,” if you will, took me one hell of lot of work to construct.
Taking off for a month or more at a time to immerse myself in other cultures, to do adventure travel and come home with epic stories isn’t a good gig for anyone in serious relationship. Or who has kids. Or who wants any kind of predictability or financial security.
Let’s be clear. I live in part on a veteran’s disability income. I still do some consulting and just secured a major client. I make some money on Medium. I’m not a trust fund baby. This kind of life costs. It’s how I negotiate terms, build my clientele and deliver value that make this gig happen.
First and foremost, I want to seriously disabuse anyone of the notion that what I do is a job that you apply for, as though there was a posting for adventure traveler/journalist, sign right up.
If there were, I’d have applied for it.
And been promptly turned down for being female, old, and inexperienced.
You get my drift. What I do, I carved out of the clay myself. This is the very beating heart and soul of entrepreneurship. Carving it out yourself.
As my friend, mentor and travel writing teacher Tim Leffel explains in his book Travel Writing 2.0, developing your career as a travel writer is damned hard work. Long gone are the days when some five-star resort would slaver at the idea of wining and dining you in some distant location just for a mention. Slick mags are on the decline. There’s work all right, but as he says, you have to be good at delivering excellent content. That takes skills.
Probably the biggest takeaway from Leffel’s book? The throughline woven through all those pages is that this is a business, folks. You have to have a business plan, you have to sell, you have to work long hours, invest. To thrive, as he points out in his regular posts, most folks doing travel writing these days juggle multiple streams of income.
People who want to do the other thing I love to, which is become a professional speaker (about adventure travel, in this case), are also shocked to find out that you have to have a business plan, you have to sell, you have to work long hours, invest. About 90% of the time that we speakers have is spend securing, researching, preparing for the gig, which is the rest of what we do. If you love it, it doesn’t feel like work. But if you hate selling, find a mail room job. Flip hamburgers. Get a boss. This isn’t the life for you.
These days, you have to work your ever-loving butt off if you want to make it in the travel industry. The field is jammed with hobbyists, folks who have the time and dime, and for whom this isn’t a living. They do it for free. Try competing with that. Don’t blame that on Baby Boomers. I am one and I bust my butt. Digital Nomads have changed the name of the game all over the world. This is Tim’s link if you want to give that life a try.
A gap year is typically for university students, offering a break from the academic rigors. However, for me, a gap year represents having been set free entirely. Free, in this case, of onerous work we don’t like, being around folks we don’t much respect or care for, and having little to look forward to each day.
That defines far too many of us.
The first order of business for me was clarifying the question of what put the bird in my chest. This question took time. I had no real clue in my first five decades. Not really. While a four-year hiatus of hitchhiking around Australia, New Zealand and Fiji from 1983–1987 most certainly set the hook in my cheek for much more, I had to find work. Pay bills.
As do most of us. I chose work as a writer, a journalist, in training and development. I developed consulting skills. Became a professional speaker. Each of these in its time felt like The Thing. This is as it should be. We follow our noses as best we can, and are drawn to the Next Thing the way a spaniel follows a scent. We build marketable skills. A great deal of that I had to pay for myself.
That would include all my certifications in scuba, skydiving, my kayaking training, horse back riding training, you get my drift. It gets pricey to get competent. It’s also damned pricey to buy all your own gear: kayaks, bikes, saddles, sleeping bags, tents. Yes, I get pro discounts (another serious perk) but 40% off a $700 bag, well, you get it.
If we’re fortunate, a dream bubbles just below the surface, like quiet lava. International travel always beckoned but I never saw a way. I also got in my own way, by spending vast amounts of money on monumentally stupid shit in an effort to get love, attention, feel worthy.
That of course didn’t work. That stash is long gone.
Spending money on stupid shit makes it damned hard to live your life like a Gap year, but that’s why this is called a journey.
During the four decades I spent working either for others full time or as a consultant I built some solid skills:
- Sales (no small feat)
- High-level consulting
- Training, speaking and stage craft
- Delivering value, by making my client the hero, not myself
When I was 58 I wrote my first book. It won a bunch of prizes. That’s a good recommendation if you plan to impress potential clients with your writing skills. That year I also said I was done with eighty-hour work weeks. Nobody was going to give me a hero button. If I wanted more fun in my life, I’d have to install it.
In 2011 gave myself the gift of a month in Thailand, learned enough of the language to make my way around. And remembered why I loved to travel.
This time, I couldn’t go back.
After that I booked adventure trips to Ecuador, Costa Rica and Tanzania. At sixty, I put in the investment to turn my pretty fit body into an extremely fit body. Climbed Kilimanjaro. That was the year that did it for me. I wanted to do this for a living- adventure travel. In the meantime, however, everything was on my dime. I hit a hard wall.
How on earth was I going to pay for it?
It would be a few more years of paying for my own trips, learning about gear, developing solid knowledge of the industry and its challenges before I would be able to make overtures to some of the folks with whom I’d already traveled. I skimped. Traveled on the cheap. Hostels, tents, anything to save cash for the adventures. By then I understood the kinds of challenges my potential clients faced. And, by virtue of all the decades before, I also knew how to solve a few of them.
I found a few early jobs, which barely paid the cost of my plane travel. That gave me legitimacy. I turned those published articles into more work, bit by bit. My prize-winning book was a door opener, for it established me as a capable writer. I practiced the short form by writing on Linked In until I found Medium. Even better, I represent the very client that spends the most money on soft adventure: folks between 50 and 70. I speak for them. I write for them. My clients are trying to appeal to them.
Today, a good portion of what I do in the world is traded for stories. In most cases I pick up my air travel, but because I do so much of it, miles take care of the costs.
Here’s the key piece: I had to invest my own time and money to build industry knowledge. People hire solutions. Experience. Problem solving. You and I don’t get a gig simply because it sounds awesome. We get them because we have solid, proven skills. While yes, of course, you might be able to score a job with a travel company, the pay isn’t particularly good, but you might be able to get some perks.
Here’s what’s involved for a gig like mine:
I exercise like a banshee in order to do what’s required on my trips. That might be long-distance hiking, mountain climbing, horse riding, kayaking, rafting. Sometimes multiple sport trips, as offered by folks like The Clymb, with whom I have done a number of stupid-good adventures.Those trips also introduced me to brand new sports, which led to more gear, more adventures and expanded my repertoire. I spend more than enough time doing PT and rehab due to the inevitable injuries. Part of the job. Pain, bumps, breaks, bruises, and in my case, a great many concussions.
I signed up as a media member with the Adventure Travel and Trade Association. While they are nowhere near comprehensive in terms of representing all the world’s adventure companies, they do represent many. They are US-centric. So if you’re looking for a job in this industry, try checking out their member list.
Fair warning: if you want to be a guide, have the credentials. The Outbound Collective offers some great ideas for how to get started, but here’s what you have to have to even be considered:
- Basic First Aid Training
- Public Speaking Experience
- Knowledge of Local Ecology, History, and Outdoor Recreation
- Experience (even if just casual) in your particular work area
You have to pay for all this, in money, time, and hard work. Nobody that I know out there is going to foot that bill for you, because there are already so very many qualified folks who want to do this work. You can even get a degree in outdoor recreation.
Kindly, and I speak to this from far too much experience, if your communications skills suck, don’t do this. I have excoriated more than one adventure company on line because of crap customer service, poorly-trained guides and guides who are dangerously immature. They tend to be showoffs, much less concerned about guest safety and experience than having a good old time in the wild all for themselves. This is service work, and we have to leave our egos at the door.
And age? Look. One of the best guides I ever met is fourteen. She was with me this past summer during a brutally challenging four week horse packing trip in the Canadian wilderness. Strong, smart, funny, well-educated, can-do, hard working and in every single way, one of the best guides I have ever met. And this was her second year. It has far less to do with age than competence, fitness, attitude and willingness to do what it takes.
If you want to be a travel writer, my suggestion is look up Tim Leffel’s online training program, get his book, and do not buy into the bullshit that there are LOTS of easy jobs that promise Mai-tais and easy money while you loll by the pool.
Where does Medium come in?
This is where I publish articles that get my client’s attention. They will ask me for a rewrite, or because they like how I handled a particular topic, they get interested in what I can do for their web content. I’ve gotten two magazine gigs as a result of Medium so far, and more to follow. But I have to write, and I had to have plenty of stories to publish. Those experiences, I paid for myself until folks saw what I could do for them.
Want to live your life like a Gap Year?
First, define what that looks like. Then, figure out what it’s going to cost you to get there. Time, money, blood sweat and tears. It most certainly doesn’t have to take you four decades. That was just my journey. By the same token, it isn’t going to be a overnight process. This kind of life isn’t free. I work hard, I work out hard, and I injure hard. The payoff is that I am doing what I love more than anything in the world. At 66, I am in the best shape of my life, living the life I have always dreamed, with so much more to look forward to.