2020 September Featured Journalist: Lisa Loucks Christenson

Lisa Loucks Christenson is a national award-winning and #1 international bestselling author, photographer, and illustrator. Her work is licensed and published through various media outlets, and her books and exhibits are featured in her stores, and throughout her publishing network.

What got you into travel writing?

My dad worked for IBM and brought me with on many of his trips. I loved finding interesting places we could visit at the end of his work day, after I spent the day exploring the oceans, the rivers, the woods, the cities. Our travels took us all over the USA, and now, 20 years since he’s left us, I find inspiration while looking back on our adventures.

I opened a notebook the other day and a note fell out with a man’s name that brought me back to 1980s. The old paper had his name, Bob Tremain, Michigan and phone number.

In an instant, I recalled every detail of a day with my dad, this time on the pier in Clearwater, Florida. I was shooting pictures of the brown pelicans, hunched and watchful at my approach. I could see a man at the end of the pier, he was struggling with a large fish on his bent pole. While he lifted his fishing pole, a Double-Breasted Cormorant put a beak-hold on his catch. I snapped his picture, a “Kodak Moment” a time in my history that included: a short story about a trip with my dad, a man, a fish, and a bird. I sent Bob his memorable moment in time, a photo my dad and I laughed over until the end of his life. Now I laugh alone, but not without dad and Bob in my thoughts.

I traveled to many places with my dad, we connected in our own way through art, I think if he had more time on this earth, he’d be shooting alongside me, he had an artistic talent, he just ran out of time. I wrote about our little trips, our experiences, and sold some stories, but kept others and without fully realizing these were the first trips that would hook me, and make me a travel writer.

What’s the most challenging part of being a travel journalist for you?

I live with interstitial lung disease so this limits my ability to travel except under careful consideration. Before traveling I have to research and know about the air quality, the humidity, the temperature, the weather for that season. When I visit a restaurant, hotel, shops, homes, I have to avoid perfumes, heavy scents, candles, people smoking at doorway entrances. For me, this is not a lifetime of inconveniences, it’s a focused lifestyle. I have to plan and know if I’ll be traveling any place with open fires, dusty environments, are there birds (I’m allergic to the protein in their feathers!), and any kind of smoke shuts my lungs down, farmers spraying fields makes it difficult to breathe, old moldy buildings cause instant respiratory issues. When I’m hiking or even walking, I need to do so at a slower pace, so group events don’t work for me. It’s not a problem––it’s my new lifestyle. I learned that sometimes it’s best to be solo, not to be that person in the group holding up others, and in doing so, I found a deeper faith, I found animals and nature became the voices and traveled alongside me. We truly are not ever alone.

What is one thing [equipment or personal item] you can’t go without on the road?

A camera with video. I have spent 48 years of my life viewing the world through various sized viewfinders, and I find when I travel back in time, I can always recreate or sketch, and write from even the smallest shots, on every sized paper or digital viewfinder, stories that captured my thoughts, places that moved into any vacant spot in my heart.

What’s your most unusual and/or memorable travel experience?

Hands down, one of my trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in northern Minnesota. My husband and I had traveled a few miles in, the weather nice with intermittent rainstorms and white caps. I remember looking at my camera gear tied into the canoe, praying it would hold if we tipped. I remember we were close to shore but we had to cross over a small rapids to get there. We were doing well, then we weren’t. Suddenly, we started spinning in circles, water poured over large boulders all around us, as we became stuck on a rock, spinning around, unable to break free. We were finally able to push our canoe off one of the boulders and reach our campsite.

I remember catching Northern Pike, my husband would toss his line and come back with clams. I didn’t know they would clamp to your line. We were frying up dinner when something caught our attention. It was after 10PM, when we saw two shadows moving through the water in their canoe, they were paddling past us on the moonlit lake, “You can share our site if you want,” I said. I called out again, but they just kept paddling near the shore past us. “We have leftover fish if you’re hungry,” I added, but they didn’t respond, they kept canoeing into the darkness ahead.

In the morning we woke up to a bright, beautiful sunrise. It was hard to leave that campsite, the inspiration and outpouring of peace made it one of my favorite travel experiences.

I was shooting Kodachrome 64 for almost every publication I shot for, a film that offered beautiful colors and almost no grain. I was going through each slide and then I paused on one picture. Somehow I seem to remember every shot I take, but this one was shot from a bird’s-eye view, a picture that showed our tent and our campsite, and the image had a familiar orange and pink colors to it, like the day we left for home. I looked at the fog around our tent down, bathed in a field of glowing colors and the lake just beyond it. For over 28 years I’ve wondered where that shot came from. Just one shot. I never take just one picture of anything, and that itself was a clue. I wondered if those canoeists did stay, maybe around the bend and sneaked back and grabbed my camera for a shot, but that’s something I’d write in a fiction novel. Maybe there are ghosts in the BWCA, as some people claim, if so, I’d like to believe they were a photographer in a former life because they had a good eye.

How did you learn about NATJA and why did you join?

I had found out about NATJA while searching the internet. I checked out NATJA’s work, their connections, what they represented, how they operated, and loved learning about the uncountable opportunities and information for trips, exploration, and visiting places I never knew existed. I’m all about outdoors, unusual, mysterious, and any story about animals and wildlife, oddities, foods, culture and life stories.

Every day I meet someone from around the world at one of my stores, one is in an international hotel. Language is never a barrier for us, which has taught me so much about the human experience, and by adding masks to a face during this pandemic, it brings me to something I’ve seen and focused on more than anything else in my life, that small rectangle of a face that isn’t covered by a shield or face mask. I see the stories in my clients’ eyes. Though I can’t travel, not like before, I’ve got invitations to visit and stay anywhere in the world, when I get there, it will be because NATJA was there with resources and information needed for a future life as a journalist.

What is the best piece of advice you could give to a rookie travel journalist?

The best advice is something an old wildlife artist shared with me. I was 22-years-old, and I had told her that I wanted to become a wildlife artist, like her, but I felt like I’d be 29 before I received my opportunity to do the art I dreamed about doing.

She turned to me with her confident face, one that I realize now was a face of pure courage, and said, “Lisa, someday you’re going to 29 anyway, it’s never to late to start, just do it.” I don’t think I was home for an hour before I started my first logo for my writing and photography and art. I had found the words, but not my strength––until that night. This woman may still be alive today, every day I wait for her to return to the hotel, and I hope she’ll visit my bookstore and wildlife gallery, it’s on the other side of the hotel where we’d first met. I want her to see what her words of encouragement taught me, photos and art I’ve created to share with people all over the world, even during a pandemic. I always leave my lights on when I’m gone . . . some of my best clients are those who will never buy a painting or photo, but are silent observers of my work, people who need inspiration, hope, and courage while they seek or their loved one is receiving care and/or treatment at the Mayo Clinic, here in Rochester, Minnesota, a medical center that is outside my store. A gift I gladly give and share, looking is free, and I hope my work will bless another person, whether they are with family or friends, or on a solo journey to a changed or altered way of living, their new beginning or their grand conclusion.

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