Don has filled many roles in his professional life – psychologist, aerospace engineer, educator, futurist, consultant, and now, award-winning travel writer.
After earning a B.S. in electrical engineering from Drexel University and a Ph.D. in psychology from Johns Hopkins University, Don worked for 35 years as a psychology professor and dean at various universities throughout the US and consulted for many organizations, large and small, public and private.
He authored four highly regarded books on management and organizational psychology, including Teams and Technology from Harvard Business School Press and Business Without Boundaries from Jossey-Bass.
In 2008, Don took another career turn and became a full-time travel writer with the publication of his National Geographic book, Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler (co-authored with Shannon Stowell). The Wall Street Journal called this book, which describes off-the-beaten-track adventures for boomers and seniors, “one of the best travel books to cross our desk this year…A wonderful — and inspiring – read.”
Since then, Don has won many awards for his travel writing from the North American Travel Journalists Association and the North American Mature Publishers Association.
Don has traveled to over 80 countries and all seven continents. In collaboration with the cutting-edge travel company, Explorer X, he is now designing and leading trips to several of his favorite destinations, including SE Asia, Scotland, Ireland, and Namibia.
1. What got you into travel writing?
In the fall of 2004, I was having dinner with my friend and colleague, Ken D., to give him a signed copy of my most recent book on management and organizational psychology. As I slid a copy of the book across the table, Ken, a highly successful corporate speaker and the consultant asked, “Don, do you mind if I give you some career advice? Stop writing this ‘crap’ (he used a somewhat less delicate and polite word).
After I picked my jaw up from the floor, he explained. “You take great trips. You tell great stories about your trips. And you talk more enthusiastically about your trips than your work. You should be writing about your trips, not about this ‘stuff’ “ (again, he used a less polite word).
We then went back to his house, where I was spending the night, to work on an outline and prospectus for a book about adventure travel for boomers and seniors. He sent the outline to his agent, who then referred me to another agent. A year later I signed a book contract with National Geographic Press. A year and a half later the book came out. In the middle of the Great Recession! Although the reviews were great, including a stunner from the Wall Street Journal, the sales were disappointing. But I was hooked, nonetheless.
2. What’s the most challenging part of being a travel journalist for you?
It took a few years of pitching stories and getting rejected or hearing nothing at all, but I finally found a steady outlet with an editor that loves my stories and publishes everything I write. The pay is nominal at best, but I do get to travel for free, write, and see my stories in print.
So now, the most challenging part is the travel itself. Most of my trips are international, so jet lag wallops me for days and it often takes me more than a week before I can get back to a decent sleep schedule. This issue gets more difficult with age. I turn 81 in April, so I’m thinking of slowing down a bit. Instead of spending one night in three on the road, I’m shooting for one out of four or five. And maybe I’ll focus more on domestic destinations.
3. What is one thing [equipment or personal item] you can’t go without on the road?
A headlamp. Reading lights in many hotels and accommodations are lousy. Besides, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I don’t have to turn on the light, and wake up my wife or even me, to find my way to the bathroom. And it enables me to read in bed during those long, sleepless, jet-lagged nights.
4. What’s your most unusual and/or memorable travel experience?
For my 60th birthday, my friend Ken arranged a trade with one of his clients, a large international travel company — a day of consulting in exchange for a free trip for me from their extensive catalog. I chose to fly into the interior of Antarctica and camp on the ice for 8 days.
It was an incredible trip full of memorable moments, but the most memorable was a one-night camping trip about 15 miles from the main camp. We rode snowmobiles to our campsite at the base of a hill on the edge of an ice sheet that extended to the horizon. After setting up our tents, and having a so-called “hot” meal, we retreated to our tents and very thick sleeping bags for the night.
I woke up early, before everyone else in our party. It was snowing, so it was essentially white-out conditions. Seeking an adventure, I exited my tent and followed the demarcation line between the gravel “beach” at the base of the hill where we camped and the ice, walking and shuffling for about half a mile around the bend of the hill, out of sight of our camp.
I stopped and stared into the distance, listening to the snowflakes fluttering to the ground….as well as the sound of my pounding heart. I figured that at that moment I was the most remote person on the planet. After 15 minutes, I started to get cold and headed back to the camp. This was, perhaps, not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but surely one of the most memorable.
5. How did you learn about NATJA and why did you join?
A fellow travel writer, Karen Kefauver, sent me a notice about the annual awards competition for 2011. I entered one of my favorite stories of the year, Off Road in Montenegro, and won the Gold Medal for 60+ Travel. Unlike Groucho Marx, I was willing to join a club that would have me as a member, especially one that liked my writing.
6. What is the best piece of advice you could give to a rookie travel journalist?
Marry someone with a good job. I realized early on that I probably wouldn’t be able to make a decent living via travel writing, so I adjusted my goals. For a while, I was able to use my writing to market myself as a speaker and consultant. After a while, I realized that the rewards of travel writing were the free trips, not the money. That was good enough for my wife who was happy to support my “jones” until she retired.
Seriously, you need to have realistic expectations and find other income sources. Write other stuff to supplement your earnings and use your writing as a tool for marketing other, potentially remunerative skills.