Clay Hubbs has had a long double career as a college professor and a journalist. In 1977 he combined his two interests to start Transitions Abroad magazine “for people who travel to learn.” The bimonthly magazine and its website focus on the life-changing alternatives to mainstream tourism. In 2002 Hubbs turned over publication of the magazine to a nonprofit educational foundation and the web site to his son Gregory, who has built it into an international travel-work-study-living portal.
How did you get started traveling?
In the early sixties I joined the Air Force as an officer to see the world and avoid the draft, went to flight school, and got posted to a frontline nuclear bomber base in the U.K. After I resigned my commission to protest American involvement in Vietnam, my wife Joanna and my son Gregory and I went toodling off across North Africa and the Middle East in a used VW van, following the path of Alexander the Great. It was a wonderful trip — filled with many adventures and breakdowns — in which we fell in love with that part of the world and with travel. Joanna’s second pregnancy brought us back to the West before we could reach India, so in the mid-sixties we returned — this time with two kids and a new bus. And this time we included the length of the Soviet Union in our itinerary.
On that first trip we left all our guidebooks behind — not deliberately as I recall, but we never needed them. We were traveling to see for ourselves, and Herodotus was all we needed. Travel web sites and books today reflect the cowardice and lack of curiosity of so many would-be travelers. It seems that now folks like to read about risk-taking travel but they don’t want to do it. They want to find out everything before they go instead of discovering for themselves. They want to travel independently but with the reassurances of a package tour.
If we had followed the advice of guidebooks we would never have taken that first trip. We took some risks; that’s what made it exciting. But we trusted and listened to the local people, and because we did we were never in serious danger: We drove into Baghdad through streets lined with soldiers in foxholes, just after the dictator Kassim had been dragged through the streets, and were told we had 24 hours to leave the country. A friendly Iraqi jumped into our bus and directed us toward the Iranian border.
Such things happened time and time again. In Algeria a farm family insisted that it wasn’t safe to camp outside and invited us to drive our bus into the basement garage of their bombed-out farmhouse. It was just after the French-Algerian war, and the French had destroyed as much as possible before leaving. We spoke French and may have been French for all they knew, but they looked out for us all the same.
How did you get started writing?
I received degrees in journalism at the University of Missouri in the fifties. My major was magazine editorial and I edited a national business magazine while I finished work on a master’s. After my Air Force stint I used the GI Bill to get a doctorate and so became a literature professor. Summers were for travel and writing; Transitions Abroad became my primary publisher.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer and editor?
Perhaps it was choosing to go to a great hands-on journalism school. Or maybe it was my brief Air Force posting as a public information officer in the U.K. One of my jobs was to make friends with the people in the community.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what has been your biggest challenge on the road?
My biggest challenge has always been forcing myself to sit down and write a story when it happened. I need the pressure of deadlines and could never have made it as a freelancer.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Getting it right. I am by nature an editor, not a reporter, and very particular. I edit what I write — and especially what others write! — ruthlessly.
As a longtime writer and editor, what is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Marketing. It takes a lot of sales to cover mailing campaigns. I’m convinced that the Internet will be the salvation for specialized magazines like Transitions Abroad. (I don’t really see what we’re doing as specialized; it’s just not mainstream.) Instead of chasing readers, readers search for us. I love it.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Always. I was a college teacher for 30 years. For most of that time Transitions Abroad was a part-time project. The two jobs were directly connected — so much so that I volunteered to be my college’s advisor for international study. My message to my students and to my readers was the same: “Hey, travel [a book] can change your life in a big way. Here are some ideas about how to travel [read].”
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Over the years I’ve recommended hundreds of books and authors — always those that describe ways to learn about (and from) a culture from the inside. Travel, like literature, is educational, challenging…and very exciting. The transitions or changes that result — and here’s my pitch! — affect us profoundly and for the better: the mask falls and we no longer see only what our culture has conditioned us to expect. Any writing that facilitates what I have sometimes called “life-seeing” travel I welcome and recommend.
There are a few web sites I often go back to, like Ethical Traveler, because I support what they are doing. Mostly though I read links to selected blogs and web sites that my son Greg says I should check out to stay in touch. Among those, I’ve found good info and good writing at World Hum, Travelers’ Tales, and Things Asian. But the fact is I read a lot and try not to live in real or electronic time.
One publication I’ve always subscribed to is Granta. I often reread the truly great travel books like those by English writers in the twenties and thirties — including D.H. Lawrence, my favorite. This summer I discovered I still had a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good. My wife hadn’t read it, and we fought over it. If by some chance you haven’t read it, get a copy right away. Apart from literary travel books, there are of course guidebooks by the hundreds. For years I picked those I thought best for each country. I still look through the new books, and of course I read the new editions of specialty travel books by our contributing editors to keep up on what’s new in the kind of travel that Transitions Abroad promotes: educational travel.
But the most interesting and informative writing comes from our contributors. Sherry Schwarz and Gregory Hubbs sort though all the submissions for the magazine and the web site respectively and send me the ones that fit our guidelines. I read them carefully and I learn a lot because most of the submissions are written for no other reason than the desire to share information about travel.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
The world is in a terrible mess and this country has some responsibility for it. A writer who wants to help reverse the damage can show people how to travel better. I’ve spent many years collecting and publishing material to encourage people to travel wisely and responsibly. Now, thanks to my son Gregory, much of that information is available online. And thanks to Sherry Schwarz, who has kept Transitions Abroad magazine alive and growing when I no longer could, that 29-year stockpile of resource information continues to expand and remain up to date. I’ve bucked the travel industry in my insistence on the greater rewards of independent travel over package tours.
Based upon my experience, my advice to young travel writers is this: decide on your message and mode of delivery and stick to your guns. It’s important for a writer to develop and hone a style. But it’s even more important to have a point of view and a curiosity about the material (the world) that informs that style. I think of Rick Steves. We started out at about the same time with a similar message or “travel philosophy.” Rick was a good businessman, and he understood that there were thousands (millions?) of Americans who longed to travel Europe as he had taught himself to do, as a vagabond. But they either had no idea how to do it or they lacked the nerve to try. So Rick became their teacher and coach.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer and publisher?
The biggest reward of travel writing is the way it makes you to travel with your antennae out. When you know you have an audience and an obligation you pay closer attention. You might go places you wouldn’t otherwise go. You take notes and photographs. Joanna and I went to Ethiopia a few years ago expressly to write about volunteering there. It was exciting for us, and the information we brought back was useful — although little of it had to do with volunteering.
Of course it’s always nice to know you’re doing something worthwhile. When I started Transitions Abroad the bulk of the readers were students and teachers. Over the years parents have told me that they read Transitions Abroad as students and were inspired to use the information it contained to go abroad. Now that they have children, they encourage them to do the same.