Travel writer Tracy Ross

Tracy Ross won the 2009 National Magazine Award for her essay The Source of All Things. She later turned that into a book, published by Free Press. After publication, she began freelancing full-time (pre-book, she worked as a magazine editor). Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Sports Writing, Best American Magazine Writing, and Best American Travel Writing. Her stories often center around people running away from something or to it. She writes for Outside, Backpacker, Ski, Bicycling, Runner’s World, among other magazines, and for Colorado Public Radio.

How did you get started traveling?

I guess it depends on how you define traveling, because I think I did a lot of traveling as a kid growing up in a new subdivision in southern Idaho. It was the 80s, and Idaho, and kids could basically do what they wanted. So we spent hour upon hour exploring the deep, soft-dirt tunnels where the developers were laying sewer pipe. I mean, it was probably a tiny footprint but when you were down there it was another universe. I also had my first big adventures back then, with my friends Jenny Harr and Kim McNew. Our subdivision was also surrounded by canal-irrigated farmland. So unbeknownst to our parents, we’d take floaties — those big plastic swimming pool mats — and drift from one “outlet” to another. That was huge travel too, in the sense that it was unknown and foreign to our less brave (crazy/naive) friends, siblings, and parents. And at the end of the day, when you waltzed back home in time for dinner (and drenched in pesticide water), you once again felt like you were returning from someplace exotic.

But I really started traveling — I guess — when I left my small town and sent myself to a performing arts boarding school (Interlochen Arts Academy) in Michigan. The school had 400 kids and all from different states and countries. Suddenly I was in yet another world of constant, live-in creativity with kids of all religions and nationalities. That experience taught me so much — about writing (with teachers like the poet Michael Delp and guest artists like Jim Harrison), about adapting to new places, situations, and people, and about surviving away from home, which was so much better than being at home. After that, I spent a ton of time in the West, just wandering, working outdoor jobs, going to school (Cornish College of the Arts and St. John’s College), and then, one summer, following a friend to Alaska. Traveled around there, but always worked in towns because I was broke. I lived one summer and winter in the town of McCarthy (fly-in only during winter; pop 25) then several additional seasons in Talkeetna. One summer I worked as a backcountry ranger in Denali National Park, where I met a cute, sweet climbing ranger named — oh man, no way I can remember now — and we hatched a giant, completely insane plan to bike tour, mountaineer, and ski our way from Quito, Ecuador, to Tierra del Fuego. As with many of my most ambitious plans that have involved love interests, it fell apart — but while we were on the summit of 18,000-foot Cotopaxi. We made it back to the refugio below and I had the worst altitude sickness ever — blinding headache, throwing up, totally dehydrated and delirious. But I was so sure I couldn’t travel one more second with this guy (who was really so sweet and cute) that I hitchhiked back to Quito, and then cut my trip short, hightailing it back to the U.S.

How did you get started writing?

As I recall, I have always been some kind of writer. Totally horrible though entertaining stories in elementary; bad but award-winning poetry and “declamation” (the arty cousin to debate) in high school; somewhat lyrical journaling and love letters in early college; and then, during those years in Alaska, my first, “successful” writing.

Those I can actually remember perfectly, both occurring in the late 1990s. I wrote a letter to Patagonia — and ode to my Capilene long underwear — that has since been re-published three times. And then, on the back of a grocery bag, in the light of a Coleman lantern, in a cabin with no electricity or running water (because I was so poor), I penned an impassioned “commentary” (really a love letter) to the Talkeenta, Alaska, librarian, who I’d been helping train her sled dogs for the Iditarod while her longtime live-in boyfriend was dying of cancer. The story was about how brave this tiny 5-foot-3 dog musher was. The day after I wrote it, I went to the local radio station, where a producer let me recored it. I practically fell over when I later heard myself on air. But the coolest thing was that after it aired locally the state public radio station picked it up and ran it again on the ceremonial start of the Iditarod. Hearing that story hooked me on wanting to have more of my stories read or heard. So from there, I started doing short pieces from my immediate world/love, the outdoors. My first short news stories were in Climbing Magazine and then Outside Traveler. Then Backpacker and Powder Magazine. And then my first big feature story — set in the heart of Denali National Park in the dead of winter — in Backpacker.

What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?

Ah shoot, I already answered that didn’t I? Now I am also giving away that I have containment issues! But spiritually — like, in my heart — my first break happened in high school declamation, when I wrote these long, impassioned monologues about a fictional girl who was being abused by her father. But all fiction stems from non-fiction. I’d go on to write that story all over again — and get a huge break, in the form of a big book deal and publisher — in my 30s (seven years ago).

As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?

Confidence, for sure. Not in gathering facts or approaching people or finding characters or making friends, but in following the “sparks” of narrative as they appear through to their end. But then again, sometimes I’ll go into a story with the arc somewhat already formed. That’s terrible too because then I start to make leaps or conclusions before I’m even done traveling and back home. I also just always have this feeling that I’m not getting what I need. Which my friend Kevin Fedarko (The Emerald Mile) kind of ingrained in me (because it’s how he feels too, and he said that unless you do feel that way, you probably aren’t getting it) — for better and worse.

What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?

Same thing: confidence. And organization. I am incapable at doing anything linearly. I come home and I have notes on dozens of scraps of paper, envelopes, foreign money, etc. And then I rarely sit down and try to organize everything. Instead, I get nervous that I’ll somehow lose the story if I don’t start writing it right away. So I start writing, without letting the story mulch (or even free-writing about it) on the same kind of scraps and pieces. I also write basically the same thing over and over before ditching it because I have convinced myself it’s somehow wrong. But as all writers must know intuitively, that first flush or spark or hot moment usually contains the real tone or important thought or lead for a story (thanks, Pam Houston for teaching me that). I don’t know how many times I’ve written from that place and then scolded myself (or, more often, got scared because I told myself I had no idea where to go next instead of just following the heat) out of staying with it, following the heat, and trusting where I am going. I’m really trying to find the heat and stay with it in my storytelling, which is both the hardest thing and the easiest thing to do, if you can just trust it.

What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?

Saving money out of paychecks to pay taxes. And working fast enough on assigned stories that I get paid on some kind of schedule (i.e. not three times in one month for three stories and then not again for, oh, say, eight months).

Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?

Yes, but always in my field. I’ve worked as an editor at both Skiing and Backpacker. Then, while at Backpacker, I was lucky enough to write the essay version of The Source of All Things. That caught the eye of an agent, who suggested I turn it into a memoir. While at Backpacker, I “moonlighted” working on a book proposal and sold it in 2009. I’ve basically been able to support my family on the advance until, oh, a year ago — when all hell broke loose, because I was suddenly freelancing full-time without a cushion. My husband works, but we’re by no means even really comfortable. So this past year, in addition to writing my beloved long, deeply reported magazine stories, I’ve done things like write weekly news stories about incarcerated bison for And radio stories (one; currently working on my second) for Colorado Public Radio. And dreaming up and leading a writing camp for teenage girls that just ended last week (fun! And completely exhausting!). Oh! And each winter I teach a few dozen Nordic ski lessons at my local ski hill, but that’s because each instructor gets season passes to a bunch of resorts for their entire family for, like, $99.

What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?

Kevin Fedarko. Jon Krakauer. Sebastian Junger. Dexter Filkins. Pico Iyer (really just discovered him — adore!). Ariel Levy. Joan Didion. Jay Kirk (Hotels Rwanda is one of my all-time favorite stories). Matt Power (R.I.P.). Tons of people in Best American Travel Writing (new finds every year) and Best American Sports Writing. J. Malcolm Garcia is a huge favorite. I have a thing for war reporters — the ultimate travel writers. And then “travel writers” who don’t necessarily travel all that far, but whose writing somehow takes you to faraway places, either because of the subject, or the internal terrain, or the characters.

What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?

This isn’t mine, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s. She says (and now I do), when you are starting out, avoid the temptation to spend your money on writing conferences — at least the ones that promise to teach you how to make money as a travel writer. You can get all of that in books. What you should do with the money you could spend on conferences (says Elizabeth Gilbert and I) is use some of your cash to send yourself on assignment. This is really hard, because if not for someone who are you writing? But it is so valuable to make yourself go somewhere with a mission to report on a place, or person, or issue — rather than just go somewhere and hope that something interesting happens. What you want, if you are to be a travel writer, is a target. If you don’t believe me, read J. Malcolm Garcia’s “Now Ye Know Who the Bosses Are Here.”

What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?

For me, mother of three, it’s the notion that I can get the hell out of my life, guilt-free, for a while, because I am going off to, hopefully, report and write something meaningful. No lies, it’s definitely fun, this leaving, and having a purpose, and getting to use my hard-earned skills to get access to places and/or people I wouldn’t be able to if I weren’t on assignment. I also love when I’m away, and sending back reports in the form of words or pictures or even silly little poems, on Facebook or whatnot, and how happy it makes the people back home, who are both living vicariously through me and rooting for me. I like the honor/pressure of being sent to a place with the expectation that I will come back with new or meaningful information. And I love the urgency, the sort of round-the-clock breathlessness that happens when you land in a place on assignment, know what you want and need to find out, and have just a three days, or a week, or even 10 days to get it. Never, ever do I work harder (and have more fun). And never do I feel more certain that I am doing exactly the universe’s bidding.