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Lynn Ferrin, travel writing, and the meaning of life


I recently attended a memorial service for a great friend and a great writer, editor and adventurer who passed away this summer at the age of 73. Her name was Lynn Ferrin, and for 37 years she was an editor at the AAA magazine in northern California; she was the editor in chief for the last seven of those years. For most of these almost four decades the circulation of that magazine was between 2 and 3 million, and by that reckoning Lynn was one of the most influential editors and writers of her lifetime.

The service began with a procession of friends reading excerpts from Lynn's own travel articles, most of those published in the magazine she edited and in the local newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, when I was travel editor and when our friend John Flinn became travel editor after me.

Three of the pieces read were stories that Lynn had written for me, for a quarterly travel magazine that I was privileged to edit for many years called Great Escapes. It was these stories that inspired this essay. All three of these pieces – one about exploring Morocco on an equestrian tour from Meknes to Fes, one about searching for tortoises on a grueling expedition to the rim of Alcedo Volcano on the Galapagos island of Isabela, and one about riding by horseback across the plains of Inner Mongolia – were magnificent; they were not only beautifully evoked descriptions of particular travel experiences, they were also meditations on the meaning of those experiences and by extension, on the larger meaning of life.

Listening to those stories being read, I had two reactions: The first was viscerally recalling the thrill I had felt as an editor upon opening the envelopes Lynn had sent me, holding her meticulously typed and double-spaced manuscripts in my hands, and reading her words for the first time. The frisson of exhilaration coursed through me again, the pure thrill of mentally moving through a piece that transported me first to an entirely foreign place and experience and then back to my own place and experience in the world, and seeing these anew. My second reaction was the thought that both Lynn and I had been the recipients of an extraordinary gift, that as the editor of a quarterly travel magazine in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, I had been able to offer writers an almost unlimited canvas on which to paint their word pictures, and that as a writer for that magazine, Lynn had been able to lovingly paint the pictures she wanted to paint, to shoot for the stars in her writing, to dream big and to have the space to realize that dream.
Since that memorial, these thoughts have been whirling inside me, and I have been feeling that travel writing today is somehow diminished in this regard. Perhaps it always has been so diminished and I was just lucky enough to inhabit a small corner of the travel writing universe where it wasn't. Or perhaps it isn't so diminished today and I'm simply looking in the wrong places.

I know that great, ambitious, star-reaching writing is still being published here and there and I'm still exhilarated when I find it. But it occurs to me now that really every piece of travel writing should be about the meaning of life. It doesn't have to be the central theme of the piece – it shouldn't be the central theme of the piece – but it should be a filament of the story. To my mind that's the subject that great travel writing – like great travel itself – is ultimately all about: what is the condition of our journey, what is the point, what do we learn from each trip, what pieces of the vast puzzle do we bring back with us, what notes and hints and intimations about the broader picture of it all.

If as a writer you approach travel writing thinking in this way, you can see how just about any story – whether a piece on the best taco stands in Taxco or an exploration of off-the-beaten-track Bhutan – can be about the meaning of life. It's really up to the writer (and of course the editor): If you give yourself permission to think that big, to put your subject in that context, you create a richer, deeper, more meaningful experience for your reader. Your piece is about the best taco places in Taxco – and about the place of tacos in the larger worlds of Mexico, and eating, and humanity; about the role of craftsmanship in food preparation; about the importance of passion and adherence to high standards in any craft; about the value of the passionate enjoyment of a simple meal. All of these are filaments that tie us to a much larger story – the purpose of our lives, the meaning underlying our journeys every day, at home and away. These are filaments that only we as writers can spin, and to do so, we have to prod ourselves, and give ourselves permission, to spin them.

Lynn brought this larger sense to her writing, I realized again at her memorial. She infused her pieces with the wonder that was at the core of her life's journey, with the big-heartedness, big-mindedness and sense of limitlessness that graced her days – and that graced all of us who knew her. She brought these gifts to her writing, she dared to reach far and dream big in her stories – she dared to write about the meaning of life. And because she did so, she touched all of us in big, and deep, ways.

This is what we all need to do as travel writers, I think now. We need to dream big, think big, fling out filaments that tie our travels to a wider perspective. Our work matters only as much as we make it matter, and we need to write pieces that matter. We need to honor ourselves and our readers in this way. We need to honor the act of writing and the act of connecting – connecting with the world when we travel, and connecting with our readers when we write. In the same way that we look for the interlocking pieces of the whole, we also need to be those pieces – we need to interlock, article to article, reader to reader, becoming a part of the vast puzzle we seek to understand and replicate.

It's a high and daunting calling – and thank god for that. Why waste our days aiming low and taking no chances? At her memorial service, Lynn once again – as she had so many times in the years before – showed me anew how we are all interconnected, and how we are only as big as the bridges we build, the ambitions we seed, the dreams we seek. We are only as big as the world we dare to make. In Lynn's case, as in the case of all great travel writing, that world is still expanding.

[Flickr image via Francesco Magoga Photography]

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