Rolf Potts: The Art of Vagabonding

Travel Interviews: Jim Benning speaks with the writer about his new book, Americans' travel habits and the "diversity renaissance" in travel writing these days

02.04.03 | 8:20 PM ET

The author

Rolf Potts made a name for himself writing evocative travel stories as the Vagabonding columnist at His piece Storming the Beach became an instant classic and landed him in the pages of the 2000 Best American Travel Writing anthology. Since then, Potts’ writing has appeared in publications far and wide, including National Geographic Adventure and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as right here on World Hum. His first book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, hit bookstores last month. In it, Potts extols the virtues of his own vagabonding philosophy, deftly weaving inspiration and how-to advice with a genuinely uncommon exploration of serious travel issues. Among them: how to get the most from a guidebook without becoming a slave to it; how best to meet locals; and the pitfalls of “romantic primitivism” and “ethno-tourism,” in which modern travelers seek to “validate their own authenticity and rediscover their own lost connections to the past” by striking off in search of Stone Age tribes. Potts peppers his text with quotations from poets, philosophers and academics, giving “Vagabonding” a literary bent rarely found on the bookshelves of the travel section. Potts fielded my questions as he prepared to embark on a tour to promote his book.

World Hum: You’ve been living and traveling abroad for more than six years. How has the experience changed you?

Long-term travel has been my education.  Every day on the road, I learn something new—sometimes through beautiful experiences, sometimes through difficult experiences.  But, regardless of good lessons or bad,  vagabonding has taught me to value what each day teaches me—and this is a lesson I can use even when I’m not traveling.  If learning and discovery can become your passion—that is, if you can take a genuine interest in people and places and things, wherever you are—then you’ll never be bored on the road or at home.

And if there’s a central lesson that vagabonding has taught me along the way, it’s that the only thing you really own in life is time.  That is, if you can learn to find your wealth in time and experience instead of “things,” you stand a much better chance of living life to the fullest.

What’s the difference between vagabonding and traveling?

I don’t like to get too caught up in semantics, and thus I like to keep the definition of vagabonding somewhat slippery and open to personal interpretation.  Vagabonding is personal, and when you get too dogmatic about defining it, then you are concentrating on a black-and-white concept instead of the grayish travel experience.  Concentrating on the “rules” of travel is one of the reasons travelers tend to get competitive—and once you begin evaluating your travels on the basis of other people’s travels,  you’ve begun to lose track of why you hit the road in the first place.

But, to get back to the question, vagabonding is when you put your “normal”  life on hold to go traveling for an extended period of time.  Vagabonding is about embracing uncertainty on the road, and leaving your travels open to experience.  And I’d reckon vagabonding begins at home—with the decision to seek your life’s wealth in time and experience instead of “things.” Vagabonding isn’t necessarily a plan of action for the road,  but an attitude that sustains one’s travels.

Why is that kind of long-term travel so important?

Making a definite break from your workaday life better immerses you into the travel experience.  Often, “vacation”-type travel is just a brief escape—an extension of the life you are already leading at home.  This is why people micromanage (and tend not to enjoy) their vacations in the same way they micromanage their home life.  And when you value efficiency above serendipity on the road—when you to try eliminate all mistakes and uncertainties—you usually end up with a rather sterile travel experience.  You don’t learn anything, and you don’t come home changed.  Vagabonding is about slowing down, taking your time and traveling deliberately.  It’s about making mistakes and learning from them,  and knowing that the road will take you in directions you never dreamed of when you were planning your travels.  It is, to a big extent, an outlook wherein you allow travel to mold your life and your way of thinking.

You invoke a lot of well-known Americans in the book, who you say were early “vagabonders”: John Muir, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau. It would seem that America has a great tradition of vagabonding. Yet relatively few Americans hold passports. Why do you think that is? What does that say about the country and its people?

Well, I’d reckon one of the reason so few Americans hold passports is that America is a huge and diverse country.  When I went on my first vagabonding journey in 1994, I didn’t own a passport.  I traveled for eight months across North America during that trip, and I could have traveled for eight years without losing interest or seeing the same thing twice.  So I’d say part of the passport issue is that America itself offers so many travel options.

But there is a deeper issue at hand.  Between our frontier history and our current superpower status, we Americans tend to be inward-looking.  We’re an immigrant culture, and part of the immigrant ideal is tied to the idea that we (or, rather, our ancestors) all chose to leave the old world behind and live here.  It’s a weird idea, really.  As an immigrant culture, you’d think Americans would be more rootless, more given to wandering overseas.  But it seems like we mainly express our rootlessness by moving around within the United States.  California—with its fast-food, optimism, and vacuous pop-culture—is the typical metaphor for American rootlessness.  Whitman or Muir or Kerouac gave us a countercultural vision of rootlessness—one that is very much respected, but rarely put into actual practice.

What will it take to change Americans’ travel habits?

The short answer is that Americans won’t change their travel habits.  Americans will always be captive to the American Dream, and that means most Americans will stay home, work hard, keep up with the Joneses, and obsess over the newest things.  They won’t allow time for long-term travel, and in many cases that’s fine; I don’t think that everyone feels the calling to go vagabonding.  But the fact is that hard work and keeping up with the Joneses don’t always make a person happy or allow for a full life—and there is a time-honored (and romanticized) American counterculture tradition that encourages individuals to strike off for themselves and discover the world.

By using the word “counterculture,” of course, I am inviting misinterpretation, since these days that word implies a fashion statement rather than a life-choice.  Since the sixties or so, “counterculture” has been institutionalized into a consumer notion that vaguely involves sex,  drugs and rock-and-roll.  That’s all good fun, but it’s a very limiting notion that throws you back to the rigid clique-structure of high school.  After all, few of America’s counterculture icons lived up to the bohemian stereotype. Thoreau was a philosophical radical, but he was very much a prude in day-to-day life.  Kerouac is often regarded as a marginal character, but he was an Ivy League jock and a devout Catholic.  What set these men apart was not fashion or stereotype, but the individual choices that dictated the way they lived.

So I think long-term travel—and true countercultural living in general— will always be a private and personal choice.  Some people will feel the calling to see their travel dreams actualized.  My book seeks to encourage and inform people who’ve felt that persistent itch to get out on the road.

How has the book been received so far?

Encouragingly, the reception has been broader than I’d expected.  On one hand, I’ve heard a lot of great feedback from people who’ve always dreamed of taking time off to travel.  They think the book is encouraging and informative, and it’s inspired them to get off their butts and put their travel dreams into action.  That’s the reaction I’d hoped for back when I was writing the book.  But I’ve also gotten great feedback from people who’ve already spent time traveling.  They say the book has helped sharpen and clarify their travel feelings and motivations.  They tell me that it has made them feel less weird and marginalized for wanting to spend so much time on the road.  A lot of them have purchased extra copies for friends or family who’ve been skeptical of their wanderings.  It helps them show to these people how travel isn’t an act of irresponsibility or escape, but a positive act that can enrich their lives, expand their knowledge, and help them to live a life without regrets.

That’s great. It seems that many Americans are reluctant to travel at the moment. You’ve spent a lot of time abroad since September 11, 2001. Have other peoples’ attitudes toward you as an American changed since then? Or since the beginning of the “war on terrorism”?

This may sound strange, but I haven’t noticed a big change in attitudes since the “war on terrorism.”  Both locals and other travelers were critical of America in some degree both before and after the war on terrorism.  The biggest change I’ve noticed in attitudes over the last six years came when George W. Bush took office.  A lot of non-Americans distrust him, since his administration has a unilateralist approach to international policy, and because he always seems to be playing for the “home audience” instead of the global community.  As an aside to this,  however, I think very few non-Americans actually understand Bush’s policies.  In fact, the dislike of Bush (and, by proxy, Americans in general) has a lot to do with his image rather than his leadership.  He is seen—and not always fairly—as bull-headed and unintelligent.  Clinton wasn’t necessarily loved, but, ironically, his sex scandal seemed to humanize him and make him seem somehow less sinister to non-Americans.  This meant that, as an American on the road, I was less likely to have to endure self-righteous lectures from European travelers whenever I revealed my nationality.

Interestingly, the strongest anti-American attitudes I have experienced on the road have come from Canadians, Brits, and Americans themselves.  Even in the Middle East, locals have a more nuanced view of America than the media gives them credit for.  People are fascinated with America in a love-hate kind of way—and they invariably put your humanness before your nationality, so one rarely feels personally threatened abroad.

Do you worry about how a war with Iraq might affect the way you’re treated abroad?

A war will inflame passions, but passions come and go.  I’d reckon it will affect the way I’m treated—but only temporarily.

How has traveling changed your view of America? Has it made you feel more or less American?

Traveling has deepened my understanding and appreciation of America, in part because my first vagabonding stint was an eight-month sojourn across the United States.  But beyond that, living and traveling in other countries has made me realize how diverse and tolerant and generous Americans are.  I realize, of course, that it’s fashionable for American travelers to reflexively bash their own country, but I prefer not to.  America has some unpopular policies and practices—many of which embarrass and perplex me—but America is not its politics.  America is its land and people, and I give high marks to both.  This is not to say that America has a monopoly on virtue, since I think the world has countless lessons to teach Americans— particularly in the ways of humility and hospitality.  But gaining new life perspective from Asians or Europeans has never made me feel less American.  In fact, experiencing the nuances of other cultures has made me realize just how instinctively American I am.  Americans are always obsessed with their immigrant roots, but traveling has made me realize that being German-American or Scottish-American is a pretty abstract concept.  At the end of the day, I feel that I culturally have more in common with a Cuban-American or a Hmong-American than I do with a German or a Scot.

Some people don’t travel because they’re afraid. They fear being drugged or mugged or coming down with some awful illness like cholera. Yet you’ve experienced all three. How did those experiences change your outlook toward travel and adventure?

Maybe I’m weird, but my own misadventures have not dulled my travel passions at all.  I’ve learned lessons from them, and incorporated those lessons into my life.  What really scares me is the thought that, in some alternate future, I might have chosen not to travel.  Travel has made my world much larger and more vivid, and if occasional misfortune is the price to pay, then that’s fine with me.  I think most people who’ve traveled would agree.

The author

Some critics have claimed that travel writing is on the decline, or that it’s somehow less relevant today. They point to any number of travel writers who have turned their energies to fiction. What do you think about the state of travel writing today?

I’ve found that the critics who claim that travel writing is in decline are usually just upset that travel writing doesn’t reflect the values they’ve cultivated as critics.  They think it has become too personal or too experience-oriented—a common complaint among scholarly elitists who think that anything worthy of evaluation must be measured and objective and soberly sussed up for dissection.

Personally, I think that travel writing is undergoing a renaissance.  Perhaps not a literary renaissance, but a diversity renaissance.  Thanks to the Internet, you don’t need a fancy degree, publishing connections, or slush-pile luck to publish your travel tales.  Anyone can publish anything.  A lot of it is crap, of course, but some of it is really good.  Best of all, it allows for a broader range of written perspectives.  Nick Tosches might paint certain Bangkok neighborhoods with sinister exoticism for the pages of Vanity Fair, but a 17-year-old backpacker can call his bluff on a travel weblog and compare those same neighborhoods to suburban Sydney.  The cool irony is that both writers will be accurately describing those places in their own way.  I think it’s great that we now have access to such a wide range of perspectives.

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Rolf.

You bet.

Top photo courtesy of Rolf Potts. Bottom photo courtesy of Fernando Salazar.

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