What day is it and where am I?”
I repeat those words a lot, because as an adventure travel journalist, I wake up bleary-eyed and rumpled in a variety of crazy places.
On the best nights, I’m nestled inside a warm tent someplace remote, tucked cozily in a friend’s guest bed or snoozing inside a cabin in the woods. A lot of times, I bed down in cookie-cutter hotel rooms, and occasionally, I curl up inside my vehicle. More often than not, I’m alone, because my husband has his own career demands.
Since leaving my long-time job as a fitness and travel writer at the Austin American-Statesman last fall to go freelance, I’ve awakened in a backcountry hut without electricity in Colorado, on a bobbing boat surrounded by humpback whales 10 hours off the coast of the Dominican Republic and on a deflated tent pad in the Chihuahuan Desert as a cold front blew through, dropping temperatures 40 degrees in a few hours.
Ah, yes. The glamour of it. My suitcase typically remains half packed, but every time I back down the driveway on my way to satisfy some burning curiosity, its contents shift. I swap snow skis for scuba gear, a bike helmet for a backpack or canoe paddles for running shoes. I buy lots of sunscreen. I always pack a swimsuit (but prefer to skinny dip if no one’s around). And somehow I always forget my toothbrush.
First, some background.
I was born in Michigan and moved to Austin at age five when my dad, a rocket scientist, got a job here. I credit him with instilling in me a sense of curiosity and appreciation of Mother Nature. He bought a book about roadside attractions in the Texas Hill Country and loaded the family into the Volkswagen bus to explore. We admired the car-sized balanced rock that once stood at the top of a hill near Fredericksburg (someone rolled it off its perch in 1986), climbed over fences to check out dinosaur tracks and pitched a tent at Inks Lake State park. He found as much wonder in an old rock he turned over in his hand as the Grand Canyon, and he taught me to admire the little things in life.
I knew back then I wanted to write. I compiled a family newspaper, which my dad copied and distributed to relatives. He walked with me into the greenbelt at the end of our street to take pictures to go with my words.
I attended Texas A&M University for college and landed my first journalism job at a small newspaper in Plano, then moved to McAllen to work for The Monitor before coming back to Austin to write for my hometown newspaper.
The Austin American-Statesman didn’t hire me as a travel writer. I started as a reporter in the Williamson County bureau, covering government and writing a general column, and after a few years subbed in when the travel editor went on leave. Eventually I found a permanent spot in the features department, writing mainly about fitness and travel, focusing on the outdoors.
I’m not about high thread count sheets or fancy meals. I’ll take a tent in the woods and a dehydrated meal cooked outdoors over ritzy digs and champagne.
I spent nearly 21 years at the Statesman, writing the weekly Fit City column, penning car reviews with Pete Szilagyi and traipsing all over the state, and beyond, on adventures — and loving nearly every minute of it.
We dubbed 2017 as my “year of adventure.” I did stuff that scared me — like scaling a 38-story building while dressed as Wonder Woman. I cussed so much on that assignment that the soundtrack to the GoPro video footage was one long bleep, but I discovered if I just didn’t turn around and look, I’d eventually reach terra firma.
I ran a naked 5K race, wearing only a cowboy hat and shoes. The most awkward part? Removing my clothes and discussing logistics with the freelance photographer hired to cover the event. Once the race began, though, it felt like any other run, just with better airflow.
I wanted to learn more about our state, so I rode a camel through West Texas. I canoed the Devil’s River and kayaked the Pecos, figuring out how to paddle as I went, discovering that all those black things on my legs were tiny leeches and bashing my body against my boat so many times I looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to me. Adventure made me feel alive, despite the discomfort. I learned it’s okay to mess up and write about it — I’m all about public humiliation. I went to women’s surf camp in Costa Rica, where I learned that it’s possible to learn new things when you’re older than 50 (I’m 55). I spent 15 days backpacking the John Muir Trail in California. There I stood on top of a peak, gazed down at a glinting lake where I’d started hours before and realized that just by keeping my body moving, even if I did it slowly, I could do things I never thought I could do.
During a ski trip to Colorado a few years ago, I saw a flyer advertising a burro race. It stuck in my mind, and last summer, on my last official assignment for the Statesman, I rented a burro named Little Jonah, who’d lost nearly every race he’d ever competed in, and signed up for the Gold Rush Challenge. Little J had a great day, though, and never balked. We finished in the middle of the pack, and I learned that burros level the playing field when it comes to running. Slow runners with happy burros always pass fast runners with grumpy burros that stop mid-race.
I never got hurt, either, though I almost got fried when a storm dropped a live power line near my tent during a mushroom foraging excursion in New Mexico, and once I tangled my leg in a rope swing and found myself momentarily suspended, upside down, over the San Marcos River.
But newspapers are not exactly the most stable place to hitch your pony. So, I unbuckled the safety harness and set myself loose as a freelancer last fall. Now I want to cover adventure — big adventure — on a broader, national scale.
In all my time spent writing about adventure travel, here’s what I’ve learned: I love this life. I mean love it — as in I couldn’t possibly sit on my haunches in front of a computer all day, every day.
I still have to do a lot of that as a writer, but I mix it up with frenzied jaunts that take me all over the country and beyond in my freelance work for the American-Statesman, Texas Highways Magazine, Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, the Houston Chronicle, Real Simple Magazine, Lance Armstrong’s WEDU organization and more.
For one six-week period last fall, I slept at home for a collective 10 days. During that span, a national magazine sent me to Florida to write about a romantic weekend getaway. I arrived at my destination, a beautiful boutique hotel on the beach, just as a thunderstorm crashed into shore, whipping up waves and lighting the charcoal-colored sky with bolts of lightning. I dropped my suitcase, admired the fire blazing in the fireplace, took note of the romantic music playing and popped open a bottle of wine they’d left for me, filling just one of the two glasses handily arranged on the table. Then, I crawled into bed and snuggled with my suitcase.
Yes, sometimes I get lonely. But solo travel has made me more confident. A few months ago, another magazine hired me to haul a trailer with a pop-up tent on it all over East Texas on assignment. I’d never hauled a trailer and was pretty nervous about backing it into a campsite. When I got to my first park, a man in the space next to me came over and offered to do it for me, and rather than argue, I let him. But at the second park, I met a 70-year-old woman traveling alone in a similar rig. I unrolled the window and asked her not to laugh too hard as I lined up my trailer. She came over to share some tips, then let me alone to work things out. It took me 17 tries, but I finally did it. And when I did, I jumped up and down and thanked her for teaching me to rely on myself.
In the last six months, I’ve traveled to Colorado three times to ski, climb a frozen waterfall and skin to a backcountry hut, rafted part of the Rio Grande River and dashed off to Portugal for an actual vacation with my husband (but when you’re a travel writer, you never actually “vacation,” so I wrote about that one, too). I’ve driven to College Station and Grapevine and South Padre Island on assignments and flown to the Dominican Republic to swim with humpback whales, finally landing back in Austin, where I’m in the midst of a self-imposed long-distance travel moratorium so I can catch up on training for the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile canoe race from San Marcos to Seadrift along the Texas coast, in June.
About the time I recover from all that, I’ll head off again. Back to Colorado yet again before I grab my woolies and anti-polar bear perfume and point my arrow north, where I’ll be the embedded journalist for two months on the Arctic Cowboys expedition — three veteran Austin paddlers who will attempt to kayak the entire Northwest Passage over a two-month span.
It’s crazy, but I like it that way. I’ve learned a lot as this please-don’t-try-to-rein-me-in life has unfolded. My biggest travel advice is to go into every adventure with low expectations. That way, you won’t be disappointed.
Don’t get caught up in exotic locales. Sure, scuba diving beneath 200 schooling hammerhead sharks next to Darwin’s Arch in the Galapagos Islands ranks as one of the most amazing and lovely experiences of my life, but I find bliss in my own backyard, too.
Don’t discount the parks and cobwebby corners of Texas that you haven’t taken the time to explore. Jump off the cliffs at Pace Bend on Lake Travis. Take a swim at McKinney Falls. Stay in a cabin at Bastrop State Park. Spend time in the West Texas, where you’ll find one of the best views anywhere, for my dime, off the Mesa de Anguila trail in the little-used southwest corner of Big Bend National Park.
Stay curious. Get dirty. Try new things and see new places. And do it all with an open mind. Life is a series of grand adventures, no matter how close or how far, how big or how small. Grab hold and let them kick you in the pants.
To read more about Pam LeBlanc and her adventures, head over to pamleblancadventures.com.