Few More Thoughts on Travel Writing as I muse in Dawson City

by martinhesp

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Sitting here in snowbound Dawson City 400 miles from the next nearest town in the Yukon I have had time to muse over the kind of writing that comes out of press trips – which, in case you don’t know, are the little perks old fashioned journalists like me get to enjoy from time to time.

Needless to say, the art of being invited on a press trip is something I have worked hard at refining for many years – and, sorry, but I’ve no intentions of giving any trade secrets away save for the fact that it is a good idea to have loads of acquaintances in travel public relations who know you are guaranteed to deliver published articles.

That, actually, is as far as this professional relationship goes. Not once have I ever been asked to make certain editorial points or act as a pure PR conduit. What I write about a foreign trip is left purely to me – and of course I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So what comes next is how you approach travel writing after one of these little jollies to a foreign land. The most obvious and well used formula is to begin an article with a handful of enticing or quirky paragraphs about something weird, wonderful or surprising you may have done – then follow that up with a great deal of historical bumph about a place, followed by a little mention or two of local food you may have had, ending with perhaps a few superlatives about the “ultimate way to relax” or whatever.

Most writers using this formula will rely on a lot of what could losely be called “fascinating facts”. Lots and lots of them. The more the better.

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But I’m not really of this mainstream school of travel writing – partly because lists of facts bore me – although I can cetainly see the attraction for the journalist… The well trodden route of fact-giving is the easiest path to go down – you simply trot out the same old litany of stuff everyone else has been doing on a destination for years. It’s more of a cut-and-paste job really, but one that makes the writer look pretty learned and well read.

Does it paint a picture though? That’s the central question I ask myself when travel writing – and I’ll tell you why. For a start, the official story of a place will have been done many times before – so what USP are you offering in treading the same obvious path? Readers could look all these facts up online nowadays within seconds – so what makes your material any better than what they’ll find on, say, your destination’s official website?

I can just imagine what nine out of ten travel writers would trot out after having visited the place I am sitting in. Dawson City is, of course, famous for being at the very centre of the Klondike Gold Rush – and consequently there must be thousands if not tens of thousands of websites where you can find out all manner of stuff about the extremely well known story.

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Okay, so given that the travel writer isn’t a complete moron, they will probably – hopefully – avoid regurgitating the whole thing for the ten millionth time. So the next most obvious thing to write about are all the modern day lighlights that a local tourism department would probably like you to mention.

So in Dawson City there is a fascinating museum, there are rough and rowdy bars where can-can girls really do (but not in winter, it seems) strut their leggy stuff. Then there’s the very strange local custom of knocking back a glass of strong liquor which contains the blackened but preserved remains of a real human toe.

I actually did this last night and there is a big fuss involved. The wretched toe is taken out of its home which happens to be a Kilner jar full of sea salt and the barman makes some pompous declaration. I won’t bother telling you what it is here – even though I have a certificate to explain that the damned toe really did touch my lips.

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(Thanks to Pam Mandel ‏@nerdseyeview for this photo)

Now, I noticed that the American visitors here regarded the whole toe ceremony with great delight and went home clutching their certificatges with pride. French photographer Vincent Gaudin and I, however, discussed Dawson City’s most famous modern tourist draw later and said a mutual: “So what. What’s the big deal?”

I don’t really buy what you could call manufactured quirkiness. It’s as if the modern Dawsonites are saying: “Hey everybody – we used to be really, really wild up here. And guess what – we still are – and you’re gonna love it!”

The strange thing is that Dawson City is quite breathtaking enough without having to resort to any trashy tourism tricks to do its marketing. It is a very, very unusual place. A mix of tourism honeypot blended with a rather beautiful sense of decay – all served up in an insanely scenic river valley in the middle of nowhere.

So in my travel article I will be attempting to draw out some of that uniqueness. I’ll be trying to paint a picture that makes people fascinated and inspires them to come here. Because I would very much recommend visiting the place for about a thousand reasons. But not for the toe ceremony.

Now, though, I’ve got to dash out to dinner with some journalist colleagues. Apparently we’ll be having Alaskan King Crab before going to a particularly rowdy bar I visited last night where the bar-girl was completely bald save for a brightly coloured Mohican style strip down the middle of her head. And she was the most conventional creature in there – and I include me in that.

So I will return soon to continue my thoughts on travel writing – if you are interested, of course.

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