Cahill, now in his 70s, is a writer the New York Times once called “a working-class Paul Theroux.” He’s also the author of a book that changed my life, “Pass the Butterworms: Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered”; a founding editor of Outside magazine; and a pioneer of literary travel journalism. When I met him, he was preparing to racewalk a marathon in Ireland for an assignment from National Geographic Traveler.
He was on the faculty of a writing conference that I had chosen to attend only because he was on the faculty. Over drinks in the hotel bar at the conclusion of a workshop about the craft of writing, Cahill, himself a competitive swimmer in high school and college, asked the table who among us had also been young athletes, and in what sport. (He had a theory that being a high school or collegiate athlete cultivated the same type of discipline being a successful freelance writer required.)
I am proud of my racewalking background — I still wear a shirt dating from that time that reads “RACE WALKING IS A HIP SPORT” — but no one before (or since) Cahill had ever lit up at my mention of it. But his marathon was about a month away, and he had been trying to teach himself racewalking’s awkward gait and rhythm. “By ‘teaching myself,’ I mean I watched some videos online,” he said. “Can you give me some tips?”
Even Olympic-level racewalkers look like total nincompoops when doing it, and Cahill was a middle-aged man at the tail end of one of the periodic flare-ups of malaria he suffered from since being infected with the disease more than a decade prior while visiting the Korowai in Irian Jaya in New Guinea. (He writes about this in “Pass the Butterworms”: “Mosquitoes in thick clouds attacked those of us on the ground. They were very naughty, and probably malarial.”)
Helping Cahill with his racewalking form was the least I could do after his book pushed me toward being a traveler and writer.
In 1998, I was 22 years old and flying from my home in Wyoming to Bali, Indonesia, the most foreign place I had yet visited. At a bookstore in Los Angeles International Airport, I saw “Pass the Butterworms” prominently displayed. (It had been a New York Times Notable Book of the Year the previous year.) At the time, I didn’t know what butterworms were or who Tim Cahill was. The description on the back cover was intriguing, though, and I had 23 hours of travel in front of me.
Included in its pages were essays by Cahill about horseback riding in the Gobi Desert (“Our Mongolian companions, raised in the saddle, simply stood up in their stirrups on legs made of spring steel and pneumatic shock absorbers.”); going for a dip at the North Pole (“It was August 8, and the temperature stood at about 36 degrees Fahrenheit, as warm as it was ever going to be here at the geographic North Pole. So sure, several of us agreed, why not take a brief, refreshing dip in the Arctic Ocean. The massive icebreaker that brought us here had formed a nice swimming hole in its wake.”); and eating sauteed sago beetle (“They were unlike anything I’d ever eaten before, and the closest I can come to describing the taste is to say creamy snail.”).
None of these were things I had ever considered doing — or pictured anyone else doing — but, before my Uncle Gus moved to Indonesia the year before, neither was going to Bali. Growing up, my family vacations were road trips in service of my racewalking ambitions; we followed Junior Olympic track meets across the country, so I could waddle around a track and my younger brother could high-jump.
Arriving in Bali, landing on a runway that stretched an alarmingly far distance into the Pacific Ocean, gave me clarity about my future for the first time in my adult life. With the confident earnestness of the young and privileged, I scribbled in my journal: “I’m going to be the female Tim Cahill, a traveler and a writer!”
The places and adventures he wrote about were a shot of adrenaline to my idea of what was possible, and I wanted to administer this same shot to others. And the actual writing — a mix of humor, vulnerability, introspection, delightfully arcane facts and awe — made me laugh out loud and quietly cry.
In addition to expanding my horizons, “Pass the Butterworms” taught me that the best trips are a combination of purpose and place.
The purposes of Cahill’s “Pass the Butterworms” trips are wide-ranging. He was in Mongolia for science, for example. “For my part, I’d been trying, and failing, to get to Mongolia for over fifteen years. And now, in my saddle kit, I had eight Ziploc bags, full of human hair — hair cut from the heads of Mongolian herdsman and herdswomen.” Back home in the United States, Cahill, a member of the advisory board of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, turned the hair over to archaeologists to compare with 10,000-year-old strands found outside Melville, Mont. “It is possible that the ancestors of the people who call themselves Mongolian — the ancestors of the men I was riding with, of the men pursuing us with pails of yogurt — were ‘the first Americans.’ ”
Cahill traveled to Peru to be with a friend whose 26-year-old son was slain while rafting a remote river in the Amazon. But excerpting a sentence, or even a paragraph, from “A Darkness on the River” is as much of an injustice as being shown a single steel girder and being told you’re looking at the Eiffel Tower.
My own purposes and places have included tracking snow leopards in the northern Indian territory of Ladakh; celebrating the conclusion of chemotherapy in Kauai, Hawaii; seeing whether I could go a week without seeing another person in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; and taking a family trip to Bulgaria, where my dad grew up. “Pass the Butterworms” taught me well.
The biggest lesson I got from “Pass the Butterworms” had nothing to do with travel, though: It was that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
One of the anthology’s shorter stories, “Therapeutic Perambulation,” is about walking across the northern region of the Republic of Congo. Alongside facts about the Ndoki forest, his group’s Bambenjele guides and the pernicious populations of local bees, Cahill writes about suffering from anxiety attacks: “A year or so before, I’d made a serious mistake in love. When it all fell apart, I began having the attacks: periods of intense and unfocused fear, accompanied by a jackhammer heartbeat, flushed skin and hopeless depression. I didn’t go out much. Tears came easily in those days.”
Almost two decades after first reading this in “Pass the Butterworms,” I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Lost, confused and vulnerable, I picked up the book looking for a reminder of the brave, invincible 22-year-old who, reading it through three times on a flight to Bali, set off on a life and career wholly unfamiliar to her.
The 38-year-old cancer patient did not find the young woman, but Cahill’s mentions of mental health — “Therapeutic Perambulation” isn’t the only instance he brings it up — jumped out. (They hadn’t even registered with the 22-year-old me.) He wrote about it so casually, but anxiety attacks are about as casual as being thrown off a cliff. Could writing about such things be part of a way through them?
Sharing my cancer experience and fears would be the most challenging writing I had ever done because of the vulnerability it required, but the scariness of opening myself up in this way paled in comparison to the tireless terror of cancer. The monthly column, “The C-Word,” that I wrote for my local weekly newspaper was the best therapy possible for me. (I did, and still do, also take antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, though.)
A couple of the pieces in “Pass the Butterworms” are about group trips that readers might book themselves, but more are one-offs not necessarily meant to be replicated (or that are even possible to replicate). In a story that takes place in his home state of Montana, Cahill writes about a rafting and fishing trip, but says at the get-go that, “for the purposes of obfuscation,” he will not be sharing the river’s name. “If I were to mention its name, my companions would discuss the matter with me using baseball bats and two-by-fours.”
“Pass the Butterworms” encourages finding your own adventures rather than re-creating Cahill’s, so I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries but only literally followed in Cahill’s footsteps once: to an off-the-beaten-path lake and geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park. “At Shoshone Geyser Basin, there are no signs, there are no boardwalks, and almost no one goes there,” he wrote. “Which is fine, if you believe, as I do, that awe is a fairly solitary experience.”
So much of Cahill’s travel philosophy resonates with me, but, on occasion, I find an awe-filled experience need not be solitary — like racewalking in the rain in a random parking lot with the man who inspired me to be a writer and a curious traveler.