Vacationers Opt for the Wild

This Spring, some are choosing to forgo the quintessential trip to Disney World, instead seeking to be closer to nature. Washington Post Magazine editor Tom Shroder talks about the bustling eco-travel industry.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Spring is here, and many people are probably starting to think about vacation plans. For some, the beach or the theme park are oh, so last year. These days, many people are interested in roughing it - swimming with the whales, getting close to the butterflies, or running with the bison in sub-zero temperatures. We learned all about it in this week's Washington Post Magazine, a place where you visit just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

Visiting us to talk about this week's travel issue is Tom Shroder, editor of the magazine. Welcome back.

Mr. TOM SHRODER (Editor, Washington Post Magazine): Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: On the one hand, it seems very new, you know, the kinds of travel you described. On the other hand, Americans have also sort of yearned for nature, you know? I think about Teddy Roosevelt and stuff. So what do you think distinguishes this kind of travel experience that people are pursuing?

Mr. SHRODER: Well, I think in general, with our philosophy for travel stories, is it's not just something that you passively enjoy. It's something that you enter into. It's a journey. It's something that changes you by the time you leave. And that's what we look for in travel stories in general. And I don't think there's anything that does that as sort of intensely as encounters with nature and with the wildness of the world. And that's why we put together these particular stories this week.

MARTIN: Tell us about the three destinations you described in the magazine, briefly.

Mr. SHRODER: Well, yeah...

MARTIN: Because obviously that's why there's a whole issue, because there's a lot to say, but...

Mr. SHRODER: But one of them, you know, is you go out on a ship, and you go into a territory where kind of it's a reserve where whales encountered frequently. And you actually go out and put on a mask and a snorkel - no scuba diving is permitted. And you get real close to these unbelievably beautiful animals.

Another one is the annual migration of monarch butterflies to Mexico, where millions and millions of butterflies return to the place where they were born. And very often, I don't know how they know this actually, but very often they come to the very same tree in the forest in Mexico where they were born to spawn some more. And it's an incredibly beautiful and moving experience, and the story's about the impact on the people who come to watch it.

And then, the third story is watching buffalo in Yellowstone Park. And it's a gorgeous wintry landscape at the time that our writer went there. And it wasn't just the buffalo. I mean, you saw all sorts of elk and even wolves, which really came home to me because I had a personal experience with that, which I'll tell you about.

MARTIN: Yeah, I heard you wrote about that. So why don't you tell us about the experience, which apparently nobody believes you?

Mr. SHRODER: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHRODER: Right, right. This was...

MARTIN: All the more reason to write about it.

Mr. SHRODER: This was...

MARTIN: It's on paper.

Mr. SHRODER: In the 1970's, and a friend and I went to Yellowstone, but the gate was closed when we got there. It was May, but it was snowed in. So we just went down the road a little bit to a roadside park, and we started climbing up a hill there. And it was, you know, fairly warm, so we were climbing in like jeans and sneakers. But as we climbed up higher in the hill, there started to be patches of snow. And then we saw this elk kill, and it looked like atomized elk - something big had gotten this thing.

So we got a little bit worried, but it looked old, so we kept going. And then the snow started getting deeper and deeper. And as we crested up the hill, we were like thigh deep in snow. And from behind this tree emerged this big, huge wolf, and it ran across right in front of us - maybe 20 feet in front of us. And it scampered up a hill. And later, when we told people about it, they didn't believe us because they said there haven't wolves in Yellowstone for 30 years.

And sure enough, every time I looked it up after then, they said the same thing. They had been eradicated. And so, I just didn't know what to make of this. And the writer of the Yellowstone story was gently trying to tell me, well, I think you saw a big coyote.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHRODER: But I'm telling you, coyotes...

MARTIN: Yeah, go for it.

Mr. SHRODER: Coyotes are 45 pounds. I have a dog that's 45 pounds. This dog was like two and a half the size of my dog. It was...

MARTIN: So this whole issue arose because you had to prove that you actually saw this wolf...

Mr. SHRODER: Right.

MARTIN: Is that what happened?

Mr. SHRODER: Yes.

MARTIN: But I did want to ask, though, that there are those - for the many of the people who have these journeys, this takes on a spiritual dimension. I mean, it is truly life changing. Some people worry that this is changing the environment - that these kinds of trips kind of destroy the very thing that people go to see. And I just wonder if you talk about that at all in the magazine.

Mr. SHRODER: Yes, I mean, they definitely talk about the - I mean, you have to do this responsibly. And there's always a balance that you have to achieve, but I think that, you know, our responsibility is really to try to be aware of that issue. I don't think there's ever going to be a perfect solution, because any time a human comes into an environment, it has some impact. And even when we don't physically go into the environment, we're having a huge impact by everything that we do.

So it's just something that you really have to be sensitive to, but there's nothing like the passion for the wild world that you get from personally experiencing it to make people motivated to make sacrifices to preserve it. And I think that that's - in the end, that that's the value.

MARTIN: One of the things that was fascinating about the pieces is that for some people, people were drawn to these experiences because they had had something life changing. Like, one person was drawn to the monarch butterfly rebirth, or whatever, because she had mastered a terrible illness. And she's promised herself that if she survived that, she was going to go and see the world.

On the other hand, as you pointed out, many of people who conduct these tours do so out of such a passion for the environment and for the places that they're trying to preserve. So it's just a very interesting balance, and I thought that the piece...

Mr. SHRODER: I think there's a real feeling among some people that the, you know, possibility for renewal of all sorts in the world comes from the wildness of the world and not the human-dominated portion of it.

MARTIN: Tom Shroder is the editor of the Washington Post Magazine. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington. If you want to read these pieces in their entirety and see the beautiful photography that accompanies the articles, you can find a link on our website, npr.org/tellmemore. Tom, thanks so much.

Mr. SHRODER: Thank you.

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