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Globe-Trotting Tales


© St. Petersburg Times

Any minute now he's going to swagger into the offices of Christian Science Monitor Radio, and this place isn't going to know what hit it. Just you wait.

Gonzo travel writer Tim Cahill is dropping by for an interview to promote his latest book, Pass the Butterworms: Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered, a collection of his latest travel stories.

Nice title, don't you think? What do you expect from a guy whose previous books included Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg? His idea of travel is rappelling down the face of Yosemite's El Capitan, stalking gorillas in the Rwandan mountains and driving from Argentina to Alaska in 23 days, 22 hours and 43 minutes to secure his place in the Guinness Book of Records.

Surely, this puny, creme-colored hallway decorated with maps of the world isn't big enough for a bigger-than-life professional adventurer and raconteur like Cahill, an editor-at-large for Outside magazine. Yessir, he's going to swagger in here looking tan and worldly and khaki, a real-life Indiana Jones.

A few minutes after 3 p.m., in walks ... Wisconsin Cahill? There must be some mistake. This fellow lumbers in and has a seat by the door. He needs to sit: back trouble. He's wearing blue -- blue jeans, blue shirt and blue blazer, each a slightly different, slightly mismatched, shade of blue.

First impression: This guy's idea of adventure is wearing brown for a change.

Cahill looks every bit 53 years old. He has thinning, stringy reddish-brown hair combed over his ears and his shirt collar ('70s-style) and large metal-framed glasses that tint according to the light. He has a paunch and scuffed-up cowboy boots the color of caramel, but the neatly trimmed, whitish beard covering his jowls gives him a hint of sophistication.

Right off the bat, Cahill launches into a travel story, a long, rambling story about going to the Sahara Desert to see the salt mines, but he couldn't get there right away because of these political problems, see, and this lazy rebel colonel, Col. Yat, wouldn't get out of bed to grant him a lousy interview, and then some bandits followed him so he had to bribe them, and -- where was this headed? Oh, right, the salt mines. He saw them.

There's no mistake. This is the gonzo travel writer.

Tim Cahill really does comb the globe seeking remote, unexplored caves and villages and risking his life to get there. But his charm -- his shtick -- is that he is an ordinary guy doing the outrageous, the everyman adventurer. That's the joke in the titles of his books.

"There are no such things as butterworms. I made that up," he tells Monitor Radio's David Brown, who is interviewing him, "but doesn't it sound like the sort of thing you'd be forced to eat in some far distant place?"

Cahill tells about going to Asmat, the world's largest swampland, on the southern coast of New Guinea. He traveled 500 miles upriver to meet a group of tree-dwelling hunters called the Karowai, who still relied on Stone Age technology and reportedly used to practice cannibalism. One of the Karowai invited him up in a treehouse and offered him something to eat. It was a ball of fibrous sap from the sago palm, baked like bread. Cahill took a bite and, though it tasted bland, used one of the few Karowai words he had learned: Manoptroban. Good.

The Karowai looked at him as if he were crazy. They ate sago every day. They knew what it tasted like.

"I was lying, and they knew I was lying," he says. "It took me two days to recover from that."

As Cahill says of his travels, "You keep getting in over your head, and the unexpected happens quite often."

He flips his kayak in the Pacific Ocean. He gets stung by malarial mosquitoes in New Guinea and urinated on by monkeys in a Honduran forest. He falls in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia and gashes his head and wrenches his back.

Lucky stiff. The misadventures make for good stories. Here's another.

While in Africa on assignment for National Geographic, Cahill was perched uphill from a group of Rwanda's mountain gorillas when his knee popped out of joint, the result of a high school football injury ("I was a pulling guard, and my own halfback ran over my knee"). He doubled over in pain and went rolling and screaming toward the startled gorillas, which scattered.

His photographer buddy never stopped taking pictures. "That's what it means to have a photographer as a friend," says Cahill.

His scientist buddy never stopped taking notes. "We always wondered what would happen if a human being charged the gorillas," he told Cahill. "Now we know."

Appropriately enough, Cahill fell into this particular niche, adventure travel writing. He had dropped out of law school at the University of Wisconsin and moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s to become a writer. He got a job at Rolling Stone magazine and went on tour with the likes of Loggins and Messina, the Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

"You get off the plane, go to the sound check, stand backstage during the show, go to the hotel room, trash the hotel room, get up the next day and do the whole damned thing again," Cahill says. "I got bored with rock 'n' roll."

When Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner launched Outside in 1976, he didn't want a fearless, chest-thumping traveler. He wanted an eager if unlikely adventurer. Cahill, one of the magazine's founding editors, was willing to go anywhere and try anything for his long-time column, "Out There."

His specialty is the remote journey. He hikes through an explored, uninhabited forest in Africa. He rappels, climbs, swims and crawls through a New Mexico cave no one has explored before.

After the Monitor Radio interview, Cahill stops by the world map in the hallway. He traces a meaty finger across Asia to the Kamchatka Peninsula, east of Russia and north of China.

"It's like Alaska 200 years ago," he says of his upcoming destination. "Forty thousand grizzly bears."

How does he decide where to go? Actually, he says, "It's not the place or the nature of the landscape so much as the quest. You're not just there. You're there to do something."

In Mongolia, the quest was human hair. Cahill collected samples from herdsmen and herdswomen for researchers back at the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Oregon State University. Along the way, he rode a Mongolian horse across the marshy Asian grassland, hung out with marmot hunters and traded his stuff for their stuff, which included pieces of cheese that rattled in his saddlebags so much he dubbed it "the noisy cheese."

Cahill likes to say he is living out adolescent travel fantasies, his as well as everyone else's. As a kid growing up in Waukesha, Wis., he used to sit in his room and flip through the encyclopedia, looking at all the exotic places he wanted to see some day.

He never went anywhere, he told his father, who suggested that he join the YMCA's traveling swim team. Cahill made the team, became state champ in freestyle and saw nearly all of Wisconsin. It was a start.

Everyone dreams of seeing the world, Cahill says, and maybe hiking in the Amazon or going to the North Pole, but, if they actually try it, they're considered crazy, irresponsible or in the throes of a mid-life crisis. That is the burden of being an adult.

"Maybe they say, "If that clown can do it, I can do it'," Cahill says. "I'm not Superman."

As glamorous as his globe-trotting life sounds, it's still a job. "It's all the glamor of a term paper that's due tomorrow morning," he says. "Do you know what I mean? It's 3 in the morning, and the paper is due at 9, and you're sitting there in a bedraggled bathrobe trying to get it done. It never changes."

When he's not traveling four to six months out of the year, he lives in Livingston, Mont., in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains (really). "My idea of vacation is staying at home," he says. "In the last 15 years, I haven't gone anyplace where I wasn't working."

However, as Cahill studied that map of the world, he noted, "It's a big world. I think there are something like 180 countries, and I've been to 60. I'll never run out of places to go."

How does Cahill prepare for his "remote journeys"? Here are a few of his travel tips:

-- Read everything you can about a country before going there. "The more you know about a place geographically, politically, historically and socially, the easier you'll make things on yourself," he says. "In some places, it could save your life."

-- Call the country's consulate for maps, visas and other information.

-- Remember to take vaccinations and preventive medicine beforehand.

-- Bring along a bottle of Tabasco to spice up the local food.

-- Pack a Mini-Mag flashlight. The top screws off, converting the pocket-size flashlight into a nifty reading light. Freelance writer Charles Salter Jr. rambles through the wilds of Baltimore, his home.

Originally published May 25, 1997

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