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Author Archive: "Becky Ohlsen"

Road Trips and Aimlessness

I'm in the midst of the longest stretch of not traveling I've had in maybe 10 years. My last real trip was almost two years ago, to Sweden, ostensibly for guidebook research but also to complete a certain family-related mission. Or you could just call it a road trip. My mom, who was born and raised in Uppsala, Sweden, had been coming back several times a year to visit her parents, an increasingly demanding job. She hadn't had a chance to really travel in Sweden in a long time. So she and I decided to combine one of my guidebook research trips with a long-delayed quest. We met at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport, rented a tiny car, and headed off into the heart of the country. Our goal: to find her father's old cabin.

We knew only vaguely where to look: near Arådalen, a scattering of summer cottages in the wilderness that barely qualifies as a village, in the wild, sparsely populated province of Jämtland. My grandfather, an artist and journalist, had recently died; he'd given the cabin to friends we didn't know, decades earlier. We had no detailed ...

Travel Reading

Several of the stories and facts I learned while researching Walking Portland made me wonder if there have been any great historical novels set here. I can't think of any, but if there isn't one about Dr. James C. Hawthorne, namesake of Hawthorne Boulevard, that would be a good place to start. Born in Pennsylvania, Hawthorne (1819–1881) spent several years working in medicine in California, where he also served in the state senate. He arrived in Portland in 1857 to run a hospital for the mentally ill; in 1862 he took over running the Oregon Hospital for the Insane, as it was called at the time (it occupied 200 acres near lower Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard). Hawthorne was married twice: his first wife died a few weeks after they were married — automatically good material for a historical romance — and then in 1865 he married another woman, and they had three daughters, one of whom died in infancy. As for the details in between — who knows? But I for one am curious.

The Crooked Path

So about this book. Originally I'd signed on to coauthor Walking Portland with my pal Ryan Ver Berkmoes, who wrote Walking Chicago for Wilderness Press. He'd moved to Portland a few years back and we thought it would be fun to team up on a project. I've known Ryan — and our friend Tom Downs, who wrote Walking San Francisco — since my first Lonely Planet author workshop, around 10 years ago (is it possible?). The way I (fog-headedly) remember it, after the workshop one night Ryan (who worked in-house for LP at the time) led us all on a boozy meander across San Francisco. We went to all the places you would go: Vesuvio, Tosca, the (old) Gold Dust, Specs', undoubtedly others. Attrition was high, but everyone who stayed out until 3 a.m. trying to find the very last open bar in the city ended up getting work on the next USA guide. Coincidence? Maybe. Poetic license, more likely. I won't swear that's exactly how it happened, but it's close enough. A career built on pints.

Anyway, it turned out that Ryan's travel schedule ...

The Futility of Fact

The first thing you discover when you write a guidebook is this: You are wrong about everything.

I've spent the past several years updating travel guides. It quickly becomes apparent that whoever wrote the previous edition of the book you're working on was an idiot, even (especially) if that person was you.

This is partly because of the inconvenient fact that books take a long time to publish, and places change quickly. A guidebook's shelf life may be three or four years, so anything wrong stays wrong for a while. People will write in to let me know the ferry tickets cost two dollars more than the book says, or that there is no crayfish risotto on the menu, and the Rauschenberg goat sculpture is not in the middle of the room or even in that museum at all. This is of course very helpful.

Then there's the other kind of wrong, when the author's perception of a place simply doesn't match the reader's. One person's adorable B&B is another's floral nightmare. Where you see an edgy, no-frills dive bar, somebody else sees the bathroom in Trainspotting. (It ...

Walking across Whales

I've always liked walking. It's easy. You can get pretty good at it even if, like me, you're desperately uncoordinated. You don't have to study for years to achieve mastery; basically, by grade school most of us have it nailed.

At least, that's true about the kind of walking you do when you're working on a book like Walking Portland. But not all walks are created equal. My first serious walk, also for a guidebook, was back in 2006. An indulgent editor at Lonely Planet let me cover a few of the long-distance trails in LP's guide to Walking Britain. One of these was the 135-mile Glyndŵr's Way, which makes a loop through the middle of Wales.

(Years later when I was telling someone about this trip, she thought I said I'd walked across whales — a much more exciting idea.)

Glyndŵr's Way is named after Owain Glyndŵr (1359–1416ish), a Welsh rebel who fought the English at various points along the trail. His revolt was ultimately squashed, but he was never captured and is probably still lost somewhere between waymark posts. I'm pretty sure he's not ...

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