Brandon Wilson is an adventurer and travel writer. From the Himalayas, to Mount Kilimanjaro, to the Camino de Santiago, to his most recent 2,620-mile trek from France to Jerusalem, Wilson has been in over a hundred countries and faithfully recorded his experiences in his books. He's the author of the award-winning titles Yak Butter Blues, Dead Men Don't Leave Tips, and Along the Templar Trail: Seven Million Steps for Peace. In this fascinating interview, Wilson talks about his books, travels, writing habits, and his most rewarding and scariest moments as a travel writer.
Thanks for being here today, Brandon. Tell us a bit about yourself. When did your passion for traveling begin?
It’s always been there. I had my first taste of life on the road at six and haven't stopped. It all began in an old red and white Chevy with a burlap-covered water bag strapped to the front grill. With my father behind the wheel, we sailed wide-eyed across the wide expanse of an uncluttered America. I was hooked on travel, my sweet addiction.
What compelled you to put your travels into words — your love for writing or your desire to share your experiences with others?
Although I’ve always enjoyed sharing my travel experiences with others, this need became a necessity in 1992. An adventurous 1,000 km. trek across Tibet transformed into a journey with greater meaning.
Before attempting a trek the Chinese authorities called “impossible,” my wife and I learned that Tibetan people today are forbidden to walk to their sacred sites in Nepal. So we vowed to make it in their stead. For forty nights as we crossed the wild Himalayan plains, we stayed with poor Tibetan families, sipping yak butter tea around their fire, listening to their stories, and witnessing their faith and hardships firsthand. Upon returning, I was determined to share their story with the rest of the world. It was a message too important to be ignored. That story, their “message in a bottle,” became my first award-winning book, Yak Butter Blues. It’s the true tale of a culture pushed to the edge of extinction and the human link connecting us all.
Quite by accident, crossing Tibet also changed my outlook on travel and on life. Although I’d explored nearly 100 countries while checking must-sees off a checklist, trekking across Tibet was a transcendent experience. I was hooked on slow and “deliberate” travel, which nourished a connectedness with nature, and a Zen-like link to the spiritual.
How long does it take you to write each book? Do you write as you travel or after the trip has ended?
All my books are initially constructed from daily journals. I've always found it best to write each night while the events (and aching muscles) are fresh. In that way, I capture the passing thoughts and fleeting nuances along the way, events that otherwise melt together if you attempt to reconstruct it all months later. I write an hour or so each day, no matter how late, creating a running narrative that becomes a very first rough draft. Returning, I pour myself into the project, beating it into shape over the next year or so.
Tell us a bit about your books.
My books bridge the typical travel genre by infusing a destination with adventure, history, culture, the mystical, and a bit of social consciousness. I avoid using broad brush strokes to describe a place. Readers are tired of hearing about another beautiful sunset. And I can’t blame them. They expect to truly “experience” a place.
Traveling slowly, often on a small budget, I share the good, bad and gritty of each destination. That often brings out the good and bad in people — as well as myself. At the risk of sounding like a terrible person, I strive to expose it all — the ups and downs, as well as the small triumphs and laughs that make each day unique.
Some reviewers have called my three books a trilogy. Soon after Yak Butter Blues was published, Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips followed. This book provides an intimate look at Africa — the trials and tribulations of crossing an ever-changing landscape filled with quirky characters, raw challenges, and edge of your seat adventures. It’s not a guidebook, but a real uncensored, darkly humorous look at what it takes to cross some of the wildest places imaginable.
Unlike Tibet, we initially set off with a loosely organized safari guided by “experts” (who’d never been to Africa). That was our first mistake. Then again, Mark Twain once said, “You never really know whether you love or hate someone until you travel with ’em.”
As our seven-month overland dream safari quickly turned into a nightmare, we left the ship of fools and set off across Africa alone. And that made all the difference. Once outside the cocoon of group travel, our immersion in the controlled chaos of African life led from one wild adventure to another—from the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro to the depths of war-torn Mozambique and beyond.
Hey, where else can you climb a volcano one day, photo stalk mountain gorillas the next, and dance with stoned pygmies soon after?
After Africa, I followed my passion for long-distance trekking down some of the world’s most renowned pilgrimage trails, including Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena from England to Rome, and St. Olav’s Way across Norway. Each year brought another path, another challenge. Each time, I relished slowing life down, reducing it to its bare essentials. Trekking became my Walden Pond. Long-distance hiking is a trampoline for the mind, as you process a lifetime of thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations. Your senses become heightened. I delight in the minutiae of smells and sounds: the scent of an approaching cloudburst or hearing the scamper of a lizard in the brush. I've also found an inner peace through these treks. I've lightened up my pack — and metaphorically my life. It's something that remains with you, a sanctuary when life becomes too crazy once again.
The seeds for my new book grew from those experiences. Along the Templar Trail: Seven Million Steps for Peace chronicles my recent 2620-mile trek with a 68-year-old Frenchman from France to Jerusalem. Following in the footsteps of First Crusades and legendary first Knights Templar, we set off to trek across eleven countries and two continents.
Unlike my other books, from the very start, I was determined to make the trek not only as a personal pilgrimage, but also as a walk for peace. I wanted to remind folks along the way about the necessity of solving our problems in a more enlightened manner than resorting to war.
As journeys go, it was far from easy. Following a thousand-year-old map, each day we were uncertain where we would eat or sleep. Temperatures ranged from freezing to nearly 100 degrees (F). There was also an ever-changing landscape and languages, but politics turned out to be the greatest unknown. By the time we arrived in Serbia, Israel had bombed Beirut Airport, southern Lebanon was being evacuated, there was a bombing attempt on the US Embassy in Damascus, and Western travelers were gunned down in Amman, Jordan. Oh, and an Ebola-like virus raged in central Turkey.
Still, without exception, in every country the people we met were curious and kind when they discovered the reason for our journey. Our message found great acceptance. Folks are so tired of endless war and some were moved to tears when they heard of our quest.
True to my initial objectives, I wanted Along the Templar Trail to not only chronicle this historic journey, but also provide a blueprint for others who'd like to walk this path of peace. So this book is my most personal and surprisingly philosophical. It interweaves observations, koans and brief encounters that are metaphorical in nature. Some readers will hear a resonance in these—others will see only the adventure.
The story unfolds at a walker's pace, since a journey such as this forces one to slow down and savor the beauty and tranquility of life. As in all my books, I want to engage the reader, to make them feel like they’re walking beside us and experiencing both the good and bad, small miracles, and moments of discovery along the way. I want to inspire no only those who will follow in our footsteps—but also those who travel in mind and spirit.
Eventually, I hope my story will re-launch this historic trail as an international path of peace that others may walk in brotherhood, regardless of nationality or religion, much as they follow the Camino de Santiago. Thousands will walk this same path each year, sharing blisters, food and conversation. Once they walk together, they’ll discover a connectedness, a personal peace. Then they’ll return to their families, jobs, communities and countries with greater tolerance and belief in our commonality as human beings. They’ll embrace the ideal of cooperation on our increasingly fragile planet.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your traveling adventures?
The more I travel, the more I learn about the world (and the more I learn I don’t know). Wherever I travel I truly enjoy meeting and sharing with local people and learning about their lives: former monks in Tibet, African villagers, or army officers and Palestinians in Israel. I am inspired by their strength, faith, optimism and universal hope for peace. If only we can re-channel that fortitude, we can reshape our society, re-prioritize our budgets, and wage a lasting peace. As many reminded me, only governments stand in the way.
Then again, the more I travel, the more I learn about myself. You never return home the same person as when you left.
The Tibetan journey taught me to never give up — even while pushing the limits of survival. We were shot at, trudged through a blizzard, slowly starved, never knew where we would spend the night — or if we’d be taken into police custody. Yet we learned to have faith; trust that the Universe would provide, that we were meant to be there, that there is some greater purpose to it all.
What's in the near future?
Only the wind knows — but my walking stick is calling once again from the corner.
Do you think you'll ever settle down?
What? (Have you been talking to my mother?) I never say “Never,” but this appears to be as settled as I’ll ever be — unless I find something more worthwhile or exciting.
Is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers?
Ignore the naysayers and conformists. Life is too short for regrets. Have confidence in your dreams. Follow your passions, wherever they lead. Small joys still exist in our world. Discover the moments of magic and serenity in secluded places. See the world for yourself without hesitation or fear. Discover a personal peace, and as Gandhi once said, “Be the change you would like to see in the world.”
Where are your books available?
They may be ordered from any bookstore or Internet bookseller worldwide. Signed copies may only be purchased at Pilgrims Tales.