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The Significance of Salon Travel

When Salon.com recently announced the elimination of 13 employees and its travel section to cut costs, most media reports focused on the economic causes and implications. In so doing, they overlooked something far more dear to many readers' hearts, including my own.

Salon's travel section, known for most of its existence as "Wanderlust," offered the most consistently evocative and engaging travel writing of any publication around, online or in print. Its demise leaves a gaping void for readers who love to travel vicariously through thoughtful, elegant prose.

Most travel publications, including the majority of Sunday newspaper sections, operate under the unfortunate assumption that readers want basic travel information above all else, so they fill their pages with long, detailed descriptions of magnificent cities, breathtaking landscapes and divine cooking.

These articles, spilling over with superlatives, rarely inspire me to travel.

Salon's stories did.

The site's first-person narratives emphasized the personal over the impersonal. Place played a role only insofar as it informed a writer's sense of discovery or epiphany. Guidebook-style listings were completely eliminated. In other words, at Salon, good old-fashioned storytelling was paramount.

The site's writers never labored to deliver definitive and ultimately forgettable stories about entire nations (you wouldn't see an inane headline like "Sizzling Spain" on Salon). Instead, they zeroed in on the small moments that make travel so compelling.

Writer Morrie Erickson's piece about his hair-cut excursion to a Cambodian salon, for example, was captivating, and it reminded me that I frequently feel most alive not when I'm taking snapshots of famous landmarks, but when I'm confronting a foreign culture in the most mundane ways: shopping for groceries, negotiating public transit, or getting my hair trimmed.

Such attention to detail was key to Salon's ability to draw contributions from world-class travel writers such as Pico Iyer, Jan Morris and Tim Cahill. But just as important a link, as Iyer noted in a recent e-mail to me, was the presence of Salon's former travel editor, Don George.

"He is as engaging and enthusiastic as any editor I've ever met in any form," Iyer said. "Indeed, I can think of no person for whom it is easier or more pleasurable to work. I had the sense that he got Jan Morris and Tim Cahill and Simon Winchester and many other of the top writers in the field to work for him just through the force of his kindness and his experience."

Before he launched Salon's travel section in March 1997, George had spent nine years as the Sunday travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner. Each week, he loaded the section with informative articles but all the while maintained other ambitions.

"I started out wanting to be a poet a long time ago and I always came to travel writing from a literate, story-telling perspective," he recalled last week.

"I felt that if I wanted travel information I could go to any number of guidebooks to get it. What really engaged me about travel was the human connection and growth that we experience. That's why I wanted to create a wonderfully and almost purely literary travel magazine."

He and Salon founder David Talbot had discussed such a thing when they were both working at the Examiner. So when Talbot found room in Salon's budget to add a section devoted entirely to travel in early 1997, he offered George, then the editor of AOL's now-defunct Global Network Navigator, the opportunity to create it.

George jumped at the chance. Inspired by the seemingly limitless possibilities of the Web, and unencumbered by the mundane informational demands of traditional newspaper travel journalism, he delivered a new, highly ambitious travel story five days a week.

"We could present stories that really happened to people when they get out there in the big world," he said. "And no one at Salon ever said, 'This is too literary.' "

The results were eminently readable and sometimes stunning, as in this passage from Pico Iyer's account of a romantic visit to Bali:

"All the best journeys, I have always felt, are like love affairs, not least because they turn you inside out and leave you within a darkness where you can't tell right from left or good from bad. And all love affairs are like journeys, deep into a foreign country, where you can't read the signs, and you don't know the language and you are drawn into a wilderness alive with mystery and possibility, and the knowledge -- certain knowledge -- that who you were is irretrievable."

That kind of travel-writing is hard to find.

Many travel editors, and especially those in newspapers, work in an environment where their colleagues are reporting on crime and fires and the daily sports news. Perhaps that's one reason, George speculated, that they are not motivated to publish literary travel accounts.

What's more, many editors believe their readers want information about travel more than simply great writing.

"You have to have a really deep-seated devotion to that kind of great, provocative writing to see it through the financial struggles," George said.

Thankfully, Salon did. For years.

Unfortunately, when revenues and traffic numbers fell short of expectations -- despite an attempt to draw more readers with a weekly "Wanderlust" story devoted entirely to romantic travel experiences -- Salon's editors were forced to make cutbacks. Sections with the lowest traffic figures got the ax, including Salon Travel.

"Despite the high literary quality," Salon Executive Editor Gary Kamiya said of the section, "we could never get its traffic numbers up to where they needed to be."

The move confirms fears that Web technology that allows sites to track the exact number of visits to each story turns every reader into the online equivalent of a Nielsen family, threatening every underrated article, writer or section with the chopping block.

"I've always said from the very beginning, when I leapt from print journalism into cyber journalism, that it's a double-edged sword that you can precisely count how many people click on your stories," George said.

When George got news of the cuts, he was stunned.

"It was very difficult to embrace the notion that something I had worked tremendously hard to build and had put all of my passion into creating was going to stop going on," he said.

He sent e-mails to his columnists and regular contributors announcing the bad news.

Salon "Vagabonding" columnist Rolf Potts, whose writing for Salon landed him in this year's "Best American Travel Writing" anthology, said via e-mail that he was sleeping in a cave in the Judean Desert when word of the cuts hit the Web. He's now in discussions with Salon editors, hoping his column can continue on in a different section.

"I've had offers to write freelance stories for magazines like Islands, Escape, and Conde Nast Traveler, and I'll certainly follow up on these," he said. "But because Salon gave me such ready exposure -- such an immediacy with my audience -- I hope I can keep my gig there.

"I'm extremely disappointed with the wisdom behind Salon's decision," he added.

Pico Iyer, who uses e-mail but beyond that has amazingly never ventured online or even seen Salon's Web site, said via e-mail from his home in Japan that the decision to eliminate Salon's travel section "confirmed some of my unease about the acceleration of the moment.

"While online magazines continue to find their way, by trial and error," he said, "I'll stay here in Japan, hooked into nothing more high-tech than the essays of Emerson on my shelves!"

And writer Michael Yessis, whose Salon account of the afternoon he stumbled across a Bruce Springsteen soundcheck at a Barcelona sports stadium drew nearly 40 e-mail responses from readers, lamented the loss from both a personal and professional standpoint.

"For a writer it was a great outlet," he said. "Salon gave writers the freedom to be more interesting than they can be in the newspapers or in the glossy magazines, where editors prefer stories from writers spending $200 a night in fancy resorts."

If Salon Travel was so great, though, why didn't it survive?

Maybe the online magazine was simply too ambitious, trying to publish too many great travel stories too often. After all, editors have decided to continue to publish the work of several travel columnists, including George and Elliot Neal Hester, in other sections.

George blames the problem, in part, on user habits.

"I've been a little dogged since the beginning with the question of why travelers go online," he said. "What are they looking for? It's a hard lesson that a lot of people are using the Internet for utility. The reason why sites like Travelocity and Expedia are employing hundreds of people is that that's the main travel use of the Internet now. 'I need information and I need to book.' You have to look at the economic reality that people are using the Net for utility."

Perhaps one day a travel Web site will combine the utility of an Expedia with the literary ambition of Salon and offer a worthy, enduring successor.

Indeed, George, who now writes a freelance travel column for Salon's business section, said he has an eye out for new opportunities, including the chance to edit another online travel publication.

"I loved every single minute of doing it for Salon and would very much love to have the chance to do it again," he said. "I refuse to believe that this means great travel writing can't thrive somehow on the Internet or in print publications, too, for that matter."

In the meantime, where are armchair travelers to turn?

On the Web, travel stories abound, especially amateur travelogs, and while some have a lot of character, you'd be hard-pressed to find one offering anything near the literary quality of Salon.

As for professionally produced sites, British Web site Travelmag offers compelling, ambitious stories. In the U.S., some news sites, including MSNBC.com, offer travel sections, as do the online versions of many daily newspapers.

Beyond that, a host of lesser known Web publications, such as BootsnAll.com, offer travel stories of varying quality.

In printed periodicals, George suggests readers turn to Islands magazine, travel editions of Granta, and travel essays published in Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly. I frequently enjoy travel stories published in Outside and Escape, too.

Most of the best travel writing these days, of course, is to be found in bookstores, in volumes by contemporary writers such as Iyer, Cahill, Morris, Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson.

Finally, fans of Salon Travel can continue to read the travel columnists who survived the cut and moved to other sections -- George, Hester and food writer Burt Wolf -- and they can look for the forthcoming book, "Salon.com Wanderlust: Real Life Tales of Adventure and Romance" (Random House), due out in October.

As for me, I plan to make frequent trips to my latest favorite online destination: Salon's travel archives.