Adventure: Gonzo travel writer Tim Cahill hurtles between rocks and hard places, all in the name of a good tale.


March 17, 1997|By Charles Salter Jr. | Charles Salter Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON -- 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 to promote his book "Pass the Butterworms: Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered," a collection of his latest travel stories. 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 El Capitan, stalking gorillas in the Rwandan mountains, swimming in the North Pole 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 Banana Republic poster boy. 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 in back ('70s-style), large, metal-framed glasses that tint according to the light, 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 his 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, Colonel 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's 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's interviewing him by phone from Boston. "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 once practiced cannibalism. One of the Karowai invited him up in a tree house 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 that he'd 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." In his case, something usually goes wrong. 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 favorite: 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.

And 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."

Career gets rolling

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