In the brisk March weather, as I stood pondering Estonia’s iconic Song Festival Grounds, it was hard to imagine the vast, empty stadium filled with the combined choir of hundreds of smaller choirs lifting their voices in choral defiance of the Soviet Union’s occupation. But trying to visualize it was important. I was there to write a story about Estonia’s Singing Revolution, which helped bring down the Iron Curtain in 1991.
Two months earlier I’d known very little about the Baltic country’s story. Now, while standing there, I tried to recall where the Iron Curtain boundaries lay beyond Berlin. What had I learned from watching Walter Cronkite? My knowledge gaps were bigger than I’d thought, which is usually the case in my rebooted life as a travel writer. However, that’s precisely why I keep doing it. Travel writing keeps me humble and it keeps me learning.
I’ve always been a journeyer. As a child, I’d be first to the mailbox the day the new National Geographic arrived. My bedroom walls had maps instead of Beatles posters. I’d relished family road trips—four kids, our parents, plus gear and sometimes the family dog stuffed into the Ford station wagon. Between the end of college and my first adult job, I’d wandered mostly solo through Europe with an outdated copy of Europe on $5 a Day as my guide. Later, scraping together money and vacation days, I continued to travel whenever I could—through jobs, marriage, divorce, single parenthood, solo, with friends, with my son. So it made sense that my backpack—now a roller bag—would keep going when I retired.
There was one problem. Despite my economical travel strategies (air mile hacks, hostels, public transportation, and mostly budget countries), travel is expensive, particularly if you’re maintaining a home base. I wasn’t ready to abandon my roots for a nomadic lifestyle, no matter how many baby boomer blogs promote it.
Facebook friends had appreciated my travel posts and photos from my trips. I liked to write and was reasonably good at it. I loved to research. And I wanted an identity: a business card with a title so I wouldn’t have to admit to my new seatmate on the plane/train/bus that my job title was retiree. Travel writing seemed the perfect fit. Many published articles into my reboot, I can report the transition was filled with lots of learning. And some ego readjustment.
I’d been a teacher, but I had to relearn writing for magazines and websites. My former careers never expected me to market or invoice my work. Though an active Facebook user, I needed to learn other social media platforms (as I did just this week taking Pinterest instruction from a 21-year-old fellow travel blogger). I could take a picture, but not a publication-worthy photo. And learning to take rejection and edits with grace was harder than I thought. It turns out there’s an entire community of support—classes, workshops, online groups for writers, kind editors, and “atta-girl” friends and family to cheer every newly published article.
Traveling as a writer changed me as a traveler. Since I depart with writing assignments and a focus, I do far more research before leaving. I travel deeper into a slice of my destination than I would have previously. And because I’m always on the lookout for additional stories to pitch, I engage locals in more conversations and explore with more abandon. My rebooted identity makes me braver. As a card-carrying travel writer in research mode, I do things solo I would have never done previously—bellying up to a cowboy bar in small-town Montana, slogging through the Amazon jungle on a guided night hike, eating guinea pig.
Last July, I saw the Song Festival Grounds again when the stadium hosted Estonia’s quinquennial Youth Song and Dance Festival. A 150-year-old tradition, the performances showcased 25,700 young singers, ranging in age from 4 to 24 from 700 youth choirs singing to an audience of over 10,000. It was the first festival in 76 years in which all the singers were “children of freedom,” born after Estonia’s independence. Though I’d published articles from my earlier trip, sourced from interviews and research, this time the experience was visceral instead of envisioned. It was National Geographic come alive.
I’ve discovered that this rebooted version of me is my younger self 55 years later, racing to the mailbox for National Geographic. Now, though, the wall-sized map is no longer just for daydreaming; it’s filled with pins—green for where I’ve been and red for where I’m going.