Imagine being a blond woman traveling through remote China in the late 90s.
Where few Westerners had ever gone. On a rickety motorcycle. Alone.
That’s just one of Carl King’s many adventures. She’s also ridden motorcycles all over the world. And a bicycle through West Africa. Again … alone.
And then there’s her creative and professional side – author, speaker, coach, teacher industry expert and online instructor.
In this far-ranging interview, I interview Carla King about her travels, love of exploring, and the special challenges of being a female adventurer. We also discuss her books, travel writing advice, and the steps you can take to write your own travel memoir.
- CarlaKing.com – Carla King’s personal website, with links to her books and everything else about her.
- Self-Publishing Boot Camp – An online course and other resources by Carla King on how to self-publish your book.
- Virtual Travel Writers Facebook Group – An online community where you can discuss and share your writing with other travel writers.
Full Carla King Transcript
Doug Greene: This is Doug Greene with What Really Matters Interviews and today I’m really happy to be interviewing a woman named Carla King. She’s an adventure motorcycle rider. She is an adventure writer and author.
She’s been writing about adventure, motorcycling and other areas for at least 20 years. I think 25 going … back to 1994 … maybe even before that. She speaks to the adventure travel industry; she’s an expert on that. There are so many things about her. And so Carla, thanks for joining us.
Carla King: Thanks for asking, Doug.
So why don’t you pick a moment – something to just kind of illustrate what it’s like when things maybe don’t quite go right on an adventure ride. I’m sure you’ve had moments like that.
I’ve had a few … definitely. What comes to mind – because I’m writing right now about my China motorcycle journeys – which and very illegal. And my first night on the road in China … my first night on the road crossing from Beijing, which is a populated area with nice roads – this is 1998 – I cross into Hebei Province.
The road system deteriorated rapidly, and I ended up riding after dark. I hadn’t seen a village in miles. I was running on fumes and I finally saw lights, and it was a gas station. And I was so grateful.
So I asked the woman there and my very, very basic Mandarin Chinese if there was a hotel. And she pointed to some lights across the way, across a dirt road. And I got to the hotel, and all these women came running out, and I realized that I would be spending the first night on my own in China in a brothel.
So how did that work out for you?
It was weird. It was a very, very weird. I was completely stressed out because I had almost ran out of gas, because I had no idea where I was. The road had twisted around in the mountains. I had never realized that China had these amazing wide open spaces – the quality of a Yosemite or a Glacier National Park.
Of course there was no park there; it was where people the mountain people lived. And I would often end up riding on riverbed and very bad dirt roads. Because I crossed a bridge that seemed very rickety, I wasn’t sure if it would even hold the motorcycle. It was dark. There were no lights. I could hear it. It was like a deep canyon.
And then I got to the hotel… so-called “hotel”. And a bunch of women surrounded me, and a guy came out. And immediately I got off the bike, and I was cold – and you know how it is when your fingers don’t work and you know, you’ve still got the engine ringing in your ears – and I’d only gotten off the motorcycle for the first time in hours at the gas station just moments before.
So I was trying to just stretch my legs, and figure out what to do. And they took my motorcycle away – all these girls like six or seven girls. They were all wearing these satiny peach pajamas. And they just rolled it away.
And the man in charge, the brothel owner or whatever you call him, he gently led me into the office. And we started negotiating price. And he asked for a terribly outrageous price, and I countered. And we went through that bargaining thing that goes on.
Now you have to remember that I am the first foreigner anybody ever saw in the Chinese countryside. So I wasn’t some hot blonde driving up, you know and being …
So you’re this first Westerner these people have seen in this area?
I didn’t actually know that yet. I didn’t know that everywhere I went I would be a celebrity, because they’ve never seen a foreigner except for on television. So at the time, I was just in survival mode and I needed sleep so desperately.
I did realize that I was the purple people eater. You know, I wasn’t a woman. I wasn’t sexy. I wasn’t anything but some just weird person from outer space that had dropped down on them.
The brothel guy knew enough to try and get as much money as he could out of me. I was on a limited budget. So I understood what things cost – hotel rooms cost about $5 a night, probably $2 a night. So we negotiated. It was a very funny negotiation. And the girls all took me to the room.
And pretty soon they’re just started. A truck rolled up right where my motorcycle was. The two drivers fell out holding empty bottles of white lightning. I realized then that I should never be riding after dark. They were my only companions on the road – because at the time private cars weren’t allowed, right? So my only companions on the road in 1998 were these blue supply trucks, government vehicles, and taxis and little 125cc ag bikes.
So luckily my motorcycle was out of the way, And then I just stood at the window and watched more truck drivers come fall out of the cabs, the girls catching them and taking them somewhere. And just rinse and repeat for hours. And I did get some good sleep there, though. It’s actually a beautiful place I found out in the morning.
So you came away from it okay?
Yeah, I you know, I don’t know what say about that. It’s a complicated thing. You know, brothels are everywhere in the world, sex workers. It was weird that I encountered one the first night on the road. Kind of weird, and kind of not, in retrospect, because the only travelers in China at that time were the truck drivers.
Later I stayed in what’s called luquans, which I had expected to find that first night. And luquans, were dormitories pretty much, and they had maybe 10-20 beds for the men’s area and just a small room for women. And I usually had the women’s – I always had the women’s area to myself. And it was just very rustic and a lot of very basic accommodations, usually without showers.
So I spent a week at a time without showering. Which, you know, if you’ve done any camping, it didn’t bother me that much.
So how did you Get into motorcycling?
When I was 15 years old, I lived in North Carolina with my family. And my sister had a horse. I had no escape vehicle. And I had helped my dad work on all the vehicles that we had – the cars, the tractors, the riding lawn mowers, etc. And I saw his old motorcycle in the garage, and I said, “I want to ride that.” And he said, “You can ride it if you can fix it.”
But he helped me fix it up, and that became my escape vehicle. I would take it off on rides through the tobacco fields, and past the pond, and in the woods. And I would draw, and I would write, and I would come back. I would do some dirt bike riding in the woods. There were some neighborhood boys with some little bikes who made trails through the trees, and I would jump them. And often break down. And I could either fix it or push it back. So most of the time, I would fix it.
So you were a bit of a tomboy right from the get go, yeah?
Yeah, I think so.
So fixing it, you also were starting to pick up mechanical skills then right from the get-go to?
Yeah, I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t helping my parents with some job, whether it was carpentry or plumbing or boat engines or car engines or the riding lawnmower. So I always, in our family, we were a DIY kind of family. So it was just natural. It didn’t feel strange to me.
For those of you that may not do adventure riding, being able to repair your vehicle wherever you are, can be a critical skill set. Because oftentimes you can be dozens – even hundreds – of miles from helP. And so if you can’t fix it, you are stuck. And if there’s nobody else around, especially back in the day before they had cell phones and the SPOT locator deals where you just push a button and help shows up, it could mean the difference between a happy ending and a not happy ending.
So take us through some of your key adventure travel trips. You went to China. Maybe take us through the progression and some of the key moments along the way. And what kept pulling you into it to keep going and kind of amping it up.
Well, I had always wanted to travel. I remember that there were those, like Encyclopedia Britannica books. And they would come out with specials every once in a while – and one was Places. And there were pictures of cities all over the world. And for some reason I just gravitated towards San Francisco – the skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge. It was weird that I ended up living there starting at 16 years old, just bizarre. Because my dad worked for IBM, and we moved to the Bay Area.
And I always wrote, I always had a journal. I got fixated on France. I actually think that It was from a seventh-grade French teacher in North Carolina. I just thought she was the epitome of cool. You know, she had this flippy hairdo, and she always wore really nice clothes, and she wasn’t dowdy like the other teachers. And I thought, “Wow, how exotic to learn French and go to France.”
So I got fixated on France. And I kept making plans to go. But my girlfriends in high school, and later, will always just drop out because they had a new boyfriend or whatever. They spent their money on clothes. And so I worked in Silicon Valley as a technical writer for a long time. And at Hewlett Packard, they invited me to go to Leon, France, to work for six months on a technical writing project.
And of course, I said yes. And that trip ended up to be about 18-month trip, living in several places in Europe. And I kept trying to write travel stories. But I was a technical writer and I kept getting rejection letters or no rejection letters at all. And so when I came home, I saw an ad for a travel writing conference in Corte Madeira at Book Passage, which is a famous independent bookstore.
And so I went to the travel writers conference. And in the parking lot, I saw this guy on a BMW adventure bike. I went to talk to him, and his name was Alan Noren. And I told him that I rode motorcycles, and I had just been to France, and I had ridden a little there. We had a nice chat. And it turned out that he was there on behalf of O’Reilly and Associates who were creating a publication on this new thing called the World Wide Web and the internet.
And so they were looking for travel writers who had technology skills to create real time dispatches from the road. Now these weren’t called blogs yet, right? This was 1994. And so I said, “Hey, I am so in.” And he said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I want to take a motorcycle around the US.” Because when I lived in Europe, I was fascinated by the borders.
And at that time, there were still borders between the European countries. So I wanted to explore the borders between the US and Mexico and Canada. So he said, okay. And I looked around for a motorcycle. I had a Yamaha 650 Maxim, and I had done a lot of traveling on that. This the era before adventure bikes came along. I don’t know what you had. But were you adventure riding before the adventure bike …
Not back then. I first started in 2002. And a KLR 650 was my first bike.
It’s great first bike for that. But at the time, people were just on cruisers. And you’d find people in the woods camping, and going down trails on Harley’s and bikes like mine.
And so he said”, Well, what about a Harley?” And I was like, “Nah, that’s so cliche.” And so I was looking for a bike. And my dad’s friend found this thing, this novelty bike that this guy in Seattle was bringing in from Russia to experiment with. It was called a Ural – a sidecar motorcycle.
The sidecar special!
Exactly. And so I wrote to him, and I said, “Hey, Bob, I’ve got this job doing realtime online dispatches for this thing called the Internet, and I’m looking for a motorcycle. And that one looks really cool. I think I’m gonna get a lot of good stories. And so let’s partner up.” This was by letter, this was pre email, right?
And so he called me, he picked up the phone and he called. And he goes, “I think that’s a great idea. I don’t know if this company is gonna fly, if these bikes will run well in the US, because they go 40 miles an hour maximum in Siberia in the snow, and we don’t know if they’re gonna go 50-60 miles an hour on American highways in the heat, right? And that indeed, did become a little bit of a problem.
So he said, “Okay, well, we’ll get you one of these bikes.“ Well before that he’s like, “and it’ll breakdown; it’s just not ready for prime time.” And I said, “That’s okay because I’m a pretty good mechanic. And he’s like, “Really?! Okay, you test ride it; we’ll give it to you. We’ll support you around the US. If something breaks we’ll FedEx the part out. We’ll fill the sidecar with as many parts as we have.
So I flew up there and I got it. I had half the side of an engine in there, not the side that actually blew, of course. It was based on a 1938 BMW you know, the boxer-twin engines that BMW uses – a very simple bike to work on, so simple. Pretty much had tin cans for carburetors. It had Lucas electronics which became a huge problem, the Russian electronics … very unreliable. The wiring was not good to start with.
But it was it had personality. And I remember riding it from the Seattle, Washington area back down to Santa Cruz where I lived. And it took me forever because wherever I would stop, people would run up to me like the circus came to town. And it was clear right away that this was not going to be the typical biker experience. Because as a woman on a motorcycle at that time, I was much more in the minority. Today. 25% of motorcyclists are women and …
In the adventure rider community?
The motorcycling community in the US, in general. So, you know, a quarter of the people you’re likely to see on motorcycles today are women. That wasn’t the case then. Whenever I would ride before, kids would smash their faces up against the windows and wave at me. People would stare at me. Gas station people couldn’t figure out whether to talk to me or not.
Those are the days of black leather jackets. It was pre-textile industry. You know, there wasn’t the high-viz stuff that we have now. So no matter if I was a biker person or not, I looked like a biker. So it looks a little scary. I looked a little intimidating.
But on this thing I was just – like people would ask if they could put their kid in the sidecar. I had old ladies come up to me and just giggle and laugh. And later we call this became a UDL – the Ural Delay Factor … UDF.
You can’t get anywhere fast.
So that was your first sort of real adventure?
That was my first adventure motorcycling trip that I wrote about, that I had a professional affiliation with the company, was an ambassador, and was doing stories for. But I had ridden my Yamaha to up to Portland. I hadn’t done long term trips really long – just up and down the US West Coast, and done a lot of camping motorcycle camping.
And when you were in Europe, were you riding there?
I was, but I was only doing local rides. I lived in Holland for awhile. And I just rode around Holland and France and Germany.
So the Ural trip is really what sort of kicked it into the next gear?
Right. Yeah, I had done some bicycle travel before that. I actually went to France and then I bicycled through West Africa.
And that was in 92 and 93.
So why don’t we take a little side journey on that? Because actually, I would think that bicycling through West Africa would be even more challenging than taking a motorcycle. You can’t cover the distance you can on a motorcycle. You can’t bring the luxury gear. Not that you bring a lot on a motorcycle, but on a bicycle …
This is the thing. I lived in France, and I just loved France, I love France. And then I went back to the south of France and I found a place in Niece. I had made a lot of money contracting and technical writing in Silicon Valley. So I had enough money to live maybe for a year if I didn’t spend a lot.
So I bicycled all around the South near Niece in the Alps-Maritimes. And it’s just gorgeous there, and you eat so well. And when you’re in France on a bicycle, people love you. I improved my French a lot. Which was important, because in West Africa they speak French. That’s the ex-pat language, the language that they use, because every hundred miles, the language changes a lot.
And I wanted to go there to do some more tech writing, and bicycle, and as a jump-off for my trip to West Africa. I was really attracted to West Africa because I wanted to go to a place that that was completely different than any place that I had traveled to before, that was not Caucasian, that was not Christian. That was if I just took myself and my friends in Europe and switched it around, you know, black West African Muslims, anything different I just craved.
I was so curious about other cultures for such a long time. And I had met some West Africans when I lived in France before, and they were such a joyful people, and so happy. And I had floated the idea. I met a few West African vendors in the streets of Niece, and I asked them what their country was like – I said I wanted to go.
And they’re like, “oh, you’re gonna have such a good time. Everybody’s so friendly. I’ll introduce you to my family.” And it’s true. When I got there, it was unbelievably friendly. I did have my share of adventures there, missadventures there.
But to go back to the difference between motorcycling and America bicycling through West Africa, I was pitching stories to adventure magazines like Outside Magazine, and they would say, “Oh, I love that idea for a story about motorcycling for the US.” And I would say, “but I bicycled by myself for four months through West Africa, I got malaria. My brother joined me; he got thrown in an out West African jail. I was starved to death on the salt flats.” whatever.
And they’re just like, “Well, yeah, that sounds interesting. But let’s hear more about the motorcycle trip through America.” And I’m thinking what is wrong with these people? I mean, what is more difficult than a solo woman riding a bicycle through Africa versus motorcycle through America? It’s just what caught people’s imaginations then.
What did you learn on that trip riding solo through West Africa? What were some of your biggest takeaways on that? Because you do get life lessons on you’re on the road. They come at you fast and furious sometimes.
Oh, yeah, they really do. And the big lesson I learned is that I went seeking difference. And what I found was similarities.
So expand on that.
Well, everybody loves their children. Everybody wants a safe place to live. They want security. They want work. They are interested, for the most part, in strangers; they want to help strangers.
I did learn that the poorer people are, the more likely they are to help you, to offer aid. And I also learned this in the US when I went through more poor areas of the United States. People were much more willing to help and take me in – versus places that are maybe suburban or near city. People who were protecting their things, right? The more property, the more material possessions, people have, the less likely they are to help you, to take that risk.
It’s interesting how isolating material affluence makes people, right? And I don’t know what you think about that. I’ve been well off in my life, but I’ve been a traveler. So I always help travelers, and I don’t think about “maybe they’ll take my stuff”, right?
I remember my first adventure ride was through the Golden Triangle Area along the Burma Myanmar-Thailand border. And we went to these really remote villages. Like people looked at us …
I was with this woman from Germany with flaming red hair and blue eyes. And we show on our red and yellow motorcycles — 125 cc knockoffs of small dirt bikes in the States. And it’s true. We would show up in these villages, and first they would just look at us like, “what are you doing here?”
There was a push to teach English throughout the countryside there, because the Thai saw that as a potential tourism source down the road. So they wanted to start sort of preparing that. And invariably, there would be some young woman from Bangkok or Chiang Mai that took on that job because they probably saw more opportunity than they get in the city.
So we would show up. We’d asked if there was a guest house. Of course, there wasn’t such a thing in these little villages. But we would meet the person who spoke English, that was teaching English. And I figured out if I just offered to teach an English class the next morning, we were golden.
The village opened up to us. They would invite us … It became an event. And they let us sleep in the classroom. We had to be up by seven because class started at 7:30. And I would teach a class teaching English – maybe some basic songs. Like at the time, I think some Michael Jackson songs.
And the people were so warm, and the experiences were so heartfelt. They wouldn’t even accept money. I’d say, “Look, let us give you some baht for letting us stay there.” And they wouldn’t accept it unless we insisted it was for the school. And then it was okay. As long as it wasn’t going to them personally – but to the school – that it was okay.
And like five bucks was so much to them. And in eight months of traveling in Southeast Asia, for me it was the richest experience I had, and what got me started in adventure motorcycling.
That’s a great story,
The less people have, often the more warm and outreaching they are. And community seems to mean more to them.
The other thing that’s interesting about it is that – well, when I was in West Africa, when I would come to town, I would just show up and it was a scene. Many of them had never seen a foreigner ever.
I went to these little villages, they hadn’t even conceived of the idea of a foreigner. And I actually had small children run screaming away from me because they had been told, at one point, that if they weren’t good, the white Boogeyman was gonna come and get them.
And it was heartbreaking. Sometimes I would ride up. And I was so hot, and I saw this big baobab tree with shade under it. And I headed toward it, and out of the corner of my eye I saw this girl – maybe 12 years old – with a big pottery jug on her head, probably full of water walking somewhere. I couldn’t see any village from where I was.
But all I wanted to do was head toward that tree and get in the shade. And I got closer to her and I finally noticed her and the look on her face. I have never seen a look of sheer terror like that in my life. And to have it directed at me, it just broke my heart.
She couldn’t even speak. And she’s trying to keep a hold of her pottery jug. And she turned, and she sort of shuffled the run a little bit, and then she’d turned around just stilted, because she can’t turn her head – she has to turn her whole body to just look again. And then she opened her mouth, and she tried to scream. But it was just this croaking sound that was coming out.
And I started to cry. I really didn’t want to shock her. I mean it was heartbreaking. So I looked at the shade tree, and I looked at her and I just went on my way.
So being a woman solo traveling in West Africa, what were some of the challenges you probably faced as a woman – versus a man or male coming through there?
Well it was interesting, because my brother was on the journey with me for a little while. And so I got to see the difference between the male vs female traveling life there. I actually had a richer experience.
For one thing, I was 31, a cute blonde, the bicycle – people are always just like my story about China spending the first night of my trip in a brothel. I am not a pretty blonde to those people. I’m a circus. I am an alien. I am either terrifying or the best thing that happened to them – because they don’t have movies. They don’t even have books, they have storytelling around the fire.
And so it’s such a gift. It’s an amazing gift to them to have a traveler come through. And they want you to stay, they always wanted me to stay longer and longer. What I realized about being a woman on a bicycle or a motorcycle, and this is true from all my travels, is that I had access to the women’s world, which men absolutely do not. And I had access to the world of men – because what I am is an honorary man, because I’m doing things that men do. And I’m not a woman per se, because I’m not a woman who’s living in their culture and living by their cultural rules.
So for a woman traveling solo in these kinds of cultures, it’s a much richer experience than any man can have. I’ve sat around the fire with a woman braiding my hair, and just chatting, and you know, they’re helping me with my period or, you know, all the girl things connect us to other women. And it’s so touching. And it’s so lovely to be included and share in these cultures.
I used to feel bad about taking from them – like I know they didn’t have enough food, really, to survive happily. And yet they were giving me food. And I tried not to accept it, and try not to accept it. And then I realized that it was an exchange that they felt was fair.
They wanted to entertain me. They wanted to keep me healthy, and it was just caring for another person. It’s a complicated transformation to go through. And those were my first days of adventure traveling, right? Early days of adventure travel. And now I know what the deal is. I know that I’m a gift to cultures who live in remote places because they just don’t see stuff.
How did the trip change you? Who were you before? How are you different after that trip? How did it change you?
I think it might have just affirmed what I expected. Well, I mentioned that I realized that people are the same, right? And I didn’t know that before I traveled. I thought that going to an opposite culture – black West Africa – you know that they would do or be something different than me, right?
And I was curious about it, and fascinated about it. And it’s true. I learned from speaking French and living in France that people express themselves differently. They talk about different things than Americans do. Right? Even the language, knowing another language fluently, does make you realize that different cultures put different emphasis on activities and feelings, right? They have more ways to express a certain feeling than another. It’s so interesting.
So I thought, okay, black, West Africa, they’re Muslim, they’re going to be different. And then when I realized everybody was the same, a part of me interestingly felt a little bit let down.
You weren’t so special after all?
Right?! I was looking for some sort of sensational adventure of people with a completely different system of living than me. And you can find those. I mean, Margaret Mead is the one who tracked those down – the matriarchal couples, the matriarchal villages in Southeast Asia, for instance, right? People who do things differently.
But normally we’re all the same.
So how did it make me different? Did it make me braver, maybe? Did it make me more compassionate?
I think it made me a more compassionate person, less judgmental. I don’t think I was very judgmental in the first place. I grew up in kind of a judgmental place where, in rural North Carolina, sometimes my friends were suddenly not allowed to speak to me because my family didn’t go to church. Right? And that was hard as a preteen, especially as a teenager those moments.
You sound like you’ve always been pretty self-reliant. So I’m guessing that you may have just deepened your skill set on that level, that was already there.
Well, I think the experience of being of a different culture in North Carolina – my father’s family is from rural North Carolina. My mother’s family is from Boston and Seattle – more affluent, more Northern and Pacific Northwest culture, and not churchgoing.
And so being an outsider growing up taught me to be alone. Not that I was happy about it all the time. Being an outsider, as a child in North Carolina, did teach me self-sufficiency, taught me to be alone. I did have some friends, but as I said, sometimes they weren’t allowed to speak to me all of a sudden. That usually blew over.
And my family being self-sufficient, and my parents bought a farmhouse in that area, and we rebuilt it, and then also rebuilt vehicles.
So the self-reliant side, I’ve noticed in my own world, I’ve been more of a … in recreation sort of a soloist. I’ve always gone for the sports where, you know – I’m not into baseball, football, basketball or hockey or any of the team sports. It’s like I had an experience as a kid that pushed me away from team sports; it was in Little League when I was a kid.
And I ended up getting into track and field, and then later cross-country ski racing, and whitewater kayaking, and mountain biking, trail running, adventure motorcycling and all these sort of solo endeavors.
Did you have an experience that pushed you away from group stuff? Or it sounds like it’s more of just kind of innate to who you are, and that you just followed that line at current, so to speak, through your life?
Well, I was very good at sports. But we live kind of far away from school, and I would have to get a ride to these events. So I couldn’t I couldn’t go. So that was one problem.
And I always have been a reader and a writer and an artist. And so I spent a lot of time doing that. Later when I grew up, and I worked for technology companies, I would always play softball and participate in that group.
You were doing team stuff and all of that, too?
Yeah, a little bit, but not really. And I was running teams as well in Silicon Valley. And I’m good at being an organizer and a leader and a project.
So you did the West Africa thing, and then you also did the Ural around America.
Yeah, that was the American Borders blog. And I, I wrote a book about it, using the blog as a starting point. And that was published in 2004.
Okay, so what was your next big adventure?
Well my next big adventure was in 2008. And it stemmed from my American Borders blog. This group of expats in Beijing had a motorcycle gang called the Chang Jiang, and the Chang Jiang is the Chinese cousin of the Ural sidecar motorcycle.
And in the early 90s, this group of expats, who were heads of American companies based in Beijing, were seeing China change a lot. And they would ride out into the countryside, and they were seeing the villages deteriorating, changing – people leaving the villages illegally for the cities.
And they’re like, “wow, I wish we could document this and tell people about it.” But they’ve got to work, right?
So this guy, Rick Dunnigan, I got an email from him. And he said, “Why don’t you come to China and do an American Borders type of series of dispatches from with our Chang Jiang motorcycle?” And I was like “What?!”
I remember being in high school when Nixon was president, and he had just opened relations with China. And China was pretty closed to us all the whole time that I was growing up, we never heard a peep about China. Right? So it was mysterious.
And it had never been a travel destination. It just wasn’t possible. Really? Correct. I mean, you could go on special envoys and take the bus tour, right?
I think some of the first people to get in there were actually mountaineers like Galen Rowell, Ned Gillette, and Dick Dorworth – when they went in and skied some peak, I think was called Mustagh Gata.
Yeah, they did some beautiful work for National Geographic. But they had to get the blessing of the Chinese mountaineering Association. You know, National Geographic jumped on it because they couldn’t get anybody else in. And all of a sudden this rickety band of mountaineers – like “Well, we’re going in!” “Like, great, bring us a story.”
But you know, that was about it. So you get this …
… this weird email. I was like, “Really? Is that possible? I mean, is it even legal?”
And so they flew me out in 1997 in the fall, and I spent two weeks there riding around with them. And indeed, they were very interesting expats living in Beijing. And one of them was the agricultural attache for the US under Clinton, and a woman. And she took me on a ride, I borrowed another motorcycle and – both of us both blondes on Chang Jiangs – rode through the Chinese countryside.
And her whole job was to figure out how China was paying their farmers – like were they paying them in money? Were they paying them in IOUs? You know, just just knowing what’s going on in agriculture.
So she would often take the motorcycle ride through the Chinese countryside to figure this out. So she took me on a trip. And we sat in piles of corn husks drawing by the side of the road, and she would talk to them. And she was fluent in Mandarin.
But it was hilarious, because they had never seen or talked to a foreigner either. And it took them a long time – well, maybe about 15 minutes of us just sitting, helping them shuck the corn, and take the kernels out and spread them on the road. And then she kept talking to them in Mandarin. And she was a farm girl, I think from Michigan or Minnesota.
And they would warm up and talk to her about the situation. And we did this one day – and this is so cool – and I had dreams of her going with me, of course, because she was fluent, and cool, and everything. And so I said yes. And they said, “Okay, we’ll arrange it for spring of 98.”
And it turned out that Teresa couldn’t go with me, because it was turned out to be a very illegal trip. And of course, the Embassy wouldn’t sanction her going with me, which was good anyway. Because the whole thing for me is about going solo.
10 years later, I did go on a trip with her and another woman – sort of as an epilogue to the China road trip.
So I came back prepped for the trip and took off, I think it was April of 1998. And the group had gotten a bike for me. It had black license plates, instead of blue license plates, which meant that I could cross provincial borders. And that was important, because I mean – imagine if you lived in California and couldn’t go to Nevada because you had a California license plate – that’s how China was at that time.
No freedom to travel between provinces. So that was an important factor. I didn’t have the government sanctions to go. I didn’t have a Chinese driver’s license. But my friends had created this stack of official looking paperwork with chops, or those Chinese stamps on it – very official looking stamps everywhere, and sent those along with me. And I just cross my fingers and hope for the best.
Well, let’s see. After the brothel, and after a few more fun moments, I crossed into Inner Mongolia. And that was my first internal border. So I cross into Inner Mongolia and there was a border there. And it was a very official looking border – like you used to see between France and Germany, for instance, with a toll booth.
It was in the middle of nowhere, too. It was a paved road, and the border guards watched me coming. There was nobody else in sight for miles. So I took off my helmet. And they all gathered around, there were five of them, and they just started laughing. They were astounded.
And I didn’t know what to say to them. They kept asking me questions, and all I could say was where I had just come from, and where I was going. So I kept repeating where I was coming from – Beijing and Datong – and that I was going to Baotou. And they just thought that was the funniest thing ever.
So I took out my wallet and tried to give them money. And they thought that was even more funny. And they open the gate and let me through. And then they started yelling at me, and I stopped again, and they had forgotten to give me a ticket to prove that I crossed into Inner Mongolia. So finally, I had a one official piece of paper.
But that’s what happened most of the time. I did get pulled over randomly. like I said, there were only the blue trucks and the government vehicles and a few taxis on the road and some little motorcycles that the farmers used. And sometimes the police would just have a roadblock.
And all I would do is take off my helmet, and I had really long hair – blonde, and it was in a braid. And I’d take off my helmet, and they look at me and their eyes would go wide. In fact, one time this cop, he just put one hand over his eyes, and he pointed in the direction I was going with the other hand, like “I don’t see you. Keep going.”
So it wasn’t a problem. I had asked Teresa, the agricultural attache, and you know “what would happen? Like worst case scenario? Would I be put in jail and tortured, or would I be – you know what would happen?”
And she goes, “Oh, they would send you back to Beijing and they might keep the motorcycle. And so I asked Jim Bryant, who’s still a friend and like, “Okay, do you care about this motorcycle?” And he’s like, “No, it’s like worth 1500 dollars. Actually, the license plate is probably worth $2500
So how did that trip go for you? You did dispatches from there?
I did do dispatches again. Yeah, O’Reilly and Associates wasn’t doing that project anymore, so I just did them on my own. Actually I did it with a friend who had a verbum.com – an early multimedia publisher. And had been working with them for quite a while in Multimedia Gulch in San Francisco. So they helped me out.
I had an editor. I had somebody doing the HTML for me and posting the dispatches. And I had a digital camera. It was one of the first ones, and it was terrible resolution. But I did take pictures with that. But I also brought my Canon SLR, and I took better pictures with that. And I’ve just got this huge stack of photographs that I still need to sort through from 1998 and digitized.
It was a very lonely trip. Like in Southeast Asia, I imagine that you were meeting other foreigners, other Westerners, and hanging out with them sometimes on the road, in a hostel or guesthouse.
There were no other foreigners for me to hang out with. So I had four months of being completely alone except for one place. And that was in western China, not far from the Tibetan border called the Labrang Monastery, which is a monastery of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibet. And there were foreigners there. And for the first time on the road, I had coffee, banana pancakes. It was quite the pilgrimage spot.
Not only a pilgrimage spot, a real pilgrimage spot for Buddhists. In fact, when I was coming around the mountain to go to the monastery, I was shocked to see three people lying in the road – right in the middle of the road. And I put on the brakes really fast. And they got up, and they took a few more steps, and then fell to the middle of the road again.
What they were doing is they were monks making a pilgrimage to the monastery. And like wow, I had been dodging yaks and goats and all kinds of things, but never people before. And it was It got so cold in the altitude that I was putting my hands, my gloved hands, on the sides of the engine to keep warm.
So four months alone, or four months solo without interaction with Westerners for the most part – how was that? How did that impact you, change you, or … it seems like a really unusual experience to have.
It was hard to keep going, but it was so fascinating. And remember when I was talking about West Africa and finding out that people are all the same everywhere. I actually didn’t feel like that in China. I felt like we were very different cultures.
Well, imagine not ever being able to move, right? They weren’t free to leave even their village without government approval. So these people were stopped. They had a history of incredible repression.
Chairman Mao. The long march the Cultural Revolution, where all the artists and musicians were stripped of their art and their music. And then farmers were valued and books were burned. Paintings were burned, the music musical instruments were burned. Children would turn their parents in for reading or for making music.
Mao encouraged the farmers to kill insects and birds. And so all of a sudden, there was no pollination. There were no birds. People were eating birds. It was a mass, mass starvation, and incredible government control. Stranglehold on your personal life. When you can’t trust anybody, what happens?
So it was incredibly repressed even many years after, because all the old people that I met were tiny, tiny, tiny. I mean up to my waist tiny because of the starvation that they had endured the …
… malnutrition and all of that?
Exactly. Though their children were raised by them, so they still have that fear. And their children were taught to have fear of the regime as well. So they were scared. They were scared of me often – in a different way than the little West African girl was scared of me. They were scared of me because it it might be illegal to talk to me, and they would be turned in, right?
Wow. Okay, so you finished that trip, and then you did a book on it?
What I did a series of dispatches. And I’ve published many of these dispatches, and you can find them online at my website. I have a story about motorcycling in China. And years ago, Adventure Motorcycle magazine, and other magazines and some anthologies.
But I’m still working on the book/ And it’s very difficult because it’s a memoir; it’s not just a travel book. I do have the travel book about my travels through China. But the emotional journey and the things that were really happening to me and culturally – like my boyfriend was breaking up with me because I traveled too much, you know?
So there was that going on. So do I include that? It’s not of interest to a lot of the motorcycle crowd. But it is of interest to people who read memoirs, right? So trying to weave that internal story and that difficulty in my head and in my life, the contrast between living this very modern and kind of crazy life in San Francisco … you know, early Burning Man and all that, versus being in a truly medieval environment. You know, people pulling plows with their bodies, not even having a buffalo or …
You know, it’s a huge contrast. And the social questions that really center on women and our freedom and … there are real questions here. In relationships, often, women are not allowed to be a whole person. So let me just explain that for a minute.
I know plenty of men who have work that takes them away from their wives and their families for weeks or months at a time. I don’t know any women in a relationship who travels for work for any length of time. And that’s because it’s not truly accepted in our culture.
At the time, I was struggling was blaming my boyfriend for being an asshole, for being mad at me for travelling. And realizing that culturally we’re just not there yet, that our role models are people who grew up in the fifties, right? Fifties housewife – guy goes toe work, she stays home, takes care of the kids. My brothers, who are 10 years younger, they’re of an era that’s changed a little bit. And their kids are going to be in an era of changing a little bit more. But it’s just not there yet.
Are you talking about the nineties? Or are you talking about now?
Well, I’m talking about now. I mean, look around. Even in the adventure motorcycle community there are couples who go off together, But there aren’t guys who stay at home while their girlfriends or wives are off adventuring. Right? Name one.
I hope that when this is published, you can name one. But I cannot find any. And that’s just because it’s still not culturally accepted in …
You know, lip service, yeah, sure. But we, as a society, just aren’t somehow ready for it. The women are ready for it. But to find a partner who just says, “Yeah, you’re gonna have fun on your however long trip you’re going on” is very rare to nonexistent.
I do see that happening in the mountaineering community.
Do you really?
Yeah. Women will go on expeditions, maybe up Everest. Or like a woman I know in Sun Valley, she climbed Ama Dablam – pretty challenging mountain – on women’s team back probably in the eighties. And her husband was like, “Go for it, Go do it!”
Of course, that was in a ski town, too, and they were living already living a sort of different lifestyle. And I think it’s more common there. But I do see that in the mountaineering and climbing world, but not in the motorcycle world.
Yeah, and I don’t think it’s limited to the motorcycle world. I was in a writing group in 98 after I came back from China – 12 women travel writers, And of the 12, there were only two who were married in long term relationships.
And those two women didn’t travel like the rest of us did. They took press trips to Paris and had walked the PIlgramate Trail in Spain. One had lived with her husband in Hong Kong and was a reporter there. So it was quite different. The other woman was a food writer, culture and dance. One political. They also had a hard time with relationships because they would leave.
So what about you?
I’ve always forever had issues around that. And it doesn’t matter who it’s been or how enlightened or what kind of life we have together. It’s a problem. And I have had – the longest relationship has been seven years.
We’re we’re getting off on a tangent aren’t we?!
I actually find this a really intriguing piece. It’s not where expected us to go.
I guess it’s in my front of mind right now because I’m writing about it in the memoir. And my writing partner is a writing coach for memoirists. And I love the motorcycling community, but I want this to be a bigger book. I want it to reach people who don’t motorcycle in the way that American borders never reach, because I didn’t go very deeply into why.
Why should it be that people are surprised to see a woman riding a motorcycle? In a perfect world it would be like “Oh, yeah, it’s cool. You’re riding a motorcycle.” It doesn’t matter; gender doesn’t matter. But gender does matter.
You know, people are saying, “Oh, you’re so brave, but aren’t you scared?” Or “Don’t you want to get married and have kids and things like that?” It’s like, “Well, those are the wrong questions.
It’s intriguing. I actually got pulled into adventure motorcycle riding from a woman from Germany And then my favorite riding compadre was another woman from Canada. She was just … you know, we couldn’t live with each other; we couldn’t live without each other on the ride.
Almost took on like a brother-sister kind of “Rrrrr”. But God, we loved riding together. And she died from cancer, unfortunately. it was really sad.
I miss her a lot. So I am used to seeing and riding with female riders quite bit of the time, I would say 80% of the time, if I wasn’t going solo, I was probably writing with a woman.
But anyway, let’s move to writing.
Well, that’s what I’m doing. This is all leading to the writing. Because, you know, all of this stuff is in my head. And, you know, I’m writing about China. And I’ve got my journals and I’m remembering being angry and confused and really putting my feelings down on the page and making others feel what I feel.
That is a hard thing to do. And we’ve all read books where the writers have connected with you, and inspired you, and made you feel things that you didn’t know – made you think about things that you didn’t think about before. The two obvious examples are, of course, for me, Cheryl Straits Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
So it’s definitely a journey, and you definitely need a lot of help on this journey. A lot of people write down their stories and just put them out, and that’s okay. But when you have an editor and a writing group and people giving you feedback, the story becomes much richer and your experience has become much more universal. Right?
We were talking about this in our writing group, right? I should mention that writing group is … I started a virtual travel writers group a few weeks ago after it was clear that we’re gonna be shut down for a while.
Yeah, this is part of the pandemic …
Filtering in place. Yes, and herding travel writers is like herding kittens, right? They’re all over the place all the time. So now we’re forced to just sit down and write – write about our journeys. What else is there to do, correct?
Well, you can start a podcast!
Okay, so making this transition to doing a memoir and bringing more feeling to the book, more emotional stuff, material – versus sort of your standard travel log. Talk about that gap or how you’re crossing that chasm. What are you learning? What are you doing? What are ways to make that happen in a way that’s awesome?
Yeah, this is the hard question. And that’s why you go to writers conferences and take classes and have editors. And for travel – I can speak to travel writing – and I’ve done a little short story writing. But for travel writing, and they call it media rez, right? In the action is very important.
And working backwards from there is difficult because what you’re working with is verb tenses, right? You’re working with present, past, past simple, past tenses. So you have to set a structure.
So I’ve chosen, in China Road, to write the journey in present tense. That’s the plot. You know, you’re moving the plot along. You’re riding or getting stuck, and you’re you’re riding along and here’s the road and here’s the village and here’s when I’m eating and here’s how I’m breaking down and how the people are dragging me to the village and how they’re helping me fix the motorcycle and how I’m getting a lesson in Chinese cooking from the mechanic’s wife.
And I’m having the two-year old baby on my lap, not understanding a word that they’re saying. And I’m riding.
And then there’s what’s going on in my head. I haven’t seen a village in miles. Where am I going to find a place to to to the Internet so I can tell my family I’m okay. Things that I’m afraid of. Or doing something really stupid. Shouldn’t I be back in San Francisco and going to Burning man instead?
Isn’t that enough excitement for me? Why isn’t that enough excitement for me? And why is my boyfriend mad at me and you know, it’s just not fair. And all of that. And then that’s the past tense.
And then you’ve got the other past tense – the deeper past tenses. Things that happened, so things that we had done and I had done. Not things that I did but things that I had done. So that’s the third verb tense.
And so as a writer, it’s very important to keep those separate so that you can convey to the reader – and the reader doesn’t even know you’re doing this. They just know they’re just with you. They’re not saying “Oh, she just switched to past tense, so she’s thinking about this.”
But as a writer, you write in scenes. And so we were talking about this in the travel writing group the other day. This is why I like this writing tool called Scrivener, because it allows you to create chapters and scenes within those chapters. And so you can mark your scene “Scene 1: I haven’t seen a village in miles. I’m freezing. I see a light. It’s a gas station – present tense.
That’s a scene. A woman comes out and tells me about the hotel. That’s a scene.
And then another scene is what’s happening in my head. “Why is my boyfriend breaking up with me? Maybe I should have been scared, like my parents said.” Or, you know, whatever. “My trip in Indonesia wasn’t like this. It was so much more friendly, and I wasn’t scared at all.” And you know all those. And so that’s another scene.
This is what we call “helmet time” in the motorcycling world. So that’s another scene.
And then there’s still another scene. So within your head, still, you have a sub theme of thinking about things that happened last year when I was at Burning Man. I don’t know, I’m just pulling things out of my head that aren’t real. But something that you had done there that kind of relates to what’s happening here. Or something that happened on another trip, and that’s a third scene.
So all of that – you can see it’s like this layer cake, this mill fuel of pastry that enriches the story. You’ve got the plot, the present tense moving you along in the country and also moving you in your thoughts to an ultimate change in how you are. Because there’s no story worth telling unless it changes you.
That’s what editors and book publishers always ask “How did that change you? How did the character change?” And you have to have this foreshadowing correct.
So it’s not a job to pick up and succeed at immediately. It takes a lot of practice and discipline. And I actually have a lot of fun writing.
Like “Oh my God, I have to write, you know, I have to write this down. But I don’t know about you, but I just get really lost in China. And then I remember things. And then when I get input from my editor – the woman, Linda Joy Myers, who’s the memoir coach – she’s like “Carla. You ran out of road and there’s a river bed and you’re just tootling along the riverbed looking for the road to start again. What are you thinking?”
And I’m thinking, “Well, what am I thinking?” I’m thinking the road’s going to start somewhere. And she’s like, “but I am totally scared. Weren’t you even scared?” If you’re scared and like nervous about where the road is coming or not, you know, let us know. And if you’re not scared, tell me why you’re not scared. Because this, to somebody who doesn’t travel very much – I need to know why you’re not scared.
So then I have to sit down and think, “Why am I not scared?” Because I know the road is going to start again. Because I know that some blue truck will come trundling along and give me a clue. Because I know that China is not that remote and somebody’s always gonna pass by.
And so anyway, I always knew that somebody would come along eventually. And I did have enough supplies because I have things to eat in the sidecar and all that. And I certainly wasn’t scared of wild animals because there are no animals left in China. They’ve eaten them all. They killed everything. It’s astounding to be in a place in a wild place and hear hardly any birds.
But I didn’t know then that I would later get stuck in a place where they’re actually weren’t any people and China did have those wide open places that were dangerous to be in because nobody was coming by.
So coming back to the writing, bringing that feeling – those experiences – on a rich way to a memoir, what are some of the lessons you’re learning? What are some of the things you need to do internally to bring those up and describe them in a way that brings out emotional connection to the reader?
To intrigue the reader and to bring the emotional connection to the reader, you have to be very, very honest. And that’s very, very hard, because you have to tell the truth about yourself and your feelings.
And I learned during my American Borders trip I had done some writing before. You know, you never get any feedback. I had done a little magazine writing. And pre-Internet maybe there was maybe a letter to the editor that said, “Oh, that was a really great story”.
But blogging – you get immediate feedback, right? People go, “Wow, that’s so cool.” Or you we get no comments on your blog posts at all, which tells you something as well.
So I was surprised when I took the most risks with my thoughts, writing my thoughts down and even getting angry and mad at people on the road because there were some jerks that pissed me off. And I went into my thoughts about what had happened, and I took risks. I did have an editor, a good editor, Alan Noran was helping me.
And the more risks I took, and the more I relayed my fear or my anger or my sadness, the more people would write and go, “I felt exactly that. Thank you for saying that because I felt so alone thinking I was in the same situation. I was kicking myself for even telling myself that in my head”. And I never got anybody saying “You’re a bitch for saying that.” Which would surprise me because I read it later. I was like, “Wow, maybe I shouldn’t have said that!”
So where are you going from here? So you’re working on the memoir?
Yeah, and I’m gonna put it out for beta readers to get some feedback, and to help market it. Because, for writers, it’s awesome to have a group of people who will preread the book when it’s not quite done yet to create some excitement, and also to give feedback. Because your editor’s awesome, like you get your developmental editor, which is what Linda Joy is doing for me now, to make sure all the parts of the story are there, and that I’m going deep and creating connection.
But then your beta readers who read the story – and they can say, I was bored here, or I didn’t quite understand what you’re talking about here – and they can help you make a better story. And so you can ask those readers … when your book is published, you can ask those readers to review your book immediately when it comes out. And so there, on day one, if you do it right, you’ve got 50 reviews on Amazon for your book. So that is a nice thing.
I help writers, too. I’m a writing and publishing coach, and an editor. And so it’s very hard to get my writers to put early work out, because it’s not perfect yet. And I understand, because, you know, when I first started writing – before I started getting feedback on my work that encouraged me to take risks – I was afraid too. But the writers who have revealed early work to a team of readers have gotten five-star reviews on launch day, and that has helped them sell more books. It’s a strategy.
What are some tips you have for people who might want to – maybe they’ve got a memoir inside of them – how should they start? Where should they go? What kind of resources would you recommend?
Before they publish? So I have a whole series – I’m releasing my fifth edition of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Independent Authors this month. Over the years, it’s like “fifth edition, oh my gosh.” So self-publishing is always an option.
But what I would do is I would take my best story, that story where you’re sitting around the campfire and talking to people about your travels and the crazy stuff that happens? I would take that best story and publish that.
Like on a blogger or in a magazine?
I would try toe publish it in an anthology. There are a lot of people who create anthologies. There’s A Traveler’s Tale series anthologies. There are people within the motorcycle industry – adventure motorcyclists who create anthologies.
There’s also blogging platforms like Wattpad, which is actually more for young adult. But they’re a growing platform. Actually, they’re the biggest reading platform on the Web, and they’ve been reaching out to different kinds of writers for a long time – nonfiction writers, memoir writers, travel writers haven’t been high on their lists. But it’s a great repository to point people to.
So at this point, if you go to my webpage CarlaKing.com, and you sign up for my mailing list, I have an autoresponder. This is “get my free book stories from elsewhere, on Kindle right now, and you can read my stories about China on Wattpad. And I have a link to my stories on Wattpad.
And the nice thing about being on Wattpad is that people can comment on your stories. It’s a great place to find people who want to read you, and who you can communicate with on the Wattpad platform, and maybe they’ll be your beta readers.
So in this life you’ve had of adventure motorcycle writing, adventure motorcycle writing, and other writing – what are some of your big life lessons on life? What have you learned through both the writing and the writing that stand out to you?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is to slow down. And that’s in both riding and writing – and maybe in all aspects of life, because we’re in such a hurry. And I’ve always been an advocate of “slow travel” and “slow food”, which is actually a thing.
I think it’s okay, if you have a bucket list and you want to go from Alaska to Ushuaia, and that’s your goal and that’ll make you happy, that’s fine. But when people do that, they need to realize that they’re giving up the opportunity to delve deep into a cultural place.
So I do know a guy who is going to Ushuaia. But he decided that if he never gets there, it’s okay. Because he’s learned, you know when he stops in a place and he makes a connection with the village or person or a family or just nature – so many beautiful places in nature – or he meets another traveler, and that traveler wants to go to this off-the-beaten path place, and they go together, and they have a personal connection – those are the things you don’t say no to without really missing out.
Those are the opportunities for enriching your life and going deeper. And I think that’s true for every aspect of your life, don’t you think?
Yeah, I was actually thinking about the memoir working on now – the motorcycle trip from Mexico to Canada, the Continental Divide Ride. I took over two months to do it, and I often dropped into a community for a week at times. And really, I didn’t even get on the bike. Those were some of the best moments on the trip. You know, usually with friends that I hadn’t seen in a while, in some cases of new friendships.
And it’s interesting with this pandemic too, right? We’re in this stay-in-place lifestyle right now, while the Coronavirus does its thing. And slowing down is tough. It forces you to kind of look at yourself, right? It’s like meditation. It’s easy to keep running. When you have to sit down on a pillow and just be with your thoughts – all kinds of stuff comes up!
I would recommend that, you know. I did a 10-day silent retreat – a vipassana retreat. And I realized I’m an introvert, I’m a writer. It’s easier for me than most people to just not talk for a long time. And it’s very difficult for other people.
But I had a lot of very interesting things come up during that meditation retreat. It was scary. It was really scary. Well, it was really irritating for the first couple days, because it was Vipassana, it was Goenka, and Goenka is revered. He died a couple years ago, I think. But he does retreats via video all over the world.
And he would say things like, “Breathe through your nose-trolls And I sat there, and I’d be like, “Mmmmmm”. It just took a while to get used to the vibe and sitting cross-legged. I’ve done that a lot in my life. There were people sitting in chairs as well. But trying so hard to get to this goal of dissolution.
Not disillusion, but dissolution. Like being one with the Universality, like ohmmmm, you know, mantra, “let’s be one with the universe.” And what does that mean?
Of course, were one with the universe – but to dissolve. And I did have that experience on the fourth day of the complete molecular dissolution, which was amazing. And of course, then that became a goal. “Oh, I want to do that again.” So you’re like, making that a goal. And that’s exactly the wrong thing to do.
There was this really interesting incident, and it the value of being okay with being alone – I think this illustrates it – because once lunch would happen, everybody would go and get lunch. It was a buffet. And there were people who really weren’t obeying the silence thing. They were making hand signals to each other, which is communicating. And the whole deal is not to communicate.
So I learned to – right away at lunchtime I would go the lake. It was snowing. It was up in the Yosemite area. I’d go to the lake and I would sit for a little while, and just breathe and look at the lake and enjoy walking around it.
And I sat down on a log and these two coyotes came within a foot of me to come drink at the lake. It’s as if I wasn’t there at all. I mean, think about that. I was invisible to them. I felt completely invisible to them. And I’m convinced that I was invisible to them, because I had dissolved. And I really belonged there.
And then from that I was thinking “We belong everywhere.” And I have been criticized for this and I will be again. But I’ll say it. I don’t believe in borders. I don’t think there should be borders. I mean, animals don’t have borders. We’re putting up fences and killing animals because they can’t get through to an environment that sustains them. Environmental refugees … there are more environmental refugees in the world than there are any other kind of refugees combined.
What he exactly you mean by an “environmental refugee”? Like escaping …
People who can’t farm. They can’t eat. They can’t get water. They keep having to walk farther and farther away to get water. They don’t have access to food because the environment is being degraded, because some company from Canada has gone to South America and taken over all the farms, and made them one big factory farm instead of their highly sustainable family farm.
So coming back around to the writing … other lessons you’ve gotten from writing and writing? Big ones.
The lessons are the same. I think the more personal you get, the more you reveal yourself honestly, the more truth that you tell, the more connection you make. This is an era of the selfies, looking good and trying to impress people with where you are and what you’re wearing, “here I am with my friends at this club”
It’s debilitating to young people. We’ve heard that a lot, because they don’t realize that this is not real, right? This is a filtered existence. Which is why I think it’s still important to write the truth and not to say, “Hey, that I had this great trip through China. It was awesome. This trip to China, I saw so many cool things and things that nobody ever saw before in your life. And I’m the one who saw it. And it was amazing.”
It’s not that “I was scared and depressed and lonely.”
So how do you pull those out and get them on paper? Some people, I think, have a way to do that pretty easily; it’s sort of their natural languaging. It’s an innate ability they have. But for some people, pulling that out can be mind-blowingly challenging.
I think it’s been mind-blowingly challenging. I think it’s been easy for me because I’ve been a lifelong journaler, and a journalist, and a writer by trade – marketing and technical and all that. And it has been incredibly frightening, they say, “To bleed all over the page.”
Writing is easy. All you do is take out a knife, bleed all over the page – Hemingway said that, or somebody. And embarrassing and I don’t think it’s easy for anybody. I’ve never heard anybody say that writing is easy.
It comes easier to some people than others. It comes easier to loners, people who are willing to spend that time and exploration of their emotional state – because it is difficult. It’s looking in a mirror. You take the makeup off, take off the filter.
So Carla … boundaries in writing. This is something I’ve experienced in life. Sometimes when there’s boundaries, it actually makes it easier to go in deeper. And I’ve heard this from other people to. By setting some boundaries. It gives you focus. But what’s your experience with boundaries and writing?
Boundaries in personal relationships are good too. Like once you say something, you can never unsay it. It comes to mind because we were talking about that before.
And kids need boundaries. I have lots of nieces and nephews, and I’ve witnessed them with their friends. And my family put boundaries around their kids, and I could see that they were happier and less confused than kids that didn’t have boundaries. They knew where the line was.
And I think for writing groups, it’s really important to have boundaries. I think it helps people be more constructive and kind. Like our writing group, we have boundaries. You know, be nice. And we have these in Facebook groups too where the moderator is, “Be nice. Be respectful. No hateful political statements.”
That kind of thing doesn’t always work on social media. But I think in a group like the virtual travel writing group, and any great groups, when there are boundaries, it makes it safer for everybody, doesn’t it?
It does. It brings sort of a common North Star in some ways. But it also helps you know where to play. Like “Okay, here’s the space. Here’s the landscape. It ends here. But in here where this container is, we can go deep now, because we know that were being held by this container.”
I wonder if it could apply to writing too – the process of writing. To have some boundaries in a book like “Well, I’m not gonna go there, but I will go there.” Does it help you hold the structure of the book better?
Oh, absolutely. I mean that’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography – the story of your life versus a moment in your life. Like Ted Simon right now is writing his autobiography. He’s publishing a chapter to his list a week. I think he committed to doing that. And so that’s his autobiography. But his other books have been memoirs.
So you have to contain it. And then, like I’m writing China Road right now. So is it going to be a travel story where I go “Lottie dah, here I am on this travel, the great travel story. It’s amazing. Everything’s great. Here’s what it looks like to be in China.”
So if I were going to write that kind of book, and I have been writing those kinds of stories with the boundary of relaying what it’s like to be a woman alone on an unreliable motorcycle in China, illegally. And that doesn’t go deep into my mental state or the state of my relationships or the state of my fears. It tells you what it would be like. And so that’s a boundary.
And sometimes, you when you’re writing for an anthology, you have the boundary of 3000 words. You gotta pack a lot into those words. And that the hardest to do, when you have fewer words and to make an impact? And that’s sometimes where your most powerful writing can come out, because you have to pare everything down to its essence, and forget about those flowery big words that you are in love with. They say in writing, “Kill your darlings.” The sentences, and the words and the paragraphs you’re most in love with – is “kill them” because they’re only interesting to you.
I remember when I wrote my book From Grief to Grace, my first draft was 135,000 words. And it covered both the Grand Canyon trip and the Continental Divide Ride. So the first decision was “all right, there’s two books here.” So lets cut off the CDR; that’ll be book number two.
So by setting that boundary and then I still had 70,000 words. And it’s like I’ve got to get this down to 35 or 40. And you and you know, 10, 12, 14 drafts later, it was there.
Really, what’d it end up being?
I think it’s around 40,000.
That’s a good read. I mean memoirs are usually around 80 – I think 60 to 80, or even longer. But boundaries can be bad. You’ve heard of people pushing the boundaries like Erin Hunter pushes the boundaries of speed, right? The land-speed record, and those are good boundaries to push – physical boundaries.
Well as far as breaking rules, right? First learned the rules and then go break them.
Right. I learned this when I went to France, and I went to the Picasso Museum and the (Ask Carla what this is) Fourth Reandes Mont in Paris. And you enter the museum, and you’re in his early days. And his paintings look exactly like everybody else’s paintings. They’re realism.
It’s a tall building; it’s four stories tall. And as you go up the stairs, you can see him creating his own style and breaking the rules. And by the fourth story, you know he’s got two faces in one face, and you can see it sideways and flat at the same time. And it’s just incredible.
You know, a beginner can’t do that. You could see him following the rules and figuring out what rules to break. I mean an experienced artist in any medium is just a pleasure to follow through their path.
Like Wallace Stegner, for instance, our poet laureate, his books. He’s an environmental writer, novelist, thinking of his book, One of my favorite books of all time …
I was just thinking of Georgia O’Keefe too. She started off, I think, doing realistic stuff. And then just really went off on the beautiful work she does.
The boundaries I was speaking of before are like borders. Which is why I don’t like borders. Those air boundaries based on greed – keeping people out, usually. Don’t come into my space. Keeping people in, keeping people down, keeping people from sharing, or even living.
Yeah, so those boundaries are ripe to be broken. We’ve all, in adventure motorcycling, stood for hours, being grilled and tracked. I mean, the whole tracking of humans these days is dehumanizing.
Now, when I just got back from Thailand, I had to put my fingers on fingerprint machines. And my face was photographed six times between the time I left Chiang Mai and got back to the U.S. Like, why are you tracking me?
You know, it’s the bad players that ruin it for the rest of us, I guess, on one hand. But somehow I used to think that after a certain period of adjustment, that there would be more social consequences for bad bad behavior that would just as easily keep people from acting out as all of these draconian laws that keep us all down, these boundaries that keep us all down and keep us in place and tracked.
I’d love to see society replace government in that role. But that’s really a radical – not new – but a radical thought. And I have said it before. And it was so crazy, because I got this review on American Borders on Amazon. And it was this person who said, “Well, I’ve never read this book. But I heard from my friend who read it that the author doesn’t believe in boundaries. And so I’m giving this book of one star review.
Oh my gosh!
Any other thoughts before we close this? Give us some information about your boot camp, your next book, where people can follow you …
People can follow me at CarlaKing.com And that also points to my self-publishing site: https://selfpubbootcamp.com/ and DestinationPublished.com DestinationPublished is my brand for helping people on the publishing journey, and sometimes the writing journey.
I’m doing more and more editing for travel writers. That would not be copy editing – well, some copy editing, but more developmental editing, doing the kind of work that I’m talking about, doing myself right? Advising how to put people in your shoes.
And then I have the travel writers group that I hope people will join. There’s, both very, very skilled and very well-published travel writers there and also beginning travel writers.
I’ll put in my two cents on that. I’m in that group and I really like it a lot. It’s a rich, international group of people that are helping each other out in great ways.
Yeah, and the feedback is very gentle and kind. In fact, I think the feedback – you get what you want when you write at the top, “I want gentle feedback” or “just rip this apart because I’m querying National Geographic Magazine on this next week”. Right?
So I do think the travel writing group is very respectful and a kind group to be in.
And, yeah, my books are at CarlaKing.com.
And I just took a position as Business Development Director at the San Francisco Writers Conference. It’s something that I’ve been doing a little bit of for the past 15 years. I’ve been teaching Writing for the Web, and using self-publishing services and all that. And I’ve been bringing in technology sponsors for self-publishing for the Writers Conference.
And I have to say a writer’s conference is, if you want to be a writer or if you are a writer, it’s a really important to choose one and go. I just slipped in to the Writer’s Conference in February before the shutdown happened. And so that was the 2020 San Francisco Writers Conference. And hopefully the 2021 version be a physical event. But, if it’s not, we’ll be ready for it to be a virtual event.
And take advantage of all the virtual events happening right now. I’m maintaining a list of free virtual events for writers as well. And I’ll put that on CarlaKing.com, because I don’t have that on there yet. And I encourage everybody to get out and go deep. Slow travel, slow food, slow relationships,
Those … relationships.
Yeah, it’s a tough time in the world. I think we’re seeing a rubber band effect with gender equality and racial equality right now. And environmental equality and opportunity equality. It’s all worth talking about and trying to practice.
I do have three questions here from other people that I want to read, and then we’ll close out. The first question is from a woman named Tammy. She asks, “What motorcycle skills are the most important to focus on?
You know, it’s so funny, because I started as a kid, right? And I thought it was such a great motorcyclist. And then somebody suggested that I go take a beginners dirt bike class. And I’m like, “I’ve been dirt” and then I went, “Yeah, okay, fine. I’ll do it.” And got on I think it was 100 cc Honda of some sort. And I discovered I’ve been doing everything wrong.
I’m putting my weight on the wrong side when I’m going along a hill and all of that. I think dirt bike skills and taking a dirt bike class, no matter where you are in your experience level of motorcycling, would be the number one thing that you could do. Because it’s helped my road biking skills as well. It’s really sharpen them.
So weight distribution is huge and leaning is huge. And leaning is difficult, learning to lean. It’s scary because well, of course, with dual sport bikes, you often have knobby tires, and there’s that slip point … so you can go too far.
But if you have a road bike, you can often lean a lot farther than you think. Take a class on that, too. I want to recommend – what is it? – Street Masters with Walt Fulton and his partner. It’s a great class to take.
California to, and in Idaho, I believe, have advanced motorcycle skills classes that you can sign up for that – I don’t know if they’re sponsored by the state or what?
But I remember I took one in Idaho, and it might have saved my life. I took the advanced riding course. You know, I learned to brake, and learned about “the patch”, right? Always the patch. And vectors and all of that.
And I was riding along at 70 miles an hour on Highway 75 north of Ketchum. And I looked in my rear view mirror for just a second. And in that moment an antelope jumped from the side of the road and landed right smack in front of me, and I hit it head on.
There was a sharp pain in my left foot. I’m looking forward. And I don’t see anything. But the bike is lurching and wanting to drop to the left side. And all of that stuff I’d learned in that advanced course to sort of “popped up” to the top. Like “okay, keep going in a straight line. Don’t do anything to fall off that vector that’s wanting to go straight.” And fortunately I had a clear patch of road in front of me; there’s nothing I had to watch out for.
The antelope had actually gotten caught up in the rear wheel of the bike and locked it up. So we were skidding – the antelope, the bike and I were skidding down the road at 70 miles an hour. It came off the bike. And the throttle had got stuck on high.
So all of a sudden – new problem! The bike starts taking off. And I’m like, “OK, new problem.” And the brain’s going “Alright. Do I turn the key off? No, If I do that, I won’t have control of the handlebars. Do I pull in on the clutch? No, because the engine would just rev all the way up and maybe blow up. That would be a problem.”
And then it was like “Kill switch!” The kill switich. And so I hit it, you know, and it shut down all the electronics. And I rolled to a stop, got off the bike – what was kind of left of it. And I felt myself go into shock.
Anyway, the long story short, that advanced motorcycle course really made a difference. I highly recommend it.
Yeah. India was my only accident. I hit a dog in India and … so far fingers crossed, that’s it. I have a story about that in my Stories from Elsewhere book. That’s the free one on Amazon.
The next question is what’s on your wish list of places to ride some day?
You know, I went to Thailand in November. It was my first trip to Southeast Asia, and I’m really dying to go back there. But I’ve never ridden in Australia, and I’d love to ride in Australia. I have a few friends there, and I think I could pull it off. So I think that’s it.
And Crystal asks. “I’m curious about the safety of riding in Africa.
Well, I did choose a bicycle to ride on. It’s a funny story. You know Chris Scott, right? The adventure motorcycle guy? He actually does bicycles and 4x4s. He’s famous in the adventure motorcycling world, and he still gives tours. He’s based, I think, in Idaho now, but he’s from the UK. And I think he takes people under bike trips to Morocco, and places like that.
And he’s written books on how to ride in remote places, 4x4s and motorcycles. And I had queried him years ago by mail about riding a bicycle versus motorcycle through West Africa. And, with him, I decided to ride a bicycle because what I learned from him and from others – and this was in 1992-93 is that gas was not readily available there. And I couldn’t really go off the beaten path, and it just wouldn’t be able to do it. So that’s why I took the bicycle.
Now I did get malaria there. And if my brother hadn’t been there at the time, I could have died from it. He gave me the medication and got help from a missionary. But that was long ago. And I think there aren’t the risks today that there were in the early nineties when I went. Because truly there was no Internet.
Well, everybody knew where I was, because there was this “pink girl” – a white girl with white hair – riding a bicycle. And everybody knew where I was; I wouldn’t have been hard to trace. The dangers weren’t from muggings or sexual attacks or anything like that. It was purely, maybe, exhaustion or disease.
Yeah, and I think a lot of people ride through Africa now, ride motorcycles. I just finished Jo Russ’s book about her trip around Africa. It’s pretty fun. There are a lot of tours now as well. But I think during that trip I saw a couple of Germans on motorcycles, and those are the only other foreigners I saw except for Peace Corps people.
Okay, here’s the last question. If you could put one big statement on a billboard for your advice to the world, what would it be?
I think it would have to be “Slow Down.” Subtitle “in every way” Slow Down: In Every Way. Slow down because people would, you know, be speeding by in their cars and think it’s a speed limit message. Slow down, pay attention.
Drop in internally.
Right. And externally with people. Like I said, slow journeys take time with conversations. So many conversations are one-sided. Somebody wants to get the information out. And that’s what I appreciate you, Doug, is that you take that time to go, “What did you mean by that?”
You know, and asking questions during conversations and slowing it down and going deeper. With a new friend, an old friend and especially in a relationship – it’s so much more satisfying. Just like slow conversation over slow food.
Carla, thank you so much for your time today and your insights.
Doug, Thank you.
This is Doug Greene with What Really Matters Interv9iews. And this has been a great interview with Carla King. You can see more about her at CarlaKing.com and other websites which will be listed in the show notes. Take care