“As long as I’m coming from a place of initial interest with an adventure, a culture or a place, inevitably something happens that helps coalesce the story: a new character or some strange event. By the time I get back and write it up, I have that nugget of experience in my mind and I can wrap a story around it.”
Many people romanticise the notion of being a travel writer—visiting exotic destinations, soaking in beautiful landscapes and dreaming up whimsical ideas to write about—in reality it’s quite challenging and few possess the follow through to make an honest career of it.
Findlay has been immersed in travel/adventure writing since before the internet took hold and has developed a knack for discovering key elements that will bring a story to life.
Beginning With Forestry and Ski-Bumming
His experiences as a young person informed his career as a journalist and his proclivity for tales of adventure and travel. He grew up in Kamloops and, after studying business at Simon Fraser, he spent 15 years working in forestry during the summers and ski-bumming through the winters.
Today, when he’s on an assignment, he’s not only participating in the trip—be it climbing Mt. Waddington or biking in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, Guatemala—but also looking for a moment of clarity, revealing how the story will unfold. He explains that this practice is a way inside a destination or experience.
While tent-bound for 12 stormy days during a climb on Mt. Fairweather in 2012, Findlay experienced a quintessential light bulb moment. He was on assignment for BC Magazine, and being trapped inside the tent was beginning to take a psychological toll.
“I thought how am I going to spin this into a story? We haven’t been able to do anything. It was getting to the point where I was losing faith in the whole objective and I was conjuring up irrational plans to escape solo, just to get out of there,” says Findlay with a chuckle.
“We were lying in the tent at 3,000 metres in minus 35, blowing-sideways snow and we hear this incongruous sound from the environment. At first, we thought we were having some sort of hallucination, but sure enough, we heard the sound of a bird chirping.”
The climbers opened the door of the tent and found a Hermit Thrush, a bird that resides in the rainforest. The only plausible explanation is that it was caught in the jet stream and it dropped onto the glacier, thousands of kilometres away.
“I’m like ‘yes this is awesome!’ It sounds almost cliché to talk about it, but It was this metaphor for the fleeting nature of life and how vulnerable we can be,” says Findlay.
A Mouth Full of Gold and a Ten-Gallon Hat
Riding on the first mountain bike traverse of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes in Guatemala, Findlay rolls up to a person that he knows is going make the story.
“We came around a corner and there was this dude standing with a donkey. He had this great ten-gallon hat on—a colourful-looking character—and he opened his mouth with a big smile and his whole mouth was full of gold teeth.”
“There were no other people around, just this dude in the middle of nowhere. I knew right then that he was going to be the guy who started my story. He had probably more money in his mouth than he would ever make in his life,” says Findlay.
It’s these types of Aha moments Findlay keeps an eye out for while he’s on an assignment for a magazine. They don’t always come as easily as rolling up on a chap with a mouth full of gold teeth in a region with several environmentally and socially controversial gold mines. But in this case, Findlay saw immediately how the character illustrated the story he was there to capture.
Finding the Flow
“They’re not always gift-wrapped the way I’ve described these stories. I do struggle sometimes. I go to a place and I come back and I’m sifting through the whole experience and I’m trying to find that moment or that one encounter that really summarizes and focuses an idea,” explains Findlay.
But once the idea gels, Findlay finds little resistance in getting the story down.
“People talk about being in the zone when you are on the mountain while you are skiing or whatever your sport. I feel the same way in writing. When I’m in that zone, the words kind of flow without a lot of effort. That’s when I enjoy writing the most is when the story almost writes itself. You’re just a conduit for the narrative.”