Lowell Thomas Awards Announced for the Best Travel Journalism of the Year

"57 Feet and Rising," by W. Hodding Carter, won gold for U.S./Canada Travel Article. Photo: Christopher LaMarca

If you're looking for a great longread, the Society of American Travel Writers just announced the winners of their annual Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition. The awards recognize the best stories published between Spring 2011 and Spring 2012. Outside received four nods in three categories. Those stories, about everything from W. Hodding Carter's attempt to canoe a flooded Mississippi River to Eric Hansen's investigation into the hunt for a rare Himalayan aphrodisiac, are listed below with the judges' accompanying comments. Jill Schensul of The Record in northern New Jersey won the Grand Award as the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year for writing about trips that ranged from Niagara Falls to Colombia. Outside contributor Christian DeBenedetti won gold for guidebooks with The Great American Ale Trail.

Gold: W. Hodding Carter, “57 Feet and Rising,” Outside
You don’t expect a travel article to emerge from something as horrific as the Great Flood of 2011. Nor do you expect a travel writer to have to risk being shot to gather information for a story, but that’s what happened when W. Hodding Carter illegally paddled 300 miles from Memphis to Vicksburg to see the effects of the devastating flood. A native of the delta, Carter grew up with a healthy respect and fear for the Mississippi River, and his story illustrates through description and interviews just how devastating the flood was and just how resilient the people who live along the river have to be. This is a thrilling story that puts the reader (safely) in the middle of one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in U.S. history.

Silver: Ryan Knighton, “Riding Blind,” Outside
This is a story about a deaf man teaching a blind man how to surf, but it’s also a more universal story of man’s need to take risks. Ryan Knighton sums it up succinctly: “...white canes and Braille can’t cure the most dangerous side effect of my condition: the terminal malaise of keeping safe. Blindness is so bloody boring.” He takes us along for the ride, literally, and we laugh and catch our breath as he actually learns to surf. It’s a great mix of personal accomplishment, travel writing and humor. A joy to read.  

Gold: Eric Hansen, “The Killing Fields,” Outside

“The Killing Fields,” by Eric Hansen, takes us to current day Nepal. It is a trip that Hansen carefully researches, seeking to separate rumors from facts while preparing for multiple visits into the Lost Valley. He follows the mysterious death and suspected murder of seven young men in the remote Nepalese village of Nar. Additionally, he looks into the two-year delayed trial and evidence surrounding a turf war over a rare mushroom known as yarchagumba, which “looks like a shriveled brown chile pepper and is coveted as an aphrodisiac and medicinal cure-all.” He helps readers visualize this “summer grass, winter worm” mold writing that “it forms when a parasitic fungus invades the burrowing larva of a ghost moth, transforms the vital organs into a cobweb-like mess, and then sends up a wispy sprout through the dead insect’s head.” Before you think this is more akin to science fiction than a Peter Falk Lt. Columbo detective scene, think again. Hansen travels the Himalayas highlighting the questionable judicial system, world market legal trade and black-market deals to smuggle yarchagumba. He traces the trade in it from the villages in Tibet, India, Bhutan and Nepal to ... “high-class dinner parties in Beijing (where) yarchagumba has reportedly replaced Champagne as the preferred gift.” During the six-week harvesting season, a Nepali can earn upwards of $1,500. Hansen writes, “Thanks to a spike in global demand, mostly by Asian men looking to enhance their virility, a pound of yarchagumba now sells for as much as $50,000—more than the price of gold.” Eric Hansen earns the gold for taking readers along on this magnificent journey to Nepal while demonstrating excellence in reporting and writing. 

Gold: Joshua Hammer, “Shark Bait,” Outside

This is SATW’s Year of the Shark, at least in this category. Of the entries about sharks, Joshua Hammer’s piece about shark attacks worldwide is the best combination of reporting, writing and appropriate topic. He is thorough with in-depth reporting of the causes and effects of the attacks, the environmental angles and their impact on tourism. His experience in South Africa and those of others he recounts also make excellent adventure reading.

For the full list of awards and the judges comments go to SATWF.com.

—Joe Spring

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