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

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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

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

—Joe Spring

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