Were you born to explore? Do you attribute curiosity to nature or nurture?
Mark Chesnut‘s obsession with all things travel began at a very early age. But he was also blessed to have an inspiring role model.
Mark has now been a travel journalist for more than 20 years and owns his travel “addiction” from the prologue of his recently published memoir, Prepare for Departure. The urge to explore has taken him all over the world; seen his words published in Fodor’s, HuffPost, the Miami Herald and Passport Magazine, among many others; and won him the NLGJA Excellence in Travel Writing Award in 2019.
And yet the book primarily covers a time that required Mark to stay still, while caring for his ailing mother in 2015. Through flashbacks we revisit Mark’s relationship with his mom and his love of exploration.
IQ interviews Mark Chesnut about Prepare for Departure and his life as a travel writer:
IQ: In Chapter 1 of “Prepare for Departure” you credit your mom, Eunice, with giving you the “travel bug.” How did she do that?
Mark: My mother was a great role model as a traveler because she always prioritized travel as a way to learn and to stay connected with family. I grew up in the town of Brockport, in western New York State, but our family was from Kentucky, and so we traveled to the Bluegrass State at least three times a year for the first 17 years of my life. That really got me into the groove of traveling, exploring new places and experiencing the excitement of travel. I was hooked at a very early age!
“You could lose just about everything in life: your money, your job, your relationship. But no one can take away the memories of the places you’ve visited,” is one of my favorite passages in the book. You go on to discuss documenting these travel memories with a “personal route map.” What does that look like and are you still documenting all your trips now that you are constantly traveling?
I do still document all my travels on a route map — although I’ve had to redraw the map several times, since my first personal route map focused just on the United States. My current personal route map is still hand-drawn (I haven’t found an app or program that works yet) and it looks like a big mess now, since I travel so much. But I always keep it up to date; it’s part of who I am, and I have memories associated with every city and every route that I’ve drawn on it.
As a young boy you imagined yourself the CEO of an airline–Chesway Global–with exciting features like concerts in the sky. If Chesway Global had been a real airline and one that still existed, what are some of the innovations that you’d be implementing now?
It would actually be easier to wow passengers today, because airlines don’t compete on service as much as they did before deregulation, and so there isn’t much creativity in the air. Chesway Global’s dancing flight attendants would make just as big an impression today as they would have in the 1970s. But of course Chesway Global today would also feature the latest technology, like increased inflight connectivity, plus super luxurious first-class suites on long-distance flights.
After college, when I restarted my obsession with air travel, I actually invented another airline that isn’t mentioned in Prepare for Departure because we don’t really cover that time of my life in the book. It’s called Luxuriana Airlines, and its innovations reflected the things that were important to me when I was in my early twenties: dark, nightclub-style lighting onboard and inflight drag shows, LGBTQ-friendly flight crews and free passes to LGBTQ clubs in every city that Luxuriana served. Something like that could definitely work today, as well. The airline industry has made a lot of progress when it comes to equality and diversity and representation, but they still need to improve the quality of the inflight experience and up the creativity. I think my airline group would be a leader in that.
Road trips played an important role in your youth. I know people love road trips but I am not one of them. How do you feel about road trips now as an adult and what’s your favorite mode of transportation?
I definitely get more excited about air travel; it takes you further and faster. It’s the easiest way to reach far-off destinations and experience different cultures. Plus, even with all the present-day hassles, there’s still something glamorous and enticing about air travel — the visuals of the painted planes, the sometimes-attractive uniforms, the airport design.
Having said that, I still do enjoy the occasional road trip, because it evokes memories of my childhood, and also provides access to so many lesser-known destinations along the way. You never know who you might encounter when you’re on the road. Also, when you’re taking a road trip with a friend or family member, it’s one of the best opportunities to really have in-depth conversations. You don’t get that on a plane, since we’re all too busy watching inflight movies.
I really love rail travel too, but sadly that’s only available in a few places in the world. Trains can provide the best of both air and road travel — comfortable seating and accommodations as well as great views along the way. I wish there were more rail options in the United States and in other countries.
You undoubtedly had a very special relationship with your mother. While reading your book I kept on thinking of a line from an Off-Broadway play in which my boyfriend performed, “Daniel’s Husband” by Michael McKeever: “Gay sons are the best. They’re the most attentive. The most caring. They’re sensitive to your needs and loving in a way that few people are.” As a gay man who is very close to his mom, I think many of us do have very special bonds with our mothers. Why do you think that is and to what do you attribute your connection to your mom?
Obviously it’s not always 100% true, but in general I do think we gay men are more likely than the average kid to form a close bond with our mothers. Perhaps we have more in common with them. Also, I think that gay men may feel more comfortable expressing emotion and affection with their mothers, even as adults. Many straight sons feel pressured to limit their emotions as they get older.
In my case, my strong connection with my mother was largely because it was just the two of us in the household; my father died when I was four and my sister left for college when I started kindergarten. So it was a two-person household and we shared a lot. I picked up so many interests from her, like reading, writing, travel and a sharp sense of humor, so we had all that in common. But she always gave me space; time alone and time to decide my own course for my life, which I appreciate. Even though that freedom encouraged me to go off on my own, it also ultimately brought us closer together.
In the book you talk about trying “to catch the eye of handsomely besuited road warriors while wandering the lushly carpeted corridors of the Cordial Court Motor Inn near Columbus, Ohio” at 14 years old–which luckily for everyone, never came to fruition. Does adult Mark still have a businessman fetish? And–aside from your handsome husband, of course–whose eye would you most want to catch?
I can’t say I have a businessman fetish, no — and I don’t think I did then, either. I probably would have gone for anyone who gave me a second look! But I was definitely attracted to what those anonymous traveling businessmen represented — the glamor of travel, even if it was just a heavily carpeted motel in Columbus, Ohio, and also the idea of being an independent traveler who might have fun on the road, like James Bond always did in the movies I watched.
In terms of whose eye I’d like to catch now, wow, I’d have to give it a lot of thought. But to put it back in the hotel setting, there are certainly a lot of very handsome hotel staff members and entertainment staff at a lot of the hotels I visit. I guess it’s not just Ohio that makes me horny; it’s travel in general!
Your own travel blog–LatinFlyer.com–focuses on LGBTQ travel to Latin America. What is it about this region that entices you?
LatinFlyer.com actually focuses on all different kinds of travel to Latin America, including LGBTQ travel. I started focusing on the region early on during my travel writing career, partially because at one time I was the only editor who spoke Spanish on the staff of the magazine where I worked full time. I love visiting and writing about Latin America. It’s such a vast and diverse region, and every country is unique, so you can find just about any climate or ambiance you like.
Plus, in Latin America, with just one language you can connect with local people in 18 different countries, and really get to know the culture. You can’t do that in Europe, Asia or Africa — you can certainly use English to a certain extent to communicate in many places around the world if you don’t speak the local language, but it’s not the same. You’d have to learn something like two dozen languages to be able to speak to locals in their own tongue in every country in Europe. In Latin America, if you know Spanish, Portuguese and French (depending on your destination), you’re good to go.
I know this is a difficult question to answer sometimes because there are so many fantastic places in the world, but what are your top 3 favorite places to visit and why?
It’s always difficult to name a favorite destination because I generally find something to like about almost every place I visit, and my list of favorites is also dependent on what mood I’m in or what kind of experience I’m looking for. I can say that some of the places that appear toward the top of my personal favorites most consistently are Mexico City, South Africa and New Orleans. Each of those destinations are so unique and special. It would take another article to go into all that I love about them.
Besides your travel writing, is there another large writing project on your horizon?
Writing Prepare for Departure and getting it published was a process that took several years, so I’m only now starting to go through notes and ideas for what might be another book. It’s super helpful to hear from readers about what they liked about my book and what they related to the most – that’s helping me to determine what my next project might be. Keep those comments coming, and stay tuned!