"Not all who wander are lost." -- J.R.R. Tolkien


The Sacramento Bee Speaks with Joe Cummings

Road to Travel Writing Smooth for Trailblazer

By Janet Fullwood, Bee Travel Editor, 8/8/1999

If Joe Cummings were writing novels instead of travel guidebooks, the world would know his name.

His best-selling book, "Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit" (published by Lonely Planet), has sold more than 1 million copies and been translated into a half-dozen languages. Legions of travelers - many of them budgeteers touring with backpacks and minimal funds - loyally follow his word on where to eat, sleep and play. Entire neighborhoods of Bangkok have been transformed as a result of his recommendations.

And it's not just Thailand that has been influenced by Cummings, and vice versa: The lanky 46-year-old has authored some 32 travel guidebooks, and co-authored several more. His current titles include four volumes on Mexico and one on Texas (all published by Chico-based Moon Publications), plus additional guides on Bangkok, Laos and Burma for Australia-based Lonely Planet. All exhibit the author's hallmark ability to get beneath the surface of a destination and provide insights on cultural expression - from boxing in Thailand to bullfighting in Mexico to Tejano music in Texas - that travelers would be unlikely to uncover on their own.

So how does one become a professional travel trailblazer?

The lifestyle comes naturally to Cummings, who's been on the move all his life.

The son of an Army officer and a mother who loved to travel, Cummings grew up in Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and France. Introduced to Asia through a post-college Peace Corps assignment in Thailand, he came back to roost in Berkeley, where he took a master's degree from the University of California in Southeast Asian studies, with concentrations in Thai language and Asian art history.

Somewhere along the way, in the late 1970s, Cummings picked up a couple of travel books from a new publishing company, Lonely Planet. He liked what he saw: "This was the first time I'd read a guidebook that really spoke to me and the way I like to travel."

He wrote the company, pitching a Thailand guide. They gave him the job.

"I stayed two months and wrote the book in three weeks on a typewriter," Cummings recalls. "It was 128 pages long. I thought, 'OK, I've found it; this is going to be it for me.' "

And it has been. Since that first tome on Thailand, Cummings has put his research and linguistic skills to work on many other projects, giving meaning and depth to his peripatetic lifestyle. The Thailand guide, first published in 1982, is now in its eighth edition. At one time, the book was No. 7 on the Publisher's Weekly best-seller list, ahead of "A Year in Provence." Sales passed the 1 million mark two years ago.

"In the entire realm of guidebooks, it's one of the biggest," the author modestly acknowledges.

Cummings' "Mexico Handbook," for Chico-based Moon Publications, is biggest in anther way: At 1,450 pages, the first edition was the fattest guidebook ever published in the English language. The newest edition is a still-hefty 1,100 pages thick.

With 20 years of guidebook writing behind him, Cummings has turned the art of travel research into a fastidiously organized science. He speaks softly, dresses modestly and travels with a small duffel bag and an over-the-shoulder carry-on, blending in wherever he goes. He takes notes on a tape recorder, transcribing his observations into a notebook every night, while the images are still fresh. His considerable language skills are often brought into play: Cummings speaks fluent Thai, Lao and Spanish, and "rusty" (by his own description) Chinese, Burmese and French.

Married for almost two decades, the author frequently is accompanied by his wife, Lynne, while on the road. An interior designer who for years held down the home fort near San Francisco, she recently pulled up stakes to work as her husband's editorial assistant. The couple divides time between Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Todos Santos, in Mexico's Baja California Sur, where they are building a home.

From hot, steamy rain forest to hot, dry desert, both thrive on the contrast in extremes. Just don't fence them in.

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