How I Travel: Don Wildman

Don Wildman: Tireless Explorer

Don Wildman crisscrossed the globe as the host of the History Channel’s Cities of the Underworld. During its three-year run, the show filmed in over fifty cities across five continents. Along the way, Don went underground to visit ancient Grecian aqueducts, tombs of the pharaohs, and the churches of Ethiopian saints. Don is currently the host and narrator of Off Limits, Mysteries at the Museum, and Monumental Mysteries on the Travel Channel.

My parents subscribed to the idea that travel should be cheap and involve the woods.

I didn’t stay in a hotel or board a jetliner until I was a teenager. In the days when gas was 25 cents a gallon, we drove everywhere and stayed in campgrounds, preferably ones with clean bathrooms (but that never stopped us). I remember the day my Dad bought our Nimrod tent-trailer from some guy for $300 and a handshake. I can still see that “things are never gonna be the same again” look in my Dad’s eye.

I remember the day my Dad bought our Nimrod tent-trailer from some guy for $300 and a handshake.

Boom, we were off.

I inherited my father’s ordered, pared-down priorities.

For him, it was about packing. He arranged the trunk of the car as a system of honeycombed grocery bags. Into these bags went all non-perishable food and clothing and if it didn’t fit, it didn’t go. I do the same now with my suitcase or duffel. To me, travel means freedom. Freedom means lack of burden. I travel a lot in my work and each time I go I try to leave something else behind. One day it’ll be the suitcase itself…and then I’ll finally be a happy, if incomplete man.

A portrait of a happy man

I prefer to feel as if I’m not traveling at all.

Wherever I am, I try to immerse, as if I live in the place I’m visiting even if I don’t know the place, any people, or the language. I’ll arrive and take a few walks just to get myself nice and lost. When I’ve found my way back to the hotel, I know the streets better than any guidebook could tell me.

To me, travel means freedom. Freedom means lack of burden.

The misconception about travel is that we need to know so much.

We just don’t. We need to know what makes us happy and opens our minds. We need to understand culture. That our lives are more than four walls, a driveway, and a backyard. Sometimes that takes one Paris arrondissement, not six and not every landmark in the guidebook either.

Sometimes it’s not using a guidebook at all.

My strongest travel influence is Bruce Chatwin or anyone who enjoys getting into trouble when traveling.

It’s the glitches that make you remember life and, certainly, travel – the attempts that failed, the trains you missed, the lines you didn’t stand in.

In this regard, I don’t think there’s much difference between travel and life. If you head into both expecting a good time any way it goes, you’re already enjoying yourself.

All of that is easy to say, though, when you wanted to see the Uffizi, got up too late and missed your chance…

A painful memory.

Don under Coptic Cairo

When I’m working I travel constantly.

When working on Cities of the Underworld, we piled up 4-6 trips onto each other for budget reasons. I’ve gone from Ethiopia to Egypt to Turkey to Australia in one 8-week swing.

I believe that I should emerge from any journey having drunk much wine with many women late at night, danced to frenzied music on river barges or wandered the dusty stacks of old, un-touristed book stores.

So work for me is travel, and vice versa. Thus, if I still want to call myself a “traveler” – and I do – I have to be determined to get mine, nonetheless. So I’ve gotten better and better about grabbing a day here and there to slip off with no one in-tow . I do this by train, scooter, or bicycle. Not car. I just go to see stuff if and where I can find it.

I am a terrible romantic about travel.

I believe that I should emerge from any journey having drunk much wine with many women late at night, danced to frenzied music on river barges or wandered the dusty stacks of old, un-touristed book stores.

Basically I’d like to be traveling in a movie with Audrey Hepburn. Alas, this is not available to me so I must set my expectations a bit lower, especially on my schedule.

When I arrive in a new place, the first thing I do is find a cafe, library, or park in which to write letters to important people in my life.

I have a binder filled with personal stationery, and I head to this location at some off-peak moment to sit down with a beer and jot things down. There is simply no better way for me to absorb the world around me than to record it for others. It forces me to take things in.

But the best part of this exercise is finishing the letters then walking them to a post office to stand in line with the local population and buy stamps. And off they go. I love the fact that somewhere in the United States my friends are receiving pieces of paper I sent to them in foreign lands. Just as radio is still utterly mysterious to me, Air Mail can make my day.

My travel style is loose.

I want to feel like I’m not traveling. I’m never going to see or do everything in the world (or the guidebook), so best to concentrate on what matters most to me.

I’m never going to see or do everything in the world (or the guidebook), so best to concentrate on what matters most to me.

Criteria? That which makes me grow. I figure I can suss a place out in about three days’ time. One, to walk around, two, to see some sights, three days to feel like I live there. Then I can leave, preferably in my own cabin on a train. Which reminds me…

Always travel in “3’s.”

Three is the magic number for everything in my life. Probably has to do with the Trinity or something. As applied to travel, the Rule of Three is incredibly efficient. You’ll never understand a place for real in one or two days but you could in three. Same goes for hours. Break up your day in blocks of three’s and you’ll always have enough time to enjoy anything and still manage several different experiences. But not too many! Less is more – in travel and life. Pack your suitcase in 3’s and you’ll have just enough clothing but not too much. If you do a load of laundry every three days it’s nothing but fun (coin laundromats get you very, very local).

Don with an Ethiopian pal

It saddens me when people have unoriginal experiences, when things are packaged.

Then again, I don’t have a workaday career or limited vacation time. If I did I might want more guaranteed pleasure.

But I see Americans piling off of buses or gathered in groups in hotel lobbies and wonder if they’re getting much of what it was they thought they paid for.

I like to listen to local radio.

Television is worthless in any land as it is the bland-same as sitting in my own home. CNN, BBC, and ESPN. But I can tune a transistor radio to something local and tinny and be the same as a cab driver or a kitchen worker.

I do look forward to going home.

Because if the travel was good, it makes home that much sweeter.

Don Wildman


Travel should be like life – and life like travel.

The point is, in a perfect world it should be one and the same. My everyday life with the people I know and love should be as lively and enlightening as traveling can be so automatically. But of course it’s not.

If I put enough good trips together in the years I have left, I might actually live the life I was destined for.

Sadly, I’m as bad as the next guy at living ordinary life in an extraordinary fashion. So, travel is always there to notch me up to the next level, where I ought to be living all the time. And if I put enough good trips together in the years I have left, I might actually live the life I was destined for.

“How I Travel” is a BootsnAll series publishing every Friday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors. 

all photographs provided by Don Wildman and may not be used without permission


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Older comments on How I Travel: Don Wildman

02 February 2010

Love it!! Great travel philosophy, and I can so relate to the last paragraph too. Just putting enough good trips together… (-:

02 February 2010

Nice one, I particulary like that “rule of the thirds” he said, sounds very interesting.

Stephen Bramucci
02 February 2010

A little post script on this one: I find it very interesting to look at Don, Rolf & Holly’s pieces together. They reflect three unique perspectives– part of which has something to do with the stage of life they are each in. My favorite thing about Don (his piece and the man himself) is just how tireless he is. He’s been around enough to know what “road weary” feels like– and he doesn’t act like it’s never snuck up on him…At the same time, he never lets it distract him from all the beauty. In fact, after a short spell at home, he always seems to be yearning for more adventure.

02 February 2010

I am impressed you can read a book in the back of a jeep on a dirt road.

I like the rule of three’s. I have used something similar for amount of days, and will now try to apply that to the day itself.

02 February 2010

Love the part about 3’s. Dear Bootsnall: Can you please Tweet the How I Travel articles? I almost missed this one.

02 February 2010

We do tweet the How I Travel articles! You’ll see them on both the @BootsnAll account and the fancy new @HowITravel account. 🙂

Glad you’re liking the series. We like it, too.

03 February 2010

Great article! Keep em’ coming. 🙂

Trisha Miller
03 February 2010

Don seems like such a down-to-earth person and traveler – I really feel fortunate when I find myself traveling with someone as laid back as Don sounds. I too love his philosophy of 3’s – there’s definitely something truthful and magical about it.

Really enjoying this series! I echo the others, keep ’em coming!

Bob Zwolinski
01 March 2010

I certainly miss Don’s show on NatGeo. It was stellar, well produced and incredibly educational! Sadly, it’s prime-time time-slot was replaced by crap like “Pawn Stars”. Hopefully, Don will grace the digital-TV airwaves once again… Soon, I hope…