Don George: Meandering Mystic

He began roaming the world as a student, progressing to travel writer, editor, writing teacher and mentor. Beloved by his students and readers, Don George is admired by fellow travel writers, too. Now a lecturer and tour leader for National Geographic Journeys and Geographic Expeditions, he has said yes to each new adventure for five decades, no matter how far off the beaten path.

At the peak of a peripatetic career when others might retire to contemplate their achievements he is still on the road, just returned from leading a tour to Japan.

He stays fit at age 70 by climbing the Oakland Rose Garden stairs near his home in intervals of ten—that’s 100 steps, 10 times, straight up. Known for his bonhomie, infectious love of discovery, and openness to people, George is renown as the former travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner and co-founder with Elaine Petrocelli of the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographer’s Conference.

He has edited 10 award-winning literary anthologies on travel, been the global travel editor for Lonely Planet, and written 700 travel articles and essays, most recently publishing a collection called The Way of Wanderlust (Travelers Tales, 2015). He counts among his confidantes and friends some of the foremost travel writers, from Pico Iyer to the late Jan Morris.

‘Don is “always tilted toward the sun, as a perpetual singer of yes to life, to fun, to innocence, to vulnerability and to surrender.” ’

Yet, despite his bona fides, George is one of the most unpretentious people I’ve ever met. Attending the 31st annual Book Passage conference where he served as master of ceremonies, I was struck by his unforced joy and boundless enthusiasm, his ability to make total strangers and aspiring travel writers feel welcome and valued.

“You must be the Santa Claus of travel,” I said, during a chance encounter at the refreshment table.

Characteristically, he broke into his famous belly laugh, his eyes crinkling. “I guess I am.”

As Pico Iyer writes in his foreword to his friend’s book, Don is “always tilted toward the sun, as a perpetual singer of yes to life, to fun, to innocence, to vulnerability and to surrender.”

Spend five minutes with him, and you’ll see this firsthand. George said simply, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve said yes to the opportunities that life presents to me to do what I love and then more opportunities come. I’ve liberated myself. I’ve learned that it’s okay to do what makes you happy. The more you acknowledge that and do it, the happier you are.”

Foreign cultures lit a mysterious inner fire in him early. After he graduated from Princeton he set out for Paris on a summer work-abroad internship, while his classmates went off to law school or prestigious Wall Street banks. Instead, George wandered the city’s boulevards and discovered the tiny alleys of Montmartre and the Marais. He walked the banks of the Seine, sat in on poetry readings in cramped bookstores and immersed himself in all things French. He had an epiphany: Paris was his classroom, not the venerable ivy-draped buildings he had imagined he would inhabit as a professor.

A year in Greece on a fellowship followed, where he explored Corinth, Crete, Rhodes and Athens. On term breaks he wandered through Italy, Turkey and Egypt, increasingly seduced by travel. He no longer wanted to become a tweedy professor. He decided to become a writer.

“That year changed my life,” he said.

He went on to win a two-year fellowship to teach at a university in Tokyo, but before he left, he submitted one of his travel articles to some New York magazine editors. A travel editor at Mademoiselle sent him a telegram a few months later telling him he was about to have his first published travel article. As with many of his adventures, his willingness to take risks paid off.

“I try things, maybe crazy things,” he admitted in our interview.

‘Be a human bridge between cultures and peoples.’

In one memorable essay called “California Epiphany,” about a trip he took up Highway 1, he writes about the ineffable love he felt from the volunteers who labor unpaid at the Point Arena Lighthouse.

“Call me a meandering mystic if you will,” he wrote, “but I think that kind of love, concern, commitment adds a special quality to the landscape—imbues it with a spirit that becomes a part of what you see and sense when you visit there.”

George as mystic was on full display as he spoke at the close of this year’s Book Passage Travel Conference. He left us with a list of 12 precepts—Zen koans for travel writers.

“When in doubt, follow the compass of your heart,” he said, and invited us to join the “Church of Wanderlust.”

“You must spread the spirit you found here,” he exhorted. “Every time you hug someone you create a little burst of light. When I look out at you I see a forest of fireflies. Be the light! Be the love! Don’t let it stop here. Go out and seed it into the world.”

With a growing focus on sustainable travel, George urges his acolytes to be mindful. “You have to remember you are a guest. You have to treat the places you visit with respect. Be a human bridge between cultures and peoples. Ask yourself, ‘What’s the gift that I’m bringing and leaving’ in any place you visit.”

Forging intercultural connections in a mindful, caring way is his chief focus these days, on his tours and in his writing. He has raised two bilingual, bicultural children with his wife, Kuniko, who was born and raised on the Japanese island of Shikoku, where they were married 40 years ago.

George grew up in Middlebury, Ct., and retains a soft spot for the region, saying that his home in Piedmont feels like a New England village plopped down in Northern California. He speaks fondly of his father, an accountant, who supported his son’s desire to be a poet, and of his mother, who had a way of greeting everything that happened without complaining. His book is dedicated to his parents, as well as his wife and children.

He admits to being deeply influenced by the Rev. Charley Luckey, his pastor at the Middlebury Congregational Church, who preached about love, as well as by the precepts of Buddhism he first encountered in Japan.

“Travel makes us bigger, broader, more open-minded and open-hearted people,” he told one interviewer.

“Ultimately, I have come to think, travel teaches us about love. It teaches us that the very best we can do with our lives is to embrace the peoples, places, and cultures we meet with all our mind, heart, and soul, to live as fully as possible every moment, every day,” he said.

That will mean more pilgrimages to France, Japan, and other far-flung destinations, and sharing those beloved places with the fireflies of the world, others who light up with love for each new discovery.

Eleanor Vincent is a writer who lives in Northern California. She has published a memoir, poetry and essays and writes a monthly column on resilient aging for the Rossmoor News. Visit her here.

Photo caption: Don George on Shikoku.

Photo credit: Lev L. Spiro