By Robin Schroffel
When your work calls for catching the bus from Washington, D.C., to Antarctica, catching wild horses in the outback in Australia and tweeting hundreds of photographs of cute dogs you’ve encountered all over the globe, you know you’ve got a good thing going. And in between deep-sea swimming and attending Australian tapings of Oprah, Andrew Evans isn’t resting: he’s blogging about it. That constant commitment to his audience and his experiences is part of what makes him National Geographic Traveler’s digital nomad.
The 35-year-old modern-day explorer makes it his mission to bring “authentic travel” to readers, through online posts for his Digital Nomad blog on National Geographic’s website and to his growing flock of 7,000-plus Twitter followers. “My mandate is that ethos of the traditional National Geographic explorer venturing out into the world. Doing it in the modern context with an iPhone or whatever, but following that same kind of explorer’s motif of, even if you’re in a city, going out and discovering it,” he says.
Evans was officially named to his post (yes, digital nomad is his formal title) in late 2010 following his aforementioned epic 10-week, 14-country bus journey to Antarctica. He’d pitched the story to National Geographic Traveler as its first-ever all-digital feature, and it became a huge success. People worldwide were captivated by Evans’ adventures, which he tweeted out in real-time and blogged about from the road for Traveler’s website. Evans subsequently went on to cover 18,000 miles during a two-month assignment in Australia. At present, he’s exploring Ontario (via campground, doily-draped bed-and-breakfast, and boutique hotel) through mid-July in the first of a succession of trips that will keep him on the road for months. His Twitter handle, @wheresandrew, helps him interact with followers; Evans often posts photos and has people guess exactly where in the world he could be.
The digital nomad gig is the envy of many, but Evans didn’t score it overnight. A writer with degrees in geography and Russian foreign policy, he’d always aimed to work for National Geographic. In 2004, Evans left behind a dream job as a political consultant for a D.C. lobbying firm (which involved plenty of spur-of-the-moment international travel) to focus on his budding travel writing career. Even so, it took another few years of perseverance, pitching and, when it came down to it, a little bit of providence to break into one of the world’s most respected brands.
“I tried all the formal entries into the society, pitching articles to the main magazine and applying for jobs year after year after year. I’d get shortlisted for positions but I never got any of them,” Evans admits. So when he took on the role of Washington, D.C., correspondent for website Gawker’s travel blog, Gridskipper, he was surprised to find that the people from Traveler, including senior researcher Marilyn Terrell, were paying attention to his work. “They were reposting a lot of it and commenting on it and recommending it to people,” Evans says. It soon turned into a lunch invitation, which led to blog posts and front-of-book pieces for the magazine, and, eventually, Evans’ Antarctica pitch was commissioned.
These days, Evans spends up to six months of the year travelling on behalf of National Geographic Traveler. He lives his role of digital nomad 24 hours a day. Over the past year, he’s even managed to make it to the travellers’ Holy Grail, Tristan da Cunha, the remotest populated island in the world. His trips are loosely organized, so as to invite the prospect of following the story rather than the itinerary. And if things ever get too scheduled or controlled, Evans simply goes AWOL in order to keep things authentic. “It’s very easy today to travel all over the world and not explore at all,” he says. “Travel now is a commodity that’s bought and sold. You can look at a catalogue, they’re offering an experience, it has a price on it, and you pay for it. And if you don’t get what you paid for, you can complain about it. That’s pleasurable for some people but to me, it’s not very authentic because it’s a commodity. It’s like the difference between picking an apple off a tree in the woods and eating it, or getting a bottle of applesauce off the shelf in the store. They’re two very different experiences.”
In order to skip the applesauce and get to the crunchier, tastier fruit, Evans has developed a few travel strategies: He never schedules too much. He walks around a lot. He always eats what is served to him. And he learns the local language, even if he can only pick up 10 words. By doing so, “you’re giving yourself to the place, rather than the place giving in to you,” he says.
Despite the obvious perks inherent in seeing the world and sharing it with others, long-term travel can also have its challenges. After all, Evans is at work, not on vacation. It’s not an easy life. To cope, he sets aside time to exercise every day; it helps give him a sense of normalcy (not to mention deal with jet-lag). He also schedules blocks of time strictly for writing blog posts and editing photos and videos, all of which go up unedited and therefore have all kinds of pressure attached to them. Finally, with an apartment and husband back in Washington, D.C., Evans has a home life to maintain as well. He talks with his husband, a National Zoo biologist specializing in conservation who also travels frequently for work, over Skype frequently. The two try to co-ordinate their time away, and on trips lasting two weeks or more, one will fly out to join the other whenever possible.
There is one sacrifice in particular that Evans has made in exchange for his career: having a dog. “I wish I could have a dog. I love dogs so much,” he says. But longing for a pet he can’t have has sparked one of the most beloved recurring themes on Evans’ Twitter feed: photos of dogs around the world. “Everywhere I go, I take a picture of a dog. And I always say, ‘I found my dog, or this is my dog in this place,’” Evans says. His all-time favourite? One member of a group of huge Greenlandic working dogs, enjoying some off-time in the summer. He caught this particular pup on camera chowing down on an entire loaf of bread. “It had stunning green-blue eyes, a gorgeous dog, and it had this huge loaf of bread in its mouth. A dog that loves carbs; it was hilarious.”
It’s moments like these – the real experiences of travel – that contribute to the sense of fulfillment Evans gets from his work. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to have all these experiences, I really do. It’s amazing,” he says. “When you meet people from all over the world, there’s a richness in that. The earth is huge; it’s endless, infinite in terms of everything that’s in it and I want to experience as much of it as I can.”