Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Calen Otto of Unruly Travel & Living Is Helping To Change Our World
It’s okay to pave your own path in your specific niche. I used to feel like writing about queerness, travel, veganism, and other social justice topics all at once made my work less-than. I’ve now come to see that it actually makes it more interesting, unique, and thought-provoking. Combining your passions in your writing and storytelling is what makes your perspective gold.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Calen Otto.
Calen Otto, a queer, nonbinary, and anti-speciesist writer and author, enjoys transmuting their ponderings and experiences with the world through pen and paper (or a keyboard and computer, in this case). They wrote and published The Art of Unruly Travel on a Budget, a guide to traveling the USA and beyond as ethically and creatively as possible. When they’re not traveling the world, and writing about social justice issues or vegan travel, you can find them cozying up in their off-grid mud house just outside of Asheville, North Carolina with their trusty rabbit, Bilbo Baggins.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in rural Ohio surrounded by cornfields, woods, and animal companions in a time before kids were on social media. This means that I spent many of my days pretending that I was an explorer — clomping my way through the woods, or riding my bike around the neighborhood, only to stop into neighbors houses to be fed pizza, popsicles, and whatever they had on hand. My mom was a teacher, my dad was in the military, and my extended family were farmers. While it was a common midwestern upbringing, my time immersed in nature with my own imagination really shaped my life in important ways. On one hand I had a lot of time to daydream and explore, but on the other, my exposure to different cultures and ways of living were really limited. As I stepped into adulthood, I held onto that child-like wonder and curiosity while seeking new places and experiences through travel.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
There weren’t many books that changed my life per say, but The Lorax by Dr. Seuss made me feel seen. When I was a kid, I tried to rescue and rehabilitate hurt animals, protect trees from damage or being cut down, and many other activist ventures. I would even wear the same clothes for a couple of days in a row to save water. Other kids made fun of me sometimes for this, but this book affirmed to me that it was okay to speak up when something looked wrong to me.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started doing a little bit of training for my bike trip across the US, I thought that I had to learn how to clip-in my shoes to my bike pedals. It was something that I had always seen serious cyclists do, so I assumed that it was something that I should learn how to do too. I quickly learned that it’s a really strange sensation to be locked into a bike, especially when you come to a full stop and forget! There were multiple times when I was getting used to the clip-in shoes where I could come to a redlight and just flop over, bike and all. Drivers on the road beside me would always shoot me the funniest looks. I learned through this to check my own assumptions and only take on standardized information if it is really right for me or will improve my experience in some way!
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
The Art of Unruly Travel On a Budget is (as far as I know) the first and only book of its kind. I was inspired to write it after crossing the USA with just a bike and a $300 gift card, solo, when I was just 19 years old. I had never been past Alabama and was dying to see what was out there, but had little financial resources to do so. As I made my way across the country dumpster diving, couchsurfing, sleeping on church pews and finding rides on Craigslist Rideshare, I realized that there were so many ways to travel that didn’t require one to be incredibly wealthy (even if they weren’t extreme budget traveling like me).
So, now my book makes travel more accessible to all and teaches folks how they can explore the USA and beyond as ethically and creatively as possible. It also shares stories of all of the trials, challenges, and life-changing moments that I experienced along the way.
I believe that travel is one of the greatest teachers that contributes to a more just, compassionate, and understanding society. My book is also queer-friendly and vegan-friendly as well, so it is a safe space for readers in both of those groups who aren’t always considered. This book aims to make real-life change in people’s lives by opening them up to the world of travel through a lens of eco-consciousness and anti-speciesism.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There are so many interesting stories that I share in my book — from me shaving off all of my hair in Thailand (and later selling it for $600 in travel money) to sharing what it was like to befriend an older man in California, who taught me how to hitchhike properly and rode bikes with me through the redwoods. So it’s hard to choose! But most readers are really drawn to the story where I share about crashing my bike down a hill (and head-first into a tree) on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I didn’t sustain too serious of injuries but did have to hitchhike into town and find a way to continue on my journey. You’ll have to read the book to find out how the story ends!
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
There was no one particular moment that made me decide to write The Art of Unruly Travel On A Budget, but I often found myself repeating the same travel advice and stories and knew there had to be a better way to summarize the information and share it in mass. People who had known about my story and wanted to pursue travel but had little money, or were scared to get out there and begin their own journey, had very similar questions. I had never written a book before but knew it would be worthwhile in the end.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When I was tabling at an event, a woman came up to me with her elderly mother and young child. She picked up my book and fingered through it. To my delight, her eyes lit up when she realized that it was all about traveling with little money! She told me that she needed more adventure in her life and had been wanting to travel but thought it was impossible on a small income. She only had a handful of change on her that she could spend on the book, but I accepted and she took it home with her. I have no way of following up with her, but I hope that my book gave her greater access to a world of adventure!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes! The first thing that comes to mind is more accessible transportation options throughout the US. Many other countries have affordable public buses, trains, metros, etc. But in many states you must have your own personal vehicle to get around, which is also worse for the environment.
Secondly, we are often so distrustful of strangers here in the US. I’ve personally been scared to approach houses in emergency situations while traveling for fear of being shot at on private property. Being able to approach our neighbors, community, and even strangers when we need assistance shouldn’t be something intimidating.
Lastly, we need more free public spaces where people can camp out, park vehicles, and spend the night in the US. When I was riding my bike across the US, there were very limited spaces where I could stay without fear of having to interact with law enforcement and getting kicked out. I experienced the same thing when I did a van trip across the country and back. I can only imagine how houseless people feel when trying to find a sleeping spot for the night.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define leadership as knowing when to step up and organize and when to step back and listen, or even when to cheer others on from the sidelines. We can’t be experts on every topic, so knowing our strengths — as well as our weaknesses — is key. Self-awareness needs to be strong in good leaders.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
- Your book will never be completely ‘perfect’. I am always picking at my already published work. What we write and print will never be able to evolve in real time as we do. So it’s best to trust in the work and let it be a reflection of where you were at during your writing process!
- Writing isn’t always easy. When we hear interviews with famous authors, they often make it sound like the writing process is a breeze and easy to jump into. However, I’ve found that I don’t always feel like showing up to write. I often have to go out of my way to empty my brain, clean up myself and my space, and force myself to get into work if it isn’t coming naturally.
- Not everyone will like your work. And that’s okay. When I published my first book, I was so excited and expected it to fly off of the shelves. But not everyone is interested in travel, and not everyone likes my perspective and style of writing. Some may find it interesting but still not like it. Some people like peaches and some people don’t — it doesn’t stop me from finding them to be delicious!
- Everyone will interpret your story differently. I’ve really enjoyed reading the book, Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. In her book, she tells a story about a woman who came up to her and told her how a story in a book helped her survive an abusive relationship and divorce. The story that she referenced that gave her strength wasn’t even in Gilbert’s book. People are often looking for what they want to see — and the same goes with every story that you tell.
- It’s okay to pave your own path in your specific niche. I used to feel like writing about queerness, travel, veganism, and other social justice topics all at once made my work less-than. I’ve now come to see that it actually makes it more interesting, unique, and thought-provoking. Combining your passions in your writing and storytelling is what makes your perspective gold.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The current quote that I keep repeating by Glennon Doyle is, “We can do hard things.” I do hard things all the time; from summiting a volcano in Guatemala to bridge jumping in Ecuador, getting arrested for speaking out for social justice or doing hard inner work on myself — challenges are part of life. I’m not fearless, I just remind myself that I can do them even if I’m scared.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Elizabeth Gilbert is the first person who comes to mind. She is famous for writing Eat, Pray, Love (which I admittedly still haven’t read!) but also penned the book, Big Magic. It’s all about the magic of creating, writing, and unleashing our artistic expressions. This book confirmed some of my suspicions around the creative process and helped me step further into my own undoubtedly-me voice. All around she seems like a lovely person with a tender heart!
I’d love to have her endorse the book that I am working on now, which is a biography where I tell the story of my bike trip across the US. My new book has similar themes as, Wild, by Cherly Strayed, but it is the queer, more radical, vegan version.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can check out my travel blog at unrulytravel.com, sign up for my free email newsletter, and join me on the Unruly Podcast. They can also order my travel guide (eBook or paperback) from my website and connect with me on one of my favorite platform: Instagram! Lastly, I recently launched a Patreon which gives readers a chance to get a sneak peak of my writing before it is released to the public and help shape my future work.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Calen Otto of Unruly Travel & Living Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.