Or bidding farewell to an icon as we’ve known it.
We used to sit around pondering what the name meant. Was it that the planet – our planet – is alone in space?
Is it that the traveler is lonely when he’s out there, somewhere, exploring the planet?
Was it a clever and intentionally ambiguous double entendre meant to encompass both ideas?
No one knew for sure, but we agreed that ‘Lonely Planet’ was a grand and poetic name. We all agreed that Tony and Maureen Wheeler – the free-spirited couple who traveled overland through Asia from London to Australia in 1972 and turned their diaries into the first Lonely Planet book – were impossibly cool and inspiring.
‘A beat-up old car, a few dollars in the pocket, and a sense of adventure’ was their motto. And we wanted to be a part of that.
Last week – a few months after the BBC Worldwide sold Lonely Planet to a ‘reclusive billionaire’ and his Nashville-based NC2 Media – the news broke that all editorial staff in the brand’s Melbourne headquarters had been made redundant, and that Lonely Planet would ‘no longer [be] in the business of content creation.’ Of course the worldwide web has lit up with commentary. There have been provocative ‘it’s the death of print publishing’ media analyses, ‘it’s the end of an era’ farewells, ‘we raise our glass to you’ tributes and expressions of concern for the hard-working staffers who find themselves suddenly without jobs. There’s an #lpmemories hashtag on Twitter.
Even though I’ve been a Lonely Planet author for years, I haven’t joined the public conversation. That’s partly, I guess, because I feel like I don’t really have the right – I’m no one important at Lonely Planet. I’m not in-house, nor one of the veteran writers. In fact, as I’ve often said, I’m at the bottom of the totem pole – I was one of the youngest writers, probably one of the last ones to join the pool of authors during a rare window of time when the company was hiring freelancers.
I’ve worked on dozens of titles, but no one really knows me, including most of my editors. Oh, they know me, but only as a virtual presence – unless they’ve memorized my little black and white headshot, they probably couldn’t pick me out of a crowd. I’ve been out there alone, traveling to the Czech Republic and California and Chile, doing my work, writing up my research, drawing my maps, submitting electronically, and finally, months later, receiving my performance reviews and cardboard boxes of the finished guidebooks. That’s how I’ve been working – that’s the planet we’re living on.
That description might sound coldly futuristic, but the truth is the opposite. So what if I couldn’t pick them out of a crowd – I loved my editors and cartographers, our shared passion for travel, their obvious enthusiasm for my adventures. Lonely Planet has given me every opportunity to know the world, and to know myself. They built my career. They sent me to faraway places – they trusted me to investigate what I found, to report back intelligently – they supported my acquisition of foreign languages and applauded my amateurish attempts at renegade cultural anthropology.
As Tony Wheeler famously said, ‘At Lonely Planet we like to say that our writers go to the end of the road. And they had damn well better. Because I go to the end of the road.’ (I went to the end of the road, Tony! To the end of the road in the end of the world, actually – I covered Tierra del Fuego for the Argentina guidebook.)
My role with this company has provided me with worldly education, spectacular adventures and precious solitude. Some of the most joyful moments of my life have happened while I was traveling alone on an assignment. I’m just a writer – what do I know. But Lonely Planet wasn’t a regular company. Out of all the many publications I’ve worked for, Lonely Planet was the most committed to the traveler. The end of the brand – or the brand as we know it – means a loss of jobs, and fewer books on the shelf. But ultimately it’s a loss for the traveler.
So what’s next? It will be harder to go ‘to the end of the road,’ as Tony said, if I’m not being specifically asked (and paid) to do so. Traveling, like writing, is hard. But I don’t feel like I have a choice with either, so I’ll keep going with both. I know I’m not alone in that.
We’re a tough tribe, aren’t we? Once, during one of those ‘what does the name Lonely Planet mean?’ conversations, my partner at the time – my live-in boyfriend for years, who stayed at home in Buenos Aires and went to a regular job everyday while I was off traveling on different assignments – broke in. ‘It’s not about the universe, and it’s not about the traveler,’ he said, ‘it’s about the rest of us, the ones left behind. My planet is so lonely when you’re gone.’
Here’s to the road ahead, fellow travelers – and to finding the way back home when it’s time – to occupying our fleeting spaces on a big, lonely planet.