A faux pas during a conflict in a Namibian park becomes a lesson in respecting a place and its customs. Adopting the local habit of gearing up for potential bear encounters in rural Alaska demonstrates why it's necessary to respect the area's people. A visit to a market in Singapore shows the importance of embracing uncertainty.
In "The World Has a Big Backyard," Mike Day, former executive vice president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, offers evocatively detailed accounts of experiences he had in exotic locations as executive producer of more than a dozen Imax films.
But "The World Has a Big Backyard" is more than a travel memoir. It's also an advice book that uses lessons Day learned while traveling to illustrate attitudes and habits that could be useful to any traveler anywhere — useful, in fact, in various situations throughout life.
Day recently spoke about how he got into that work, how he remembered all those details and what's next on his travel agenda. His answers have been edited for length.
Q: Could you talk about what initially brought you to the Science Museum and how you got into making Imax films?
A: Following my graduation from the University of Illinois, I took a position with the Rockford Park District to develop public programming with a science focus. My work there led to my being awarded a New York State Arts Council grant to study museum management. That was in Rochester, N.Y., world headquarters for Kodak, which gave me my first experience in film. From there I went to work at the Cleveland School of Science, working in new media formats including large-format film. That led to being recruited to the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul to help launch a new museum building that included the William L. McKnight-3M Omnitheater, an Imax dome theater.
Q: When you realized the work would involve extensive exotic travel, were you excited or wary?
A: One of my favorite classes in high school was geography. I didn't just want to look at National Geographic magazines, I wanted to fall into the pages. I had done some traveling outside of the United States before moving to Minnesota, but making giant-screen films for the Science Museum led me to places I had no awareness of, places like the erupting Sakurajima volcano in Japan and uninhabited jungles in Central America.
Q: How and when did you decide to write a book about traveling?
A: When I would return from my filmmaking trips, like to the tallest sand dunes in the world in Namibia, or chasing tornadoes in Nebraska, people would hear my stories and say, "You should write a book." I didn't think much about that idea until I retired in early March 2020. The next week the pandemic was declared. I found myself with time, and being socially distant, I had the opportunity to do two things I wanted to do more of — reading and writing.
Q: The book is full of exquisitely detailed memories. Did you keep journals?
A: I took something from my office when I retired that held many memories — a big Tupperware tub of photos, letters, film production records and such. It was a treasure chest of artifacts that sparked vivid memories of my sojourns around the world.
My old passports dated with immigration stamps were especially helpful to recall where and when I was throughout my escapades. I also found a letter from a travel clinic that verified I had all the proper inoculations and was free of parasites, a document I needed to travel to Jane Goodall's research site on Lake Tanganyika.
Q: Why did you organize your book around specific travel and life lessons?
A: I truly believe the best gift you can give, especially to young people, is travel. Too often we resort to the easy trip — to the amusement park or the waterpark. We are inhibited about being more adventurous in our travels because of the uncertainty, unpredictability and uncontrollability that can come in traveling to new and distant places.
I learned along the way important skills to help address the anxiety that can come not just with traveling far from home, but in everyday life. Being able to share those skills gave my book purpose, a journey of self-development for the reader to cultivate a mind-set for more interesting and authentic travel experiences.
Q: The lessons are in the form of things people should do; what to seek, embrace and so on. Are there stories you could write about what people should not do when traveling?
A: I write in my book about lessons learned from doing things I should have not done in my travels. I write about my first trip to Africa and share a story where I mistakenly crossed a cultural barrier. Out of my transgression comes my advice to "respect the place." Respect may be the most fundamental advice I share in my book; respect the place, respect the people, and respect yourself.
Q: Before I visited Paris, a friend there sent a long list of travel tips, such as "when you enter a store, say 'bonjour' to the proprietor — if you don't, you'll be considered rude." What broad, general suggestions would you give to people traveling to somewhere unfamiliar?
A: Your friend gave you an excellent piece of advice that should go with you everywhere in the world; learn how to say hello, good morning, please and thank you. (Also, "Where is the bathroom?")
Q: Are there times when you've found yourself applying the lessons you learned while traveling to situations where you're not traveling?
A: I write in my book about my travels teaching me the value of mindfulness. Mindfulness has Buddhist roots and is a practice of bringing your mind to a place it can rest. Quite simply, it asks us to suspend immediate judgment and unlock our curiosity. I'm still working hard to practice mindfulness everywhere I am, including at home, to not overly react to what is going on.
Q: What have you become bolder about, thanks to travel? What have you become more sensitive to?
A: There is no better enrichment experience than travel that pushes us outside of our comfort zones to witness the unfamiliar, explore the unknown, question our assumptions, confront our anxieties, force us to be flexible and think on our feet. Travel has made me more adaptable, worldly and empathetic.
A key thought that continues to resonate with me, and that has permanently and positively changed the way I approach an encounter with someone new, is from Rick Steves. At the age of 23 he took a 3,500-mile, two-month trip from Istanbul to Kathmandu. In the afterword of his book about that journey he wrote, "We are all children of God — by traveling we get to know the family."
Q: What's still on your travel bucket list?
A: I don't want people to mistake that I am saying you must go deep sea diving to shipwrecks, or climb active volcanoes, to experience meaningful travel. I want people to travel to have authentic experiences that ignite their senses, spark wonder, and stretch their understanding of the world, and that can be done close to home.
One place like that where I haven't been is in northern Minnesota. In the 1880s there was a forested area in Itasca County mistakenly surveyed as a lake. It was an area that was never sold, a forest that was never timbered. It is called the Lost 40, and is a place I haven't been to, a rare place where you can see red and white pine trees that are 200 to 300 years old. I think it might be a good place to visit in the winter on snowshoes. Whenever I do go, I want to share the experience and plan to take some kids with me.
Katy Read • 612-673-4583