Since he was in high school, James Kaiser has known how to ride a wave. As a teenager, the Bangor native started saving money he earned at a summer job in Bar Harbor, where he also was a regular visitor to Acadia National Park. In college, Kaiser used those savings to make a couple of lucky investments – with Yahoo and Amazon – and they paid off.
So when he finished studying engineering at Dartmouth College in 1999, Kaiser was not asking the typical post-graduate question of “Where can I find a job?” His financial cushion made it possible for him to ask another question: “Dude, where can I find a wave?”
“I fell in love with surfing,” said Kaiser, who didn’t surf until a trip to the West Coast in college. “It completely took over my life. Basically, I knew when I graduated, I wanted to go to Southern California and learn how to surf.”
So he did. Despite eschewing a career track, however, Kaiser ended up riding an unexpected wave toward a job. It gathered strength during a visit to Hawaii with his father, the Bangor pathologist John Kaiser, when the younger Kaiser picked up a travel guide to the island.
“The book had a scrappy, homey appeal. It obviously wasn’t a ‘Lonely Planet’ or a ‘Frommer’s,’ but everybody loved it,” said Kaiser. “I thought: Gee, there ought to be something like this for Acadia. I knew the island like the back of my hand from hiking, hanging out, driving all over it. I had this really insider view and thought I could write a travel guide. At that point, I never thought a career would come of it.”
But it did. Kaiser pursued the idea of writing about Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island. Before heading to the West Coast after graduation, he spent the summer and fall methodically exploring the island. In 2000, he spent his own money to publish “Acadia: The Complete Guide,” a glossy, comprehensive guide that he peddled from door to door at bookstores on the island and elsewhere. Not only did it sell, but it sold well.
“I was hoping to cover my costs. I did much better,” said Kaiser, who says he has sold 10,000 copies of the Acadia book since its first printing in 2000. At last check, it was the No. 1 book for Acadia on Amazon.com.
Soon, the surfer-turned-travel-writer was looking for another topic.
Turns out, Los Angeles is close to a number of national parks, and by the time Kaiser moved there in 2000, he was not only tracking swells for surfing, he was also investigating subjects for his new book. In 2002, he published “Joshua Tree: The Compete Guide,” and in 2004 “The Grand Canyon: The Complete Guide.”
Last year, all three books were picked up by Independent Publishers Group, a book distributor for independent publishers. Kaiser currently is holed up in his apartment working on a fourth book, this time about Yosemite National Park, where he spent most of last summer.
With the success of the books, Kaiser’s surfboard hasn’t seen much action – and after a few years of surfing, his savings have diminished at the same time his books have started selling.
“What brought me to L.A. was the surfing,” said Kaiser. “Now I hardly surf anymore. I’m completely involved in writing these travel guides.”
The challenge of writing books that are guides but that also teach vacationers about history, geology, biology, mythology and local color keeps him indoors at his computer. By his own admission, he wasn’t much of a reader growing up, but research has turned him into one.
From hiking deep into spaces reachable only by backpacking on overnight stays, making friends with rangers or hanging out with locals, Kaiser pieces together a story that interests him and he hopes others, too.
He also likes looking beyond the contained world of a national park. For the Yosemite book, which he’ll publish next spring, he studied the painters, photographers and writers whose works helped make the place famous.
Kaiser doesn’t avoid expressing his opinion, either. In the Acadia book, he says Seal Harbor’s most famous resident Martha Stewart outed the place as a magnet for “domestic divas.” But he knows the territory, too.
“Seal Harbor is probably the most underappreciated town on the island,” he writes. “[Its] tiny town green and jewel-like beach are great places to avoid crowds and soak in the scenery. So grab a wicker picnic basket filled with fromage [cheese] and crackers – Seal Harbor awaits.”
“I don’t shy away from the controversies, but I’m not here to preach,” said Kaiser. “I’m here to present a beautiful place and present as much of it as possible so people can make their own decisions.”
These days, since Kaiser is on the road in his Jeep a lot – he also is a freelance photographer – he no longer says he “lives” in Los Angeles. “I’m based here,” he said. While the surf may not be calling him quite as strongly as it once did, living in a city that is home to so many writers and photographers has been an important component of his work.
Still, Kaiser hasn’t forgotten his roots. Growing up in Bangor, and eventually finishing high school at The Choate School in Connecticut, he has a sense of New England pragmatism.
“Having grown up in a place surrounded by so many good people and hardworking people helps you keep it all in perspective when someone flashes that Hollywood glam. You can see right through it,” he said.
At 29, he also knows that many of his friends decided to leave Maine to experience not the wilderness of Yosemite or the desert of Joshua Tree, but the opportunity and beat of the urban scene. Although an enterprising young person could do his work “based” in Maine, said Kaiser, most young people want to light out for more populated locales. Location, however, is not as important as drive, resourcefulness and imagination.
“If you’re willing to work hard, there are tremendous opportunities in today’s new economy,” said Kaiser. “I firmly believe that. I see the truth to that statement every day when I look in the mirror, when I meet other entrepreneurs in L.A., and when I visit my brother in Silicon Valley. I’m not so sure young Mainers are exposed to that, and that’s a shame. I’m not saying kids need to leave Maine to be successful – there’s no reason YouTube or MySpace couldn’t have been started in a garage in Maine – I just think success in the new economy probably seems like a distant notion, something that happens in New York or California, something that happens to non-Mainers. There’s no reason it needs to be like that. Kids just need to be inspired, and then they need to work their asses off to make it happen.”
Speaking of which, during his time in Yosemite this summer, Kaiser lost 15 pounds. He’ll get it back if he wants, but staying fit is also part of his business plan. He needs to be able to outrun other hikers so he can get ahead to take a picture. Sometimes, he’s lugging 60 pounds worth of equipment. So when he takes his afternoon break after writing all morning and afternoon, he goes to the gym.
“You have to be your own boss,” he said. “But you have to be your own worst boss and crack the whip.”
It may not be as exhilarating as riding in the pocket of a wave. But it’s a career that Kaiser finds just as exciting.
So you want to write your own personal travel guide? Here are James Kaiser’s tips for collecting information.
1. Record your first impressions. You get only one shot at seeing something for the first time, and first impressions can be valuable.
2. Hike, drive, walk, kayak, canoe or raft to cover as much space as possible.
3. Along the way, talk to hikers, park workers, locals and others who know the park.
4. Rope in friends to accompany you. Watch their reactions and seek out descriptions of other people’s experiences.
5. Learn how to pack light and carry your “world” in the back of your car.