When you are young with dreams of going somewhere or doing something for the first time, grown-ups — be they mentors, parents, or mere passersby — have an immense power to encourage, embolden, and enable those dreams.
Keith Bellows, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of National Geographic Traveler, the iconic magazine he built over the course of 18 years, knew this power well, and wielded it generously. His realm was the world of travel and everything it had to teach us.
This weekend, after months of battling protracted illness, Keith passed away.
I remember the first time I spoke with Keith by phone in 2012, when I was seeking partnerships to validate a far-fetched idea of using crowd-funded train journeys across the United States as a platform for building next-generation leaders.
The call lasted only 10 minutes.
That’s how long it took for Keith to cut off my breathless pitch: “This is a great idea. We’re going to partner with you and help you get this idea off the ground. Let’s schedule a time for you to come in and meet with staff here at Traveler.”
Keith followed through. He brought me in to present the idea of what would become the Millennial Trains Project to the magazine’s editorial staff in a small conference room at the National Geographic Society on 17th street in Washington, D.C.
At the time, I was 25 years old. I remember struggling to constrain my embarrassment as Keith introduced me to the discerning staff of the world’s most circulated travel magazine as a young “visionary” that he wanted everyone to get behind.
That was Keith’s way. When he believed in a person, a place, or an idea, he didn’t mince words, pull punches, or waste time. He used his powerful, gravely voice, sharp wit, and immense stature to get others to fall in line.
In this way, he championed little things into big things.
I later learned that Keith brought people into the Geographic with such frequency that a shorthand acronym was used by staff to refer to the motley, ever-expanding band of pioneering upstarts he ushered into the Yellow Border: FOK (“Friends of Keith”).
He was a friend to many people and places, and the intensity of his charisma made each one feel utterly unique and encouraged.
In no small part thanks to the publicity and reputation that Keith helped build for the Millennial Trains Project, we were able to launch our first cross-country journey in August 2013 — less than a year after that first, brusque, deeply encouraging 10-minute phone call.
The journey was as much a monument to his mentorship and vision for how purposeful travel could change the world as it was to the initiative of the millennial entrepreneurs and broad coalition of partners that made it happen. It was a monument to all our aspirations.
Traveling from San Francisco to Washington on a caravan of vintage rail cars, Keith joined us in Pittsburgh for the final leg of our trip and arranged for an elegant dinner for 200 guests at the National Geographic Society upon our arrival in D.C.
Because of poor coordination and communication on my part, Keith was made to wait alone for two hours outside the beautiful beaux-arts train station in Pittsburgh before I met him to welcome him on board our train.
Picture that: The Editor-in-Chief of the world’s greatest travel magazine, arbiter of global taste and hospitality, waiting outside a train station for two hours in the heat of August.
Needless to say, I was mortified.
Keith knew it and didn’t say a word. To be sure, he had endured worse in his many year of traveling to far-flung locales, but more importantly: he wasn’t one to critique high-aspiring amateurs. He was one to champion them.
In his Editor’s Letter in Traveler’s 30th anniversary issue, he hailed MTP as a breakthrough innovation in the world of travel and later included us in the Magazine’s Top 50 list of “people, places, and ideas changing the way we travel” — never once mentioning that I completely botched a key part of his travel experience.
That night at the station, Keith spoke to our community of millennial artists, changemakers, and entrepreneurs in the glass atrium of our crowded dome car. He urged us to see the world “not as it is, but as it could be.”
“Travel is about who we are,” he said, “it can teach us, it can surprise us, it can move us, but most important: what it does is transform us.”
We were spellbound by his ability to contextualize our journey as being exemplary of the sort of purposeful travel that he thought the world need more of: travel that taught lessons, positively engaged local communities, and turned wet-behind-the-ears dreamers in culturally aware global citizens.
Keith was healthy at the time. The sage, inspiring wisdom of his remarks, his shoulder-length white hair, a freshly pressed blue Oxford shirt, and a tan that evidenced recent travels to some enviable destination: he looked like a movie star, spoke like a philosopher, and exuded a rugged allure that captivated the entire train.
He understood, appreciated, and could communicate the wonders, angst, and rewards of youth and travel better than anyone I have ever met.
Keith was titanic to the end — both the ship and its captain, a vessel for the dreams and imaginations of upstarts in the great world of travel.
Now that he is sunk, Friends of Keith the world over float frigid and crying in an arctic night, clinging to the debris of beautiful magazines and memories he leaves behind, shakily longing for smaller boats and lesser captains to hoist us from the cold.
While on board the inaugural journey of the Millennial Trains Project, Keith sat for an interview with one of our participants, a then 19 year-old college student named Ann Yang who had come on board to explore how it might be possible to follow an unconventional career path, which she has since done by launching a pioneering social enterprise.
Ann recorded Keith’s advice on the meaning of travel and creative living that she and I edited into a video that now serves as a testament to Keith’s powerful vision, love of the world, and commitment to enabling life-changing experiences for amateur and expert travelers and dreamers the world over.
I invite you to watch this video in remembrance of Keith, and do whatever you can to support the fledgling amateurs in your midst as a tribute to his inspiring life.