Nature and travel writer Mel White refers to himself as “a bird brain.”
Self-deprecating to be sure, it also describes his life-long interest in the natural world. His ability to capture that world as a freelance writer has taken him to far-flung destinations around the world.
From Alaska and the Amazon River to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Belize, White has written more than 40 stories for National Geographic Traveler and more than a dozen stories for National Geographic. He has also written or contributed to more than 20 travel and nature guidebooks, including Complete National Park Guide to the United States, Eastern Parklands, Guide to Small Town Escapes, and Guide to America’s Outdoors – Southwest for National Geographic’s book division. White’s most recent travel book is The 10 Best of Everything National Parks.
“In some ways, I owe my career to being a bird watcher,” said White.
A Conway, Ark. native, White came by his interest naturally. His mother was “a backyard bird watcher.”
“By six years of age, I was a bird nut,” said White, who devoured bird books, studied field guides, and spent Sunday drives with his parents looking for birds around central Arkansas.
“I lived and breathed birds from the time I was six until puberty,” he said. “Then I discovered girls and music.”
White played trumpet in The Loose Ends, a rock-and-roll band that played music by Chicago and Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
White, a National Merit Scholar, came to Hendrix in 1968 a week or so after classes had already begun. It was the height of the Vietnam War. He originally started classes across town at what is now the University of Central Arkansas, but he was reluctant to fulfill the requirement of the time that all state university male students enroll in ROTC. After saluting and marching his first drill, he went home and took off his uniform and asked his parents if he could transfer to Hendrix. Fortunately, they were supportive, he said.
At Hendrix, White took “almost every English and music course offered … and lots and lots of philosophy courses.” On the weekends, he played music.
After graduating from Hendrix in 1972 with a degree in humanities, he continued playing music until he took a job as a copy editor at the Arkansas Democrat and later became a reporter.
“Even at 10 to 12 years of age, I liked to write,” said White, who wrote parodies of television shows and movies, as well as a parody of the play Julius Caesar that was performed as a school fundraiser. “I always had a vague idea that I like to write.”
White was also an insatiable reader, a quality he believes is essential for aspiring writers.
“As a kid, I read the encyclopedia, science fiction, sports things,” he said. “It wasn’t serious stuff, but I read a lot.”
His literature courses at Hendrix encouraged him “to read better stuff,” he said, citing William Faulkner among other authors he enjoyed studying in college.
One of White’s first assignments as a reporter was covering the federal court.
“I was totally out of my depth,” he said. “I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, so I quit.”
He was soon hired back as the editor of the paper’s entertainment section but left after a year and returned to music. He worked at a recording studio, where he wrote, arranged, performed, and produced advertising jingles for local businesses. He continued writing as a freelance contributor to the Arkansas Times, then a monthly magazine. His first piece was a “total Hunter S. Thompson rip-off,” he said.
“I actually wrote quite a few freelance things,” he said. “And they wanted me to write more.”
White joined the Times staff as associate editor in 1982. He eventually became the magazine’s editor before leaving in April 1990.
“I didn’t care for how the business was evolving,” he said. “I was 39 years old and figured if I was ever going to do what I really wanted to do, I had better do it now.”
White sent his clips and some story proposals to National Geographic Traveler. His first assignment was writing about a scenic drive in the Texas hill country, west of San Antonio. From there it was off to the Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand, the Amazon River, the Swiss Alps, Madagascar, and New Guinea.
In 1997, White wrote about a trip to Mount Kilimanjaro after the assignment was turned down by author Jon Krakauer, who had achieved success by then with his books Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. White said he figures he owes Krakauer “at least a beer … maybe a six pack,” for the opportunity.
Immediately after Kilimanjaro, he reported on The Seychelles, an island chain and French tourist destination with “unbelievable beaches and extremely interesting nature,” including unique frogs, birds, and plants – among them the mythical Coco de Mer or “Coconut of the Sea.” He capped the year off with a visit to the Australian wine country, meeting famous vintners Peter Lehman and Charles Melton.
In 2000, White spent 12 days rafting on the Taku River watershed in British Columbia, which he calls “the most beautiful trip I’ve ever taken.”
In 2004, in honor of National Geographic Traveler’s 20th anniversary, White set off on a five-week, 7,770-mile road trip from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Miami, Fla. Along the way, he visited with a dog trainer in the Yukon and a local Wyoming artist … “total serendipitous stuff like that,” which White captured in a six-part article series.
By this point, Lynn Addison, his longtime editor at Traveler, had moved to National Geographic, or "the yellow magazine" as White and other writers call it. In 2005 the magazine needed text to accompany photos of American white pelicans. At a staff meeting, Addison said she knew a "bird guy."
“Ungainly Grace,” White’s first National Geographic story, appeared in 2006.
Around the same time, National Geographic wanted White to write about the alleged sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker in northeast Arkansas. White wrote the story but remains highly skeptical of the sightings, of which there has not yet been any photographic evidence of.
“Once again, my career turned on the fact that I knew something about birds,” he said.
Last year, White observed one of the world’s greatest undiscovered destinations when National Geographic sent him to Socotra, a small island off the coast of Yemen. Socotra is one of the world’s top three locations of great endemism, meaning it has many plants and animals that are only found there. Ninety percent of the island’s vertebrates and more than one-third of its plants are endemic, he said. Aromatic resins like frankincense, myrrh, and dragon’s blood – once of inestimable value in the ancient world – can still be found in Socotra.
“The culture has survived centuries and centuries in an authentic state,” White said, noting the language spoken in Socotra predates Arabic. “It’s like suspended animation.”
Though he enjoyed the assignment, his travel to politically turbulent Yemen raised the eyebrows of the FBI. Two agents paid a visit to White’s home in Little Rock and questioned his wife, Hope Coulter, a creative writing professor at Hendrix, about the purpose of this work in Yemen. As far as he knows, he is not currently under investigation.
White attributes the good fortune of his career to having “a little bit of talent, knowing the right people, and a whole lot of luck.”