Travel: 'Hemispheres' editor Randy Johnson
Tuesday, April 1, 1 p.m. ET
Randy Johnson is the editor of Hemispheres, the magazine of United Airlines’. Johnson was hired to help launch Hemispheres and has been with the magazine since its birth in 1992. Hemispheres is the current holder of the Folio: Editorial Excellence Award as the country's best inflight magazine. Johnson has traveled widely, and prior to Hemispheres, published extensively on travel as a frequent freelance contributor to major national newspapers, ski, and travel magazines. He is the author of the spring 2003 Globe Pequot Press books Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and Best Easy Dayhikes of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as well as Hiking North Carolina, Hiking Virginia, and the classic ski book Southern Snow: The Winter Guide To Dixie, now being revised for release by the University of North Carolina Press. He is the editorial director and contributing author of The Age of Flight: The History of America’s Pioneering Airline.
Missed the chat? Read the transcript below:
Comment from Randy Johnson: I'd like to thank USA Today for inviting me to participate today. Great newspaper—and I'm proud to say I too have had articles and photos on travel and other topics published in the USA Today over the years as a travel specialist. Between Hemispheres, the magazine of United Airlines, where I'm editor, my outdoors emphasis on the South, and broader travel interests, I hope we have a variety of topics that will interest readers.
Washington, D.C.: Where is the best place to camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains?
Randy Johnson: It depends on whether you mean backpacking or car camping. I do both and both are stellar. On the Blue Ridge, per se, I'd have to suggest Blue Ridge Parkway campgrounds for the car kind of camping. Many are on the spine of the ridge, from high elevations such as Mount Pisgah south of Asheville, to the "golden pond" lakeshore sites at Price Lake near Blowing Rock, NC.At Roanoke Mountain near Roanoke, VA, you can leave your tent and be eating sushi downtown at the food court in the International Market in ten minutes! No wonder the Parkway is the nation's most popular unit of the national park system.
More great spots line the Parkway but just off the road on national forest land. Try Black Mountain Campground under Mount Mitchell (East's highest peak) in NC, and Sherando Lake on the west side of the Parkway's northern end near Humpback Rocks at Milepost 13.7.For backpacking, I favor Grandfather Mountain—awesome scenery and ladders climbing cliffs to summit sites and a backpacking shelter.
There's much more—but these are on the Blue Ridge itself, the "front range" of the Appalachians. The rest of the South's vast "mountain empire" just ripples on forever with many other options. Don't want to be too commercial but the diversity of options on and off the Parkway are what prompted me to combine them in my new Hiking The Blue Ridge Parkway guide due out from Falcon/Globe Pequot Press in a month or so. I wanted one book to be able to make the road "a portal" of sorts to the Appalachian experience.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: What airline is The Age of Flight about?
Randy Johnson: It's about United Airlines—with a broader message. So many people fly today, and fly great distances across oceans and continents with pretty minimal inconvenience (not to mention safety), that we lose sight I think of the fact that we had to invent the commercial aviation industry that accomplishes that feat. United was truly one of the pioneers—a private company that not only offered the first transcontinental passenger service but perfected air-to-ground radio and the charts pilots use today to navigate the skies, for heaven's sake. Things we'd think "the government" or research institutions would be tackling today were being pioneered by the airlines early on. Between the above accomplishments, the invention of "the stewardess profession" which brought women into aviation in large numbers, and more, United can truly claim one of the very groundbreaking traditions in aviation.
Boone, NC: What do you consider to be the single best dayhike in the southern Appalachians?
Randy Johnson: Boy, there's a question. I have at least a dozen "single best dayhikes."
An earlier questioner asked about camping and I mentioned Grandfather Mountain as a backpacking destination. That peak rates right up there with me. Between being the world's only privately-owned, UN-designated, International Biosphere Reserve, it's an awesomely scenic, alpinelike ridge that crests into cliffs and evergreen flagged summits. Ladders lead across the crags, and to the east, the view plummets more than a vertical mile (a drop reminiscent of the Rockies) down past the Blue Ridge Parkway to the NC Piedmont. Best place to start is to pay the fee and drive to "the top," the mountain's travel attraction where there's a Mile-High Swinging Bridge beloved of tourists (and a world-class nature museum) and take the Grandfather Trail across the peaks. With two cars you can leave one on the Blue Ridge Parkway (at the Boone Fork Parking Area, Milepost 299.9) and hike the entire ridge, then descend through a wilderness bowl to your vehicle (7 or so miles).
Other candidates—The hike over Shenandoah National Park's Old Rag Mountain in VA, the Blackbird Knob Trail area in the Dolly Sods Wilderness of West Virginia, the Appalachian Trail to the balds of Hump Mountain near Roan Mountain, TN, the Art Loeb Trail across Shining Rock Wilderness south of Asheville, NC. Obviously, I'm a guy who likes the summits though there are plenty of great streamside hikes as well.
Richmond, va.: what is your favorite travel destination?
Randy Johnson: I'm a dedicated skier and outdoorsperson—I write about those topics and live that lifestyle.Luckily, as an editor, I see those same interests becoming ever more central to how people today travel. Museums and culture, dining and distinctive lodging are great (I'm there), but many people want to settle into those experiences while they explore their surroundings in a physical, active way.
I'd get on a plane in a heartbeat any time of year to go back to the Highlands of Scotland, Zermatt in Switzerland, the Canadian Rockies.
I love New England—hiking the Appalachian Club huts across the White Mountains (like the similarly enjoyable Alpine hostels high up in the European Alps). Colorado's Tenth Mountain Division Trail huts are fun too.
I love places with a "there there." Cities like Miami Beach, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Kyoto, London, Helsinki, are all favorites.
The Southern Applachians are also a best kept secret—cool summers, snowy winters. Bestselling fiction such as Robert Morgan's Gap Creek, and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (soon to be a movie that was unfortunately filmed largely in Europe) are lending insight into the cultural appeal of the region that underlies the mountainous beauty. Both appealing parts of the Southern Mountains are featured in my Hiking The Blue Ridge Parkway book about to come out. I'm lucky to live there.
frederick, md.: i enjoy your publication as a frequent flier. how do you come up with story ideas?
Randy Johnson: Thank you very much. We're really trying hard at Hemispheres to bring United's frequent flyers a good read.
According to magazine research, Hemispheres' regular readers are the most affluent, educated readership of any magazine published in the United States. So we assume our readers travel—they're cultured, sophisticated. That demographic doesn't want the typically dubious "insider" stories you see in many travel magazines. People like these know that only a local really knows the lay of the land—so we use local writers from all over the world to bring unique approaches to our travel articles.
Our extremely popular Three Perfect Days series is an example—a locally written, three day itinerary that combines a "doable" visit with the assurance that you're putting your finger on the pulse of the city.
"Reader service" is our mission. We want to get under the surface—in business and travel coverage. We often find ourselves a little ahead of the pack in covering certain things. For an example, check out our April issue on the planes starting today (and tomorrow on our Website, hemispheresmagazine.com, click on "Cybersidebar") for a piece about all the latest innovations in travel gear just announced last week at the Travel Goods Show in Las Vegas. That took some advance research. We're always striving for that kind of hard news peg—not an easy thing to do in a monthly magazine.
Los Angeles, CA: Thinking of getting married late Sept or Oct of this year. Honeymooning in Hawaii. Is that a good time to go to hawaii, in terms of weather and pricing?
Randy Johnson: In terms of weather, I think any time of year is a great time to go to Hawaii. Even in the rainier season, if you're on the correct side of the island, it can be perfectly clear and sunny. In my experience, summer may be the easier time to get the best rates. Needless to say, with travel down a bit—now is a great time to go.
New York, NY: As a public relations professional and former journalist, I know that Hemispheres leads the inflight magazine category as a distinct, reader service oriented brand. How do you achieve that and what sort of feedback do you get from readers?
Randy Johnson: Thank you—we did set out to break the mold of the old, lightweight inflight magazine genre in 1992 when we launched Hemispheres. One wag said, "the reading on the air sick bag is more interesting than inflight magazines." Times have changed.
An editor is always inclined, and gratified, when their magazine wins awards. Hemispheres does just that—but reader response is the most pointed evidence that we're meeting readers' needs.
We get letters that praise the magazine's local insights and the distinctive ways we leverage that—Three Perfect Days is an example of one Hemispheres story that has been influential. Readers seek it out and our Web site's popularity reflects how many people look for our travel content. They comment also on the fact that we, on behalf of United, nod at our reader's intelligence by getting beyond the eye candy assortment of articles to substantive pieces that make you think—or even cry in the case of our popular fiction series Row 22, Seats A&B (just now out as a book-Row22.com).
We're proud that this year Hemispheres has articles reprinted in books that showcase the nation's best travel writing, short fiction and fantasy writing—books where the other magazines included are publications such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Outside, Harper's, Esquire, National Geographic Adventure. Men's Journal and Conde Nast Treveler. With an audience like United's frequent flyers, we aim high, pun intended.
Washington, DC: I see you've written about skiing in the Southeast. What are the top skiing destinations that you'd recommend in the Southeastern U.S?
Randy Johnson: That's difficult because arguably, the top four or five can be interchangeable depending on what you're looking for. Snowshoe leads the list for size, great snowfall (180 inches a year), national destination atmosphere and the Red Fox Inn—simply the best slopeside dining in the region. No wonder the James Beard Foundation is paying a visit this fall.
Wintergreen is also awesome—less natural snow but great snowmaking, national level amenities, plentiful slopes (nicely broken down into areas of ability) and an upscale feel that is top notch. Their "design-with-nature" approach and outdoor appreciation programs are a big part of what makes Wintergreen a national example.
I love Canaan Valley WV—a backcountry feel (Dolly Sods Wilderness is right there), great downhill skiing at Timberline (South's longest run) and Canaan, but truly wonderful cross country skiing at White Grass Ski Touring Center and Blackwater Falls State Park. Like a little bit of New England in the South.
Winterplace WV is one of the easiest big slopes to reach with Interstate 77 access.
I love the NC High Country slopes of Sugar Mountain, Beech Mountain (East's highest ski area), Appalachian and Hawksnest. A great "resort cluster" atmosphere, good natural snow, great dining and amazing amenities for Deep South ski areas.The "Sunny South" is a truly a place you can enjoy skiing and get a leg up to travel the world's slopes.
Philadelphia, PA: What's your favorite, 'out of the way' destination that no one knows about?
Randy Johnson: Many of mine are in the woods or alpine meadows somewhere. But on a travel level—my favorite is that one spot—that I can't tell you about—in the Out Islands, or Family Islands of the Bahamas. Great beaches, snorkeling, and the feel of islands where real people live real lives, and you just happen to be there.
Evanston, IL: Are you suprised by United's current financial woes? What do you think the future has in store for the airline?
Randy Johnson: Having just participated in authoring and editing a 75th anniversary history of United, being so aware of its rich past, the role it's played in making the modern world of commercial aviation—I can't imagine United not being there for the future. I feel that even more strongly knowing United's people. The achievements of the airline have come from those employees.
The challenges are big, the assortment of hurdles unprecedented (for all the airlines), but I have faith that all those "United Will Stand" buttons I see on United employees mean what they say. Recent news over the last few days bodes well for United eventual success. The Hemispheres staff is doing our part to keep excellence synonymous with "United Airlines."
Charlotte, NC: Most Freelance Writers I know regard inflight magazines as one of the toughest markets to crack. Any tips on breaking in?
Randy Johnson: From Hemispheres' standpoint, I must say the "tough nut" is local residency. "Travel writers" who live in Charlotte want to write about Seattle, and New York writers want to write Three Perfect Days in Paris. Sadly for the "traveling travel writer" we have writers in those cities who know them like locals. You can get around that—if you're an expert, a passionate partisan of a place, with a perspective and depth of understanding, step right up. But we want something with flair. So write about where you live. The exercise of seeing like a local for an outside audience can be enlightening.
tampa, florida: what's the best way to get a dog accustomed to hiking?
Randy Johnson: I've had some experience with that. Start with short walks, whether with a puppy or a mature dog. Use a leash—many parks require dogs to be on leashes and it's good to comply for the safety and territorial integrity of native wildlife. Also, many people can be frightened when a strange dog bounds around a turn in the trail—especially if their dog is leashed and yours isn't. Start short and always take plenty of water. And for puppies or small dogs, consider the Pet Wheel-Away from Global Pet Products. It's a rolling-style pet carrier (like your typical rolling carry-on). But it's also a backpack that can rescue a tired puppy when it gives out on its first few hikes.
Miami, FL: What about up-and-coming or best kept secret travel destinations abroad for an outdoor enthusiast?
Randy Johnson: There are so many destinations—I'd check out the companies who are taking people there in increasing numbers. For most people who are not expeditionary adventurers—the best bet would be to explore the exploding offerings in the adventure travel tour category. Small groups are the norm and the list of choices is getting very long—many just emerging.These are a great way to break into an emerging destination and then be able to go back with confidence—and your sense of adventure intact.
Minneapolis, MN: I have been to Chicago and Wisconsin Dells. For the weekend, where would you recommend (somewhere southwards and warmth)? Thank you
Randy Johnson: Now's the time to get on a plane if warmth is what you want. Spring 2003 is bringing refreshingly balmy temps to easily accessible southeastern destinations. Florida's spring break crowds have been sweltering (though the last few days have cooled), so head a bit farther north. April in Charleston, SC is about perfect—not as busy as May, delightful temperatures, exploding flowers and foliage. And a city with a real sense of place. Check out Three Perfect Days in Charleston on Hemispheres' Web site—it's a great introduction to a real Low Country experience.
Comment from Randy Johnson: Thanks for your questions—it was fun. Be sure to visit Hemispheres on the Web if for some reason a month goes by when you don't happen to be on a United flight.