A Conversation With Shawn Parker, Travel and Tourism Director and International Adventurer
Parker rides a boat near Pokhara, Nepal. Photo courtesy of Shawn Parker.
Many young journalists dream of being that guy.
The guy hanging from an airplane to get the best shot. The guy who edges towards dangerous animals rather than away from them. The guy who looks danger in the face and comes home to write about it over a cup of coffee.
Shawn Parker is that guy. Whether or not he’s done those things is hit or miss, but to call Parker a thrill-seeker is an understatement. He’s gone swimming with thresher sharks, taken rickety train rides to the far corners of the world, and eaten more fermented delicacies than he cares to remember. He’s been to more than 70 countries and written hundreds of stories.
“I had not traveled until I was 18, and then I sort of got the bug,” Parker said. “I did an exchange in high school to go to Germany, and after that, I was just obsessed with it.”
After college, Parker decided to live in South Korea. An English-language magazine in Korea started sending him on assignments, and Parker’s career as a travel writer began. He took those assignments and often created more on his own.
“Let’s say I had an assignment in Thailand,” Parker said. “Yeah, I’m going to go to Thailand, but I’m not going to go for two days and come home. Back then, I needed content. I needed material. So, go to one part of Thailand, do whatever assignment I was working on. Then, maybe, on my own, go to three, four, five other parts of Thailand, go to Cambodia, go to Vietnam, go to Myanmar, work on stories on spec [without a buyer in place], and then try and sell those after the fact.”
There was never any guarantee of getting paid, even if Parker had a list of assignments on queue. Many of the magazines Parker worked for asked him to write stories simply for the exposure.
“I could write several stories in a row without being paid,” Parker said. “But I bet on my ability to tell stories, and before long I had an audience of editors willing to send me on paid assignments.”
Parker’s system landed him dozens of publications a year, and writing multiple clips about one trip kept costs low and rewards high.
“In the early days, when I was just grinding out and pitching all the time, I could sell one destination to six different magazines,” Parker said.
During his time as a journalist, Parker got the opportunity to surf icebergs in Iceland, go heli-skiing in British Columbia, and go scuba diving more times than he can count.
He also spent a great deal of time acquainting himself with other cultures, and it seems as though many good stories start at a marketplace.
“A lot of the strangest stuff comes when you’re at a dinner table or at a market,” Parker said. “I love markets. I’ll try anything.”
A few times, navigating the market has gotten Parker into more than he bargained for.
“I’ve eaten balut in Cambodia, and that’s a fermented duck egg,” Parker said. “I didn’t know what it was at the time.”
Parker said the taste was less than enjoyable.
“That turned my stomach pretty good,” Parker said. “It was awful. It was horrid.”
Some of Parker’s experiences can’t be replicated. One of his favorite stories is of a dying tradition in Sri Lanka practiced by a group of people known as “stick fishermen.”
“There are very few of these guys left,” Parker said. “Sri Lanka’s economy modernized very quickly after the civil war ended, and these guys were making very little money. They spend hours fishing for sardines from atop a teak pole. They go to market to sell their catch for pennies – and many of them decided the work wasn’t worth the effort when the economy opened up and tourism boomed.”
Parker enjoyed his travels, but not everything was as glamorous as the magazines made it seem.
“It’s an odd thing because the life of a travel writer, of a journalist, it’s a solitary one. Even when immersed in luxury, or experiencing grand adventures, you begin to miss your family and the people who are most important to you,” Parker said.
Parker met his wife during his travels as a journalist and followed her to the Bighorns. Parker was amazed by Wyoming and its mountains.
“My first weekend that we came in, we went up to Stull Lake, a gorgeous little spot in the Cloud Peak Wilderness,” Parker said. “Didn’t see another person on this beautiful forest hike in November. And we get to this lake, and it’s iced over, and there’s mountains in the background, and there’s beautiful fall colors. I’m like, ‘how are there not 5,000 people at this trailhead right now?’”
After working for five years as an international journalist flying out of the Rockies, Parker decided that he was tired of leaving his newfound home.
“One of the big draws of coming home was being home, being present, being with my family,” Parker said.
Parker knew he had an opportunity to use his journalistic skills to help the community he loved. He decided to work for Sheridan Travel & Tourism to share the wonders of the Bighorns and bring economic growth to Sheridan.
During his tenure as travel and tourism director, Parker has helped advertise Sheridan to residents in other states, brought TV shows to the Bighorns, and organized events—like the upcoming WYO Winter Rodeo—that bring tourists to town.
“I hadn’t had a desk job in a very long time, but being able to do something that I knew I could excel at and do something for the community was a big key,” Parker said.
Every once in a while, though, Parker takes the same approach to living in Wyoming as he did touring other countries: exploring the community as an outsider would and sitting down to write about it. He’s lived in Sheridan for more than five years now, but he still finds new things to get excited about and little tidbits to fold into his upcoming novel, “Breaking Crystal Mountains.”
“I think it’s funny— when you think about exotic destinations, you don’t usually think of the place you live in as being exotic, but, to someone, it certainly would be,” Parker said.