Watson in Cappadoccia, Turkey. Photo supplied by Catherine Watson.
Watson in Cappadoccia, Turkey. Photo supplied by Catherine Watson.
If some people are born travelers, Catherine Watson must be one of them.

When she was just three years old, Watson remembers her dad telling her stories about his experiences in World War II. By the time she was seven, wanderlust had begun to take hold. She read books about travel, and she and a girlfriend invented a land of their own. In high school and college she leaped at the chance to study abroad, first in Germany and later in Lebanon.

“I knew about foreign places before I had even been anywhere but my grandparents’ cabin,” she said. “In a way, travel kind of preceded how I see the world. I assumed the world was wonderful, just fascinating, and I wanted to be out in it from the time I was small.”

Watson has devoted most of her professional life to seeing the world and writing about her travels for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and its predecessor the Minneapolis Tribune. Last year, Watson retired after 26 years on the travel beat. She holed up at home for the winter (a supreme test of will, as she tells it) and completed a book about—what else—travel, entitled Roads Less Traveled: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth.

Despite her penchant for far away places, being a travel writer wasn’t Watson’s first career choice. At the University of Minnesota, Watson studied psychology, biology, anthropology and English. Her semester abroad in Lebanon involved an archaeological dig.

“I really did want to be an archaeologist,” she smiled. “I thought it would be really glamorous work, but I figured out while I was there that semester that what I was really wanted was the travel.”

After several years and several changed majors, Watson’s father finally confronted her. Watson laughed retelling the scene:

“My father said, ‘Do you have any plans for getting a job?’”

“I was flustered. I said no.”

“He said, ‘Get some.’”

She settled on journalism. She did an internship with the Minneapolis Tribune and was hired there after graduation. For three years, Watson covered education and city hall. All the while, she squirreled away her money and vacation days, and whenever she had the chance, she left town. “Travel was always my other life,” she said.

While covering news, Watson took a couple of trips that would change the way she looked at travel. On one assignment, she accompanied a group of students to Honduras in 1968. “That trip showed me how little I needed to travel on, and how low a level—how cheap—you could travel. We stayed in places where the shower was a tuna fish can with holes stuck on the end of a cold water pipe, and slept in what I learned later was a brothel.”

“I was fascinated by everything we saw and the people that we talked to, and I hadn’t had the veil drop away between me and other people in the same way before. So, it opened my eyes to Third World travel. I think without that trip I would have been a totally different kind of traveler.”

In 1973, Watson became editor of the paper’s Sunday Magazine. “Back then, it was the only place in the paper where you could put quality photography,” she explained. “It was the photo flagship, so I worked with all these talented photographers. I always had plenty of pictures to use, but I didn’t always have words, so I started writing the text to go along with them.”

The paper no longer prints the Sunday Magazine, but Watson learned valuable skills as its editor. Most importantly, she developed an eye for photography, a skill put to use whenever she took a trip.

Then, in 1978, the paper developed a new weekly section: travel. It would need an editor.

Watson jumped at the chance. “There wasn’t anyone better qualified to do it,” she said. “I had the writing experience. I had the editing experience. I had experience working with photographers. I traveled. I spoke some German, some French, a chunk of Spanish. I’d tried Arabic in college. I just thought, ‘If you don’t give me this job, I’m going to sue you.’”

She didn’t need a lawyer. She got the job and immediately began traveling. Watson estimates she spent an average of three to four months on the road each year. The paper paid for it, but that didn’t mean traveling in style. “I was always traveling on a shoestring,” she explained.

And most of the time, that meant traveling alone. Over the years, so many people, so many women, she said, have expressed awe over her career. She must have courage, they’ve told her, real guts, chutzpah. Watson admits those comments always surprised her. To her, travel was “doable.”

And that’s what she tried to show readers. “I was doing a couple things, showing people what they could do—here’s a Minnesotan doing this, and also sort of covertly showing Minnesota women, you can do it too.”

“Travel wasn’t scary,” she said. “Scary for me was staying home, making a commitment, having children. Having a child? You’re going to have that baby forever. Talk about courage. How do you leap off that cliff?”

Watson never did leap. She was married, for a time, to Al Sicherman, a fellow writer at the paper. Although they are no longer married, they remain extremely close. “I’ve known Al for 30 years,” she said. “He is my significant other. He is my life partner.”

“There’s a whole lot of courage in all of our lives.” Watson continued, “It just depends on what you choose to see as brave…I’m happiest, I am my most authentic self when I am on the road.”

Now that Watson is retired, however, home looms large. “I struggle with home,” she confessed. “For the first time in 25 years, I was home for an entire winter…I thought I was going insane. I should have hit the road.”

Instead, she decided to republish a series of her essays from the newspaper in a book. Shaping Roads Less Traveled pulled Watson through the winter; promoting it filled her summer and fall.

In September, the American Library Association’s Booklist gave her book a glowing review. Book sales have been growing. Attendance at readings is steady.

Watson smiled. “So many people say to me, ‘Oh, I wish I could travel.’ I just look at them and say, ‘Why don’t you? All you have to do is buy a ticket. Just do it.’”