This isn’t a conventional travel story, and that’s probably a good thing, seeing as the storehouses are filled to bursting with conventional travel stories.
Conventional travel stories mostly get it wrong, anyway. They’re all right on the leaving home and going somewhere and seeing things and coming home, but they miss out on the people. The best travel stories are people stories. The way they’re set up, you go halfway around the world, hack your way through the jungle or stumble across the desert, and your reward is meeting someone like Chet Krause.
Chet Krause wasn’t a travel writer – wasn’t much of a writer at all, though he built a journalistic empire that started on a kitchen table, with Chet doing the writing and the editing and the ad sales and the pasteup. He wrote prosaically about prosaic hobbies like collecting coins and old cars. And he did it in Iola, Wis., a town that had a pickle factory, a café that served a pretty good piece of pie with a pretty good lunch, and not much else.
But Chet did see the world. As a young man he toured Germany with General Patton, then came back to the kitchen table in that little somewhere and built a business that at its peak employed hundreds, printed millions of newspapers and magazines, created reference books that are still found in every good library around the world, and ran America’s largest old-car show.
The show brought billionaires to Chet’s place in Iola, to stay in a refurbished farmhouse and show off their toys in rolling fields newly shorn of Indian paintbrush and wild asters.
Chet traveled across the globe to receive awards and hand out awards and to speak at the most prestigious gatherings of the highest-powered executives. He met presidents and royalty, and heard lofty praise for the empire he’d built. And then the camera irised out, he changed into a clean shirt, caught a flight back to within 50 miles of Iola, and by the time he got back to town he was just Chet again, just another guy who ate pie with lunch in a corner booth at the Crystal Café.
Along the way, without doing much more than keeping the focus on the things that matter – making an honest product, selling it for a fair price, knowing his audience as surely as he knew who’d be in the front pew in church on Sunday, being the same guy when he came back home as he was when he left – he influenced and inspired a whole generation of writers and editors, including one editor who was just coming off one libel suit and was hell-bent on jumping into another.
Somewhere inbetween those two occurrences Chet Krause sat me down for a little talk. It went along these lines:
“You know what you did, don’t you?” I knew I was a victim of circumstance, but I nodded.
“You’re not going to do it again, are you?” I nodded again, knowing it was at least an even-money bet.
“Good.” And that was that. I was set for another half-decade, until I got married, and antsy.
I got the secondary lesson from Chet right away. In the end, traveling is a conscious act. You know you’re leaving one place to go to another, and eventually you come back to a place you can call home. When you do it right, when it all comes together the way it should, you live in a place made for living and travel to places made for traveling. That’s what Chet Krause did for 94 years. And that’s what makes this a travel story after all.
Kit Kiefer is a former travel writer for The New York Times, the author of a dozen books, and long before that, an editor at Krause Publications. Chet Krause died last Saturday after a short illness.