Photograph by Dan Westergren, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Keith Bellows, 63, longtime editor of National Geographic Traveler, died Saturday after an illness.

Photograph by Dan Westergren, Nat Geo Image Collection

Keith Bellows: In Memoriam

Former National Geographic Traveler Editor Keith Bellows was “the Will Rogers of travel, a guy who never visited a place he didn’t like.”

When Keith Bellows walked into a room, you knew it. It wasn’t just his Canadian hockey player looks—the thick shock of graying hair, the broad shoulders, and the warm smile. Not for him the quiet corner; he entered a room bristling with ideas, and everyone there hoped he would favor them with a few minutes of conversation.

Keith talked authentic travel before authentic travel was cool. He understood digital media before most other journalists. He could read a manuscript and instantly identify what was missing or what didn’t work. His own writing seemed to come effortlessly, as if he controlled the tap of an unlimited reservoir of just-right words that could make a reader feel a place.

“We drive into the Ceraunian Mountains of Albania,” he began his final editor’s note in National Geographic Traveler earlier this year, “on a switchback-happy coastal road, past walls of black pines and by rickety tables laden with local honey and tea. Slopes spilling down to beaches yield, in season, lemons, oranges, and olives. The Ionian Sea shimmers blue to our right, with Corfu visible in the haze. ‘These are my mountains, the Thunder Mountains,’ my guide, Adrian, says. ‘I grew up here.  They are in my blood.’ ”

Writing and travel were in Keith’s blood. As a boy growing up in Montreal, he sometimes skipped school by hiding in a nook in his family’s garage so he could read undisturbed all day.  As an adult, he was the Will Rogers of travel, a guy who never visited a place he didn’t like.

I was fortunate to see some of the world through his keen eyes while traveling with him in Thailand, India, Hong Kong, and Las Vegas, a city he avoided for decades until friends convinced him that, given his job, he ought to at least visit all of America’s most favorite destinations.  Predictably, he loved it for its over-the-top embrace of kitsch.   

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Keith Bellows “entered a room bristling with ideas.”

Even time spent at a weekend home we shared for years on Maryland’s lovely Eastern Shore produced its revelations. Only Keith would splash into the local waters for a swim in November, fortified with a tolerance honed by the cold showers he endured during winters as a high school student in Scotland. And it is the Eastern Shore where he found a measure of solace with friends and family. I especially enjoyed his description a couple of years ago of driving its serpentine country roads:

“It’s a breezy Saturday afternoon,” Keith wrote in an editor’s note, “and I’m exploring the spiderweb of back roads of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I’m in my green 1972 MGB with the top down and the CD player roaring. From my 12-inches-above-the-tarmac perch, I experience the exhilaration of movement and acuity of vision that more ordinary forms of locomotion rarely allow.”

And that is how I choose to see him forever in my mind’s eye, his hair blown back in a summer breeze, his tawny arms on the wheel as he steers by fields of shoulder-high summer corn. I hear his laugh and imagine him walking into a room, occupying it with his energy, ideas, enthusiasm, and warmth, a man and editor rare in his ability to encourage others to outdo themselves with no regard for self-reflected glory.

Rudy Maxa, a former Washington Post reporter, is producer and host of the radio and public television shows, “Rudy Maxa’s World,” and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler.