Keith Bellows, who helmed National Geographic Traveler magazine for 17 years until stepping down last October, was a giant in the world of travel journalism.
“In an industry marked by larger-than-life editors, Keith was as big as they came,” says Traveler executive editor Norie Quintos. Even as he reveled in the printed word, he was one of the first to foresee the coming digital revolution. He called the ups and downs of the business a “Nantucket sleigh ride,” and rode it gleefully.
The ride ended this Saturday, when he succumbed to an illness.
To Traveler staffers, photographers, and writers, Keith Bellows was a champion of excellence as well as a fierce believer in the power of travel to change the world. He spent his last years working to give his children—Adam, Chase, and Mackenzie—and all children the transformative gifts that exploring the world brings.
We take time today to remember the man who inspired so many to love the world and to explore it through travel and words.
Here, some of the people whose lives he touched most deeply share memories of the creative visionary:
“Keith was a pusher, a dreamer, a doer, a man on a quest. In another age he might have been an oracle. Instead, he was a magazine editor. He believed people could change the world and that travel is the tool to make it happen. He invited us along on his journey into the unknown, unlocking opportunity for each of us. Keith thrived when he connected ideas, people, places. We all demanded answers and he gave us more questions. It was impossible to thank him for anything. He would turn crimson, equivocate, and evaporate. The only way to express gratitude was to spiral outward on your own power. It’s hard to imagine traveling without him. Now the only way to say ‘thanks’ is to press on. And to come back with a crackerjack of a story.” —George W. Stone, editor at large, National Geographic Traveler
“We worked on so many stories together. I remember once he picked up a stone from Papua New Guinea—it was sitting on his desk—and we started talking about how a single object could have so much meaning (to one person) and yet no meaning at all (to anyone else). That one observation led to a two-hour conversation and a book idea. He was curious and imaginative, and knew how to put out a great travel magazine, a magazine full of stories, not just destinations.” —Catherine Karnow, contributing photographer, National Geographic Traveler
“I would never have written anything if it had not been for Keith. He was the first to give me a chance. He was unwavering in his commitment to me when there was no reason for him to be. He was a mentor, a cheerleader, an exacting and demanding boss. He had grand vision and loathed the mundane. I hated sailing with him. Most importantly, he was my dear friend.” —Andrew McCarthy, contributing editor, National Geographic Traveler
“Keith was complicated, he was charismatic, he was a tireless mentor and champion for those just starting out in the business. (I know because I witnessed the constant stream of young people showing up at his office, which was next to mine for several years.) He was also a great reader and I enjoyed trading book recommendations with him. John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, ‘A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.’ Keith Bellows was a journey of a lifetime.” —Amy Alipio, features editor, National Geographic Traveler
“When Keith entered the room, everything—and everybody—became brighter. The atmosphere changed and glowed, it seems to me now, with the light of untold possibilities. When he smiled at you (and he often did) it seemed as if he were seeing a better person than the one you knew yourself to be. I’ll miss the bigger world that he seemed to create with his good spirit. We taught the first Traveler photography seminars together, he and I, the editor and the photographer telling it like it was. He gave it out straight, never glossing over the tough work travel and travel photography required. But he never quashed dreams: Doors seemed to open wide when Keith talked.” —Jim Richardson, contributing photographer, National Geographic Traveler
“Whatever words I have won’t be right ones—that was Keith’s job. He was brilliant, a creative genius who believed in people. I was his public relations person, but the truth is, Keith was the real promoter. He believed in the power of travel to change the world, but really he believed in people. He lifted them up through his words, stories, and wit, but it was his power to make people believe in themselves and their ideas that was his true gift.” —Heather Wyatt, director of communications, National Geographic Traveler
“My first stab at an article for Traveler wasn’t my greatest work. Keith spiked it, but there would be time—and there was—for great stories. Teased out, worked up, and edited by Keith with his eye for emotion, resonance, the wonder travel inspires and the light of understanding it can bring. Keith, you’re the light now. Travel safe. Travel well.” —Andrew Nelson, contributing editor, National Geographic Traveler
“Keith didn’t waste time, or suffer fools. It’s what I think made him both so good at his job and so difficult a personality for some. Every single piece I’ve written for Traveler or Intelligent Travel was written with the knowledge of how precious a thing it is to be believed in. I always wrote with the thought that I didn’t want to let him down.” —Heather Greenwood Davis, family travel columnist, National Geographic Traveler
“I first met Keith shortly after he took over as editor-in-chief at Traveler. From the beginning we bonded deeply over our fervent shared belief in stories and the power of storytelling, and in travel and the power of travel. Our relationship crystallized in 2007, when I was about to step down as Global Travel Editor at Lonely Planet and he asked me to write a column about books with a transporting sense of place; that was my introduction to the Traveler family, and in the years since, that wonderful family has become a cherished one for me. Keith was always scanning the horizon for the next great thing, without ever losing his sense of the wonder of the world and its power to enlighten and transform. I believe that he lives on deeply and widely in the beautiful global weave of people whom he touched.” —Don George, editor at large, National Geographic Traveler
“Fitting I’m heading to Vancouver today, one of Keith’s favorite cities. In fact, the last time I visited, which was a few years ago, we were together and celebrating the completion of ‘50 Places of Lifetime: Canada.’ I will miss Keith the business partner, colleague, and visionary, but I will remember him as a great friend who enjoyed the gift of travel and wanted others to do the same.” —Kimberly Connaghan, publisher and vice president, National Geographic Traveler
“There are few true visionaries left in travel media. Keith was the ultimate visionary—someone who had starry-eyed dreams of what travel could do, while knowing that the most magical moments are usually small and catch you off guard. In London during a conference, we started talking about the concept of the flâneur from French literature and how wonderful it is to explore a city that way. I happened to be in Berlin this weekend when I learned of his death, and strolled the city as a flâneur in his honor.” —Annie Fitzsimmons, National Geographic’s Urban Insider
“Keith loved to travel. No matter where he sent me out in the world on assignment [as National Geographic’s original Digital Nomad], he always wanted to talk about it afterward. Yes, he’d been everywhere, but simply talking about faraway places got him excited—his eyes lit up and he would fill with this rabid energy, the same excitement that propelled the great explorers.” —Andrew Evans, former National Geographic Digital Nomad
“Fifteen years ago, ecotourism was making headway. But to truly transform the fast-growing travel industry as a powerful force for saving endangered species, safeguarding cultural heritage, and alleviating poverty, we needed to do more, and faster. The go-to man was Keith. Would Traveler help launch the first global award using feet-on-the-ground fact checking to recognize and encourage travel companies committed to conservation and improving the lives of local people? ‘I’m in,’ he replied. With that the World Legacy Awards were born. He called me two weeks ago to talk about how we could take things to the next level. We planned to meet at his house on the Eastern Shore later this month to brainstorm and start putting ideas onto paper. To the very end, Keith was thinking about travel and making the world a better place.” —Costas Christ, editor at large, National Geographic Traveler
“Sitting around the dinner table one night, Keith said, ‘Where do you want to go? Don’t think about it, just say what comes into your head!’ ‘I want to go down the Amazon on an old wooden ferry with hammocks!’ I said. A few months later David Alan Harvey and I were floating down the Amazon on an old wooden ferry, swinging in our hammocks and dancing to the double time beat of samba on the roof. That was Keith. The world is a much diminished place without him.” —Carl Hoffman, author and frequent National Geographic Traveler contributor
“Keith was always a few steps ahead. Rather than being comfortable with success, he challenged himself and encouraged others to think bigger, differently, and to not be afraid of risk. He was a true mentor who listened to every idea and fought to make the ones he believed in a reality. Then he would smile, put his hands in prayer pose, bow, and send you off to travel the world.” —John Campbell, vice president, National Geographic Global Media