A Q&A with Crooked Trails Co-Founder Chris Mackay
Since 1998, local nonprofit travel organization Crooked Trails has done its part to transform tourism into a positive force. The team designs custom, interactive adventures in addition to supporting community development projects in partnership with local communities, NGOs and operators. The overarching aim? “To inspire travelers to get involved in the places they visit and to empower locals to take charge of tourism in their communities.”
We recently enjoyed chatting with Co-Founder and Executive Director Chris Mackay, and we suspect you’ll feel equally inspired by her passion and ambition (not to mention her enviable passport stamp collection!).
Seattleite: Have you been a traveler your entire life? When did you first discover travel as a true passion?
Chris Mackay: My mother brought me to India when I was 16, almost 40 years ago. It was a very different India then, before GATT so everything you saw and could buy was made in India. It was intense, and it got the travel bug going for sure. I returned to India when I was 21, for 3 months on my own, and that was when the passion for culture and travel was ignited.
S: When and how did you transition this wanderlust into your livelihood?
CM: I started guiding locally in the wilderness of Colorado and later Washington in my early twenties. I knew I liked bringing people to new places and seeing them challenge themselves. The first time I lead a group outside the U.S., I was only 19 and took a school bus load of high-schoolers to the Sonora Desert in Baja. It was incredible and one of the best experiences of my life.
After undergraduate, I spent 6 months living in Paris and travelling. This got the wheels moving and I dreamed of starting my own travel company but had no idea I would actually do it. The real foundation of Crooked Trails started after graduate school on a solo trip around the world. I saw a lot of disrespectful tourism going on and thought there has to be another way. I found myself in Northern Thailand with a group of people and the lead guide asked if I wanted to take over the trips. The next year I returned with my soon to be co-founder of Crooked Trails, Tammy Leland, and that was the beginning of Crooked Trails. That was 20 years ago.
S: Why is it so important to you to make a positive impact when traveling?
CM: Personally, it is important to me to make a positive impact everywhere all the time. It goes from saying “yes” to family/friends requests for assistance to picking up trash on my street. When it comes to travel, I take it to a higher level. I think it is because this is my business and my industry and I feel a responsibility to make travel all it can be. There are so many negative impacts of travel and I know we can change that. I focus on how to make travel a positive thing.
S: Of all your many accomplishments, which projects have brought the most pride/satisfaction?
CM: I remember standing in a small village in Peru at about 13,000 feet and asking the village headman what was the most serious issue facing his village. He told me it was nutrition. We talked for a while and decided on a heifer type of project bringing cows to the community, which would provide both milk and manure. Within one week, I had enough money to purchase seven cows, which had to come from Lake Titicaca as they were accustomed to the high altitude. When I visited the next year, many cows had given birth and there were 11 in the herd, all providing much needed milk. I remember an old man, in torn cloths, tire sandals and bad teeth walked his gorgeous heifer up to me and with tears in his eyes. He thanked me for changing the life of his family. That was a good one. I also very proud of the school we built in the village of Chandeni, Nepal. I love those kids and those villagers.
S: What are you currently working on that excites you most?
CM: I just returned from Kenya, where I was visiting a Kalenjin village to look at building a running tourism program. The Kalenjin Tribe of Kenya are famous for being a running culture, producing some of the best long distance runners in the world, often winning the top seats in running competitions. Yet, despite their global recognition, the villages that produce these elite runners are often mired in deep poverty, suffering from lack of access to water, education, health care and meaningful work. That was the case of the village I was in called Matungen. Our goal is to provide the community with the infrastructure and tools they need to create a unique opportunity for runners to from around the world to come and train with some of the best natural runners in the world. The project will also bring water and jobs to the community.
S: How can Seattle readers join in on upcoming trips and projects?
CM: We have a handful of group trips a year, which anyone can join. Since this is our 20th anniversary, we have three founder led trips; Peru, Cameroon and India. All have very specific issues they are addressing and for Peru and Cameroon they will be off the beaten track. India is the one I am leading and we are meeting with NGOs at the forefront of the fight against human trafficking. This will be an incredible program— powerful, inspirational and meaningful. All the trip itineraries and info is on our website.
S: What are some ways to get involved right here in our own city?
CM: Our mission is to help people reach out across the cultural divide and we often have events right here in Seattle. If people join the e-news they will get alerts on what is going on and how to join in.
S: What are three unexpected items you’d never travel without?
CM: 1-I always take Grapefruit Seed Extract. It’s a natural gut antibiotic and I think it works. Besides the occasional food poisoning, I have not gotten sick while travelling. 2-Miscellaneous small gifts. I just never know when I will end up in someone’s home enjoying their hospitality and wishing I had a small gift to reciprocate. 3-I don’t know if a SteriPEN is unexpected but I would never leave without it. We believe in lessening our impact and one way to do that is to travel prepared to filter your own water. We stand behind this idea and want to support other operators and travelers to follow suit so we founded a campaign three years ago called Travelers Against Plastic. http://www.travelersagainstplastic.org Check it out and sign the pledge.
S: How many weeks a year are you on the road?
CM: I usually have 3-4 international trips a year scheduled. This year was Kenya in March, Thailand is scheduled for May, domestic fun in July, India in September and I am contemplating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca I the fall. If I did not have a 14-year-old daughter, I would be gone much more. I really need to get to Vietnam and Bhutan this year but I just don’t’ have the time.
S: How do you get grounded at home before long stretches of being away?
CM: I walk through Schmitz Park. I love it there. It feels like the best of the PNW only one block from my home. I know the trees and bushes by heart, and it feels like visiting friends. It settles me. I also do yoga and spend time with friends and family.
S: What keeps you going back for more?
CM: This world is big and vast and gorgeous and there is so much I want to see. The lure of seeing something new is always intriguing, but going back to see friends and visit communities I have gone to for years is what really pulls on the heart strings. I love being surrounded by people who live and think differently than I do.
S: What is the biggest gift you’ve gained from global travel?