Bill Ball is a natural storyteller and tour guide. He can’t help himself. There’s something about the way his brain is made up that wants to educate you on the place you are sitting in or standing near or walking through. This works in his favor as he has chosen runs a travel company which specializes in well planned trips in various parts of the world, as well as hosts and produces a series of travel documentaries. I’ve known him my entire life, as he was my dad’s roommate in college, so I’ve had the opportunity to hear many of his stories. Last October I sat down with him in a Starbucks in the suburbs of Chicago and asked him to tell me a little bit about his adventures as a dreamer and what it had taken to get to where he was. This is an excerpt from that conversation.
Melissa: Tell me how you started planning tours and running them.
Bill: A couple of years out of college a buddy and I decided that we had never traveled out of the United States and that we were going to travel. We booked a tour; it was one of those economy ones. I remember it was $990. It was all of Italy, Paris, and London —
Melissa: In like a week? (laughs)
Bill: Ten days. You really moved. We were in Paris and it was one of these trips where they give you a four hour tour and then you have two days free. It gave me a chance to start planning. I wanted to do all the planning. My buddy wasn’t into it, but I planned every second and it turned out really well. That’s probably where I got my feel for putting together trips. Even though it was a group trip put on by someone else; it was so skeletal. I think by the time it was over my buddy was ready to punch me because I moved him so quickly from museum to museum. I never really dreamed I’d get back there again. I thought that was my one chance. I was going to see it all. Subsequently, I’ve probably been back to all those places thirty or thirty-five times, always finding new things to do. It was ironic. Had I known then what I know now, I would have relaxed and seen just a few things. But maybe that did set me up for my desire now to see as much as I can and do as much as I can.
Melissa: So how did you get here? You feel like this is living your dream, right?
Bill: Yeah. You know, it’s funny. In one way, after starting to live my dream I realized where the roots of it came from. I remember as a little kid watching a show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and there was a guy on it called Marlon Perkins who had been a zoo director in Chicago and St Louis. I would watch every Sunday as he would go to some exotic location to talk about animals and conservation and work on projects. I said, “I want his job when he retires.” He obviously retired long before I had a chance to do that and then the show disappeared. But I think that’s where I got the first idea to do what I’m doing.
He went to all these exotic locations; South America, Africa, and places here in the United States to see wildlife. I think that kind of morphed into the traveling company because a lot of what we do is wildlife based and that is probably somewhat dear to my heart. From there the travel morphed into the television show and that involves doing a lot of filming in various places. It ended up going that way. There wasn’t a neat plan that I laid out to go to get there. But, it ended up going to the place where I, as a little kid, said I’d love to do which is having a show on wildlife and working with conservation to expose that kind of thing to the general public. I like to help people understand what they can do on a daily basis.
Melissa: I think that’s a really good principle, not just in conservation, but in life in general.
Bill: You can’t just try to save the Earth one day a year on a special conservation day. It has to be an everyday occurrence. And little things, as cities begin to have recycling and as people talk about global warming. Even as people visit national parks here in the United States and overseas. Just by being there they are giving impetus to preserve the land and wildlife.
Wolves are being reintroduced to Yellowstone. Activists pushed for that. Later, other people joined the cause because they saw an economic value to it as well. It brought more people to Yellowstone at times of the year when it didn’t have many visitors, like in the winter. It helped local businesses. And, it gave the locals which are affected by the wolves, who take sheep or calves, a reason to support it.
Africa is probably a great example or India. In the United States, we can pay compensation to someone who loses a cow to a grizzly. In Africa. if you lose a cow, there isn’t someone to pay you compensation. So, there has to be a reason for the wildlife to exist and that becomes the economics. I’ve seen reports come out of Kenya that one western tourist going into a national park there creates fives jobs. So, now there is a reason to preserve things and tourism is one of those. Tourism can be carried too far and create problems for wildlife but overall it’s one of the best things for conservation. Simple ways that people can save wildlife is simply to go and see it, to enjoy it.
Melissa: You’re saying conservation not only preserves animals but also preserves humanity as well.
Bill: On a couple levels. One, on the most obvious level, you have areas of India and Africa where new income is coming because of the parks. But two, I think there is a deeper hope for humanity because there are areas you can get to and see things as they have been before. You can get in touch with nature and our most primeval instincts.
Man doesn’t do well living in an asphalt jungle.
You need to walk trails and see trees. You need to hear birds and part of that is a reinvigoration. It’s not just for the animals. It’s also to be more human.
Melissa: I think there’s something to be said for this feeling of the earth under your feet. I was speaking to a friend about it the other day, about when you’re grieving. Whether it is a death or some other type of grief, sometimes you close yourself off inside. You need to go outside and reconnect with the world you live in and feel it beneath you. Be present in it. That’s part of the living you’re talking about too.