Kellee Edwards has built her life and career around being on the move. As an award-winning travel journalist, trailblazing TV host, licensed pilot, open-water scuba diver and all-around adventurer extraordinaire, she’s traveled to more than 60 countries and explored some of the most remote areas on Earth while establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the travel industry. So how did this globetrotting dynamo — whose self-made brand, “Kellee Set Go!”, evokes the spirit of someone perpetually ready for her next great journey — find her home base in a quiet little neighborhood like Toluca Lake?
“Happy accident,” she says. Back in 2006, Edwards was growing weary of commuting all the way from Orange County to the Burbank area, where she was then working in radio and as an entertainment reporter, and decided she needed a place within easy biking or walking distance. When she stumbled upon Toluca Lake, she remembers, “I felt safe and comfortable immediately. It was a perfect small, hometown feeling for a single woman.”
While Edwards’ travel career had yet to take wing, her choice of a new community was even more perfect than she’d known. She was later elated to discover the “divine coincidence” that Toluca Lake had also been home to aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, who played golf at Lakeside Golf Club, researched aviation at the North Hollywood Library, regularly flew out of airfields in Glendale and Burbank, and planned her fateful 1937 round-the-world flight attempt while living in a house on Valley Spring Lane. “I could have never guessed that I would be moving into a neighborhood she lived in,” Edwards says.
Earlier in her life, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Edwards also might not have guessed she’d ever become an adventurer and flyer like Earhart herself. “My parents didn’t have passports, and my dad didn’t like airplanes,” she says. Edwards recalls the first time she ever saw mountains, from the window of a Greyhound bus when she and her mother moved to San Bernardino while she was in grade school, as “life-altering.” In California, her stepfather introduced her to the great outdoors on family vacations: “We didn’t have a lot of money at the time and couldn’t afford to get on the plane, so we would take road trips — Hearst Castle, Big Bear, camping, the beach.”
After earning her broadcast journalism degree and working in media for a while, Edwards decided what she really wanted was a career that allowed her to explore the world — a goal she proceeded to pursue relentlessly over the course of the next seven years. Starting with a series of self-produced videos on YouTube documenting her solo travels to places like Bangkok and Istanbul, she landed a job as an on-air travel expert for Fox 5 San Diego before finally becoming the first Black woman to host a show on the Travel Channel: Mysterious Islands, which launched in 2017. “They said, ‘We’ve never seen anyone like you,’ and I thought, ‘Bingo!’” she remembers of her pitch meeting with the network. “It seemed like all the travel professionals were older white males. I wanted to see myself represented in that space, because there’s a stigma that my community and culture don’t travel, and women don’t solo travel. It’s not true.”
The secret to Edwards’ success was finding a niche that set her apart in the industry: adventure travel. Strategically expanding her skill set, she overcame her fear of open water to obtain her scuba diving certification, conquered her fear of heights to earn her pilot’s license, learned how to ride a motorcycle and undertook treks that included summiting Mt. Hood. “I don’t want to let fear consume me as a person,” she explains. “I’m not fearless, but I don’t want to allow the unknown to formulate my legacy. I always say everything you want is on the other side of fear.” That was certainly the case for Edwards, as her proficiency for exploring by land, sea and air opened up new off-the-grid opportunities and shaped Mysterious Islands, which was designed to encompass her range of abilities — not only flying, diving and hiking to isolated landscapes, but also using her journalism skills to relate with the people who live there, including experiencing the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee people on Sapelo off the coast of Georgia and witnessing funeral ceremonies on Sulawesi in Indonesia.
Admittedly, all that adventure didn’t leave much leeway to enjoy the quiet life in Toluca Lake. Edwards estimates that since 2015, she’d spent 50% to 80% of her time on the road; in 2019, she traveled more than 120,000 miles around the world. As 2020 began, she hoped to scale back and be home a little more — and then the pandemic hit. With her industry suddenly at a halt, Edwards, like so many others, was forced to adapt. The result was a mindset shift: Instead of rushing to her next destination, she was able to take time to check in with her loved ones, as well as herself. “It allowed me to become a better friend, a better daughter, a better colleague, a better mentor, just by doing some deep diving,” she says. “I feel like I’ve grown into two additional versions of me, ‘Kellee Set Grow’ and ‘Kellee Set Slow,’ which has allowed me to make more of an impact on my place in the world.”
In fact, Edwards’ career would flourish during the pandemic, in spite of the ongoing uncertainty plaguing the travel world. Certainly, her specialties helped her continue to roam safely — as an adventure traveler, she was already visiting uncrowded areas and spending most of her time outdoors, and as a pilot, she was able to fly herself where she wanted to go. But after that pause to reflect and refocus her goals, she was also able to find new ways to connect with the travel community on a deeper level. “I’ve delivered over 15 keynote speeches and participated in numerous panels without having to leave Toluca Lake,” she says. Further, in mid-2020, she launched her Travel + Leisure podcast, Let’s Go Together, which features diverse voices sharing their travel experiences. “We absolutely set out to tell stories that were not being told in the travel industry,” Edwards says. In its 50-plus episodes thus far, the show has highlighted travelers with disabilities and mental illnesses; LGBTQ+ travelers; solo female travelers; faith-based travel; heritage travel; Black, Asian and indigenous travelers; and more. “I interviewed someone about suicide. I’ve interviewed someone about the anxiety they experience while at the airport, before even getting on the airplane…. I spoke to a young woman who was sexually assaulted by a guide,” Edwards says. “It was humbling to listen to these stories, and also inspiring. I was able to learn so much and be privileged to have firsthand accounts of people who, no matter what adversity they face or have faced in their travels, still see travel as one of the most beautiful aspects of their life.”
The podcast is one facet of Edwards’ larger mission to promote diversity and inclusion within the industry. As a pioneer on many fronts, she’s working to inspire others who aren’t represented in traditional depictions of travel and aviation — for instance, by being on the board of the Fly Compton Aero Club, providing local young people with lessons and taking them on their first airplane rides. Additionally, she strives to support women-owned and minority-owned businesses, and believes consumers play a “ground-level” role in “purposefully spending their time, their effort and especially their money” in ways that align with their values. But true systemic change, she says, needs to happen at the top: “I want to see people of color reflected in the travel industry’s marketing initiatives, their advertising, their billboards — and especially on their boards and in their C-suites.” Black leisure travelers in the United States spent $109.4 billion on travel in 2019, yet they and other minority groups are still not considered target consumers by many travel businesses and lack visibility in travel marketing and media. That’s why Edwards is also focused on her work as a brand ambassador for companies like Ford Motors, collaborations with Cirrus Aircraft and Bose Aviation, and her goal of having honest conversations with corporate leadership throughout the industry about how they can “walk the walk.” Rather than calling out bias, she views her role as “calling in” — because “when you call people out they get defensive, and you don’t get anywhere. It’s when you call in that you have a level of understanding and empathy for other people’s lack of knowledge or lack of experience. That’s where the work needs to be done.” And although she’s grateful to have a large enough platform to be part of those conversations, it’s not enough to be the sole face of diversity in the room. “Because I’m there, so is someone else — but you have to look,” she says. “Too often with the industry as a whole, if you scratch the surface and it’s not right there, then they’re not digging any deeper. And we need miners. We don’t need people with the little shovels, like you’ve got a little plant from Home Depot that you need to grow. We’re over here trying to grow redwoods.”
As if all this weren’t enough, Edwards has been popping up everywhere from NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! to Netflix’s Is It Cake? — and she’s got an exciting new project in the works this summer: “I have created, am executive-producing and hosting a TV show called Friends in High Places, in the vein of Carpool Karaoke and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, where I will be flying notable individuals in the aircraft with me and interviewing them,” she says. “It’s going to be really fun.” When she’s not working, she hopes to take some trips with family and friends — flying “Kellair,” as she jokes. “I feel like this will be the summer of me being my own tour guide around the United States, in a small general aviation aircraft. Maybe for the first time I will see the Grand Canyon for myself.” Yes, that’s right: The woman who’s dogsledded in Alaska, trekked the active Pacaya volcano in Guatemala, dived to a shipwreck in Israel and followed an anti-poaching team in Kenya hasn’t yet made it to that major landmark one state over. “I feel like I’ve done it backwards — I’ve done all the crazy remote places already, and not explored in my own backyard,” she laughs. “So this will be the summer of exploring my own backyard.”
Exploring in your own backyard is also great advice for nonprofessional travelers who are cautiously venturing back out after two years at home, Edwards adds. Among her recommendations for local adventures: hiking Griffith Park, Bronson Canyon, Fryman Canyon or Lake Hollywood; visiting Griffith Observatory at night; a day of picnicking and paddleboating at Calamigos Ranch; or a trip to Catalina (she flies there, of course), where “they have the zipline, they have the Descanso Beach Club, you can camp over there, go hiking, eat a buffalo burger. It feels like you’re in another country without having to leave Southern California or even L.A. County.”
While Edwards encourages people to “be honest with their personal feelings about travel and honor those feelings,” she also believes it’s important to push one’s limits a little, especially now. “If we’ve learned anything in these past few years, it’s that money can be earned and returned, but time cannot,” she says. “It’s very important to make your experiences and memories count. And so I feel like, because time can be fleeting, I really want people to step a little bit out of their comfort zone. See how you feel, and go a half-inch past that.” That might mean taking a road trip, getting on an airplane (or even “taking your first flight lesson — hint, hint”) or planning that bucket-list vacation (Edwards recommends Alaska: “It’s one of my favorite places in the world; it gives you unparalleled beauty, adventure, experiences, culture, wildlife.”). Whatever it is, she says, “If you’re getting that closed-in feeling that you don’t have any connection with anyone in the world, go out and meet the world — because the world still wants to meet you.”
And that doesn’t need to happen halfway around the globe; Edwards reminds us there are plenty of opportunities to feel connected with others right here in Toluca Lake, where some of her favorite neighborhood outings include dinners at Prosecco Trattoria, shopping for produce at the farmers market, lattes at Priscilla’s and evenings with friends at Spin the Bottle or Forman’s. “I feel like Riverside Drive has really been a one-stop shop for all of my needs,” she says, but the attraction is about far more than convenience. “It gives me the fuzzies; it’s all warm and snuggly. My interactions here are not transactional,” she adds. “I’m really grateful for the community. I feel like I grew up here. No matter where I’m at in the world, I can come back here and find a sense of belonging and comfort, where I always feel welcome. Toluca Lake has been and will always feel like home.”