Elizabeth Pope, Writing Consultant
Traveling abroad and throughout the National Parks of the United States formed the bedrock of my undergraduate and graduate education. I began travel writing in my twenties, which consisted of a leather-bound journal that was tied with a string, rather than bound with a lock. The journal was an atlas of maps and keys of language that only I might understand rather than linear prose. There were train numbers to catch from Zurich to Rome, Paris to Versailles, Munich to Amsterdam, and London to Stratford-Upon-Avon. At a bed and breakfast in the town where Shakespeare was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I—absent-mindedly—left my travel journal 20 years ago on a wooden table with lace doilies and a blush oil lamp.
There were names of objects that I stumbled onto in museums like a piece of the Berlin Wall that was spray-painted “Change Your Life.” There were scribbled streets that led to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where Oscar Wilde was buried. There was a recipe for the traditional British breakfast that I ate the morning I lost my journal. Blood pudding resides in a crevasse of my mind that does not vanish—the way blood pudding looked blackened as a briquet of coal, eggs yolk-up and runny, baked beans in a tomato gravy, mushrooms sautéed, warm tomatoes, marmalade, and black tea. Names of ruins and eroding statues of goddesses within the fountains forming the roman streets led me back to gelato or mussels cooked in lemony saffron, wine, and saltwater at that restaurant down the street from the Colosseum in Rome—that I might never return to but recall through association of hunger that pulled me through landscapes.
I’ve often thought of the poem lost in those pages, left in England at the bed and breakfast, like an artifact for someone else to discover. I think of the map inside that journal that led to the restaurant in Interlaken, where cattle herds rounded the center of the city, where I shared Rösti, a giant pancake of potatoes—dripping in beer and butter—before hiking the Swiss Alps, before taking the Grindelwald Terminal (a sky-lift) to Jungfraujoch and the observatory, where snow whips in artic winds, where it’s impossible to walk in the wind at peaks of 11,000 feet above sea level. And it’s for that reason, I’ve never traveled with such a fine leather-bound journal again. A journal like that might eventually slip from fingers by negligence, wind, or distraction over long voyages with interchanges of trains, trams, sky-lifts, and airplanes; or while camping and hiking through rural and rough terrain.
Now, I travel with small notebooks and only write words, brief phrases, and maps that lead to impressions while in a specific scene to jog my memory. I practice presence while traveling. I refrain from a montage of pictures, but I do take photo journals of images that I wish to remember like the mirage restaurant with a wooden windmill and a ghost train that appeared after hours of desolate Icelandic rock and moss-scape through the passenger windows as we traveled from Sioux Falls to Badlands National Park. Or the sun setting over the Badlands when I wanted to remember eroding mountains as a monument to our ecological existence, the process of erosion by a river—the way the White River and Cheyenne River eroded millions of years of rock deposits to form a landscape that looks like an extraterrestrial glacial melt desert. Or the way the fossils felt as though they were crumbling under our feet as we ascended to one of the many summits that form the silhouette of the Badlands. I worked to remember that vantage were everything is exposed and eternal gorges with plates of rock form a superposition of coverings, as if to protect the oldest layers of earth. I worked to remember that the elements were careless. Exposed layers of earth in South Dakota disappear through harsh winters, thunderstorms that rock the sky with lightening and belt so loud it sounds like the earth is cracking, and winds that fall into themselves to form tornadoes that move through campgrounds to disappear as if they never existed.
I worked to remember bison from our time in South Dakota—its brindle coat that growths thick like an insulated wall to melt snow and subsist subzero temperatures, its head as beast-like as a minotaur, large as a rhinoceros, and royal as a lion arriving out of the visage of the grasslands in herds. I worked to remember the terror and electricity of standing close enough to touch a buffalo that wandered from the herd. The buffalo that walked beside my sister and posed for that one singular good photograph before the herd formed a wall in the road. High on adrenaline from such closeness, we blindly failed to consider that with a single bow of a horn that buffalo might flip us into air and trample us into the prairie dogs that kept peeping up like jack-n-the boxes.
Some images are hard to forget while traveling, especially when delays and detours occur. Like when the RV in front of us in the Black Hills lodged and stuck in the natural tunnel of the Needles, landmasses of granite that rise out of the mountains like cathedrals. The Needles ascend like petrified staffs of the gods and goddesses, or stalagmites. Traveling journal, in situ, shouldn’t be a novel of hours spent writing prose or poems. A travel journal should consist of signals, keys, places, names, and locations to remember to tell someone to visit. A travel journal should be shared so that others can locate the experience. Although there is never a replication of a singular experience, like the sunset we stumbled on while driving Wilderness Loop where we fed wild horses and wild burros in South Dakota. That sunset will never look or feel the same for the next person who visits that exact location any other time in history. In that sunset we were tired, dirty from camping, and enamored with the expanse of a landscape that we never knew existed before placing our feet on the ground and looking around.
I kept a travel log to remember waking up our ragged, sleepy children from tree hammocks and tents at the campsite in Acadia National Park at 3 a.m.to watch the first sunrise hit the continental United States on Cadillac Mountain in Maine. It’s the coffee that I remember most around camp in the morning, bits of grounds floating in the aluminum percolator, coal dark coffee, the salt that forms on the rim of your skin when you wake beside the rock cliffs of Maine, the way the glacial lake steals your breath after jumping from the granite boulders forming the natural pools that rest in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Travel logs are reserved for the moments you might be stuck in traffic or around a campfire when everyone is tired, dishes are washed, food is in bear-proof storage away from the tents and hammocks, and the everyone is too tired to eat the marshmallows they’ve roasted. Travel writing is a moment of reflection in mind, memory, word, or picture. It’s something that is written quickly so that you can revisit it again when you arrive home. Then, at home—when you’re sick for another adventure—that’s the time to unearth notes, pictures, and memories to piece together the trip.