My husband and I are about to start off on a leisurely drive to Colorado. When we get there, I’ll attend Left Coast Crime while Mick explores the countryside. Afterwards we’re going to see Mesa Verde if possible, then head west through New Mexico and Arizona. A lot of that will be new country to me at ground level, and I’m looking forward to seeing two of my siblings on the way. A nice trip. The prospect does not make my heart go pitty-pat, for a bunch of reasons including sciatica, but it has been ten years since we took a long trip, so we’re almost under an obligation to travel.
That’s a very American conviction. As recently as the eighteenth century, English sources regarded vagabonds and wanderers with extreme suspicion, and the Irish held wakes for family members who had to travel to America. Americans, by contrast, are born nomads. When I was young, I couldn’t wait to travel. Only recently have I begun to wonder whether it’s always a good thing to be footloose.
From the viewpoint of a writer, a trip is necessarily a good thing, a metaphor for narrative. Most of the great novels involve at least a short journey and quite a few begin with the hero setting out on a quest–like Tom Jones’s attempt to find his father. I used to lead study-tours of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and tour members who wanted academic credit had to keep a travel journal. Everyone groaned, but most of them found their journals easy to write because they were looking outward and watching the world change. Today, thumbing through my own journals, I can still call up incidents that happened ten or more years ago in vivid detail. So maybe I’ll keep a journal this time too. At my age, anything that sharpens memory is flat out good.
Writers who are thinking of traveling ought to keep in mind that the most productive trips for artists–novelists, poets, painters, photographers, even musicians–are slow trips, not the kind that visit four countries in three days. On one of our trips to Scotland, the party consisted of me, my husband (a photographer), and two friends (both photographers). I had a camera but refused to use it because I’m a little apt to photograph my thumb. Besides, putting a rectangular frame around what I was seeing seemed horribly limiting. I did keep a journal–another kind of frame. One day we hopped in the car around nine in the morning and set off, determined to stop whenever we saw anything photogenic. At the end of a full day of driving, we had covered 43 miles. American tourists look at a map of Scotland or England and imagine they can cross the country in a couple of hours. Not. Nor should they want to. I must admit that our 43-mile day had me near the screaming point (as the only non-photographer), but the photos were–and are–superb. And who knows, maybe I saw some things outside the rectangular frame.
So off we go. Wish us bon voyage.