Making the most of memories

The words in my travel journal jumped, jostled and bumped across the page: Jagged letters marked the year 1979, an end-of-summer family trip … six of us crammed into a Toyota station wagon on a journey from Mobile, Ala., to Ottawa, Canada. I huddled in the back, where I could write about the things I saw. The jagged letters remind me, even now, how pot-holed and rutted the highways were in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

My words summon scenes and flavors: two horses rearing up and pawing at each other as a farmer tossed haybales out the back of his truck; a train ride through urban Philadelphia, past warehouses and factories into the old town, where I stood in a cobbled courtyard — Benjamin Franklin’s former hang out, near the Liberty Bell. I remember standing on an overlook at Niagara Falls and feeling its misty spray on my face; the buttery-herbed taste and impossibly chewy texture of escargot in a Montreal restaurant where we celebrated my little brother’s 15th birthday and the chef put sparklers in the cake.

A journal goes deeper than travel photos: My amateurish shot of a tour boat near the main falls doesn’t communicate the range of feelings I recorded in my notebook. A photo doesn’t capture how bemused I was, at 17, to have my uncle’s Canadian friends asking whether we still had outhouses in my home state of Alabama.

My descriptions and roadside musings weren’t the romantically epic stuff of Thor Heyerdahl’s tale of a voyage across the Pacific in a rickety raft (Kon-Tiki), nor did I have that dry humor Mark Twain applied to his memories of traveling across Europe (Innocents Abroad).

A travel journal doesn’t have to be anything fancy or fit for publication. In Leaving a Trace, writer Alexandra Johnson quotes English author Virginia Woolf, who at 34 mused, “What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it [to] resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself … into a mold transparent enough to reflect the light of our life.”

A travel journal is a diary of sorts: On the journey from the Deep South to Canada, I’d start each entry with the date and place, like the entry in a ship’s log. That was the only constancy, for sometimes I wrote what I was thinking about (like setting off to college a few weeks after our return); sometimes I wrote about what I did or saw (the changing of the decidedly British-looking guard on the capital grounds in Ottawa).

Johnson suggests, “Keep a travel journal as if writing a long letter to a close friend. By writing it for someone else’s eyes, you [will] have to supply context — place names, sights, interesting local information. (Getting home and reading ‘beautiful view, rural midwestern town’ is as useless as a roll of overexposed photos … )”

She adds a few other notions gathered from an experienced travel writer: “Never pack journals in a suitcase (they can get lost); keep journals in zippered plastic bags for climate protection; be sure a journal has acid-free paper to guarantee longevity.”

I might add that you should pick a pen that won’t run if the paper gets wet (my detailed notes of a rafting trip were nearly lost on that account) … and bring extra pens! (Although, these days, airline security might get nervous about them: On the way to Denver at Christmas, we had to open and display the contents of a wooden art case my niece was carrying.)

I’ve also kept travel journals on my laptop computer … but pen and paper remains the lightest, easiest way to go. Johnson also suggests turning your journal into a trip scrapbook by including postcards, ticket stubs from famous landmarks/museums/etc., jotted-down names of new friends and great restaurants you found. Or keep the journal with your trip partner, each contributing tidbits and entries as you will. (My Canada journal is scattered with scribbled words my littlest sister, then four, snuck onto the pages when I wasn’t looking.)

And here’s a thought from author Sheila Bender in Keeping a Journal You Love: “Journaling about new settings, people and sites can be invigorating, keeping you from lapsing into the same old thoughts and words.”

Sure shots:Taking the best possible pictures

I’ve got boxes and boxes of travel photos. Most are … well, kind of boring (like my Instamatic shot of a tour boat near Niagara Falls). Some are good ideas gone bad (hair whipping across my face then straight up like an astronaut during a ferry-boat crossing of Mobile Bay). But like all good photographers, I don’t give up. I keep trying to get that perfect sunset shot at Orange Beach, that perfect mountain panorama at Shining Rock.

Here’s a few notions I’ve gleaned during my years at Mountain Xpress (and back home, where one grandmother swears she’ll disown me if I click a camera in her face so much as one more time):

• Take lots and lots of pictures, if you can. National Geographic photographers come back from the field with bag-loads of shot film, but only publish a few of their best shots. With digital cameras, you have the luxury of deleting bad pictures immediately to make room for the next shot.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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