Monday, March 4, 2013

The Lasting Value of a Travel Journal

by Julia Buckley

I have all sorts of pictures from the trips I've taken in my life; they capture fleeting images of places I might otherwise have forgotten.  What the pictures don't provide, however, is an in-depth look at what I experienced, and, as we all know, those experiences can fade away over time.  So I'm always delighted when I'm cleaning (a sort of rare event) and I run across a past travel journal.  For some trips (many of which I took in childhood), the journals begin and end on Day One.  Even those are rather fun to read--they are reminders of where I was going and chronicles of the enthusiasm I felt at the start of a journey.

Yesterday my son unearthed a notebook from his desk (which had once been my desk) and, realizing it wasn't his, passed it on to me.  A look within brought a delightful surprise: a journal from a trip my husband and I took with my parents. This happened before my husband and I had children, and the four of us spent a week traveling Michigan all the way to Mackinac Island. I'll share a couple of excerpts with you so you can see why this memory, twenty years in the past, was so nice to discover.

(We stopped briefly at my grandparents' old homestead, which we called The Farm.  The house on this lovely twenty acres had recently burned down after being struck by lightening).

"August 1, 1993.

We left at 12:00 (and again at 12:05, Mom having forgot her purse). In the car: Dad, Mom, Julia, Jeff.

I can't help it; I wish Dad would turn on the car air conditioner. Apparently my parents love the tropical climate, being up there sweat-less and all. Okay, I take it back--he just turned it on. And off we go!

It's evening now and we're snug in our room at The Wooden Shoe Motel, which is, by general consensus, rather disappointing, with a lamp that doesn't work and an air conditioner that cools only half the room. However, I took a shower, and that was fully functional and refreshing.

Looking back at our day, I see a lot of flat-butt riding and some memorable activity. Our first stop was the farm, still beautiful in a wild, overgrown way. A lovely breeze was blowing, but the mosquitoes were vicious, persistent to the point of biting my feet through my shoes. Jeff's calves were also luscious to them, while Mom and Dad, though knee-deep in dewberries, remained unscathed.
My mother with a bowl full of dewberries.

The house was a sad black bolt on the landscape, gutted and incomplete with its stairway leading nowhere.  I fingered the banisters and fought off the melancholy ghosts of people banging in and out of the screen door, scents of cooking wafting out, the creak of Grandpa's rocking chair, Grandma at the stove . . .

We didn't stay long. Mom and Dad got their fill of berries, and the mosquitoes got their fill of me.

(Later, in Saugatuck Michigan . . . )

After stopping at a drugstore for postcards and sundries (Mom and I were in and out three times), we met a 92-year-old man from the retirement hotel, very sweet and kind. "Must you use the washroom? Because you can follow me to the hotel and I'll make believe you're a friend of mine."  "I don't really need this cane, but a man I knew fell down and skinned his nose, so I figure I'll use it BEFORE I need it!")

Then we were in the car again, stopping once at a lakeside turnaround to throw popcorn to some ducks and gulls. They were so cute, the gulls flying against the strong wind so they seemed to be standing still, waiting for the popcorn. They looked at us out of the corners of their eyes. The ducks were all queuing up to the little bridge, and when we tossed in the corn there was a hilarity of quacking that still makes me laugh when I think about it . . . ."

Well, you get the idea.  I don't remember any of these events now, but thanks to my journal some ghostly memories come back to me with the reading. The travel journal captures the moment and allows one to return, if only briefly, to another time and place.  While it may not seem profound in the present, it is most certainly so when it chronicles the past.

My husband with his in-laws.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sweet, Julia. I'm having a similar experience reading letters I sent my parents from Africa when I was in the Peace Corps in the Sixties and going through old pre-digital photographs to scan them into the computer.

Sandra Parshall said...

It's amazing how much we forget, isn't it? I worry that we will lose a lot of personal history -- the sort of thing historians and biographers rely on heavily -- in this electronic age. Write everything down, people! On paper!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Liz! Yes, letters have a similar effect. I have a big ol' bag of them that I haven't read in years and years.

Sandra, I think about that a lot. I teach WAITING FOR GODOT, and one of the themes of that play, for me, is the existential question of why we have intellects if we are only meant to forget things.

And yes, recording things is still a valuable art. I recently had a kind neighbor put old cassette tapes of my babies learning to talk on an MP3 file so that it can be retrieved from i-Tunes. That's something that I didn't want crumbling away with a lost tape: their voices.

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