Sunday, April 3, 2022

Upping My Travel Writing Game

Guyana Highlands of South America
"Tom, why don't you plan out a route to California?" My wife Sandy asked me this question after lunch last week--when we had been planning a camping trip that same morning to an Iowa state park a half hour's drive away. That required a shift in mental gears, I can tell you--not a bad shift but certainly a significant change of perspective!

By happenstance, my step-daughter had recently given me the new issue of National Geographic magazine, the April issue, and I was reading the article "Up the Mountain, to a World Apart," about a "venture into a remote part of Guyana with no roads and no guarantee of getting out" to a region of "sheer-sided, flat-topped mountains known locally as tepui." A scientific expedition would climb these unpopulated, untrammeled environmental time capsules to learn more about the process of evolution.

Reading the article was an eye-opener for me, a reminder of just how powerful and immediate travel writing can be. The opening paragraphs place the reader right next to conservation biologist Bruce Means. 
"Grasping a sapling in one hand for balance, Bruce took a shaky step forward. His legs quivered as they sank into the boggy leaf litter, and he cursed his 79-year-old body. At the beginning of this expedition, Bruce had told me that he planned to start slowly but would grow stronger each day as he acclimated to life in the bush."
Later in the article, writer Mark Synnott places us deeper in the bush, describing the conditions that the explorers were facing. 
"For days we'd been trudging across a swampy floodplain through ankle-deep mud that almost sucked our boots right off our feet. It rained incessantly, and even when the sun poked through the low clouds, it never penetrated the dense canopy overhead. Down in the steamy understory, mosquitoes and biting flies reigned, and our sweat-soaked clothes, slick with mud and ripped by thorns, stuck to our rashy skin. Every day we crossed countless tea-colored rivers and creeks via precarious log bridges. The slow-moving water, which was also our drinking source, was stained from decaying vegetation--something that no amount of purifying could remove."
Ah, what lovely, descriptive prose! The writer follows the most basic and important descriptive writing axiom: show, don't tell. He uses "sense words," words which connect the reader's experience to the description, not ideas but physical sensory input. Look at the touch words: grasping, shaky, and quivered, to name a few. The sentence that begins with "Down in the steamy understory" is rich with sense words: "steamy understory" with touch and vision; "mosquitoes and biting flies reigned" evokes sight, sound, and touch; "sweat-soaked clothes" evokes, of course, smell. Taste? With every breath filtered by steamy jungle air, with sweat on the lips and mud everywhere, how could one not be tasting the jungle? The sentences weave together our life experiences and imagination to place us in that jungle--all while we sit comfortably in our chair at home, perhaps a cup of tea (with sugar and milk) beside us. Travel writing at its best!

Canary-yellow writing pads and Ticonderoga #2 pencils, and I'm ready to begin the planning!
Now as I sit at the kitchen table planning my route, my old habit of planning with tablets and pencil to make my lists prevails: a list for food, a list for last-minute preparations, lists for our children as they keep an eye on the house for the month we'll be gone. We're packing for our five-nights out, knowing that we'll have food stores available at our destination. We'll be driveway-mooching at Sandy's parents, hooking up to 120v electric power to run our 12v refrigerator and lights.

The pencil scratches its way across the page, either adding an item or crossing one out. I'm glad I had the wheel-bearings packed last month at a local RV dealership. I've listened to the pounding of my little air compressor as I've topped of the trailer's tire pressure, and I've leaned on the torque wrench as I've checked that the wheel lugnuts are tight. I'll be de-winterizing the trailer next week. I was on my hands and knees yesterday, scrubbing the interior and removing my gear from this winter's 1-3 night local camping outings. 
I've spent the time in front of the computer screen, studying Google Maps and locating possible campgrounds and RV parks for overnight stays on our trip. Since Sandy will need a strong phone signal for her online work, I've called the overnight sites to inquire about connectivity. Of course, I'm not naive enough to think all the information I receive will completely match our needs, but it's a beginning. After that, it's just take it one day at a time. Our longest mileage planned is a little over four hundred miles, with most days ranging between 250 miles and 325. We hope to leave early enough so that Sandy will have some time to work in the late afternoons if necessary. 

I may very well be writing by hand in my daybook as we journey, skipping the computer and just taking notes and writing down impressions, details that I can include when I finally do post about our journey on my travel blog, Green Goddess Glamping. A few notes, a few photos, pleasant conversation with Sandy while on the road. Audiobooks have been strongly recommended for us while traveling, but Sandy and I are looking forward to just looking out the window and chatting. I've traveled before by myself on a trip off to the Carolinas, chronicled on my traveling blog under the label Green Goddess Expeditions

I've researched and written before about writing and travelogues, so long ago, in fact, that the original blogs I read for inspiration and direction are now defunct, the links no longer active. Mine are still available, though, the most recent being "Travelogues and Tiny Trailer Travel." I'm excited to travel with my wife Sandy. The last time we traveled the Iowa-California route was from west to east when we drove a much loved yet worn 1975 Ford F-150 from my parents' home in California back to Iowa, a gift from my parents to my son. That was quite an adventure, considering the worn steering linkage and the lack of heater or windshield defroster. I remember how the engine would cut out and stall at stoplights on the continental divide because the old carburetor wasn't fuel injection, and the high-altitude air was too thin for the carburetor adjustments. I just feathered the accelerator, though, and once on the road we were okay, especially when we dropped out of the mountains. We made it, finding peace of mind on the trip by deciding that if the old orange "Pumpkin Wagon" broke down, we'd just have it towed to the nearest gas station, hand the owner registration title to someone willing to take it, and then take a bus home. 

On an early winter overnighter with our Airstream Basecamp
This trip should be more pleasant with our 2021 Airstream Basecamp and our 2018 Nissan Pathfinder (with only just under 18,000 miles on it). I'm looking forward to sharing our time together. Sandy even wants to learn how to drive while pulling the trailer, and I'm sure there are some not-so-busy stretches of highway on the trip that will provide her with some low-stress experience. Travelogue writing is a skill that I'm continually developing, and I plan to focus this trip on sharing those travel moments the best I can, those moments of flicking the turn signal and then pulling off the interstate freeway, heading for the night's campsite, having rolled down that long, lonesome highway, a song in my heart and my wife by my side. 

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