My Year of Happy Accidents – An Introduction to the World of Travel Memoir

My travel is what feeds the stories I share. Professionally, I spend my days behind the camera, but realize that photographs can leave out so much of the experiences I have. What’s missing from the photos is what’s behind the experience, the things from my past (distant or quite recent) that guide and inform how I experience the world.

Traveling solo is amazing, and lonely. I turn to my left and right, expecting there to be someone there to share my experiences, my reactions and my insights. Occasionally I do have traveling companions, someone to reminisce with later, but that’s not my norm. Sometimes there are nothing but strangers all around. Sometimes I discover that there is no one at all, and that’s Okay. Still, I find that I want to share these adventures beyond my solo experiences. Texts and Facebook posts simply don’t do justice to what the world has to show me today. This blog takes up where the photos, and the casual retellings, leave off.

Just this past weekend I was approached by a cycling / Facebook friend, and asked: “Are you a writer, for a magazine or something? Is that what you do?” As a high school senior, back in 1992, that was my dream. It was a rude awakening when I got to college, and realized I wouldn’t immediately have my own feature column, to write about whatever I pleased. Instead, I was faced with hours in the courtroom, and assignments to cover what was going on in the Milwaukee jails. Political coverage was balanced out by reports of changes in the university meal plan. I was a bit disillusioned, to say the least.

Reluctantly, I stepped away from my writing, pursuing other academic endeavors, then eventually found myself in the world of portrait and fine art photography. Look around my 2-bedroom apartment, complete with my home office, and you’ll see my work proudly on display. No one has said so, but I believe anyone could tell that an artist lives in this modest, red brick townhome. Along the way I taught writing courses, focused on contemporary social and moral issues, but I wasn’t producing much of my own writing, outside of lengthy academic papers.

My writing background reveals itself on my book shelves, with Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, by John Trimble and The Everyday Writer: A Brief Reference by Lunsford & Connors easily accessible, just waiting to be picked up once again. Copies of Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman and Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner are new additions, which turn out to offer more technical guides than theoretical discussions. What’s caught my attention most recently are reflections on memoir as a genre, by a memoirist and university writing instructor named Mary Karr. It’s awkward, and slightly uncomfortable, to think of my travel blog as a sort of memoir.

Yet, in a sense it is; perhaps I’ll benefit from some instruction, by reading Karr’s The Art of Memoir. My blog is more than just fun travel advice, or at least I aim for it to be. I’m telling my story as it happens, with regular references to my past, reflections on childhood experiences, and analysis of my life experiences. Perhaps that is the essence of a memoir.

With some effort, I do my best to represent events, scenes and people as they took place, or at least the way they appear, and as I’ve experienced them. That’s my journalism background coming through, and I’m sure my high school newspaper advisor, Ms. Thill, would give my efforts at least a respectful nod. Hours and hours of amateur journalistic efforts, including editing the work of fellow writers, must have taught me something, right? It’s incredibly difficult for me to start a paragraph with “I”, “the” or “at”, and I’m hyperaware of the impact that the first couple of sentences, of any piece, has on the reader. Now more than ever, it’s critical to capture the reader’s attention with the “Headline”, and then reel them in with a powerful opener. Otherwise, in this fast-paced digital world of social media, there’s little motivation to read any further.

Last month I attended a Mindfulness Workshop, with a small group of friends (old and new) who joined me in dedicating the month of August to yoga and meditation, breathing and stretching, slowing down for a minute to be more mindful. We gathered at the Park of Roses, in Clintonville, OH. The leader of the workshop, and also a member of our group, was Brandi Fauque. She brings mindfulness practice to groups all over Columbus, including groups of educators, under the name of her business (her passion) – Learning Lab Consulting.

Brandi opened the session, which would guide our discussion, by leading us through a meditation practice that brought awareness to each of the senses, one at a time: sight, hearing, smell, and taste were highlighted. I was also very aware of the physical feelings that were present, the yoga mat and the soft earth beneath me, the discomfort of sitting still, the physical effort of trying to quiet my mind. We began by just looking, encouraged to search for the object furthest away from us that we could see, and focusing on that.

We were then instructed to shift our focus to whatever was closest to us, the grass. . . the bright green yoga mat. . .  my crisscrossed legs. . . the glasses I’d remembered to put on, since wearing them is becoming more and more of a daily requirement. Finally we were encouraged to look around, take in our total surroundings, and really just look. Dozens of varieties of roses looked back, while the nearby fountain sang its song in the background, and I breathed in the rich sent of the flowers, mingling with sweat and bug spray – at least one amongst us had been mindful enough to think ahead and pack the repellant.

I linger on this experience because I found the beginning of this exercise extremely difficult, as we looked, and then looked with more intention, before moving on to explore our other senses. By the end of the exercise, sharing our experiences with the group, I realized that it had been difficult for me to spend that time really looking because I spend so much of my time doing just that. At work, when I’m teaching, on group outings, and for artistic fulfillment, I look. More importantly, I see! I compose an image, I capture what is before me, and I manipulate the image into a vision of what I really experienced. I love it, but it can be exhausting. I was ready to move along to the other senses.

A moment of reflection reminds me that I spend my days behind the camera, but again I realize that photographs can leave out so much of the experiences I have. What’s missing is what’s deep down inside me,  behind the experience, the things from my past (distant or quite recent) that guide and inform how I move through the world.

As I’m writing this blog, my words, stories, recollections and insights lend flavor to the visual images that I capture, supplying a depth and a character to the story that my photos tell. There’s a place in the creative world for pictorial essays, with bold images, or silent films that must speak for themselves. The visual arts, or at least photographic images, have dominated our highly connected, massively digital world. Instagram has its place, and the MTV generation now finds itself scrambling to keep up with all the newest technology. In the midst of that, there are words all around us. The stirring photos have captions, the silent actors mouth words that appear as text at the bottom of the screen, and texting is as omnipresent as image sharing. As a society we read, and I write, because there is so much more to the stories that we tell. With the help of language, we connect with others.

My work travel is what regularly feeds the stories I share through this blog. Personal trips sneak in as well, and supply some of the more extended journeys, but my wanderlust is fueled by being in motion week after week for work. A year ago, I struggled with whether to start a blog, and what I would call it if I did. A trip to an unexplored part of the country pushed me to start writing. The trip was unexpected, and I was on a plane to the West Coast with very little notice. Extending this work trip for a few days, to meet up with a college friend who moved out that way several years prior, I wondered what else I might see. I was blown away by the biodiversity, the powerful natural environment, and the mix of people I observed. I took a chance, and launched Accidental Wanderlust: the Art, Adventures & Attitude of a Work Traveler.

Without question, I was leaping across barriers that had stopped me from being a writer before that. I’d had adventures and insights to share, with wildly colorful or quietly somber stories to go along with them, yet I’d not quite fully shared them. On my trip to Oregon, with a visit to Northern California, I realized that I might not ever come to this place again. I stood among the tall pine trees, many so thick that there was no chance I could wrap my arms around them, if I were so inclined. My first impressions struck me all at once, in a sort of gestalt experience. This was followed by quiet reflection, as I stood there dwarfed by the tallest, most massive trees I’d ever seen. The forest simply took my breath away.

As I sat down to write, I quietly hoped that others would be able to join me in this experience, not only seeing the beautiful landscapes through my lens, but coming to know the world more intimately through my words.

Eight of the photographers I work with, and mentor, were recently promoted to training positions that will involve an extensive amount of travel. Some will be traveling for work for the first time. Sharing stories on a recent group call, the gal who has been traveling the most, so far, advised the others to find a hobby that travels well. She plans to crochet. My “hobby”, my adventure, my passion is taking in the world around me, wherever I happen to land. I do my best to vividly experience the parts that others might overlook.

For the past year, realizing how easily the memories fade away, and how much of the experience is lost because of that, I’ve been capturing the highlights on film, then putting the pen to paper to share with those who want to come along for the ride. Despite the digital format of this blog, I suppose I’m a tad nostalgic. I miss my film camera and my steno pad. I listen to, what I still call, books on tape while I’m behind the wheel, though I haven’t had a car with a tape deck in at least a decade. I remember the AAA TripTik, and although I’m thankful for Siri and MapQuest, at the same time I miss the spiral-bound black & white printed guides, and wonder about whose job it was to pull out a pink or yellow highlighter to mark my route. What are they doing now?

Reflecting on the last year, I tried to recall the distances I’ve traveled, and calculate how far I’ve brought readers along, in the posts I’ve written. Not everything I’ve written about over the last 12 months was experienced during the past year (e.g. Ireland and Morocco were “filler” posts, while I was off traipsing around Thailand). The majority of what I’ve written about has been published in pretty close to “real time”, with blog posts lagging my actual travel by 1 – 3 weeks. I’ve been amazed, as the year zipped along, that I had something to write about every week. However, I did travel:

  • 66,060 miles via airplane, taking full advantage of free drink coupons on Southwest
  • 15, 372 miles by Subaru, often with a Trek tossed in the back
  • 2,710 train miles, across the northern U.S. and from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
  • 275 miles on a shuttle in Costa Rica, from the busy noise of the city to a tourist beach town, where beach cruisers awaited
  • 50 city miles (those are longer, right?) on Chicago’s Metra and the downtown L
  • 9 miles by boat, which I feel will need to be increased in the year to come
  • 5 bumpy miles on the back of an elephant, who knew our Thai route by heart
  • 3 glorious miles, into the Moroccan sunset, by camel. (We put our cameras down, as the sun was setting, to simply take in the moment, breathe deeply, and realize that we were so lucky to be in that moment. It didn’t last long – one of us photographers soon picked up a camera, to capture the rapidly changing light against the sand dunes. I won’t make any mention of who that might have been.)
  • More miles than I thought to count, in the saddle, cycling across this fine country, and in whatever cities I turned up in, joined by the most amazing friends.

Please join me on the next adventure! Here’s to another year!

~ Kat

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