The Art of the Travel Journal

words + photos by Rachel Dickinson

When I travel I always carry a little black moleskin journal that flips open like a reporter’s notebook. I also buy a new pen before a journey that I slip through the elasticized band that encircles the journal. This is my traveling kit – one in which I make notes in longhand and draw sketches to illustrate what I’m seeing. I imagine what I record is like a kindergarten version of what Mark Twain or Robert Louis Stevenson – two great 19th century diarists – might have recorded.

Often, when I read through my notebook after a trip, I’m struck by how things going on in the outside world tend to creep into my observations; how my remarks are guided by events that may or may not be in the front of my brain at the time; how I can completely miss the story in front of me in favor of a description of something like a mountain ash tree.

I flew to Montreal recently and here’s what I wrote:

It was September 11th, the eighth anniversary of 9-11, and it felt like a strange day to fly. When walking through the Syracuse airport to my gate, I heard the beginning of the reading of the list of names of those killed in the twin towers. It was just after 9:00 a.m. – the first plane hit at 8:46 on that morning which seemed so long ago and yet like yesterday.

There was a delay getting into Newark, which was socked in with weather and a low cloud ceiling with 40 mph wind gusts close to the ground. We circled in the clouds just above the wind for about 45 minutes waiting for our turn. As we cut through the pea-soup clouds on our descent I wondered if this was what it felt like to plummet toward earth in a plane as ours was barely controllable in the gusty weather.

Got to Newark just in time to board the plane to Montreal and once again heard the sonorous, somber reading of the thousands of names broadcast on television; and the irony was not lost on me as I went about my business in an airport within sight of the site of the former twin towers.

And here’ s what I didn’t write. I didn’t note how the other passengers were reacting. Was it quiet in the plane? Were people fidgety? How did people act in the airport during the reading of the names? I don’t know because I didn’t write it down.

Last month I went to France for a barge trip through Burgundy. Here’s what I wrote when I decided to stay on-board and read my book when the barge was docked in Chalon-sur-saone.

Next thing I knew I saw flashing lights up on the road as police cars slowly passed. I climbed the steps from the Saone where we were docked and found a parade of union workers marching to protest for higher wages, better benefits – lots of orange flags and orange balloons and men marching with banners and signs. They turned and headed toward the center of town with the police escort before and behind them.

What were they protesting? Who were these guys – I don’t know that they were union workers but yet I wrote that down. What where they wearing? What did their banners say? What time of day was this – should they have been working then? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions because I didn’t bother to find out. Blurg.

But then I came across this passage in my notes:

White chalais cattle grazed in the pastures – at one point we passed a huge white bull standing under a massive oak tree with bronze leaves that stood alone in the middle of a pasture. It was as if the bull knew his placement was picturesque.

That’s something I can hang my hat on. It’s a good strong visual image. Or later that same day I wrote:

The vineyards behind the complex of stone buildings was gorgeous and neat as a pin with trim rows of recently harvested grapevines marching up the hill toward a limestone ridge creating a kind patchwork effect of bronze and red and dark green capped by bare gray rock. It was a cool and dreary afternoon once the morning fog lifted, which just heightened the whole effect.

There’s an art to keeping a good travel journal and I don’t have it down yet. It’s easy to put off writing down your impressions; to say that I’ll get to them later after I’ve had the ten glasses of wine at dinner, but that’s a tough thing to do. I guess it’s like everything else in the writing business – if you keep plugging away at it, the observations are bound to get better – but the key is to keep at it.


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Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including the Atlantic, Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler. Her latest book Falconer on the Edge: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin) is now a featured selection in the Trip Shop.

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