People often describe travelling as a way to lose themselves, a vehicle through which they set about freeing themselves of themselves, a time in which they cast off the chains of the everyday and, at least for a time, they can be someone else. To these people travel is escape.
Others will say that through travel they will find themselves, as if the true essence of who they really are cannot be uncovered at home but in some other place, some strange, foreign place, they will open their eyes and suddenly discover what they’ve been missing this whole time. For these people travel is self-psychology.
For me travel is about discovery, not the discovery of myself but the discovery of others. When travelling I like to collect things, not physical things, although I am partial to a good souvenir baseball cap, I collect stories. I collect stories about people and places and events and times. Travelling, as a result of this story discovery provides incredible sources of inspiration and ideas for writing and I believe that travel, through the experiences it yields, is one of the most beneficial things a writer can do.
Why all this sudden talk about travel? Well, I’ve recently returned home from a month long adventure in the United States in which I found myself enthralled with the stories I found. I came to realise that while I have talked before about having a familiar writing space as a key to becoming successful in achieving regular writing output, it is perhaps away from our comfort zone that we are most inspired. As writers our tools are not necessarily the words on the page but the experiences that fuel the direction of those words and through exploring unfamiliar places we find unfamiliar experiences.
In San Francisco, as a cool night fell heavily over the bay, I walked over a gently bouncing gangplank and onto the shores of Alcatraz Island where the famous (perhaps better called infamous) prison loomed large and abandoned. Here was a place whose cold, echoing hallways were soaked in stories, stories of gangsters and murderers, stories of innocence and escape. Walking through the hallways it was easy to imagine the yelling, the banging of tin cups along steel bars, the despair, the anger, the fear. How many prisoners had been through this place? What had they done? As a prisoner is purported to have said, “Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.”
I sat in George's, a dark-as-Coca-Cola dive bar under an overpass in Baton Rouge. There were dollar bills stapled to the ceiling and even at two in the afternoon the room was lit more by neon beer signs than the lights on the ceiling. I wondered who frequented this place and what were their stories, families, truck drivers, college students, criminals? My brain began cooking up stories set in a bar like this.
New Orleans is a story in itself, a city supposedly built on an Indian burial ground, a city that many claim is cursed, a city with more dead buried amongst the swamps than living in the streets, a voodoo city, a party city. We walked the streets of the French Quarter listening intently to the creepiest stories of the multitude of ghosts and vampires that wander the gothic streets of America's most haunted place, stories of music and pirates and tragedy and perseverance. The Big Easy has a long history of stories influenced by the cultural melting pot it has always been.
Further up the Mississippi River along a highway paved with cotton and blues we stopped in Clarksdale, a small town where Robert Johnson stood at a midnight crossroads, sold his soul to the devil and Ol' Scratch tuned his guitar and taught him to play the blues.
Everywhere we went there were stories, famous stories and unknown stories, stories told a thousand times and stories never heard. I’ve brought some of those stories home with me now and hopefully, as I think is the goal of every writer, I will be able to sit at my desk in my familiar writing place, take all these new experiences and turn them into stories of my own, stories influenced by what I’ve seen and heard, stories influenced by travel.