Pack your journal and leave the rest behind
At this moment, as I scramble to finish this piece by a generously extended deadline, a coffee-colored journal lies on a desk shared with a cup of lukewarm tea and and a bunch of free Russian newspapers. It hasn’t moved in a few weeks, which seems to insult its intended purpose. Amid the whirl of snow, sore feet and a bad case of hyperactivity, finding the time to write is sometimes impossible. But that’s not the worst thing in the world. Even when my journal is soaking up dry ink, I can still read what’s inside — and that’s the essential part.
I’m here to preach an eternal truth: The journal is as necessary to traveling as a pair of warm socks is to ice-fishing in Siberia. Google is full of answers to “what do I pack,” but it’s rare to see travel journals high on the list, if at all. They seem to be more of an afterthought than a source of interminable wisdom and remembrance, which is how travel journals should be viewed.
When I open my travel journal, events long forgotten and memories long tarnished by age reawaken, allowing me to revisit the past on terms I can control. I can view a photograph of a place and feel longing to go back, for example, but only by reading my own words from a distant time can I understand why I was traveling in the first place.
Even with effort, I cannot remember many of the finest details from my weeks spent traveling. At best, the memories are fuzzy. And while stories from San Francisco, Europe and Southeast Asia are certainly worth conveying to erstwhile listeners, it’s a chore to remember them all — until I crack open my travel journal.
Journaling solidifies the details of travel experiences that may be impossible to remember beyond the flashiest bits that provide good storytelling material. A good story exists in the most adventurous or outlandish memories, but sometimes the little moments at a cafe or local park are just as good. And preserving those memories is what travel journals are for.
There exists a magic to the art of writing, although I’m admittedly biased. It can offer a useful window into a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Socrates famously questioned the utility of writing, claiming it would lead to forgetfulness at the expense of memory. But it’s safe to say writing things down — in a journal, as just one example — can only preserve memory, providing we write the good stuff down in the first place.
Besides, keeping a journal handy is one of the best ways to decompress from your travels after a long day or week on the road. While the memories are fresh, writing down your experiences will help strengthen them, perhaps fueling later stories. Did that delivery guy give you the wrong pizza? Was the Eiffel Tower really worth it? Write it down! You’ll appreciate what the younger you was thinking and perhaps chuckle at stories from nights spent at bars or bartering taxi fares.
There is, indeed, something to be said for photographs. The worst cameraman with an outdated iPhone can preserve memories without doing more than pointing and clicking. The best photographers, ones who wield their lens with measured expertise, can evoke wonder, bewilderment or a dozen other combinations of feelings that transport us to another place. Photos are marvelous, evocative, mesmerizing, powerful. But even they lack the power of a well-placed word in the annals of traveling.
Photos are external. They can be misinterpreted. They show a place from the view of a camera lens. Travel journals add a viewpoint from inside the writer’s mind. I would argue we need both to complete a picture of a journey. But if I had to choose, writing would steal the show.
Keep your friends close but your journal closer.
Written by: Nick Irvin — firstname.lastname@example.org
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