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Travel Fragments

Fall 2007 :: Archived Issue

2007 :: Issue 1/Fall :: Travel Fragments

Travel Journals: A Way of Capturing the Moment

Guy Gauthier

Some people like to take pictures when they travel. I like to write travel journals. But the two are not that different. Keeping a journal of your trip is like taking pictures. It’s a snapshot in words. You have to be quick. You have to pounce on the moment before it’s gone. Like this sudden glimpse of a waterfall:

White rapids, I had to stop, had to stand here in the burning sun, just to hear them, I’ll take them with me wherever I go, these foaming waters, with their sparks of sunlight, and here, what luck, a waterfall, whipped into a frenzy by the rocks below,

Wyoming, 2006

I believe in living in the moment, and writing in the moment. I write about what I see in front of me. To me, a travel journal is not a guidebook to restaurants and hotels. It’s about me. It’s about my trip. And what is writing in the moment? It’s writing down what’s happening while it’s happening, catching it the way a photographer would catch a passing moment.

I like to write impulsively, spontaneously, without any preconceived plan, without knowing what I’m going to say. I tend to work with a loosely structured sentence which allows me to take off in any direction, at any time. A fast-paced sentence that jumps around like a CNN logo. It’s the only way to keep up with what’s happening around me, and sometimes several things are happening at once.

July 19, we’re in a cab, on the way to the airport, and I feel great! It’s 4 am and I haven’t slept, and this moment comes to me as a surprise, —I’m prone to amazement, East Side Diner, One Way, green leaves, still in the night air, I’m writing in the dark, waiting for the light to dot my i’s and cross my t’s, we’re in the Midtown Tunnel, lights flash by, and the shadows between them, out of the tunnel now, streaking through the night, thoughts race through my head, this is better than nothing, light on the horizon, a rush of air, Rite Aid, and the crescent moon, in a haze of clouds, the city sleeps, and we’re rushing to catch a plane, red lights on rooftops, we live in a world of reflections, echoes in the tunnel, and black leaves huddling together, keeping their secret, I’m bombarded with sensations, information overload, yes, Delta, says Karen to the driver, trees, lights, it’s all coming too fast,

High above us, the moon at her lunar best, easing us over the hard, concrete road,

Wyoming, 2006

I’m not afraid of incoherence. If someone says “your sentences are incoherent,” they mean that you’re changing the subject in the middle of a sentence. But really, it’s life that’s incoherent, and incoherent writing is just writing that captures the rhythm, the feel of life. When you walk down the street, you’re confronted with a string of incoherent sights and sounds, and when you’re watching TV, the news is interrupted by a lipstick commercial, and images of the war are followed by a President’s Day Mattress Sale. We’re used to this kind of incoherence. It’s everywhere, it’s in newspapers, magazines, and even in my travel journals!

Whatever happens while I’m writing a sentence, I just throw it in, and if the sentence becomes incoherent, that’s OK. If I’m interrupted by something, then I just leave the sentence unfinished.

Aug 5, St Germain Lake

The moon behind the clouds is not to be believed,

and this I have to be especially grateful for, the smell of pine needles in the night air,

Wisconsin Lakes, 2003

I particularly like the interruptions caused by the sudden appearance of an insect.

July 29,

I’m in the garden, sitting on a cold, metallic chair, with Bach ringing in my ears, today we’re going to Bath, and maybe, I’m not sure, we’ll visit Thomas Hardy’s house in Dorset, an ant, working his way across the white, metallic grill of the table, welcome, my friend, welcome to my table, . . .

The Mists of Skye, 2002

This was written in England, in the old Roman baths of Aquae Sulis:

July 29, at Bath

…these stones contain the past, like those at Stonehenge, a power is emanating from the rocks, and passing into me, a fly is caught in the water, flapping its wings, desperately trying to break free of the syrupy liquid, I dipped my pen into the pool, and took him out of the water, he’s delighted to suddenly find himself high and dry again, he’s sunning himself on a rock, but my pen was dripping water on the page,

The Mists of Skye, 2002

And this was written on an airplane, as we were coming down to land:

Aug 16, 4:05 pm

…I’ve seldom felt such pressure in my ears, perhaps because we flew at 39,000 feet, to get above the storm clouds, we’re flying over the suburbs of New York, the wing dips down, giving me intermittent glimpses of cloud and earth, there’s a tiny fly spinning around under the overhead lights, a fly that was in Minneapolis a short while ago, and that will soon be in New York, a fly that’s circling under the lights, and has no idea that it’s travelled 2,000 miles,

Wisconsin Lakes, 2003

At any given moment, you’re bombarded with so many sensations, you see and hear so many things at once, that you couldn’t possibly write them all down. You have to choose the right ones, the ones that strike your fancy, the ones that interest you the most. When you write a travel journal, you become the editor of your own life.

I love writing on airplanes. I write about what’s happening around me. About what I see through my porthole.

July 27, 2005

Karen’s opted for the movie, and I’m going with the clouds, they’re changing by the minute, now they’re like lily pads on a pond, white islands in a blue haze, the sun is flaring up on the rivers and ponds as we pass overhead, a brief burst of blinding light, that slowly dims like the lights of a theatre, rivers suddenly flash gold, then dim and disappear into the dark woods,

Twilight in Alaska, 2005

Or this quick impression:

We’re coming down to land, rattling the teacups in elegant dining rooms. I can see the shadow of our plane on the ground, wrapping itself around trees, houses,

Wisconsin Lakes, 2003

Sometimes it’s possible to capture the moment with a single image:

July 20, in the afternoon

Grasshoppers jumping as I walk through the grass.

Wyoming, 2006

Or this, written in England:

Driving in a white haze of music and rain.

The Mists of Skye, 2002

These are quick, fragmentary glimpses of reality. Like this one, taken from Twilight in Alaska, 2005:

In Elderberry Park,

The stillness. The chill of an Alaska evening.

Or this one, written in Yellowstone Park:

July 25,

On the edge of night. Still waters darkly glisten.

Wyoming, 2006

Sometimes I like to delay the principal image, to create a feeling of anticipation:

Etched against the sky. The black wings of a bird.

Twilight in Alaska, 2005

Suddenly. At dusk. A white butterfly.

Wyoming, 2006

What I’m after is pure sensation. Pure existence without meaning. The image can stand alone. It needs no help from higher significance.

July 20, just after midnight

I’m drinking a Heineken which is turning to ice. The ice crystals are melting in my mouth.

Hawaii, 2004

I love looking at cars passing in the night. But I’ve never been able to express how they make me feel. Once, looking out of a motel window in Minneapolis, I wrote:

Cars, human lives are speeding past, leaving the red glow of their taillights behind. Who are the people in those cars, now, at this moment, who are they, and why don’t they know, why will they never know that I was here watching them go by in the night? They’re serving a life sentence inside their own heads, as I am in mine. Is this a glimmer, am I getting somewhere at last, or am I just idly doodling in the night?

Wisconsin Lakes, 2003

And this was written in a motel in Cambridge:

Aug 13, 11 pm

I came to sit by the window, bringing all my work tools with me, my whisky, and my Schumann symphony, I came here because I can see the highway, I can see the red taillights heading north, and white headlights bound for London, I came here because (what a mess I’m going to make of this) the only thing that can make me feel it as intensely as leaves in the dark, the only thing, and I mean really feel it, is the slow passing of headlights in the night, and it may seem rather obvious, but it’s a fact beyond my comprehension, that there are people behind those lights, lives are passing in the night, and the men—this belongs in Ripley’s Believe It or Not—the men have dicks, and hot, sweaty balls in their trousers, and the women, well, the women have what all men dream of—my excuses to the gay community for that thoughtless remark, I’m having fun, I’m on my second whisky, and royally enjoying my little session at the window, women are driving cars in the English night, with their soft, English asses sinking into the upholstery, they have cunts, God bless them, they have warm, wet English cunts, and they don’t know I’m here, watching them go by, […] I see myself in the window, cars are passing through me, their headlights shining through my eyes,

The Mists of Skye, 2002

Most of the time, I’m writing outdoors, in the presence of the subject. Writing about a sunset while I’m looking at it. Writing in the wind and the rain. Here, I was writing in a notebook while wading in the surf:

July 21, on the beach

The surf is rushing over my bare feet, and the moon is at her atmospheric best, what a strange sensation, my heels are sinking into the sand, as the wave washes back into the sea, sinking, with a rush of pebbles hitting my ankles, and the lights on the coast, the romance of them

Hawaii, 2004

But sometimes it’s impractical to write in a notebook or on a laptop, like when I’m driving a car, so I use a micro-cassette recorder. It’s small and portable and can be used almost anywhere. But thoughts recorded on tape tend to be more ragged, with pauses and hesitations:

July 3rd, 1:30

Oh, these trees, it’s like…all my life I’ve been confronted with this…I don’t know what it is, it’s these trees in the dark, under the sky, they…what do they have? It’s like, I just…I don’t understand it, it’s completely beyond me. Their…their stillness, every branch like a frozen gesture,…

Tanglewood, 2004

When I transcribe the tape, I use the same format you would find in a play:

August 18, 1999

(Walking the dog) Now, as it gets darker, the sky is filling up with stars. (Stop) The headlights of a car swinging through the trees. (Stop) And another. In the silence of the night, I hear the cars coming from a long way off. (In the back yard, behind the lodge) I’ve caught the moon behind a tree, radiating through its black leaves. (Stop) It’s one of those moments that makes you feel alive. (Stop) Several minutes ago, a dog was barking in the night. Now I hear only crickets. (Stop) One of those moments charged with the electricity of life.

Mad River Valley, 1999

Often there are sounds on the tape, like the roar of a truck going by, and I put those in parenthesis, the way you would in a play:


I see the lights of a cottage across the lake. The lights streaking over the water. (Stop) A dog barks in the distance. (Stop) I see the glow of headlights long before I see the truck. (Sound of the truck roaring past) Insects flutter around a light. (Stop) The light has a faint hum in the silence. (Stop) The trees reaching into the night sky…black silhouettes surrounded with stars, and the glow of headlights in the distance, the hiss of tires on the asphalt, (a rush of air, the hum of tires: I let the tape run, to record the sound of the car going by) nothing is quite more mysterious than dark, leafy branches in the night sky. (Stop) In the distant sky, a flashing light. (Stop) Trees transformed by night, and light in darkness. (Stop) Northern lights shimmering in the sky over Ontario.

Lake of the Woods, 2000

My travel journals tend to be playful. When I sit down to write, I’m trying to have fun.

Wed, Aug 14, at the Sleep Inn

Today, we’re going down into London. Am I ready for it? If we don’t get lost in London, then my name isn’t Guy Joseph Alfred Gauthier. If we don’t get royally, imperially lost, I’ll eat this yellow shirt, down to the last button and breast pocket.

The Mists of Skye, 2002

I work with what’s there. I take off on something I’ve seen or heard.

July 19

Rex was here before me! I was taking a leak, and I saw, scrawled on the wall, Rex was here.

Hawaii, 2004

I’m always on the lookout for something to write in my notebook. Something that’s writable. I try to take advantage of what’s there, like the diary I found in our hotel room:

July 24, at the Outrigger

I’m reading the diary written by people who stayed in our room. Here’s an anonymous (unsigned) note from a disgruntled male tenant: “Aloha! My wife says we’re supposed to wait ’til the end to write anything, but I just have to say, I’m disappointed. I expected a nicer room, with a better view of the ocean. And how about that howling? Sounds like a winter storm, no?” I’ve enjoyed the howling of the wind on my balcony. And here’s a note from Corey and Merissa of Patchhogue, Long Island, who were here on their honeymoon. Their journal entry is dated March 16, 2003. Merissa writes, “It was 10 days in paradise. We really don’t want to leave.” She and Corey went deep sea fishing. She caught a 20 lb. Mahi Mahi, and Corey, not to be outdone, reeled in a 35 lb. Spearnose. That day, they had dinner in their hotel room, a romantic dinner for two. Merissa cooked her 20 lb. Mahi Mahi on the same stove we’re using today. And I hope they had it good on our bed, after dinner and a bottle of wine. I hope Merissa had a sky-lifting, Hawaiian orgasm. And why not? After all, it was her honeymoon. If our hotel room was the world, then these people would be our ancestors. This room has seen many generations of tenants, and our descendants will come after us, cooking their meals on our stove, and showering in our bathroom, future generations will lie on this bed, this mattress softened by thousands of orgasms, and tenderized like a piece of steak, I leave all this to you, my children, use it well, be fruitful and multiply, and give no thought to those who came before you.

Hawaii, 2004

And sometimes I try to capture the mystery of being alive:

I’m sitting in the cool—really—night air, with the flashing lights of an airliner bound for Los Angeles, and the dark, looming presence of a mountain, a moth just flew by me, the tidal wave of rock, dark and menacing, he’s flying around me as if I was radiating light, I don’t know why parked cars, why cold, empty cars in motel parking lots should make me feel this way, as if they held the key to the mystery, they’re like empty shells on a beach, days emptied of their content, there they are, the flies spinning around the lights, like planets around a star, one day, and this is certain, it’s going to be a billion years after this moment, has this happened before, has a culture left its symphonies, its tragedies behind like dust on a lunar surface, has every lottery winner, has every instant millionaire blown his winnings, leaving only torn ticket stubs behind,

Wyoming, 2006

I’ve noticed that some writers use the present tense for something that happened in the recent past. They’ll say, “I climb the ladder,” or “I swim in the ocean,” when it’s pretty obvious that they’re not doing these things in real time. When you use the present tense this way, you gain a sense of immediacy. The past becomes the present. But it’s a trade off. The present tense exhausts its capital, and is no longer able to create the present moment with any degree of intensity. When you use the present tense everywhere, it’s not able to treat the present as a privileged moment, different from the others.

The present moment is always, strictly speaking, the moment at which you’re writing, so if you’re going to record the present moment, then the act of writing is always part of the experience you’re describing.

At last! Hawaiian surf. The spray is fantastic. I’m standing twenty feet behind the sea wall, and it’s wetting the pages of my notebook. God, I could spend my whole life here, with my pages flapping in the wind. And the smell of the sea, that rich scent of seaweed and salt foam.

Hawaii, 2004

And this was written in Haines, Alaska:

In the Men’s Room. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The ones he painted for Gauguin, to make him feel at home. I’m writing this in our car, with rain streaming down the windows.

Twilight in Alaska, 2004

I try to reserve the present tense for the present moment only. I want the present tense to be a literal fact, and not just a literary convention, because when you use the present tense to describe events that took place in the recent past, then you’re introducing an element of fiction into a text which is supposed to be totally factual.

I don’t keep everything I’ve written in my notebook, or recorded on tape. I only keep what seems worth saving, like this moment in the rain:

Aug 9, later in the morning

The clouds are darkening, there’s a rumble of thunder in the wings, and sure enough, the first drops are starting to fall. The butterflies are gone, having sought shelter from the rain, the drops of water would give their wings quite a jolt, there’s a smell of bacon in the air, and fresh coffee brewing, I have a window full of branches gracefully bending in the wind, and the patter of rain on the pool cover, I’m savoring the moment, sipping it slowly, comme un doigt de Grand Marnier, this branches in the wind moment, I’ve got my Baudelaire, and my cup of lukewarm coffee, what more could a man ask, if not the answer, the final, the ultimate answer to the riddle of being here, the branches sway, laden with rain, and the clouds are begging to be painted, they’re asking for the knowing brush of a Constable, or the patient hand of a Sisley, and the answer is that—you guessed it—there is no answer, there’s not even a riddle, only the fact that I’m here, writing in my notebook, this is my mode of existence, my way of holding the moment, like a pen in my hand, we’re going to be smoking salmon on hickory wood, a first for me, I’ve eaten smoked fish before, but never smoked it myself. Now the rain is really coming down, and just the sound of it, just the smell of it, is more than enough, ah, the joy of being alive, of existing in the morning rain

Wisconsin Lakes, 2003

Or this night in England:

Almost, but not quite, midnight

I’ve had a shower, and my hair is dripping down on the page, I’ve poured myself a second glass of Scotch, and I’m listening to Schumann’s 4th, it’s Miller Time! and I am feeling no pain, I don’t ever want to leave this country, if it’s good enough for T. S. Eliot, it’s good enough for me, I want to spend the rest of my life drinking Scotch whisky, and writing in my notebook, the rest of my life visiting Haworth, the home of the Brontes, am I serious, do I really mean what I’m saying, do I want to spend the rest of my life loading and unloading the car, and poring over maps, confused and lost—yes, I do! and I think, now, I’m ready for London, I want to tackle the London traffic, with my American reflexes, always looking the wrong way for oncoming cars, yes, London, nothing less, hit me, hit me, I’ll never bust, I’m driving under the influence of life!

The Mists of Skye, 2002

Is this travel writing, or just a journal written on the road? I’m not sure. Most travel writers leave themselves out of the picture and try to give an overview of the country they’re visiting. But I don’t worry about describing the place I’m in. I write about myself, and what I’ve seen with my own eyes. Writing in the moment works best when you’re on the road, because when you travel, you tend to live in the moment. You’re concerned with the immediate present. With the here and now.

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