travel writing

(image credit: Lucy Cross)

It’s probably not surprising that I like to travel. Place tends to be integral in my work, and when readers tell me that they see the setting as its own character, it’s one of the highest compliments I can get.

My parents’ shelves had books on travel– and not those little brochures written by tourism departments, but hefty, novel-length efforts chronicling an individual’s progress through a foreign or unfamiliar land. Around the time I first visited a good friend in Miami for a week, my mother would update me on her quest to get through a travelogue by a man trekking across pre-WWI Europe, and how amazed she was by his perfect timing. He was able to record, in detail, what the places he’d visited in Germany, Austria, and dozens of smaller countries that ceased to exist after the World Wars were like.

What about travel writing now? These days, it seems like everything important has been documented already, stored, and protected. It’s weird to think of places becoming history, and not just in the literal way, but the figurative one as well: being so annihilated that the only way we can get to them is through secondary sources.

I visited Miami for the first time in 2012, on spring break. My friend had a two bedroom apartment with a nice kitchen, floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls in the dining room, and ocean-facing balcony (supposedly where you could see manatees from but we never did) that she shared with a fellow student in the creative writing program. In contrast, back then I lived in a miserable apartment in South Carolina by myself with a balcony too small to use and littered with my neighbor’s stray cigarette butts and cigarillo mouthpieces.

My friend was pursuing her MFA, and although our spring breaks didn’t align we hatched a brilliant plan: I would pretend to be considering MFA programs, specifically hers, so I could hang with her as she was in school. We went to the beach, read, and one day we went to the department interviewing a potential new faculty member.

It was a sort of lecture-audition: as part of her job interview, she had to give a seminar so that the grad students and faculty could observe her teaching style. The small room was packed, and the speaker talked about the necessity of living in a place eight months before you could begin to write about it.

I took notes religiously. Yes, of course you had to actually live in a place to get to know it. Of course that took time. Eight months sounded like a commandment.

But three years later, ask me what I know about South Carolina. I can tell you about stray cats sleeping on steam tunnel covers in the early hours before class starts, how mold chokes up the library’s columns by the lake. I can talk a big game about boiled peanuts and meat-and-threes, tell you how gameday traffic snarls every highway even remotely close to campus, how you better slow down if you have northern plates. I can even tell you how it is completely not uncommon to go into a bathroom and find out that some jokestore has installed the bathroom stalls or the cabinets upside-fucking-down and no one’s fixed it because effort and that’s just the way it is.

I can tell you all this but not much more. I lived there for a year, and the better part of the city, the sports, the slang, all that’s stuff I never got to.

Miami, though, is different.

I went back earlier this year to visit the same friend, and more than ever it’s just a place that I like: the wide, bright expanse of Calle Ocho with its restaurants, car dealerships, lines and lines of celebratory palm trees opening toward the sun, the terracotta roofs and little lizards skirting over stucco, brick walkways, and Spanish still too quick for me to keep up. Storm clouds puff themselves up into sky-scraper battleships around four to five in the afternoon, parade over the highways when you go home and then morph into lilac-blue-pink soft-core clouds over the bridge to the keys at sunset.

(This is to say nothing of jellyfish season and man-of-war season, which are different, how the trick is to have friends with keys to their relatives’ private beaches, that there is really no good way to keep sand fleas off you, even at a classy lakeside restaurant, and that yes, you really do need sunglasses.)

The city speaks two languages, dipping back and forth as easily as you shift your weight walking. You can still move places fine using only one foot; it’s just easier with two.

During my last night there, my (now graduated) MFA friend and I hung out on a soft sand beach, watching planes and shooting stars in the clear night, and talked again about her old program. She mentioned that another applicant had been hired instead of the travel writing speaker.

“I didn’t like her very much,” she said. “That eight month thing was a load of bullshit.”

I didn’t realize until she said it how much I agreed.

Sometimes living in a city is like a marriage. Some people settle in places for life. Some people move a lot, divorce their places; some nomads can visit the old places and others need for it to be a clean and final break.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of living in a place and getting to know it. Sometimes you have to be creative. You follow local instagrams, blogs, and news accounts, you go through all the local state school’s online orientation prep that you can find like you’re about to be a freshman again, and watch 45-minute monster tours through the French Quarter someone’s posted to youtube. You work backwards and it works.

And on the flip side, sometimes you hate the place you’re living so much you don’t want to commit any of it to memory. You want to obliterate it, to strike off its letters from the annuls of your life so thoroughly that no historian would be able to reconstruct it.

You do the best with what you have, because sometimes you have to call bullshit when people tell you “write what you know.” Because really, it means less “write only things you have experienced” and more “find likenesses in the things you have experienced and the things you haven’t, and use those to write about the latter.”

Travel writing isn’t easy, and maybe that’s really what the speaker meant when she talked about eight months as a necessary minimum. You have to find an affinity with your chosen place. Because hey, I may not be a native, but if I can fool you when I write to make you think that I am, that’s enough.


i. You wake up to a dim rain. Somewhere, people are working in their 5am cafes but today you are not one of them. You think blurrily about proofs and strategies but mostly you just curl tighter into the blanket against the air conditioning and retrace the last threads of dreams.

ii. You wake up and your hands feel slick. Your 3am brain processes for a minute before realizing it’s ink, damn it, and it’s on your pillowcase, too.  You cap the pen and pretend you’ve seen the last of those summer nights where you have to work until you exhaust yourself.

iii. You wake up and you are surrounded by cow femurs.

iv. You wake up to the thunder and whistle of trains thrumming across the tracks at 6am, 7am, 8am. Beyond the window, egrets, whooping and great, their necks tucked into their chests like they have taken offense at something but are too upset to share what, dip in white handkerchief shapes between the mirror-clad planes of skyscrapers.

v. You wake up several times and keep falling back asleep. Outside the door, someone powerlevels their high elf sorcerer in Elder Scrolls and a cat meows impatiently for you to come out.

vi. You wake up and you have one more bed than you need. Little kids clamor at the mini golf course in the courtyard below your window, banners flap, and a firepit cackles into the mid-morning. Pipes in the walls wail, and you pretend you’re being haunted instead of going to a wedding.

vii. You wake up and it is early. It’s the time in summer where the sun just barely lags behind you and turns your whole room blue through the windows you do not yet have blinds for. You drink water from a glass jar and count the lights turning off and coming on before going back to sleep.

viii. You wake up to pancakes. You mainly eat eggs for breakfast now but pancakes have been your favorite breakfast food since when you were a kid and your mom unfailingly makes them when you visit. You put your contacts in, finish writing down the sketches of your dreams, and wake up for real. Your dogs still do not grasp that no dead things are allowed in your bed, but that’s okay. Some things take a while to learn.

i, vii: Pittsburgh. ii, iii, viii: Cincinnati. iv: Dallas. v: Columbus. vi: Bordentown.

vehicle dynamics

It’s a question that people keep asking and I never know how to answer. Social media usually just wants a location– in the current sense: where are you now versus where you’ve been– and my apartment’s zip code is enough to handle most trivialities, where to send the bills, the magazines, the letters from home.

It’s just that eternal filler for the dead space in parties that trips me up, that last question on the online form for which I can’t provide a satisfactory answer.

your profile is 90% complete: where are you from?

Place and I have a complicated relationship.

I moved around a lot when I was younger. Despite my love of all things naval, I’m not a military brat, just the kid of an upwardly mobile professional chasing a career across the States. I stopped memorizing streets and maps when my family moved to Boston from Chicago, then had to learn Cincinnati to help my parents navigate.

Sometimes in dreams I find myself back in places in foreign towns and countries: the Winner’s Pizzeria in Reading that had the best Cajun fries I’ve ever had in my life; the main stairwell of my high school, four floors of soft glass spiraling upward–first is ground floor, second is the chapel, third is classrooms, fourth goddamn it finally is where my locker is, and in front of everything is this three-story cross; the short drive from my house in Illinois to the Jewel; running through small town streets along the coast for cross country meets.

The one place I never dream about, though, is South Carolina.

My first word was “car.”

This was probably a little disappointing to my poor parents, who must have spent ages and hours hovering over their firstborn repeating sounds and listening for something to stumble out that resembled their names. Instead, they got me: small child getting very excited about going on grocery shopping trips in our silver Volvo.

Despite this illustrious first edition to my lexicon, I didn’t get my own car until post-college. I’d been so adamant about needing to live in a city and, hence, not driving, that it was only my parents gifting me driving school lessons for Christmas that I actually started.

Enter Belial.

My family names all our cars, except for Dad (we name his for him anyway). Mum’s first Volvo, the silver one that was my first word, was named Ogla, and the one I learned to drive on’s Lars. My younger brother has driven Jaeger and Valkyrie (both of which met sad ends) and will soon add a new car to his pantheon. My mother calls my dad’s truck Rex.

Belial was a 1998 BMW 328i I purchased using my $800 of graduation money–I’ll give you a moment to blink because, yeah–thanks to aforementioned brother’s unreal charm and haggling technique, also thanks to an opportune ice storm. Hail-damaged and with an inside dotted with foil star stickers that I am still continually discovering more of, Bel was the sort of thing I never expected to own but was perfect.

My first post-undergrad apartment, job, and school were all in upstate South Carolina, which, if you’re not familiar with the geography of the region, is in the upper left corner of the sideways triangle that is the Palmetto State. It’s about two hours away from everywhere, though if you go about twenty minutes in any direction you’re nearly guaranteed to hit a boiled peanut stand.

So you either stayed in town, or you took the highway.

US-123, or Calhoun Memorial Highway, has a speed limit of 70mph. Driving in the rural South is a little different from up North. People joke that I-85 is so named because the speed limit’s 85, and while it might not be entirely legal, that’s about the going speed of traffic.

At least twice weekly, I’d find myself on 123 late into the night, no cops, hardly any light except for headlights, and forests tall enough to scrape the stars.

You go fast, and there’s not enough people around to force you to slow down. You swing around turns and perfect cornering, and maybe you get such a rush that you sign up for a vehicle dynamics class, because suddenly you want to know how this is possible. How, in a world where so many things are so easily terrible, you still have this one thing to wonder at, this empty road with the occasional pin-prick twins of taillights up ahead.

You’ll learn a lot about camber and slip angle, but you won’t be able to nail down why driving so fast late at night makes everything feel like breathy strands of electric guitar, impossibly grand.

And that’s why you keep coming back.

“So where are you from?” A friend’s friend asks me one winter break. I’m back up North again, back in some bar/restaurant in Pittsburgh, and I’ve tried dodging this question already, but the guy wants an answer. My date is curious, too, the kind of noninterest you feign with elbows on the table, leaning in close enough to pretend we’re already casually intimate, that you don’t care that much about the answer, but actually do.

“A lot of places.” I say. I tell the table about Chicago and Boston and Cincinnati. I give the cliff notes version of South Carolina. “And now I’m here again.”

“So…?” The guy across from me trails off. He wants a conclusion to the story, an easy ending to an ongoing exodus, one that I’m not sure I know myself. “Where’s home?”

And I’ve had it. I’m tired of people asking me this damn question and tried of never having an answer. My mom insists that home is where my family’s house is, but Cincinnati’s a place I spend fragments of months in, not my daily life.

I’m done.

“Nowhere,” I say, finally. “I’m not really from anywhere anymore.”

“You can be from here.” My date says and takes a sip of his unsweetened sweet tea. He doesn’t live here either; he moved out a while back and is just visiting for the holiday. The conversation shifts to other things, like home-redecoration and kayaking, but someone gets it and that’s, I think, all I want.

Except it’s not.

My long commutes now are mostly I-70 to I-75, visiting my parents. I drive early in the mornings, sun soft over flat prairie, bean crops and corn fields, and, my perennial favorite: the “Where Will You Spend Eternity? HELL IS REAL” signs.  The highway is silent and sparse, this Saturday sort of divinity where you can find good songs on the radio that come in clear.

One time I sat in on a seminar on travel writing in Miami, and the speaker said that, in her experience, you had to live in a place for at least a year before you knew it well enough to write about it. And I think part of why I keep moving places is that.

I’m from everywhere and nowhere, and to be one requires the other. It’s nomadic and occasionally lonely, but hey, whatever–sometimes you’re just an object in motion, wheel to pavement, memorizing the exit numbers for as long as you can until some new place aligns itself with your coordinates.

Some nights you are going to be so exhausted and drained, you’ll fall asleep with your face mashed into the section on driveshafts in your textbook. But other nights you’ll be on the highway again, listening to how the sounds in your car shift up as it goes from 60 to 80, hoping the rain will hold off until you get home.