Because my father was a farmer, we didn’t travel much when I was a kid. The crops and the livestock needed constant attention. A farmer can’t afford to wander. It was only after my father sold our stock that we started to take a few trips. We went to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield one summer, and my father surprised us by suggesting that we go on to Hannibal, Missouri, and once we were there, he said we might as well drive on over to St. Joseph to see my mother’s brother. Outside of a train trip to Washington, D.C., it turned out to be the longest trip we ever took as a family. I came home with a genuine Stetson hat purchased in St. Joe and the newfound knowledge that not every place was as flat as the farmland of southeastern Illinois. For the first time, I’d seen the Mississippi River and its bluffs. I’d gone through Mark Twain Cave. I’d eaten Pie a la Mode at 2 a.m. in a diner in Chillicothe, Missouri. I was eleven years old, and suddenly the world was full of wonders.
Now, 47 years later, I’ve returned from a trip to Alaska where the scenery was stunning and the people were friendly. I had a wonderful time talking with a waiter who took note of my Ohio State tee-shirt (it really is true that wherever you go, you can shout out, “O-H,” and someone will answer, “I-O”), and chose to strike up a conversation. By the end of our chat, I’d learned that he’d been at a reading I participated in at the Homer, Alaska, Elks’ Club, that he spent his summers in Alaska and much of the rest of the year in Thailand because he’s a bird fanatic. He told me he lived in a hut on the beach and could manage on $12 a day. He also told me things more intimate than this, things I’ll keep to myself out of respect for his privacy. Who knows what I may have gained during this conversation and others on my trip that will someday pay off for me in my writing.
The point is the world is broad and the more corners of it that we explore the more material we have at our disposal. Travel opens the writer’s mind and heart. We not only see new things, we respond to what we see with a fresh perspective. We stand in someone else’s shoes. We live in someone else’s skin. How can this not be good for the writer as he or she continues to practice the art of empathy? We even see ourselves anew because we see ourselves as outsiders the way the natives see us, and when we return home, we see everything around us with fresh eyes. Our response to our world deepens because we’ve had the chance to leave and then come back. As tiring and challenging as travel can be these days (lost bags, missed connections, cramped seats), there’s always something to be gained for our art and for our living as well. Travel provides a contrast for the people we are and the worlds we occupy. That contrast helps us better understand ourselves qnd others, the people around us and the characters that we create or represent in our writing.