Keeping a Travel Journal You Love, Part 2 from Tarn Wilson


Exercise 1 – Ask For What You Want
As one of my first entries, I set goals or ask for what I want from a trip. The activities are slightly different: setting goals implies I have the power to make the trip successful by defining my vision and making conscious choices.  Asking for what I want suggests that I can appeal to a force outside myself to help make my trip fulfilling. Both strategies have helped me articulate my values and hopes, and I have been astounded–especially when asking for what I want — to find that I’ve received everything I’ve asked for.

When I chaperoned a high school student trip to the Galapagos, among other requests, I asked to:

Be natural
Be grateful
Be inclusive
Take risks in drawing
Be in the present moment
See the good in each person
Be alert, notice, absorb, and learn
To feel that I carry my home with me
Enjoy my journal but don’t be a slave to it
Recognize and take advantage of adventures when they come my way
Be willing to be there for the students in any way that will enrich the trip but don’t define myself by “helping”

As a leader, I’d been concerned about keeping students happy, keeping every one on schedule, making sure the students followed rules, etc., but after I asked for these gifts, I was able to let go of my overly acute sense of responsibility, expect the best from everyone, build relationships, and enjoy my exploration of the islands and all its animals.

Exercise 2 – Describe A Scene Using All The Senses
Photographs can only capture images, but writing can preserve smells, sounds, tastes, textures, and how it feels to be in our body. Because we are practiced describing what we see, try beginning with the other senses:

What do you hear near and far away?
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
How does it feel to be in your body? What is tight? What is relaxed? What is warm? Cold? What are you touching and how does it feel? How does the air feel against your skin?
How would you describe the quality of the light?
Choose an area no bigger than a foot square and describe in detail what you see inside.
Describe patterns in the landscape.

If I don’t know how to begin an entry, I’ve found capturing the moment a foolproof method. Then, when I am fully engrossed in the scene, usually another thread of thought arises, which I can then follow.

Describing the exterior of my friend’s house in Seattle led me to a description of my interior landscape, the shape and form of my thoughts:

I am sitting on Debbie’s front steps — grey steps, with a white, wooden rail, and flower pots on each level. Sun on the tops of my feet. Too hot in jeans. But slow like a cold lizard. Too slow to move and change clothes just yet. Tension flowing out my fingers and toes in an almost imperceptible quiet steady stream. A level of deep-boned rest I have really needed, the sort of rest that comes, not from being inactive (we’ve had plenty of activities), but from having nothing particular that I am responsible for. I feel sort of animal-like, in the best sense of the word. Just being.

But I have released so much that writing is difficult. First, my writing had that special fragmentation that comes from too much multi-tasking. High anxiety. Lists. Half finished thoughts. Worries. Dull vocabulary.

But now I have swung too far the other direction and I have nothing to write because I have no thoughts . . . of course, a certain rolling along of consciousness, occasionally freezing on a memory or a question.

I can’t even articulate very well how my thoughts are sluggish. And sluggish isn’t the proper word either, has the negative connotation of stupidity and slowness. These sorts of thoughts don’t carry with them any heavy emotions, any particular urgency, any fretting. They have very little concern for me — at least not more than the rock at my feet, a flower, the wind, the overcast sky. It is a deep release to be relieved, even for a moment, of myself.

I arrived at a similar conclusion when — sailing the Princess Louisa Inlet in British Columbia — I begin an entry with a description of the quality of the light.

Today is not a tourist day — a day of sunshine and seal faces. Today the seals sink under the water and the sun is distant, a bit pale. The greens of the trees are hazy, the wind pulls feathers of clouds across the sky, again making the light whitish, more impersonal than a yellow tourist sun. It is a delightful kind of impersonal — it is not the impersonal of intentional neglect but of non-judgment.

I am small, hopping along on the waves, small compared to the jutting land and trees, and my thoughts, finally, are of no consequence.

Recording a scene with sense detail has the added benefit of preserving those small moments that hide between our practiced stories and our photographs, and might otherwise be lost.

Exercise 3 – Keep Lists

Organize your experience into categories, from the ordinary to the thought-provoking to the wacky:

Towns I’ve visited
Places I have stayed
Historical sites
Important historical dates
Types of transportation I’ve used
People I’ve met
New foods I’ve eaten
New vocabulary
Plants and animals
Useless facts
My budget
What I actually spent
What I brought in my suitcase
What I wish I’d brought
What I brought that I wish I hadn’t
Amusing bumper stickers, road signs, and store names
Quotes from the book I’m reading
Song lyrics that have been running through my head
Snippets of overheard conversation
Images from my dreams
Reoccurring memories
Compliments received
Embarrassing moments
Things I don’t understand
Things I’ve lost
Things I’ve found
Things that made me laugh
Things that made me sad
Things that made me angry
What is familiar
What is unfamiliar
What I am not doing right now

While canoeing in the Cascades in Washington State, I kept lists of plants and flowers: vanilla leaf, bleeding heart, mountain bluebell, buttercup, bunchberry, yarrow, snowberry, scotch broom, skunk cabbage, fireweed, sweetpea, trillium. Although simple, plant lists served a number of purposes. First, I paid more attention to vegetation than I would otherwise: naming helped me see the beauty, diversity, and specificity in my environment. Also, most of the names also bring back vivid, specific images: Desolation Peak blazing in lupine, paintbrush, and wild rose; a single candy stripe blossoming under the Douglas fir. And if, later, I want to write about this setting, I can include details that will make my descriptions rich and authentic.

On the airplane on the way home from Jordan, I made more elaborate lists of what surprised me, interested me, made me curious, made me uncomfortable. Here is a partial list of some surprises:

I was surprised by Bedouin goat and sheep shepherds hustling their herds next to the highway, on city hillsides.

I was surprised that Friday is a holy day.

I was surprised that well-dressed families in slick, clean cars like to park on the edge of the highway and have picnics with open fires in the stones and brush.

I was surprised that teenage boys in groups, often in Western clothes, play drums with interesting rhythms and scream songs.

I was surprised to see a young Bedouin man on a donkey at Petra wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Your lists can be as simple as shopping lists, or they can grow into lyrical descriptions or mini-stories.

Exercise 4 – Compare and Contrast
Whether we are traveling to another country, another state, or even to a neighboring town, we find environmental and cultural differences. Note similarities and differences in the:

Birds and animals
Quality of the light
Dominant colors
Styles of architecture
Layout of communities
Modes of transportation
Evidence of religious worship
How loudly people talk
Dominant topics of conversation
How close people stand to one another
Relationships between women and men
Male and female roles
Role of children
Percentage of people in different age groups
Relationship to wild animals, to pets
Relationship to time
Treatment of the disadvantaged
Treatment of strangers

Exercise 5 – Questions
Traveling offers us the opportunity to step, for a moment, out of regular lives and thereby see them with the objectivity of an outsider. We are also introduced to places in which the rhythms and mores are different from home. This new perspective can spur questions: about the direction of our lives, our relationships, our purpose; about human behavior and human culture, about our responsibilities to one another; about geology, biology, language. Because our questions may be new or touch on deep issues, we don’t need to answer or even explore them. We can just list them.

In the following entry after a drive in Ecuador, I combine a scene, a surprise, compare and contrast, and questions:

Many of the women wear traditional white shirts with lacy sleeves and embroidery, brightly colored skirts — a mixture I think of old Spanish and native dress. It surprised me to see women walking along the paved highway in traditional dress, women of all ages. But some in jeans and T-shirts.

I wonder what sort of statement traditional clothes make in their culture. Do some people feel fierce about it? Is it a statement, or merely a habit and a tradition? Do some people wear modern clothes on some days and traditional on others? Do people who wear traditional clothes feel critical of those who don’t? Vice versa?

Their long black hair was pulled back and wrapped in fabric. In our culture, different ages wear different styles of clothing, so I found it moving to see women of all ages, seven years to very old, dressed the same.

Exercise 6 – Gratitude and Complaints
Because traveling can offer new challenges and frustrations, keeping a regular list of what we are grateful for can serve two purposes.

First, it gives perspective: we’re reminded of the privilege we have in being able to travel and recognize all the ways in which our trip has gone smoothly–or at least given us adventures and stories to share. Second, if we are specific and descriptive in our expressions of gratitude, they will also capture moments on our trip — little verbal postcards.

On the other hand, writing a list of complaints can also provide perspective. When we take all our annoyances, which have been circling in endless loops in our mind, and list them on the page, they can suddenly seem less traumatic. Even funny. We recognize we are learning about ourselves by our response to challenges. And often, when we have listed our complaints on the page, our mind feels ready to release them.

Exercise 7 – Creative Mapping
Of course, you can paste or draw a literal map in your journal. But you can also play with more expressive forms of mapping. You can draw a map of a neighborhood or the room where you are staying. Your maps do not have to be accurate: they can be impressionistic, with funny drawings or symbols.

At the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole Wyoming, I learned to make a sound map. We sat in the snow in an aspen grove, closed our eyes, and listened. Then we recorded in our journals where we heard different sounds: the rustle of our own jacket. To our left, a raven’s call. Behind us, the swoosh-swoosh of a cross country skier. In the distance, a jet’s low rumble.  We tried to find language to reproduce the sound.

Hannah Hinchman in her beautiful book on nature journaling, A Trail Through the Leaves, includes copies of her event maps. After a nature walk, she records her journey in a map-form, not only where she went, but important moments of observation or discovery: a beautiful plant, a meeting with a person or animal. While traveling, I create event maps for a day or a week, with silly drawings of key moments. My maps are not usually geographically correct but do represent my experience.

Exercise 8 – Draw
Whether or not you consider yourself an artist, I highly recommend that you draw in your journal. You never have to show the drawings to anyone — or even have an opinion of your work. The primary gift of drawing is that it helps you to pay deep and sustained attention to something in your environment. Whether or not my drawing is accurate, when I re-read my journals, my drawings, more than my writing, bring back a moment. To encourage yourself and make drawing a playful rather than stressful process, bring materials that feel fun and childlike: crayons or bright markers or colored pencils. If you want to develop your drawing skills, I recommend Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain; if you want to see examples of how charming unskilled drawing can be, check out Natalie Goldberg’s Living Color.

Exercise 9 – Scrapbook
Paste ticket stubs and postcards and photographs. Cut up and collage images and words from brochures. If you have room to carry a roll of contact paper, you can use it to include feathers and pressed plants and flowers. (Someone I know contact-papered dead butterflies in his journal.) Incorporate lectures notes and tidbits from plaques and exhibits. Decorate the tops of pages with quotes. I don’t worry about making my writing and the scrapbook elements correspond on the same page.


If, in your writing, you feel you are getting repetitive or just skimming the surface of what you are trying to say, try these exercises:

Find a sentence from some place earlier in your journal — a sentence that is insightful, or brave, or frightening, or interesting but vague, or important but confusing. Copy that sentence on the top of a new page. Respond to that sentence for a set period of time or number of pages. When you have finished, find an intriguing sentence within that entry and repeat the process. Repeat until you have a sense of discovery, of unearthing something new.

“What I am really trying to say…”
Writing teacher Natalie Goldberg in her writing book Writing Down the Bones suggests that when you can’t seem to find the heart of your message, begin a sentence with “What I am really trying to say . . . ” You can repeat several times in an entry.

Ask Questions
As you are writing, every third of a page or so, ask a related question and then try to answer it. Repeat as many times as you like. Sometimes I combine asking questions with “what I am really trying to say . . . ”

Change Points Of View
To infuse your journal with freshness and new insight, write from the point of view of someone else. Your waitress. The fisherman. The old man at the table next to you. The little girl on the beach.

Write About Yourself In Third Person
I often write with more thoroughness, objectivity, and humor when I write about myself in third person — as if I were a character in a novel.

Dialogue with self
Create names for opposing parts of yourself: Shy and Outgoing. Timid and Adventurous. Curious and Bored. Empathetic and Judgmental. Positive and Negative. Stingy and Generous. Create a dialogue in which two parts of yourself discuss some element of the trip.


The Inner Critic
If you are trying journaling for the first time, or have high expectations for yourself (e.g. my journal will be publishable; my journal will be the beginning of my next novel; my beloved will fall in love with me when he/she reads my sensitive observations), your inner critic may go into overdrive. First, if you are trying something new, be patient with awkwardness and slow starts. Second, I promise that if I read your journal, I’d find it interesting: You have your own unique rhythms, questions, and eyes through which you see the world. You only seem boring because you are so familiar to yourself.

But sometimes, even with such assurances, my inner critic keeps harping. In that case, I give my inner critic a page. I let her write all her complaints, and when I see them all in one place, they don’t seem quite as formidable. Also, once she’s had her say, she tends to be quiet for a while, giving me freedom to get back to work.

Lack Of Time To Write
If you are traveling with company that has a set, tight itinerary, be realistic about your expectations for journaling. You may have to wake up early, tour all day, and go to bed late. Bring your journal, but don’t criticize yourself or be disappointed if you can’t write every day. Grab the moments you have waiting in line, stopping to eat, winding down before bed to jot down key images, details, lines of dialogue, or a question or observation. You can continue to develop your impressions and discoveries when you get home. Some of my entries even end halfway through a sentence, such as this one, interrupted by a call to board the plane to Alaska:

San Jose Airport. 8:05 AM. A warm, bright morning. S. stayed up all night in a frenzy of activity, anxiety, and noise, so I did not sleep long or well. I can feel how the weariness settles around my eyes, across my forehead. It is the heart of summer and women wear shorts and tank tops, even this time of the morning, and it is light enough that people talk loudly, couples cuddle, and toddlers escape . . .

Our first day in Alaska, while my in-laws repacked their suitcases, I stole a moment to record this scene:

This morning on the way back from my run, I stopped at a small tree on the street next to our motel. It was filled with chubby chickadees so greedy for the caterpillar larvae rolled up in the tree leaves that they couldn’t bother to leave and let me stand with my head in the branches. I was circled by feasting birds bouncing from limb to limb.

That moment, small but so lovely, became one of the central images of my trip. I believe I would have lost it if I hadn’t given myself that five minutes of writing to solidify it in memory.

Traveling With Those Who Don’t Journal
If you’re traveling with others, discuss your hopes and expectations beforehand. We all have different models for the perfect adventure. Some people want to fit in as much activity as possible, so if you value time for reflection, clearly state your preferences, and negotiate.

I’d taken a previous motorhome trip with my in-laws and found that they misinterpreted my desire for time alone and my retreats into my journal as signals that I was upset with them. So before the Alaska trip, I explained that I needed a little time alone every day and that I would probably wake up before everyone else — or slip away occasionally–for reading, writing, and walking/running. With this clarification beforehand, they no longer felt rejected and supported my time.

Writing About Topics Not Related To The Trip
Sometimes when we travel, we find ourselves writing more about home than about our trip. My students have worried about this. But I say this is a gift, not a problem!

Traveling offers us a new perspective: we are extricated from our well-defined roles and our habitual patterns of thinking and acting and can see our lives in new light. In addition, many of us have such busy schedules, we don’t have the time to reflect on issues lingering just under the surface of our consciousness. Suddenly have the time and the distance to see our lives more clearly.


Choosing A Journal
Since a travel journal may receive rough handling, I opt for one with a sturdy cover that can take some battering or a bit of rain. Since I may be writing or sketching in unusual places–standing up, on a train, etc — I choose a journal that opens easily and lays flat. Since I like to draw and experiment with the size and placement of my words on the page, I prefer blank pages. Most bookstores and art supply stores carry some journals, but recently the store options seem to be shrinking while on-line journaling resources are expanding. Cachet makes hardy journals in various sizes and designs, lined and unlined, wire or hardbound, which you can order direct at Also, some writers hand design and bind their own ideal journal.

Very small journals are easy to carry, but lend themselves to jottings and haiku-like descriptions. Large journals are more difficult to store, but invite more leisurely ponderings. I opt for a journal that is medium sized — large enough to be able to explore an idea in depth, but small enough that it fits in the bag I carry every day.

Journaling Supplies
I carry a nylon pencil sack with plenty of my favorite pens. I have used cheap blue Papermate pens ever since my fifth grade teacher gave me one for Christmas — but (as I’ve found out the hard way) they blob at high altitudes and freeze at low temperatures. High-quality drawing pens (such as the Sakura Pigma Micron) worked better in those conditions. Although I have not tried one, Uniball claims that its Power Tank RT can write in sub-zero cold, high humidity, upside down, and on wet surfaces (

Because I like to paste ticket stubs, postcards, images from brochures, etc. in my journal, I also bring a glue stick and a pair of children’s scissors, rounded on the tips (because they don’t make the airlines nervous). Depending on the nature of the trip, how much time I’ll have, and how much weight I’m willing to lug, I may also bring a drawing pen, a small set of colored pencils, watercolor pencils, or a travel-sized watercolor set. I’ve collected these at various art and office supply stores. If you want to purchase supplies on line, for a wide selection at reasonable prices, my artist friends recommend Dick Blick at

Tips For Setting Up Your Journal

  • If you want your journal returned if you lose it, write your name and mailing address/contact information inside the front cover.
  • You can create a title page with a name for your trip and the dates. At some point, you can decorate the page with a postcard, photographs, a collage of images or words, etc.
  • If you have an itinerary, you can paste it inside the front cover.
  • You can also draw or paste maps of your route.
  • I open each entry with a heading that includes the date, the time, and place. Sometimes I jot down, in a list form, a few major events of the day.

Returning Home

  • Look back at your journal entry in which you set goals or asked for what you want. Were your hopes fulfilled?
  • If you want to share your journal with others, type select entries, put entries on a web site or blog–or easiest of all, photocopy or scan pages.

I also use my journal to help me make the transition from travel back to my ordinary life. When I returned home from a sailing trip in British Columbia after visiting my ill father, I wrote:

I am home. And it seems I have been gone forever and ever. It was a rich, full time, and to be back, sitting on my black office chair at my desk, my feet up on the back of the couch, my journal on my lap, seems both surprising and normal. It is not as dreadful as I imagined entering back into my life—my house is always cuter and tidier than I had remembered. I guess it isn’t my life I am anxious about, but my response to my life, and as busy as my vacation was and at times emotional, I did achieve a deep calm. To what do I attribute that? 1. No news. 2. Not constant reading of bits — magazines and newspapers. 3. Periods with absolutely nothing to do. 4. No phone calls. 5. No emails. 6. Very few obligations. 7. Very few chores. 8. Enough sleep. 9. Naps. 10. Long journaling. 11. Reading. Of course, I did have the occasional anxiety attack and frozen heart syndrome — whole body stiff and fearful with overwhelming memories of the lonely hollowness of childhood, but overall, as I sit here, I feel satisfyingly emptied out. Certainly, I need to get geared up for work. But I feel confident I can do it…

Next, armed with the perspective my trip I had given me, I evaluated my strengths and weaknesses in my job as a high school teacher and brainstormed strategies for dealing with the inevitable stresses of the coming year.

A travel journal, in a way, is an artificial construct. It is defined, or limited, by certain dates and a certain place, but, really, your preparation for your trip, mentally and physically, began long before you left, and, likewise, the way you will make meaning from your trip will continue to evolve after you return. As Mary Pipher in her book Writing to Change the World explains, “In a sense, all writing is travel writing.”


Editor’s note: I think these nine exercises should help you keep writing whether you travel around your own town or neighborhood or further afoot. Thank you, Tarn!

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Keeping a Travel Journal You Love, Part 2 from Tarn Wilson — 2 Comments

  1. I’ve been bummed this summer because the two trips I’d planned fell through. But I saved this article, hoping that some kind of trip would show up in my life and I could use its suggestions. Friends just found us a super-cheap trip to Maui, and since I’ve never been to Hawaii, I’m really excited. The last time I kept a travel journal was on a trip to Tuscany. The journal resulted in my nonfiction memoir “The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany.” I am inspired by the exercises in this article, and can’t wait to try some of them. Thank you so much!

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