Write Down Everything From Your Travels
A travel lesson I wish I'd learned earlier.
A little “Where’s Waldo?” from my trip to Mexico City during Day of the Dead in November 2018 PC (Pre-Covid-19).
This post is from my website madelinehwahl.com, which I am going to revamp shortly. I will be sharing some of those posts here in this newsletter.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I would give my past self when traveling and to anyone on their own journey is to write everything down. Every thought, every interaction, every single thing you want to remember. How vibrant the tulips looked at Keukenhof Gardens on that sunny spring day in Amsterdam. The days I spent walking around rainy Irish streets in Dublin. The night I threw beads off of a random bar balcony with two guys from my hostel during Mardi Gras and how we then proceeded to have the best night ever exploring New Orleans, dancing to live music, dancing with strangers, buying decorative masks, and eating hot slices of pizza. I would tell myself to write down complicated feelings associated with solo travel like grief, loneliness, and love. I would tell myself to be compassionate with feelings I couldn't explain, that haven't been paired with words just yet. I would tell myself, gently: You'll say you're going to remember this moment forever, but you may not remember this moment forever.
Write it down.
When I finally decided to commit to the West Highland Way, a 96-mile hike along the lowlands and highlands of Scotland, I told myself I would write down my experiences every single day. I would take photographs of the path and the munros, make detailed notes of where I stayed, who I met, and what I ate, and I would gather these notes together afterward in a compilation, a novella. But after walking around 12 miles a day (and one day walking upwards of 18 miles!) I would barely have the energy and time to check into the hostel or wigwam or wherever I was staying, shower, eat dinner, and maybe talk to the people I'd hiked with during the day before falling asleep and repeating the process the next day. The intention of writing down the memories was there, but the act of doing so wasn't. I thought I'd remember more of the journey. In the days after I completed the journey (and climbed Ben Nevis), the daily adventures, the names of people, the lochs and trees and the moments I'd experienced all seemed to fade away into...well, I don't know where it faded to.
A stunning view captured when walking the West Highland Way in September, 2019.
There are moments where I thought to myself: I never want to forget this. I want to capture this moment like the little flickering fireflies that floated about my grandparents old home in Dobbs Ferry I used to visit as a child. We'd go out in the warm summer's day, the soft light fading from the sky, and as the golden yellow lights illuminated, disappeared, and reappeared in front of the green foliage, we'd gather glass jars with holes in the top, go out into the backyard, and after walking about the garden, would capture a firefly. But then, after a few moments of looking in awe at the firefly, taking note of its new surroundings, we'd let the firefly go and watch the flickering light join the other flickering lights.
That's what holding onto a memory feels like. I needed to let the memory go, and writing is one way I've come to process moments in my life, to catalog experiences, to see the beauty in the mundane and the stunning in the magical. I cannot hold onto memories like I could not hold onto the real-life firefly.
Release is all part of the experience.
Writing is, to me, a release.
Write down everything that comes to you. The thoughts, descriptions, quotes, music, colors. Buildings and paintings, clothing and facial expressions, bookstores and coffee shops. The temperature. The altitude. The humidity. The hopes and the fears and the excitement. First thoughts of a trip and last thoughts coming home from a trip. Reflections of the world around you and reflections of the world within yourself.
You'll say you're going to remember this moment forever, but you may not remember this moment forever.
Eventually, after enough time has passed, you'll get to a point where what you swore you'd never forget will become a series of blurred images, faded names, and failed recollections. Instead of immediately recalling the name of a travel friend, you'll look them up on Facebook or Instagram, if you were lucky to have remembered them at all. If you were lucky to have a photo with them or to have exchanged contact information at that moment in time. If not, you'll remember their face (maybe), you'll remember something they said (maybe), and you'll remember where you were (maybe), and then that's all that will be left of that moment in time.
You'll feel like time has robbed you. You'll wonder why your memory has failed. You'll search deep within yourself for the right description of a place you once felt you knew intimately but have since forgotten. Or, you'll return to a place and wonder how it has changed, why it feels so different.
You'll wonder what happened.
Sometimes, you'll look through old photos and then an image of a skeleton during Day of the Dead in Mexico City will shock something awake and you'll remember vividly what happened on one of those rainy days exploring marigolds, paying respects at ofrendas, eating pink tacos for dinner and drinking mezcal at a hostel tasting. Instead of the moments flashing across my vision like a highlight reel, remembering feels like an action. Looking back at my notebooks and pictures, the memories reassert themselves at the forefront of my mind. After all, what wants to be remembered will be remembered.
Write everything down because at the time you think you'll remember everything, but later on as the days fade to months and the months collect into years, you'll realize you won't have remembered everything. You'll realize you'll have forgotten more than you remember.
You just won't remember what you have forgotten.
Thanks for reading Mad Travels Alone! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.