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Soulful Travel Preparation: Guest post on Lane Letters

Given our mutual love of travel, it is only appropriate that Christy and I met via Instagram. I was in Alaska on assignment for The Avid Cruiser writing daily Live Voyage Reports about my adventures. I was also attempting to Instagram breathtaking vistas any time a rogue WiFi wave cooperated. Through the magic of the Internet, one click led to another and now strangers on opposite sides of the world are collaborating. Christy actually arranged a series of guests posts on her site, all around the theme of travel and/or living abroad. Check out the whole series!

My article published on Lane Letters is an extended version of what I originally published on The Avid Cruiser.


The realm of travel research and preparation is overly stuffed with lists and logistics. I’m guilty of it myself, as are most well-worn travelers. I have bookshelves piled high with guidebooks and endless Evernote files dedicated to locations I’ve either visited or am lusting after. I color code itineraries, read maps for entertainment, and research assorted minutia ad nauseum. I own being a total nerd who revels in trivia. For instance, these facts thrill me to no end: 470 Rhode Islands can fit inside Alaska and 89 percent of Alaska cannot be developed for human habitation. I’ll be spouting those factoids at cocktail parties for years to come. Years. Classic guidebook.

But something is missing. That something is the soul of it all. Quite frankly, the soul of travel can get lost in traditional travel preparation. In thinking about my recent Alaskan experience: What does list and logistic research actually tell me about the people who live in that wild land? What about the people who lived there first? What does a Saturday afternoon in July in Skagway sound like? What do the 200-foot spruces in Ketchikan smell like after the rain? What does salmon taste like when it was caught five minutes ago in the river below the restaurant? As I get older and continue to refine my travel skills, the predictable checklists simply mean less and less to me. It’s akin to the evolution of collecting experiences, not souvenir key chains. I want to experience a place with all five senses, with my soul. Hopefully once I give in to the experience and am seduced by the adventure of it all, I’ll leave with even a fraction of authentic understanding of the place I’ve just been.

If you’re interested in more than arriving, snapping three obligatory wish-you-were-here selfies near three famous monuments, and leaving, how do you prepare to really understand your destination? You selected it for some reason or another, so how do you really dive in and begin to learn about a land, a people, a culture, and the unfamiliar experiences so unique to travel?

Hint: Put the guidebooks down. All the way down, says The Former Guidebook Addict.

To give credit where credit is due, this liberating revelation (an act of permission, really) came to me by way of a creative mentor. Laura Valenti Jelen is a photographer and gallery curator based in Portland, Oregon. She designed and now teaches a series of online photography courses. In a course called Traveling Light, Laura suggests we ignite our artistic creativity in the process of our research. She tells us to immerse ourselves in the poetry, music, visual art, literature, and soul of a place. Listen to Italian opera for two weeks before you venture to Rome. Read heaping doses of Kerouac if you’re planning an epic American road trip, or old mariner’s diaries if you’re ocean bound. Enjoy a Woody Allen movie marathon before you jet off to Manhattan. Watch Ewan McGregor’s documentary about circumnavigating the globe on a motorcycle…just for the delicious wanderlust of it all. Research regional authors and poets who not only call your destination home, but who write about the people, the land, the food. Dive in. Why not? I promise you will experience your final destination in a way you never thought possible.

I dove into three books for my recent trip to Alaska (but one is a now-hypocritical National Geographic coffee table book of stock photos and factoids, so ignore that). While I was sailing the Inside Passage, I read a book of poetry, Cartography of Water, penned by Mark Burwell. His lush descriptions of Alaskan wilderness, coastal rain forests, and isolated frontier life prepared me to at least try and soak in the grandeur of it all. Beyond statistics about annual rainfall, Mark taught me to smell the green. I sailed into Ketchikan at sunrise with these words fresh in my mind:


At the head of the bay

sits the island,

unreachable and rich as woman.

Knife edge peaks

are fallen slices of the moon

stuck in a hem of spruce.

The island floats

like a fabulous, green galleon

at the edge of the ocean’s dream.

Like the mountain and the spruce,

I join the dreaming.

I taste the salt in the magic,

water nerve. I smell the green.

I touch the cool waist

of the planet.

I also read the memoir of a woman named Miranda Weiss. Miranda and I are more or less the same age. Our suburban childhoods that turned into insatiable desires for adventure connect us beyond the words on the page. Reading about her homesteading adventures in Homer gives me a deep, nearly personal, sense of what life in Alaska feels, smells, tastes, sounds like.

Miranda was 23 when she moved to Alaska with her college boyfriend. She reflects beautifully on her culture shock over the land and people. She opens Tide, Feather, Snow: “Moving to coastal Alaska meant moving to the water life, although I hadn’t known it until I arrived. Nothing is separate from the sea — not the sky, not the land, not a single day, nor my mood. I wasn’t used to this. I wasn’t ready for it.” She continues in the opening passage of chapter two: “Sitting at the edge of the continent, I was completely, terribly, and excitingly alone. I would be retracing the voyage of countless others who had traveled to Alaska before me: gold rushers, early pioneers, thrill-seekers, miners, surveyors, fur hunters, fishermen, law makers, sightseers, and naturalists.” Not only is it more entertaining to read these texts for hours and hours, but they also create a soulful atmosphere of anticipation that guidebooks simply cannot.

Two additional resources I highly recommend are AFAR magazine and their online wanderlists, and Nowhere literary travel magazine. Both approach travel as a narrative, an experience, and something to bring you closer to the authenticity of it all.

May your many adventures be soulful.


Give Lane Letters some love. It's a gorgeous site. Christy's mission statement: Lane Letters is a space for those who live overseas or are redefining 'home,' have insatiable wanderlust, or simply want to learn how to thrive where they are, give back, and make a difference. 

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