Whenever I look through all those files of things I’ve saved over the years, I usually stumble upon some long-forgotten newspaper article I tucked away. I give it a casual glance, turn it over, then invariably find that whatever’s on the back is more interesting. Serendipity seems to win out over planning every time.

Travel’s like that. No matter how many journals I fill, photos I take, tweets I send, I find that oftentimes I “document” the wrong things.

While living and teaching English in Vietnam in the late 90s, I filled my journal with reviews of the pirated VHS movies I devoured in between classes. Tragically, not one word described life in an alley off Phan Kế Bính Street in Ho Chi Minh City, a place in the throes of wild transition.

Similarly, while studying in Russia just after the fall of the USSR, I snapped roll after roll of onion-domed cathedrals that haven’t changed for centuries, ignoring the babushkas holding toothbrushes for sale outside Metro exits – a telling snapshot of the country’s first baby steps into capitalism, now long gone.

The photo I took of a picnic area at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Photo by Robert Reid)

The photo I took of a picnic area at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Photograph by Robert Reid)

Not that there’s anything wrong with gold-topped churches, of course, but I ended up “capturing” the same Russia people can capture today. Now, when I go on trips, I try to listen to what Future Robert is trying to tell Present Robert to notice, to record, to remember.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, but it’s worth bringing up since most of us tend to over-document when we travel these days. Armed with smartphones and virtually limitless memory cards, we take hundreds if not thousands of photos without a second thought. And unlike before, we actually share them – instantly – with our circles on Facebook or Twitter.

That’d be fine, but I frequently catch myself rushing like a Black Friday shopper to spread news of my travels in real time. Last week in eastern Oregon, I jumped out of the car at the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, snapped a photo, touched it up with the most realistic of the unrealistic Instagram filters, and sent it off. This is all before I even bothered to take a non-virtual look at the fossilized land plants and animals in the 44-million-year-old volcanic mudflow.

The antidote to the nod-and-go approach (a la Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon) is simple: just slow down.

This isn’t a unique observation, or even a new one. When photography was just getting off the ground in the Victorian era, English art critic John Ruskin tsk-tsked over how travelers ended up paying less attention when they had a camera in their hand. His answer was to supply basic advice on how to sketch, reasoning that taking the time to crank out even the most primitive of drawings can help anyone “see” a place better.

That mantra is certainly echoed by Wisconsin-based artist/author Mike Rohde, whose fun new book, The Sketchnote Handbook, illustrates how a few thoughtful drawings do a better job of capturing the spirit of an experience than pages upon pages of notes. Mike told me “sketching uses more of your brain’s capabilities…creating a more detailed, layered map,” and I agree with him.

The key to maximizing future memories, then, is to simply be present, to pay attention to the details that interest you, to look at them closely — perhaps even sketch them. What those details are only you know. (For Rohde, Portland, Oregon’s points of interest included a drinking fountain with four faucets (see above).)

An example from "The Sketchbook Handbook," Mike Rohde's guide to visual note taking (Photo Courtesy Mike Rohde)

An example from “The Sketchnote Handbook,” Mike Rohde’s guide to visual note taking (Photo Courtesy Mike Rohde)

Most people take photos when they travel, but not everyone jots down drawings and descriptions in a journal. In an essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion claims only “anxious malcontents,” such as herself, bother to do so. Maybe more should.

I’ve filled 30-some notebooks with a decade’s worth of lost (as of yet, at least) travel moments. Lately I’ve been transcribing each of them, page by page. It’s been amazing. I enjoy the unfiltered tangents: scribbles about train times, sketches of a bus driver’s dramatic mustache, (bad) ideas for songs I’ll never write. But in the best and most illuminating moments, these musings can bring back forgotten memories and lend color to cherished ones.

I’ve been telling friends the story about a “goat whisperer” I encountered on a train in Bulgaria for years, but when I sat down to write about it a few months back, I was able to paint the picture more clearly because I had thought to record how the gray-haired man tapped his foot as he whispered, that the baby goat was wrapped snuggly in a blue-and-red striped plastic bag, and how it happened en route to Vidin on what would have been my dad’s 65th birthday.

I like to think that each trip has at least one “moment” like this – one that teaches us a lasting lesson or informs how we see the world. They can’t be planned, of course, but I try to be present enough to know when one might be happening so I don’t just slow down to enjoy it; I stop altogether.

Last October, I traveled to south-central France to follow in the footsteps Robert Louis Stevenson took in his autobiographical Travels in the Cévennes with a Donkey. When I came to a small lake between the villages of Cheylard and Luc, I knew I was near the spot where Stevenson had offered up what would become one of the book’s enduring quotations: “I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

And I disobeyed him. I stopped instead – to look and listen.

Only then did I hear a handful of dry leaves falling through the trees and birds stopping their songs then starting up again. Only then did I notice the spiky chestnut shells below my feet and how the birch trees resembled a bowl of Fruity Pebbles swaying in the wind — details Stevenson had noted, too (okay, except for the Fruity Pebbles part).

I didn’t photograph or Tweet any of that, but I sure do remember it.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national television. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.

Comments

  1. Dee Saffery
    Stamford, CT
    January 15, 10:04 am

    Robert, I love what you wrote. It is all so true. Thankfully for the last 50 years I have been taking detailed notes in journals for every trip I’ve taken. Photos, too, but the journals are the most treasured mementoes. When I get home from a trip all I want to do is type up my notes! It’s almost as much fun for me as the trip itself. I find I’ve forgotten probably 90% of details. Would I have remembered the gnarled hand and deep wrinkles of a beautiful ancient woman on Turtle Island off Bali? The deep calm and peace of a crescent moon late at night in Denali National Park in Alaska? The small kitten snoozing on a bicycle deep in the souks of Tunis? The incredible spirit of Israel and emotion felt walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem? I’m now on my 6th printed and bound travel book of all my notes over the years, and just started re-reading them all to compile a book of highlights. Thank you for your post; I hope it Inspires other travelers to preserve such tremendous memories.

  2. The Muskie Traveler
    themuskietraveler.blogspot.com
    November 13, 2013, 4:43 pm

    I am so happy I have taken down such memorable details in my travel journal, not only for me but also future generations to look back on someday. I will consider the drawings next time…keeps it interesting.

  3. Surya
    Italy
    November 3, 2013, 8:33 am

    This is so true. I promise myself every time that I’m not goin to take pictures just for the sake of Facebook, but I fall into the same trap again and again. I shudder to think of the number of goat whisperers I must have missed!!

  4. Kerri Ware
    United Kingdom
    October 3, 2013, 6:41 am

    This was a captivating read, thank you Robert. What you say is so true but we are all guilty of falling into the trap. I love the opportunity to go offline when I travel but I still end up taking many photos without truly appreciating what it is I’, taking photos of. On my next trip I will certainly remember your post!

  5. Sheila Kartika
    Indonesia
    October 3, 2013, 2:37 am

    great one, Robert! It is one of the challenge I want to resolve while traveling. Took too much pics without being present. I remember I have “a moment” while I was at Chiang Mai city park. I just sit and people-watching and didn’t take too many pics of it. I still remember that moment until now.
    Writing journals and stuff also becoming more difficult nowadays because we, Indonesians are addicted to social media and with Twitter now we used to type not more than 140 characters.
    Though I’m not really good at drawing and sketching, sure will try to do it on my next trip.
    Once again, thank you for this articles.

  6. Robert Reid
    September 30, 2013, 1:56 pm

    Thanks everyone for the comments! And Paleo Fan, thanks for the correction regarding fossil age. I saw only fossiized leaves — too busy Instagramming I guess! — but, per the John Day site, there are fossils of 44-million-year-old animals there. Shouldn’t have said “dinosaur.” (I made the correction in text above.)

  7. Kandice
    Chicago, IL
    September 30, 2013, 10:49 am

    Robert,
    This is such a though provoking post. I was recently trying to write a blog post about a trip I took earlier this year and I was upset because I couldn’t remember a few details. It never occurred to me-an avid note take and list writer-to take note of my wonderful time! Thank you so much.

    Please read my blog and give me feedback when you have time- http://www.travelwithkandice.blogspot.com/ .

  8. Contented Traveller
    Australia
    September 30, 2013, 9:29 am

    I agree that yes photos and notes and emails bring back a lot about a journey. I don’t think that there are lost memories but that they do come to you inadvertently, as you pointed out. These come randomly and over time, and quite a long time at that, but these are in effect the essence of a travel experience. The triggers are indeed smells, sounds and words. It is serendipity when it happens.

  9. Majida@Hanels Travels
    Schweiz
    September 30, 2013, 7:38 am

    Isen’t it , that you didn’t document the “wrong”, but that at that point of your life, those things appealed to you more, were more important to be remembered or leave an impact? And now, as time has passed, your perspective has changed? Has happened to me: South of Turkey is a place we visited over the years again and again for example. Today, I wouldn’t document, what I did at that time, even in the subsequent years, my documentation changed, May be in the beginning it is also the “new aspect”?
    Anyway, great post!

  10. Paleo Fan
    Oregon
    September 29, 2013, 12:20 pm

    You should really let a paleontologist know where you saw those 44 million year old dinosaur fossils, seeing as how the scientific consensus is that dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years.

  11. Corinne
    Schweinfurt, Germany
    September 29, 2013, 3:45 am

    I really appreciate this post. Since I’ve been traveling for quite some years, I too, have plenty of “lost” memories. I’m still struggling with how to keep them. I have tons of journals, tons of photos. Lots to think about…

  12. Bharti
    Mumbai
    September 29, 2013, 1:42 am

    Hi,
    I loved this article. I started a travel book just before my first trip to Europe. I doodled, wrote, joked and just scribbled about whatever I found interesting. The book is my most treasured possession now and reading your article made me even feel very pleased with myself. Hahah… Thanks for sharing this. :)
    http://www.suitcaseofstories.wordpress.com

  13. Pranesh Kumar
    Bangalore, India
    September 29, 2013, 1:22 am

    Robert,

    It is a great post throwing up an affordable solution to a common problem faced by travelers. It is very true that slowing down your pace when visiting places and making a note really helps. This post has urged me to make more notes on my travels and of course am going to check my travel logs again for those little hidden moments. Thanks!

  14. Anna from BlondeBananaBlog.com
    New York, NY
    September 27, 2013, 9:13 pm

    I have been trying to stop taking photos of all the typical “touristy” things while traveling – mainly because I’m sure someone else has taken a much better photo that everyone can already see online! Capturing interesting, unique moments that people who haven’t been there might not know about is best. I have so many photos of churches from my trip to Italy but I can’t remember any of the places I ate – that’s what I should I have been photographing!

  15. Barbara
    Vienna/London
    September 27, 2013, 4:22 pm

    Robert,

    what an inspiring post. I love your story about the goat whisperer.

    From my travels I tend to remember stories from encounters with people or things that are either in complete contrast or very close to my current life. Miami bungalows impressed me because I live in a high slim three storey terraced house…

    And then there are those triggered memories, like the smell of fried sausages – that will forever be Vienna for me.