Writing a newsletter is an invitation to narcissism: Everything is, potentially at least, writable, a topic, an anecdote-in -waiting. Actually, some of us who have had a fair amount published don't even need a Substack to see the world and everything in it as ‘material’, food for the writerly maw.
So it was inevitable that part of my excitement at the prospect of my recent week-long trip to the US consisted of fantasies of the newsletter I would write while on the road. If you think that sounds a bit Kerouac you'd be correct. Lectures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a final talk at Congregation Or Shalom in Chicago, equalled a lecture tour, equalled being 'on tour'. Armed with tablet and bluetooth keyboard, I would find America.
Well maybe that's an exaggeration, but I certainly wanted to write an edition of my newsletter during my trip. The reasons why I didn't shows that I have, boringly, a well-honed the ability to differentiate fantasy from reality.
It's not that I haven't been to America many times before, but I hadn't been to Wisconsin and Illinois before. And travelling on my own, particularly for work reasons, does predispose me to thoughtfulness.
As soon as I left the plane at Chicago O'Hare, potential topics assailed me. The most promising was a riff on the creaky state of American infrastructure: The poor signage in the airport terminal, the difficulty finding the coach to Madison, the grubby and crowded state of the coach when I found it. Once I arrived in Madison there were no shortage of tempting things to opine on: The campus bookstore filed with football merchandise with textbooks confined to the basement; the idealistic monumentalism of the impressive Wisconsin state capital building; the unbelievably lavish Hillel house. Each one was a stimulus to any number of tart observations. Each one a microcosm of something or other.
Yet once the euphoria that usually accompanies the first 24-48 hours of a long haul trip had worn off, my self-preservation instinct kicked in. I realised that there was absolutely no way to write from the road in America without replicating the most appalling cliché. Since de Tocqueville and probably before, writers have been travelling around America; wryly observing, searching for the perfect encapsulation of a continent in one place, incident or person. It's not that I feel like I am too modest a talent to add to this illustrious tradition - although I probably am - it's also that to be that kind of writer must manically in keep their antenna up all the time for that which must be noticed.
Long journeys and jetlag always make me high, verging on the manic. For some writers that is their default state. I, on the other hand, have ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Predictably, I crashed a couple of days after I arrived, and the rigours of the trip and my responsibilities to teach and meet people, meant that I only really felt functional on the day I left.
I've written before how I am trying to work on a book called The Exhausted Traveller, in which I will explore how those of us with little energy can and should find joy in travel, without ignoring its travails. My US trip reminded me that when I am struggling with my health on a trip, I still observe and find interest in the journey, its just that lose any desire to write about it. In fact I barely even posted on social media during my trip and, when I did, it was simply poor quality selfies and thank yous to those who hosted me. Hardly Tocquevillian.
Perhaps that's valuable in its own way though. Maybe the writer who is also an exhausted traveller is freed of the mania of noting and finding significance, at least until health stabilises once acclimatised.
I had a couple of really bad days during my trip - brain-fogged, bone-weary, unable to think straight; even a short walk felt like an impossible challenge. I was stripped to the bare essentials doing what I needed to do, living almost in the moment, existing to exist and not to observe, grounded in my stubborn body rather that posing as the one who opines. The webs of infrastructure that tie all of us into everyday life became visible. When checking into a hotel is a wearisome experience, you really notice the minor inefficiencies. That, I guess, has a certain screwed up mindful quality to it. To be ill, to be trapped in the body, is a grounding experience. Perhaps travel writers like Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin would have understood more if they had found the journey an exhausting trial, even if that would not have allowed them to take notes or write from the field (Chatwin's legendary notebooks would have remained unfilled).
With a variable condition like mine, the joys also become all the more precious. While writing can be a joy in its own way, I rarely want to write about the joys I experience while travelling, at least at the time and often not even after. On this trip, I delighted in Lake Michigan on a sunny day, I revelled in meeting new people and renewing relationships with older colleagues and acquaintances, I loved driving around downtown Chicago and revelled in my passion for large American pharmacies. All these precious, fleeting experiences will be washed away like tears in the rain; because to write of them feels weirdly boring and tiresome. Perhaps travelogues are simply all that remains after the unwritable joys and sorrows of travel have been experienced:
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I find that the least favourite part of my journeys are preparing for them (although my preparation is often highly minimal - toothbrush, passport, debit card), and passing through airports or seaports, but once I've arrived I never want to leave. Thank you for your missives. Thoughtful as ever.
Our airports are the worst. That noted, we are a country that flies A LOT. For a while in the early aughts, I spent six months "enjoying" the 1,000-mile weekly commute between Scottsdale and San Antonio, and Kate has just worked a week on the east coast, a week back here, and then another week on the east coast--she goes back in a couple of weeks. So, rather than "waste" $$$ on improving comfort, the profits-at-all-costs owners build bus stations instead of airports. It's horrible.