In the late summer of 1994, before anyone knew what a blog was or why a person would be inclined to follow one, I first put my pen to paper to document what was at the time my greatest travel adventure. I was 19 years old with all the innocence and naïveté that goes with it. But somehow—inexperienced in all things as I was—I had the foresight to record the details of that trip—a nearly month long road trip from NY to Seattle with some volunteer work in Montana on the way back, narcissistically preserving for posterity a meaningful event in my life, and setting the pattern for all my travels in the 20 years since then. In doing so, there was I side effect I’d never intended nor conceived. By accident, I wrote my autobiography.
Reflecting on my travel journals I’ve come to two fundamental conclusions.
1) I’m old. Seriously, it’s true.
2) I am so glad I documented the details of these important events in my life, because if I hadn’t, most if not all the details would have been lost to my increasingly spotty memory (please see number 1).
Ever since that first foray as an ‘adult’ (feel free to snicker if you’d like), I’ve made it a habit to re-read a given date’s journal entry on the “anniversary” of a trip. Thanks to my journals, I can say exactly where I was to the day X number of years ago. More importantly, I not only can say where I was, but what I was doing, who I was with and how I was feeling. Without ever intending it, by tracing my journeys across the globe I can also trace my journey through adulthood. And not only have I documented the places where I’ve left my footprint, but also how each location has left its footprint on me. Below are some tips on what you can include in your own journals so as to have most of your autobiography written by the time you retire.
It wasn’t until September 2002 that I began documenting what I call my “State of the Union” in the first entry of a given trip’s journal. Up until that time I concentrated exclusively on the play by play action of what happened, at what time, and more than I’d like to admit—what I ate (on cruise journals there are startlingly detailed accounts of my every meal. Shameful, I know). Beginning with that trip to Italy, I began writing down my thoughts on where I was in life, the things that preoccupied me, and my hopes for the trip ahead. This was a good 8 years into my journal writing career, and by then I’d come to realize that when I re-read those past entries, what mattered most to me wasn’t what time of day I did something, or (reluctantly) what I had for dinner, but how I was feeling at the time. Having those insights from my younger self has given me an indication of how much I’ve grown—and not just from those aforementioned dinners.
Fill Out the Body (Again, not from dinner)
Once I had a better grasp of what I would later consider important, I didn’t limit those personal flourishes to the initial entries, but as I handled the play by play of a day’s activities I filled the role of color analyst as well. I began describing in greater detail my thoughts on what I was doing or seeing, along with conclusions, aspirations, and seeds of ideas that I would only fully grasp later in life. Because of being attuned to the value of such details, I’ve been able to look back with the clarity of hindsight and learn from how well I handled (or didn’t handle) the twists and turns of my personal life as reflected in the written snapshots of my travels. An excellent example of this are my travels from 2006-2011, when I was struggling with depression, grieving for lost friends, and despairing at my financial outlook. Remembering how those events colored the lens of my life at the time is a good reminder of what works when confronting tragedy—and what doesn’t.
At about the same time I realized that a ‘snapshot’ of my life at the beginning of a trip’s journal was well worth the effort, I began including in the final entry a reflection not only of the places I had visited but also what my hopes for the life I was returning to would be. Generally I’d recap my favorite ‘memory’ of the trip and summarize as a travel critic no one would ever read (until blogging was invented!) my thoughts on a destination. Besides gaining more insight as to where my head was at, more often than not I’d make a reference about my curiosity as to what would be written on the next blank pages, along with my hopes as to what my life would be like at the time. And when the time finally did come to write that next entry, I always reviewed the previous one to see what had transpired in the interim.
Like most journals, the actual contents are rather private, so I won’t go into details here. But suffice to say, I’m grateful to that silly 19 year old who may not have had a clue about a great many things, but by establishing the practice of documenting his thoughts and actions, allowed me to see how far I’ve come in twenty years—not just in miles, but in personal growth. I only hope that in another twenty years my 59 year old self can read this entry and have such appreciative words for me.