short trips

Unnecessary trips

by Steve Brock on May 14, 2013

Some of the best trips are the ones you don’t need to go on.

Untanum TracksI’m referring to the unplanned, spontaneous kinds. The ones with no worry about reservations or itineraries, no concern for what you’ll see or do. They are the trips that just happen, not out of necessity, but just because you can.

Don’t get me wrong: I love planning trips. Oftentimes, anticipation is one of the best parts of travel. However, along with the preparation and forethought can come unnecessary expectations of the place you’re visiting, the people you hope to meet or the ones with whom you’re traveling (including yourself!).

Sometimes the unexpected trip is better: You just show up and take whatever comes your way.

My family and I did this a few weeks ago. We knew we had to be in Ellensburg, Washington on a Saturday for my oldest son’s performance at the State Finals for high school musicians. That was the “necessary” trip. However, we stayed overnight and took off Sunday morning to hike a nearby trail (Untanum Creek Canyon) I had once heard about.

The only planning consisted of making the decision the night before to go there and then asking for directions the next morning. The rest was a spontaneous, totally “unnecessary” trip on a gorgeous day that included crossing over a suspension bridge, under some railroad tracks (pictured above), hiking along a creek past beaver dams and seeing a herd of bighorn sheep on the walls of the canyon that surrounded us.

Untanum Creek Canyon

Would the day have been any different had we planned it out and made it an intentional destination? Who knows? But by not thinking much about it before we got there, it added to the surprise factor of the day. It made our explorations feel like more of a discovery despite the dozen other people on the trail who clearly planned out their adventure more than we did (the backpacks were a good indicator…).

Fishing on the Yakima River near Untanum

I’ve recently been reading Paul Theroix’s book, The Tao of Travel. It contains quotes from his own travel books and insights from many other traveler writers over the years. One quote of his I read last night applies here:

“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.”

When you incorporate little surprise trips within your daily life, both are enhanced. Sure, you have to carve out the time for even the short trip. But too often I find I use lack of time as an excuse to do nothing.

Instead, this recent family hike reminded me of how much room there is in this world: room in my schedule if I make it so, room in the places around me to explore and room in my life for growth and possibility.

When I consider it this way, maybe these small, spontaneous adventures aren’t so unnecessary after all…

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The power of quests and themes

by Steve Brock on April 25, 2012

This image was taken after a day when the theme was "creativity." I'll leave it to you to determine what this has to do with creativity...

We’ve explored the first five and the second five ways in which making photos and making a trip meaningful are similar. But now, let’s blur those two ideas even further.

Here’s an exercise you can try at home or on a trip. I recommend starting at home because it isn’t as easy as you might think and it will take some practice. Practicing new photo techniques on your big trip is like practicing etiquette how-to’s on a first date: not good timing.

Start by determining a theme for your photos, a motif you want to pursue. (See the point on finding a theme in the guide, How to Photograph Machu Picchu). Think of your theme as a quest.

A theme or quest can be anything: bookstores, funny pets, graffiti, interesting car ornaments or bumper stickers, redheads, where people go after work, items related to a hobby, waterfalls or other forms of water, signs from your childhood neighborhood (if you are still around there), etc. The sky’s both literally and figuratively the limit.

But if you’re really interested in testing your creativity, move beyond tangible subjects. Focus on an abstract subject/theme such as a concept or emotion. What does love look like? Happiness? Longing? Anticipation? Maybe it’s a theme like “Behind the music” or “Different tastes around the world (demonstrated without driving more than 20 minutes from your house)” Again, no right or wrong way to do it. But consider these points using “Hope” as an example:

  • What does hope look like?
  • What does hope mean to you?
  • Where will you go to find/photograph it? A hospital? A playground? A line of people buying lottery tickets? A rescue mission?
  • What objects might represent hope that you could photograph? A beam of sunlight? Babies faces or maybe a baby toy? A sprout? A wedding ring? A warm looking doorway on a cold night? Start with these more stereotypical items but move beyond. Be inventive. Be personal. For example, a fresh new pocket sketchbook whispers to me of hope. What works for you?

The beauty of this exercise – one of many – is that the more you consider a subject or theme, the more you also realize new ways of seeing it all around you.

Exploring a theme like this on a day trip at home helps you learn how to plan longer trips/quests around a theme. You begin to appreciate that a theme can determine both where you’ll go and what you’ll pursue.

I once read, for example, of a woman who loved weaving and planned her whole trip around visiting local weavers in multiple countries, buying their products and photographing them at work. She combined her love of weaving with her love of travel for one of the most meaningful trips of her life.

For me, I usually choose the destination and then look for what I’ll find there, though as we saw with moss and will see again in future entries, pursuing “collections” gives you mini-quests to follow wherever you go.

Having a theme provides you with a different way to think about both photography and travel, one that can be fun, surprising and highly meaningful. And if you’re traveling with others, invite them into your quest so that everyone is engaged and on the lookout.

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How meaningful can a relationship be when that relationship is based on a transaction, some form of monetary exchange? That’s a question that haunted me at the end of my trip to Peru.

I realized on the last day of our trip that every significant conversation I had in the week we were in Peru was with someone that I either paid or that wanted me to pay them. Drivers, waiters, hotel staff, guides, vendors, airline employees – all of these people who showed great interest in me had reasons to do so beyond my witty charm or compelling repartee.

Limited time in a highly traveled area made it difficult for us to meet local people who weren’t somehow tied to the tourist trade. As a result, I had a number of interactions– some brief encounters, some extended conversations – with people who, in a sense, were paid to do so.

Sort of cheapens the value of those conversations, doesn’t it?

Or does it?

Some encounters were, of course, strictly monetary exchanges. Take the two women, small child and lamb in the picture. That photo set me back about US$.70 (two Peruvian sols), the going rate in the area. Paying people to photograph them isn’t something I normally condone. But in this touristy area, it’s an established practice that preserves the traditional dress and provides income in a region of high poverty. Tipping them may thus be culturally acceptable, but it doesn’t make for a meaningful relationship.

Another source of interactions that intrudes on you there are street vendors who constantly assail you like swarming mosquitoes that you shoo away only to have them approach you moments later from a different angle. The closest any of these came to even a quasi-deeper-level encounter occurred outside the cathedral in Cusco.

A woman street vendor – probably the 70th of the day – approached me, attempting to sell various handicrafts. I gave my usual answer in Spanish: “No thank you. I don’t need any of those.” Most vendors usually leave me after that or make one last effort to convince me otherwise. But this one just stopped and said in broken English, “You good tourist.”

That caught my attention, so I asked her why in Spanish. Now in Spanish, she replied, “Because you said, ‘Thank you.’ Other tourists like that lady there just say, ‘No.’ You looked at me. You said ‘No, thank you.’”

I smiled at her and said appreciatively, “Thank you very much… But I still don’t need anything.”

She returned my smile even more broadly. She then nodded and walked off repeating as she left, “You’re a good tourist.” And that was it.

Not a meaningful relationship, but it was, at least, a human encounter.

Sometimes on short trips, those are enough.

So back to my original question: Can encounters with people you meet on a trip be meaningful if they are based only on the exchange of money?

I think the secret lies in that word, “only.”

You may meet someone such as that street vendor who may initially see you only as a potential source of income. You in turn may see her only as an annoyance. But when you both begin to see each other as fellow humans and move beyond the starting point of the transaction itself, something wonderful can happen…even if only for a moment.

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Travel and the serious work of play

by Steve Brock May 20, 2011

Meaningful travel doesn’t always have to be overly serious. Sometimes the most meaningful experiences involve play…no matter how old you are.

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How short is too short?

by Steve Brock May 11, 2011

When a trip feels as if it was too short, give yourself some time. You may have a different perspective long after a short trip.

Read the full article →