For the last half of April I found myself doing something I haven’t done in quite some time: assuming the Clark Griswold role in an honest to goodness family vacation. I loaded up the wife and child, and we drove over 1,500 miles (one way!) to the Pacific Northwest. We went whale watching in Puget Sound (north of Seattle), went to several beach towns in Oregon and Washington, then took the scenic route home. But this isn’t a vacation post. It’s still (pretty much) about writing—but that’s not to say I won’t force you to look at some of my vacation photos along the way.
There was some writing advice I heard once. I think it was Chuck Palahniuk, but it could’ve been Craig Clevenger (I’m pretty sure I read it at the fantastic website Lit Reactor, regardless). Someone asked what advice they would offer to young writers, their definition of young being late teens to early-to-mid twenties. Their advice? Travel. Go places, have experiences. Keep writing, obviously, but get out there and just do stuff. Ride a motorcycle across the US. Backpack through Europe, as cliché as that sounds. Whatever you can afford to do (in terms of both cash and time), get out and do it while you’re still young and have nothing holding you down. The experiences you have, and the people you encounter, will inform your writing for the rest of your life.
Now, the irony for me personally is that I read this advice when I was well into my 30’s, with a spouse and a full time job. Backpacking through Europe was not in the cards for me. I still took the advice to heart, however, and whenever I can I try to get out and do things if an opportunity presents itself. So when we were planning our route home from Washington and realized we could drive through Yellowstone National Park, it was a no-brainer. It was the first time for both my wife and I, and I was downright giddy as we made our way toward the park’s entrance.
One of the last places to stop before entering the park proper is a little cluster of shops and stores (and bathrooms!) that looks almost like a little town out of the old west. We decided to be the ultimate tourists and stop to peruse the shops. After all, how does anyone know you went to Yellowstone if you don’t have Official Yellowstone Merchandise to prove it?
I entered a store and started browsing the shirts, hats, magnets, etc. looking for just the right item that spoke to me. While I shopped, I heard customers being rung up by a particularly friendly cashier. He was probably in his mid 60’s, not too tall, a little scruff on his face, and about half a dozen different bracelets on his left wrist. He was incredibly polite, and just the right amount of conversational—he knew how to time his chit chat with customers, and wrap it up just as the transaction was over.
As I laid my items down, he greeted me with the same kind words I’d become accustomed to hearing during my time in the store. After exchanging pleasantries, the cashier volunteered information I hadn’t heard him tell anyone else: he is a full time RV’er, and he criss-crosses his way across the country year round until Yellowstone starts to see warmer weather, then he starts his part-time job as cashier through the end of the summer. I met the gentleman on his third day back, as it turned out. He told me this was his fifth summer working the store, and he thought it might be his last. He said he was ready for a change, and would probably put down stakes somewhere else next summer. I found this truly fascinating, and would’ve asked him tons of questions if I could have, but instead I bid him a pleasant summer and wished him luck in next year’s adventure.
I told my wife about the encounter, and I have not stopped thinking about the man since. The things he’s seen, both before and after he began traveling full time. The circumstances that led to him making the decision to do it in the first place. Why on earth he was just so darn friendly. Will he be a character in a future story or book of mine? Probably not, if for no other reason than that I just don’t know enough about him. Will a character be based in part on him? Quite possibly. In just the few minutes I spent talking (listening, more like) to him, his personality—his aura, if you will—made such an impact that I’d be surprised if I didn’t call on that memory in the Yellowstone gift shop at some point in the future.
So I guess my unwarranted writing advice—or is it just life advice?—is the same as I recalled above. Get out and do things. Have experiences, meet people. I know it isn’t always easy, especially if you’re not a young whippersnapper. Hell, my last vacation of any kind was seven years ago, so believe me when I say I get it. But do it anyway, because you never know what might happen or who you might meet, and no matter what happens it’s worth the effort.