Pets, motion, and other tips from a travel memoir

by Jerry Waxler

In my previous essay, I described my overall experience with Doreen Orion’s travel memoir, “Queen of the Road.” In this entry I continue my journey through her journey, finding additional insights that I can take away from this excellent book.

Click here for my previous essay about Queen of the Road.
Click here for the Amazon listing for Queen of the Road.

Travel and Companion Animals
One of the best belly laughs I had from a book was when I was teenager reading John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie,” about his trip in 1960 across the United States to take the pulse of the American people. He drove a camper, and like Orion he took his dog who turned out to be a key character. In fact his dog was the “Charlie” in the book’s title. After a few miles on the road with Steinbeck, he mentioned that the dog’s full name was “Able Baker Charlie Dog.” In that moment, I saw into Steinbeck’s relationship and knew Charlie was a person in the great writer’s life. That glimpse stands out as a highlight of my reading life.

Now I’ve read another laugh-out-loud travel book that contains a respectful relationship with a dog. Doreen Orion took her dog and two cats along with her across country, and through the book she invests them with personality. Scientists often complain that humans ascribe too many personality traits to their animals. But most pet owners know that’s at least half the fun. Orion certainly does. She interprets their motives, and through the course of spending so much quality time with them, gains fresh glimpses into what makes them tick. Meanwhile, her connection with her animals helps me as a reader feel authentically connected to her and her world.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which a pet or some other animal in your life can helps you portray nuance of feeling or raise dramatic tension.

Travel and Motion
If I read a description of coming over a hill and sees the vast expanse of the ocean, I begin to see endless horizons and crashing waves. My connection becomes more immediate when the author smells the salty air, takes off her shoes and walks onto the sand feeling the grainy stuff oozing between her toes.

Writers often make use of the familiar five senses – touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight – to help connect readers. There is one more sense that can help. Our body has sensors that tell us where we are in space, and whether we are upright or in motion. This sense, called proprioception, is also used by writers. Think of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Just hearing the title makes me feel like I’m rocking around in stormy seas. Motion is an important part of our connection to Captain Ahab’s world.

Some of the best motion I’ve read were in Bill Strickland’s description of bicycle racing in his memoir “Ten Points.” He takes me right into the pack of cyclists, leaning into turns. I feel the dizzying and dangerous closeness of other riders all around him, and the crazy motion of spinning legs and road racing underneath. All this motion, offers a compelling metaphor for what Strickland is trying to work out in his mind.

Motion in stories often breaks up routines and dissolves structures. For example, Robert Pirsig’s motorcycle flew along country roads in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Jack Kerouac famously focused on motion in “On the Road” driving back and forth across the country, and practically driving a generation mad with the tantalizing insinuation that driving equals freedom.

Doreen Orion also traveled across the country, and despite the dishwasher and satellite television, the trip wasn’t as far from Pirsig and Kerouac as first meets the eye. She was seeking something not just in the scenery but also in her self. As she travelled she too felt the miles roll by and the rigid structures melt. The sense of rootlessness and motion in her RV does some of the same work as the car, the motorcycle, and the bicycle do in the other books. I think the boomer generation is getting ready for another existential crisis.  Could this book, “Queen of the Road,” become the Bible we need to usher in another round of cultural self-discovery? (Just kidding.)

Writing prompt
Consider some of your stories, and look for places to accentuate motion. Feel the bumps in the road, the tilt of the bike, the recline of the seat. How can you extend it either across time, or down to the details, to help the reader feel what you felt.

This is the end
The end of any story needs to wrap up what it started, letting the reader feel that the dramatic tension has drawn to a satisfying close. One of the classic methods to draw a story to a close is to “return home” or as the Greeks called it “Nostoi.” (To paraphrase Steve Martin, those Greeks have a word for everything.) If you are looking for a framework, discover some of the lessons handed down from the culture that essentially started the Western art of Storytelling. If you don’t return home at the end of your story, you may not have access to this method. Or you may need to dig for a metaphor that feels like coming home. But if you are writing a travel book, you can easily take advantage of this ancient Greek principle. At the end, go home. That’s what Orion does and it feels like a good ending.

And one more thing. You know how at the end of Star Wars, Darth Vader gets away, leaving room for a sequel? As Orion wraps up the story, she leaves room for her own sequels, by suggesting all the other trips she could take – yet another reason I keep using the word “brilliant” to describe this book.

Writing Prompt
Think about how you intend to end your memoir. List some of the places you were in the beginning and see if you can return to one or more at the end. Or list the essential dramatic tensions you have introduced in the book, and try to match up each dramatic tension with some sort of geographical or metaphorical Return.

2 thoughts on “Pets, motion, and other tips from a travel memoir

  1. You don’t mention it, but you may know that Charley’s full name was the first four letters of the phonetic alphabet used by the U.S. military during World War II. It was a near-perfect joke by Steinbeck because ‘c’ was ‘charlie’ (close enough to ‘Charley’) and ‘d’ was ‘dog.’ In the new phonetic alphabet, introduced in the 1950s, ‘c’ is still ‘charlie,’ but alas, ‘d’ is now ‘delta.’ (‘A’ and ‘b,’ by the way, also have changed into ‘alpha’ and ‘bravo.’)

    I loved Travels with Charley and just about everything else Steinbeck wrote.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sid. It’s coming back to me now. (I read it a LONG time ago.) I think he mentioned in the passage that this long name had its roots in military history. That was part of the joke. It gave the dog a sort of quirky, ironic majesty. Whatever it was, it must have worked. We both remember it, the sure sign of a successful literary device.

    Jerry

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