Read an Excerpt
Off the Beaten Page
The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways
By Terri Peterson Smith
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2013 Terri Peterson Smith
All rights reserved.
LIT, LANDSCAPE, AND LAUGHS
Over the years, I have developed some of my closest friendships with the people in my book groups. We see each other every month, no matter what. We've watched our collective group of children grow up, celebrated the successes in our work and family lives, and propped each other up through our sorrows. That's why one of my favorite things is to share a literary getaway with these women. We've had more than a few — everything from trendy big-city outings to a rural Wisconsin road trip with ten women in an RV. The thrill of seeing and living the books you love in the company of some of your favorite friends is simply the best. Sure, you can curl up alone with a good book, vacation with your family, or meet up with your gal pals for dinner or happy hour downtown. But it's the combination of those three — lit, landscape, and laughs — that makes my book-club travels memorable.
I can't say that I invented the book-club getaway. Literature lovers have used books to inspire their travels since the early nineteenth century, when, novels in hand, British book lovers climbed into their carriages to tour the literary landscape of England and Scotland. There they gazed on the sites of their best-loved stories, absorbed the environment that inspired their favorite authors, and even walked the paths of fictional characters. They meandered through such places as Shakespeare's Stratford, the Scottish highlands of Robert Burns's poetry, and even the imaginary literary territories of Dickens's London or Hardy's Wessex. Thus began literary tourism, a form of travel inspired by and centered on great works of literature. It offered a way to experience the interrelation between the real place and the fictional story and was, according to Nicola Watson, author of The Literary Tourist, "a new way of living with reading."
Americans, too, caught the literary travel bug. Having few of their own literary landmarks to visit at the time, they crossed the Atlantic to personally experience their favorite novels' settings and perhaps even meet the authors. For example, Watson notes the 1816 journey of a young Washington Irving, author of classic American stories such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. He traveled to Abbotsford, near Melrose, Scotland, home of Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe and other classics. Apparently not a shy fellow, Irving arrived at Abbotsford, knocked on the door, and presented a letter of introduction. Sir Walter himself gave Irving a tour.
Much has changed on the literary scene since then. We speak and travel with contemporary casualness. Our books come not only in print but also as audio books and e-books. And the celebrity of famous authors has been eclipsed somewhat by rockers, actors, and even reality-show "stars." Yet our desire to go to the places we read about is stronger than ever. Literary sites abound, tied not only to classic literature but also to popular fiction, and visitors flock to them. You can still visit Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, where Charlotte Brontë composed Jane Eyre, and walk the path to the valley that is the setting for her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights. But now children and their parents take Harry Potter tours in London; teenage fans of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series trek to tiny Forks, Washington, to see the rain-soaked real-life landscape where fictional vampires and werewolves clash; and readers of all stripes flock to Stockholm, spellbound by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) and his unforgettable heroine, Lisbeth Salander. Now, with an estimated seven million book clubs in the United States, more groups than ever are on the road to lit locales.
But what fuels the literary wanderlust of today's readers, who can learn about places around the world on the Internet, almost like being there? There are several answers. One is that some things haven't changed. People still travel to literary locales for the same reason Washington Irving did: for a closer and more personal connection to a story that even the Internet can't provide. It's the same force that propels history buffs' travel to such places as George Washington's Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, or Gettysburg, or the beaches of Normandy. There they gain firsthand understanding of how early Americans' lives forged our modern society or how the terrain influenced the battle. Readers seek out the locales of their favorite novels for the same reasons art lovers visit Monet's home at Giverny or Vincent Van Gogh's sunflower field at Arles: they want to see for themselves places of such beauty and inspiration.
Readers also set out on lit trips because travel puts books in context. After I saw the immensity and behavior of whales in the ocean off the Massachusetts coast, my appreciation of both Captain Ahab and his adversary, the white whale, in Moby Dick multiplied tenfold. It's not that Mark Twain's description of "the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun" falls short. But a riverboat ride near Memphis gave me a better grasp of the Mississippi's power and its importance to both antebellum cotton traders and modern-day Americans. Melanie Halvorson shares a similar experience of when her Chicago book group traveled together to her family's cabin in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It's about five hours from Chicago and near where David Rhodes's book Driftless, about life in a tiny farming community, is set. "It really added to reading the book," she says. "To see the geography and the personalities there made it easier to picture the characters in the book." These urbanites also got the chance to taste the slower pace of Wisconsin's open, country setting. She even attended an appearance by the author (who lives nearby) at a La Crosse area bookstore before the group came.
I had read Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's years ago, and it seemed to me to pale in comparison to the movie. But before a recent trip to New York, I reread Capote's novella and several other books, all of them about people finding their place in New York and, more symbolically, in the larger world. That gave Breakfast at Tiffany's a whole new level of interest and poignancy. There's also a certain thrill that comes when the imaginary world and the real world merge. I felt the tiny shock of recognition standing outside Tiffany's and understood Holly Golightly's description of "the quietness and the proud look of it." And, with my face pressed against the glass, I grasped how looking at the gems in the window could indeed dispel the blues, or what Holly calls "the mean reds."
The beauty of reading about your destination before you set out is that literature can give you the inside scoop on where you're headed. Spending a long weekend in Charleston? There's no better guide than a writer like Pat Conroy, who grew up in the geography and the traditions of the South Carolina Low Country he writes about in The Prince of Tides, The Water Is Wide, and other books. Through fiction, writers such as Conroy convey the lives of real people in a particular region and provide insights that help us understand and appreciate the people and cultures we encounter when we travel there. If you plan to visit New Orleans and want to understand what happened during Hurricane Katrina and its continuing impact on the area, read Tom Piazza's fictional work City of Refuge. As author Richard Russo said of the book, "To read City of Refuge is to realize that is what fiction is for: to take us to places the cameras can't go." Plan your Seattle trip around Snow Falling on Cedars with an accompanying trip to Bainbridge Island, one of the places that inspired the author, and you'll discover the area's history, ethnic mix, industry, arts, and culture and have fun on the water, too. Fiction can layer events, explain people and their motivations, and distill their emotions in a manner that intensifies reality, which can make a reader a truly savvy traveler.
Camaraderie, too, is a key attraction of literary getaways. I love the time my book groups spend sharing perspectives on the book of the month over wine, dessert, and the occasional roaring fire. But traveling to a literary destination allows you to get away (at least for a while) from the pressures and distractions of work, motherhood, soccer practice, and so many other responsibilities. You gain just a little time to explore new places and ideas, try new things, and, if nothing else, have a lot of fun in each other's company. We're still sharing photos of each other riding Segways in Chicago and playing darts in a lakeside Wisconsin tavern.
Cindy Hudson, the author of Book by Book: The Complete Guide to Creating Mother-Daughter Book Clubs, knows the feeling. After her book group read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which focuses on eating locally, her book group organized a wine-tasting day with a potluck lunch focused on ingredients from a local farmers' market. They talked to the winegrowers, sipped a bit of their wine, and ate incredible food. They discussed what they had learned about eating locally as well as ideas they had for changing their food habits going forward. Hudson says, "The pictures from that day show all of us with big smiles. The event was such a hit we knew that we'd be looking at other opportunities to take our group on the road at least once a year."
Bear in mind, you can go too far with all this. One of my favorite examples is in Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life, a hilarious story of truly over-the-top literary travel. A passionate fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie stories, McClure attempted to experience what she calls "Laura World" by tackling Little House activities such as churning butter and making Vanity Cakes. Her results, simply put, were less than spectacular. When she visits the sites that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about, it becomes apparent that reality doesn't hold a hand-dipped tallow candle to the world Laura created in our imaginations. In many places, there isn't much left of the homes where the real-life Ingalls family lived, and the kitschy commercialism seemed to diminish the magic of the books. Writer and English professor Anne Trubek came to a similar conclusion on a tour of the homes of writers ranging from Hemingway to Poe to Langston Hughes, which she discusses in A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses. Says Trubek, "We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can't join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner's stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves."
But literary travel isn't about visiting authors' homes. Of course, you can't expect to see Jo, Amy, and the other "little women" if you visit Louisa May Alcott's home, though it's fun to imagine them dancing around in the author's brain as she sat at her desk. But a side trip to O. Henry's tiny house in Austin, Texas, is well worth the effort to hear a bit about his life and to see how people lived in that time period.
Still, the essence of the writer isn't in a house; it's in his or her words and ideas. And when you pack those along on your trip, they can elevate your travel from ho-hum to thrilling. To me, the intersection of literature and travel is a lot like a Venn diagram; it's that place where the mental and emotional imagery of a great book and its contemporary sights, sounds, and smells all overlap. The search for that "sweet spot" between imagination and reality is the hallmark of literary travel. Find it, and you're in heaven.CHAPTER 2
How to Avoid a Temperamental Journey
Mark Twain said, "I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them." I know exactly what he means. The power struggles, factions, shifting loyalties, emotional highs and lows, and cliff-hanging uncertainty can make a vacation resemble a trip through the pages of Lord of the Flies. What will happen next? Will someone save them? Will they kill each other?
Of course, your group has none of these issues. You're patient, considerate, and savvy travelers. You're cohesive and fun-loving — regular "BFFs." Still, you're all different people with different, shall we say, quirks. So let's review the concept of group dynamics, some of the reasons that conflicts arise, and how planning can help avoid friction before you hit the road.
After traveling with friends, family, couples, an Outward Bound group, and, of course, book groups, I know of what I speak. Simple personality conflicts are common partly because traveling forces people to be together far more than in normal life. Trust me, when you spend a lot of time together, the quirks take center stage. Little things you may not notice during, say, a book-club gathering or over lunch (for example, someone being too opinionated or pushy, always late, or not paying her fair share of the restaurant tab) become like nails on the blackboard. But there's hope for even the most unruly group.
So how do you minimize the risk that your sentimental journey might turn into a temperamental one? Two things — understanding group dynamics and careful predeparture planning — are paramount. And you don't need to travel with a clinical psychologist to be successful at both. Rather than avoiding or ignoring the issues, people in the group need to anticipate problems, voice their concerns, and come to a mutual understanding ahead of time. I'm talking about basic but important things, like how often will we eat? Raise your hand if you snore enough to rattle the windows. Who will be that person's roomie? Is there anyone in the group whose idea of packing light is to bring a giant purple suitcase, a duffel bag full of pillows and purses, and maybe a small dog? Pretrip planning sessions provide a venue for groups to ask such questions and establish the ground rules, a list of dos and don'ts for the trip. And put compromise at the top of that list. It's probably the most important part of traveling in a group. Other expectations may include respect, communication, contributing equally (in terms of effort and money), being inclusive, and helping others. While you want to be sure you yourself have fun, it's also important to be flexible and make an effort to ensure that the whole group has fun. If everyone takes this approach, everyone's needs should eventually get met.
Ironically, it's often the groups whose members have very similar personalities that have the most difficult time traveling together. One of the tensest trips I've taken was with a group of hard-driving type-A personalities. We were great friends at home, when we only had to decide where to go for the occasional dinner, but on the road each decision became a not-so-subtle battle of wills. Compromise? Never! We practically had to arm wrestle to decide what time to meet for breakfast. My experience was hardly unique. "The problems usually arise when a majority of the group is passive or a majority of the group is bossy," says Tim O'Connell, an associate professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, and coauthor of Group Dynamics in Recreation and Leisure.
By contrast, the groups with the least conflict are typically those with the most diverse personality types because they bring a variety of perspectives, ideas, styles, and ways of doing things to the table. In 2011, one of my book groups drove from Minneapolis to a member's Wisconsin lake cabin in a thirty-three-foot RV, dubbed the Bookmobile. I'll confess that it wasn't my idea. I had visions of us careening over curbs, knocking down streetlights, and sending pedestrians scurrying for cover. But one member of our group, who I'm sure was a long-haul trucker in a previous life, actually wanted to drive the rig. Another dedicated herself to the role of navigator. So we all jumped in with both feet. On the morning of our departure, we showed up looking like kids ready for camp, and in a stunning reversal, our kids took a picture of us. We had enough gear for a month-long trip and enough food to feed a marine platoon, but it all fit. We worked together to get our gigantic vehicle safely parked without knocking down pine trees, and the road trip was as much fun as the cabin. Multiple ideas and perspectives made the trip a success.
Excerpted from Off the Beaten Page by Terri Peterson Smith. Copyright © 2013 Terri Peterson Smith. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.