Photo: Ryan Forsythe
It’s over. I’m not talking about the elections or the end of the semester. I’m talking about our big illusion that It’s Alllll Good. Say it sappy, say it oblivious, It’s Alllll Good.
How do you, as travel writers who intend to inspire your readers to learn the magic of travel, write about experiences that were far from magical? Here’s one of my older travel pieces that demonstrates the four word advice I’ll give you at the end of this post.
If you want a mini-me of America, ride the train. I took Amtrak from Seattle to New York City in 2011 to tape an interview for 60 Minutes. A few hours out of Seattle, the dining car steward called for first seating. I was alone for a minute, happy to be, then the host waved a tall young guy into the seat across from me. I put on my shades and stared out the window into the dark. The guy grinned. “You too?” he said.
“Hate making small talk?” He said.
“Oh yeah,” I said, “but so far this conversation isn’t small talk.”
He told me he was headed for Williston, North Dakota to work the oil fields for twenty days out of the month, the other ten he’d spend back in Seattle with his wife. “She’s not going?” I said. He laughed. “As if we could afford that.” He told me he’d be washing trucks and doing basic grunt work. He shrugged. I took the cue. “What’s your real work?” I asked.
“I’m a landscape architect,” he said. So is my wife. There’s no work now. And my wife’s brother’s wife and their kid have moved in with us while he job hunts.” I told him I was the author of six published books, a writing teacher with 20 years experience in colleges, universities and private circles – and working a part-time minimum wage albeit worthwhile job. We were joined by a woman who listened to our conversation and chimed in. She had a master’s degree in social work, had worked for twenty-five years for a non-profit and was now greeting people at Wal-mart because of budget cuts. Three stories out of three. Nobody said, “It’s alllll good.”
Later in the lounge car, I heard more stories from carpenters, teachers, computer programmers, all out-of-work and overqualified for minimum wage jobs, taking the train to a new town where there might be something, anything. I listened, then went to my sleeper compartment. I was grateful that the company bringing me to New York City had paid for it.
As I drifted off to sleep, the phrase It’s alllll good echoed in my memory. I remembered standing on one of the foot-bridges over the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon on a late May evening feeling trapped in the dead-end, debasing job I was then working. A jolly guy walked toward me, patted my shoulder and said, “Cheer up. It’s alllll good.”
“Who the f—k are you?” I snarled. He missed the subtle reference to The Who, the greatest Sixties rock band ever. “You don’t know me,” he said and sauntered on.
We crossed paths on a second bridge. He came beaming toward me. “Hey,” he said. “Look at this. It’s really a miracle.” He held out his hand. A gossamer-winged insect was pinched between his fingers. “It’s a Salmon Fly,” he said. “Don’t worry. They don’t have any feelings. I’m a fisherman. I pinch the wings, toss them out on the water and when a fish surfaces, I know where to fish.”
“Here,” he said and held out the dead insect. “You toss it.”
“No,” I said. “You’re cruel.” He reached out to pat my shoulder again. I stepped back. “Don’t touch me,” I said.
“Hey,” he laughed, “lighten up. It’s alllll good.”
I turned and walked away. At home, I slid a CD into the player. Lou Reed. Last Great American Whale: “They say things are done for the majority. Don’t believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. It’s a lot like what my painter friend Donald said to me, “Stick a fork in their a-s and turn them over. They’re done.” The music didn’t change anything. I had no allllll good epiphanies. I played the song again and checked the date on the CD. 1989. Twenty-one years ago.
And the four word answer to the question of how to write when it’s not allllll good: Write What You Experience. Please post your experienced stories – no more than 500 words – in your comments on this piece.