You’ve seen the gorgeous illustrated journals on Pinterest and Instagram. You’ve pored over the sketches and watercolors, the bullet journal layouts of itineraries and packing lists. You’ve dreamed about going to those exotic locations yourself someday, sitting in a historic area, sketching the architecture, trying the food, listening to the people.
But you’re not going to. Your town is boring and blah, which is why you want to go to the sun-soaked Tuscan hills or whatever so badly, but travel is expensive and you can’t get time off work and it’s hard to get out of the house, much less across the ocean. So you click away from the hashtag in disappointment and feel a little worse.
Let’s stop that. You already know that you can make an art journal about just about anything, so you already know you can make something as beautiful as those travel journals. But did you know that your town is just as fascinating, rich and inspiring as any of those fancy destinations? Yeah! Your town has history! It has nature to study! It has food you’ve never tried and events you’ve never been to! And you can journal about all of it!
How is a Travel Journal Different from a Regular Journal?
I mentioned above that you can make an art journal about just about anything. In general, there are a couple of “genres” of art journal:
- Diary, about your daily life events
- Feelings, about, you know, what you’re feeling
- Art unrelated to what’s actually happening to you, like practice sketchbooks or just for-fun art Journals about something outside yourself, like nature or travel journals.
I’m not discussing bullet journals as they are a completely different art form, in my opinion; however, you can use bullet journaling techniques in tandem with what I discuss in this post.
In the first two categories, you’re journaling about events that happened to you personally. Personal journaling is a wonderful hobby and can give you many insights and keep many memories for you, and it’s great to add sketching, collage, or whatever, to enhance and illuminate those pages.
On the other end of the spectrum there are journals about things that happen outside yourself. Nature journals, of course, focus on the plants and animals that surround the chronicler.
You might draw the plants you see and notice how they change over the seasons; you might draw the birds that visit your window feeder in various seasons; you might just write, as Thoreau did. His journals became invaluable to ornithologists simply because he noticed so many birds that they were able to discern migration and mating habits just from reading the journal!
You can make charts including things like:
- The weather, and recent weather
- The moon phase (and any other fun astrological facts)
- Your dreams
- Your mood, energy level, and any major symptoms you’d like to track
- Where animals nest or burrow
- Any animal activity, like birds visiting your feeder, foxes mating (you’ll hear them), etc
- Plant activity such as leafing out, budding, flowering, fruiting, or dying back
- Whether you saw the animals for the first time this year earlier or later than last year, and why you think that happened
- Human nature-related activities, like when your neighbors start their gardens or the first day the beach gets really crowded
- When seasonal foods show up at your grocery store
In a travel journal, you are focusing on a place you’re visiting. You are writing about events that happen to you and actions that you are taking, but they are all in the context of this place. You do this to preserve your memories, but also to learn more about the place.
When you’re focused on collecting experiences and ephemera for your journal, you naturally pay more attention to what’s happening around you. You focus on what you want to take with you. You love the place all the more, because you know more about it, down to the fine details and nuances.
These journals are useful for you, but they can also become important historical documents, the way Thoreau’s nature journals did. Often a journal is the only record historians have of how a town used to be laid out or what buildings (or lack thereof) used to exist there.
So what I’d like to propose is the same idea, applied to the place you’re already in.
What do You Put in a Travel Journal?
First, a note on supplies. Here’s the Ultimate List of Journaling Supplies:
- A Journal. Small is better; it’s easier to pull out of your pocket on the go when something happens suddenly, and people are less likely to be suspicious when you’re sketching them if they think you’re just making a grocery list. You can tear things out or copy them over into a “pretty” journal later, if you want to.
- A Pen. It has to work, that’s all. Maybe bring Two Pens if you’re not sure if one will dry out.
- A Crayon. For texture rubbings, because they are cool and fun.
- Things to Tape or Glue In. Also known as Ephemera.
- Tape or Glue.
- Pens in Different Colors, if you want them.
That’s all. You don’t have to do watercolors or fountain pens or complex collages. The easier you make it, the more likely you are to stick with it.
Some classic suggestions for things to include in a travel journal include:
- Packing list
- Itinerary or schedule
- Ephemera: ticket stubs, brochures, food labels, receipts, etc
- Sketches and photos of architecture, people and views
- Your travel playlist
- Local food reviews
- Local museum tours
How can we apply these to a journal about the place you’re already in?
Your packing list could be a list of what you take with you in your backpack when you go out to the spot you’d like to observe. What did you forget? What did you bring that you didn’t need?
Your schedule can still be a schedule! You can plan where you want to go in your town over a series of weekends or consecutive days. What do you expect you’ll observe when you go out? Why are you choosing this particular spot to observe today? And you can still use a pretty bullet journal spread to record it, too. Same for your playlist!
Maps are still great, and it’s so easy to print them from Google Maps or AllTrails. And if you look for tourist attractions nearby, they may also have maps and brochures. (Ours often have pictures of local wildlife as well, which are useful to cut out and paste in the journal if we see the pictured animal in real life!) You can get a county or state map and mark off all the parks you’ve visited.
But you can also draw them yourself! You can draw a map of your yard, and label where useful plants grow; you can draw a map of a place that is unmapped, like a nearby trail or creek. You can draw a metaphorical map of one day’s adventures, like a game board or a cartoon treasure map, labeling where interesting events happened. If nothing else, note the names of the roads you take to get places. They can be reconstructed into maps later, and the names may change over time, which will be interesting to see.
You’ll have receipts and ticket stubs, too. How about your bus pass, collaged next to a map of your usual route? How about postcards? Literally anything that’s flat enough to reasonably close your journal around counts as ephemera. Leaves and pressed flowers, too.
Please do the sketches and photos. A photo printer or instant camera is a great idea if you prefer photos to drawing. If you need inspiration for sketching “mundane” places, check out Urban Sketching, which also exists in book and hashtag form.
For one thing, nothing is mundane if you look at it closely enough. There are beautiful things to sketch or photograph all around you.
But also, that architecture, those mundane things? They will be gone in less than a decade. You will want to remember. If anyone else reads your stuff after those things change, they will be fascinated. Maybe horrified, depending on what is lost.
You can do local food reviews! I know you haven’t eaten at every possible nearby place yet. Go support some small businesses. Do a review of a picnic in the park as if it were a restaurant. Talk about the local specialty — for example, for me in Maryland it’s crabs and rockfish and so on — or a local bar or cafe’s signature drink.
Review your house like it’s a fancy hotel. Talk about the view from your room.
Note prices of stuff, like if you stop for food or try a new restaurant. In a few years, you’ll look back and say, remember when a cup of coffee only cost that much? Remember when they didn’t charge to get into this park?
Are there tiny local museums that no local ever actually visits? Well, you know what I’m about to tell you to do. They will be happy to have you, and if you ask them questions about your town’s history they will be full of fun facts and excited that someone cares. And please donate if you can. Libraries count, too, and Facebook groups that focus on local history. Also your older relatives and friends, if they have lived in the area for a while.
A note: What if you’re with a person who doesn’t want to stop and observe? The answer to that one is pretty simple. Go alone. (But be safe.)
Or get this friend into the hobby also! If all else fails, learn to scribble notes to yourself on which you can expand later. Learn to write (even if it’s in a notes app on your phone!) while you walk together.
What Else Could You Put in a Hyperlocal Travel Journal?
The structure of a “journaling adventure” is of course flexible to the point of nonexistence. My basic idea is: go to a place. Sit in it for about an hour. Write down everything. Every plant you saw, every animal, any interesting human activities. Be very quiet and see what happens when nature forgets you’re there.
What can you fit into that structure?
Here are some more ideas!
Go and observe an everyday activity or event. For example, I might use the local farmer’s market or an outdoor concert. Write about it as if you’ve never seen such a thing, as if you are seeing a local custom in a foreign country. Talk about the customs and costume and language.
Write about something that you learned on an adventure that surprised you.
Vignette descriptions. This is where you write, in prose or verse, a little description of a moment when you were in the place. Use all your senses; write about the activity around you and everything you can see. Write it from the perspective of a stranger nearby. Sketch them, in the context of the location, if you like to sketch. Use specific descriptions. Don’t ever say something is beautiful or breathtaking. Tell Future You about it, and let her see that it was beautiful, even if she can’t remember it. Let whoever finds this journal and reads it in the far future feel like they remember it, as if they were really there with you. Do it once at the beginning of each trip and once near the end. How did the place change around you? What did you notice in between?
Write about the people you see many times, like your favorite (or least favorite) checker at the grocery store, or the car you always see because the driver’s commute is at the same time as yours.
Interview those people. What do they know about your town that you never would have guessed? This can also help with social anxiety; if you’re scared of speaking socially, can you feel less scared if you’re just speaking to someone for a project? Try watching The Vast of Night to see how people love being interviewed about themselves and their towns.
Use other senses — what did your observation spot smell like in fall? How does it sound after a snowstorm? Visit a local restaurant and tell Future You about how your meal tasted. What’s the texture of the road you took to get to your spot? How many birds can you hear? Try drawing the sounds, if you’re synaesthetic.
Look into local tourism. What do they say to attract visitors? Is it accurate? What would you say if you were in charge of their ad campaign?
Find the free local paper and cut news stories and event schedules out of it. Use national or global news stories only if they affect you locally or if it would help to put your work into context.
If you can’t get out of the house, observe your house! What are your pets doing? How about your nearby woods or garden or houseplants? How does your house’s interior climate change throughout the year? What are some special events that only happen there?
What are you reading? Did you bring a book along for when you’re done journaling? Does it relate to any events you’ve observed?
Record It All
It all comes down to this: What’s fascinating about the place you’re in? Learn that, and you will learn to love the place.
You can post your beautiful journal online if you want to, but remember: paper is more permanent. This is the record for posterity and for yourself, especially if you’re like me and have memory problems.
And record it all because someday it won’t be there. Don’t worry about what’s “important.” Or pretty. Don’t worry about what you think you “can’t forget.” Just get it all down.
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