Travel Like a Writer
By Catherine Stier
Enamored with the experience of past visits to our National Parks (including the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone), I jumped at the chance to tack on a three-night stay at Yosemite National Park to a previously planned California trip.
As anticipated, I found at Yosemite stunning natural beauty, but also something especially heartening to a writer: again and again, the power of story and the written word were the subtext of the presentations, performances and exhibits that showcased the wonders of this place. And as I would learn, the power of the pen as wielded by some individuals even accounted for the park’s very existence.
But first, a few words about this amazing place. Perhaps one of Yosemite’s unexpected and certainly less celebrated charms in a park that draws adrenaline-fueled climbers is the accessibility for all ages and abilities to remarkable vistas. Even the roads, lodgings and shuttle stops offer incredible views. One may watch the thundering, 2,425 feet tall Yosemite Falls from the grounds of the Yosemite Valley Lodge, and gaze at what park brochures describe as a “massive granite monolith,” the imposing El Capitan, from shuttles buses and road – no hiking required.
A good place to gain an overview at most National Parks is the visitor’s center, and Yosemite is no exception. The Valley Visitor’s Center located in Yosemite Village offers exhibits of the history, geology, flora and fauna of the area. It also houses a tribute to John Muir (1838-1914), with a life-sized, bronze statue of the famous writer and activist. A fierce advocate of natural places, Muir’s magazine articles and other writings won him supporters (among them Theodore Roosevelt) and were vital to the formation and preservation of national parks, including Yosemite.
As writers, we may contemplate our ideal writing space or conditions. It was enlightening, then, to read at this exhibit Muir’s own words describing what he endured in a home he had built in 1871 in Yosemite. Some called his birdhouse-like structure tacked onto the front of a mill “the hang nest because it seems unsupported” and he observed:
“It’s hard to write here, as the mill jars so much by the stroke of the saw and the rain drips from the roof, and I have to set the log every few minutes…”
However, in writing about the beauty he found in Yosemite, Muir also mused “…what pen may write my blessings.”
The Valley Visitor’s Center also houses a bookstore with a selection of children’s book, among them the award-winning title THE CAMPING TRIP THAT CHANGED AMERICA: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, JOHN MUIR AND OUR NATIONAL PARKS by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mordicai Gerenstein. The story relates how, for three nights and four days in 1903, Muir led then-President Roosevelt on an exploration and camping trip throughout Yosemite. The adventure affected Roosevelt deeply and led him to take actions that ensured the preservation of natural parks and sanctuaries.
Since our stay was so brief and the park so vast (1,169 square miles), my traveling companion and I decided to check out the organized tours and activities at the park. Our first was the Yosemite Valley Floor Tour (fee and ticket required). With daytime temperatures in the high 80s that week, we chose the 6 p.m. departure time, and clambered into the open-air tram that departed from the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Since traffic can be a problem during the peak tourist season, I highly recommend this engaging tour that winds through 26 miles of the park in about two hours, often utilizing official road lanes not available to tourists.
Here again the story theme surfaced when our guide, the charismatic Park Ranger K, invited us to “Read the landscape like a manuscript.” He encouraged us to notice how the trees, rock, cliffs and water revealed much about the park and its origins.
Later in the tour, Ranger K proved to be a musician and singer. At a scenic overlook, he pulled out a banjo and played, among other selections, Pete Seeger’s Long May the World Go. Ranger K encouraged us all to sing along, and joyfully we did.
Another ticketed event, the “Starry Night Skies Over Yosemite” 9 p.m. program, proved most enjoyable as well. That night, our band of stargazers trekked through the darkening night to our destination – a field spread with tarps. There, our guide encouraged us to lie down and consider how people throughout the ages might gaze up just as we were, at what she described as “the greatest picture book ever.” With a laser-light type device (it resembled Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver), our guide pointed out specific stars and planets and outlined constellations. For the next peaceful hour or so, we listened to both stories and facts about the points of light sprinkled throughout the blackness above us.
On our final day, after an afternoon spent hiking near El Capitan’s base, we took a shuttle to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel) for another guided (but this time free) tour of this elegantly rustic hotel opened in 1927. It was not long into the tour before literary connections to this historic building emerged. On leading us inside the spacious and grand dining room, our guide observed that past guests had commented on its resemblance to the Great Hall of Hogwarts. And indeed, the long, rectangular room is enclosed with stonewalls and set with a large window at the room’s far end, similar to the dining hall of the Harry Potter films. White candles even float above the tables – though here they are electric candles firmly secured to rustic chandeliers. Rowling’s works weren’t the only books referenced. We were told that the hotel lobby inspired the set design of The
Shining, the Stanley Kubrick film based on Stephen King’s hotel horror novel. Our guide produced a still from the film that illuminated how many of the Majestic’s features mirrored those of the fictional Overlook Hotel lobby in the film, including the wood flooring, the large fireplace, the chandeliers, the beamed ceiling, the second floor railings and even the arrangement of the furniture (Note – a different hotel was used for shots of the Overlook Hotel’s exterior).
At the tour’s conclusion, our guide led us to the former writing room, now the mural room, tucked off the main lobby. Here we learned about another formidable figure in Yosemite’s history, Stephen T. Mather (1867-1930). According to our guide, Mather came to his position in a most interesting way. After spending time in Yosemite in 1914, he wrote the Secretary of the Interior, college friend Franklin Lane, to lament the conditions he found there. Lane told him that if he thought he could do better, he should come to Washington D.C. and tackle the job himself. He did. Mather’s efforts contributed to the creation by Congress of the National Park Service in 1916 and he became the National Parks Director in 1917.
We were told that, in fact, this hotel was Mather’s idea. He hoped a luxurious resort hotel would coax to the park moneyed and influential people who would not only enjoy their stay but become Yosemite’s longtime fans and supporters. On one occasion, Mather made a rousing speech to a group of movers and shakers gathered at the hotel,
then led them to this writing room so they might take up a pen to extoll the wonders of the park to others.
There still remains in this room a pair of small writing desks from that era. It was thrilling to consider that perhaps a letter composed here changed minds and awakened hearts to the importance of protecting this precious park.
So You Want to Write About…
Yosemite National Park offers research opportunities/experiences that may be especially meaningful to writers exploring particular subjects or settings. Here are just a sampling (please note that programs may have changed or may be seasonal and some may require a fee):
Adams, Ansel – The Ansel Adams Gallery
Art (Painting, Drawing) – Yosemite Art Center; Check Yosemite Guide* for art classes and programs
Buffalo Soldiers – Yosemite Theatre – live program “Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier.” Check the Yosemite Guide* for scheduled times
Conservation/Climate Change – Yosemite Conservation Museum
Mather, Stephen – Yosemite Theater – live program “Stephen Mather’s Best Idea: Yosemite and the Creation of the National Park Service.” Also the Historic Majestic Hotel Tour. Check the Yosemite Guide* for scheduled times for both programs
Muir, John – Yosemite Theatre – live, one-man theater presentations of the John Muir series including “Conversations with a Tramp.” Check the Yosemite Guide* for scheduled times. Also view displays and statue at the Valley Visitor Center
Music of Yosemite – Big Trees Lodge – live programs on the vintage music of Yosemite. Check the Yosemite Guide* for scheduled times
Native Americans, Minouk, Paiute, Ahwahneechee – Indian Cultural Museum; Also check the Yosemite Guide* for special programs
Photography – The Ansel Adams Gallery; Also check the Yosemite Guide* for photography programs and lessons
Rock Climbing – Yosemite Theater – the live program “Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey; Also “Ask a Climber” program held at El Capitan Bridge. Check the Yosemite Guide* for scheduled times for both programs
Search & Rescue – Yosemite Theater – live “Yosemite Search and Rescue” program. Check the Yosemite Guide* for scheduled times
Sequoias – Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
Wildlife of Yosemite – Ranger or naturalist programs about bears and other wildlife. Check the Yosemite Guide* for scheduled times
Yosemite History – Pioneer Yosemite History Center; The Historic Majestic Hotel Tour – check Yosemite Guide* for scheduled times
* The Yosemite Guide is available in print at the park and online at https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/guide.htm
By Catherine Stier
On a drive in the Canadian municipality of Halifax, I let out a yell. “Lupine! It’s lupine! Just like Miss Rumphius!”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” my non-writer companion calmly replied.
Along the roadside, stalks of the purple and pink wildflowers known as lupine bloomed, looking like a come-to-life illustration from Barbara Cooney’s award-winning picture book, Miss Rumphius. As fellow fans of kids’ lit may know, this story’s title character longs to make the world more beautiful – and does so by scattering lupine seeds about her unnamed seaside town. Although I had read the book many times (and sources say it is set in Maine), this was my first glimpse of these distinct flowers growing wild in a similarly pretty, seaside location.
This was one of many delights experienced on my visit to Halifax, the capital of a Canadian province I always longed to visit. Truth be told I fell in love, sight unseen, with the province in which Halifax is located years ago, simply for the lyrical, ear-pleasing quality of its name – Nova Scotia.
Halifax, situated on the Atlantic edge of Eastern Canada (and about 230 miles East of Bar Harbor, Maine as the crow flies) is known for fresh seafood and waterfront views. It boasts Canada’s oldest children’s bookshop and a magnificent library. To my mind, it also offers an extraordinary number of cozy, scenic or just plain welcoming places to pause with a pen or laptop to do what writers do. Here’s a sampling of places and pastimes that will beguile writers who venture to this lively, harbor-side city.
Even the most dedicated wordsmiths have to eat. Stroll along the waterfront for a selection of restaurants serving lobster, oysters, crab cakes, handcrafted ales, gingerbread and blueberry desserts. Here one might glimpse all manner of vessels, including sailboats, tall-mast ships and the ferries that cross the water to the community of Dartmouth. Cruise ships, including Cunard’s majestic flagship, the Queen Mary 2, grace Halifax harbor (or harbour, as the Canadians spell it). The Casino Halifax, several shops, and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic round out some of the waterfront offerings. These charming sights, along with the salt-water scented air, may be just the thing to clear the head, opening up room for fresh, creative ideas to take shape.
If rocky coasts call to you, consider the one-hour drive from the city’s center to Peggy’s Cove, site of what may be Canada’s most photographed lighthouse according to the
Tourism Nova Scotia website, novascotia.com. The spectacular views come with warnings, however, to avoid the wet and slippery rocks close to the water’s edge. A boon for writers – there are plenty of benches to safely view the scene and spend some time writing en plein air, if that’s your pleasure.
Back in the busy urban area, climb uphill to the Halifax Public Gardens for outdoor contemplation and inspiration. Beyond the intricate, black iron entrance gate, find flowers and walking paths, statues and yes, more benches, within this quiet and lovely Victorian-style garden.
For fascinating, historic tales, continue uphill to the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, situated just beyond the landmark clock tower. The current Citadel, built from 1828-1856, has protected this region and offers much to explore. An especially eye-opening exhibit of a replicated, WWI trench as used by the Canadian Army in France provides a realistic glimpse of this form of warfare, and how miserable conditions could be for the young Canadian soldiers engaged in it. Guides (some in uniform or costume) throughout the Citadel knowledgably share their insights on operations in the trenches, the challenges faced by WWI nurses, and the daily life of a sentry. The Citadel also offers an Army Museum, bagpipe performances, and, for re-fueling, a coffee shop.
If nothing makes you happier than writing in a pub (a practice that proved effective for at least one famous children’s author), you are in luck here. Halifax boasts “the most pubs per capita in Canada” according to novascotia.com. I quite liked “The Wooden Monkey” on Grafton Street, which offers vegan and other dishes, a cozy interior and a large, old-fashioned mural of two men drinking from tankards at a pub table, perhaps ruminating about the book one holds prominently. Cheers!
And on the subject of books, the new, five-story Halifax Central Library stuns even before you step in the door with its imposing size and innovative architecture – it is said to look like a stack of books. Upon entering, you can’t miss the eye-catching art installation Library Cards by Cliff Eyland, with 5000 wall mounted works of art, each the size of the traditional library card catalog card. Inviting cafes can be found on both the ground floor and the fifth floor, but opt for the latter with its outdoor dining area overlooking the city. I spent a happy hour within the library’s second floor children’s section, seeking books marked with a maple leaf on the spine. This symbol denoted Canadian-produced books and presented stories I had not found in libraries in the U.S. I curled up in a seat before a large glass window and dipped into these enchanting tales.
Wonder what famous authors also strolled the streets of this city? Download the Halifax Library’s free guide and map titled The Halifax Literary Walking Tour at http://www.halifaxpubliclibraries.ca/research/topics/local-history-genealogy/literary-walking-tour.html
Highlights include sites where Oscar Wilde spoke, Charles Dickens visited and Lucy Maud Montgomery (author of the Anne of Green Gables books) worked as a newspaper columnist.
Finally, how could any children’s writer pass up a visit to what claims to be the oldest children’s bookstore in Canada – the wonderfully whimsically named Woozles. Inside the bright yellow converted house, I strolled the toy and book collections and found a most satisfying souvenir among the “local” section. Bright illustrations of familiar Nova Scotia sites, depicted during the day and then at night, fill the pages of the picture book A Nova Scotia Lullaby by Terrilee Bulgar and illustrated by Perry Craig.
As I left Woozles happily carrying my purchase, I glanced for the first time at the shop’s front window. To my surprise, prominently showcased in the display was the picture book Miss Rumphius. The cover illustration depicted the title character among the lupine by a green and rocky coast, smiling with apparent contentment. I could totally relate.
HALIFAX FOR WRITERS’ RESEARCH
So You Want to Write About…
Halifax, Nova Scotia offers research opportunities/experiences that may be especially meaningful to writers exploring particular subjects or settings. Here are just a sampling:
Canadian Artists – Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; William deGarthe Art Gallery at Peggy’s Cove
Canadian Flora and Fauna – The Museum of Natural History, Halifax
Canadian History – The Halifax Citadel National Historic Site; The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic; The Museum of Natural History, Halifax
Immigration to Canada – Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
Life of a Sentry – The Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
Lighthouses – View the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove (the interior is not open to the public)
Maritime Art – Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; William deGarthe Art Gallery at Peggy’s Cove
Maritime Subjects – The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Mi’kmaq Culture – The Museum of Natural History, Halifax
Public Gardens – The Halifax Public Gardens
Ships – The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Whales – Several whale watching tours depart from Halifax Harbor
World War I – The Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
World War II – The Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
As writers and authors, we may view the travel experience differently than many tourists. For us, finding a cozy pub in which to compose a poem is a true treasure. Discovering an aged home preserved to reflect the era during which our historical work-in-progress is set can bring on goose bumps. We may also be drawn to indie bookstores or innovative libraries with an enthusiasm that leaves our fellow travelers scratching their heads.
Ditto for the birthplaces, burial places, hangouts, haunts and everything else connected to our literary heroes both fictional (e.g., Anne of Green Gables) and real (e.g., Laura Ingalls Wilder).
This particular (even unusual?) perspective on travel is the focus of this new blog series. This series will offer an overview of sites and spots in a particular destination – a region, island, city, National Park, etc. – that may hold a special significance to fellow authors and writers (especially those who, like me, write primarily for children). Occasionally, the blog will also offer other subject matter that highlights the intersection of the experiences of travel and writing kids’ books.
I truly hope this blog offers writers valuable insights on where to go and what to do once they get there.
I also hope to offer fellow writers a platform for sharing their own literary travel and writing adventures*.
In addition to the blog, please follow Travel Like a Writer on Twitter @travellikeawrtr for quick updates, short news items and links to other articles, blog posts or photos showcasing ways in which the worlds of travel, kids’ literature and writing intersect.
Thank you for stopping by and remember… adventures (in travel, reading and writing) await!
* If you are a traditionally published children’s author or magazine writer who has an inspiring, travel-related, children’s writing experience to share and would like to be interviewed for an article for this blog, please send me a note with a few details about your experience via my contact page.