Why I Write Travel Stories. With an Emphasis on Story.

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Why I Write Travel Stories. With an Emphasis on Story.

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Jun 05, 2013

Maybe two dozen years ago, before moving to Hawaii, I remember one vacation when we decided to try something new--swim in a waterfall pool. We chose Hanakapiai. It was a roller-coaster and muddy four miles to get there. The first mile went up and away from Kee Beach along the very edge of Napali Coast, following an ancient Hawaiian footpath. It was winter, and when I heard an explosion, I jerked my head into the air, thinking a plane had broken the sound barrier.

"What was that?" I asked my husband. Here we were in the middle of the ocean on the quiet island of Kauai, along a stretch named for its cliffs, so rugged that the only attempt at building a road in the area was abandoned almost immediately.

"The waves," he said. Hundreds of feet below, a big swell boomeranged off the vertical walls that fell into the sea. It was the first time I had ever heard waves like that. It would turn out to be a day of many firsts for me.

The second mile descended back to sea level. I remember remarking that the philodendron vines wrapping around trees had leaves as big as my face. I remember the melodic song my husband coaxed out of a bird and the flash of white on its rump, like a white-tailed deer, and I remember a tree with a trunk that spiraled for the sky, its tangle of roots growing above ground. I would later learn the bird was a shama thrush and the tree a hala--or screwpine.

The third and fourth miles followed a stream into the heart of Kauai. We cris-crossed that stream so many times I lost count, and on many a crossing, I thought we'd missed the trail altogether. At a stand of bamboo, my husband carved our initials alongside hundreds of others. We would go back in subsequent years and look for them--ER + KR.

Before we made it to our destination, our socks reddened with Kauai's famous red dirt, I could feel the mist from the falls, as the water dropped hundreds of vertical feet. When we plunged into the waterfall pool, it was cold and our swim short. We spread a lunch of sandwiches--probably peanut butter and jelly--on a rock heated by the sun, warming our bodies as we ate. That's when a man approached.

"Would you like some sushi?" he asked. He was young, bare-chested, wearing surf trunks and flip flops--or slippahs as the locals call them and footwear de rigueur for kids born and raised in Hawaii.


"Sushi," he said. As if everyone ate sushi by a waterfall.

It turned out that he'd purchased two sushi rolls from Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market before trekking the four miles, expecting to meet someone at the waterfall. When his friend or lover or acquaintance didn't show, he offered us the spare sushi roll. And we gratefully accepted. I remember his gracious act as a defining moment when I was first introduced to the generous nature of Kauai's people--and by a kid, no less, offering to share his food with strangers rather than see it go to waste.

I recently read an NPR piece about the impact of words and metaphors on the brain. The article started with this paragraph. "This is a story about a duck. More precisely, it's a story about what your brain just did when you read the word 'duck.'"

Research has revealed that when we read, our brain responds to words not by lighting up a special language region as once thought, but by lighting up areas related to vision, sound, smell and/or movement. That is, the actual experience itself. So, when you read my story of hiking along Napali Coast, if I'm doing my job, your brain responds as if you're right there with me, noshing sushi by the waterfall. This science explains why I flinched when the Hollywood studio exec pulled back his bedcovers to find a horse's head beside him in The Godfather. Or why I gulped and cried all throughout Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook. (It's true. I did.)

Specificity of detail is important. And so is just the right word. Way back before scientists were running MRIs to scan the brain's response to words, Mark Twain wrote, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Mark Twain is also credited as saying, "I like a good story well told." Well, me, too. I've been reading stories since I was a girl, ripping through the next Scholastic installment before my brothers could catch a whiff of the smell of fresh print on paper. I love to be "inside" a story. I love to get to know interesting characters. I love being transported to new places. I love to know what happened next.

My BFF just returned from Israel. "How was it?" I asked. "What was the most unusual thing you saw?" "What interesting people did you meet?" "How did the place make you feel?" "Tell me all about it," I said.

My love of story is so deep that I have a hard time putting down any book or walking away from any movie, no matter how bad. My husband has the uncanny ability to watch a boring feature-length film for one-hour-and-fifty minutes, stand up, and say, "I'm going to bed." Me? I live for the hope that all movies and books will turn out good, even if they don't start out that way. For some reason, I have an indistinguishable belief the fat lady will start singing in the very next scene.

I've made no secret of the fact that I celebrated a big birthday earlier this year. I'm learning all kinds of things about myself as I hit this milestone. Like I no longer prefer the adrenaline rush of chancing fate and the capriciousness of TSA by striding through an airport with the goal of arriving at my gate just as my row is being called for boarding. I no longer enjoy dinner table chit-chat but in-depth meaningful conversation. And I prefer making connections--with people and places. Stories do that. Stories draw us together.

There's a reason travel stories have been around for generations. No, make that, centuries. Before Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Before Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. There was Twain's The Innocents Abroad. And before that the Journals of Lewis & Clark. Across the pond, the list includes Robinson Crusoe, Around the World in 80 Days and continues back in time to The Travels of Marco Polo, written in the 13th century. Travel narratives persist, because stories are encoded in our culture, in our DNA. We will always tell stories, whether it be in a printed book, in 140 characters on Twitter, or as a blog post.

When it comes to this blog, I could write endless lists on the top 10 waterfalls, beaches, sushi restaurants, (fill in the blank) in Hawaii. But you know what? There's Yelp for that. There's Fodor's. I prefer to share stories. Stories about the four-mile trail to Hanakapiai Falls, for example, complete with enough details to help your brain light up--the songbird with a white rump, the trees with sword-like leaves and aerial roots, the sonic-booming waves. It's about as close to sitting around a campfire and talking story as this wide world of a web will allow us.

I hope you'll continue to return here. If you do, I promise to continue to stoke the fires with tales of my adventures traveling around these Hawaiian Islands, a place, I presume, you feel a special connection--perhaps a kinship--with, too.


Lindsay | Nov 09, 2013 06:35 PM

I really appreciate this from - the - heart article. Glad I saved it to read again. Thanks, Kim!

Kim | Nov 11, 2013 09:34 AM

Hi Lindsay, thanks for reading and commenting. It was actually good to re-read this blog post. Yep, I love a good story!

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