Travel Planning: The Importance of Creating Context

Apr 25, 2012 by

“Most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook maker, however ignorant.” 
― John Muir, Travels in Alaska

How do you prepare for an upcoming trip?  Do you read guide books?  Research online?  Perhaps you even frequent the various travel-related message boards that exist on the web–if so, my username probably looks pretty familiar, because I’m on most of those forums, too.  But tonight I realized that, in true Suitcase Scholar fashion, I take trip anticipation to a new nerdy level.

In preparation for my upcoming trip I’ve been reading a travel narrative on Napa–A Moveable Thirst. I feel I get extra nerd-points for reading a book with a title that plays on the name of a Hemmingway memoir.  I also recently watched the first episode of the Ken Burn’s National Parks Documentary–episode one features Yosemite, and it is why I wanted to visit the park in the first place.

I plan to spend some additional time researching good fiction and nonfiction to load onto my Kindle before I leave next week, and yet more time learning about Ansel Adams and Albert Bierstadt–and that’s just for the Yosemite portion of the trip.  I’ll be doing similar academic exercises for San Francisco, Napa, and Monterey (though I’m don’t think I’ll be reading Cannery Row.  Sorry, Steinbeck.  I’m leaving in six days).  Because planning a trip isn’t all about lodging, meals, and transportation–it’s about context.

context /ˈkäntekst/  The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

It is my firm belief that pre- or during-trip context-building is a crucial part of the travel planning process.  And film, literature, art, and music can all help create context for any sort of trip.  Heck, I even do this when visiting Walt Disney World–in preparation for my first trip back in 2010, I watched Sleeping Beauty and the Lion King before I packed my bags and headed towards Orlando; prior to my most recent WDW trip I enjoyed reading Windows on Main Street and several Imagineering Field Guides.

I could get lost for days in this process alone–while my itineraries remain unmade and my bags remain unpacked (and my dishes remain unwashed and my dogs remain unwalked).  Watching Ken Burns’ documentary makes me want to (need to?) learn more about John Muir, which in turn will result in an exploration of transcendentalism–which in turn will lead to the unavoidable downloading and reading of books by other transcendental writers like Emerson and Thoreau.  Heck, I even found myself looking at Scottish ballads on iTunes.  It’s a vicious–but entirely educational–cycle.

And before you say something like but Tracy, you have the time to do things like this, I assure you that I do not.  You’ll note that this trip has only been planned for a little over two weeks; the Yosemite portion didn’t even exist until last Friday, and I leave next Wednesday.  Sure, I may sleep less than I probably should, but it will all be worth it when I can enjoy my first view of Mariposa Grove with Muir’s words stuck in my head–when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.  

How do you create context for your own trips?  Do you read specific novels, listen to specific music, research historical figures?  Or is that just me?  I refuse to think it is just me! Share your stories in the comments section below and make me feel better about my nerdy self.  Thanks! 



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  1. Tiffany W.

    Hey, Tracy – I do this! Every trip, even if it’s just to a museum downtown (or even an amusement park). No one around here quite gets it. I’m thrilled to find that I’m not the only person who needs to know “everything” before I even get there. Others don’t realize if you absorb all this information before you are there, you learn so much more once you get there.

    • elbodans

      Yes–exactly! It ends up being both more educational and more meaningful!

      Glad to hear I am not alone!

  2. Becky

    Don’t worry, it’s not just you! For my upcoming trip to Nashville I have been researching and listening to lots of music. I have plenty of new tunes for the car ride down. And before my last trip to Disney I decided to watch every single Disney animated/Pixar movie in existence (with priority given to films represented in Disney World). We had about a year and got through most of them! We travel with my husband’s family every year or two, and they are the type to not prepare at all – they just wing it when they get there. They laugh because they don’t really know anything about the destination and I walk around spouting facts like an encyclopedia because of all the research I do 😉

    • elbodans

      You sound like my kind of traveler! Love it!

      And I’m impressed that you got through so many Disney movies!!!

      • Becky

        It was fun but challenging 😉 I only saw my then-fiance on weekends or sometimes less often because he was away at school, and when we got together it was always, “What Disney movies are we watching this weekend?” It was just the thing we did when we got together for that year and a half. But it was really good to brush up on them all!

        • elbodans

          Aww–what a cute way to spend your together time! (I can think of a few things I’d want to do with that time…ahem…and none of them involve anything animated! Ha!)

  3. Toni

    I usually do a good bit of research, though I don’t think I’m as diligent as you are. When we went to Denmark, I did ask the guide questions she couldn’t immediately answer- she had to get back to me! The problem is that hubby sometimes expects me to be an expert and I just want to do like you say- have context. I don’t want the trip to just ‘comfirm’ what I have learned, I want to continue learning there- the research is to start a base to build on- not help me be a tour guide. Ahhh- the ‘educational’ term just came to me- ‘advance organizer’. Probably before your teacher prep time, but we were taught that students need advance organizers so they’d ‘have something to hang the knowledge on’. I always related well to that.

    I often follow up trips by reading novels set there, however. I have read some great books set in London and Scotland (some sci-fi books, too which was really fun). And I find that my travels have really enriched my reading (and teaching) over the years. You mentioned Scottish songs- when you are ready for some Celtic music and some bagpipe stuff, let me know (LOL).

    • elbodans

      “I don’t want the trip to just ‘comfirm’ what I have learned, I want to continue learning there- the research is to start a base to build on- not help me be a tour guide.” YES! Exactly!!!

      Oh and I’m SO ready for Celtic and bagpipe music! Bring it on!

  4. Toni

    Check out these cds (don’t know if they are on iTunes??)
    Celtic Heartbeat- “The Celtic Collection”-re-interpretation of some traditional songs and some new ones in a Celtic style. I love “All the lies that you told me”, and “The Storm” and “Road to glory”
    Navan- “Lowena” – sung in the origianl Gaelic- great and unusual harmonies
    Clan Wallace- ” The Legend so Far”- we bought this inn Edinburgh when we saw them doing a street performance one July- some bagpipe, some traditional , some in Gaelic, even some war drum stuff!!! I especially like “The Waulkin”- it is a ‘women’s song’. Women used to sing it when they ‘walked’ wool to set the dye (unfortunately they used sale urine to do that- yuukk). It has a really haunting, mournful sound. Really reminds me of the higland in the very early mornings. Check out their websites or
    We REALLY have to plan a trip to Scotland together!!!
    You should read Diana Gabaldon’s series. I’ve read all but the first- “Outlander”. I started with Dragonfly in Amber. Great books- includes Scottish and American history (and great ‘love/sex’ scenes– hehehe).

    • elbodans

      wow–thanks! i’ll look ALL of that up sometime late tonight. and keep my husband awake with the sound of bagpipes coming from my office. ha ha ha ha ha!!!

      but no seriously–that’s what i’m going to do!

      and YES, we DO need to plan a trip to scotland! i’d LOVE to go. love love love. i just need to hit the lottery first…or at least GET hit by a car being driven by a rich person. ha!

  5. Toni

    “… or get hit..” LOL I don’t remember if I told you what hubby said last week. He is seriously consdiering starting international travel again. We MIGHT be going to Scotland for Hogmanay (New Years)!!!!! It would have to be a short, fast trip- but a TRIP!!!!!

    • elbodans

      You DIDN’T tell me–that’s AWESOME! I hope your trip works out for you. So I can live vicariously through YOU (as I wither away back in my classroom in PA…sigh…)

  6. Toni

    Don’t think about withering… yet. Something could still happen. And if you are back in the classroom, think about how you can use your blogging, your travel, your new perspectives, etc. And if needed, you can start a blog about the classroom (LOL). The one thing you MUST NOT DO, is go back to the old attitudes and presumtions. Maybe start looking at the couse of study, and making some tentative lesson plans that incorporate things learned this year. You really MUST fight going in with a depressed attitude. It will for certain sure be self-fulfilling. Start (again) looking at some colleges near you- community colleges, on-line, whatever. See if ANYONE needs someone to teach writing- of any kind to any one.
    Even if that is in addition to teaching middle school, if would be something to keep your spirits up. Also- check into AAA- they might need travel agents. With your recent experiences, I think that could be something to try.

  7. I used to LOVE to read books set in locations where I was traveling to, before I traveled there. I found it really put me in the mood and educated me a bit in a different way than guide books too. Sadly, I just don’t have time to do that any more. Wish I did though.

    • elbodans

      Yeah–that’s kind of where I am right now. I’m not sure what happened to all of my time! I want to finish the Napa book before I leave but I fear that’s not going to happen. Sadly, it’s a hard copy (not on my Kindle) so I can’t even take it with me for the LONG travel day I’m not looking forward to. Ah well!

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