Travel Planning: The Importance of Creating Context

“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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