Rick Smolan’s photo of Robyn Davidson on the cover of the May 1978 issue of National Geographic.
A few months ago I wrote about various stories of solo female travel and mentioned I’d seen the film version of Robyn Davidson’s memoir Tracks. I’ve finally got round to reading the book now, and it’s even better than I hoped it would be.
This book feels more honest than almost any other personal story I’ve ever read. It has a line, but there are also moments of stream-of-consciousness wandering from that line that remind me of my own frantic scribbles in my notebook trying to capture moments and knowing that no bit of writing really can.
Davidson herself says that her own journal of the trip is made of of letters never sent and random bits of fact sprinkled among longer passages, sometimes thick and fast, and sometimes lacking entries for over a month. It’s the first time I’ve felt like I was getting a true view not only of the bits of an experience someone could remember properly enough, but of a realistic writing process. You don’t get the sense anything’s being hidden here. She doesn’t care what you think, and at times she barely knows what she herself thinks, which she’s straight about every time she notices it happening.
There’s a lot in the book about being so far from humans and societal norms that it’s shocking how fast the need for those conventions fades, and how difficult it then is to grasp when you need to reinstate them. She did a lot of walking around the desert naked and talking only to camels and her dog for ages at a time. She talks about how refreshing it was to not have to worry a lick about being pretty or attractive or anything else typically associated with being a woman because none of that mattered. But regardless of that, once she was back in a city, she realised she couldn’t function in society as though she was in the desert, and it’s kind of crazy to try.
In the afterward in the edition I read, written in 2012 presumably right as they were working on the film, Davidson says she doesn’t recognise the person in the book. That after writing the story and releasing all of it into the world, the memories started to fade and she can only hold on to bits and pieces of something that was so long ago and so far removed from most everyday experiences. I find this to be true of just about every experience I ever have, whether or not I write about it.
The difficulty in writing a travel blog for me is that I don’t ever think it will communicate my actual experience of a trip or a time or anything. What it’s really like is so tied up in the myriad of things that have happened to me before and the current personal dramas and demons running through my head while I’m in a place that what the experience of a trip does to me or means to me is just not something that comes out in words. (I mean, why do you think I write so much about food? At least that’s a thing that everyone can experience tangibly.)
This website is part exercise in self-discipline (it is incredibly difficult to stick to a self-imposed writing schedule, but it’s also good for me), part learning experience, part personal record, and part ongoing motivation to take the first step. As Davidson says, that first step really is the hardest part of anything. It’s so easy to talk myself out of things when I live most of my life inside my own head. I am reasonably strong-willed when I want to be, but writing about all this and telling everyone I know about my plans is probably the main thing that prevents me chickening out.
I was talking to someone I’m only newly friends with in the pub the other night and when it was time for a subject change, he said ‘So, is your trip planned yet?’ which caught me way off guard because I’ve been waffling about what I want lately. But this is why it’s one of the first things I ever told him about, and why it’s something every one of my friends knows I’m thinking about. Because that kind of question is what keeps me straight. It takes the whole thing out of my own head and makes it real. It gets everyone pushing me through the first step.
As for Tracks, I really needed the mental push it’s given me. I needed reminding that I can do something for myself that may turn out completely differently than I picture it, but life will still go on on the other side of it. I highly, highly recommend reading it. (And if you’re not completely in love with camels by the time you’re through, you’ve probably got a heart made of concrete.)
Here’s a few images from the real trip and the film on National Geographic’s website, and some of Rick Smolan’s chat about photographing the trip. Worth a look.