Refiguring the World
on the way to the “duck” pond out back. Grandma once caught 64 bluegill there in a single day. My brother and I were lucky once to pull Uncle John away from a euchre tournament long enough for him to teach us knife throwing. In his back yard we spent a militant morning practicing on the ranks of hickory, dogwood, walnut, oak, and maple standing around us. He cheered every time we buried the three-inch blade of his Buck knife into an unsuspecting trunk. “Your dad used to spend summers out here,” he told us. “He knew all the animals, birds, and all these trees, too. Take this one here.” He yanked down a handful of leaves. “Crush ’em up. What do you smell?” “Kind of like green pepper.” “Paw-paw,” he said. “Poor man’s banana. Leaves smell like a real pepper. Your dad taught me that.”
A few years after this visit Aunt Millie died of cancer, and only a few years after that Uncle John passed away in his sleep. My cousin found him in the living room, sunken gently into his recliner, embers in the stove still warm from the night before. PROFESSOR POWELL WAS RIGHT; I never found Bal-Hinch that day. Finding myself pedaling aimlessly up a darkening hill, I squeezed the brakes, and the bike groaned to a stop. Shadows played on the road from an oak arching over a gaping fencerow. September was slowly falling asleep around me. Since my MapQuest directions were hopeless and my skinny tires a nuisance on the loose gravel, I walked my bike down the hill and through a rustling soybean field in the direction I hoped was right. At the far end of the field I stepped out onto pavement, and there reflecting in the last rays of the sun I saw two solid yellow lines waiting to lead me home.
VIRGIN ISLANDS —by Eric Freeze
“HOW CAN I SAY I’m lonely without saying it?” a student asked. We had been on the island of St. John for a week for the immersion portion of English 210, a workshop course on travel writing. We were sitting in an openair pavilion after listening to a lecture on the invasive lionfish, an aggressive nocturnal carnivore that was decimating populations of indigenous reef fish. We learned all the statistics, watched videos of algaecovered coral and oversized lionfish, saw photos of juvenile damselfish bursting from their sliced bellies. The marine biologist giving the presentation told us about the CORE foundation, how we could alert his divers to lionfish by dropping washers into the ocean with red ribbons tied to corks: “Give us a call and we’ll be by within the hour. And don’t worry about them moving. They’re very territorial.” I had been looking forward to this lecture all week. 32
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Before the trip, I had researched the lionfish, learned how its presence had spread through the Caribbean, and how few of the local governments were equipped to deal with it. It seemed emblematic of the problems in tourist-based economies. And indicative of how a travel writer could find a niche, an approach to a place through finding a significant subject, an angle, or a theme. Now the students and I were sitting around, talking about the presentation and the task of writing up their experiences during the week. “You can tell us you’re lonely, but it will be much more interesting if you find some way to externalize your emotions,” I said. The student was having difficulty with the writing assignments I had given him. I proposed a variety of models based on the readings we had done during the semester. They could go on a quest like Tom Bissell’s “Looking for Judas” or engage in cultural criticism or parody like David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out” or Garrison Keillor’s “Take In the State Fair.” They could find a very specific audience, like Avi Davis’s vampirebased “The Undead Travel,” or write an essay about travel itself. But many of my students wanted to write about themselves, how their own personal world collided with others in this new space, the Virgin Islands bearing once again the taint of another tourist’s presence. So this student was lonely. He had just broken up with his girlfriend. And everything—the naked trunks of palm trees, the fierce sunsets, the water lapping the shore—reminded him of her absence. “Remember T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative?” I asked. “But I still want to tell people. I mean, I’m lonely. What’s wrong with just saying it?”
Travel writing and photography from Wabash alumni, students, faculty, and friends