2001 Pulitzer nominee Travel

Travel Writers Ought to Take a Walk Like Real People

Loose Leaves, 1st run Sunday 10 December 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben Pollock
Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

LONDON — Travel articles often are so glib: Here’s what you do, you can’t miss this, tell your travel agent to get you that.

Sometimes it seems the trip journalists don’t spend their own money.

They tell you how to plan five adventures a day. Then every night, you can take in a show followed by a fashionably late dinner. You return to your hotel at 2 a.m. for 10 hours of sound sleep that end at 7 a.m. You hail a cab within an hour, clean, alert and breakfasted.

Where do travel writers get their imaginations?

We considered our London vacation a success though we averaged just a primary and a secondary adventure each day.

My wife was there on business. I joined her for Thanksgiving week.

We always scheduled the best attraction first. If it was any good — for our taste — it would last virtually until dinner. A nice meal comprised the second adventure a couple of times.

The memory of a whole afternoon in Westminster Abbey (we intended to stay an hour) would have curdled if we had been bombarded with the noise and flashes of some West End musical like “Cats.”

Sometimes sightseeing finished the day. Wandering through Piccadilly at night with its Broadway-like lights, stopping for cocoa, was plain fun. Walking to and then through Trafalgar Square with fountain and statues spot-lit another evening was moving.

Our families think my wife and I are finicky. They would be surprised that for most of our six mornings we got by on a yogurt or a scone until mid-afternoon. It was the only way to ensure even one full adventure.

The latest jet-lag cure — staying awake that first day until after dinner — worked. Yet every morning on waking I felt like the mattress was lying on me, with a pack of wiggling dogs sitting on it.

Even though the subway trains often left every five minutes, transportation ate time. We learned to consider if an hour or two at such-and-such was worth a half-hour Tube-and-walk each way. The November sun set about 4, after all.

Exhausted, we returned to the States, still in love. But we weren’t always nice to each other. Most of the meals were terrific. But several restaurants did not have restrooms. Most of the sights were worthy. But how did Museum X get rated a must-see?

Then we remember: We’re strolling to the Embankment to catch a boat ride on the Thames to Greenwich. Stately sycamores border the street. Their yellow leaves cover the ground. You look back to see brown Parliament with golden Big Ben. It’s raining — this is London — but you smell the fallen leaves and the surprising freshness of the water. All sorts of people for centuries have taken this path. …

* * *

When my wife and I were managing a bed-and-breakfast outside Eureka Springs in 1998, we saw Ned Shank and his wife, Crescent Dragonwagon, once in a while.

The couple in the early 1980s founded Dairy Hollow House, the first viable B&B in the Ozark resort town. In the last couple of years they converted the Spring Street site into the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow, a boon for Northwest Arkansas.

As a budding — and now former — innkeeper, the couple would have intimidated me but for their friendliness. They showed none of the competitiveness of others in the tourism industry.

I ran into Ned, by training a historic preservationist and by nature a writer, at a Eureka business one afternoon, and he approached me for a how’s-it-going chat. He remembered me from a small B&B conference. He was big and pale, and with kind eyes.

At a fund-raising concert for the writers’ retreat, my inn’s minivan got stuck in mud at Dairy Hollow. After trying again to drive it out at intermission, I started to phone AAA for a tow, but Ned stopped me. He said he had a four-wheel-drive and a rope, adding neither he nor the vehicle had done this before: Wasn’t this a good time to see if it was up to it?

Ned left the performance — which he was emceeing — and between the two of us, wearing nice clothes, in the dark of a rainy night, pulled the minivan onto gravel. We returned to the dining room in time for the show’s finale.

I still was embarrassed about it the last time we saw the couple, giving a presentation last spring at the Fayetteville Public Library. He remembered the tow and again laughed it off. My Iowa-born wife bought his children’s book, “The Sanyasin’s First Day,” and he signed it while chatting about his Iowa upbringing.

Ned Shank, just in his mid-40s, died Nov. 30 after a bicycle accident.

May his memory be for a blessing.


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2 replies on “Travel Writers Ought to Take a Walk Like Real People”

From Crescent Dragonwagon, via Facebook, on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, about this piece:

Ben Pollock, thank you for that sweet column. I remembered the story — Ned, in good clothes, helping someone out of the mud using his new chain and pick-up, but didn’t remember it was you and don’t remember having read the story. I may have — memory around that period is spotty for me. But I can tell you that just now reading it, I loved it, was touched that you felt about him and us as you did (also slightly amused; I SO don’t see myself as intimidating to anyone or anything, but there it is — we always compare our insides to others outsides and the reverse, so how can we possibly know how we appear to others?) . And I am a little teary. I love my life now, I love my partner, I’ve had a sweet, sweet Vermont-is-heaven-earth kind of day… and side by side with all that, how I miss Ned and how much I loved him. I even dreamed about him (for the 6 thousandth time) again last night. So, your words and remembering made me teary. THANK YOU.

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