Monday, December 27, 2010


Plaque on Mt. Greylock
Currently I'm writing a book about my Appalachian Trail hike; this is what's gotten me into writing of late; it got the juices flowing. As I proceed, I find I'm really appreciating my journal from the trail. Over the years, I've learned things about journaling, good tips for creating a better record. For me, I mostly only journal when I'm out on the trails or involved in some sort of adventure, otherwise life seems too boring to bother writing about regularly. They say journaling is a lost art these days of email and text messaging and especially facebook, and it may be so, but I still love and advocate it.

First, I recommend doing it the old fashioned way, pen and paper. I like the personal nature of it; sometimes the quality of the penmanship can help show how tired I was or what state of mind I was in. Also, there's the freedom to draw a sketch or diagram in the margins if you want, which can be a good memory booster, and is more personal than using a camera. But even journaling on an electronic device is better than nothing.

Here's an interesting insight: I have learned that I really slighted myself by only journaling in the evening, at the end of the day; many details were omitted thanks to this. Laying in the sleeping bag, tired from the day's exertions, I typically only wrote about what seemed relevant at the moment there in camp. I'd list some details from the day, but would often only write about what was on my mind as I wrote. Any thoughts or insights I'd had during the day were often forgotten by this point, and often I'd write about things that weren't really important or memorable.

It's important to keep that in mind. I berate myself now, wondering if it was really appropriate to fill up the entire day's entry with complaints about my pulled Achilles, day after day. Or it'd be the reverse: sometimes I'd write nothing about the physical day, only elaborating on what I was thinking about, so I don't have a record of those places.

I improved as the miles went by; entries from Georgia were very poor in content and detail compared to those from Maine. In my subsequent travels, especially this last summer in New Jersey and Vermont, I'd bring the journal out during the day and start the entry then; this way things are fresher and I'm less tired so I'm more willing to take the time to be specific. Even so, in many cases it's but a bare skeleton of places and events.

Thank God I have an excellent memory, almost photographic in some ways. When I'm writing, it's almost like a trance, and the memories come alive before me, things I thought I'd forgotten bubble up, and most of it I remember well already. I'm able to piece most days together, even the more mundane moments from the trail, the hours spent walking through random woods. It's all very clear to me, full of detail; using the journal helps me put it in order and remember a few other things, but quite often I just write for pages based on memory alone.

Anyways. Another technique for good journaling I found is to mention the weather, which for the AT I only did at random, but of which I have since learned to keep a daily record. This helps "set the lighting" so to speak, which can go very far towards jogging the memory of a time and place. These are things that are often subconscious, and making a note of them can have a strong effect. Kind of like how when you're taking a test, remembering the room you were studying in can help the information come back to you.

I like to journal chronologically. I start the entry with things about how I slept, what time we left camp, things like that, then proceed through the events of the day. This became a useful tool for me in the evenings at remembering what happened during the day. It sounds untrue, but out there the days seem so packed with occurrences and events that it is hard to remember them all sometimes.

One thing I wish I'd written more about is the people I met and interacted with. I would often give a brief synopsis of the day's hike, for example, the difficulty of this or that mountain and how I felt overall with the hiking, but often didn't go into much detail about the people I was sharing these experiences with, aside from naming the few key characters and any truly notable events. This is still an issue that needs work; I'm great at writing about ideas and landscapes, but with people, it sometimes seems so complicated or tedious that I don't do it enough, even though the people are the best thing about the AT, and probably life in general.

Another great thing about the journal is that it can help you learn about yourself. For example, I was often sick on the AT, including vomiting relatively often. It was due to having zero body fat left and being in a perpetual state of physical exhaustion. That much was obvious. But many days I would feel superb, full of energy and spirit. So, by looking back I can see a pattern of events: poor sleep for a few nights in a row often preceded the sick feelings. So would heavy exertion without eating enough, like pushing ten miles without a break for even a granola bar. I'd have terrible dreams and wake the next morning feeling bad. I often noted the quality of my sleep and the character (good, bad, weird, twisted, etc) of my dreams, which is an indicator. But this "body knowledge" was not obvious at the time, and only by looking back at a record do I see the patterns. I can no benefit from this knowledge.

The most important thing, though, it to pay attention. Obviously, readers of this blog know I'm into Zen, Taoism, meditation and all that. I strive to be present in the moment, awake to what is around me. This, I believe, makes the memories sharper and more conscious. I'm not out there sleepwalking through my days, at least not completely. If you are present in your moments, interactions, and experiences, not only will your journal entries be more full of useful notes, but the memories themselves will be clearer.


  1. A blog really is nothing more than an electronic journal. At least, that's the way I look at it.

    If I had to rely on pen and paper these days, I'd be doomed. The tremors in my hands have gotten to the point in which I can rarely read my own (already) poor handwriting...even only a few minutes after writing it!

    When I make out a shopping list, my wife always says to me, What's this? and I often can't decipher it myself. :-D

  2. A blog can be like a journal, but I don't talk about day to day events in mine, and neither do you, occasional exceptions notwithstanding. But if that's someone's preferred form for journaling, I'm not judging. It should be noted though that I'm decidedly old school (especially for only being 27), and am mistrustful of technology (having lost a computer's worth of documents twice); so I keep a printed copy of everything. In the same vein, I prefer the paper journal. It's not going to disappear into the ether because of an electronic hiccup. Yes, there's the worry about fire, but it's not a big one.

  3. I do write frequently about day-to-day events and so do you. The difference between a trail journal and a blog has more to do with the type of event. Out on the trail, you are more apt to discuss physical events and observations. In the blog format, it is more about mental and/or intellectual events.

    With the exception of my ongoing series, most of what you see on my blog are the mental events of each day. :-)