Uneven tufts of brown grass spread out for miles around me, interrupted only by a dry creek bed. I was wandering down a gravel path on the Corte Madera Marsh. Ahead of me a jogger was getting smaller and smaller and his heels kicked up small clouds of dust. In the distance, a smokey haze, not fog, hung over San Francisco Bay as a result of wild fires that raged in the California interior. It was August 2015, and the Book Passage Travel Writing and Photography Conference had wrapped up for another year. I was excited about all that I’d learned, but also a little forlorn. I was already missing the people I’d met but also uncertain how I was going to take everything I’d learned and turn my dream of being a travel writer into a reality.
I was pondering this when a man approached me wearing worn jeans and a tattered t-shirt. He greeted me and, then seeing the camera dangling from my shoulder, asked me if I would take his photo.
Before I could remove the lens cap, he began telling me his story. He was living in a van parked on the edge of the edge of the marsh. Illegally, as it turned out. He had been told that he had to leave by the next day, but he didn’t have anywhere to go.
“I want some proof that I was here. When I’m gone, I will have left no trace.” He had tears in his eyes as he stepped away from me. “I’ll let you explore the marsh. I’ll be over there.” He waved toward the van.
He was gone before I could say anything.
I wandered along the paths and captured a few images of long-legged birds feeding in the shallow water. It was very hot and the sun glared.
The man’s words kept coming back to me. I wondered what trace I would leave on the world. I was also grappling with the realization that my freelance copywriting and web design business was coming to an end. Several of my clients had moved on and I just didn’t have the desire to hustle for new clients. I wanted the security of a stable pay cheque so I could focus on the travel memoir and personal essays I wanted to write.
I found myself closer to the street that leads back to the hotel. The man’s white van was in the distance. I consider going back, but I’m alone. My consideration for my own safety wins out and I headed back to my hotel without taking his picture. I thought about him often, wondering where he ended up.
It is August 2017, and once again I’m attending the Book Passage conference. But I’m in a very different place. Now I have a full-time contract that pays me better than any job I’ve had in the past. I also keep regular hours, get paid vacation time and even travel occasionally for work. I have the security and freedom to pursue my own writing.
I started by attending the full-day travel writing workshop with Don George in Point Reyes Station. On the first morning, I was immediately greeted by Carol Patterson, a travel writer from Alberta and then by Candace Rose Raredon, a writer and sketch artist — both of whom I had met at the previous travel writing conference.
It was the start of an incredible five days. I met so many wonderful people. We shared wine during evening sessions. I introduced the art of s’more making to Timmi, who had travelled all the way from Singapore to attend the conference. I sang until I was horse during the annual Saturday night karaoke session.
I attended the morning session on personal essay and memoir writing with Larry Habegger that was fantastic. We laughed and cried as we read each other’s works, applauding our shared vulnerabilities. On the first morning, Larry gave us a writing exercise to describe what we wanted to tell our readers — our life mission. (Larry doesn’t do shallow questions apparently.) I wrote down a few ideas but wasn’t really satisfied. The question nagged me for the rest of the conference. I also attended a couple of photography workshops with National Geographic photographers and tried travel sketching with Candace Rose Raredon.
The conference wrapped up with the presentation of the annual Suitcase Awards. I had submitted an excerpt from my memoir in progress (crafted into an essay) and was delighted to win third place!
At the end of the conference, I found myself back on the Corte Modera Marsh. It was a different place this time. The drought was over and the marsh was many shades of green. Water trickled in the creek bed. I walked along the path toward the clearing at the edge of the marsh. Of course, the white van was gone. There was no physical trace of the man I had met two years before. But I knew he had been there. He had left a trace on me.
Then it came to me — the answer to Larry’s question — “What do you want to tell your readers?” My writing says, “I was here. You were here. You left a trace on me.” By sharing my experiences through writing, I leave a mark on the world. I capture traces of the people and places I meet and visit, so that they may leave a lasting mark on you.