When we create Wikipedia posts, blog posts, and digital transcriptions that involve stories from the past, we put the past and the present into one room and ask them to have a conversation with each other, to go on a journey together. In the process of trying to create these digital records of history one of those most interesting and productive questions I’ve had to ask myself is how to make the history appeal to an internet audience, or in other words: an audience of the present. Now, Wikipedia and blog posts are often used for entirely different purposes: modern audiences go to Wikipedia to find researched details, modern audiences go to blog posts for a variety of reasons and would likely expect a different, less dry tone from a blog than from Wikipedia; many expect blogs to connect more with their own experiences, to be more relatable than a wikipedia article. This has forced me to see just how relatable the past really is. I’ve even felt something verging on spiritual connection to two of the women writers I’ve been exploring from the past: Sarah Kemble Knight and H. Ralston.
Sarah Kemble Knight traveled from Boston to New York City by horseback and canoe. H. Ralston traveled from England to New York City by ship. I once traveled from Texas to the California by car. All three of us kept journals or diaries of our travels. Reading their words often echoed my own, scribbled on beaten up journals that I still have in a drawer, somewhere. Unlike their journeys, mine was not done with the intention of getting from point A to point B, but rather to spend several months living out of a car and in tents, camping and seeing the world. While this may make my travels seem different from theirs, I’m finding that it actually makes it easier to connect with them in several ways:
For one, travel in the 1700 and 1800s took much longer than travel does today- Kemble Knight’s journal spans from Oct. 2nd to Jan. 6th–more than 3 months. Ralston’s diary explicitly covers 25 days, but as there are not entries for every day and the diary does not span the whole trip, it likely lasted longer than that. It is said that at the time she traveled ships typically took 6 weeks to cross the Atlantic. The drive from Texas to California takes about 30-35 hours of driving-time, considerably less time than these two women spent on their journeys. However, I spent a little over 3 months travelling around the southwest and west coast. There is a level of delirium, exhaustion, and bliss that comes from seeing so much new scenery and meeting so many new people, from being uncomfortable but stimulated so often for so long. Often I could feel that delirium, exhaustion and bliss coming off of the pages of these women’s diaries.
” …the night warm and serene, and the Tall and thick Trees at a distance, especially wn the moon glar’d light through the branches, fill’d my Imagination wth the pleasent delusion of a Sumpteous citty” -Kemble Knight
Travel in the 1700 and 1800s was also much more dependent on and affected by nature. Kemble Knight discusses the intensity of traveling in a place so dark that the sight of the moon is welcome as an almost religious experience, of having to get in a canoe to cross rivers (instead of going over a bridge). Ralston writes about the wind, or lack there-of and how it impacts the speed of the ship, the rough-rocking motion that one feels on a ship when it storms, and recounts that the ship she was on got into a minor wreck with another ship due to fog. The desire to reconnect with nature was one the motivating forces behind the journey I took, and as such I intentionally allowed nature to play a large role in my travels.
In today’s world there are many comforts available to us as we travel, and I indeed partook in many of those comforts, I also attempted to limit them. While camping and sleeping in cars is uncomfortable, sacrificing comfort felt like a ritual sacrifice, and like a ritual, gave me a level of spiritual satisfaction I don’t think I could have achieved otherwise. This is something else that I can feel in these women’s diaries. While they may not have had the option to sacrifice comfort on their travels or not (as travel back then was generally just uncomfortable), neither of Kemble Knight or Ralston were forced to travel and as such, I must assume they both knew the risks and decided to do it anyway. This, along with some of the descriptions found in their journals, leads me to believe that on some level they sought out discomfort in the same way that I did: knowing it would be worth so much more.
“…though the site was dreadful to look upon, it was one I would not have missed on any account.” -Ralston, speaking of a near-by ice-berg.
Meeting New People
Kemble Knight and Ralston also describe meeting many new people on their journeys. Kemble Knight goes from one escort to another, one person’s house to another, as it was generally not safe for women to travel alone at the time. Some of the people she meets up with she had known from the past, but many were new to her. Ralston describes her shipmates at length, and writes that two of them had become like parents to her and her sister. Her descriptions lead me to believe that Ralston’s sister was the only one on board who Ralston had known previously- everyone was a stranger before the voyage. Had I taken a road-trip straight to California, I likely would have met some new people, but not nearly as many as I met while camping on beaches, going to local events, and staying with friends in different towns for multiple days on end. Meeting so many new people, like camping or being on the road for weeks on end, is both exciting and exhausting, but also like camping or being on the road, it feels expansive. That is, it feels like your community, your awareness of people, and your awareness of yourself are expanding. The length and level of discomfort experienced while travelling often correlate to the intensity with which one needs to rely on others, both for sanity and for physical comfort. This is something else present in all of the travel journals discussed here.
“Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, two of the others are like father and mother to us. What we should do without them, I do not know.”-Ralston
I remember how dependent I felt on my journal while I was travelling, how it was often the only consistent and familiar thing I could turn to. I suspect that Kemble Knight and Ralston may have felt similarly. Perhaps I assume that we have more similarities than we really do, but the deeper I look into their travel journals, the more I can imagine being there with them, feeling the wind and the sun on our faces, our pens in hand. The differences begin to fade away (relevant though they are) and the very human similarities begin to surface. It is a feeling similar to seeing black and white photos in color for the first time.