Kate Flora: I am just back from a vacation in Patagonia, where my fellow travelers, having learned that I’m a crime writer, kept asking if there was a plot emerging from the personalities and adventures on our trip. After years of toting my laptop along because of deadlines (and evil editors who sent manuscripts for revision just as I was about to leave), in the past year, I’ve vacationed without it. It’s part of an effort to be more present, or, in the words of Baba Ram Das, to “be here now.”
After twenty-five disciplined years in the writer’s chair, I sometimes have to heed the advice of Julia Cameron and go on an artist’s date. She says two hours. I say sometimes it helps to spend two weeks refilling the well of creativity.
Julia Cameron in her book “The Artist’s Way” describes an Artist’s Date as a key tool in recovering our creativity. Simply put an Artist’s Date “is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend again all interlopers.” Artist’s Dates feed our creative well of images.
Although I didn’t take my computer, or take copious notes, being in different countries, among different people speaking different languages, and seeing different scenery serves as an important reminder to be observant. What is familiar to places in the U.S. in these dry, rolling hills? And what is very different? What’s it like to scan the roadsides and hillsides not for deer but for that first sighting of a guanaco or a rhea? To watch a pair of gray foxes playing outside the window during dinner. To go to a barbecue where the centerpiece is an entire roast lamb?
What are the different birds of prey that inhabit Argentina and Chile? What is it like to drive past a drab pond and then find the next pond has a hundred flamingoes? It is so exciting, and slightly jarring, find huge lakes the tempting color of the sea in the Caribbean, but so cold they contain giant, floating icebergs. How unlike everyday January to be standing near an enormous glacier that suddenly calves and dumps tons of ice into the lake with a roar or to crane my neck when someone on the bus shouts, “Condor!”
Even when things are familiar–a field of grass stirred by the wind or a mass of wild flowers–being on vacation supplies the leisure to actually stop and watch them, to feel the temperature of the wind, watch the grass wave, listen to the slap of wind-drive waves on the shore. (Patagonia, it turns out, it a very windy place.) There is time to watch the gaucho and his five dogs herding cattle across the road, or dozens of sheep running. Time to enjoy roadsides thick with the lupine we will enjoy in June.
From the vast windows of our amazing hotel, the peaks of Torres del Piney play hide and seek in the clouds, the snow, the fog, until we wonder if I will ever see them. Then, quite suddenly, everything lifts and there they are. Rugged. Massive. Towering over us. From the warm indoor pool, I can watch Rhea wandering past, their feathers perfectly blending the surrounding shrubbery.
Group tours are also useful for people-watching. How does the group interact? Who becomes friends? Who travels a lot and who is on a rare adventure? What parts of the country are these people drawn from and why have they chosen Patagonia? Where else have they been and was it great? What is it like for the sole young person on the trip to find himself with eighteen parents? As with police interviews, where it often takes more than one to get the story, people are revealed on hikes, at meals, in the bar, on the bus. Through good times and adversity, as the entire trip has to be rejiggered because the boat that will carry us through the Beagle Channel breaks down.
When I come home, and sit back down at the keyboard, I am reminded that I should be writing a narrative that locates you, that lets you see the people and places I am describing. That makes you wonder, as Thea is wondering, what all that commotion across the street is about. Makes you remember how much fun a trip to the hardware store can be. Makes you hungry for Rosie Florio’s cooking.
And of course, I can’t neglect to share this picture of my husband Ken’s tango lesson. I took one, too, but no photographs of the event exist.