Following I 70 With a Writer’s Notebook in Hand


Baltimore, where I live, is at the beginning of Interstate 70. Every time we drive along that stretch of the highway, we pass the mileage sign. I look and I wonder what it would be like to just start out and go to those far-away places on the sign.

Now I’m doing it. I’m off on a road trip across the USA with my daughter and granddaughter, following I 70 most of the way. I’ve been across the US more than once, but not on this route.

When I travel I always have a small notebook with me. Writers do that. You never know what adventures you will run into on the way. Sometimes even the smallest thing sparks the imagination.

My imagination was dampened our first day out, though. We followed I 70 through the mountains in Maryland and Pennsylvania in the driving rain. Sometimes it was blinding. I had the first shift as driver. There were times I couldn’t see beyond the hood of our car. Now that I am away from it, I wonder how that experience could become a story or part of a story. It was pretty scary. The gray of the sky, rain hurling at the windshield like thousands of nails, trucks sending a spray of water at us. Did they do that on purpose? Probably not, but what if they did? Imagination is at work again. I suspect that one day that blinding rain will show up in in some story.

I was eager to get to Indianapolis, Indiana where we planned to stay overnight. It made an insanely long day, especially with the slow-down through the rain. But when my daughter found that we could stay at the Crown Plaza built in the old Union Station, Indianapolis we decided to go for it. They have 26 old Pullman train cars divided into bedrooms. There is a private train car in the third book of The Last Crystal Trilogy. It is attached to the Santa Fe Chief—that was when the Chief was THE train to take from Chicago to LA.

The outside of our train car.

People can still do that—buy a train car and have it fixed up to specification. I saw lots of pictures of private train cars and floor plans for private cars when I did research for the book. But spending the night in half of a car turned into a hotel room sounded like an exciting prospect. Imagination is important, but so is real experience. I wasn’t disappointed! There were lounge chairs and two large beds and a bath. It was cozy, but with just enough room for the three of us. There were plaster cast statues to spark the imagination, too. You could almost see the crowds bustling to get on board. Or, as in this picture taken by my daughter, three mischiefs trying to hitch a ride on top of the train.

Day 1 and my notebook is full of ideas.

Life on the Oregon Trail?

When I taught fourth grade in Portland Oregon–that was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth–we had a unit on Westward Expansion. A lot of schools teach about pioneers settling the West in fourth, fifth or sixth grade. We used Mary Jane Carr’s Children of the Covered Wagon as a read-aloud. It was a good match for the unit. (If you haven’t read it, you can still find it in some libraries. I recently tracked down an old copy on line.)

Our understanding of the perspective of Native American People has changed since the book was written. But Carr is remarkably free of some of the errors to be found in social studies and history books of a few decades ago.

I thought it would be fun to form an imaginary wagon train going West. We could mark our progress on the Oregon Trail as we read the book. And we could tie our study in with English and language arts by keeping journals where we made up events that happened to us along the way. Everybody had to make up an identity and stick with it for the trip West.

A Thousand Wagon Trains Head West

We had a whole wagon train full of single people. No way anybody was going to admit they’d want to be married, especially with somebody else in the class! Being married and having a family was too great a stretch of the imagination.

A lot of the girls were going West to be school teachers or doctors. Some were adventurers. Boys were going to be doctors, farmers, cowboys, or set up a business.

The journals were hardest. A typical journal entry was, “Not much happened today. Just more grass and hills to look at,” or heroic descriptions of battles with Native Tribes. We had to put a limit to attacks by Native People—especially since huge stretches passed through country that was not well populated.  Even then, we knew that attacks were few and far between. And we had to decide what rivers we were going to cross and when or how many times you could step on a rattlesnake and still live.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have some of the wonderful websites available today to help us understand life on the trail.

It was a lot of fun in spite of all our difficulties. We learned a lot about writing, imagination, plausibility and some of the grimmer realities of life on the trail. As hard as it was making up interesting things to happen along the way, I think we all agreed we got off easy. We didn’t have nearly as much to deal with as those who followed wagon trails to Oregon, Washington, and California!

All this is to say that I was really delighted when Jon Dunlap, fourth-fifth grade teacher at Rivendell School, Arlington, Virginia wanted to read The Alabaster Box to his class this spring. I’ll have more to say about that next post.