HOW TRAVEL CAN INSPIRE YOUR TEACHING: OUT OF THE DUST AND INTO THE WILD PART II
As we drove through the desert with a dog named Bella, I tried to imagine doing this journey in a covered wagon or as a cowboy on horseback rounding up the cattle and moving them across the desert. While this seems a romantic notion, the truth is, we have the luxury of a motorized, modern-day vehicle and everything we own is covered in dirt and dog hair. It is hot; and even when we roll up the windows and turn on the AC, we still taste the gritty, fine sandy soil in our mouths.
On night three of this journey, I thought I had found a quirky, local pet-friendly hotel that would prove to be another interesting stop, the Nativo Lodge in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I could imagine us hanging out in one of their local artist painted rooms and relaxing in the swimming pool next to the giant teepee. While it did prove to be a memorable stop, it was not for these reasons. We discovered that the pet-friendly rooms were basic rooms, not the artist-decorated rooms advertised, and instead of relaxing at the restaurant and pool, Marc and I ate not-so-great bar food downstairs while we took turns checking on our distraught puppy dog back in the room. Apparently, her first ride in an elevator and the geometric patterned rug down the hallway was just too much for our sensitive little girl. We literarily had to carry this 84-pound pup to the elevator (once she decided to push her weight to the floor, there was no moving her) to get her to go outside to use the bathroom before bed and again the next morning to get her in the car. While Bella did NOT like the elevator, she DID like "standin' on the corner of Winslow, Arizona" later that afternoon.
That night we camped at Wild West Resort and RV Park near Maricopa, Arizona on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. We knew we'd arrived when we were greeted by the aged old men with their waving arms and spindly bodies (otherwise known as saguaro cactus) to which writers such as Dusti Bowling in her new middle grade novel Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus and Jerry Spinilli in Stargirl have expertly woven into their stories as supporting characters. Just before sunset, Bella and I walked into the desert to watch the sun set behind the Maricopa Mountains and keep our eyes peeled for signs of the ephemeral wildlife that reveals itself once the threat of the hot sun and noisy day subsides. I closed my eyes and tried to blur the boundary between me and the nature that surrounded me. I tried to become a stone, a cactus thorn. I tried to become rain, just like Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl, but Bella kept tugging at her leash as she sniffed at mysterious animal holes in the ground and searched for movement in the desert. It was still a beautiful moment, "a territory of peace, of silence," as Spinelli asserts. I did not see the elusive elf owl, but Marc swears we heard them early the next morning. That is the beauty of what we are doing. It's the journey, the searching for the elusive, and soaking in the energy of the sun, the earth, and each other's company that makes this trip an adventure that will inform my teaching and my life.
Next came the long, hot trek across the Mojave Desert, where the gnarled, wind-twisted Joshua trees grew prolifically, reminding Marc and I of both the literary and spiritual pilgrimage we were on as we made our way across the country to our new home and our new life together in Alaska. The resilient nature of these trees made me feel strong despite the uncertainty of our future. Even so, Marc and I were glad we were driving through this desert of ancient, symbolic vegetation and not walking it like Cheryl Strayed in her book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The following day, the terrain began to change again. The desert gave way to the San Joaquin Valley where we passed miles and miles of vineyards, almond trees, and fruit trees. This is the valley where young Esperanza and her family came to work in Pam Munoz Ryan's middle grade novel entitled Esperanza Rising. It was the 1930s and the Mexican workers had to compete with all the people coming from Oklahoma looking for work in the California vegetable fields, the only place they knew of to find work in those lean times. Excerpts from Esperanza Rising would make great companion reading to Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust I mentioned in a previous post, Out of the Dust and Into the Wild: Part I.
Finally! After five days of driving and sight seeing and connecting literature to place, we arrived in Sacramento, where Marc's dad had a good ol' Louisiana dinner of roast beef, rice and gravy, green beans, corn-on-the-cob, and a fresh California garden salad waiting for us!
These five days on the road have reminded me that I have a way of looking at the world, like many of you, through the context of the novels I have read. I have a desire to see the same sights the characters (ok, yes, I know it was actually the author) saw, feel the same warm sun, see the same night sky, and feel the same warm earth under my feet. I know having seen these sights, smelled the scents, and touched the earth gives me a richer experience to share with my young readers the next time I teach these novels. I will go back to the classroom this fall with a grander view of the world, with the knowledge of the experiences of some of my favorite authors, and with a greater sense of having lived my own adventure. My students will benefit, if only to inspire them to seek out their own journeys, their own adventures, their own knowledge.
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I would love to hear your own stories of visits to favorite novel settings and how you use these in your classroom. Share your stories and pictures in the comments section below or in our Facebook community.
Keep watching the website for the final long haul of the trip: our journey north into the wilds of Alaska! AND How to Make an Epic Road Trip on a Teacher Budget