Posted by Sheila Connolly
If all goes well, this will be posted while I am somewhere else. In fact, I'm should be in a place I've never been before: Tucson, Arizona. This is rather funny, since I've now completed two books set in Tucson. But that was Berkley's idea, not mine. Still, I want to get it right. I want to collect the details: the way the air smells, the way the mountains look in the early light, the sights and sounds of the desert. I have never seen a desert. I have never seen a cactus that wasn't in an exhibit or on a windowsill. Much of what I know about the Southwest comes from watching TV westerns (most of which were probably shot on a back lot in California anyway).
The idea of going someplace completely new both excites and surprises me. I suppose my age is showing. Once it seemed that the whole world lay before me, and I could and quite possibly would go anywhere and everywhere. When I chose an art history major in college, it was in part because I assumed that I would have to travel to Europe regularly–for business, of course. If I just happened to spend time in nice restaurants or admiring the Mediterranean or the Aegean or the Alps, well, that was incidental, right? And my plan worked pretty well for a few years while I was in graduate school.
And then came marriage and jobs and real life, and my travel plans kind of dwindled. I tagged along when my husband did some post-doctoral work in the Yucatan. That was a place I had never expected to see (and I blush to admit that my art-history program gave short shrift to Mayan art; I knew that Chichen Itza existed only because of National Geographic), and I was fascinated.
But that was the last foray into the unknown for quite a while. When our daughter was old enough, we made a couple of family trips to England, Wales and (at long last) Ireland (the photo is of my daughter and me in front of "my" pub in Co. Cork); I took her to France with my mother, over a decade ago. Spouse in his turn went off bug-hunting in South Korea and China, but I stayed home for those.
Then two years ago he had the opportunity to confer about a project with some fellow scientists in Australia. I had always wanted to go to Australia, although if you had asked me why, I couldn't have told you–I just did. I said to him, if you go without me, I will never let you mention the trip in this house. I went.
And it was amazing. I had done no homework about the place; I couldn't tell you where anything there is, except for Sydney (yeah, that place with the opera house, right?). But we weren't there as tourists. Because it was a working trip, we spent a lot of time away from the cities, off in pine plantations and open country (the bush, which is not the same as the Outback, I have learned). We talked with real people, stayed in small hotels in Victorian towns. We drove across an entire Australian state, several hundred miles of well-paved road, and saw a total of five cars. There were rainbows everywhere, city and country. There were rocky beaches that we shared with only a few cows. The food was extraordinary. I kept pointing at the local flora and fauna: ooh, look, that's a parrot. That's a whole flock of cockatoos searching for lunch in the grass. And that field there, why, there are twenty or thirty kangaroos. Yes, they exist outside of cartoons. Wow.
Until that trip I had forgotten what it was like to see something new, someplace unexpected. It was doubly interesting because I went there with no preconceptions. If there is still a stereotype of the Ugly American tourist, I am the antithesis. I love everything. I gush, I exclaim, I marvel. I admire everything, from the packaging in the supermarkets to the architecture of old Sydney. I'll try anything, including feeding furry possums in a sinkhole at night (they're very cute, and soft).
But it's easy to lose sight of the excitement of the new, and that's why I'm looking forward to my excursion to Tucson. It doesn't seem right that I have lived my life thus far without ever seeing a desert. Or a real cactus. And I hope I can absorb enough details to make the descriptions in my books come alive, and the only way to do that is to see it for myself.