Has it all been done?

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Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for a travel article. Specifically about some Western European locale that featured prominently in World War II, but hadn’t been covered too widely. Turns out it was not an easy task. While scouring my map of Western Europe looking for places that hadn’t been done a thousand times already, the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.

The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”

“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.

“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”

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Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.

And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.

4 Responses to “Has it all been done?”

  1. Don McQuinn Says:

    Hey James –

    Excellent article, true of many people. I’ve found that the travelers who see nothing but sights – and no one – are infinitely boring. Imagine the pomp and panoply of that coronation. How does that compare with (or impact) the people of the region today? Your article taps into what makes any trip or an writing about a trip worthwhile. It’s not just the artifact; it’s the story attendant to the artifact. Very nice work.

  2. James Ullrich Says:

    Thank you Don. Very well put.

  3. Peter Korchnak Says:

    Word. I’m a firm believer in people being the story of a place. How does the built or natural environment shape a specific person’s life? What are her memories of various locations around the area? How has she made the city or a nature spot hers? It is not through descriptions (images, videos) of buildings but only through stories of human beings that we can understand our world. The article is spot on about that. If only more writers took heed.

  4. Margie Says:

    There are so many stories needing to be told before they are lost forever. The heroic deeds that need to be remembered and the lives that shaped our world are too important to be overlooked. Thank you for such a thought provoking article.