For me, a proper Hero’s Journey requires crossing a river. It seemed like crossing the Missouri, in Bismarck, North Dakota, was a milestone event. From there, I could enter a writerly dark place and emerge in Nevada with a new perspective. I had hopes for my own journey, and doing some writing during the week.
Driving across the US has all the monomyth plot elements: Departure, Initiation, and Return. A proper story could crystalize around any bit of drama. Indeed “reality” TV shows will manufacture drama from anything to fill 22 or 44 minutes of content.
There’s a piece in Calvin Trillin’s Travels with Alice on "taureaux piscine.” These two words become a kind of MacGuffin, creating a needed bit of drama for the hero’s journey. It demonstrates how a great writer can turn anything into a story arc.
The Departure portion of the journey devolved to a Call and Crossing the Threshold. We didn’t refuse the call, or require supernatural aid. See “Prepared for Departure."
While planning this cross-country trip, the presence of a river crossing seemed very important. My partner, on the other hand, wasn’t sure the river crossing really mattered. After all, many people think of crossing the Mississippi (between Minneapolis and St. Paul) as entering the west, why draw my line at Bismarck?
Crossing the Continental Divide (between Montana and Idaho) is often seen as entering the west, but it’s not the obvious fit into the mold of the Hero’s Journey. The divide needs to be modified to include crossing the Yellowstone river and then heading up into the mountains: the river crossing admits us to the mountains.
Here’s some day-by-day reflections.
- Monday took us from Washington, DC, to Lima, Ohio. We debated the wisdom of pulling off the highway for sight-seeing in the Appalachians. Because we weren’t sure what kind of distance we’d cover, we opted not to pause. The contrasts from DC to the Appalachians and then to Ohio’s flatness was pretty cool, but also familiar.
We spent more time yakking randomly than thinking about characters and situations. While there was no drama in the reality, as I writer, I could manufacture some by magnifying small things out proportion.
- Tuesday we found ourselves in Hammond, Indiana. It was cold and rainy-looking all day. The interstate doesn’t go near any of the interesting sights in northern Ohio or Indiana. It did, however, go past someone plowing their fields with a team of six horses. Horses. Next to the interstate.
The day included thinking about world design and the shape of lands, farms, towns, and kingdoms. What constitutes a workable spread is dictated by a variety of factors and needs to figure into the lands the hero passes through.
This is an aspect of the Belly of the Beast stage — separation — but we’re not really out of familiar territory, yet. In a way, we’re still in the Departure portion of the story.
- Wednesday to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. After leaving Chicago land, it was sunny and very pretty. We stopped at a hill called — I think — “Bell Mound.” 44°14'53.8"N 90°44'04.6”W. There’s a veteran’s memorial here, but the view over the Black River to the NW shows Wisconsin’s rolling woodlands.
Wisconsin has a vaguely wilderness feel. Prior to the land being logged naked, there were trees six feet in diameter.
The day made me rethink some aspects of “wilderness.” As a life-long dweller on the US East Coast, my glimpses of wilderness were often indirect. As a SCUBA diver I was aware of re-entering the food chain. Once in Alaska, I was concerned about bears. This is an important feeling, and I need to capture more of it.
- Thursday to Jamestown, North Dakota. The flatness is amazing. We thought Ohio was flat, but we weren’t really prepared for western Minnesota and North Dakota. The land is almost oceanic in its lack of relief. We’ve crossed the Mississippi, but the land hasn’t changed noticeably.
Today raised the question of time. I’m bothered by “After three days of travel…” introductions. The problem is, there’s little useful story to tell. Details of days and miles don’t really matter as much as the dramatic situations that arise.
- Friday to Bismarck, North Dakota to cross the Missouri. From there to Miles City, Montana. The Badlands were a revelation. Underground coal fires are a thing here. There are piles of natural brick (“clinker” or “scoria.”) The land has red highlights.
The question of terrain details as part of characterization was a shock to me. This is where I crossed from tourist into a writer’s dark place. There are things I need to rethink. Some parts of Book II may need to be touched. Parts of Book IV are beginning to crystallize.
Benchmarking against Campbell’s outline, we've blasted through the Belly of the Beast and into the Road of Trials. The previous stages have taken three days, covered a lot of miles, but don’t represent any real drama or significant advancement of the plot. The vista across the badlands was the gateway to Initiation.
The real world involves a lot of elapsed time. I want my fiction to be gritty and detailed. But. The comparison between story elements and actual passage of actual miles is something I need to work on. “Walked six leagues today,” is only important to me. “After only six leagues, we came to a tavern; the next stopping point is four more leagues, so we were forced to stop before sunset,” has a tiny crumb of drama in it.
- Saturday to West Yellowstone, Montana. The mountains are ahead all morning. Then, two-ish, we left the interstates in Bozeman, and turned south on the two-lane highway winding around the edges of Yellowstone park. The rest of the afternoon was mountain roads.
Today’s travel only reinforced the notion of terrain as character. I had to admit to pantsing the whole Western Empire in Books I and II of Tales of the Red Ranger. Starting in the coastal lowlands, and moving to plains to badlands to mountains makes me think I really need to pick specific terrains to help characterize the kingdoms of The West.
- Sunday to Orem, Utah. The morning started on the winding, tree-lined roads of Montana. We descended to the plains of Idaho. Parts of this looked a lot like eastern Montana — vast ranches and lots of cows. The big difference is the sheltering mountains in each side of the valley. In Montana (and North Dakota) the fields stretched to the horizon. Now, they only stretched the width of the valley. Then we came to the “Devil’s Half Acre” lava field and my dim understanding of geology was up-ended.
The presence of active vulcanism (only ~5,200 years ago) made me rethink a bunch of assumptions I’ve been making. The possibility of active hellscapes is starting to appeal to me. There are volcanoes in Idaho, burning coal seams in Montana, in otherwise placid landscapes.
- Monday to Las Vegas, Nevada. Salt Lake City is vast. The connected cities of Ogden, Provo, and Orem make it a huge urban expanse, packed into a valley. Then the Virgin River Gorge through the northern corner of Arizona. This was every bit as shocking as the lava field was. The canyon walls at 500 feet straight up into the air over a narrow, muddy river.
The winding canyon is a shock. I’ve been in caves. I’ve been in narrow valleys. I’m not as delighted with gorges as I am with stray lava fields. The gorge seems to constrain the character’s action — it’s a trap, not an escape or a choice.
On the journey I did almost no writing.
I’m not sure I did much more than proceed through the Road of Trials to the Ultimate Boon.
I did begin to rethink several fundamental features of #EpicFantasy #SFF. I was sure the sights would trigger some changes. But. It’s bigger than “some changes.” This goes beyond “Change a few things around in chapter nine.” This is more like “Delete the whole four-chapter Road of Trials section.”
"Begin to rethink” is not the boon I’d hoped for. It’s not a clear inspiration. It’s a depressing load of work I have to take on. Words to be deleted, words to be rewritten.
This will turn into a lot of work. It means I need to stop pantsing some parts of the journey.
I’m even wondering if I should move some of The Forge around in space a little. The initial journey in The Forge stretches over half an earldom. A few more days of nondescript travel would heighten some aspects of the drama.