When viewed from the interstate, most American towns look remarkably similar. They all have the same restaurants, the same gas stations, the same department stores. It’s only when you get off the freeway and spend some time in a place that you find out what makes it special.
Learning where the local school kids go on their field trips will tell you a lot about a community and what it values. When I lived in Florida, our school always went to Disneyworld. A friend who grew up in the south told me her school toured antebellum plantations and tobacco plants. In the Midwest, the kids visit farms and butcher shops.
Here in Idaho, we take our kids to visit the gallows at the Old State Penitentiary. They also visit the nearby Idaho Botanical Gardens and learn about the plants discovered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But the absolute favorite school outing is the Rendezvous Field Trip.
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Historically, Rendezvous was a special time each year when mountain men and Native Americans came together to trade and socialize. Now, on the Rendezvous Field Trip, fourth graders recreate that experience by gathering together for a day of total immersion in Idaho history. The students climb in a covered wagon, pan for gold, trade at a trading post, and learn about drying furs and loading guns. They also square dance, participate in Civil War marching, taste beef jerky, and learn to use obsidian rocks as tools.
It’s a great tradition, but what does it have to do with writing fiction?
Simply this: The whole point of Rendezvous is to take history out of the textbook and make it come alive. When the students leave Rendezvous, they carry with them the memory of what it felt like to live in the past. Many years later, they will still remember the smell of gunpowder, the taste of jerky, the sound of the wind whipping through the wagon covers, and the thrill of finding ‘gold’ in their mining pan. They’re no longer studying Idaho history, they’re living it.
As writers, this is what we should strive for, to provide an experience so detailed, so real, that the reader is left with an indelible memory of how it felt to live in our story.
I would love to hear your field trip experiences. Which ones have stayed in your memory? What was it that made them come alive? Did they inspire you to write a novel?