Monday, March 18, 2013

The Heroic Journey of Travel

We have a guest blogger today. J. Suzanne Frank is the author of the popular Chloe and Cheftu time travel series and the Dallas O'Connor mysteries. ( She published the first of her novels after completing The Writer's Path at SMU, a program she now directs. She also created and teaches an approach to applying the mystery and magic of storytelling to life, so you become the hero of your own story ( Her newest book, the first of a contemporary trilogy, is Laws of Migration. She lives in Dallas, Texas. Find out more about her most recent book at

Stories have always taken place on the road. Enkidu and Gilgamesh go into the forest; Abram sets out from Ur; Little Red Riding Hood hoofs it to Grandma’s; the Bennetts meet and greet, have hearts broken and crushes confirmed, while visiting London. Is it easier to experience change, be transformed when you’re away from what you know and more importantly, how you are known?

Through nine books, I’ve pursued this idea. Using the extremes of time travel, my 20th century heroine Chloe ends up in ancient Egypt, Minoa, Israel, and Babylon, each adventure giving her joy and sorrow and leading her, ultimately, to a greater understanding of love.

My contemporary mysteries take place on road trips, where photo stylist Dallas O’Connor works around bodies piling up in exotic locations, changing with each experience.

And in my most recent, Laws of Migration, travel isn’t just an adventure. It is the means of transforming my ornithologist heroine Elize, so she leads the fullest life she can.

The pathway beckons.
All travel beckons us to see, know, explore something outside of ourselves. It also suggests that we might be different in different circumstances, surroundings, with different expectations. That awareness is the cusp of the Hero’s Journey: the call to adventure, to leave the known and head into the unknown. Elize, a stubborn woman, must receive a crushing disappointment in order to leave her “ordinary world.”

The next stages in the Hero’s Journey and usually in travel, are the naysayers. Not (necessarily) trying to discourage, but rather informing us what the stakes of this story are. The dangers, the concerns, the warnings ….

Then come the encouragements: in mythology, often a god or goddess shows up with soon-to-be-handy tools, in fairy tales, a friend or ally gives the last piece of information or insight to propel the hero into the story. In travel, this is usually when, after being bumped around a bit, we acknowledge it’s going to be unexpected, and go anyway.

Crossing into the adventure
As the hero in the story, the traveler on the journey, we all cross a threshold from which there’s no going back. For me, certainly for Elize, it wasn’t getting on a plane or going from one country to another. It was a change of the heart, a commitment to follow the experience through, whatever the costs. Because otherwise … it would always be a “coulda been.” A deathbed regret.

Some of the greatest joys and highest levels of engagement come next. The world is fresh and new; confusing and delightful; we are off-balance and okay with that because we are learning. Elize finds herself in Marrakesh, and is befriended by a sexy English-speaker, Erik, who reveals myriad layers of Morocco to her.

As comfort in the new world grows, so does our confidence. We venture out even more, we feel more comfortable trying language skills or testing ourselves. We’ve got this! It’s not so hard, after all! Elize is feeling on top of the world, like she could even belong.

Then right after (usually) our most in-country, savvy, in-sync moment, the world crashes down.

Not because of anything out there, but because an inner need drove us to experience travel, because we knew we’d have the space to change, to be changed. This is the confrontation that forces us to that shift. Not pleasant, usually. Or inexpensive. But necessary.

We’re robbed. We miss the connecting flight. We lose our traveling partner. We get sick (my personal M.O.).

This is where the trip is a mere tool and the true journey we’re seeking is internal.
A personal approach to the hero's journey
or possibly a trip.

For Elize, it’s when she’s confronted about all her bad choices by her colleagues, whom she is trying to impress. She sees herself as the world sees her for the first time. Before anything else in her life can progress, she realizes she must change her very being because her past behaviors no longer help. They hurt, wound, and cripple.

She is reborn, in pieces, as she pursues what her heart desires, both outwardly and inwardly. And because she opens instead of closes, sees “we” instead of us vs. them, because different isn’t as scary as it once was, those reborn pieces unify into a whole. (AKA, the story has a happy ending!)

What happens if the person on a journey shuts down instead? They don’t break open and bloom, they refuse the growth travel offers? They fall back into us vs. them; differences becoming divisions; the differences between cultures seen as lesser or flawed. Trips, even to the most exotic places, become mere vacations with the focus on the food/weather/service instead of the beauty, people, history, and understanding.

But just like a story, a journey that has no character arc isn’t truly satisfying. And just like a story, a journey doesn’t have to go “out” in order to transform. The Hero’s Journey is everywhere, though travel certainly dramatizes it!

Wanna open yourself to change, to transformation? These are some of the experiences Elize (and I) had in Morocco:

Midnight train to Marrakesh: you roll across Africa, stars above and assorted humanity around you. Feel very small, very alien, and very, very cool.

Majorelle Jardin, Marrakesh: That shade of blue is unique to that place. Wander the pathways, admire the thousands of succulents, the variety of trees, the hodge-podge of visitors. It’s the sensation of a museum, within prolific nature.

The Place Djmaa al Fnaa: Morocco is magic, enchantment, and if you already see that way, the square in Marrakesh confirms it. If you are completely practical and concrete, the Place reveals a world of storytellers and magicians, orange juice sellers, and placid camels. It’s one of the most incredible experiences. It worked its magic on my hardheaded heroine, even!

Blending in with the locals.
Ksar Massa: At first glance it might appear only a resort, but there on the North Atlantic coast, some of the world’s rarest, most extraordinary birds make their homes. The hotel itself is exquisite, the food delicious, etc. but it also throbs with a deep respect for the time, place, and culture it’s in. Everyone, from the daily maids to the manager, is delightful. Walk the beach, view the birds—be authentically in that one place, appreciate its unique status.

Experience gommage: A spa treatment, sure, but with Berber soap and an ancient ritual it’s almost time travel. Your old skin is scraped away, leaving you fresh as a spring leaf. Elize used it as her commitment to being reborn, rejecting old thoughts and behaviors, opening to new ones.

Col Kerdous: Waaay up in the mountains, you are perched higher than the falcons. In Berber territory, the road up lined with Argan trees, it’s almost like flying. Experience a completely different Morocco than the coast, than the city, than anywhere else.

And if somewhere, lovely Moroccans invite you into their homes for tea, say yes! If they want to share the joy of a wedding with you, say yes! If they want to share the custom of henna with you, say yes! Be transformed by discovering people who see through different eyes, but with whom you have so much in common.

Just say yes! A real experience, with a lovely Berber family,
that was both once in a lifetime awesome and
inspiration for Elize's story.
Enjoy the journey!


  1. Suzanne, I love your zest for travel and the connection you made with the Writer's/Hero's Journey. I will have to re-read those books. And the ups and downs of travel are so true. It's usually just when I'm excitedly taking photos and soaking up the scenery that my purse is snatched or I fall off a curb and twist an ankle. These experiences do change us and reveal the hidden strengths we may never have known we had.

    Thanks for sharing your and your characters' adventures!

    1. Thank you so much, Jenni! But the great key to this is, we know when to be particularly aware! Feeling on top of the world? Double-check your bag and walk carefully!
      I think that's advice I'll take on my next adventure ; )

  2. Great post Suzanne. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you Beth! I appreciate the opportunity! This site is a great resource : )

  3. Wonderful post! Makes me want to pack my bag and head out to an adventure. And if any of you haven't read Laws of Migration yet, you are in for a treat.