Travel tip #16…Gather Souvenirs

“Take only memories, leave only footprints.”

It’s an old backpacker’s mantra and at some point, the photographically inclined morphed it into “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”

Probably Kodak. (remember them?)

I don’t shop. We might have established that already. But even a guy like me wants to bring home a little trinket or tchotchke from time to time. Something to gather dust on your desk and gaze at wistfully when the work week drags.

I’m cheap. We’ve addressed that, too.

But this is about more than just the money. I feel silly buying something produced and shipped out by the ton and then telling myself it’s special. Even if there is only one of the items on the store shelf, I’m pretty sure that as soon as I buy it and leave the store, they pull another one out of the drawer to replace it. Sure…I don’t want to spend money…but I really don’t want to spend money on something that everyone else already has.

So I found myself an antique typesetters box. A thin drawer with lots of dividers from an old print shop. I cleaned it up, mounted it on the living room wall and started the slow task of filling it up with found treasures from the road.

We had a few rules. Things to go in the box should be:




More or less, we’ve met those goals.

Up above in the photo department, you’ll see some of what we’ve gathered. Down here in the word department, I’ll give you a little run down. I’m sure you can figure out which words go with which photos. By the way, the box is really hard to dust. You’ll notice that in the photos.

I should say that sometimes I look at the things in the box and I wonder, “Where the hell did that come from?” This is the best that I can recall.

Redwood bark

In 2003 we backpacked in Redwood National Park. I love trees but I also realize we have to cut some down to make toilet paper and such. In fact, my family is growing about 18,000 trees on a farm and we plan to cut them down. For money. But after a few days in the wilds, feeling all earthy and awe-smitten by those monster pines, I chaffed a bit at the logging trucks that passed us as we headed south toward San Francisco and the airplane home. I knew I couldn’t count the rings on those logs as they passed but I was curious. I also realized I had forgotten to find a souvenir. When the next logging truck blew past me and I stared sorrowfully at the cut ends of those logs, I noticed some shreds of bark flying off. I pulled to the side of the road and gathered my souvenir.


Sometime around 2005 Jordan came with me to shoot a job in Kansas. We stayed with friends who ran the sweetest little B&B on the prairie and I’d give it a great big plug right now, except they kept making kids until they filled all their guest rooms with offspring and now the only lodging option is a crappy little motel 20 miles down the road. It was the wheat harvest and we crossed the highway to watch the local guy get his combine ready to work. There was a boy about Jordan’s age who must have grown up with a wrench in one hand and an oil can in the other. He pitched in with the men to ready the machine and it was a little humbling for both Jordan and I, being city folk. But once things were rolling, Jordan did get to ride in the cab for a few passes. As he climbed back down to the ground, we scooped a handful of grain from the creases of that machine.

Buffalo hair

I hiked into the North Dakota Badlands in the dark to reach a specific view for a sunrise shot. Didn’t think much about it, really. But when the sun came up, we found that we had hiked between a couple sleeping buffalo. We were close. Uncomfortably close. I wasn’t thinking about souvenirs as much as just getting back to the truck alive. But on the hike out we passed a tree that had been used as a buffalo scratching post and plucked off some hair. I like to believe it was from the same buffalo that scared the crap out of me.


I keep coins from places we go. I’ve got a little change from probably 20 countries on three continents that I fully expect to spend when I go back. Then I’ll bring home more change.

More coins

I spent a blissfully simple week in 2013 as artist in residence at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. I stayed in a small little house and edited interviews, only leaving three or four times each day to stretch my legs and breathe some air. The small rural town was on an active train line and I was lulled to sleep each night by the rumble and clack of the freight trains that passed just a few blocks away. Each time I crossed the rails on my walks, I laid out a few coins, gathering the ones I could find on my next pass. Technically, I realize this cost me money.

Berlin Wall

Karen and I passed through Berlin in 1990. The wall had just come down and the mood was jubilant. Several of the wall sections had been destroyed completely. Some hauled off to museums. We stumbled upon one section commandeered by entrepreneurs. So, to be clear, we didn’t pay for the little chunks of the wall that are now in our living room. We paid to rent the hammer so we could chip them off.

Palm frond

2008. Disney World. Just outside Epcot Center. We were waiting for the gates to open for our third epic open to close day in the parks. The morning light was beautiful, the air still cool. I was seized by the lush splendor of the landscaping and I plucked a single palm frond. I wrapped it around my finger and carried it in my pocket all day. By the end of the day we were friends and I brought it home.


In Santa Rosa de Copan, there is a cigar factory. One of the oldest in the western hemisphere. After a day at the Mayan ruins of Copan, a friend and I wandered through the aromatic rooms of the Flor de Copan factory watching hands young and old rolling cigars. I don’t smoke ‘em…even if I got ‘em. But I did bring one home. If it ever was good, I’m sure it’s not by now.

We have tile shards from Mexico, shells from Florida, and driftwood shaped like a cell phone from Washington’s Pacific coast. There are wood shavings from a timber frame class on the shores of Lake Superior, mountain goat wool from the Canadian Rockies and little hand drawn Cuban flag from Havana.

My memories, my photos, and those little things in the box are all that I need. It costs nothing but a little thought.

Some of the things…I can’t remember what they are….but I know I would miss them if they were gone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s