Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

(Not so) epic pilgramage for my WIP, part 2


And here it is, part two of my epic pilgrimage to one of the places I’m “from.” When you live outside your country, far from home and surrounded by people different from you, not only does it change who you are, it also make you appreciate and reflect on your roots. Writing a novel set where you’re “from” enhances that feeling, haha.So I was pretty excited when I found myself unexpectedly back in the US, and I had a car and the time to drive up to my high school “hometown,” Sparta, Wisconsin, town of less than 10,000 just east of the Mississippi river, surrounded by dairy farms and next to Fort McCoy Army base. I stayed for just a night.

When I finally moved away from Sparta for the “big cities” of Milwaukee and then Madison, I felt like I was escaping a trap of tiny small-minded dreamlessness. I’d hated living there. But traveling quite a number of places around the world, then moving to Singapore, has changed me a lot (obviously) and made me really reflect on who I am I guess and the whole concept of where I’m “from” and what that means.

So going from Singapore….

photo-3 (10)back to Sparta…..

photo 1(1)So the interesting thing about this epic pilgrimage is that, for the first time really, I was returning to Sparta as a tourist. I don’t really have close friends there anymore and my parents moved away like five years ago, so here I am a tourist in a town I lived in to some degree for like 11 years. My back country road drive, complete with Amish buggies and lots of barns and corn fields and hills, helped me psychologically prepare for the return.

So Sparta…as a tourist….who lived there for a third of her life. I didn’t tell the farm B&B where I stayed or anyone else I encountered that I know Sparta like the back of my hand. So I had a targeted plan for my 24 hours in Sparta…scout out and photograph various settings I knew would be in Rafa & Rose. I visited Wal-Mart, and saw a few people who still worked there from my three years working there maybe 11 years ago. I drove by my high school. I wanted to go inside and look around, seeing as that’s one of the story settings, but I thought that might be creepy lol. I went to Memorial Park (football field, many baseball diamonds, home of 4th of July fireworks and Butterfest), the restaurant we always used to go to at all hours of the night, Evans-Bossard. Drove down the street I walked home from school on every day. Went on some familiar drives in and around town. I went to the town’s only cafe, Ginny’s Cupboard for some writing time. Thank God it’s still open. I always worried about that one. The only thing that seemed to survive in downtown Sparta when I lived there was the shoe store that had been there since forever, the many bars, and second-hand shops. I visited a few other parks and other memorable places. I did not brave the bar scene, even though I wanted to lol. Maybe next time. I spotted a few other people I recognized from my class, but I don’t think they put together who I was.

Without further ado, samples of my photographic journey to my high school hometown….

P1170670 P1170530 P1170533 P1170538 P1170543 P1170548 - Copy P1170549 - Copy P1170553 - Copy P1170550 - Copy P1170554 - Copy P1170555 - Copy P1170558 - Copy P1170572 P1170574 P1170575 P1170595 P1170612 P1170648 P1170646 P1170644 P1170651P1170629  P1170652 photo 1 photo(7)photo(10) photo(8)photo(14)  P1170658 P1170660 P1170662 P1170665P1170668 P1170677 P1170678 P1170679

So reflecting on my epic pilgrimage to my roots….. The whole thing was kind of weird. But interesting.I think I stood out; I didn’t look like a local. It’s hard to quantify what that means, but when I lived in Sparta, I would have been able to tell. Good reminder for Rose, who grew up in Sparta. Wow, people were so nice and helpful. Like everyone says hi and smiles. I went for a stroll in a park and people started conversations with me. Also a good note for my MS. Sitting in the local cafe and at that restaurant, listening to people’s conversations, helped bring me back, too. I also helped refresh my brain on dialect and general mentality. And waitstaff are so polite and, again, helpful. Not so much in Singapore lol. It’s really small and kind of dingy, there’s A LOT of pick-up trucks everywhere, Chevy pissing on Ford bumper stickers, and you see a fair amount of camo hats and shirts, but there’s a history, a beauty to it that I hope I captured in my pictures. Sparta (and towns like it all over America) has a simplicity and safety that I  miss living in Singapore (and even back home in Madison).

Even though I changed a lot since I lived there, my experiences and the culture helped shaped me to who I am today, Every place I’ve lived has played a role in that, obviously, but as I start reflecting on what impact this place had on me, and I think it’s not only an appreciation for how big and wonderful the world is, but also the value of a smaller, closer knit community, a love for getting out of the city and soaking in rolling corn fields, the meditative drive through the ridges on back country roads, running into people you know everywhere you go that reminds you that you’re important and you exist. The stars overhead, the occasional glimpse of the Milky Way, the smell of pine trees, all can create a sense of peace and connectedness that is lost in big cities.

Now to incorporate the essence of this setting and culture into Rafa & Rose.

14 thoughts on “(Not so) epic pilgramage for my WIP, part 2

  1. Charles Colp

    I think I need to go on a bit of a trip as well for one of my stories. I found a flaw in my writing, that has been nagging me for a while, which can only be solved by either writing about the very boring place I live, or a road trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose

    That experience of moving from small town to big city is familiar to me, too. We left tiny Coon Valley for St. Paul, then onto Milwaukee metro area. I remember that feeling of wanting to escape and being thrilled to live around other people, have nearby stores, and friends that were less than a mile away. Now in Turkey, I am grateful for all the various places I lived (albeit I never left the Midwest until I was out of graduate school) – rural, suburban, urban. But I can’t get the farm girl out of me. It keeps calling me back!


    1. sjoycarlson Post author

      I hear ya, Rose! Very similar moving pattern, too, though you ended up in Turkey and I ended up in Singapore. Rural WI, Milwaukee area, Sparta, back to MKE, Madison, now Singapore. But I suppose rural WI is our roots, shaped our formative years. Glad I’ve seen the world, but it’s nice to reflect on what shaped me 😀


  3. Joseph E Bird

    The feel of your small town is similar to the feel of mine, i.e., pickup trucks, Chevy/Ford stickers, lots of camo. Sparta Main Street is like our Main Street, and many small towns across the country, thanks to grants that let small towns build identical streetscapes. (A discussion for another day: Are our Main Streets becoming too homogenous? Are our towns losing their indigenous character?)

    I spent many years of my youth in Houston, Texas and went back decades later and explored the old neighborhood. You feel like a ghost walking through your past.

    It’s interesting, introspective, sad – and then you look ahead and keep moving on your journey.

    Thanks for your posts. I enjoy them, even if I don’t always comment or Like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sjoycarlson Post author

      Sorry I didn’t respond to this sooner! That’s so interesting about grants to build main streets identically! I never knew that. Yeah, I definitely felt like a bit of a ghost, and it was so weird encountering people who thought I was just a tourist when I know the town like the back of my hand. It was definitely all three–interesting, introspective, and sad. We’re definitely on the same page! I’m glad I did it. Not only good for research, I also got a bit of closure. Glad you enjoy the posts 😀


  4. S. R. Carrillo

    “When you live outside your country, far from home and surrounded by people different from you, not only does it change who you are, it also make you appreciate and reflect on your roots.” I feel you on this one. It’s a notion I never knew how to articulate, but this fits my feelings on the matter perfectly. I find myself contemplating little things, forgotten things, the parts that I had no idea were individual to my environment…

    Whoa. Nostalgia off this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sjoycarlson Post author

      I’m glad you could connect :). Yeah, you really don’t realize all those little things until you’re removed from them, both physically and chronologically. For me, it started as like a sociological analysis, but then got more personal when I actually went back. It was very interesting. But we gotta appreciate it all, good and bad, because it’s part of what made us who we are today.


    1. sjoycarlson Post author

      Thanks! That was a last minute add, too! Glad to here you relate. Recently read an article about how young people are leaving small towns in greater numbers because there just aren’t the jobs and prospects are better in bigger cities, which has always been the case, but apparently it’s gotten worse since the recession…. interesting.


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