My Favorite Notebook

What movie had the biggest impact on your life?

If you’d asked me yesterday I probably would have told you something like Poltergeist. I watched that movie with my dad when I was seven and hardly slept again until I could legally drink. The last four places I’ve lived were completely without bedroom closets, and I’d be lying if I said there was no connection.

Or perhaps I’d have pointed to Man of the House with Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. After watching that I spent the next ten years trying to pull off Jonathan Taylor Thomas’s cool-guy attitude and his haircut.

But the truth — which I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this — is that the movie which has had the most powerful impact on my life is one that I hardly remember anymore.

I was ten the first time I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and now, nearly two decades later I recall just two things: The fight scene where Indie throws a man out of a zeppelin and tells onlookers it was because the guy had “No ticket”, and the grail diary. Dr. Henry Jones senior’s Grail Diary was a battered leather-bound book in which he’d recorded every clue gleaned from his lifelong quest to find the Holy Grail. Its pages were filled with notes and sketches from a hundred different adventures in places all around the world.

What is it about the leather-bound notebook that’s so powerfully linked to the life of the traveler? Even now when I see one on the shelf at a book store I’m transported to places yet unseen. Gypsied away to the heat and chatter of a bustling Turkish market square, or to an Amazonian lodge when the rains are about to come and electricity is in the air. Not unlike real books, notebooks have a special power all their own. From the moment I saw that book I wanted one of my own. Perhaps more importantly, I wanted to lead the kind of life that could fill those pages.

I must have talked about it endlessly because on the morning of my eleventh birthday I unwrapped a beautiful leather-bound sketchbook.

“Dear Ethan,” a note on the very first page read, “Thought you could use a place to record all your adventures! Love, Mom & Dad”.

That simple gift changed the direction of my life forever.

It’s not easy to lead a life of adventure. Going places means you have to leave other places behind, and when those other places are filled with the people you already know and love it’s hard to make the move. It’s much easier on the heart (and the wallet) to simply dream of faraway places.

But when someone hands you an empty notebook, they are in a way telling you “go”. They’re telling you to get out of your head and into the world. They’re telling you it’s okay to leave them, so long as you bring back a story from out there. And once you have an empty notebook, you can’t very well leave it empty. An empty notebook is a constant reminder of all that you haven’t done.

Your life changes when you have an adventure journal to fill, even if you’re just a kid — especially if you’re just a kid. At least a couple of times a day you find yourself pausing to think about whatever it is you’re doing, wondering does this count as an adventure? Can this go in the book? I began looking for adventure everywhere, if only to have something to write down.

And of course the secret, that only eleven-year-olds with empty adventure notebooks and even emptier bank accounts learn, is that adventure can be found anywhere. Even the most remote jungles are home to someone. Far-off mountains lie in someone else’s backyard, and somewhere there’s a little kid who’s bored of seeing that same Turkish market square every day. They dream of a far-away place that looks just like your backyard. And so it’s not the setting, but the mindset that makes for an adventure.

Those early experiences, scrounging for excitement in the bushes around my house, shaped me as a traveler. But I don’t think it’s necessary to start young. Just that you should have an empty notebook.

And if you’re in the market for a notebook of your own, you could hardly do better in my opinion than the Canson 180 artbook. I won’t pretend to be an expert on paper. I don’t know what acid-free really means. But there’s one thing I do understand and that’s writing in awkward places. In the years since my eleventh birthday I’ve been lucky enough to scrawl notes while holed up on the floor of a frozen mountain shelter while snow piled up outside, and in the back of a truck in the jungle. I’ve made do with the desks in a hundred hotels and motels, and with the balcony of the Queen Mary II as she made her way from New York to England. I’ve written by firelight, and head-light, in the rain, and after not seeing rain for a month.

Write in enough places and you begin to appreciate the little things. The Canson 180 is the first notebook I’ve ever found that will not only open but lie perfectly flat on every single page. There’s no awkward grappling with the binding or paper in order to keep it open. Simply lay it down, and put pen to paper. They accomplish this using a unique technology called a “coptic” binding and it’s truly remarkable. I’ve been carrying one every day since September of 2015, when I left for a month on the Appalachian Trail. That notebook lasted more than six months before I finally filled it, and went with me everywhere from the southern states to posh English country estates, rural France, Mexico, and many places in between.

After so long on the road, as you can imagine, the notebook had seen better days. The people at canson were nice enough to send me a brand new one so that I could photograph it. But lest you think this is just a product plug, you should know this — I was in France when my first notebook ran out. The replacement they sent me was six-thousand miles away in my home in the US. Rather than waiting a week to pick it up when I was home, I walked to the nearest art shop and spent $25 to replace it then and there. All told I’ve spent well over a hundred dollars on these notebooks, and plan to continue spending that money for as long as they continue to work, which based on my experience so far seems to be forever.