Erica Wheeler: inspiring connections between people and place

September 2012/ Be a Sense of Place Sleuth

September 2012 Be a Sense of Place Sleuth
September 2012
How to Be a Sense of Place Sleuth

When I am on the road, I try to find places that feed my soul no matter where I am. After 20 years as a touring artist, I've become sort of a “sense of place sleuth.' I'm so greedy about picking up brochures at visitor centers that I've been called an "info-maniac." And with the Internet now, it's a no-brainer to find out what's cool about a particular place.

After my last feature article, "Take Five and Sense Your Place," a friend of mine called and asked, "What if you hate everything about where you live and when you tune into it, it feels horrible." I understand. I really do. We've all been places that felt like that.

(On one hand, I want to say that's good. It's “information.” At least she was aware her place was, in her words, "soul sucking." What's even more troubling to me is when people are completely disconnected. How are we ever going to make better choices about taking care of places if we're not tuned into places?)

My friend described where she lived as the "armpit of America." (Ouch.) I was sure it wasn't that bad. Even in the worst places, there's ways to find little treasures that sooth your soul. And for me, one thing that really helps me feel more grounded and connected to a place is to learn something about the layers of time that make up that place.

I told her I'd send her a list of things to do.

I started with MapQuest and saw there were some state parks all around her. I Googled them. Some were really heavy on recreation and looked like a string of lakes with powerboats, golf courses and campgrounds packed with RV's. Not my first choice for a peaceful retreat. But there was one that was 5,000 acres and had a lot of hiking trails.

Group Outings
I know that it can be a little sketchy to hike alone in the woods in areas so close to urban centers, so I looked at the 'events' page and saw there were several hikes led by rangers. If she didn't want to invite a friend, I suggested she try one of those. (We go on led hikes where I live all the time -- it's a way to learn new trails, learn about whatever topic the trip is focusing on, and meet new people.)

There was a park that was on a river, and when I looked at their event page, I saw the Sierra club had a kayak trip there almost every weekend.

The Cool Part of Town
Next I looked up vegetarian cafes and independent bookstores, because that always leads to a historic or college part of town where you can get healthy food and browse boutiques. She said there were no vegetarian restaurants in her area, but on this site I found hundreds

Next I looked up museums and found there were several within a 40 minute drive. There were art museums, historic museums and even a Native American museum. All of which had talks and events.

The Layers of Time
Next I went to Wikipedia to learn about the natural and cultural history of her town and surrounding towns. This helped me see a timeline for how everything unfolded in her area. Putting together the pieces, I was starting to get a sense of her place.  

I can guarantee you that where she lives is nothing like an armpit. After all my research, now I really want to visit her!

Even when a place feels very developed or sterile, it has a history. That may not be apparent on the surface, but with a little sense of place sleuthing, there are always treasures to be found.

Of course, sometimes places that sound good turn out to be only a sad promise of their former selves: stream side trails covered with litter and oily, filmy water. Historic sites paved over for mini-malls or fenced in and surrounded by a rushing super-highway. What's also true is there are still a lot of soul-filled places left to see and experience, often within a half hour of where you live.

The best part of all is the note she wrote me afterwards.

She told me she went to the 5,000-acre park and went for a hike. She saw a historical sign and for the first time actually stopped to read it. When she got back to the parking lot, there were two women unloading kayaks. She noticed their car had a website for outdoor adventures for women. She struck up a conversation and is going to sign up for a trip next month.

Wherever you live, there is a history, both natural and cultural. And you can discover it through your computer or newspaper, and then just beyond your front door. You'll find places you never knew about or see familiar places through new eyes. I know it can be intimidating to visit a place you don't know, but most places have tours and events. You’ll meet new people, and who knows, you might even see me there, with all the events I’ve been doing lately at parks and museums!

Where do you live? What have you found that is cool or soulful to do? I’d love to hear from you. Post a comment below!

updated: 1 year ago