“Don’t go to the places you’ve heard of … go to places you’ve never heard of that will challenge you.”
[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]hat I knew about Elisabeth Davis before meeting her: she is a retired English professor, married to a math professor; she currently writes and illustrates children’s books about puppies and donates all proceeds to “no kill” animal shelters.
“You really ought to meet a dear friend and client of mine,” a travel agent told me over the phone. “She’s my go-to person for Scotland; knows a lot more about the place than I do, and she writes and publishes children’s books. She’s also one of the most adventurous people I know.”
What I assumed about Elisabeth Davis after the phone call and before we met: she was a quaint, older, church-lady whose craft was homemade books and she dabbled every now and again in moderately exciting travel.
Boy, was I wrong.
Though she’d never word it this way, Elisabeth is the most unassuming, put-together, simultaneously badass female adventurer I know. And the children’s books? They sell like hot cakes and have even sold internationally.
I did get one thing right – she IS a church lady, but I’ll be damned if making assumptions about quiet church ladies didn’t (once again) lead me astray. This good one didn’t die young.
What is it that intrigues you about Scotland? Are you Scottish?
Yes, my family is Scottish, but before I went as an adult, I’d never been. My mother was raised on the Scottish island of Arran where her mother was the schoolmistress of a one-room schoolhouse. In that one room she taught children of all ages.
Kind of like the schoolhouses from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?
Anyway, my grandmother did that and also earned a masters degree in a day and age when not many women did. I imagine this must have been in the early 1900’s because my mother was born in 1914. My father’s parents were both Scots but they moved to the states before my father was born. So, my father was born in Pennsylvania to a Scottish coalminer and his wife.
How did your mom and dad meet?
Well, my father’s father saved money so my father could attend graduate school in Glasgow. At the time, my mother was also attending the Glasgow medical college in Scotland. They met as students together there.
Where did you grow up?
My mom, dad, younger sister and I were a displaced Scottish family in New Mexico. (Elisabeth’s father’s occupation was kept top secret, and the family didn’t know what exactly he did for years. Turns out, her dad was a draftsman who designed missiles for the U.S. government. He used to golf on the grounds of Los Alamos, which the family thought was pretty cool, but they didn’t read much into it.) My paternal grandparents lived with us, too. I was raised on stories of vast, green land and rocky seacoasts all told in Scottish accents. Meanwhile, we lived in tumbleweed city where everything was red, dry dirt.
When did you take your first trip to Scotland? How old were you?
In 1994, when I was 43. My eldest daughter had just graduated high school and we toured around for three weeks together.
What gave you the inspiration to take the trip?
First, at the age of 39, and with three young children, I had a stroke. This was the result of a genetic arteriovenous malformation or “weakness in the veins.” The doctors said most people who have this type of stroke die on the spot. I lived but suffered from numbness in the arm and a hemorrhage that could re-occur. In order to correct the condition and save my life, I had to make the decision to undergo an operation with a one-in-four chance of not waking up. During that difficult period, I remember thinking one thing I’ve never done, and always wanted to do is go to Scotland.
Second, I have always followed my heart. And when my children were old enough, and after that life-changing experience, my heart said, “Go to Scotland.” I’ve been 14 times since.
What was it like to visit after hearing about Scotland for so many years?
It was like traveling to go home.
You said, “I have always followed my heart.” I’ve heard a lot of adventurous women say similar things. Can you give me another example of following your heart that isn’t travel related?
Raising a family. After my first child, my husband was in graduate school. I wanted to stay home with my child but this meant decreasing our income to a third of what it was and to a point where it wasn’t always easy to get by. I asked myself, “Do I want to invest in my finances or my family?” My heart chose the latter, and I’ve never regretted it. It helps that I have a fully supportive husband.
Did your heart tell you to retire and write children’s books?
Well, no — not exactly. It told me when it was time to retire, but the book writing was something that took off on its own.
I paint watercolor in an art studio. One holiday, I was illustrating a story I’d written as a Christmas present for my grandchildren about a family dog, Harley. Harley, The Throwaway Puppy is an inspirational story of the amazing rescue puppy they adopted who became a champion dog in agility training. One of its main themes is where you start out in life doesn’t have to be where you end up. Other painters in the studio asked about it and wanted a copy, some wanted two or three copies. I was surprised and so I self-published something like 100 copies – which was the minimum that I could purchase. I thought I’d sell ten and be left with 90, but they sold out almost immediately!
That’s amazing! And you say you visit schools to read and talk about your books to schoolchildren?
Yes! That’s been a great joy. Usually people will have read my book or purchased it for their child, and then they contact me and ask if I’ll visit their child’s school to talk about what it’s like to write a book, and I get to share Harvey’s story.
How did you get the idea to donate all proceeds to “no-kill” animal shelters?
Well, it just didn’t feel right to profit from these books. Harley is the inspiration. I wanted the money to support amazing animals like her.
Getting back to your travels, do your travels inform your writing at all?
I’d say so. I have one book about Border Collies in Scotland, but mostly they’re similar because it’s all done in the same spirit — the writing, the traveling, the watercolors, they all happen because I follow my heart.
People must ask this question a lot, and even though I understand Scotland’s significance to you I’m going to ask anyway: why do you always travel back to the same place?
Yes, I do get that, and, in a sense, I don’t. Scotland is a very diverse country. It has rocky mountainous hill as well as palm tree islands. There’s so much to explore. I’m always going somewhere new.
Also, since I’ve started seriously traveling, my husband and I have been to other places, including Germany, the Galapagos Islands, Mexico and the Czech Republic, to name a few.
At what age would you say you started “seriously traveling?”
Probably after retirement, which was a while after that first trip with my daughter at 43.
Tell me about some adventures you’ve been on.
Well, at one point my husband and I got this idea to rent a 70 x 6’ riverboat to travel through canals of Wales. They give you a 10 to 15 minute lesson on how to navigate this extremely long, skinny boat and then let you loose. The scariest part was going over narrow aqueducts, which were a hundred feet up in the air and didn’t have railings!
Another thing I like to do is pick a place that is a challenge to get to and then figure out means of getting there. One time I visited the Shetland Islands. You have to take all sorts of planes and boats to get there, but once you’re there you can rent a car and drive out into the middle of nowhere to find wild ponies who will walk right up to you! Now, where else can you do that?!
Also — don’t go to places that you’ve heard of. Save those. Go to places you’ve never heard of that will challenge you. I fully encourage something I call “thumbprint travel.” Pick a big general region and then stick your thumb on the map and go to where it lands. If you can’t figure out how to get there, do whatever you can to investigate a way. You’ll encounter undreamed-of, unusual things, and I like unusual things.
How long do you typically stay at these thumb print destinations?
After getting there, at least a week, but preferably at least two.
Rent a cabin and stay in that place a while. That’s the only way to know it.
What is your dream travel?
I would LOVE to rent a gypsy caravan with a horse pulling it and travel all around Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Have you planned a next adventure?
Yes, it’s this summer. My church choir is doing a choir tour. We’ll be traveling all around Ireland. Before the tour and before the big group arrives, a friend and I have hired a man with a pony cart to give us a tour around Irish countryside.
Do you have any more advice for aspiring travelers?
Well I’ve already said follow your heart. Next, do the unusual! I like the unusual. There is always something to discover.
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Elisabeth Davis has written four books since her original: Harley, The Throwaway Puppy. Her books are also available on Amazon or as ebooks for kindles. She also paints animal portraits upon request. All proceeds are donated to animal rescue charities, primarily “no kill” shelters. If you would like to view her work, contact her or purchase one of her books visit her website or her work’s Facebook page.