by Jana Richman
Featured in The Fourth River
Home is like religion. Sensibly you understand the need for it, yet not even sensible people can explain it.
I have not traveled much. In my demographic—middle-aged, middle-class, educated liberal—my nomadic shortcomings are seen as piteous, bordering on disgraceful. I’ve heard the refrain used to explain the full range of human failings: She’s never been anywhere! At the root of most problems, apparently, lies travel negligence—as if stepping on a plane in Cincinnati and off in Bombay immediately transforms one from a nitwit into Ghandi.
Upon discovery of my travel vacuity, an acquaintance once told me that she considered travel an essential part of educating her children, thereby implicating not only my dereliction but also that of my parents. I nodded my approval while she rattled off names of distant places that had, through the years, transformed her children from ignoramuses into perceptive young adults. I could find no point upon which to disagree, but a twinge of defensiveness edged along my spine.
When I was seven, my family took a car trip from our rural Utah home to the Grand Canyon in the middle of July—a thousand miles with a kid hanging out every window to ward off heat prostration. Another year, we did Yellowstone Park in much the same manner. That was the extent of my parents’ education-through-travel curriculum.
Upon moving first to Salt Lake City and later to New York City, I learned that low mileage is not valued in humans as it is in automobiles. Still, back in the day when photos were kept where they belong—in a cardboard box stuffed in the back of an overburdened closet until a family death demands transference—one could circumvent the conversation. Now, photographic proof of travel—clearly as essential as the travel itself—is portable. It can be (and is) in your face instantly and often.
A while back, an essay in the New York Times by inveterate traveler Paul Theroux caught my attention with this statement: “‘Don’t go there,’ the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place. I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice.” I don’t know in what sort of social circles Theroux moves, but I’ve never met a stay-at-homer who had a fighting chance in a finger-wagging match with a swaggering globetrotter.
Filled with righteous indignation, I mentioned Theroux’s reproach to my husband, who astutely replied, “the fewer topics we insist on turning into moral issues, the better.” Such a philosophy can ease many of life’s annoyances, but in this case I’m compelled to take a moral stand. I speak for non-voyagers shrinking in corners of cocktail parties and ducking the words lobbed in their direction—Have you been? Oh, you haven’t? But you must!—while nearby the host flaunts the Donggang Boat Burning Festival as her entry into the unofficial and omnipresent best travel story contest, and two other guests jovially compete for worst taxi ride with Mexico City and Moscow.
I often choose that precise moment to shift the conversation to the next most popular topic at such parties—buying local, eating local, living local—which most can speak about with equal aplomb and nary a note of conflict. Even on that particular topic there remains a note of superiority in the voices of the well traveled, as if one can appreciate living locally only if one has been endowed with the sensibilities derived from traveling extensively. An editor at an esteemed eastern newspaper recently wrote to say, “I’m not sure the idea of living locally and . . . travel are really at odds,” and the only response I could rouse was, “I’m not sure why you’re not sure.” What part of the living-locally doctrine condones continent hopping on transatlantic flights?
Air travel spreads disease, consumes massive amounts of fossil fuels, leaves sun-blocking pollution in otherwise clear skies, and spews greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at levels that, according to a 2010 MIT study, kill an estimated 10,000 people a year. Yet we hop on airplanes with full confidence in the merit of our actions.
I haven’t always been so disagreeable on the issue of travel. My first inclination when chided for my behavior is to assume that there are right ways to live a life and wrong ways to live a life, and I’m probably doing it wrong. I grew up in a small, blue-collar town sheltered by a dominant religion. I didn’t manage to find my way to college until my late 20s, and then didn’t manage to follow up with graduate school until my 40s. By all generally accepted standards of measuring a good life, I need guidance. So, as directed, I’ve taken a trip or two to broaden my horizons.
Most recently, my husband and I took the quintessential Roman holiday; I was Audrey Hepburn and he was Gregory Peck. We walked rainy cobblestone streets, soaked up art and architecture and history, spent a day with the Catholics, and gorged on great food. And we enjoyed every minute of it. Did I pick up a little knowledge, a little culture? Certainly. Am I a better person for having “done” Rome? Probably not. Nor did I arrive home ready to join the masses in unfettered celebration of the goodness of travel.
When questioned about my lack of mileage accumulation, I resort to a short, conversation-ending lie: I can’t afford to travel. (That will not work, by the way, with your proud budget-traveler who will whip out a smartphone, pull up Airbnb.com, and hand you a 30-day European itinerary to fit even the smallest budget.) The truth is that I’m not interested in competitions that tally up continents and countries and colorful passport stamps. I care nothing about producing a long list (and photos!) of the places I’ve touched down upon the earth. I want to be able to feel a place. So that what begins as me entering the place transforms—in turn and in time—into the place entering me. I want to experience the slight shift in consciousness and the small opening of the heart that almost any place can offer if we pause long enough to allow it.
According to National Park Service surveys, the average time a visitor spends experiencing the Grand Canyon—the one-mile deep and 277-mile long magnificent gash in the earth—is seventeen minutes. Seen. Done. At lower Calf Creek trailhead in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—often found on the same itinerary as the Grand Canyon—visitors check watches and cell phones and run time/distance calculations in their heads. They can make it to Calf Creek falls, snap the iconic photo—a waterfall in the desert—and be slithering through the lustrous pink walls of a slot canyon by afternoon. Once they have dispatched one or both of those things, the Monument can be checked off. Three more nearby national parks await, so square the place up through a lens; you can see it later on a computer screen. Those thousand-year-old pictographs? Imagine how great they will look magnified, cropped, and photoshopped.
People chatter and scurry along Calf Creek trail and puff with pride when passing dawdlers like me. Having reached the falls and started back, they excitedly report the presumed destination ETA—Almost there! Thirty more minutes!—never doubting that speed and efficiency are universal human values.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is my place. I live here. I avoid Calf Creek during the busiest and nosiest months, but the trail goes dormant in winter. In the silence and solitude of those frigid days, I am lured off trails, into side canyons, and over boulders to the highest smooth canyon walls. There, I sit in the sand, face to the sun, back against the rock upon which an ancient painted figure—boxy and black with red arms—hovers above my head. He is surrounded by painted and etched hands and joined by two more red figures on a nearby wall. From my perch, I can see, on a high ledge across the canyon, a granary in immaculate condition, impossibly inaccessible to the clumsy people we have become.
Few visitors have been here. It’s not marked on any map or noted in any guidebook. It is found by happenstance, by aimless wandering, by frittering away time. In much the same manner, my husband and I once happened upon a relatively untouched domicile and found thousand-year-old corncobs lying in the dirt. That’s my education through travel. It was the first time I fully understood the enormous impact of the garbage I’ll leave behind on the earth. Archeologists are thrilled by what the corncobs tell them about the Fremont Indians, the canyon’s former occupants, but I’m thinking future humans—if there are any—will be less thrilled by what trails behind me.
If I settle myself into stillness, breathe slowly and deeply, I can feel the lives lived in this place. A deep truth resonates here, an inner rumbling that links the story of every human to the next human and every species to every other species, but we’re moving too quickly and buzzing too loudly to get it.
To those who would accuse me of romanticizing place and people, I would ask only that you sit still and quiet in this place—or your own place—for an extended period of time. The wonder of a place is its indifference to us—to our pain, our fear, our prerequisites. Such indifference is a gift, a teacher. Without it, we consider ourselves the center of the universe. We need places like this to tell us otherwise, and they don’t speak loudly.
We have sacrificed something crucial in the last thousand years. As modern humans, we’ve chosen compartmentalization over fullness, the pieces over the whole. We’ve broken life into parts, placed the mind in the brain, separated brain from body, pulled apart body and soul, and ripped ourselves away from nature to occupy the throne of dominion.
Many of us live with a sense of unrest as we try to understand and assemble our disparate parts, as we attempt to puzzle them back into a whole life. We travel to gather bits of experience that are supposed to make us more or better than we currently are, and we seek spirituality as a consumer product. We enthusiastically sign up for the Buddha Circuit Tour and jet off to view the place Buddha sat in stillness for a full forty-nine days. Sitting under a panel of rock art, I find good reason to appreciate the whole lives of those who sat here before me. I doubt they yearned to conquer five continents, let alone other planets. I question whether yearning was part of their lives at all.
I have often wondered if staying for me is a circumstance of fate. Had I been blessed with financial means would I be one of the widely traveled sharing stories at cocktail parties? I suspect not. An indefinable combination of life’s offerings and deficits brought me here, and I want to know why my homing device is set to the coordinates of dark sandstone canyons. My knowledge of this place is the depth of a rain puddle, yet somehow I know that my understanding of this place is fundamental to my understanding of this life. Both of those things may be out of my reach, but the pursuit seems worthy nonetheless.
I want the wisdom this place offers—not to make me more knowledgeable but to make me more whole—to fill the gaps in my being. On my darkest days, the days when my anxiety surges, the days when I believe the message of my modern brain: a full bank account is the path to peace—on those days I travel. Not to Myanmar, not to Tanzania, but to this place—a spot in the sand below a black shaman with red arms—because this is where my modern brain is quieted by my ancient soul. And it whispers stay, listen.