Jana Richman One Woman's Meat: Notes from Escalante

Staying Home

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Hudson River, Loss, The Mind, The Place

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.

–George Moore

I have not traveled much. Over the years this fact has caused me a great deal of shame, but as I settle contentedly into middle age—calculated as if I plan to live beyond one hundred years—the shame of undone deeds sloughs off like snakeskin. It used to be that when those more experienced than I spoke of their travels—a topic that serves the conversation of my demographic in the same way health issues serves those thirty years my senior—I would mumble incoherently, afraid of revealing my nomadic shortcomings. Now, however, having gotten my insecurities down to a near-manageable simmer, I boldly yank the New York Times travel section out of the Sunday paper and stick it under the kindling in the wood stove.

One Sunday, though, before I could get the paper sufficiently scrunched up, a front page article written by Paul Theroux caught my attention with this sentence: “‘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.”  Really? The stay-at-homers are wagging fingers? Was he pointing at me? At this age, I try not to wag my finger at anyone for fear of losing it, but Theroux’s accusation left me literally cold as I abandoned my task of fire building to ponder his essay.

Over lunch one day, an acquaintance informed me that she considered travel an essential part of educating her children, a part she had taken seriously. I smiled and enthusiastically nodded my approval while she spoke of faraway places that had transformed her children from ordinary, ignorant Americans into fabulous, worldly-wise adults. I could find no point upon which to disagree with her, but a twinge of defensiveness edged along my spine as I translated her words: traveling equals wisdom; not traveling equals ignorance. Before and since that moment, my overactive hackles have been raised more than a few times in causal conversation with globe-trotting friends. It is possible no judgments are being thrust upon me beyond those I’m thrusting myself, but I suspect otherwise. “She’s never been anywhere!” friends exclaim when someone exhibits a less than enlightened attitude, clearly explaining the root of the problem as if stepping on a plane in Cincinnati and stepping off in Bombay immediately transforms one from a narrow-minded nitwit into Ghandi. It’s true that I can come up with an endless list of wise and wonderful people who travel broadly. But I can also name quite a few idiots who do.  I’m guessing the ratio in the non-traveling population might be about the same. Admittedly, I could be wrong.

But who, exactly, is the doing the finger wagging: Theroux’s know-it-all stay-at-homer or my crowing traveler? Likely both. But it matters not. As my astute husband once said to me, the fewer topics we insist on turning into moral issues, the better. Whether to travel or stay home can be, I suspect, easily removed from the category of “moral issue” if we choose to do so. And I do.

My parents never had the means to travel any farther than the Grand Canyon—reached by car in the middle of July with a kid hanging out every window to ward off heat prostration—so my siblings and I did not emerge from the nest in a cosmopolitan sort of way. I didn’t get a passport until I was in my 30s, and it expired before it was used. I didn’t use a passport until I was in my 50s because the only two countries I’d ever visited prior to that—Canada and Mexico—didn’t require one. I cling to my simple explanation—I can’t afford travel—which is not quite true. The truth is that I can’t afford to travel the way I would like to and I don’t like to travel the way I can afford to.

I like to travel deeply rather than broadly. It matters not to me that I’m able to produce a long list (or better yet, photos!) of the places I’ve been and the various things I’ve seen. A recent ten-day trip to Rome left me feeling like a pre-verbal child sitting in a corner fascinated with her rattle when the family dog snatches it away and runs out the door: frustrated and wanting to scream, “I wasn’t finished with that!”

Don’t get me wrong. Rome was filled with gasping moments of art, food, city roaming, more art, and more food. But that’s the problem—mere moments of being there juxtaposed with horrendous hours of getting there. In another article in the NYTs travel section (it can be tough to get that section wrestled into the stove) a travel writer described today’s first class air travel as only slightly less horrible than coach, a fact I cannot attest to, but I can attest to the dreadful experience of coach.

I’ll readily admit that one of my numerous neuroses is being trapped in an enclosed vessel with many of my species while we draw in and expel one another’s breathing air. The only thing worse is to put that vessel afloat on an ocean where one cannot escape for days; hence, my aversion to cruise ships. It’s not the germs that bother me—I’ll eat a piece of food off a dirty floor worry-free if I can get to it before the dog does—it’s the people. And it’s not that I don’t like people, but I like them to be appropriately spaced like, say, tomato plants in the garden. Two summers ago I learned that if tomato plants—or people—are too close, they become tangled in one another’s vines and drag one another into the dirt, thereby creating the perfect milieu for fleshy tissue, mold, and ant-infestation. This process can happen quickly and catch a person sleeping. A transatlantic flight is more than ample time.

I take comfort in the fact that my anti-travel neurosis dims in comparison to that of this blog’s inspiration, E.B. White, who was so averse to being in close proximity to an abundance of fellow humans, he missed his own wife’s funeral with full acceptance and understanding from his family and friends. I need family and friends like his.

So I ask myself, where might I go, what final destination (to give it a travelesque sort of tone) might provide me with the sophisticated maturity of one well traveled without the degradation inflicted on me at both ends of the episode? After thinking about that for a while, I revised the lofty goal of sophisticated maturity—likely out of my reach—to one of simple joy, and before long came up with the answer. It’s a location to which millions of people from all over the world annually arrive after subjecting themselves to hours of great discomfort and risk: Southern Utah.

In her recent book, My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir, Susan Fox Rogers writes, “I was handed the Hudson River when I moved to Tivoli [New York]. I did not choose the river, but I saw that I was lucky to have the Hudson to play on, to explore, to turn to for comfort.” She then proceeds to get to know the Hudson River. I mean really get to know it. She sits on its banks. She swims in its waters. Over the course of three years, she paddles north and south in her kayak exploring its islands, its industry, its history, its flora and fauna. She makes the treacherous paddle around Manhattan Island. She knows the birds that nest on the river’s islands; she knows the fish that swim in its depths. She knows the river’s tides, and she knows the river’s traffic. She knows where the rocks hide at low tide waiting to scrape the bottom of her kayak as she comes and goes from landings, and she knows where the deep shipping lanes are. She knows the river on windy days, sunny days, and cold days. She knows the river with ice floes, spatterdock, moonlight and dense fog. She insists on paddling at night to know her river “by feel, by scent.” She explores the crumbling icehouses of a bygone era along its banks, as well as the mansions and their various occupants through the years. She knows the PCB levels in the water. She’s come close to being crushed by a barge, and she’s seen a bloated body pulled from the river; she knows its dangers. And she knows the people who know the river better than she does.

I want to know my place—the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument—the way Rogers knows the Hudson River. Unlike Rogers, Steve and I did choose our place. We chose it because this was often our “final destination” when we had three days, one week, two weeks, a month—whatever time we could manage—to get away. We came here. Over and over, among the many travel choices we could have made, we returned to this place. Every time we came, we sank a little deeper into the desert. That’s when I realized I don’t want to travel broadly; I want to travel deeply.

Still, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the place I live. Rogers has inspired me to do otherwise as she did many years ago when she tapped me on the shoulder at the University of Arizona where we were both attending grad school and suggested we hike. From that point forward, I followed her up trails, over mountains, into the desert and into the woods. Still, I never knew Tucson or the surrounding desert and mountains the way she did. I suspect she’s known everyplace she’s ever lived in a way that few residents do.

I’ve been in Escalante three years now. It’s time to get to know my place. It calls me so strongly I yearn for it as one yearns for a lost love. It’s time to travel deeply into the deserts and canyons and allow them access into the depths of me. On the Hudson River, Rogers found solace for recent loss, gained compassion for the choices she’s made, and came away with an understanding of what anchored her to this world: love. Gifts bestowed upon her by the river, by traveling deeply into her place.

I may or may not be given gifts of equal value by traveling deeply into my place. I suspect the gifts depend more upon the person than the place. As Rogers has written, “By now I knew, of course, that if I loved the river, the river was indifferent to me.”  And therein lies the wonder of a place—it is indifferent to our pain, our fear, our prerequisites. And it is particularly indifferent to our love for it, which only makes us love it more. What a place offers depends, of course, upon what a person needs.

The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is vast. Getting to know it could easily take the rest of my life. I have set a travel goal for myself of simple joy. I am fairly sure my travel itinerary will exceed expectations.

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Comments (20)

  • Susan Fox Rogers

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    “I don’t want to travel broadly; I want to travel deeply.”
    That’s going to be my new motto.
    Beautiful piece of writing, Jana. I look forward to reading more about the journey into Escalante…(that is what this blog is all about, right?)

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, and thanks for the inspiration!

      Reply

  • Heidi M. Thomas

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    Lovely, Jana! Iike exploring different places, and I used to even enjoy the process of traveling to those places. Now, with air travel the way it is, I don’t enjoy that part of it any more. I’d like to just say “Beam me there, Scotty!” I’m currently at the end of a cross-country trip, 2900 miles in a 16-foot Penske rental truck! My husband and I combined a business trip with a semi-vacation, flew from home in WA and drove from CA to FL. We were thrilled to finally get rid of the truck today and get a “regular” car!

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Heidi. Wow, 2900 miles in a Penske rental truck! You have my sympathies. But it sounds a lot more enjoyable than air travel, I think.

      Reply

  • Carol Kracht

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    I never knew I could comment on your most enjoyable essays. Because of course I usually do not understand how to use links or computers much at all with out my kids here to show me! I am delighted that you have echoed my feelings in so many of them and can put it down in words that seem as if they could be mine, if only I could write! Now especially this one on travel, since I have no desire to do so other than on horseback with my beloved horses right here in this place, Escalante, which I have deemed is my heaven that somehow I accidentally stumbled upon. Perhaps sometime we will cross trails , you on foot and me on steed enthralled by the incredible land that surrounds us. Carol

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Indeed, Carol, I’m sure we will cross paths although there’s a lot of space out there. That’s the beauty of it, huh?

      Reply

  • Laura Crum

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    What a wonderful post. I love southern Utah–its one of my favorite places. And I share your love/desire of connecting intimately with the place I live (California’s Monterey Bay). My published books are all mysteries, but describing the setting in depth (a portrait of my beloved home in these hills) is my favorite part of the writing.

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Laura. I’ve only visited Monterey Bay once, but it was lovely. I guess that’s the draw to travel, isn’t it. There are so many beautiful places that we feel as if we miss something if we don’t try to see them all. But we can’t, so exploring the beauty at home calls.

      Reply

  • Julie Trevelyan

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    Beautiful, Jana, thank you. I’m much of the same mind about this area. Still trying to travel quite deeply into my desert home and discover all its wonders before I kick off. Thankfully, I think I have some years left to do just that. Because there is a whole lot of land to explore in southern Utah!

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Julie. There is a whole lot of land to explore in So Utah, but I’m sure our paths will cross at some point.

      Reply

  • Erin Treanor

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    Oh Jana! This is exactly how I feel. My sister, the world traveler, gives me grief all the time for not traveling. I just don’t want to. We live in the most interesting, awe inspiring place I could have ever hoped for. I just want to be here! Of course with raising our kids here I do worry that they will not be exposed to different cultures. I feel like it is an obligation to travel with them but perhaps if I change my outlook on them as well, they don’t have to live broadly, but deeply they too will get all they need out of life right here. Love this idea! Thank you!

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Erin. I think your and Dave’s kids will be just fine with or without travel. They’ll have the passion and wisdom of their parents.

      Reply

  • RJ Guiney

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    Hi Jana:

    Despite my insomnia, what a gift I got this early am – I discovered your blog! I was reading thru Steve’s musings on New Philosophers Stone and somehow ended up on “One Woman’s Meat”. Sweet!

    For the last 54 yrs, I have traveled broadly (48 states and 9 countries), and I’ve traveled deeply too. They have both been good, and are not mutually exclusive. None of the broad international or overseas trips have given me the depth of what I’ve discovered in the GSENM. Like you said – a simple joy can be found in the desert (or just about anywhere anyone of us is blessed enough to find it, I think).

    I’ve been drawn to your neck of the woods ever since my first visit there in 1981 ( maybe ’82?) The State of UT was just paving Hwy 12 between Torrey and Boulder a pal and I and I were on a fishing’ mission to Lower Bowns Reservoir, Blind Lake, Sand Creek, the Fremont River – wherever we could find trout. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I fell deeply in love with the Boulder Top, Calf Creek, and all the little farm towns down your way -they were way less developed 30 yrs ago. But the place is still largely unspoiled.

    I’ve had an annual “magnetic calling” to return there
    ever since then. In 2002 (or ’03?), I took my two preteen kids on the Boulder Mail Trail, we walked from Boulder to Escalante and they thought that was really cool. I’ll bet if I asked them now, they’d say it was probably even better than the two week trip we took to Italy last July!

    Eight years ago, around Easter time, I decided to travel “deeply” in the East Escalante area. After a divorce, I wanted to find out who I was and what the hell happened! A lot of healing happened as I car camped my way around the canyons.

    Even now, every time I return there and, a subtle transformation occurs. I love to walk deep into the canyon country between the Burr Trail and the Escalante River. I found an almost indescribable inner contentment there a few years ago – on a solo 30+ mile, 3 day walkabout between Deer Creek, the Escalante River, and the western edges of the Circle Cliffs. It was a bit dangerous, as I had forgotten my map and took uneeded risks. I pushed thru my fears and gained confidence as I went. When I arrived safely at my destination, the mouth of Little Death Hollow, I had something new – a trust in myself and knowledge that I would somehow know how to live.

    Since then, I’ve decided to specialize in that geographical area, to really get to know it. Deep down, I believe I really just wanted to return to the simple joy I kept on experiencing in So UT.

    In the summer of 2010, my partner and I decided to share a big celebration in Boulder, the nearest town. So we got married there, with 35 guests – family and friends who got to experience the magnificent GSENM. I hope that a few of them got to “travel deeply.”

    It’s spring and it’s time for transformation. I’ll be down there again soon – I love living outside in the 80 degree days and cool nights at 6000 ft. I want to walk, sit, camp, and perhaps fish. Mostly I just want to be happy and it comes easier in the desert.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to reflect on all this!

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thank you, RJ. Happiness does indeed come easier in the desert–at least for us desert rats. Thanks for sharing your experiences with travel and with this place. I love that the essay got you thinking about all of that and love that you took the time to share it.

      Reply

  • dan

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    another inspiring essay..I love the idea of traveling and living deeply..thanks for the reminder….dana

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Dana.

      Reply

  • David

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    Hi Jana,
    I greatly enjoy your writing, your thoughts, and your attitude/slant/take on traveling, staying home.

    Thank you.

    David

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, David.

      Reply

  • Tyson Steele

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    You hit this spot on. I just moved to Escalante a month ago for the same reason – “to travel deeply.” I don’t want to just “see” a place; I want to “live” there. I’m glad I found your blog.

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Tyson, and welcome to Escalante!

      Reply

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