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