In a few weeks, I’ll be participating in a panel about travel writing, a topic I’ve given a lot of thought to lately.
At first I wondered if the reason people write about travel can be explained as easily as snapping a picture of a new and unusual place; a moment to bring home and share with friends and family, a paper souvenir. It seems logical enough to try to capture the intimate feelings and occasional discomfort of traveling alongside the scenery, a task that writing easily lends to better than a point and shoot. I wondered if travel writing was about creating layers.
Before our recent trip to Bryce National Park, I read about a Kaibob reservation resident who explained the legend of the park to a naturalist in 1936.
He explained that Bryce was once inhabited by the Legend People; birds, lizards, and other animals disguised as people. Although the legend is unclear after years of oral storytelling, the Legend People angered their coyote leader and he turned the great city and its inhabitants to stone. The magnificent hoodoos of Bryce National Park are all that’s left of the Legend People.
“You can see them in that place now all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others. You can see their faces, with paint on them just as they were before they became rocks. The name of that place is Angka-ku-wass-a-wits (red painted faces). This is the story the people tell.” -Paiute Elder, Indian Dick, 1936
Although I can’t say I saw the faces of the infamous Legend People in the red rocks, I can say that there is something other-worldly about Bryce. Midnight blue Pinyon Jays lit from pine trees to pieces of desert deadwood. Bright red Indian Paintbrush flowers and Blue Flax grow between bits of rock and sand, and it seems impossible that such flowers can thrive in such a dry environment.
And as we drove out of Bryce Canyon and the scenery rolled by on the other side of the window; open fields with small houses, forgotten construction sites, a dust devil, I started to daydream about a short story and a character named Angeline with a red rock petroglyph spiral on her shoulder. Suddenly the landscape was alive in a different, imaginary way. The canyon had spoken.
Places can speak to us. As my husband ran up and down the slick rock at Canyonlands, I shook my and watched him jog along the rock ledge, dangerously close to loose rocks, dark, cavernous-looking hiding holes, and of course the steep precipice on the other side of his hiking boots. I bit my nails and distracted myself by taking pictures, telling myself he’d be down in a few minutes, he’s done it before, he knows what he’s doing, the ledge only looks narrow from down here, and all the other life-preserving half-truths we tell ourselves to feel in control of a situation.
One of our guides watched him running along the edge and sighed. “The desert is speaking to him,” she said.
I realized then that movement must speak to my husband as strongly as the stillness of a place speaks to me. In that stillness, I’m collecting thoughts, feelings, impressions, smells, sounds, tastes, all the photo-worthy physical things and the things that can’t be explained, and maybe it’s for the same reason he needs to move and run to truly experience a new place that I need to write about it.
In Susan Crandall’s most recent novel, Whistling Past the Graveyard, she includes a note to readers at the novel’s conclusion. People often ask her how she managed to capture the experience of the south in the 1960s even though she’s not a native southerner. She explains that writers are like sponges, soaking up details about people and places until they are fully saturated. Maybe that’s why writers write about travel; we’re wringing our sponge for the next trip.