Friday, June 19, 2020

Seeing the sights

We took every precaution we could. We eschewed hotels for our camping trailer. We prepared nearly all our meals ourselves. We picked parks that were less popular because they were so out-of-the-way, and we hit the hiking trails early. We wore masks, washed hands, avoided people.

In truth, the trip to Colorado we’d planned long before COVID-19 changed everything had been largely the same as what we ended up with, other than the masks. (I rather like the masks, frankly. My resting bitch face can stay at rest.) We wanted to get away. Of course, that’s pretty much the purpose of most leisure travel, getting away, being somewhere else and doing something different. At least, that’s what people start out envisioning. I get the feeling that leisure travel sometimes is the fun version of “your house is on fire and you have five minutes to grab the things you value most: what do you take?” What stays the same when you travel is perhaps even more significant than what changes. There are Winnebagos with bathtubs and cable TV, after all, and no matter how remote the park or unpeopled the hiking trail, I guarantee you’ll come across an empty plastic bottle that, its hyper-sweetened contents consumed, simply could not be carried one second farther.

Well, it took a whole two paragraphs for me to become cranky and misanthropic again. I guess I’m still in vacation mode. In truth, I had a hard time getting into “vacation mode” this time, getting out of the funk of obsessing over the terrible things going on in the world. Even when we were out of communication range from other people, petty annoyances popped up like boils: The discarded beverage container, the dog poop carefully bagged and then left there on the trail, the hikers ahead of us who somehow thought everyone who comes to the wilderness is dying to hear someone else’s musical choices broadcast far and wide. Why is it those people always have the worst musical taste? No matter how insistent you are on focusing on the beautiful and avoiding the ugly, seeing a big blue banner on a flagpole promoting the reelection of the stupidest person ever to hold public office is difficult to ignore.

And we shouldn’t ignore it, of course. Ideally, travel is supposed to open your eyes, not put blinders on them. But boy, are blinders ever tempting sometimes—or, if not blinders, binoculars and an appropriate distance.

During our long drives from here to there, we enjoyed hours of comfortable silence, engaging conversation, classic rock, and an audiobook. The book was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, in part because it was enormously fun, with an excellent reader who put some real “ARRR!” into it, but also because the only audiobooks I listen to are 19th century adventure and mystery novels. Contemporary fiction and I have had a serious falling out. With writing from a century and a half ago, I find it easier to deal with icky moments. I’m an outsider, with the delicious privileges that come therewith. I know a book from that era is going to be racist, sexist, and more. When a character makes some wince-worthy reference to phrenology in deadly earnest, I can chuckle and shake my head and thank science we’ve put that particular bit of nonsense to rest. But when a wildly popular modern-day author takes a grotesquely hateful social stance, there can be no chuckling. These issues are live. Nothing’s been put to rest.

Travel, to another time or place, gives us distance, and thus seems to give us difference. We feel different, we do different things. And yet I come back to the house on fire: what have we taken with us? What stays the same? And I guess my takeaway is what stays the same is I’m not an outsider. This is still my world, my human race, as much as I’d like to ditch all that some days. I suppose that’s a lesson worth learning even if it means picking up that empty bottle someone else discarded, realizing that won’t solve the problem of empty bottles left on trails, but knowing you can’t walk by without seeing it.