I recently returned from a three week trip through the western United States, staying mostly in Utah with a bit of Colorado sprinkled in. We were there to run whitewater (duh), and my brother and I ran the Colorado through Westwater Canyon and then joined up with a bigger group who had a permit to run the Gates of Ladore section of the Green River in Utah. I will write more about these later, but suffice it to say that we had a spectacular time.
On the way there we stopped in Price, Utah for a night, and the hotel we stayed at – the Greenwell Inn – felt like a slice of life from 1975, complete with rooms we could walk right into (no attempts at controlling access through stairs or interior corridors), an indoor pool (in the middle of the desert, which is pretty 70s in and of itself, but with no attempts to open it up to the outside), and an interior common lobby that was all black marble and highly polished wood.
The connected restaurant – the Tangerine Eatery – also speaks to that general retro feel, but with a California flair. The food choices didn’t match the traveler’s stereotype of Utah, and its gun metal steel corrugated walls with photos and paintings from local artists didn’t match stereotypes either. The food was delicious, the hotel clean and comfortable and a nice break from the road, and the vibe I got from the place – a convention center in Price, Utah, miles away from “everything”? – made me recalibrate my expectations.
It also made me think of the ways in which travel can sanitize expectations, of culture and history and damn near everything. I recently read an impassioned plea to make places more than mere synecdoches in Lapham’s Quarterly, and my brief experience with Price (and other Utah towns not named Moab, a form of sprawl that might actually be a mere representation) made me think of the ways that I instill my own shallow vision of local history on the places I travel.
This is all long-established territory for travel writers. In particular, Pico Iyer argued for the need for travel, and for writing about it, building on the work of generations of travel writers, and the standards he establishes felt especially difficult to live up to as I started to write this post. His emphasis on maintaining what feels like to me a precarious balance between opening ourselves up to the world without becoming cultural relativists struck me as a balancing act that I routinely try to perform, with limited success. Acknowledging the degree to which my lived experience makes seeing how a location has opened me to the world requires a degree of stepping away that seems to me to have the potential to nullify the validity of my own travel writing experience. Price is an excellent example – even as a fellow American, how can I understand what living in a place that feels very different from where I grew up means to how one views life? I struggle to write the name of the town without identifying the state it is located in, a difficulty that reifies my own conception of what the USA looks like.
I do not think that my attempt to locate this experience in American history is in and of itself disqualifying of me as a travel writer – my guess is that instead it requires me to not judge but to observe and describe. Therein lies another difficulty, of course – of the millions of possibilities, what do we choose to further expound upon? Do we acknowledge the sun-dried folks in the beat-up RV, concretizing the view we may have of them from other non-direct sources and furthering stereotypes that may have some grounding in reality? Do we focus on the kind, funny lumberyard manager who helped us figure out a way to reinforce a critical part of the equipment that we would need on the next stage of our journey? Do we try to recreate the life of a lone middle-aged woman doing her laundry in the middle of the night, a sight I only saw because of my own insomnia and which may be either completely normal or a one-in-a-time aberration? All of these stories are equally valuable and part of the greater tapestry, but there is only so much time to pick one to focus on, and the others necessarily get missed…
Don’t get me wrong – travel is a joy, and our trip was life-changing, as are they all. What I’m trying to do in this piece is to not shirk responsibility for seeing the world as it is, for making, in the words of the article I linked to above, a synecdoche of a real, breathing part of the world. It’s a task I often feel inadequate about, but it’s one that needs doing.