Posted on August 26, 2011
Last night I watched a thirty-minute travelog on Greece and the Cyclades. Beautiful photography and a tolerable soundtrack, but as always, the two impose a reality on the scene that tends to trivialize the true aura of the place. Instead of a place it becomes a tourist destination, a spectacle to be see in passing, which is what tourism too often is. It reminds me of the sort of disorientation and cognitive dissonance that sometimes makes travel an uneasy process for me. I can’t reconcile the passing-through, spectator mentality with my knowledge that those rooted in a spot perceive a much different reality, as I would as well if I stayed there for a week, a month, a year, or longer. A traveler who stays in a place for a day or two is always separate from it, alienated by an invisible bubble that prevents any authentic commingling of his spirit with that of the local culture. He leaves saying, well, I’ve been to such-and-such. But he hasn’t actually BEEN there, he’s just passed through.
Southeast Utah is one distant place where I’ve spent a great deal of time compared to any other temporary destination I’ve visited. Most of that time has been concentrated in the choice two or three weeks of the year, the last week of April and the first week of May. The place is usually a paradise then, budding out in vivid green, contrasting to the omnipresent pink sandstone cliffs and canyons. Potholes brim with water, with the only down side being those biting bugs which swarm at this short-term spell of abundant moisture. When I’m there, I often remind myself that at other times of the year paradise becomes hell, or at least purgatory. I’ve driven through the area in winter, when it’s cheerless and bleak, and at the height of summer when the sandstone roasts under the solar glare. Even though I remind myself of the fuller reality of the place, I tend only to imagine it in its spring garb when I need somewhere for an imaginary retreat.
As I watch a Greek video travelog, shot under blue skies and in the warmth of summer, I imagine how it must be in the dead of winter. Having never traveled in Greece in either winter OR summer, imagination is all I can muster, embellished by the writings of those who have been there. Trouble is, most of those descriptions leave out the harsh parts. Similarly, I remember traveling to the South of France as a youth. At the time it was spring and the weather was beautiful, which is the way I still picture it. But I’ve also read much about winters in Provence, when the Mistral blows from the north, creating conditions similar to the dreaded Nor’easter that plague the area where I live. People who visit me here in the sunny midsummer say they can hardly imagine icy winds, rains, and the general damp chill of winter here.
I’ve at times considered the fact that so many of the beauties of Europe are actually the product of horror. Witness the architectural beauties commissioned by King Leopold of Belgium, all financed by the exploitation of the African Congo. The narrator of this Greek travelog mentioned that those lovely convoluted streets of some harbor hillside villages were constructed that way to confuse invading pirates. It’s another case where horror begets beauty, that is, once the horror has been buried in the past. To me, the virtual tourist reality created for us by the forces of commerce and the imagination of ad agencies becomes disturbing when I manage to penetrate the illusion of the glittering ads for tropical winter havens in the back pages of the New Yorker and the picturesque travel videos I find at the local library.
Despite that, I still like to watch the travelogs sometimes, taking the hype with a large granule of rock salt. Or maybe one of those cubic-foot salt blocks the ranchers in Utah set out at watering holes for their cattle.
Perhaps all manmade beauty is a product of or a reaction against grimness of one sort or another. Grimness or despair. So it’s best to appreciate whatever beauty unpleasant experience begets as an expression of that which is best within the human spirit and try to temporarily ignore the darker reflections of truth.