Sunday, June 7, 2009

New Eyes on Old Landscapes

There are times we let things slide. My wife gave me a shirt that was supposed to be of Nevada...with the buttes of Monument Valley and the Saguaro cactus of the Sonoran desert. It's a typical mistake, like something you would see in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. After a decade of adventures out there, learning about the landscape inside and out, I should put that shirt in the back of my wardrobe, maybe pulling it out for the occasional paint job. However, I wear it proudly because I love her, and she gave it to me before she knew better (probably in that order)...

A while back, I was reading Ted Bishop's book, downing my last bottled beer outside the Cowboy Monkey, just enjoying the laziness of a summer's evening downtown. Then, he started writing about passing through Monument Valley...just outside of Moab. What?!?! I looked back to his map, and he never passed through Monument Valley, which is far from Moab. It was a confirmation that Bishop was not yet getting straight his landscapes for the American West. Add to that his visit to Mesa Verde, the most popular and the most sanitized of protected ruins, a few pages later, and I was scoffing at his beginner's experience.

Riding home, I realized he was expressing another voice for travel, though. I have read all kinds of travel narratives. Some are eco-narratives, where few people are seen, and landscape dominates the thoughts of the narrator. Most, though, center on people met along the way, and they always follow the same structure (a little about the road, and a little about whatever put them on the road in the first place). The latter really branches into many categories, including the old war horse, the beginner, and the re-invigorator. In all cases, it is not usual for the traveller to be clearly aware of the landscape. It is always a passing fascination. If I give Bishop the benefit, he's just trying to grasp the vast West for the first time, and he's mixing it all together. He's the beginner, and as all beginners to the West reveal, keeping straight the many different landscapes, even the famous ones, can be a difficult task.

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