Tag Archives: travel writing

Notes from the Four Corners

Desert 6.JPG“I cannot hate them, the tourists, because I am one.” -Nabil Kashyap, The Obvious Earth

They say that when you first encounter the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, it can be disappointing for two reasons. First, it is situated in a relatively small room that is always packed with visitors, so many that you have to shove to reach the painting, and second, even if you make it to the Mona Lisa, the painting itself is small and unsurprising. You already know what the Mona Lisa looks like. You can buy a poster of it in the gift shop. Instead, it’s the art in the hallway outside the Mona Lisa room, the unfamous work you’ve never seen before, that leaves an impression. The Four Corners Monument is similar.

Two days before the country celebrates its independence, I drive through the desert to Colorado, and make a stop at the Four Corners, between Navajo and Ute Mountain land. I drive slowly over the dirt road, following cars and followed by campers. I find a parking space and step out of the air conditioning into the heat. It is exceptionally hot, barely a cloud in the sky. I’m used to this. I’ve almost missed the heat, living in northern Idaho for so long.

Desert 7

The Four Corners Monument is a square of shaded stands around the circular marker itself, directly where the four state borders meet at 90 degree angles, distinguishing jurisdictions and electoral districts from one another. When I enter the square, I’m confused about which state I’m in, but it becomes clear when I see the four stone markers around the circle indicating each respective state, like cardinal directions. There is a long line of people in front of the circle, each tourist standing in summer wear and waiting to stand in the circle to have their picture taken straddling as many US states as one can.

I don’t get in line because it’s hot and I’m on my way to meet a friend I haven’t seen since I visited Albuquerque in winter, and I impulsively don’t want to be a tourist. I grew up in a tourist town, as a local. It’s a habit I can’t shake off, wanting to distinguish myself from them. I’m not any different from the tourists, though, not here. I walk the square of shops in the shade, passing people eating fry bread from paper plates, passing locals selling jewelry, knives, Kokopelli decorations.

In Portland this spring, I saw Nabil Kashyap give a talk about the colonial nature of travel writing, the fraught history of the travelogue. Historically, the genre frames the traveler as a hero and the place visited as a backdrop for the hero’s self-discovery, transforming locals into objects, props. Kashyap’s own collection of travelogues wrestles with this history. In his panel, he advocated for a more ethical form of travel writing that “decenters the visitor” and emphasizes the place, the people, without claiming ownership over the stories that are intrinsic to the place and people. This time last year, a lot of people noted that Anthony Bourdain was an exemplar of this kind of travelogue, taking the role of a reporter, letting people tell their stories on their own terms.

Desert 2At the edge of the square, there is a sign telling visitors not to spread ashes of the deceased here because the scattering of human remains on this land goes against Navajo custom. I wonder how many tourists scattered their dead relatives at the Four Corners before the locals had to put up the sign. Despite the signs, tourists still come to the Four Corners and spread cremated relatives on this special dot on a map. I think about how weird it is to celebrate the alignment of state borders here in the Southwest. 150 years ago, this was Brigham Young’s Mormon territory called Deseret. 160 years ago, this was Mexico. 250 years ago, this was Spain. 450 years ago, this was Pueblo land. Statehood was only granted to Arizona in 1912. The land may appear static, but its cartographic meaning is always changing.

Instead of standing on the corners, I wander out to the trailhead up the hill from the square, but only a little ways. I’m not equipped for a hike in the desert at noon. I look out at the windswept emptiness of one state or another, this stateless terrain. I’m the only one who walks this way, and I’m glad to be out of the crowd. Later, I use the bathroom. I buy some fry bread. I take some photos. I leave with my fingers sticky with powdered sugar, wishing I could hike around this place in cooler weather, see what else it has to offer.

-jk

 

The Place-Based Writer Goes Places

Moscow Idaho“I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment.” –John Steinbeck, Travels With Charlie

I’ve been on the road since June 4. I’ve traveled from Nebraska to South Dakota to Montana to Idaho to other parts of Idaho, and I will soon be on my way to another part of Idaho, then Utah, then Arizona. I’ve stayed in a lot of places, and seen a lot of places, and have plenty to write about. The problem is that writing on the road is difficult. Even John Steinbeck, known for writing about people (and dogs) traveling from point A to point B, knew that he had to let his stories stew. I’ve never had that kind of patience. I want to write the moment I get an idea.

I’ve often been accused of being a place-based writer. This makes sense, I suppose, because I place myself in bars with my laptop, then place large quantities of alcohol into my mouth, then place my fingers on the keys and type until I forget which place I’m in. But I also enjoy describing places. Setting is crucial for my stories, because most of my recent writing has focused on historical situations. Most of my stories cannot take place elsewhere, and taking place is an apt description of most of my plots. Setting, time and place, has more influence over my characters than I do, sometimes.

Right now, I wish I could write about the places I’ve seen, notably Moscow, Idaho,where I will live for three years starting in August, where I will hopefully get an MFA in creative writing. The town is small but quirky, surrounded by hills and distant mountains. There is a bagel shop that serves beer and a video rental stores on the same street. I drove into Moscow through a rain storm and misty curving roads, past industrial bridges and tall, deep green patches of forest and small, isolated towns. The campus is old and maintains most of its original architecture. It is a patchwork quilt of red bricks and green vegetation. Under overcast skies and in silvery clouds of mist, the town is surreal, even spooky. It’s the ideal place for a writer.

Not that I need an ideal place. I don’t want to be so tied to place that I need somewhere specific to be comfortable, to be myself. But I will admit that, as far as places go, Moscow looks like a lovely place to spend three years writing about all the other places I wish I was in.

-jk