A Yankee Notebook, Columns

We Saw Things We’d Never Seen Before

EAST MONTPELIER – “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” — Samuel Clemens

 If anyone could be allowed to have been qualified as an expert on the effects of travel, it would be Sam Clemens. From his early travels to the West Coast from his native Missouri, to his job as a newspaper correspondent in the Sandwich Islands (where he famously prevented the theft of the clothes of some native wahines by sitting on them as their owners played in the surf), to his later travels in Europe as a well-known American writer, he absorbed and recorded everything he encountered, almost always with a humorous or ironic twist.

It’s probably easier in our day to travel with less personal human contact than in his. We can book our tickets and get our boarding passes on-line (well, maybe you can. I find the web sites inscrutable and impenetrable); we don’t have to haggle over the price of a rental car – it’s already been confirmed and paid in advance by credit card – and, barring a major screw-up, there’s a room waiting for us at a hostelry we’ve chosen and booked by computer, hoping as we did that the photos weren’t too much airbrushed and the ratings not exaggerated.

On our recent trip to Moab my companion Bea and I both saw things we’d never seen before. We’d expected to, of course. The photos of the famous stone arches of Utah are common in the media, and we were delighted to see they were quite as spectacular in person. The weather was just as delightful as we’d anticipated, especially after the series of equinoctial blizzards we’d just been through. We weren’t in the heartland of America; we’d flown over that. We were a long way from home.

Much as touristy Moab reminded me of Lake Placid, where a two-cent increase in the price of gasoline used to cause a panic among hotel keepers, there was a subtle difference in atmosphere. It might have been cowboy country once, but I didn’t spot a single pair of boots or – come to think of it – a single horse. Why, I wondered, though there were plenty of watering holes in downtown Moab, was it impossible to find a single drop of alcohol only a mile away at our hotel?

Curious, I put two and two together (Utah and Marriott) and found the Marriotts, who started their business careers with an A&W root beer franchise in Washington, D.C., were devout members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Then I remembered that the desk clerk had rhapsodically opined that the fantastic rock sculptures of the local national parks were evidence of intelligent design. I declined to disagree, not because I thought it unlikely, but because I’ve long felt that way about New England.

It was hard not to notice that the language of the signage in the state and national parks was doggedly inoffensive to everyone. Natives had existed there for 10,000 years. The pioneers who moved in, fenced land, and built water impoundments were characterized as beneficent; there was no mention of what happened to the indigenous.

The wall of the hotel dining room was decorated with a mural of mountain bike parts. Biking is a big deal around Moab. So is off-roading in four-wheel-drive vehicles. We missed by a week the start of the annual Easter Jeep Safari, but the lads were already showing up to tackle the back country in parades, at $75 per vehicle per day, payable to the Bureau of Land Management. A gang of about 12 showed up at the Blu Pig Restaurant, where Bea and I dined one evening. I experienced a partial loss of the bigotry that Clemens describes when they turned out to be a quite pleasant and fairly sedate group. I stopped by their table on our way out and chatted briefly. They were deciding whether to go out that night in the dark. I shook my head sagely, like the eldest oyster in Carroll’s “Walrus and the Carpenter,” and I fancy they took that for genuine concern. At any rate, we parted pals.

We met dozens of people that week, from all over America and even Europe. We talked with a couple who were the poster children of a May-December relationship, and heard a great love story from a fiftyish blonde skier who’d fallen for an English gentleman with whom she swapped romantic visits. We discussed politics with no one, and flew home at last to vegetate in our little corner of the earth.

Comments are closed.