I really shouldn’t be allowed to cross the Rockies.
This is what I think whenever I read travel lit about the Western United States, which is something I’ve been doing lately.
As I’ve previously confessed, I’m not really the outdoorsy type—recall that I once managed to have a quasi-panic attack during a very easy walk in a botanical garden in Santa Barbara.
So when I was reading Pam Houston’s A Little More About Me, a collection of essays which mainly focus on adventuring out West, I began to feel a creeping sense of traveler’s disappointment, in the same category of the type of disappointment I feel when I realize that realistically speaking, I’m probably never going to visit the moon.
Like, for example, in her piece about winter camping in the Utah desert, where the nighttime temperature is 28 degrees below zero, and where frost forms on her sleeping boyfriend’s eyelashes, and where she remembers that that wasn’t even the worst night she’d ever had, the worst night was sixty degrees below zero, and “what you do on a night like is burrow into your sleeping bag, head and all like a groundhog, and lie awake observing how it feels as the numbness moves from your extremities inward. You pray for daylight. You don’t ever go out to pee.”
As I read that, I thought, I will never know that West.
A prospect, which, on its face doesn’t seem like it should be logically disappointing to me. But at the same time, I do regret the glancingly small chance of me ever seeing the frozen landscape from the vantage point Houston lovingly describes, “..the water is frozen in pockets around the cattails and bunch grass, and sheets of ice cascade down the rimrock waterfalls every several hundred yards…” I realize that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever really know a true sense of faith in my own strength and know-how.
Because, if someone told me I was going to have to do something where my eyelashes might freeze, I’d immediately look around for a taxi. I didn’t even really like it this winter when the temperature in the house dipped below 70 degrees. Above zero.
Of course “The West” I’m talking about is more of a concept than a place. I’ve been out west before, even to some of the places that Houston writes about—and I will be going again, in a couple of weeks. What’s more, I know I could easily freeze my eyelashes off east of the Rockies, in season, if I really wanted to.
But the point is that I don’t want to, really. Which makes the landscape of that particular desire foreign territory—and a place that I’m not sure I’ll ever explore.
Alison J. Stein
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