To Travel or Not to Travel
The reason an individual travels can vary, yet the pull to adventure is felt similarly between all explorers. I, among many others, have felt this pull to the unknown, the exotic or culturally different. To experience what I could not experience in the valley I grew up in. To smell, taste and breath a different kind of life.
I originally assumed I was like many others, but I discovered that beyond my community there was a longing of comfort instead of experiencing the unknown. Robert Louis Stevenson touches on this difference in his short story An Autumn Effect. As he recalls wandering through the english countryside with fun stops along the way. This passage is beautifully written, almost poetic. Instead of highlighting the obvious and lavish aspects of visiting a new place he touches on the subtle curiosities. These little curiosities, personally, are more gratifying than the picture worthy stops when traveling. I find this aspect of this story to be fundamentally very important, but there are aims in the story that I disagree with.
At one point Stevenson describes a family eating dinner, and explains how mundane going through the motions of everyday life can be. More importantly he writes about these people in an arrogant and demeaning way. He states, “It is a salutary exercise, besides; it is salutary to get out of ourselves and see people living together in perfect unconsciousness of our existence, as they will live when we are gone.” (Stevenson, 1875). Stevenson says it is salutary to see people acting unconsciously which implies that what he is seeing is unpleasant, but it makes him feel better for his curiosities. This is not morally right to impose that one curiosity, the need to travel, is ultimately better than another curiosity, raising a family or cooking. Even though I agree with this statement, I disagree with looking down on it. It is a preference to feel the call of adventure, and the lack of that preference does not mean those people are any less.
It is frustrating to relate to the need and urge to travel, but to see people like Stevenson look down on others who do not feel that urge. I could not understand why people would not have that curiosity, but when I marinated in thought about it I realized people find solace in the mundane. And more importantly there is nothing wrong with that comfort. If the whole world wanted to discover the unknown and feel that importance of solitude. To follow in the footsteps of Stevenson, Edward Abbey or Chris Mccandles, then there would be much less specialization. Less unknowns to experience. Yes, nature would be intact, ready for discovering, but that urge to isolate and push away from the unconscious norm would lead to loneliness. Really it is a balance. Following the urge to discover the little curiosities out of your neighborhood, valley or home, but to also appreciate the intricate little aspects of a mundane life. I would like to see Stevenson appreciate the comfort of the known, and push the importance of discovery.
A Side Note on Rhetoric
This is one hundred percent one of the most beautifully written passages I have read in a while. After reading it then reading The Rhetorical Situation I could appreciate Stevenson rhetoric even more. Bitzer, the author of The Rhetorical Situation, compares rhetoric to a tree, but includes that unlike a tree, rhetoric is fully dependent on its soil. The soil being the text that rhetoric is playing through. I love this metaphor because I can understand that rhetoric is not just situational but also magically sewn through a piece instead of being a stark and obvious factor. It is not something separate from the text but it is really an aspect of the text that can prove its power or lack of power. One aspect of An Autumn Effect is its poetic sentence structure. While the sentence structure is not the rhetoric the beauty of the words put in that order adds to the rhetorical power of that passage.
Another aspect of An Autumn Effect are the tangents about trees and their beauty. These tangents do not add any fact to the story but the way they are described adds to the substance of the passage. The tangent highlights the importance of what these trees mean. Describing their beauty adds to the aim Stevenson is trying to prove. And in doing so adds to the rhetorical power of the passage.
My Attempt at Ekiphrase
The visual analysis of a rock in the desert southwest
From a memory of an experience I had a month ago:
The smell of dust filters through the window or air conditioning as my tuck barrels down a pin straight desert road. I keep my eyes peeled for the unmarked left turn I have only seen once before and my friend scrolls through song choices. We are just south of Moab, a town I have grown to know well. As a child my family would pass through on our way to raft the Green or San Juan Rivers. Both rivers give me a visceral connection to the desert Southwest. Accept, this is only the second time I have passed through without parental or teacher supervision.
I finally spot it. Our camping destination. A large bolder about 100 yards away. A colorless mole on the desert visage. To me it is quite boring after being desensitized by canyon walls, arches and buttes. On the other hand my friend exclaims, “look at how cool that rock is! It’s so big”. I chuckle and respond, “that’s the backside you haven’t seen the cool part”. I turn the truck left onto a less maintained road. Our bodies sway and correspond with the bumps as the massive rubber wheels trample the sand and spit dust out behind them. The road becomes particularly sandy and the gas pedal loses all weight as the wheels lose traction. I switch it to four wheel and the truck jolts out of the sand. I see it as a little warning from the desert not to mess around. We have arrived.
A juniper tree grows at the base of the rock, speckled in jean colored berries that look too dry to be even close to nourishing. A good thing too being that they are poisonous in large quantities unless distilled into gin, which funnily enough is also poisonous in large quantities. A ring of rocks that make a fire pit sits at the base of the tree. People have added to the structure since the last time I visited. A large log has disappeared, but besides that it looks the same. We step out of the air conditioning we have been enjoying for the four hour drive. The heat kisses our pale skin like the inside of an oven when the door is open. Smells drop in the dry air but I can just make out dust and sage. The rust color rocks radiate the heat back up to us, emphasizing this oven effect. But it is dry heat, and I am not bothered. It makes me nostalgic, I feel very much at home. A weird feeling since the harshness desert does not make it easy to love. Just read Desert Solitaire and you’ll understand.
I turn back to the rock and tell my friend to “flow me”. We still haven’t seen the good stuff. We round a corner of the bolder. I take my shoes off so my feet can meld with the warm sandstone. It has always shocked me how perfectly my soles and sandstone fit together. It makes me think of how even rock and a human can have a connection. It reminds me that even though I am living and the rock is not, we both have energy and are made from the same star billions of years ago.
There it is. What would normally be a sloping face of a bolder resembling the other side is instead concave. A massive amphitheater reaching 100 feet high. Right now we are alone but I explain how this is a popular climbing site. People will hike up the side, shimmy through a small crack I can barely make out and repel the 100 feet. Then the climber can hike to the back of the inside wall, sinch the rope tight and swing. It is most spectacular at night. I remember holding the rope behind my back, taking a breath and pushing off. Once I passed the ceiling of the rock I felt like I jumped into an ocean of stars. The Milky Way barreling across the sky. The concentration and sheer number of stars was otherworldly. I have trouble finding the words to describe their cosmic power. So shocking I almost cried.
My friend bursts into laughter, “Holy shit this is so much cooler than I thought it was!” “Right!” I respond, “and No one is here!”. I let out a howl that echoes off the wall and radiates into the vacant air. The most spectacular part of this massive rock is far to the left. The fin of the bolder over time couldn’t bare the wind, so it gave way and let it pass through. Creating an arch. the sun peeks through it’s hole making it difficult to look at and gives it its name Looking Glass Rock. We hike into the belly of the bolder. Slipping on sand, weaving through sage, and saying Hi to the shuttling lizards. I find one doing push ups, one of my favorite childhood memories, and I feel proud that a lizard wants to show his muscles to me. “You wanna sit in the arch or set up camp?” I ask. “You can sit in it!!” She responds. “Yes, and you don’t even need a rope” we continue on and get to the sandstone where it is slightly too steep for sand to pile comfortably. I smear my foot and start to walk straight up. I feel like a desert creature scaling this rock with ease. When I realize that my friend, from Manhattan, does not have this nostalgic connection with the desert. Even though she will soon discover it’s magic. I tell her to hair pin up the side. Instead of walking straight up she walks along the side at a slight incline then switches making an s shape as she climbs further. We reach the hardest part and take a break. We watch swallows dart in and out of their homes. Flapping their wings in a bat like fashion. This five foot area between us and the arch is the most daunting part. Still not very hard as my friend brought his guitar and a six pack up on our last visit. It’s slightly steep and my anxiety spikes but I smear my foot into the side and trust my traction. I take a few careful steps. Placing my foot in the shallow bowls, the wind and carved out and then I am there. Inside the arch. I look up and see the thin ceiling. It’s deep rusted red band with sharp edges cuts through the bright blue sky. I see people have etched their name into the rock. How could they deface something so much older, bigger, and profoundly more important than them. I investigate the carvings one says ROCK and another says Kyle and Sarah. I wonder if Kyle and Sarah are still together, they didn’t even bother to add a heart. I turn to help my friend across the tricky steep bit by going below her and having her use my hand as a foot hold. Then we are both in the arch. The bottom is flat and comfortable to sit. With two ledges that resemble stairs. “Wow” is all my friend can say.
The view is also spectacular. I can see for miles. I can see highway 101 to my left and to the right is a sea of sage and some scarce juniper. The olive colored bushes fit well with the orange sand. Some other large boulders sit further to the left with the backdrop of the dark blue La Sal mountains. The sun shoots rays into my eyes when I look to the west. It is two hours from setting. We retreat and set up camp, but as our pasta is cooking I notice it’s almost golden hour. We return to the arch to watch the sunset and the colors which were dry get flooded in a caramel film. Enhancing their contrast in a shocking way. The rust red turns to skin peel orange. Not the yellow on the peach but the darkest orange a peach can be. The bright blue sky is charged with pinks and oranges and the sage even glows with renewed contrast. I burst into tears, in a time where I have felt trapped like many others in quarantine. I am overwhelmed with the daunting but exciting feeling of solitude and freedom.