What did it mean to say “as it’s beautiful?”

I’d heard a woman’s voice murmur behind me in a language I vaguely remembered.“Comme c’est beau,” she’d said.Her words allowed me to forget for a moment that we were at an Arizona pancake breakfast and that no one else at the campground’s popular morning cookout had understood her.Only I looked up from my plate of shortstacks.

There lay before us a petrified tree trunk, an ancient, formless hunk of wood I wouldn’t have labeled “beau” at all or in any form.At its base, a plaque proclaimed its age at a hundred million years, with the rings to prove it.

As I sat applying more maple syrup pretending that’s what cowboys used to do, language had suddenly caught up with me.I understood only then that, after all these achingly beau travels through the United States, I’d be returning to the same country she would.Having wandered this far west, all the way to a painted desert and a petrified national forest, I’d managed to overlook the fact that I was tourist.

So we exchanged road tales.Her family was at the end of the vacation, going back to Toulouse in two days.She described the splendor of the route they’d taken in their rented motorhome, using more superlatives than she had for the fossilized wood.The scenery was even more gorgeous than the movies promised.Everyone in America had been warm and generous.Her husband had, it was true, been stopped for speeding by a highway patrolmen, who very much scared them.But she remarked how cheap the gasoline and how plentiful the restaurant menu options.She said the fresh air of this whole country made them feel young.Her teenage daughter spoke up to say that she wanted to attend college in America, in Las Vegas she hoped.The family looked polished and put together after weeks sleeping in a house on wheels.I shook hands with the father.His cologne must have been musk.

I went on to explain that I was born and raised in this ripe country, which they’d figured.But now I was a visitor, a temporary repatriate or some kind of darling clementine.

And I’d been floored all over again the scenery.We’d met warm and generous folks too, but also the hopelessly tense and the sorely underpaid, the exhausted and the newly grim.The mood in the otherwise expansive air had become infused with the taste of metal and disdain.I was queasy about the near future.I told them I doubted America’s chances ahead.

She smiled saying I sounded negative.France was supposed to be the place for pessimism.No one wants to see Americans feeling discouraged.So much is still a surprise.Besides, where else can you eat pancakes outside.And with berries that are blue.

We wished each other happy trails and bonne continuation and went our separate ways.I stood up with a toothpick in my mouth and realized I’d just received a chin-up American dream pep talk from a French woman.Surely, she was doing this just for my benefit.She must have known this was what I wanted to hear.

“Did I sound negative?” I asked my wife.

Un peu,” she replied, clicking our daughters into their car seats and then hopping into the passenger side, “but this is what I’ve been trying to tell you this whole time.”

***

We barreled north, sending red dust back to the interstate in our wake.The expanses reached further.Faint towers broke over the flat horizon.They grew into monolithic stone buttes with adjoined spires and earth skirts at the bottom.Between them, shadows of clouds crawled over the floor of scrubby brush.We drove toward these impenetrable sandstone citadels that were immense standing even at the road’s vanishing point.It was enough to make any visitor feel, at once, like both an awestruck foreigner and a brash, swaggering local.

Monument Valley gave us the distinct feeling of having been there before.Something rested there in the pronounced emptiness, as though we invented to life a final monument of our own making between the colossal pillars.Decades ago, the idea had occurred to run a stagecoach through and call it a Western.From that point on, the skyline had been reproduced in so many iconic films and inspirational calendars that it had become a stand-in for America the whole.

We entered this cinematic landscape over the Utah state line inside the United States but within the borders of the Navajo Nation territory.Still, everyone kept turning up European.

At the check-in desk of the campground where we’d stay the night, two boys pointed out, in Swedish, the features of a geologic wall map of the Colorado Plateau.Along the short trail to a natural arch overlooking the valley, one German couple asked another to take their photo.Beside our campsite, an older man questioned in a Scottish accent if they might try the lodge. Somewhere nearby, I overheard more French, mixed possibly with the words of my wife.She whispered to our daughters as they gazed out from the high vista we reached at sunset, “Regardez bien.”

The guests had shown up eager.They had all filled out paperwork and paid the fee to complete the new U.S. Travel Authorization procedure, which includes the repeated threat of denial of entry and asks for straight-faced responses to questions like “Have you ever been involved in moral turpitude?”These Europeans, among the most categorically welcome of any foreign visitors to the United States, had jumped further hoops at the border.They might have been waylaid hours at the airport waiting for a second, more invasive interview where they were treated as guilty until proven innocent.They’d been asked to produce the letter from their employer promising that they would return home and not attempt to stay.They’d listened carefully to the mumbling that didn’t match the English they’d learned in school.They endured the common smirks and slack jaws from people thrown by their accents.

But once passed the gates, they’d arrived to a spot like this to size themselves up as lonesome cowboys and cowgirls.Or possibly to exercise their roles as earnest stewards of a country where no one ever really belonged in the first place.

In the late 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir spent months criss-crossing the country and then wrote about it in the book “L’Amérique au jour le jour”, (the less resonant English translation: America Day by Day).She describes stepping off of a train in the American Southwest and feeling like she’d stepped back a hundred years.To her shock and delight, the frontier had yet to appear tamed.Later, passing through northeastern Arizona headed for Santa Fe she observed “These blind plateaus gently baked by sun exist, with a splendid stubbornness, for themselves.”

It took the plateau and the unbelievable valley below and yet another Frenchwoman to remind me that I certainly didn’t belong at all.From a high perch over Monument Valley, the obvious truth was that no one ever did.This was something that the foreign visitors realized from the start, making it easier to marvel at the places where the country exposed its bones.For Americans, it took a little more concentration to remember that the land as a united republic was the wildest idea anyone ever had.Despite the “authentic Indian artifacts” stands and the “pancake cookouts,” despite John Ford and John Wayne, despite even western French comic books characters like the gunslinging Lucky Luke and French travel agency posters for Aventure en Amérique, the country elongated out to here still existed for itself.It would forever keep wide-eyed intruders coming from miles.It would forever keep others coming back.

The quickest way out of Monument Valley was to go back the way we came, toward the felled petrified trees.After that, we had almost no idea where we were going.

We turned south back into Arizona.We had more canyon valleys waiting further west.We had new destitution to witness unfolding before our eyes.We had another ocean to see.

I lay on the accelerator to get us going on the next bracing morning in the desert.

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

20 responses to “Beau West”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Nathaniel,

    The thing that always surprises us is the sheer size of this country. There is so much room here. Fabulous, I think.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely, layered, textured piece Nate.
    As always, it’s a delight to read your work – I just really like the way your sentences flow so easily and it’s always soothing to me to read your pieces.
    It’s interesting what you say about Monument Valley and the feeling that you’d been there before… I have heard that visitors get a similar feeling when they visit Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia. Something about the monolitic rocks that strikes some very deep primitive chord within us.
    I wish I’d seen Monument Valley when Simon and I drove across the U.S last year – but I guess there’s always next time, which I hope won’t be too far away.
    (By the way – I ABSOLUTELY LOVE ‘Bears in the Night.’ -thank you so much!!!xx)

    • Thank you, Zara. Monument Valley is a surprisingly hard place to acess, as it’s close to nothing (though that distance is probably relative when compared to Ayers Rock). But the next time you and Simon swing through you should figure in a detour for this place, if only for the feeling of being in a John Wayne movie.

      Meanwhile, glad you love Bears in the Night. If my writing is soothing it may be partially thanks to repeated readings of that book out loud. Also, it’s responsible for my impressive grasp of prepositions.

  3. Leslie Jamison says:

    Nice piece. I love to idea of finding a place where you don’t belong, and where no one has ever belonged. That put words to something I’ve felt but never captured. I’ve found that experience really powerful, the times I’ve had it.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Leslie. I’m glad to hear that captured something for you. Straddling cultures like I attempt to, it’s always a reassurance to me to find those places where no persons were really supposed to be in the first place. It is powerful and oddly unifying.

  4. Jessica Blau says:

    Great piece, Nathaniel. I must check out that S. de Beauvoir book now!

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Jessica. The Simone de Beauvoir book has an interesting perspective that was well ahead of its time on a lot of issues the US had then only begun to address. Though it hasn’t gotten the attention that some of her other books have, it’s worth a read.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    Really well done, Nat. You deftly avoided all the traps that could accompany a piece like this- overbearing cliches about learning to live in the moment and the whole Cindarella-esque “Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Till it’s Gone” thing.

    Instead, a thoughtful essay that rolls as easily and colorfully as the hills of the Mojave.

    I related to so much of what you wrote. I’m still not sure how I’m going to react when talking bout my home country with other nationalities. Sometimes I’m fiercely defensive, other times apologetic. Mainly I just find myself digesting other people’s views and finding myself better grounded for hearing them, whether or not I disagree.

    So where you headed next, pardner?

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Joe. If I could always roll along as easily as the hills of the desert, then I’d consider my job done. I’ll have to hang onto that as a writing mantra.

      I don’t know where to next, sheriff, but I’m itching to get back behind the wheel again and see an open road spread out before me.

      I hear Spain is nice this time of year…

  6. This is a part of the country that I’ve traveled around but never through. Crazy. I’m going to have to remedy this. Loved this: “From a high perch over Monument Valley, the obvious truth was that no one ever did. This was something that the foreign visitors realized from the start, making it easier to marvel at the places where the country exposed its bones.” I’ll have to remember that when I go.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. You should strap on your spurs and head out there. Monument Valley is especially interesting for movie fans, there’s a whole museum/tacky trading post detailing the many movies filmed there. John Ford forever turned the landscape into the template for all Westerns to be measured by.

  7. “Something rested there in the pronounced emptiness, as though we invented to life a final monument of our own making between the colossal pillars.”

    Right on, m’sieu.

    I apologise for not reading this earlier, now I feel as if I stepped on your toes by putting up another piece about American travels so close together.

    Driving through Utah was, for me, an experience that, while not spiritual, lived next door to spirituality. You get a sense of the overwhelming spirit of the landscape, as if it’s both alive and aware, and, as de Beauvoir says, existing only for itself.

    Good piece, sir.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      No stepped on toes here. These subject convergences make the pieces hum all the more.

      “Landscape that’s alive and aware,” that describes pretty well what brings in all these wanderers from miles around.

      Thanks again, Simon.

  8. Matt says:

    Damn, Nat. Great piece.

    I love driving through the southwestern deserts. The canyons, the buttes, the red sands, all of it. That point almost precisely on the California/Arizona border where the granite hills stop and the sand dunes start just about kills me.

    What I find interesting is that whenever I go on a road trip or visit a national monument or park, the ratio of foreigners to Americans is always something like 5:1. It makes me sad to think how many of us take our natural wonders for granted.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Matt. The desert gets lovelier to me each time I’m in it, especially as someone who grew up surrounded by mid-Atlantic forest.

      The foreigners really do seem to be carrying the grand wilderness torch for us, where we’ve shamefully dropped it. I keep reading about low national park attendance and closing campgrounds.

      Thanks again, and for the retweet I just recently caught.

  9. Quenby Moone says:

    Nathaniel–This piece is bittersweet and lovely. Your alienation is palpable and distressing, and one I sometimes share.

    Also: Is this a trip that is being undertaken…say, NOW? Are you perhaps making it to our fair city? We’ll be in LA next week (Talk about weird and alienating) and back in Oregon after that.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Quenby. In fact, no, this is an older trip that has now entered the personal lore. We passed through Portland at the time and I would love to be able to say I have plans to come through again. That city of yours is a little paradise as far as I can tell.

      Meanwhile, good luck on the foreign soil of California and remember to get your passport stamped on the way out.

  10. angela says:

    I enjoyed this, and find your point of view so interesting – an American who has lived abroad for years. When I came back to the U.S. after six months in China, I was all discombobulated. For instance, I thought L.A., my first stop, was the most beautiful city there was.

    Reading your piece right after Simon’s “Stopping for Gas” makes me feel like we should have a TNB anthology of travel writing, or else views of the American landscape. I’d buy it!

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Angela. L.A. can be beautiful, I think, more so than it’s given credit for. But maybe that’s just the expat-ness talking.

      I’d buy an anthology of TNB travel writing too, an especially good idea for this lovable group of vagabonds and misfits.

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