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.