August 2005

Barbara J. King

features

Trekking with Alain de Botton

Celebrating the mid-summer travel season, I recently launched myself into air-world for one vacation and onto American highways for another. June’s destination was Arizona, where I communed with ancient saguaro cactus in Tucson’s blazing heat, then migrated north through blessedly cool, hip and high-elevation Flagstaff to reach the Grand Canyon. On from there to the Navajo lands around Tuba City and Kayenta, capping off the trip at every Western film buff’s favorite location, Monument Valley.

The mid-journey night in montane Flagstaff had refreshed, restored and rejuvenated me. By the time I jetted home, though I had Arizona’s geological wonders imprinted on my retinas, it was mountainous terrain imprinted on my psyche. For a few weeks I languished in hot, hazy, humid Tidewater,
but then headed west again, coming to a halt this time in North Carolina’s Macon County. With my feet in icy rivers and my eyes feasting on the gorges and gorgeous summits near Franklin and Highlands, I could breathe once more.

Leaden suitcases are my norm, owing not only to the necessary cache of novels to sustain me but also to a heavy handful of volumes to guide me. Hadn’t I benefited, always, from travel experts telling me what to see, do and eat? This summer, though, I trekked light. My mentor was Alain de
Botton, and The Art of Travel is a book that doesn’t snuggle up well next to a Fodor’s or Let’s Go Travel.

Visiting Madrid, de Botton twigs to the tyranny of the travel guide: “The explorers who had come before and discovered facts had at the same time laid down distinctions between what was significant and what was not--distinctions that had, over time, hardened into almost immutable truths about where value lay in Madrid…. Such distinctions were not necessarily false, but their effect was pernicious. Where guidebooks praised a site, they pressured a visitor to match their authoritative enthusiasm, and where they were silent, pleasure or interest seemed unwarranted.”

Reactive and rebellious, de Botton searched beyond the anointed must-see attractions to identify a “subjective hierarchy of interest,” which ended up to include “the underrepresentation of vegetables in the Spanish diet...the long and noble-sounding surnames of ordinary citizens...[and] the smallness of Spanish men’s feet.” Positively phototropic, my mind turned toward the light streaming from this perspective. Maybe my own penchant for observing-and-soaking-up, rather than enjoining a hyperactive sight-seeing itinerary, wasn’t so plain-vanilla after all.

De Botton’s influence made itself felt at my trip’s very start. As my family and I boarded a mega-jet, I thought of de Botton’s description of a plane as “carrying within itself a trace of all the lands it has crossed, its eternal mobility offering an imaginative counterweight to feelings of stagnation and confinement.” Looking past the cramped coach seats and their folded plastic trays, I imagined that we were breathing in a mosaic of oxygen molecules cobbled together from all the places the aircraft might have touched down, Nairobi to Nagoya and Berlin to Buenos Aires.

Gazing out the window on the climb-out, I remember that for de Botton, a cloud is a cloud is a cloud doesn’t compute. Who are we to be world-weary and unmoved by a viewing of cloud-tops, a “matter that would have detained Leonardo and Poussin, Claude and Constable”?

Notice that de Botton doesn’t pine after the quirky and the offbeat. He’s too subtle for that, and I suspect he’d agree with me that such hankerings too often smack of a reverse snobbery, a peevish pride in "dare to be different." I think he’d allow that it’s perfectly OK to take in the stupendous when you come across it--without affected detachment.

At the Grand Canyon, after all, the big-scale stuff is the show. Here’s a rare case where no travel-guide oversell is possible. Wherever you look, there’s pure beauty, whether you watch the shifting light over the earth-colored rocks, hike from the rim to the canyon floor and back or seek
prehistoric marine fossils embedded in now-dry soil. In this place that screams of dynamic geological forces, there’s value in being still. For a long time, I sat with my daughter at the Bright Angel Trailhead, awaiting my husband’s return from a difficult daylong hike. In a form of meditation, I soaked up what I could see, the mellowing light over the sandstone, limestone, shale and schist, and imagined what I could not, two billion years of evolutionary forces that shaped the canyon and the bodies and behaviors of its animal inhabitants.

By the time the North Carolina trip rolled around, I was well into a de Botton groove. Near Highlands, a friend suggested going up the steep mile-long trail that ascends Whiteside Mountain. Excelling in his role as emotional sherpa, he urged me on with promises of visual rewards to come. When I topped the trail, summit after summit, blue-ish hue after blue-ish hue, soothed my eyes and my spirit. Just as memorable, though, was a half-hour lazy session sitting on a small bridge at a nearby lake, seining the water, admiring garnet-colored and gray-silver-streaky stones one by one.

Is all this "joy of travel" a little too sugary for you, too near Pollyanna Land? Rest assured, de Botton has an edge, and nowhere sharper than when he writes about the bitter fruit of travel anticipation. Two months’ worth of anticipating under his belt, de Botton flees gray, wintry England for tropical Barbados. “Nothing was as I imagined it,” he says ruefully. Thanks to glossy brochures, three images had become Barbados in his head: a beach with a palm tree against the sunset, a prettily decorated bungalow and an azure sky. Seeking that Barbardos, de Botton sits in deck chair at the sea’s edge. Compare the ideal that he can tell himself later… “I could hear small lapping sounds beside me. …A few birds were waking up and beginning to career through the air in matinal excitement. …Before me was a view that I recognized from the brochure: the beach stretching away in a gentle curve towards the tip of the bay, with jungle-covered hills behind, and the first row of coconut trees inclining irregularly towards the turquoise sea…”

…with the real he experiences in the moment: “…[M]y attention was in truth far more fractured and confused…I may have noticed a few birds careering through the air…but my awareness of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among them a sore throat I had developed during the flight, worry over not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom…I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

Probably best known for his How Proust Can Change Your Life, de Botton studs The Art of Travel with literary references, photographs and artwork, and historical stories. The sections on Wordsworth and Van Gogh alone are worth the book’s price. And I’d never before read about Xavier de Maistre who, in 1790s France, wrote an entire book chronicling his own journey--around his bedroom. As de Botton puts it, “[T]he pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mindset we travel with than on the destination we travel to.” To strive for receptivity is the key: “We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable, small details.”

I’d write more, but am preparing for August’s journey. Wicomico, the town where I live, is not far from feted Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown. It hugs the York River, but boasts no mountains and no three-star sites. But then again, I’m not anticipating any. With a tide chart and
de Botton’s book in hand (or backpack), I’ll travel well.

--In August, Barbara J. King can be found paddling a red canoe on the York River in Virginia.