One of my professors in grad school liked to tell an anecdote about the tedium of reading college admission essays. A huge percentage of the essays, he said, were about a life changing trip the kid had taken at some point during high school. And the grand revelation all of these kids came to on these trips was either, “people are the same everywhere you go,” or “people are so different everywhere you go.”
So I guess I shouldn’t push Ari to use this big trip we just went on as the foundation for his college admission essays.
And, at the same time, I feel a nearly irresistible pull to write my own version of the college admission essay right here on my blog. It nagged at me for most of the trip, in fact: sure, we’re seeing all this amazing stuff, and we’re having a great time, but what does it all mean?!
Yo, tortoise, what’s the meaning of life?
A lot of the things I “learned” on the trip were things I already pretty much knew:
Wow, what a big country we live in!
There are so many incredible things to see! So much variety!
It’s a lot harder to find an urgent care place or a decent grocery store in some parts of the country than it is at home! (Although surprisingly easy to find good local beer nearly everywhere these days. What a time to be alive!)
Geez, there sure are a lot of white people way out here!
Stuff like that.
But now that we’re home and I’ve had some time to think about everything, I’ve discovered that (as is often the case), I actually have a lot to say.
A couple of months before we left, there was an essay in the New York Times magazine titled “Why Does Mount Rushmore Exist?” The author and his family visited Mount Rushmore over the winter and seem not to have had the best vacation ever (honestly, we probably wouldn’t have either if we’d flown out to Mount Rushmore for a couple of days in the middle of winter and then flown back home), but he did come home with deep observations about what America’s all about. And I’m interested in this not just for his observations, but for the mere fact that travel writing like this exists and exists in abundance.
Why do we need to say something about what it all means?
What are you guys DOING up there?!
I’m proposing that, in the end, the impulse that makes people want to carve presidents onto the side of a beautiful mountain isn’t really so different from the one that makes people want to go see those presidents and then come up with a thesis for the NYT about what they’ve just seen.
There’s something very human about the need to impose order on the world around us, to organize it somehow so it makes sense to us, and to leave some kind of sign that says, “I was here.” Whether that sign is a giant sculpture or a essay in the New York Times magazine.
I don’t know….I guess because the world is big and life is short.
So it’s easy to criticize Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum for the hubris of thinking he could improve the mountain by putting giant presidents on it (and the same for sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski down the road at Crazy Horse)….but I do understand why they wanted to. We’re storytellers, we humans are, and we want our stories remembered…and what better way to tell a story that will last than to carve it into granite that erodes at a rate of 1 inch every 10,000 years? Probably a better choice for permanence than, say, a blog.
Our very favorite ranger ever, Ranger Earl at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, showed us some graffiti on the wall in the cave, left recently by some ill mannered tourists. Then he pointed out that, while people are always horrified by this, they’re excited to see the place where early cave explorer Alvin McDonald carved his name into the cave in the 19th century. When does something stop being defacement and start being artifact?
What about the petroglyphs left by the Puebloan people hundreds of years ago in what is now Petrified Forest National Park?
These are all places that are beautiful by themselves, and maybe that should be enough, and maybe it is…but these marks people have left through the ages give some shape and order to the landscapes and somehow make them easier to take in and comprehend. And they connect us as observers today with all the people who came before and looked out at and were swallowed up by the same big world.
Alcatraz Island was pretty much a bare rock, with no source of water other than rainfall and no plant life other than sparse native grasses, when people first started occupying it in the mid 19th century. So how to organize this barren place? What stories to tell, what marks to leave? The impulse is there just as much in this forbidding place as in the lovely mountains of South Dakota.
We toured the prison and saw and heard the stories left behind by prisoners trying to make a life here:
The Native Americans who occupied the island in the early 70’s left their marks as well:
But the gardens stuck with me the most. Take a rock, build a prison, and….spend countless hours making the whole thing lovely with flower gardens. The first gardens and trees on Alcatraz were planted shortly after the island was first occupied, with imported soil from the mainland. Prisoners cared for the gardens during Alcatraz’s time as a federal prison. In the introduction to The Gardens of Alcatraz, Delphine Hirasuna writes, “the gardens of Alcatraz are testaments to the human spirit, to the desire to create life and beauty even in a forbidding environment. Perhaps this above all is what makes them so inspiring—and so touching.”
Today the gardens still thrive amidst the throngs of tourists, flowers and trees tucked in amongst the sometimes crumbling buildings.
In Austin, our friends took us to the Hope Outdoor Gallery, a space entirely devoted to leaving marks and telling stories….even though they’ll be covered up by other marks and stories nearly as soon as the paint has dried:
Also in Austin, we visited the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum and the LBJ Ranch in nearby Johnson City. It’s hard to imagine that many people have ever been more concerned with the idea of legacy and leaving a mark on the world than LBJ. Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Clean Air Act, and 50 new National Park Service units, among countless other things. We all feel the effects of some LBJ legislation or other pretty much every day.
And yet here’s what a guy with several Mount Rushmore’s worth of accomplishments to his name had to say to his future biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, just two days before he died (from Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream):
“I’ve been reading Carl Sandburg’s biography on Lincoln and no matter how great the book’s supposed to be, I can’t bring Lincoln to life. And if it’s true for me, one President reading about another, then there’s no chance the ordinary person in the future will ever remember me. No chance. I’d have been better off looking for immortality through my wife and children and their children in turn instead of seeking all that love and affection from the American people. They’re just too fickle.”
I tried at first to cajole him from his morose mood by teasing him that from this day forward I would promise to include a question on Lyndon Johnson on every final exam I gave at Harvard so that at least for the length of my teaching career, students at Harvard would never forget him. But he cut my banter short with an unusual abruptness. “You’re not listening. I’m telling you something important. Get married. Have children. Spend time with them.”
At the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills, the story the sculpture is supposed to tell, the story of Crazy Horse himself, is drowned out by the story of the eccentric sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski. The museum exhibits don’t have much to reveal about Crazy Horse, but they leave visitors with the full story of Ziolkowski’s personality, of the process of planning and starting on the sculpture, and of his wife and ten children who have kept working on the sculpture in the years since his death.
I’m not at all interested in being president, the idea of spending the rest of my life carving a giant sculpture into the side of a mountain sounds exhausting, and I’m sort of a terrible gardener. But I do have kids. And I think that this thing we’re doing–seeing the country with them, sharing these experiences, creating our own stories together–is a way of organizing the world and a way of saying “we were here.”
You can’t observe something without changing it. I couldn’t see the country without leaving my mark on it in some small way, and I also couldn’t see it without it changing me.
So there it is, my big why about this trip, about travel in general: we all want to get out there and figuratively carve our names into the rocks, we all want to leave our stories behind somehow: with a painting, or a sculpture, or a book, or graffiti, or a garden, or a story shared with our traveling companions and passed down to our children and grandchildren.
To sum up….this summer, on my big trip, I learned that people are the same everywhere you go.