Returning from vacation and getting back to work is always hard. This year, returning to a three-class, ten-credit teaching load after driving some six thousand miles through New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota feels particularly onerous. Syllabi still need finishing touches, and despite my best attempts to hike as much as possible, I feel out-of-shape thanks to having pursued the good life a little too energetically on the road.
One facile way to analyze this classic difficulty of the ‘return to reality’ would be to find it grounded in the contrast between the stunning geological artworks showcased in national parks like Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Rocky Mountain, Grand Tetons, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Yellowstone, the Badlands, with urban landscapes like those of New York City. (Yes, I did just rattle off the names of the national parks I visited on my road-trip; name-dropping like that comes naturally to me.) New York City is awe-inspiring in its own right as an amazing display of human ingenuity and imagination, but of course, its landscapes cannot compare with the hallucinatory wonders of the Colorado Plateau, with the geological time-scales that have worked their magic there. This diagnosis is especially tempting for as I write these words, a road-work crew is drilling away loudly on the street downstairs, a jackhammer of noise delivered sharply through my living-room window into my cranium, reminding me, painfully enough, that I now must return to contending with a city’s most deadly weapon: noise. (I’ve already attended a day-long academic meeting yesterday so my landing back on Planet Work has not been a particularly soft one.)
But I think there is something more elemental at play. To travel to the American West is to encounter the myth and reality of what enormous, seemingly limitless open spaces can do to you: make you dream and fantasize about expansive possibility, about second chances, about dramatic personal reconfiguration. Confronting a space that dwarfs us, we respond by simultaneously acknowledging our utter significance and, crucially, imagining an ambitious response, one that at its most extreme, turns the landscape into the theater for the next act of our re-imagined lives. To return to the city feels like a regression to confinement–made particularly painful by confrontations with schedules, agendas, and timetables. Sure, in those spaces of restriction lurk chances for creative flowerings, but at the moment, they feel frustratingly elusive.
I’ve spent a few hours since my return obsessing over the photographic record of my trip; my photographs, as I expected, don’t do justice what I seem to remember experiencing and feeling. But for the time being, they’ll have to do, reminders of a time just passed, when anything seemed possible, and when the promise of a stunning new vista just around the next bend did not seem overly extravagant. If my students find me a little more absent-minded than usual during the first week of classes, I apologize in advance, and will send out recall notices to that part of me that’s still dancing about on a highway somewhere out there.
Note: In the weeks to come, I hope to write some posts on my travel experiences. With a photo or two.