The Good Lizard of Coalpits Wash
Is travel during a global recession thoughtless? Is a dad who is away, wandering aimlessly, a bad dad? Is to travel to sin?
Updated April 29, 2015
Is travel during a global recession thoughtless? Is a dad who is away, wandering aimlessly, a bad dad? Is to travel to sin? Maybe these questions seem silly to readers of travel. I think it’s the right time to ask.
It’s a sunny day in Canyonlands National Park, in Eastern Utah, and I have the whole day ahead of me, and it’s March, which means the desert parks around Moab are still nearly empty; tourism season starts next month.
I drive the rental to a campground near the Green River Overlook, and find a nice spot to park under the shade of a pinyon pine. Here, I see barefoot footsteps in the sand, and decide to kick off my own shoes and do the same, following a ridge. I find a welcoming outcrop of sandstone and open a paperback book.
I spend most of the day on this outcrop. Having the time to get lost in a book is so hard these days. I wonder if I should consider it a waste of time to spend a traveling day doing something that I could just as easily do at home. But actually, I’ve begun to realize that reading while traveling is a reward. Reading a book in unfamiliar territory, under a sweeping vista, under the sun – it’s more than just reading a book – it’s a way to keep your mind racing through the combined territory of fiction and destination.
The paperback is by K.J. Parker, a pseudonymous author who writes fantasy without wizards and orcs. In The Folding Knife, she constructs a world, with its own geography and history and states, and then, through the eyes of a small city-state’s king, creates an economic and political thriller.
I cannot help but wander from the novel, and to imagine an imaginary city-state built right here, above the towering cliffs and canyons. I imagine big stone structures, with small windows, and people moving among the buildings.
Then I remember that city-states did once exist here. Rows of corn might have been planted down there, along the Green River, and perhaps the Ancestral Pueblans built settlements in the shade of those canyons, a thousand feet below my perch. I note that of the little we know of the Americas’ prehistory, we know that many of its significant moments are the catastrophic failures of its many agriculture-based civilizations, such as the one that once thrived here, and also for the remarkable adaptability and success of the New World's wandering people.
I imagine telling my son about Anasazi city-states, but the novel leads me astray, and the plateaus become islands, and the men become mice, and the rows of corn become suitable to mice, and there are many island nation states, and each island nation bears a different species of mouse, and mice travel overseas by large pelagic seabird, but to the north are islands populated by shrews, and to the southwest are shoals and shallows and mangrove islands which make great places for mice pirates to go about their underhanded business.
In the course of an afternoon, I've invented a world, inspired by K.J. Parker and the Green River. This world has no purpose but for me to tap into, in that weird space that fathers and sons inhabit in their early years together, of fantasy tinged with life’s lessons.
Fast-forward to today and it's late spring. I'm back in Utah again, but this time I'm six hours away from Moab, in Southwestern Utah, at the Coalpits Wash trailhead. The Coalpits Wash area is a lower canyon section of Zion, outside of the busy park zone. Again, it's a sunny day and again I have nothing on my agenda. I decide to amble along the creek.
While travel in the city engages us in the present, what does the open country have to offer? In this case, it's just water, sand and the lime green of cottonwood leaves. That great big empty has fueled me for my entire life. It's where I decompress, and reflect, and imagine. While I have no agenda and no purpose, these empty landscapes have fueled almost all major decisions in my life. The idea that travel is frivolous is a foreign one to me. Why then, does American culture seem to get so worked up about somebody going off to do nothing in particular?
One of the first things I notice here on the outskirts of Zion is that foreigners are outnumbering Americans. I love seeing foreigners enjoying my countryside, but it begs the question, where are all the Americans?
The United States is the only advanced country in the world that doesn't require it's employers to offer vacation to its employees. and even if a company offers a week or two of vacation time a year, the trend in the workforce is increasingly to avoid vacation-time, to defer it, or even to cash out, accruing compensation in exchange.
Recently, I was cc'ed on an email from an American woman. The email was well constructed and explained that she would be taking a day off, and stated her reason, which had to do with a project that involved helping family. She gave a number of ways that she could be contacted during her three-day weekend, in case of any emergencies.
The thing is, the reason I recall her email is that it reminded me that that was the first time I remember her taking any time off at all. And the sick part about it? It no longer phases me that many of the Americans I interact with just don't go on vacation.
For all their days and years and long hours at work, are Americans more productive than their European, Asian and Canadian counterparts, all of whom have about a month of mandated vacation time per year?
The American workforce works in a ghostly robotic way. We obsess over multitasking and email, oversharing and contributing to these habits of continual connectedness. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a friend who told me to end my relationship with email. If you want to get something done, he said, pick up the phone.
Americans feel they have to justify even a little but of time off. I 'm helping family, but just email or call or set up a video conference if you need something.
Companies also expect their American employees to stay connected even while on vacation. And the emails never stop. If an American employee stops managing his emails for a few days, he will often worry about the onslaught of emails building up. If he just manages those emails, his return to the office will be more sane.
Nurses who work in elder care facilities and with middle-aged adults have been seeing unsettling trends: American adults are beginning to have those same listless, disconnected traits that previously, nurses only identified in nursing home patients.
As justification for the American work habit, I have heard that "the United States is the big leagues, if you want to make it big, you come to the U.S., but if you want to have vacation and hang out, you can go to Europe.
But the comparison is false, because as the United States has adopted a no-vacation work ethic, It's productivity and economy have declined relative to first-world countries who offer adequate vacation. The United States' prosperity index has been plummeting in comparison to other first-world countries where vacation time is standard.
But even among those who do plan vacation, About 20 percent end up having to delay or cancel their plans because either they or their partner's work obligations forces them to stay behind.
As our work culture forces us deeper and deeper into this weird, robotic work mentality, the health of our workforce deteriotes. Just in the past twenty years, since about the year 1990, the obesity rate in the United States has ballooned.
American billionaire Warren Buffett has explained that the U.S. companies health care expenses puts them at a gross disadvantage against other companies. Comparing the U.S. to most of the rest of the world, the United States spends about seventeen percent of GDP on health care, while most of the rest of the world spends only nine percent.