Great Basin

Green River Overlook

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?

Above: Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

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.

Green River Canyon

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

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.

Canyon Treefrog

Canyon Treefrog, Kolob Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah

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.

Watchman Trail, Zion National Park

Blooming Prince's Plume and Indian Paintbrush, Zion Canyon

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.

Double Arches, Zion National Park

Kolob Canyons area, Zion National Park

“That kind of a cost, compared with the rest of the world,” he explained, “is like a tapeworm eating at our economic body.”

Americans are working themselves silly, and the impact on their bodies and mental states is like a giant tax.  Okay, Mr. Buffett, then it follows that a nation without vacation is like a body clothed in leaches.

American companies need to start giving their employees more vacation time.  Why not seven weeks a year, as a general guideline by the federal government, and it comes with employer tax incentives, to give us a comparative advantage over other nations.  I love seeing all these Chinese visitors to the American countryside.  it's beautiful, isn't it?  But I think Americans should get a chance to stretch their legs too.

I spend all day along the Coalpits Wash, quietly hiking or even just sitting under cottonwood trees.  From time to time, I'll message Jane to tell her how ecstatic I am.  how much I've seen.  Jane has always been supportive of my travel, and as busy new parents who spend most of our time together, I have learned to realize that she needs to  get out on her own too.  The idea of pushing each other out the door is good.  Companies should do the same.  They should say, hey, Ed, youre looking pale.  You keep it up like that, you wont be worth much to us.  Get out for a bit.  I hear there are some deals on flights to Hawaii.    

Often, when I am chewing over whether something is right, or maybe a little off, I consult my understanding of human prehistory. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not glamorizing or seeking wisdom from cavemen.  I do not aspire to that existence.  I recognize that ancient man lived a tough and short life.

However, there is some value in considering ancient man.  Any time before, say, the rise of agriculture and settled, organized communities, man was essentially the animal that evolution prepared us for.  We were agile, sinewy, clever, and aware.  We were generalists, a very special kind of animal that could scavenge a carcass, dig for roots and dive for crustaceans.

Most important to our existence as generalists is that we traveled great distance seasonally, between the East African savannas and the Indian ocean, hunting and gathering through a wide variety of terrain as each of those terrain’s hit their seasonal peak of abundance.

And that is exactly what we evolved to do, to travel in the sun, barefoot, and to be aware and to use our muscles and minds. The palette that a shrew's small brain is designed to use is instinct, learned behavior, and dark holes, and lots of digging. But the palette of man is broader - it's the palette of a mammal designed to travel great distances, and to find uses and cleverness and wisdom from all that surrounds him.

Often, in considering our mental and physical health, I’ll give something the paleolithic check, and this new American work ethic, it fails the Paleolithic check in the very worst way.  Even in a modern world, we need to give ourselves the Paleolithic check; a species doesn’t evolve in any meaningful way in ten thousand years.  Behind those white earphones in our ears is the brain of a traveling animal, whose energy and innovation is gained by the lands in which he walks.

Desert Spiny Lizard

Desert Spiny Lizard

Along the Coalpits Wash, I notice a Great Basin Collared Lizard, sitting on a rock in the sun.  I had looked for this lizard many times in the past, and never seen one.  In real life, they are truly stunning – with scales in orange and stark black.

Soon after seeing this collared lizard, I realize that it is not the only one.  I am literally surrounded by them.  I just hadn’t seen one before.  But once you know how they camouflage themselves, they start to show up on every log and rock.  It’s like playing the beetle bug game.  Once you start, they’re everywhere.

For the past three months, since I visited Canyonlands National Park, I’ve been telling my son stories from the world I imagined above the Green River.  And now, I find a bright male collared lizard, with what appears to be a wry smile on his face. 

I invented a world of mice and birds and islands to tell to my son.  Where does a lizard fit in?  Maybe he sails into the harbor of Mousetopia Island.  Maybe he’s on vacation?  What should I call him?  I am not sure.  That will come to me later.  For now, I know that I have a new character. 

Like lots of other folks out there, I get my inspiration and ideas from the road.  There are lots of ways that the American dad is pictured raising his boy.  Watching sports is one of them.  I’ve never watched a sport on TV.  Maybe teaching about the world through sports on TV is a better way to raise a boy.  But I’ll wager that perhaps doing things your own way is better than the only way. I need to use my own palette, and that palette is travel.  And in that way, it is unfathomable to me that anybody should ask why I step out the door.

I don’t have a name for the lizard yet.  But I know he is a good lizard.  A good lizard, and he comes from far away.