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Vacation, pt.1: Wide Open Spaces

Here's a scene and song from one of the many great Disney/Pixar movies: "Cars."

I wrote this two nights ago, but I did not have any internet access until I arrived home today.

Our family typically goes on two types of vacations. First, there is the type where we travel to one location, stay there for several days, and mix rest and relaxation with some local attractions and activities. Then, there is the more ambitious undertaking that we are currently enjoying and will soon be ending. As I start writing this post, we are at the Grand Canyon Lodge right on the north rim of the canyon. (If it were not pitch black outside right now, I would be staring out the window at an amazing view of the canyon.) This stop was preceded by a couple of days in Las Vegas, a quick trip through Zion Canyon, and then a night and half day at Bryce Canyon.

After a day of hikes, sightseeing, and ranger presentations, I am hiding away at the lodge to get in a little late night writing. (I couldn’t sleep last night anyway.) It’s been a fun trip, but I have reached the point where I am about ready to get home. I’m missing some of my normal routine, particularly racquetball and my standard internet activities. Staying in motels is also getting me a little stir crazy. You don’t realize how dependent you have become on the world wide web and on physical space until you spend a few days “cut off” from civilization, living in a single room. The phrase “comforts of home” takes on a deeper meaning after days of travel.

Driving around through parts of four states in six days can get a bit exhausting and monotonous, particularly when exposed to a steady dose of Hannah Montana and The Jonas Brothers. One cool thing about this kind of a trip, however, is that you get a better feel for the layout of this amazing country in which I live. The American Southwest so often conjures up images of nothing but deserts and barren landscapes. And while we have seen plenty of shrubs and cacti, we have also gone through forests; seen some amazing canyons, mountains and cliffs - and I’m not just talking about the national parks; and driven through green plains and meadows.

The most distinctive quality of the land, however, and something that I always notice while taking these kinds of trips, is emptiness. The overwhelming majority of the landscapes we have seen are basically devoid of people. It’s amazing how quickly your idea of what constitutes a city can change when driving through mile after mile of nothingness. Suddenly, if you see a few houses and businesses, you feel like you have once again rejoined civilization. In Southern California, there is no way in hell that one of these little conglomerations of buildings would even register as being remotely urban. But when out on the open road, a town of 500 is a major population center. And if a town has a real supermarket, a Starbucks, or a Wal-Mart, then it is clearly a thriving metropolis.

Rural environments and general emptiness are still pretty common in the United States. Amazingly, even through our population has increased tremendously over the last one hundred years, there is almost as much empty space today as there was in the early twentieth century. This is because we Americans, like people in all industrialized societies, have a habit of packing into huge cities. As people have become increasingly dependent on commerce to survive, they have been compelled to live in cities. After all, if you rely on trade, then you are forced to live near other people with whom you need to trade.

When the United States was first developing in the nineteenth century, people saw the “empty” lands on the western frontier as a great blessing for our nation. If problems like overcrowding, unemployment, homelessness, or shortages of land and resources developed, then people could look to the west for new opportunities. This was why some Americans were nervous at the end of the 1800’s when it seemed that the frontier was gone. Without this “safety valve” to ease tensions in the more settled, urbanized areas, our country would lose its uniqueness. We would no longer truly be the land of opportunity, and we would develop the kinds of problems seen in the more developed parts of Europe.

Clearly, these fears were largely unfounded. The idea that struggling Americans living in urban areas needed the frontier is clearly a myth. People are not leaving the cities to flock to the frontier. If anything, the opposite has been happening for decades. Southern California, in spite of all of its problems, continues to snowball in population. Meanwhile, states like Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming and several others are filled with cheap land and wide-open spaces. Some of this can be attributed to geography. Southern California has access to the ocean and nice weather. Montana, of course, is landlocked and gets freaking cold. But this is also part of a general American and global trend in which most human beings are compelled to cluster into urban areas.

So in a sense, the American frontier never actually disappeared. It is still out there. I’ve seen quite a bit of it in my travels over the years. But most Americans, from what I can gather, are not itching to move there. Maybe the increasing importance of the internet will play some role in reversing this trend. If people can sell goods and services on-line rather than in person, then they can theoretically live anywhere. A certain amount of human concentration, however, seems inevitable. Certain business transactions must still happen face-to-face, and goods and materials will continue to flow through urban centers that thrive due to their location. Plus, large cities are like a magnet, sucking people in to do business with those who are already there.

I always tell my students that they should get the heck out of California when they graduate from college and get some cheap land out in North Dakota. I then assure them that I will keep an eye on things for them out here in Orange County. The frontier is a nice place to visit from time to time, but I don’t know if I could live there. I’m spoiled by Southern California weather, and a teaching job in a “town” of 150 might not pay very well. So I better get off to bed. For tomorrow, we will leave this iconic symbol of the American frontier and head back toward Southern California, iconic symbol of the modern age.


  1. I like how you wrapped this up.

    Did you take a horse through Bryce Canon? We didn't make it in time for a horse back ride and rented some four wheelers.

    It was beautiful!

    I had just finished my geology class and was able to look at all that land through a scientific lense. I didn't think it could be as cool as the mystical, poetic perspective I walk around with most of the time.

    Glad to hear you got some down time.

  2. I would have liked to do some more ambitious stuff like longer hikes or a mule ride down the Grand Canyon. With kids, however, options are limited. We also tried to cram in a lot of places into a short amount of time. Someday, I hope to go back and take a more thorough look around.

  3. I'ts interesting that you mentioned the word "frontier". In America, the word frontier means the boundary between civilization and wilderness. In Europe, frontier just means a border between one country and another. So, when Star Trek was shown in Europe, and Captain Kirk said "Space, the final frontier", it made no sense to Europeans. What's a final border?

    I wonder what a European would understand by your blog, since there are no real "frontiers" there. Also, unlike America, everywhere was settled before the creation of national parks and national wilderness designations. So every lake, even in remote areas, has some homes on it, etc. There is no "wilderness" such as exists in USA, since every location has been settled and visited for 100s or 1000s of years.

    From my observations, Europe and Eastern USA are more uniformly settled, with populations distributed evenly. Unlike Western USA, which has 10s of millions of people occupying 2 million square miles, but 99% of these people live on 1% of the land, with huge swathes of desolation (deserts or rugged mountain ranges) on the other 99% of the land.


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