You don’t get it in an airplane. You’re moving too fast, and if you’re me, you’re far too worried about dying. But driving, on the ground, to anywhere that’s farther than a day away makes you feel really small.
I just got back from a road trip to the American Southwest – New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, which, for those keeping score at home, is a whopping four out of fifty states. Add in drive-through states Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, and this trip wound its way through a colossal 7/50ths of the United States. That slice of the country was vast and varied enough to make me feel like I’d been everywhere, when really I’d only been slightly more than nowhere.
Interestingly, there were very few people along many of the roads, making me wonder where all this overpopulation I’d read about was actually located.
In seriousness, though, the lack of people made the distances seem that much greater. Since I’m a worrier, to me ‘no people’ often meant ‘no help if anything goes wrong.’ Luckily, nothing went wrong and no help was no problem, but the perceived danger helped me appreciate the scale of the odyssey.
The jarring changes the surrounding landscape went through also drove home how big a little chunk of America can be. New Mexico’s desert didn’t look much like the Grand Canyon, which didn’t look much like Utah’s Zion National Park, which didn’t look much like its neighbor Bryce Canyon or Arizona’s Antelope Canyon or more northern Utah’s Arches. There was space between these places.
The net effect of all this was 1) to make me feel more insignificant than usual and 2) to remind me that while you’re always somewhere, some wheres are more interesting than others. There’s a reason 87 gazillion people (an approximation) go to the Grand Canyon every year. I’m not sure that all of them know what it is, but there has to be one.
Being in a different place shows you who you are a little bit, especially if that place is totally unlike anywhere else you’ve been. Like if there’s a you-shaped hole in the place you usually are, and you’re always in that hole, you can never be sure exactly what shape you and the hole are, because you’re surrounded by something that you fit in. But when you leave the hole, you can look at it and see what shape it is, and you can go feel out your own shape in a place that doesn’t necessarily have a hole you fit into. And even if it does have a you-shaped hole, you have to go looking for it, which requires you to know what kind of hole you’re looking for.
Incidentally, many of the tourist attractions in Utah and Arizona are really big holes in the ground. I’m not sure who or what they’re shaped like.
If none of that makes any sense, don’t worry about it, because plenty of people who go on road trips never think about what the holes they leave behind are shaped like. I think road trips do what they’re supposed to do anyway.