Linda Watanabe McFerrin: Travel, Here and There

Posted by on Jun 5, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

By Linda Watanabe McFerrin

As a child, I spent years growing up under a wide blue Montana sky, cocooned in insecurity and stiff little dresses, a miniscule mote in a landscape where square miles were the yardstick by which distances were measured.

And I saw nothing.

I didn’t see the way dawn touched the short black mountains, first with bruisy periwinkle fingers, then with broad rosy palms, or how twilight withdrew reluctantly on long summer days; and nights unfurled, star-sequined, and scented with the sharp green tang of pine forests. At the time, I didn’t see much of anything. I saw the sidewalk under my feet, scored with my chalk marks, the asphalt under the wheels of my bike, and the colorful layers of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

So it is easy, given this simplicity, to remember a particular grade-school teacher, fond of her own voice. She’d read to us, the third grade class of North Star Elementary School, and among the things she read were selections from the journals of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. I think this was our history lesson or our lesson in social studies. Whatever the purpose, I remember the reading with great clarity. I remember it, because this is when I saw for the first time.

On Friday, May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis, canoeing along the Marias River in the vicinity of Great Falls, Montana, wrote in his journal (his misspellings), “The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to the hight of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular:  they are formed of remarkable white sandstone … the water in the course of time in decending from those hills and plains on either side of the river has trickled down the soft sand clifts and woarn it into a thousand grotesque figures … nitches and alcoves of various forms and sizes are seen at different hights as we pass … As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have and [an] end …”

The teacher’s voice droned on, climbing and descending like the river the explorers followed, and gradually, what had seemed to me to be flat earth against the flat pan of the sky, flickered magically and changed. As she read from those journals, I saw waterways with names like Salmon, Snake and Musselshell unwind to crawl over serpentine beds or plunge down precipices into granite basins. I saw a countryside teeming with wildlife—elk and buffalo and bear. I saw the trailing limbs of willows, tangles of vines, the tumultuous descents of waterfalls. I saw Indians. I could smell the buckskin.

Now, as I blinked awake, seeing for the first time, the panorama of my environment, I could also see what was missing. It was a beautiful new world around me, but it wasn’t the same as Lewis and Clark described it. Already much of it had passed away, buried in those meticulous accounts of elk and antelope shot; willow, cottonwood and box elder felled; choke cherry, sarvis berry, gooseberry and current stripped. But this did not trouble me at the time. The universe was brand new and fresh as it came streaming into me. I was absorbed in the first naming. That summer I watched a bear press paw pads on the windows of our station wagon at Yellowstone National Park and Blackfoot Indians dance in the shadows of blue glaciers in the Canadian Rockies. No matter that the Indians were dancing for a horde of loud, ill-mannered tourists or that the bear was probably looking for another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. To me, it was of small concern that I didn’t see things in their pristine natural state. What was important was that when I met a Native American boy in school who was too shy to speak, I knew a little of his history and the history of his people, and I didn’t torment him as the other children did. Maybe a sense of sorrow began to grow in me then, along with those first kernels of beauty, maybe a sense of urgency.

Years have passed, and I haven’t lost my amazement or the awe, like a great influx of breath, at the rush of the world entering again. However, the old specter of transience still haunts me. I’ve lost loved ones. I’ve left people and places behind, and I feel more acutely than ever, a sense of things passing.

Returning from Europe some time ago, I sat between a white-haired couple in their 70’s. They were celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary. She liked the window, he the aisle, so I was well placed. We toasted our travels and their Anniversary and traded travel stories; their favorite being a safari the previous year that took them through the Masai Mara in Kenya. Conditions sounded harsh. I was impressed by the intrepid spirit of my elderly plane-mate and told her so.

“Oh, yes, it’s difficult,” she said. “But well worth it.” I told her I was also hoping to make a trip to Africa, to Kiambu and Samburu. She looked at me, her blue eyes squinty, thin lips pursed. “Well, you’d better hurry, dear,” she said in a voice that made it apparent that she knew what she was talking about. “It won’t be there for long.”

“It won’t be there for long.” This is the exigency that I carry around with me. This is what makes me write. The world renews itself, but what we see from the window today, passes from view. Travel writers capture the moment and the place in a way that transcends time and space, and if we are lucky it takes shape again… as it did for me when I first saw my surroundings through the journals of  Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who opened a window for me that will never close.

You can also read Linda’s travel column at Mia Magazine online.

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