I have not picked up Lawrence’s Travels in Italy for some time. Bonheoffer, Greene, and questioning have kept me from it. But tiring of the anxiety of these, I have today looked a little more at Lawrence’s travels, which took me to a website that referenced his time in the American southwest. I then took the opportunity to look at that which so much influenced him, the “Golden Age of Alpinism,” when in the late 19th century Europeans decided it was time to get out of the valleys and look at their granite monsters from their tundra tops rather than the forested slopes. It was very peculiar to find European explorers still discovering passes through the Alps in the 19th century at a time American settlers were taking wives and children through peaks and deserts. Interestingly Lawrence was more American in his taste. In going to Italy, he and von Richthofen made use of passes and hostels, but they still went through the formidable environment as travelers letting the geography speak to them as much as taking on the role of explorer. In this they were very American. Our mythology may be built partly on Lewis and Clark, but we are much more about wagon trains and railroads than about men in parkas going up slopes on skis. The European vision may have more allure on the surface (it did lead to exploring the poles and Everest) but the American experience is one of everyday people in hostile lands who would do more than just look at a place then leave. Americans would engage new geographies from where they would not turn back. The explorer says let’s see a place and leave. The settler and traveler say let us go off to find out who we are, what the world is and in doing this make a home for ourselves.
Actually Americans were not doing anything new in this type of travel. They were simply caught in a much older and mythic form of roaming that dates to the time of the great pilgrimages. These were common to Europe and the Middle East and involved going to a place and leaving, but not really. Getting to the top of Everest was about planting a flag; getting to a church after two weeks of hiking was about changing one’s mind. Getting to the pole was about using one’s wits; the pilgrim trail was about being led. In America the two paths converged, but the bias was really about using geography to find a home and in this discovery of oneself.
In Europe, the debate raged as to what to do about the new hither lands. No longer dismissed as waste places, they became the landscape of exploration and sacredness. The debate pitted two fallen Christians against one another. Leslie Stephen saw in the Alps the playground of Europe and the romantic John Ruskin saw sacred peaks.
This brings me back to Lawrence. His travel was more of a discovery of sancity than exploration. Actually it is the story of being open. Lawrence and von Richthofen probably had every intention to explore, but they were also sojourners and sojourners never travel in the same way as explorers. They were essentially pilgrims and their pilgrimage did eventually lead them to their home.
Six years after his travels to Italy, Lawrence comes to the American west and is transfixed in ways he could never be in Europe. The geography is unlike anything. There is a gash in the earth a mile deep, there are peaks so formidable the Native Peoples call them the Never Summer, there is a desert named for death. Here in the newly formed state of New Mexico on the Rio Grande fifty miles south of Colorado and north of what is today the Santa Fe National forest, Lawrence discovers Taos.
It was 1922 and the nation is young and democratic. In Europe the wealthy hold the beautiful estates. In America the vision of John Muir has created the national parks preserving the gifts of the good earth not for the elite, but for all. Fueled by the mythology of America and the allure of unspeakable landscape Lawrence had come to that place that would quench his fernweh (far sickness.)
One would have to read Lawrence to get at all the ways the American west was spiritually different from Europe, but Americans can sense this without reading a word. And in this lies the liberation and danger that is American wandering.
We are, as Zebulon Pike said, a people who are prone to wander. He thought it was a good thing the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the prairie which he considered a desert would contain us. He was wrong about all three. Just a little more than 150 years after this proclamation, one can get through all three in about fifteen hours on the open road and considerably less with air travel. It took our ancestors longer, but they did make it through and further still until eventually at the end of the 19th century, they were staring at the Pacific. (Not content with a continent we turned our attention to the Spanish colonies and even to space, but that is not the point here.)
In Europe, the Alpine explorers were only trying to get to the tops of peaks their people had seen for centuries. There was only the desire to get to know a place, not to engage in the psychology of the matter. If there was travel to be involved for the European it was usually to see family, attend to the affairs of the state, wage war, or go on a holy pilgrimage. (After all they lived in already “discovered” land.) These could involve adventure or a change of mind, but all were well defined and followed the edicts of the Church, the family, or the nation.
But in America…..there was travel in the sense Lawrence knew it. In this we were brought to that place where we roam empty without priests, kings, and fathers to be our guides. And in this there lies beauty and danger.
Upon discovering Taos, Lawrence gave in to the power of place in a way he could not in Europe. In Europe the crucifixes lined his path to Italy; in America there was only God’s grandeur. Lawrence took that to the place of an appreciation for native peoples and to a geography he found sentient, but it would go to other places as well. Christian creation spirituality, transcendentalism, new age thought, and Mormonism are all born from the American landscape.
In America, the landscape continues to give the traveler the blank slate with which to define their pilgrimage. At its most beautiful, it is a landscape that allows God to lead us, but it can also become what many would consider a place where we seek a definition beyond what we are intended to think.
Note: Pictured above is the Lawrence tomb in Taos New Mexico. When I continue this piece I will take up John Muir and Creation Spirituality. You can read about Lawrence and Taos in this 2006 NYT travel piece.