Welcome back: Traveler tours his "home"
There are writers who avoid the pedestal from which they might be admired. They write of the mundane phenomena of the world with humility, and we appreciate their insights without crediting them. Instead of remembering their names, we remember a voice, a written cadence, a non-verbal tic that, when we read it again, we recognize as one we know and enjoy.
William Kittredge is one of those writers for me. While his name wanders about, an unencumbered traveler through literary journals and magazines, his work is firmly hitched. Reading the first few pages of his latest book, Southwestern Homelands, brought me back to the rapt attention with which I have read his essays in the past; Oh, I love this guy, I realized, and settled in to do just that.
Southwestern Homelands is part of the same National Geographic series that brought Gary Wills to Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn and took David Mamet to Vermont. Invited by the mother of travel writing to discourse on his favorite destinations, Kittredge, a native Oregonian and resident of Montana for the past 25 years, chose the desert expanses and irrigated spas of Arizona and New Mexico.
“Two problems are waiting to explode in the Southwest,” he writes, referring to the endless border crossings and the ecological fragility of the region, “…thirst, both actual and metaphoric.”
Kittredge gives us his Southwest in vignettes, aphorisms, and recollected dining menus. Reading his work is like sitting on his porch, glass in hand, as he reminisces. Often we’re joined in his reveries by other distinctive voices of the American West: Edward Abbey, Charles Bowden, and Kittredge’s long-time companion, Annick Smith, among others. They are here, in Kittredge’s ode, to help him sort out his contradictory emotions and behavior as he tries to bed down in this always-foreign “homeland.”
In particular, Kittredge seems perplexed by the incompatibility of fully enjoying the regional charms (hot-rock massages, expensive turquoise jewelry, and the fabulous fusion cuisine) while still showing proper respect for the region’s ancient civilizations and concern for the more modern disparities between impoverished and privileged.
Defining homelands as “emotional homes,” he opposes the notion that any one group might claim original ownership. The Sonora desert and the streets of Santa Fe belong equally to the Mexican refugee, the Hopi descendent, and the frost-bitten essayist from Missoula who enjoys a good oasis and glass of mescal.
We tend to agree with him, and when we don’t, we just enjoy listening to him talk, promising not to forget his name again.
William Kittredge is a guest of the Brown College of UVA. He will discuss and sign Southwestern Homelands in the McGregor Room of Alderman Library on Friday, March 28, at 5pm. Author and filmmaker Annick Smith follows with a slide presentation on Saturday at 2pm at Ivy Creek Natural Area.