Back in the 18th century, upper class Europeans were fond of making a “Grand Tour” that included visiting France, Italy, and Austria, with a little bit of Spain or Germany thrown in for extra flavor. It was a rite of passage, a way of furthering one’s cultural education, and of showing the folks back home that you were a worldly sort.
Today, at least in France, the Grand Tour has headed west—to the Far West, to be exact. It seems like every French person I meet who has the means has been to, or is planning to go to, the American Southwest. At first I thought this was due to an overabundance of cowboy movies being broadcast on French TV. I still vividly remember the first time I saw John Wayne speaking fluent French in a dubbed Western—a shock like that leaves psychological scars that can take years to heal. But I now think this obsession goes beyond Hollywood, and speaks to the mythic image of the US in the minds and hearts of millions of French people.
After over a dozen years in this country, I’m still amazed when I realize how many people here and in other places see Americans as essentially cowboys. And no matter how many times you tell people that your grandfather was a hat maker from Vitebsk, when they look at you they still see someone blonde and freckled who grew up on the Great Plains.
But there’s another essential reason that tens of thousands of French people trek halfway across the planet to roast in southern Utah—it’s frigging gorgeous. This fact was unclear to me until recently, when I got so tired of hearing about the Southwest from the French that I actually went there. Aside from a visit to the Grand Canyon when I was five (when my main interest was avoiding falling in), I’d never been, a fact that made me burn with shame when faced with so many delighted reports from my neighbors. So a couple of years ago, I packed up my French husband and son and took them on a mini-version of the French Grand Tour. I say “mini” because we didn’t have the time to do the classic tour, a Herculean event that takes at least three weeks and includes the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches National Parks, Monument Valley, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Yosemite—and for the truly possessed—Death Valley.
We settled for the Grand Canyon and Zion, with a side trip to Joshua Tree on the way back to California. We were enchanted, enraptured, enthralled, and every other over-used adjective you can think of. Even though I grew up about an hour from the Mojave, I never appreciated the desert until adulthood. A decade in the confines of New York City probably had something to do with my newfound appreciation of wide-open spaces. In any case, I became hooked on red rock, and this past summer we made another excursion, this time to Monument Valley, Arches and Bryce Canyon. The only part of the tour I take issue with is the obligatory stop in Las Vegas, but I will complain about that in a future post.
So, thanks to the French, I am now a one-person promotional campaign for the American Southwest. Go! It’s beautiful. You’ll never see cowboy movies the same way again.