Live Vast

Author Ian Frazier explores what it means for something to be "far away."

Aug 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

First tracks in the Australian outback.

I LIKE TO think that people I talk to have no idea how far away I am. Yes, I seem to be standing next to them at the bus stop and taking part in a conversation about the new commuter train and how it will cause real-estate values in our New Jersey suburb to rise; actually, however, in my mind I'm in eastern Montana, in the blankest part of the map, miles from anywhere. Often I pick out one remote place and carry it around as a secret destination to repair to inwardly if I can't stand the ordinariness of the day. In certain jammed-up city situations, the mere thought of Dawes County, Nebraska (say), is soothing to me. When I let people glimpse this thought, the effect is a weird kind of geographic name-dropping snobbery: In midconversation, with no preamble, I'll blurt out, "Well, I'll be going to Dawes County soon. You never heard of it? It's in western Nebraska—a great place—about 36 hours of driving from here."

FOR ME, REMOTENESS is everything. I usually want to get as far away as I can, no matter where I am. If I go to the mall, I park in the parking lot's farthest corner, with no other cars for acres around. I sit in the back row of the balcony at lectures and I stand in the hardest-to-reach nook at cocktail parties. I love the back of the bus. I wish you were allowed to wait on the roof at airports, and could consult with the doctor not in his claustrophobic office but on the farthest edge of the hospital lawn. Once, in the editorial offices of a magazine in New York City, someone made a remark to me that I didn't like, and instead of replying I left, picked up a travel bag at my apartment, took a subway to the George Washington Bridge, and began to hitchhike west. I was all the way to Ohio before I cooled down.
I understand that this is not the healthiest approach to life. Almost as soon as I actually go to the remote place I've been fantasizing about, of course I want to be somewhere else. It's a crazy frame of mind, and not particularly fair to the places themselves. I've noticed, too, that the better-known remote places recognize my type, and protect themselves from the affliction we are. When in my early thirties I decided to move to Fiji (mainly because of its name, and how cool I thought "I'm moving to Fiji" sounded), I went to the Fijian consulate in Manhattan to make preliminary plans. A somber man in a dark suit took in my hippyish appearance, sat me down, and ran through a carefully practiced list of reasons why I should not go there. Clearly, discouraging destination-crazed people from visiting Fiji was a major part of his job; with me, he succeeded.

Every place is "far away" to somebody. When you come back from a broken-down country overseas, the average airport men's room in America can look like an unreachable island of luxury and light. But thank the gods of geography for the idea of remoteness itself, and for places that are "far away" to almost everyone. The dark end of the subway platform, the last stop on the train, the town in the Alaskan bush with a population of 20, the research station you can only get to two months a year, the Outer Hebrides, Tierra del Fuego, Guam, finis terrae—they're an insignificant part of the earth's surface, and we may never go to them, and if we do we probably won't stay long. But their very existence aerates the imagination, like pinholes in the lid of a collecting jar. Circumstances enclose us all our lives; remote places are the perpetual promise of getting out and away.

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