Adventure 2017: Alex Handloff — Guiding French through the Wild West
March 29, 2017
Everything seems more important when it's far away, be it Botswana or Borneo. But don't forget what lies close to home, which brings me to the following adventure in our neck of the woods.
For six months this past year, I worked as an adventure travel guide for French speakers, s’il vous plaît. With cappuccinos in hand (OK, cowboy coffee), we visited a dozen national parks in the western U.S., as well as state and tribal parks, and national forests, monuments, recreation areas and everything else in between.
And it was all bursting with awe and wonder, without having to hop a jet liner to visit the Louvre. I performed handstands on the Great Sand Dunes, monologues in Monument Valley and even cracked open a couple of cold ones in Death Valley. I slept under the desert stars for weeks on end, counting them in vain.
And the French tourists — and the Germans and busloads of Chinese — know more about these destinations than we do. They throng to these locally ignored places because they're amazing and right in our own neglected backyard.
How good was it? Well…
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• People talk about speaking different languages abroad, but believe or not, about half of all visitors to our national parks are foreigners. You can learn Chinese, Japanese, Czech, German and French, among others. While I was soaking up the sun and staring at the terraced, travertine deposits of Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs, I learned how to say "friend" in Chinese. Check!
• You don't have to cross the Atlantic to gain memorable experiences, as evidenced by our front-row seat in Zion to witness a bighorn sheep battle. As they clung to the striated, red-and-white sandstone cliffs, they butted heads, creating a cacophony of thunder echoing off the canyon walls. Check!
• People talk about getting sick abroad. But it can happen here, too. In Yosemite, as the sun was setting between two glimmering granite domes, I cooked a beautiful lemon chicken pasta and gave myself and my whole group of picky French eaters food poisoning. Check!
• You also don't have to go abroad to be culturally sensitive. One day I climbed into an ancient kiva at the ancestral Puebloan site of Mesa Verde and learned that they built complicated, well-insulated, impermeable wood roofs without the use of nails or glue — all 1,000 years ago! Check!
• You also don't have to leave the U.S. to get out of your comfort zone. While riding road bikes through Nevada's Valley of Fire, forgetting to breathe while staring at the marshmallow plops of sedimentary rock to either side, a French guest flew off her bike and landed on her face, breaking her arm. I had to reset it, which was … uncomfortable. Check!
So in the end, while my French tourists were having the time of their lives visiting my country, so was I, close to my hometown of Steamboat. Exploration doesn't care about international borders; it starts with a good attitude and an interesting place, not hours in an Airbus.