Earlier this month, I flew to West Texas and spent the better part of nine days backpacking and camping in Big Bend National Park with my brothers, father, and a family friend. My father had spent much of his youth backpacking in the park, which was only a little over 20 years old at the time. And while it was the first time my brothers and I had ever visited, for my father, who is close to 70, it will likely be his last. Wanting to document the trip in some way, I turned to the writings of one of Japan's greatest poets, Matsuo Bashō.
Bashō, widely considered a master of the hokku, or haiku, is equally renowned as a writer of a form called haibun, which combines haiku with prose. In fact, Bashō coined the term in a letter to his student, Kyorai, in 1690. Toward the end of his life, Bashō was a restless traveler, and the bulk of Bashō's haibun are accounts of his journeys. The most famous, Oku no Hosomichi, is alternately translated as Narrow Road to the Interior and Narrow Road to the Deep North—the latter translation being the inspiration for the title of Richard Flanagan's Man Booker Prize–winning novel of the same name.
As both a poet and journalist, I found the idea of a form that wedded poetry and nonfiction to be particularly suitable, and I picked up a Penguin Classics edition of the work and a few of its fellows, called The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches and translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, for inspiration. What I found was a rich, patient, and detailed work as sublimely moving in its poetics as it was observant in its travel writing.
I found that the book also served as a handy inverse. While Bashō's travels were to what were, during his time—Japan's Edo period—the furthest, most remote reaches of his homeland, I left my Brooklyn apartment for the southmost wilds of my father's youth, now visited by more than 300,000 people yearly and a prime target for President Donald Trump's proposed border wall.
Big Bend is a scorched, reddened, dusty landscape filled with prickly pear cacti and creosote bushes and waxy candelilla and thorny ocotillo, the "devil's walking stick." The book's descriptions of the frozen north of Japan could not be more different than the desert with which I was surrounded, but sitting atop the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains gazing south toward the Rio Grande and Mexico's Guadalupe range, it didn't matter. It was all beauty, as worth relishing as it is worth saving.