The last few years, I’ve driven out west several times. In fact, I just did recently. It’s a long drive from Missouri. Many folks say it’s boring, monotonous and don’t like it. Truthfully, I don’t just drive across- I stop often and linger, sometimes for days, because I am in love with a landscape that’s fascinating, intimidating and beautiful.
So much of the west/ southwest is open, where the sky is eternal and the landscape makes light of the word “vast”. This part of the earth evokes emotions of wonder, deep gratitude and intense awe in me.
The Midwest doesn’t have this sort of landscape, but I get almost the same sense of being large and small at the same time, when I’m in the flat plains of Kansas, Illinois and Indiana. However, as a native, I am so used to corn and soy fields, silos and telephone lines, that I often don’t take notice. My radio will be tuned in and my mind on other things.
Out west, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s a country of contrast, and contradictions; where things are solitary but connected. Where “rugged individualism” and “community” can be used in the same sentence. It’s the Tao at work, where light can’t exist without dark, green without brown and everything is shaped and dependent upon everything else, while having it’s own inherent character.
This isn’t about the big sights or parks or national monuments. This is about the rest of it- the in between.
Two weeks ago, I had a couple of highway hours of intense fog and light rain in western WY. My mind was on semi-trucks fore and aft, and on the white lines to make sure I did not stray from my lane. Total concentration- that’s how thick the fog.
When I emerged from the fuzz, I could relax and suddenly, I became aware of something wonderful. It was all of the sage and juniper taking full advantage of the rare, precious water. How lucky was I, to breathe deeply, the rich mixed scents. Not only was the aroma wonderful, the sage had bloomed- huge, gorgeous yellow flowers as far as I could see. The greens were deeper; all colors were more intense with a bit of water and clouds to take away the midday sheen. I swore I could feel the earth living and growing in those moments.
Blooming from Nebraska to Oregon were the late purple asters, yellow sunflowers and daisies. Infinite wheat fields were lighter shades of butter. Early or late light swept through the kernels, making them glow radiant amber. In September, the farmers are baling and reaping. I saw Monet mounds, two storey bricked stacks and enormous rolls of hay lying in wait. There were truckloads of straw, blowing off like snow and swirling up as a vehicle sped by.
In Vale, OR, onion farmers were harvesting like mad. In the mornings, the whole town (population- very small!) smelled delicious. Giant trucks rumbled by every 10 minutes with heavy loads- an escapee bouncing off occasionally onto the road only to be squashed by a car, but not enough of them to make one cry.
The planted fields were lined with miles and miles of tubed irrigation, slowly riding on giant, spoked wheels. Canals also bring water to cantaloupe, squash, potatoes, corn and even late lettuce from spring fed or snow melt rivers far away.
Much of it is cow country, as most of the land is too rocky or poor for crops. (It’s how many acres per cow as opposed to how many cows per acre in the Midwest.) It’s also horse, sheep, and llama country. There’s open range where I needed to keep an eye out, not only for wandering bovines, but also for pronghorn and mule deer. Game Crossing- Next 1000 Miles.
The landscape is all colors and shapes; the topography changes every few miles. It seemed as if I would never get to that lavender mountain in the distance, but when I did, a new, amazing vista would present itself like a spiritual gift. There are rifts in the land- gullies and small rises. Huge mountains- jagged, rounded or flat- pushed up from tectonic forces and volcanic activity. Steep grades and long flat, ochre stretches. There are hundreds of miles of arid, olive colored brush and endless soft, quiet, lush pine forests up higher. Lava fields, dust devils and wind. Pastures and marshes.
There was randomness but also a strange sense or order. I’d see something solitary, like mesa in the middle of nowhere, or I’d see tremendous patterned ranges where the water and wind etched in the same directions for eons.
Seldom used dirt tracks, busy highways- gas lines or tanks might dot the otherwise barren landscape. I saw crumbling, dead towns and bustling burgs. Rusted oil derricks and smoking behemoth refineries. To break the wind, steel snow fencing or a singular line of trees, lined desolate ridge tops.
I would be surprised with clear rivers or tiny trickles, and saw dozens of dry washes where I imagined sudden flash floods. A lonely patch of green in a sea of beige and tan, where a hardy soul brought some seed, a bit of water and a lot of perserverance, would pop into view now and then.
When I found lakes or ponds, I’d see hundreds of brilliant white pelicans, swans and gulls- or ducks, herons and teals- storing up for the imminent, long flight south.
Eyes up, I saw floating vultures, hawks and golden eagles, all searching for meals or lazily sunning. Ravens, bold and florescent black, were everywhere, keeping the roads clean just for me. Also above me- every kind of cloud imaginable- or none at all.
In arid country, I rarely saw a live thing except for the thousands of sturdy grasshoppers buzzing and clicking. But I knew there was teeming life, mostly at dawn and dusk when it’s not too hot or cold. Arachnids, reptiles, picas and a lot more. I did see a couple a coyotes, jackrabbits, dozens of pronghorn, but only read about yellow marmots that live in the lava fields. I’ve seen bear, elk, moose and other wildlife in the mountains. Altitude is everything (or very little if you go too far). If I wait long, still and quietly, I am usually rewarded.
For journeys west, there are no radios or books on tape. All I need is a tank of gas, all five senses lit and plenty of time to stop.