Sunday, July 06, 2008

July 4th Weekend

A bit of a preface to what comes below: I am writing this all down mainly to try and remember everything I saw. I was lucky enough to take one of the most scenic routes across the American West possible as I journeyed up to Everett, Washington to start an internship tomorrow. Unfortunately, time was an issue, so I had to make the trip without much time for stopping to enjoy the countless mountains, towns, rivers, forests and deserts filling the space from horizon to horizon along the highways and interstates I sped along (by speed I mean either 55 or 62 mph which are the speeds that maximize my gas mileage ... over 4 bucks a gallon! you'd drive slow too!) Anyway, I talk about smells a lot as my car's A/C is effectively broken, so the windows were open a lot. I wish I had had the energy to write down my thoughts each night, but after 15, 17 and 13 hour days driving, I wasn't exactly feeling like doing anything other than passing out. OK, so why all the words and no pictures? Well, they're all on film right now. No digital camera equals no immediate gratification. So writing will have to do ... I don't know if this will be worse for me or you :)

What more fitting way to celebrate the birth of one's country than to spend three days driving across its awesome frontier. From Austin, TX to Everett, Washington, well over 2,000 miles through the West I rolled alone, crossing paths with Lewis and Clark, following the Oregon Trail, and passing through countless Native American tribal lands. All ironic thought essentially melted away though with the deepening sunburn on my left arm, as I was confronted by the sheer magnitude of the land and its myriad forms along the way.

The smell of 4th of July BBQ invaded my windows from the west Texas towns along 183 that afternoon of my first day. Dotted with scrub brush and Dairy Queens, towns like Goldthwaite and Rising Star mark where the hill country gently gives way to the prairie of the Great Plains of the Texas Panhandle where the horizon somehow stretched even further than the oblivion of my restless mind, wrapped as it was in the throes of those countless miles between Abilene and Amarillo. As the sun casts its last, long shadows across cotton and cattle fields, a smell so wholly opposite but also so intertwined with the earlier aroma of BBQ makes it almost easy to say goodbye to Texas that night as 87 takes me through Texline and into New Mexico.

What blessed relief met my tired mind as a new smell filled my nose upon driving into Cimarron, New Mexico, a smell invoking the memories of my teenage years spent traipsing through its source - the Carson National Forest. I truly feel at home as I pull into my parent's driveway in Angel Fire that night/early morning. That feeling is only strengthened as I cross the Rio Grande the next morning and continue through more of the 1.5 million acres of protected land. The gentle valleys and meadows are truly unparalleled in beauty along the stretch of 64 between the Enchanted Circle (Taos, Angel Fire and Red River) and Colorado. The land becomes less gentle as 160 twists through the alpine wilderness of Pagosa Springs, Durango and then Cortez where the land gives way to something entirely new.

I had been to Utah before, but never to the Canyonlands that surround 191 up through Moab. This unbelievable desert with its tall, sandy red rock mountains jutting forth impossibly all around you is an area that I will someday have to return to with more time on my hands. It was at this point in the trip where it started to sink-in just what a difference our national and state parks system makes in preserving the rugged, expansive beauty of this country. The profound difference between traveling through protected wilderness and private land was so tangible on this trip. The chance to experience this earth unspoiled is truly a freedom and right we must demand and respect.

From Moab it was on to Salt Lake City where I watched the sunset over the lake and mountains while driving north from the city. I don't think I will ever forget the intense, burning red of the sun's orb outlining the mountains in such intense flame. It seemed to hover in this halfway-set state forever, one third of it just peeking over the silhouette of the mountains, throwing its rays over and into the sky while the vastness of the lake reflected and magnified the entire display. The intensity of that orange, so deep, so vibrant, so impossibly intense and immediate, is permanently burned into my mind (figuratively ... although I was staring). And then how it just as quickly was over. The sun hidden, the flames of orange gone, replaced with a pink gentle against the clouds as it the sky faded away towards black. A black accompanied 5 more hours on the road that night.

Tumbleweeds accompanied my drive early that next morning only to break through the flatlands once again and onto the route of the Oregon Trail along Interstate 84. There mountains broke way into lush valleys full of rolling farm land, all verdant and green, light splashing through sifting clouds, the clouds whose shadows I'd been bobbing in and out of for three days. Oscillating between flatlands and then mountains, through passes to more farmland only to see more mountains in the distance, only to have the cycle play through again.

But suddenly the impossible happened. I found myself at a rest stop in the Snoqualmie Pass along Interstate 90 where the local volunteer fire department handed me a much needed free coffee. With that kindly cup I found myself a mere 90 miles from Seattle and squarely in what pictures and postcards had told me was the pacific northwest: Steep, tree-filled mountains towered above me on all sides as rain poured gently on the lakes lapping up against the highway. I could imagine the hearty loggers and trappers that filled my history and story books. They suddenly inhabited a concrete world, one of wet, rugged beauty.

Thus baptized I emerged out of the mountains and into the setting sun across Seattle. This city, which I glimpsed for the first time yesterday, could not be more opposite the city of my birth, Houston, TX. Growing up in a world flat and spread out, how jarring and charming to see this city built straight up and everywhere with its tunnels and bridges, twists and turns, and water. Water! Boats and water somehow everywhere. Amazing.

Everett is equally foreign and wonderful right now. I walked to the beach today. Folks let their dogs run free and a couple dug for fresh clams. It's July and I'm wearing a sweater. The newspaper office looks out over the port. Exactly one week ago I was still in Cairo. This is definitely not a desert. The possibilities seem endless right now.


Annie said...

I like it when you write.

Jeffrey McWhorter said...

That sounds beautiful. Northern New Mexico might be my favorite part of the U.S.