Snapshots from Driving West

A week ago today I rolled out of the driveway in western Massachusetts under the hushed silence of early morning fog. I got on the highway as I did as a teenager 10 years ago on my way to high school. This time I kept going. Through Connecticut. Through the Bronx. Through the edge of Philly. Through a little part of Delaware. Through Maryland (where I swear I could smell the ocean in the wind). Until I reached D.C., my first stop.

My great-grandfather (far right) before a trip out West in the early 1900s -- they took a train.

Seven days, and 2500 miles later, I am now in the west eating a plump Coloradan peach in a town called Longmont on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. I’m staying with my cousin for a few days to recharge before making my way over those mountains to Utah (though if this peach is any testament to the glories of Colorado I just might have to stay longer).

I have to say the experience driving this far in a week is an odd one. The world has been coming at me in beautiful, curious snapshots each day (with plenty of dull, repetitive ones too). In a car, you move through it all so quickly it can hardly seem real at times (and in all honesty I’ve been pretty restless so have been moving myself through it all in a whirl). As I pulled onto my final street yesterday afternoon, the immediate thought was: am I really here?

Today I’ve started to shake that driving-a-car feeling. A good long sleep has quieted the engine in my ears and a short run today has reminded my body that it’s main function is to move, not sit. But, before I get all my wits back, I thought I’d share some of those snapshots…

In Washington, D.C., I see the expansive Potomac river from the porch of George Washington’s house at Mt. Vernon — and wonder if he, like Siddartha, got all his big ideas staring out at it. I see orangutans walking on wires at the National Zoo and marvel how much the broad muscles of a gorilla’s back look like those of a male swimmer’s (without the hair of course). I take streets with number and letter names like P, K and U. I stroll 14th to the White House and see Obama’s beehive on stilts on the South Lawn. I have dinner in Mt. Pleasant with pasta, salmon, wine, friends, and a nice but awkward waitress (and try to describe what “awkward” means to a recent transplant from Germany who’s noticed that Americans like to say it a lot).

In Virginia, I take a meandering road that connects, somehow, to Tennessee and see a steady stream of crisp white fences marking thoroughbred farm after thoroughbred farm.

In Tennessee, I take a late evening hike through mountain magnolia trees in the Great Smoky Mountains. I have a young kid cut through my campsite, stop, and ask me: “are you sleeping in your car?”. I wind my car/bed/home up to Newfound Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crosses, in the misty morning air that must give the Smokies their name, drop an AT thru-hiker at the trailhead, and get inspired to hike a little of it too. I hear John Denver’s voice on the radio croon, somewhere outside of Knoxville, “there are only two things that money can’t buy and that’s true love and home grown tomatoes.” I get lost in downtown Nashville and drive up Broadway street where the sounds of honky tonk greet me. I wait for an old friend outside her building near Vanderbilt after a walk through a park with a giant replica of the Greek Parthenon. I see cotton fields outside of Memphis and little tufts of white dribble out to the highway, carried by the wind.

Looking down a ridge of a color-dotted Smoky mountain

AT trail -- only 2000 miles to go until Maine!

In Arkansas, I learn that it’s motto is “the natural state.” I see a dead armadillo right after I cross the Mississippi. I hear four blurbs on the radio: the first tells me the latest commodity pricing from Chicago (soy is up), the second tells me I’m invited to a worship service on Sunday, the third tells me a reliable barge company to use to move my corn across the Mississippi, and the fourth invites me to a woman’s tea benefit. I pass an animal holding truck in the pouring rain outside of Little Rock and see a black, soft ear stick out between the holes. I find clear skies and pine trees south of the Ozarks.

Hay truck exiting (phew!) after 25 miles behind it in Oklahoma

In Oklahoma, I pass the hometown of “Carrie Underwood, American Idol Winner 2005.” I get stuck behind a truck loaded with gigantic bails of hay; straws come through my open window. I leave Oklahoma City and the evening sky is both dusty pink and glowing white with oil drills. I hear on the radio that the Cherokee Nation has a new leader. I drive and drive and drive until I’m almost in Texas. I sleep in the Black Kettles National Grassland parked next to a man-made lake. I awake and find that the earth is the color red. I go up and down arroyos until I reach the high plains of the panhandle. I see oil drills again but now they are as black as the cows and torn tires I pass, all standing out sharply against the sun-bleached grass. I see signs in highway-green every 20 miles or so that say “cemetery” with an arrow pointing down a long, dusty dirt road.

Waking up in Oklahoma to the moon and the redness

Early morning sun waiting to break through

Not everything is always beautiful but it has it's own charm

In Colorado, the border sign tells me I’ve entered a “colorful” state. I see, hear, and smell everywhere the machinery of feed, livestock, manure.  I see gigantic bails of hay stacked in neat piles. I pass empty animal holding trucks, headed south. Outside a tumbleweed town,  I read a sign that says “save Pinon Canon, this land is our life.” I ride alongside a train and catch my first glimpse of the Rockies — at first, I think they’re clouds. I roll into a gas station and a woman, noticing my plate, tells me “you’re a long way from home.” I see the mountains get closer and closer and start to feel that pulse in me kick. I think about the people riding these plains thousands of years ago. I think about the people on weary wagon journeys reaching this point. And I imagine they must have all felt it too — to be awakened by this cathedral of stone rising out of the earth.

It’s been an interesting and beautiful trip filled some peaceful moments and absurd and nerve-racking ones too. I’m glad to have done it, to have watched the land change, to have a glimpse into some new and different corners of our country, to have seen the realities of how our food gets from farm to plate. I am very glad, though, to no longer be experiencing the world through just a windshield. It’s time to go and see what this promise land of the West has in store for me. I’ve arrived!

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4 responses to “Snapshots from Driving West

  1. marie cecelia (your mom's friend and your new fan)!

    You write unbelievably beautifully (tongue-twister beautiful). I made that trip west down I 80 several times and never saw what you did! marie cecelia

  2. What an amazing journey already! Thanks for the lovely description. xoxoxo

  3. I slept through my only trip out west (only to Ohio) and now know what I missed! Love reading this all, Court. Hope you are well!

  4. Ha! I can relate to the whole “awkward” conversation. None of the Europeans I met traveling South America knew what it meant, and explaining it always proved fruitless. Are we really the only awkward culture out there?

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