From salt flats to mountains, gray plateaus to grassland, fields of corn to deciduous woods and marshy ponds, this country is a an eclectic patchwork quilt dissolving in the blink of an eye to new ecosystems and climates. Since yesterday morning we have traveled 657 miles from West Wendover, Nevada to Sidney, Nebraska, and another 542 miles from Sidney to Lake Quivira, Kansas near Kansas City. With each mile my eyes drank in the subtle and dramatic changes alike of the landscape, and I wondered at the lives of the people whose homes we passed. What are their lives like in each of these places? What do they think about? What does the land they live in mean to them as they lead their lives in each particular place?
Our morning began early in the campsite in West Wendover, after a night of fractured sleep disrupted by sweeping desert winds. Although there was a gentle evening heat in the air when we set up our tent at 7:30 pm, not long after sunset a howling wind picked up that increased dramatically throughout the night. I was woken from sleep several times, wondering if our tent was strong enough to resist the gusts, or if we would be unexpectedly exposed to the night air by a sudden tear through our abode. However, come morning our tent proved the stronger, and we found ourselves being slowly steamed by the newly risen sun. Hoping to avoid being thoroughly cooked, we packed up quickly and were on the road by 7:30 am. Or what we thought was 7:30, for as we crossed the Utah border we switched to mountain time and lost an hour of our morning.
The desolate stretches of salt flats, glimmering pure white in the desert sun that exposed them long ago, began to give way to pale blue patches of water, which soon increased to larger bodies of water dotted with salt piles and columns. These pools offered a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains and hills, showing even the delicate “bathtub ring” lines ascending up the mountainsides where once these shores lapped. We were in a valley ringed by time.
Without warning the isolated road was filled with cars, and as we entered the traffic we saw blue barrels strewn over the highway divide, indicating an accident with a large cargo truck. It seemed that no one was hurt, but we may have been too late to tell. But the pause in our traveling speed let us notice something else: no longer light salty ponds, but a grand expanse of rich azure stood to our left – the Great Salt Lake. I have always had a strange desire to view this lake, ever since reading the moving tale of its rising shores captured by Terry Tempest Williams in her book Refuge. She simultaneously describes the loss of the wild bird sanctuary she studies while juxtaposing that narrative with the story of her mother’s slow demise by breast cancer. Every woman in Williams’ family died of some form of cancer, a cruel casualty of the nuclear testing conducted within range of Salt Lake City.
We only stopped briefly in the Mormon city nestled between the lake and mountains, but coming in off the highway I got a single glimpse of it and caught my breath at the beauty of the curvatures in its design. In those brief seconds I took in arching roads and the metallic gleam of the dome of the Mormon Temple, all posed against the gray-blue of the sky-scraping mountain backdrop.
Thus began our ascent into the Rockies: deep green, tree-choked ravines, soaring peaks, alpine grasslands nestled with sheep, and bare red, yellow, and gray rock. Over a short stretch three deer lay dead by the road in tragic repose, unmourned by few perhaps except us and their mountain home. Picturesque alpine towns could almost have passed for Swiss villages, but for their slightly more contemporary architecture.
We swept by a murky lake with red shores, reed-filled mud flats, several anti-abortion billboards, and even a shiny graveyard of rusting, abandoned cars. The mountains morphed into majestic spires of heavy red rock, the color that characterizes Utah in my imagination. Millennia of rain and river water had carved these magnificent features from wild, solid, stubborn rock. Although my definition of this is constantly changing, these rouge mountains seem to represent something of the American spirit, an adventurous resistance, slow to change yet also a nearly imperceptible flexibility that reshapes into new forms.
As we crossed into Wyoming the landscape shifted to a dusty gray, as though the low-hanging mist in the air was sucking the color from the earth. Rock eventually gave way to grassland, where once the buffalo roamed, 60 million of them before the US Army slaughtered them all to attempt to drive into extinction the Native Americans who depended upon the buffalo.
The steel gray of storm clouds gathered on the horizon, and before long jagged bolts of lightning rent open the sky. The first rain splattered the windshield as the Grateful Dead serenaded us with “Box of Rain.” A heavy downpour and more lightning, sometimes as bolts sometimes as an electric sheet, made us realize we would not be camping this night. As the winds picked up we pulled into the tiny town of Sidney, Nebraska and booked into a motel. By morning the sky was clear, and the humid air was rapidly rising to 100°.
The landscape has remained relatively the same on this third day of our trip as we passed through Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. Corn and potato fields rolled on and on, divided by deciduous trees, small bodies of water, and lush bulrush marshes. I tried to imagine what it might look like frozen over with snow. A completely different world from the one we were seeing today.
Each person we encountered, whether at the coffee shop or gas station, I liked to remind myself was another soul whose path was crossing with mine, even if just for a few moments. I asked the woman at the gas station how she was doing, and she sighed while saying, “Oh, I’m here.” When I wished her a good day, she responded with “I’ll try.” I found myself hoping it would be a good one for her.
In Lincoln, Nebraska we left our faithful companion, the I-80, to head south on NE-2 toward Kansas City. After an accidental detour through Nebraska City, we unexpectedly passed into the “cornerstone” of Iowa, right after crossing the Missouri River. Soon we were wending our way through the trees of Missouri itself, driving along the border of Kansas until we reached the river again, and at last crossed into our destination state.
After meeting my aunt and uncle, who we are staying with, for dinner, they led us back to their beautiful home on Lake Quivira where we went out on their pontoon boat for a moonrise cruise with a glass of wine while hearing the details of the community who live in the surrounding homes.
Tomorrow we rest. It is July 4th, a day perhaps better spent in America’s heartland than the rebellious coastal city of San Francisco, to swim in the lake, eat chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and watch fireworks over the lake.