Slow Drought, Rapid Ascent

One thousand, four hundred miles in two days, from the rolling wooded hills of Ohio, through the dry tabletop flatland of Kansas, deep into the rapid ascent of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Matt has been a heroic driver. And because of the exhaustion of such an expedition, we have decided to spend an extra day in the idyllic beauty of Aspen, enjoying the sight of high green and red mountaintops, fluttering aspen leaves, and glittering hummingbirds feeding outside the window.

The much-needed rain began to descend as we departed Cincinnati Saturday morning, and we were met with a sudden downpour and pools of water on the poorly constructed Ohio highways. Traffic slowed immediately to a crawl as we appeared to be going through a car wash machine without soap. Soon, however, we left the shadow of the rain clouds and entered drier land. Meanwhile a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Reverend Al Sharpton, over the existence of God and the need or lack for religion, played out on the speakers. At many times they seemed to be having parallel but separate arguments, Hitchens focusing on the evils of religious interpretations, and Sharpton pushing the issue of the existence of God without religious trappings, a point which Hitchens seemed to generally avoid. From there we turned our attention to a lecture given by Chris Hedges, not to be in any way confused with Hitchens, who spoke of religious fundamentalism, the Christian Right in America, the economic despair that drives people to such extremist faith, and the “epistemology of television” which suppresses critical thinking. With his words reverberating in the car we passed large crucifixes in the cornfields, anti-abortion posters, and billboards with images of a pale white, effeminate Jesus blessing the drivers of I-70.

While passing through Indiana we listened to a rousing talk by Helen Caldecott given in 1982 on the threats of nuclear war; she drew an analogy between the state of our planet and the plight of a terminally ill cancer patient. The horrific images she painted of nuclear war, and the insanity that the governments who build these weapons have not thought of the ultimate consequences of their use, reminds me of the same delusional denial the world’s leaders take in regard to climate change and the ecological crisis. We stopped briefly at a gas station where I saw a woman dressed as a clown filling up her car—a perfect image to capture the direction in which this country is going. Not long after, we passed for the second time on this trip a concrete cross at least ten stories high, towering over the yellow straw of drought-ridden, eroded agricultural fields on the edge of desertification.

Matt and I returned to Lake Quivira near Kansas City for the night, the place we stayed ten days before on our outward journey. Early the next morning, we left the comforts of a familiar place to embark on the longest stretch of the entire trip: 782 miles from the eastern edge of Kansas up into the Rockies to Aspen, Colorado. Although we crossed just two states, unlike the day before when we had traversed five, the day totaled thirteen hours of driving.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The long expanse of Kansas proved to be flatter than a pancake, with the largest fields of wheat and corn I have ever seen. It felt like an alien landscape, with a mile of corn suddenly giving way to gray dirt and clumps of yellow grass as suddenly as if a wall had been built to separate the two. The highest objects in sight for hours were the plastic signs advertising fast food joints and gas stations. Occasionally a stream would meander over the land, and an oasis of green followed the track of the water. When there was variation in the topography the road would occasionally dip into a cut in the soil, revealing red and white striations of earth layered like a cake beneath dry grass icing. Our own oasis was provided by a set of tapes recorded in 1992 of Robert McDermott, who gave a lecture series on spiritual masters while he was president of the California Institute of Integral Studies. We heard the first three of those lectures, on Martin Buber, C.G. Jung, and Simone Weil.

After leaving behind us the Oz Winery, a massive wind farm of white turbines, and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, we entered the tiny town of Hays and knew we needed to stop for lunch. It was 106°. As Matt put it, it felt like a breeze blowing straight out of Hell. It was not hard to believe the large billboard we had seen earlier that stated “Hell Is Real.” Hell is the havoc we have wrecked on the climate that is producing this massive drought and soaring temperatures. The small oil wells we had seen along the roadside, pumping oil up out of the barren fields, seemed like some kind of a mockery of the weather.

As we entered Hays I could not help but wonder what life was like in this small town. What is the primary form of income? What makes people happy? What do they dream about? To our delight we found a local brewery called Gella’s Liquid Bread, and were able to sample their award-winning oatmeal stout and American wheat ale with our afternoon meal. Here certainly was one expression of creativity in the town of Hays.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Hours after lunch was digested we crossed the chalky Colorado border. Feral sunflowers grew by the sides of the highway. Black calves followed their mothers through fields. Train tracks led to nowhere. Small houses from a bygone era stood alone, each with their own forgotten history. Who had once settled this piece of land in the name of freedom, so many decades ago? Still the land was flat.

Then, in the far western distance, clouds began to gather. A deep azure shadow blurred the once clear edge of the horizon. Rays of sunlight cut through the clouds to illuminate the land. Planes trafficked the air, criss-crossing the skies. Denver. A city, trees, hills, mountains, then thunderheads, each layered against the next. In a matter of minutes the plains were a mere memory.

I can barely begin to describe the feeling of ascending into the Rocky Mountains after hours upon hours and miles upon miles of flat grassland. It is like drinking in the sweetest draughts of color and texture, light and shadow, like paintings unfolding beneath the artist’s wrist of the Divine. The rapid incline was accompanied by flourishing conifers and carved red boulders. The foothills grow into mountains like seedlings into trees, children into adults. These ancient mountains are decaying; after millennia of shooting skyward with the pressure of tectonic upheaval, they now are slowly crumbling, their peaks rounding and smoothing under the centuries of rain and snowfall. Yet still they are great majesties.

It began to rain. Sunlight seared through the falling water creating a world of white and platinum, the road and trees cast silver in the shifting light. A tumbling river tore through the rock on the left of the road, sparkling in the sun’s rays. Then, without warning, we left the shadow of the rainstorm and entered a dry realm higher still. Red barns and soft meadows, indigo lakes and laughing streams. We crested over a pass between the mountains, then descended into a wide grassy plain, the High Plains filled with horses and foals, likely an ancient lakebed drained long ago. I saw a highland cow, a red, long haired, horned creature I had only ever seen in the Scottish Highlands. Yet here one was in the Rockies. We were taking an alternate route, along highway 285, because there was a sink hole in the usual road to Aspen on 24. Though it was 25 miles longer, we would never have encountered the High Plains if we had gone the normal route.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

After the plains we passed the town of Buena Vista, and saw several signs protesting a Colorado Springs plan to dam this valley for a reservoir. It was hard to imagine these canyons and valleys sunk below placid waves, a lake that would most likely surrender to silt build-up in less than a century. Our route turned on to 82, and we circled a still, blue lake, reflecting the high peaks in exact mirror image. The road climbed ever higher, making sharp turns on the mountain’s face, leaving the bottoms of my feet with that hollow tickle that accompanies a slight fear of heights. The evening sun rises and sets constantly in the mountains as new views open beyond each passing peak. Yet at last it set for good, and our road became ever dimmer.

Finally, no more mountains obstructed our view and we rose above the world at Independence Pass. We stepped into the crystal air at 12,095 feet. Immediately we were short of breath as we walked about a glass pool reflecting the dusk sky, the tundra foliage bedecked in miniscule wildflowers. The descent into Aspen grew ever darker, and the road twisted and turned beneath overhanging rocks and aspen branches. Moths flew continuously into our headlights. Then, out of nowhere, a pale brown bunny leapt into our path, so close to the car there was literally no way to avoid it. We hit it instantly and I prayed it had died quickly. I cried all the way into Aspen. There was literally nothing we could have done, yet I could find no way to justify it. I have seen many things on this trip that humanity cannot justify, and this one act I felt so personally.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Rarely have I felt the kind of exhaustion we both felt upon arrival in Matt’s aunt’s beautiful home, decorated with exquisite relics from her world travels. We ate peaches and cherries, a sweet relief from American road trip food. I long to go on the kinds of adventures that I see captured as memories in every part of this house. But for now, my only adventure will be into the dreamworld of sleep.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Humid Heartland

Our arrival at Lake Quivira, Kansas coincided with a rose vermillion sunset over the rippling waters of the lake, visible through the lush, leafy, summer trees. July 4th was the first morning we were able to sleep in, which was such a gift after spending 1,846 miles on the road. Feeling highly privileged, we stepped out of the air conditioned house and drove a little black golf cart into a cloud of steamy heat, swelling with the buzzing of cicadas. We drove down to the lakeshore and dove straight into the water, our bodies probably steaming like a hot cooking pan run under a cool stream from the kitchen faucet. I was soaking in utter contentment.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Earlier in the day we had been given a driving tour of Kansas City, passing along hot, empty streets between towering brick buildings. The city reminded me somewhat of Newcastle, England, with the red buildings and arching bridges. The gold-leaf roof of a church shone out from the city center, and the shimmering metallic arches of the performing arts center echoed the design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia. While hearing stories of sunken steamboats found buried in fields, and limestone caves miles deep used for storing frozen produce, we drove past the famous Plaza shopping center, and saw the Hallmark headquarters where my aunt had held a twenty-one year career as an artist and letterer.

Our Independence Day dinner was classic American fare: corn on the cob, cole slaw, fried chicken––which, yes I will admit was a first for me––and my personal favorite of home-grown basil, local cherry tomatoes, skewered with a toothpick to mozzarella bathing in an olive oil and balsamic sauce. The discussion over dinner, primarily with a self-declared “hardcore” conservative, was about as lively as one could get while remaining friendly. Matt thrives on such discussion, and the table was like a verbal match of ping pong with multiple players participating at once. The starting topic was Obama’s healthcare program which was just upheld in the Supreme Court, that led each of us to parse out the details of what was good and what needed to be changed, and that the Republican solution to just repeal it was not enough: another alternative needs to be offered for that to be realistic.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The conversation ranged over many of the most controversial bi-partisan topics, from education and taxes, to evolution. Matt and I had to make it clear we are not what would be considered “mainstream liberals,” and both sides of the conversation learned not to assume the other was a caricature embodying the full ideals of the mainstream left or right parties. When the discussion turned toward evolution we began to narrow in further and further, starting with Matt speaking of how creationism cannot be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution, because they are coming from entirely different fields. However, as we gave examples of evolution we discovered our conservative conversationalist did in fact believe in both adaptation and genetic mutation, but not evolution, which he had separated out. His argument was similar with global warming: he said he believed in climate change but not global warming. Ultimately though, as we were feeling inclined to wrap up the discussion out of consideration for our hosts, we came to a similar agreement on evolution, as recognizing the physical evidence for evolution while also recognizing the Divine influence present in the universe’s unfolding as well.

By this time dusk was falling and we turned our attention to other things, namely making our way down to the lake to embark upon the pontoon boat to view the fireworks, the closest display of them I have ever seen. As the last smoke faded from the sparkling, colorful flames, we turned around to see the full moon rising and reflecting its golden orb into the black waters of the lake.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Early this morning, the fifth day of the trip but the fourth of driving, we set out from the house at 8:15 am and began our day’s travels through five states: Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The landscape remained a rich green the whole route, alternating between hills and trees, and skillet-flat fields of corn, potatoes, and soy. We rode over wide rivers, including the famous waters of the Mississippi when we passed by St. Louis. Early memories of reading Huck Finn flashed through my mind as we hovered for several seconds above the legendary waterway.

Rupert Sheldrake joined into our conversation, which had been rather lively since the discussion the night before, and the subject of morphic fields intermingled with the corn fields passing left and right. We were listening to a tape from 1982 when Sheldrake gave a talk at Esalen as part of one of Stan Grof’s workshops entitled “A New Science of Life.” If an animal participating in its species’ genetic field undergoes a genetic mutation it may be less like its species but still part of the field. However, if enough mutations occur then the animal may actually change

Photo by Becca Tarnas

morphogenetic fields entirely, becoming a new species and cultivating its own field that will grow with more generations of participation. The ideas fit perfectly into our previous night’s dialogue. My primary question for Sheldrake would be, what accounts for creativity? I believe I understand how species develop based on past generations through the morphic field, but what can bridge between fields? Might that be where the Divine comes in, perhaps to participate with the creativity of the evolving individuals?

By early evening we were pulling up to our destination near Cincinnati, Ohio to be greeted by many members of Matt’s family, including his mother and grandfather. The 105° heat of the day was at last wearing away, but the humidity remained thick in the air with the mosquitoes and fireflies, the latter of whom flashed in the dusk sky like fairies signaling one to a secret woodland feast. We had our own feast inside, followed by an evening dip in the pool and a series of home videos of Matt as a baby and a toddler from his childhood home in Florida.

In the morning we leave for Michigan, for a stay on Green Lake from which many of my own childhood memories abound.

From Mountain to Plain

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.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

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.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

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.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

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°.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

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.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

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.