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.

Through the Desert

The salt flats that lie on Utah’s border are illuminated by the glowing orb of the waxing moon, hanging heavy in the periwinkle, cloud-streaked sky. In a single day our little turquoise car carried us a total of 647 miles from the drizzling mist of San Francisco to this dusty campsite in West Wendover on the border of Nevada and Utah. Although I’ve spent a little time in the Nevada desert, today offered a new perspective on the vast expanses of seemingly endless desert that stretch as far as the eye can see, bordered on the edge sight by lonely mountains and hills.

This morning, at about 10:30 am, Matt and I loaded up the car with our minimal luggage and drove toward the Bay Bridge through a heavy fog: a classic San Francisco summer farewell. Once across the Bay we merged onto I-80 which would be the only road under our wheels for the rest of the day. During the first several hours we listened to two lectures by Terrence McKenna, one entitled “New and Old Maps of Hyperspace” given in November 1982 in Berkeley, and the other from Esalen given in March 1996 called “Complexity and Meaning.” As the Bay Area clouds dissolved into an open blue sky, Northern California’s signature golden hills rolled by, occupied by thick clusters of live oaks so dark green they look black. Meanwhile, McKenna spoke of the imagination and how it may be the portal through which we are able to access other realms.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

As we neared Sacramento a brilliant green marshland lined the side of the road, but in such an orderly fashion it appeared we were passing rice paddies. Two Vs of birds passed directly overhead, to then flutter down among the water-logged grasses. We quickly sped by, entering the urban outskirts of the state capitol.

While McKenna mused on the millennia of human dialogue with the other beings of this world – angels, demons, fairies, sprites, elves, and others – the landscape seemed to make a sudden shift to thick pine woods and the elevation rose rapidly. McKenna’s words felt more real in this landscape around Grass Valley. The further we climbed the fewer trees accompanied us, giving way instead to granite boulders and high peaks. Rivulets and streams, pools and small waterfalls, wound their way among the rocks. Our descent on the other side of this mountain pass provided a brief glimpse of the placid indigo of Donner Lake, whose sparkling waters gave no hint about the tragic fate of the pioneer family for whom it was named.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Train tracks cut into the mountain sides ran alongside us before diving into dark tunnels whose ends were a mystery. When were these tracks last used? By whom and for what purpose? And who were the toiling workers that laid down every piece of wooden rail?

Once in Nevada the road became lonely, with few cars traveling in either direction, and not a tree in sight. The land to the right became flat as a tabletop and the color of new snow – perhaps an ancient lakebed whose waves lapped these hills millions of years ago. Were we driving underwater in some distant past?

Photo by Becca Tarnas

In Coal Canyon we saw an eery sign informing us, “Prison Area: No Hitchhiking.” The distant prison buildings echoed with desolate isolation. The land was nothing but shrubs and dust, inhospitable to all but the most valiant souls. I began to muse on what a car really is: an insolated climate, a magical bubble that allows one to zoom through the deadliest landscape armored in one’s most comfortable clime. It was as though we had trapped San Francisco air into our own private compartment. Yet all around us was an ecosystem unlike anything our bodies could handle, yet home to many other creatures, flora and fauna who had adapted to this particular realm.

By this point Joseph Campbell was narrating to us in his rich voice about Kundalini Yoga and depth psychology. His mythic storytelling was punctuated by the odd town names we passed by: Winnemucca (whose billboards were bigger than the town), Beverley Hills (not quite so glamorous as California’s), and Deeth Starr Valley (which could only have been named by a Star Wars fan). After a short stop in Elko, I noticed the elevation of the surrounding mountains rose rapidly, and snow even capped the tallest peaks. Perhaps more rain fell here too, because as we neared the Utah border the stunted shrubs that had surrounded us for hundreds of miles were either significantly taller, or giving way to a larger desert tree. Meanwhile, Fritjof Capra spoke to us of consciousness and matter, and how they may co-arise from each other.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

At last, about nine hours after the start of the journey, the road turned toward Wendover, covering a final barren stretch before the salt flats. The scene had the feeling of the lonely crossroads where one might chance to meet the Devil, but no fallen angel have we seen yet. But who knows what tomorrow may bring?

A Long-Expected Journey

So it begins…

This is the first day of a long-awaited journey, one that is two years in planning, and will at last be embarked upon. Two people, a Ford Focus, 18 days, and 6,000 miles (at least!) This morning Matt and I depart upon our cross-country road trip from San Francisco, California to Bennington, Vermont and back. The purpose? To retrieve my belongings that have been languishing peacefully in my dear uncle and aunt’s basement. The true purpose? To have an adventure, a real one, by driving deep into the heart of the American continent, and emerging on the other side to inhale the breeze on the Atlantic coast.

The first leg of the journey may indeed be the longest, as we leave the Bay Area and head east, aiming to arrive in Wendover, Utah by late evening. We will be camping out for our first two nights, before meeting up with family and friends for the remaining overnights of the trip. Our initial plan had been to drive through Colorado, but the wildfires blazing throughout the state have influenced us to reroute north. I am curious if we will see smoke along the way, or if we will be fully out of range. Climate change is indeed doing its damage, from the fires in the West, to the tornadoes in the Midwest and the East, and the 118° temperatures in Kansas. We will be experiencing the rapid changing of our planet first-hand on these travels.

Our planned route for the journey after Utah is to camp again in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then stay with my fraternal family in Kansas City, Kansas, Matt’s family in Cincinnati, Ohio, my paternal family in West Bloomfield, Michigan, before arriving in Bennington, Vermont to stay with more family and pack up my belongings. From the Green Mountain State we’ll drive to the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, where I went to school at Mount Holyoke College, and we’ll stay with friends in the area. Our next destination is New York City to stay with another friend, and then we’ll turn our eyes homeward once more. Another pass through Cincinnati and Kansas city, and then a stay with Matt’s aunt in Aspen, Colorado if the pass there is unobstructed by wildfire. If it is, my desire is to turn southwards and see some desert-land before we cruise back into the chilly humidity of our fog-bound San Francisco home.

We are outfitted for the trip with few items of clothing, but a multitude of entertainment: dozens of podcasts of This American LifeFresh AirWait Wait Don’t Tell Me, as well as an obscure Tolkien podcast entitled An Unexpected Podcast. We will also have the treat to listen to Matthew Stelzner’s archetypal astrology podcast Correlations to help us stay attuned to the outer planets as we travel across the surface of our own home planet. Finally, we have the rare privilege of listening to a large collection of audio tapes I salvaged out of my father’s studio: lectures by Joseph Campbell, Rupert Sheldrake, Terrence McKenna, Bruno Barnhart, Robert McDermott, and several others. And lastly, if we can listen to the stereo no more, Matt will have his books on Schelling for his Ph.D. comprehensive exam, and I will have a few books of my own: The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and, if a copy stumbles into my hand soon, The Cosmic Game by Stan Grof.

May the stars smile down upon us as we begin this journey, may the unexpected adventures be merry, and the expected ones all the sweeter for occurring,may the road be swift and safe, and may the landscapes be the deep pool from which I’ll fill the cup of my imagination. To quote a great traveller in the wilds of the imaginary, let me conclude:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.