And Back Again

Thus it ends…

Photo by Becca Tarnas

I never imagined that I would know what it was like to be in a car for 1,095 miles straight, but now that I do I hope not to have to experience it again. Perhaps it was the two full days rest in Aspen, or just a strong desire to be back in our own home by the Bay nestled beneath our blanket of fog, but come Wednesday morning Matt and I decided to drive all the way home in one long shift. Or rather, we decided to keep the option open, in case we arrived at the campground in Austin, Nevada with enough energy and daylight hours to keep going to the coast.

The two whole days in Aspen were worth the trip itself, even if we hadn’t had all the other adventures and wonderful encounters along the way. There is something about Aspen that makes one feel as though one has stepped into a painting, like the moment Robin Williams arrives in heaven in the film What Dreams May Come. Everything is too perfect, each blade of grass arranged in just such a way as to set off the seemingly carefully placed rocks beneath the snowy white trunks of the aspen trees. The towering mountains with their rouge and evergreen flanks are dwarfed only by the vast sky, with its many hued cloud formations sculpted by a divine breath. We went on a brief hike the first day there, noticing the lupines and wild geraniums peering out among the grasses. Like the rest of the country, Aspen has also suffered drought this summer, which could be seen in the reddish dust that is usually moist soil. The wildflowers too were sparse this year; normally the mountains are garlanded in purple and yellow blossoms all throughout June and July.

The town of Aspen is as picturesque as the wild scenery, with quaint little houses surrounded by blossoming flower gardens, and old brick buildings with former store names carved into the very stonework overhanging the doors. The streets are all named after the miners who first settled the area. The design of the town reflects the natural surroundings, bringing aspen trees onto many of the sidewalks, even allowing them to grow through the center of the architecture in some cases. Strips of grass and fountains border the cobblestone streets, and narrow streams meander between the grassy banks and laugh their way over smooth river stones arranged beneath the clear ripples.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

On our second day in Aspen we attended a concert put on by the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. The orchestra, which gives young conductors the opportunity to learn their craft with the help of a full orchestra at their disposal, played three symphonies over the course of the afternoon, beginning with Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 in D major, written in 1786. This was followed by Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, written in 1775 when Mozart was only nineteen years old. The solo violinist for this piece, Hannah Tarley, has been playing since she was two years old, and was the youngest violinist to lead the San Francisco Youth Symphony on tour. She played, to say the least, exquisitely. After an intermission, the final symphony of the day was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, written in 1945; however, we only heard the ending of this piece because we chose to take a stroll through the gardens of the Aspen Institute while the afternoon sun was still warm.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

It was with some reluctance that we packed up the car for the last time and bid adieu to Aspen and its fluttering silver-green leaves and crystal streams. We headed west toward Glendale where we went back onto I-70. The mountainsides turned a sunburnt red, and each peak looked like a scalp with thinning tree hair that had spent too much time exposed to the sunlight. As we passed Mount Sopris I was already beginning to observe the much drier climate. A magpie, with its black and white wings, soared over the road. As we passed through Glendale I noticed a crew of carrion birds circling ominously over the town.

As the mountains around us became more angular and treeless, we listened to a debate between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was amazed to hear the sense of wonder in Dawkins’ voice as he described the unfolding of the universe and how it could give rise to “apparently purposeful” beings such as ourselves, that give the cosmos the “illusion of design.” This dialogue accompanied us for more than half of the day’s journey because occasionally it would cut out and we would switch to music, then try again an hour or two later. Because of this, the debate seemed to set the tone for much of the ride, giving rise to many exciting discussions between Matt and myself, including one regarding the language and cultures of animals, and whether or not they can be understood from a human perspective; if they cannot, as far as I see it, that is not proof that animals or even plants, cells, or minerals, do not have the same capacity for language, culture or spirituality that we do. It may, at this point, just not be able to be translated into something humanity can comprehend.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Our road followed the Colorado River for some time, and I marveled how this one river had been able to overcome these mountains surrounding us, carving such wonders as the Grand Canyon, and yet it could not—as of yet—overcome humanity, who has dammed it and siphoned off its waters until barely a trickle remains to empty into the Sea of Cortez. Eventually we left the Colorado River behind, and passed through Rabbit Valley and a park offering a Trail Through Time walk. As we crossed the border into Utah a signpost stood by the road warning of eagles on the highway, definitely the strangest of the many animal warning signs we saw over the rest of the day: moose, deer, cows, and hikers all had their own specific warning signs in different mountain areas.

The buttes and plateaus shifted into greener mountains and short trees as we entered Fishlake National Forest. To the side of the road I saw several cows and calves among the greenery, and past them a wood and metal fence climbing at nearly a 90° angle up a mountainside. Imagine the determination of the rancher who had put up that fencing, not wanting to lose a single acre of his property no matter how steep the terrain.

Mysterious train tunnels once again bored through the mountainsides as we neared Salina, Utah. Past the town flat green fields unfolded for several miles, dotted with horses along a placid blue lakeshore. Eventually we left I-70 and began the long journey upon the loneliest road in the West, US 50. Barely a car passed us. The fences by the roadside were constructed with rough-hewn branches, making the era we traveled through ambiguous. A neat little farm stood by the road named Duckworth Dairy. Eventually we entered the town of Delta, Utah, where a tiny wooden shack was featured in the central square: the very first house ever built in Delta. The house was smaller than a modest bedroom.

Outside Delta we passed a tree completely ornamented with dozens upon dozens of pairs of shoes. I once heard that a pair of shoes tossed over a power line means “I love you.” If that is the case this is the most loved tree I had ever seen, even if not a single leaf graced its branches.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Highway 50 went on straight for seemingly endless hours, with only an occasional crossroad going just as eternally straight in the opposite direction. We saw hardly anyone. We crossed over a snow white salt plain, passed Death Canyon, and entered into a new set of mountains. At some point we crossed into Nevada but it was hard to tell where. Our road less traveled was not busy enough to bother marking the state border. The landscape of Nevada seemed to be a repeating pattern of flat plain followed by a mountain ridge, then flat plain, mountain ridge, flat plain, mountain ridge. It was difficult to keep track, except by the changing names of the different national parks: Great Basin National Park, Humboldt State Park. A ranch in one of the mountain ranges had an entrance gate made entirely of bleached white antlers. Not long after we glimpsed a fence decorated in deer antlers. The deer population in that area must be abundant indeed.

The largest town we saw on 50 was Ely, which boasted six churches on a sign at its entrance. From the size of the town there must be one church for every family. Some time after we had left Ely we came to the next largest town along the highway, Austin, where we had intended to camp. At this point it was only 5:30 pm, and with barely a consultation Matt and I decided we wanted to continue all the way home to San Francisco. So with 702 miles already under our belts we left Austen behind to complete the next 391 miles to the end of the continent.

The light slowly grew dimmer and fantastic sunset colors streaked the sky. Since we were driving westward the twilight seemed prolonged for many hours. We passed Sand Mountain, a large sand dune set back from the road, glowing white against the dark backdrop of the distant mountains. The last of the light began to fade as we left Carson City, and the last sight I saw before nightfall was a sign for the Old Pony Express trail. Then, in the still darkness, we entered California and began to climb into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Immediately I wished we were passing through here in daylight, and I longed to see the trees, lakes, and mountains that were now shrouded in darkness.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The backroad route we had inadvertently chosen to take provided a stressful 70 miles of watching for deer potentially leaping into the road. In total we saw five deer, two coyotes, and a bobcat. The bobcat, standing directly in the center of the road, seemed not in the least disturbed by our car, and gently pawed its way off the road at its own sweet pace. When we passed where it had exited moments later, it was already swallowed up in the camouflaged gloom of the forest.

The last couple hours of the ride were the most difficult of the entire trip. Both Matt and I were questioning our decision to go 1,100 miles in one day. But somehow, close to 1:00 am, we arrived on our own familiar street, where parking is still familiarly difficult, and at last were able to be home.

So in total, after 110 hours of driving, 6,700 miles, 20 states, one province, dozens of family members and friends, and not a single argument, Matt and I ended our rather epic journey. As for the next one, who can say?

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

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

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.