August 27-September 28 2002 / Seen in America: Cross-Country to the Southwest Parks
A Patriotic Journey
Written at Canyonlands National Park
The night trip on the river was wonderful, a kind of touristy thing lovingly orchestrated over a period of years, probably by a family group. First we (about forty of us) had a splendid dinner of delicious barbequed meats, veggies, and peach cake, and then we boarded a large flatbottom boat on the river, just at the foot of the outdoor dining room.
Our guide, Dee, was a Western gentleman who told us a bit about the river and about Moab as we went gently along the water, waiting for darkness to fall. When it was dark enough, Dee went to the back of the boat with the boatman, and the show began.
Oh, it was quite dramatic! There is a small road running alongside the river, and the cliffs rise on either side, and they were cleverly illuminated by a truck moving along the road, with a bank of floodlights. But the narration, about the ancient history of the rocks and the river, and then the human history, was compelling and often moving, and I often forgot about the truck and the floodlights and just looked at the shadows and light playing on the cliffs, and listened to the story.
During the part of the story describing the formation of all the many layers of rock, countless eons ago, the words, “This was not a world we know,” leapt out at me. Like Ranger Jim’s characterization of the Grand Canyon as very large and very pretty, this simple description of that time so unimaginably long ago was powerfully evocative and elegantly apt.
Our fellow passengers listened attentively. Near the end of the story, in a quite acceptable bit of pride, the narrative included the song, This Is My Country, sung I am sure by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I joined in quietly under my breath, and so did the man next to me.
Then the full moon rose over the cliffs. There were a few exclamations of delight, and then silence, as together we contemplated such a sight, each thinking our own thoughts.
So that was the first of two touristy things I had planned for this trip. The second was yesterday, when we gathered with eight other people first for a morning jetboat trip down the Colorado, and then an afternoon by four-wheel drive within Canyonlands.
Our boat driver was a very, very scruffy young man, full of half-memorized bits of information, delivered in full dyslexia (“platonics”, “tamris”, and many other delights) but with great and admirable seriousness. Did you know that radioactivity is measured by the Richter Scale? After this declaration, people stopped asking him questions.
But that was all okay. He drove the boat with skill and alertness, and we swung along the willow and tamarisk-lined banks of the chocolate-brown river, admiring the red cliffs on either side, and it was a lovely morning. A pair of Great Blue Herons rose and circled dutifully as we passed. We stopped and came ashore to look at rocks with fossils in them—crinoids and clams and oysters, and wonderful petrified wood, including an apparent cycad or similar tree of ancient days.
A world we do not know.
There was a lunch stop, with simple sandwiches and powdered lemonade mix. How sweet food tastes when it is taken for comfort in a marginal place.
People began to visit with each other. A Swiss couple, she bent with osteoporosis but sweet-faced and alert, he handsome and robust, talked with an American couple, a well turned-out and ornamented blonde and her Indian-American husband; the men discovered they knew people in common, from business.
As always, John and I watched from a distance, and looked at our own things. A turquoise-tailed lizard, which eats ants, moved among the picnickers looking for small prey. Odd that a reptile could overcome its usual retreat from people to come where people’s crumbs attract the prey that it eats.
Then we piled into two four-wheel drive vehicles and off for our return up the walls of the river canyon.
This place, Canyonlands, is dark and forbidding. The high and green plateau is cruelly cut by dark gashes into its underlying rock. Not only the Colorado River but seemingly hundreds of other water flows have cut and gashed and torn through the plateau, showing the blackness, harshness, of what lies under it.
We rose, rocking and lurching, up a sort of road through all of this. There were some stops, most notably at an arch, at the top of an arch, and I WALKED ACROSS IT, the top of it being about ten feet wide, and—just marginally—doable.
I spoke intimately, as women will do, with the wife of the Indian man. We exchanged stories of our present lives. Her husband delighted me by posing a question to our young driver (this one much more intelligent and thoughtful than the boat driver): “I am seeing these things for the first time, and the words that come to mind are Awesome, Amazing, and so forth. You see them every day; what is your response to this scene?” Man, if I’d’ve had such a softball I would have hit it out of the stadium! The kid did very well with it, though, and spoke of how things are different every day, which is what I learned from my many repeat trips as a tour director in Maritime Canada. So I was happy with his response, and understood it.
I listen to other people’s conversations, read novels, talk to strangers, to confirm and validate my own experiences, my own responses and understandings. To see how I am different and how I belong.
And so this evening we finished up with dinner at the Diner, filled with young families eating out on a Saturday night, and I don’t think there was a single tourist among them. Chicken-fried steak and chicken-fried chicken we had, uh-huh. We won’t get THAT at home.
Written in Canyonlands National Park
So this morning we had our little breakfast of veggie juice, bananas, coffee, and microwave-heated sweet rolls, and got on the road by 7:00. It’s a 35-mile drive up the road to the Canyonlands entrance, and we were there before there was even anyone to look at our Golden Age passes.
Our hike along the mesa and down into some shallow canyons took us past some small springs, which make brief oases in the dryness, filled with cottonwoods and pines and flowers, and where early ranchers built small cabins and pens and watering troughs for their cattle. The smell of water and wet earth, and lush plants, is sharp in the cold moist air in these shaded canyons. We hiked for two hours before the sun was high enough to reach us.
Wonderfully-gnarled and twisted pinyon pine and juniper trunks lie here and there. Some of them are so weathered that they are frowsy looking, as if they had coarse grey fur that’s gotten rumpled up the wrong way. We see what look like cat tracks of some kind, in the smooth sand that’s been deposited recently by heavy rains. There are other tracks, too, lacy delicate ones of beetles and lizards, familiar to us from the red dunes of Namibia. One of the cattish tracks is embroidered by several sets of these tiny prints, like frost tracking across a window.
After this hike we have lunch at a picnic area patrolled expertly by a blue scrub jay and a couple of chipmunks; they come in almost as soon as we sit down, wait a few minutes (the jay flying right in above our heads), and when nothing appears, go on their way, doubtless to the next table.
Before we go we see the strange Upheaval Dome, a bizarre sight of uncertain origin, possibly where a meteor hit and caused the thus-compressed underlying layers to rebound; or, in another explanation, a place where the underlying salt dome rose and thus raised the layers above it. In either case, the raised layers eroded down to an acid-green miniature mountain range in a huge pit. All very mysterious and what do they know, anyway?
At the end, we walked out to a final point of the plateau, from which we could see all around us the numberless brutal, dark, forbidding canyons eroded into the pleasant greened land. This is not an inviting place, not a forgiving place, but unrelenting in its harshness. Canyons within canyons within canyons, and someday this green plateau will be eaten by canyons.
It’s our final national park. John is eager to get home—“Thirty days is a long time.” And I am—I am of mixed mind. I miss some things from home. And I feel disconnected. But I also feel very tightly connected, out here where we are, in this landscape, alert to what I might see and hear and what it might mean, mean to me and mean in a larger pattern. Maybe my search for meaning is best done in travel. I hate that word, travel. Same way I hate the word creativity. They are both ugly-sounding words for something so terribly important to me. I need most of all to Go and See, and then to Make.
Written in Idaho Springs, Colorado
At sunrise we passed slowly through the last of the great red sandstone we will see, alongside the Colorado River, and I thought of Major Powell and his men, the great hardships and challenges they faced as they ran this river, but also the marvels they saw; doubtless their eyes lay upon much that we saw this morning.
And soon we entered Colorado, my home state if I can be said at all to have one. Things got scruffier (none of these tidy Mormons here), more a working place it seemed. We stopped at a fine rest stop where I talked to the lady about 9/11 and how it affected many of us back East.
The mountains, the real mountains, began to rise around us, and as we passed through Glenwood Springs and beyond, the highway did some amazing things, double-deckered almost in some places, sinuous along the canyon with the railroad on the other side. Great ups and downs, our baby car doing its best in the thin air and demanding grades. We stopped for lunch where the mountains could be seen to be dusted with snow, covered with evergreens and stained with yellow aspen amid the deep green, and I felt so happy I couldn’t stop smiling.
Our motel room here in Idaho (where Mother and I used to shop for groceries) has Clear Creek running heavy just outside the door to our little porch. A yellow tailings pile falls on the other side of the creek.
I thought to go over to Central City, where we spent every summer at my Father’s bookstore, and where we had a home--a short drive from here.
To get to Central City you have to pass through Black Hawk, which used to be almost non-existent, a few small stores and some modest houses, at the foot of the mile-long hill below Central.
Now, a testimony to greed, it is beyond description. A terrible rape of the landscape has been let to happen, in the form of monstrous gambling casinos and parking lots, and hillsides which have been cut in half and covered with gray cement, or just left naked. The entire landscape has been laid waste and violated.
I was completely lost and did not know where I was, as if in a nightmare. A nightmare in which my home had been turned into a monstrous funhouse.
I could not even find how to get up to Central City.
And I wasn’t sure that I wanted to get there.
Finally, we found the road, and within a few minutes of that ghastly excrescence that used to be such a modest display, found ourselves in Central City at last.
No cars, no people, all the businesses closed. Of course, Central was declared a National Historic Landmark a while back, not long I think after gambling was voted in, and all the businesses put in slot machines. Because of the Landmark status, perhaps there was money to tidy up and paint the Victorian buildings, and so everything looks lovely. But there is no one there to see it; they are apparently all down in Black Hawk in the maw of the Greed Machine.
I walked around with John, reminiscing. Here’s where our different stores were, here’re the places we lived, this was here, that was there. The Register-Call newspaper seems still to be publishing, and I bought one from a machine into which I could not insert my quarters, but the door to which was open. Not knowing what else to do, I left my quarters on top the machine.
We spoke briefly to a young policeman. Oh, it’s dying, he said. Nothing to do here, no business. But I wonder. Central City was a boom town in the beginning, in 1876, and then when the silver ran out, nearly a ghost town. Then came the opera revival in the ‘30’s, and more and more nice little businesses came, and when we were there in the 50’s and 60’s, people did well. Maybe it will recover again.
We walked up to our old house, and I talked for a few minutes to the man to whom Mother sold it. The house has had some good attention paid to it, new roof, new paint job, new stairs to the little terrace where Mother always took her coffee in the morning and watched the hummingbirds.
Then we walked up past the house, up the hillside a bit, amid the aspen, and I picked up some stones to bring home.
And then we drove back here to Idaho Springs. Had buffalo stew for dinner, and went to bed. But I could not sleep. It’s hard, harder than I thought, to be home again, and no home to go to.
Written in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
This morning John carefully drove us up Mount Evans, 14,000+ feet, only to Summit Lake since the road to the top is closed. That’s okay; I don’t care so much about the top. On the way up we had to stop for some mountain goats in their shaggy white white fur, eating something on the road, and some sheep ewes and a young one. They looked up briefly at our approach, and finding nothing threatening, went back to their work. They walk right up the scree and rocks as if on a sidewalk.
We walked carefully down the slope in a cold wind, in the sun, down among the alpine flowers, now crisp with fall and in their fall colors of red and gold and brown and paled green. There is lots of water here, in pockets and streams, some of it frozen on top but with a merry flow underneath the silvery layer of ice. There are rocks decorated with orange and green lichen. There are small birds wheeling and darting low over the plants. There are mysterious tunnels in the soft earth, perhaps pika tunnels? There was scat, one bit thick and filled with fur, other in pellets, still other perhaps from sheep. There were low shrubs, maybe willow or some dwarf tree, growing more and more thickly as we descended slowly. There was snow. We tried not to step on the snow, to not leave a trace of our passage.
We never got to the first few small trees, which was what I was looking for. But it does not matter. This is my place, of which I will become a part, and John too with me. I and he will become strong alpine flowers, and tussocks of bold grass, and food for mountain goats and sheep, and pikas and marmots, and we will become bright little birds amid the mountains. And we will drink from the cold clear lake, and we will rejoice in the sun, and observe the clouds and rain and snow.
This is a true thing, for here is where my ashes are to go, and his.
Written in Walnut (“The Antiques City of Iowa”) Iowa
On this trip we have seen several wonderful panels of rock art, petroglyphs. The Indians learned about straight lines from the horizon, and the sea, if they saw it. They learned about circles from the sun and the moon, from raindrops. Ovals came from reptile eggs. Right angles and rectangles come from crystals. They learned curves from rivers and snake trails and the flight pattern of birds. Triangles come from tree branches.
Before the sun came up we left Idaho Springs and were thrust on the great downward sweep of highway, all new since my day, down the front range and into Denver. Wistfully I said goodbye—for ever?—to my mountains.
Denver has swollen ever more until now ugly housing tracts and their accoutrements fill what used to be the gracious foothills, that I always loved. Their soft forms and colors are gone now. We worked our way past all of this to the north, the sun in our eyes, cars and trucks rushing in and out of the city, until finally the good clear plains appeared, with here and there some cattle, a fence, an exit to a few battered buildings.
Last night, in a curious bookend effect, we watched the segment of Ken Burns’ film novel The Civil War which deals with the horrific events at Gettysburg. After our visit there at the beginning of our trip, it meant even more. Was even more horrible.
But a lesson should be taken from the past and present of Gettysburg. That ground was soaked with blood, but now the blood has vanished and wheat grows where it grew then. Even the most terrible events, the worst laying waste, pass by.
So, in a much smaller sense, I should not mourn overly much about the rape of the landscape in Black Hawk, or the disappearance of the foothills outside of Denver. For that matter, Japanese and Germans, late our hated enemies, flock to our National Parks, and we are kind and helpful to them.
The lesson: nothing on this earth is permanent. What is mourned today may lead to rejoicing in the future. What is destroyed away today will return in some other form tomorrow.
All across Nebraska we were reminded of the thousands who have crossed it but going in the other direction, toward the west. Hundreds of thousands of pioneers followed the great trails west, along the Platte River which parallels our own road. Oh, I can understand their yearnings for a new place, a wonderful new place. We talked together of how radically different the western landscape is from anything in the east or in Europe or anywhere else these people were familiar with. Truly a new place, truly a new land.
At the end of the day we crossed the Missouri, and reached into Iowa, with its Grant Woods landscape of lovely elegant fields checkered in browns and greens and golds. A slight rise, and on it, facing the west, a tidy house surrounded by shade trees, overlooking the farm. The corn has been picked and the big farm machines gather up the dry stalks. There are piles of hay, in fat cylinders and blocks. Horses in the fields.
Imagine if Lewis and Clark could see what I see right now: our cosy motel room, with hot and cold clean water, two big clean beds, electricity, and across the way the little restaurant with roast pork and fried chicken and mashed potatoes and vegetables and ice cream.
We only follow in their footsteps, John and me and all the others who have gone west to see, all those folks on the road we’ve shared with them.
Written in Wauseon, Ohio
Another six hundred miles across the heartland today. This morning in Iowa was so beautiful, so very beautiful. John thinks the rolling country is the remnants of glacial outwash, and I think he must be right. The hills are so gentle, in a continuous soft rumple covered with such tender fields, the fields of russet and Van Gogh yellow, and the moiré patterns of rows teases the eye as the car moves past them.
But of course the fields, the work in the fields, is not tender and gentle at all, and it is only my artist’s limited eye that sees them that way. The men and women, and children, who work these fields work harder than anyone I could think of, for not only must they work hard every day of the year, but all their work can be swept away by the powers of nature.
But I love the fields, and the low hills, and the rich smell of animals and plants that comes into even the closed car. If I lived here, or grew up here, that smell would mean home to me, just as the smell of sun on pines means home to me now.
We stopped at a couple of rest stops, neat and clean, with shining bathrooms and tidy picnic tables. Each time we stop we use the bathroom, do stretches, and walk briskly around. In Indiana I saw some plants of home, Smartweed and Queen Anne’s Lace and Bladder Campion. The road is very crowded with trucks now, some of them with three sections, enormous huge trucks. And here in Ohio, the pastoral landscape is pressed on all sides by houses, motels, little businesses, roads.
Yes, as the song said, They’re growing houses in the fields. The back window of our motel looks out onto a corn field, though, and I’m glad to have it there. It will help me sleep tonight, my last night but one before sleeping in my own bed. This one night, I can sleep by a cornfield.