Saturday, July 28, 2012


I never feel quite so typically American as when I get to drive down a ribbon of highway in the middle of a beautiful landscape.

Perhaps it's a moment for which only one raised on a steady diet of car commercials can pine: in which the asphalt is slick but not slippery, where the surf meets dramatic cliffs, where the snowy mountains beckon in the background. Of course, the underlying message is "If you can afford to buy this--and even if you can't, you should--you, too, can have this bird-like euphoria and throw off the shackles to experience nature without really experiencing it."

I just can't help it. I understand so clearly how much I like to drive, what a waste of fossil fuels it is, and how I've been force fed keywords and emotional adjectives about what that experience "should be." None of this, however, keeps me from feeling emotionally overwhelmed on a backroad, or from staring at atlases and maps, plotting a potential road trip. I want to see where the faint grey lines, in particular, lead. I want to have three weeks to tour through what some may consider a wasteland and others may be too nervous to explore. I think of the five or six states I have still not seen; I wonder how silent a place can be; I try to remember the last time I saw an explosion of stars overheard.

A few weeks ago, I shunned the interstate through the middle of California to thread my way up and over the mountains of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. On this tiny road that seemed to serve no real purpose, there were almost no people--just a dry riverbed and giant pines growing up out of collapsed rock faces. When stopping to get a look at the vista of craggy brown mountains and scrub giving way to the secluded valley below, the only thing I could hear was the wind and a faint hum of insects. It impressed upon me the moments over the last 30 years where I've had these moments of falling in love instantly with a view and knowing I might forget the details: Badlands covered in fractured piles of snow and ice; a brilliant patchwork of New England fall as seen from a hillside; the dangerous beauty of the red rocks of Utah in July; a rain forest on the Oregon coast; an almost indescribable vista from an empty Alaska highway that runs in the steep shadow of a mountain chain.

I wish we were all allowed these blocks of time to explore our own country, to see what we often only get to imagine, and dream with these images burrowing into our brains. It's an ideal I will aspire to later in my life, I think. I make jokes of retiring in the California desert--of moving as far away as possible from the sound of helicopters, screeching brakes, and strip malls. But what I am really doing is writing itineraries in my head. I am memorizing routes, numbers, possible roads that could be washed out in the spring and closed in the winter. I am imagining roads that don't even exist. I am committing myself to a life in which marveling is as integral as sleep.

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