Week 1 of our great wild west trip

For those of you who followed along our journey on facebook, there is nothing new here, just a consolidation of journal entries and photos. Feel free (as always) to disregard 🙂

Sunday, March 22

We left Gretna at 7:30 am and drove straight through to Greencastle Indiana, after a brief visit with our friends in Columbus. (where I was surprised at how large a metropolitan area is Columbus and reminded again of how draining it can be to be a stay-at-home mom)

As we traveled westward, gradually the mountains and hills of home flattened into smaller rises and mounds with clusters of trees remaining to break up the landscape. It struck me how the words ‘stretched out before us’ describe it so well, as if someone picked up the end of a wool scarf and gave it a pull to smooth out the wrinkles. Everything here is still some bleary-eyed, not-yet-awake shade of brown, taupe or gray, mostly unplanted late winter farmland.

Don and I are appreciating the book, 1000 acres, set in Iowa, as we drive through this part of the country. We hope to get past Kansas City into Kansas for tomorrow night’s stop

Monday. March 23

We have stopped for the evening in the small town of Manhattan, Kansas, just west of Topeka. Manhattan is the home of Kansas State University. The downtown has undergone/is ungoing a remarkable rejuvenation with interesting food, museums, shops and walking tours. We ate at a ‘small plate’ place where we shared figs (no, not pigs)in a blanket, brussel sprout bacon and parm bake, mango leek slaw, and others. I’ve decided Old-fashioneds aren’t exactly my thing, but I did taste a beer that I may be able to finish…Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Brown Ale.

We crossed the Mississippi river and the Missouri river (3 times for the missouri) on our way from western Indiana through Illinois and Missouri. Perhaps since we were so close to river valleys, the land was more rolling than I expected, often resembling Pennsylvania hills. Hints of green and reddened tips of trees and shrubs revealed that spring is one step ahead of us here.

We paused once along the way in the 1800’s railroad town of Blackwater, Mo for some coffee and a rest. It felt a bit like one of those stereotypical one horse wild west towns, one solitary block of mercantiles, bars, a bank, and a hotel (with typical Prairie facades) on a dusty road rising up  perpendicularly from its feet in the rebuilt railroad station. In the antique store, Don charmed the dowager proprietor and town advocate, who stuffed our fists with brochures. Interesting to imagine the town as it may have been.

There was a stark change in the terrain as we left Kansas city for the last leg of our drive this afternoon. Still not flat as I’ d expected but very different than anything I’d seen. Here the earth is almost a monochrome in early spring, the color of coffee with lots of cream, no trees ( or very few) and very rolling. Occasionally one of the rolls is flat on top, like a mesa, but not of rock. As we got closer to Manhattan we began to notice blackened areas and to smell smoke. They are burning the prairie.. an annual controlled burn to mimic the burns created by lightening strikes…. in order for the prairie grasses to rejuvenate. If we have time in the morning we hope to get in a short hike in the flint hills (I have learned that this is the name for this rolling area of kansas prairie, one the last remaining vestiges of natural prairie ) before we make the 7 hour drive to denver, where we will visit with our friends for a day.

at last road trip 001

Tuesday, March 24.

We left the flint hills of Kansas this morning without taking that walk, as we awoke to cold drizzle and blustery winds, and so began our drive under slate gray skies. Very soon the rolling mounds and ragged gulches gave way to the flat plains and straight lines I had expected. Parallel lines of interstate, railroad, dirtroad, fenceposts, telephone poles -with the occasional perpendicular one jutting off into the horizon-delineate the land. Punctuating these are the copses of trees that surround each farm’s cluster of buildings, most with requisite windmill, which in places were utterly dwarfed by the monolithic wind turbines of today’s energy solution. Fields were dotted with oil drills and irrigation systems and occasionally cattle in fields that have begun to green. By this time , the sky had also cleared to blue and I soon realized just how much I have longed for color this winter. The green fields and blue skies made my eyes sing. (Don thought it was really funny when I mentioned this in the car)

I am beginning to relax as don continues to gently reassure me whenever (what I realize have become) habitual reactions threaten to rise around some felt need to be or do or say the ‘right’ or ‘enough’ thing. We have very intentionally set up this trip with little requirements, expectations or pressures and I have noticed already how different it feels to not be worried about whether or not someone’s expectations are met or is pleased, or to fix anything ….including myself.

Whenever we drive anywhere (even/especially back home) , I find myself imagining what the land must have looked like before it was ‘settled’ , before highways and billboards, power standards and strip malls, before stripping at all , and I was for a time lost in that reverie here too. (We did some reading here about the settlement/farming of the prairie and the consequent great dust bowls)

After a stop for lunch in brick-streeted Hayes, Ks, we entered into Colorado, and the land began to subtly ripple again. Shrubs began to dot some of the pasturelands , long needled pines appeared in wooded plots along the roadside rises, and deciduous trees (unleafed at present) began to populate the edges of lowland gulches and streamlets. Unexpectedly, we rolled over the top of one rise to find the Rockies distinct in the distance. We looked at the map and realized we were still some 100 miles away! From there on, most hilltops were occupied by a homestead situated to take in that remarkable view too.

Entering the metropolitan Denver area we were struck with the sprawling miles of malls and restaurants. Really, how much do we need ? We arrived at our friend’s home and enjoyed a walk through the neighborhood complete with a view of the sunset over the Rockies before returning for a delicious (gourmet!) meal and warm hospitality…..oh and, yes, we are drinking lots of water

Wednesday, March 25
The morning began early with a warbler outside the bedroom window announcing the dawn with a song that was both familiar and unfamiliar at once. I peeked through the blinds, hoping to spot him, to no avail. The next time I peeked, perhaps an hour later, it was snowing, the fat flakes seeming to sparkle in the sun through the strobe-like effect of the slats. However, when we left the house for our drive into the city an hour or so later we saw that the sky was not sunlit at all, merely gray , the snow blowing, and nothing much was visible beyond a carlength or two.

Exiting the expressway, we drove through some older sections of town that reminded me a lot of East Nashville with its closely spaced craftsman style bungalows. Arriving downtown, our friends treated us to a visit at the Denver art museum, which we enjoyed immensely. We spent a lot of our time there exploring the Native American and Western art galleries. The highlight for me was Mud Woman , a massive straw and adobe clay sculpture that was reminiscent of Navajo storyteller figures. Her thickness and roundness made her feel earthy and warm and real to me. The remainder of this woman’s (Roxanne Swentzell) work is similarly honest and emotional.


I also was quite drawn to the beaded cradleboards of the Lakota and the painted bark cloth of the Samoans, and Don was taken by the Eye Dazzler Navajo rugs made from Germantown dyed yarns.

Over and again I am amazed at the myriad ways human beings (well, not just humans but the whole of life) respond to life in creating what is necessary for survival while also imbuing it with meaning and beauty. Over and again each culture (each individual?) seems to use the unique raw materials and resources at its disposal to do so in both fresh and familiar ways. We are such a mystery.

A late lunch at the museum’s restaurant was a ‘ work of art’ itself. The squash apple bisque with beets and cream and the baby kale salad with pears and zuchinni bread croutons pleased the ‘palette’ (hehe). After lunch we all grew weary and soon headed home through bluing skies for some much needed coffee and dark chocolate .

Tomorrow we leave our friends for our drive west through the Rockies to Moab, Ut, where we hope to spend a few hours exploring Arches national park before we find our way to the B&B we have booked for the next few nights.

Thursday, March 26

What a remarkable day of travel. In some ways, I felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store where around every corner was something more delicious than the last ( and what a contrast of flavors!) until at last I was sent to my room with sugar overload.

We passed through alpine winter wonderlands with spires of evergreen and snow covered windblown peaks. We drove downhill through winding river canyons where the walls towered comfortingly close and beauty beckoned around every bend. We wondered about dilapidated gold-mining towns next to luxury mountain resorts. Here, the juxtaposition of snowy spires on the north-facing side of the road with hard scrabble desert-like slopes on the other was mind-boggling. Soon, silvery sage blanketed the low lying slopes where giant Atlantic beach sand castles loomed large overhead, seemingly collapsing in the drying heat to flow, but then baked rock solid again into verticle spines, resembling some mammoth sea creature with its head in the sand. We passed mountain faces with wide swatches of red, green and beige, and sandstone ridges with large noses lined up in a row that made me understand why persons ever imagined sculpting profiles on mountainsides. At grand junction the world flattened out again into a vast sunbleached desert bowl surrounded by great mesas. At closer inspection, there was blue-berried juniper and dwarf pinion pine, delicate desert flowers of pink, yellow and purple, lizards scurrying and antelope bounding, and a great quarry where dinosaurs once came for a drink, leaving their bones behind.

And then there was Utah with her prolific red rock. Red rock in ridges and spires, mesas and walls. Red rock that looked as if it was dripped wet from a great childs hands or pushed up from beneath by a great thumb. Red rock that looks like the earth is crumbling and tumbling in slow motion, in huge chunks and great piles of scrabble. Red rock that glows in the sun and falls dark in its own shadow. Red rock that captures your heart and lifts your imagination such that even your gps forgets where you are and you drive 20 miles past your destination and have to refuel both body and vehicle before you turn back.

And you arrive suddenly grumpy and tired, sweaty and sunburned on a day that began in the snow, fading fast even as the sunset washes the face of the red castle rock outside your door. And it is quiet and dark and you forgive both your incompetence and your exuberance, your weariness and your indulgence, and you rest.

Friday, March 27

We visited Arches National Park in Moab, Utah to spend the day oogling at and scrambling up the faces of unbelievably out of scale rock formations. There were colossal boulders of red rock balanced precariously, or so it seemed, atop slender towers, groups of robed rock monks donning stone skullcaps, and mazelike puzzles of rock ridges and fins through which to wander (on the trail of course) . Here the rock formations are like clouds in the sky at home ; they invite your imagination to see stories in their silhouettes.

But Arches is most known for its amazing arches, of course, so we spent most of our time exploring them. We climbed into vast windows to perch on rock sills to take in the view. We scrambled into one arch, climbing on hands and knees (or scooting on bums) and were rewarded with a secluded cool picnic for at least 20 minutes before another hiker arrived.

Later in the afternoon, we joined a steady stream of pilgrims on the more arduous hike to the mecca that is Delicate Arch. Though only a 3 mile round trip, the combination of continuous uphill slope with sand or slickrock and 80+ desert degrees made the trek more difficult than it sounded on paper (though the park guide did give it a difficult rating and suggested each hiker carry at least a liter of water, and I am certain that the high altitudes combined with the 25 pounds I gained this winter added to that difficult rating). Rounding that last curve in rock we drank in the sight of Delicate arch, a standalone megalith perched on the edge of the world, improbable, impossible, imposing, as if erected there by some ancient culture of bohemoths to frame the sun. Standing beneath its mass made me feel as if I might be swept over the edge along with the solid rock that appeared to be flowing beneath my feet.

The hike left us spent, so after a brief stop at the old ranchers hut and the rock art left behind by the Ute (its hard to imagine humans scraping out subsistence at all in this land of rock and sand) we climbed into the car for a quick auto tour of the rest of the park.

Dusty and weary, we returned to the inn for a hot shower and strong coffee. I felt as if the earth itself was being washed from my skin to run red down the drain. There was a strange knowing of my body in that moment as earth, being weathered by time, bit by bit, even now though eventually wholey, and I grasped our oneness.

A seat on the lawn, watching the sunset set the mesa ablaze, and I was refueled (said coffee helped too) for dinner at 8 at the old ranch restaurant on the banks of the Colorado. As we sat awaiting our food (I had the trout , Don had the ribs) I thought about how this river has been our companion since we began our descent from the heart of the Rockies. It is truly the lifeblood of this arid land and it runs red here too.

Back at the inn, I fell into bed, exhausted, and was asleep before don came back from the bathroom.

Saturday, March 28
Today we had decided to make a brief morning visit to Canyonlands National Park, also in Moab, before driving the 5 hours to Bryce Canyon, where we will stay the next 2 nights. We chose to experience the Islands in the Sky section of the park because we wanted to see these red cliffs and mesas from a different perspective.

After checking out of the inn ( and bidding farewell to the mule deer and also Heckle and Jeckle, resident magpies who were busy building a nest in the juniper there) we drove out of the valley one last time on the way to the Park and were struck again by the uncanny way in which the rock walls can appear to have been constructed by man. Often the tops of ridges have blocks of stone so neatly lined up to look like a lintel of masonry. One person described the process by which this phenomenom ocuurs as like a stack of blankets laid over a box, except that the ‘blankets’ in this case aren’t as flexible and they crack into blocks. Then the supporting ‘box’ is eroded away and the blocks fall back into line. Driving through this canyon, I can imagine it as a giant cake being baked, cracking on the top, then falling when I take it out of the oven. This imagery also fits those places where the cut is so sheer and so smooth, as if a giant’s knife came through and sliced itself a piece!

In the Canyonlands, we took an easy stroll, a mile out and a mile back, along the rim of one of these sheer dropoffs. I had to get down on my belly once to look over the edge. The ariel views of these vast cutaway sections of earth is awe inspiring. At one point there was a 270 degree panoramic view of desert rock canyons, with the requisite snow covered peaks in the distance. That juxtaposition of desert and snow still feels like an oxymoron to me.

Oh! The desert is blooming. Today we saw red, and purple, and yellow and more green plants pushing spring growth than you would imagine. The plants are often tucked in around rocks, probably for the small amount of shade and moisture they offer, but the effect is a perfectly balanced, harmonious garden, as if planned and planted to please the eye.

We ate lunch perched on the edge of a cliff, while on the next rock face over, a perfectly carved easter island profile, complete with long nose and prominent brow, watched over the vista with us.

The drive from moab to bryce was spectacular. I know this must sound redundant but everything here is so vast, but also so vastly diverse, in this wilderness of rock mountains, canyons, and sand. The colors of the earth here rival the colors of foliage of autumn in the east. There are greens and grays, reds and browns, yellows and whites. Driving west from moab, quickly and suddenly,, almost as if someone drew a line in which to color, the red sandstone walls and ridges changed to yellow. Later the red earth returned, but this time it was piled high like great huts with hip roofs, fit for preposterous peasants. We drove through the great San Rafeal swell where millions of years of earth building lay exposed unbroken or bent. Turning south into the Sevier valley, farming returned, and with it green plots, though with the prerequsite irrigation systems, and I wondered how the streamlet that is the sevier river could support it. Then we came to the Paiute reservoir with water so aqua in color I wondered if it was chemically ‘enhanced’ or truly a reflection of the skies that are so incredibly blue all the time, and I wondered if the reservoir might be the cause of the puddle.

As we made our last turn south into Bryce, it was good to see alpine trees ,with their graceful spires, again. Since we’d left the west rockies, all of the trees have been stunted and scrubby, pines and junipers. I think there are cottonwoods and poplars along watercourses, but of course they are not in leaf yet. Here there is some snow on the ground in places again, and unmelted shoveled piles around the drives and walkways. The 80 degrees of 10 am in Moab is 34 degrees at 11pm in Bryce. We are staying in a lodge that was built by the railroad during its heyday to encourage visitors to Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. A short path leads from our door to the edge of the canyon rim.

We arrived just before sunset and caught our first glimpse of the hoodoos, otherworldly spires of orange, yellow, and white seemingly growing up hundreds of feet from the the bowl of the canyon floor like crystals growing in a solution, except these are not the result of growth but of decline in a wildly fluctuating climate that literally breaks open the crust of the earth. As before a great painting, we sat gazing on these mysterious hoodoos, letting them wordlessly break our own defenses down. The sun setting behind us cast a great shadow that spread out before us across the canyon floor, then the plain and the mountains beyond. Perched atop the edge the world, it was like feeling the earth bow down.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lois Herr
    Apr 14, 2015 @ 20:12:20

    Beautiful scenery with beautiful writing to match!



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