July 14, 2011 —
An astronaut recently returned from space travel with the observation that “everything seems smaller now.” I know what he means. It was precisely my experience returning home from a 9,000 mile road trip across America. “Smaller” as in more achievable, less daunting rather than insignificant. Imagination often has its own agenda. When I imagined this journey, as I did many times over decades, I worried about the long flat stretches of the Great Plains, the heat and desolation of the deserts, the rough inclines of the mountains. Now that I have travelled that road and many of its detours, all those apprehensions have become a part of my experience. They have not disappeared. They have been absorbed, made real and so, less fearsome.
I managed to skirt most of Kansas, but the vast fields of grain that stretch across Oklahoma were never boring to me; they were a lazy afternoon on the porch compared to the winding mountain roads of Arkansas and Tennessee.
My son joined me for part of the return trip from California to the Texas Panhandle. We watched the desert unfold like an endless stretch of butcher’s paper from the golden rolling hills of Southern California. The temperature outside climbed from 90° to 100° to 108°. A road sign cautioned us to turn off the air conditioner to avoid breakdown. We complied, opening the windows to a ceaseless hot wind, laughing in wonder at a situation never anticipated. My son’s i-Pod played the soundtrack to our own adventure film as we marvelled at the mysterious desert, with its long straight roads running perpendicular to the highway leading to... what? Yes, the desert was hot and huge and devoid, by nature, of the comfort of trees and open water. But it held life against brutal odds. Adaptable life with deep-rooted mesquite and perfectly camouflaged creatures laid low against a crusty earth.
In Arizona, the desert held a life lesson: that in what looks like an endless flat repetitive landscape, a small road can lead to a marvelous canyon sculpted by eons. The Petrified Forest and Painted Desert are lesser-known attractions than the Grand Canyon, but no less affecting to the human heart. If I learned one thing about beauty on this trip, it was: it’s all about the light. Light changes everything and is ever-changing.
Another thing I learned was that you can never travel the same road twice. On the westward part of the journey, with my daughter as companion, we found the Petrified Forest with serendipitous good fortune, a half hour before the gates closed for the night. We were so taken by it that we returned the next day for a longer look and a walk among the richly hued fossilized trees. Aiming to treat my son to the same experience, I failed miserably. We arrived at the western entrance later than planned but with enough time to allow at least a car-window view of the canyon. On the road to the park, I overshot the turn-off and ended up in the turning lane of oncoming traffic. A trooper appeared as if on cue. After checking my documents, she let me go with a plea to “drive safe.” Meanwhile, we had missed the deadline and my chance to show my son a sight I had so enjoyed with his sister. Only later I realized it had been our experience I missed by trying to recreate the previous one.
Starting out, I had figured this trip to be my once-in-a-lifetime, Now I’m planning to do it again, on another route, with my husband this time, keeping in mind the lessons I’ve learned.