Friday, January 29, 2010

West and East

I'm planning at the moment for my next roadtrip to the western lands. I am preparing the house to be empty for a few weeks, with friends visiting daily to take in the mail. I am going through my Things To Do list that needs to be finished before I can leave; and I am making good headway on it. I am trying to catch up on my file management, to get everything organized before I depart; which is turning out to be an uphill battle in several ways. I have a few more errands to do each day before I depart. And I am, as usual, experiencing a little sleep disruption brought on the anticipation of hitting the open road once again. I almost never sleep well the night before leaving; that seems to happen almost every time.

Here I am in the Midwest. What the coastal snobs call the flyover zone. Here I am almost all the way to the West already, able to get there in less than a day's drive—or at least, get to those places, in a day, that many define as the West.

But where does the West begin?

I've heard Americans debate where the West begins: Texans say the Brazos River; in St. Louis, it's the Mississippi, and they built a very expensive "Gateway Arch" to prove it; Philadelphians say the Alleghenies; and on Beacon Hill the backside of the Commons. But, of course, the true West begins with the western state lines of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. It's a line, as straight as you could hope to find, that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada; fewer than a hundred miles from the geographical east-west division of the continental states, it lies close to the hundredth meridian, the twenty-inch rainfall line, and the two-thousand-foot contour line—all of which various geographies recognize as demarcations between East and West. When you stand east of those states you're in the East; cross over and you're in the West. . . .

The land west of this line used to be known as the Great American Desert, but only geographers use that term now as far as I can tell. By "desert" they mean a high land (two thousand feet and up), commonly arid (less than twenty inches rainfall), and even some sand. They don't mean trackless Saharan dunes and palmy oases.

The true West differs from the East in one great, pervasive, influential and awesome way: space. The vast openness changes the roads, towns, houses, farms, crops, machinery, politics, economics, and, naturally, ways of thinking. How could it do otherwise? Space west of the line is perceptible and often palpable, especially when it appears empty, and it's that apparent emptiness which makes matter look alone, exiled, and unconnected. Those spaces diminish man and reduce his blindness to the immensity of the universe; they push him toward a greater reliance on himself, and, at the same time, to a greater awareness of others and what they do. But, as the space diminishes man and his constructions in a material fashion, it also—paradoxically—makes them more noticeable. Things show up out here. No one, not even the sojourner, escapes the expanses. You can't get away from them by rolling up the safety-glass and speeding through, because the terrible distances eat up speed. Even dawn takes nearly an hour just to cross Texas. Still, drivers race along; but when you get down to it, they are people uneasy about space.

—WIlliam Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways (1982, 1999), pp. 131-132

By this definition of West, I live in the East, since my Wisconsin home is east of the line of two thousand feet and up, and twenty inches and up. Barely, though, because I'm within half a day's drive, by current interstate speeds, of the Iowa-Minnesota western borderlines, so within a day I can drive into the plus-two-thousand zone, the long rolling flatlands that are the heart of the Great Plains, which rise up slowly to the Front Range in Colorado and South Dakota, the outlier island uprisings of the Rocky Mountains. I live on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, less than an hour's drive from Lake Michigan; so we get lake effect weather here, even though the prevailing winds make us upwind most of the time. We live in a wet part of the country, more prone to flooding than drought. Winters here are cold and sometimes severe, with Arctic air coming down on us, and huge storms approaching from the prevailing southwest.

I don't think of myself as living in the East, though. For example, people in New England have no concept of the size of the states out here. I once heard an acquaintance in New Hampshire say in a shocked tone, after I told him about a recent roadtrip, "You mean you drove all day and only went one state away?" That's a typical Eastern response; most Easterners have no real sense of distance out here. And the further West you go, the bigger the states get. Although I have said for years that Texas is more of a state-of-mind than a geographical locale. I've lived for significant amounts of time in Wyoming, New Mexico, and California. Each of those states takes an entire to drive across, or longer, depending what route you take. I've traveled through, camped in, and spent time in most of the other Western states, too, neglecting only North Dakota and Washington.

i've driven Highway 50 across Utah and Nevada, to where it ends in Sacramento. They call the western part of Highway 50 "The Loneliest Highway in the World," because those reaches of road in the Basin & Range region of Utah and Nevada have only a few towns dotted hundreds of miles apart. Driving from Ridgefield, UT, to San Francisco takes about 9 hours, with few stops; and in that distance you go up the Ranges and back down into the Basins about once every hour. Every time you go up and down you change elevations up to four thousand feet; by day's end your ears ache with all the pressure changes.

The truth of the West is that it is indeed mostly open space. It affects how you think. I do a lot of my best thinking on those all-day drives across one state. The driving puts me in a contemplative mood, and I am sometimes able to think problems through to resolution.

The open space teaches you patience. You can see a mountain range approaching in the far distance many hours before you arrive near its foothills. There are some incredibly beautiful isolate mountain ranges, that rise from the plains or plateaus surrounding them, that you can see for a hundred miles in any direction, when all else is flat and distant to the eye. For example, the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff, AZ, are old volcanic cones that rise up from the middle of the Colorado Plateau, with nothing else around for many miles.

The West for me is space. Space to roam. Space to live in. Space that opens your mind. Every time I cross into Wyoming, I feel as if my mind expands, takes on a breadth of dimension beyond the usual. Space is what defines distance. Immensity is what reminds us how small is our actual place in the Universe. One thing I love to do when driving a two-lane road across the vast emptiness of the West, is pull over, turn off the engine, get out and just stand there for awhile, listening to the silence. Listening to the wind, watching other silent winds move in the far distance. One hot summer day in Nevada I stood by the vehicle and watched dust-devil tornadoes, as many as six of them at one time, etch corkscrew trails across the open basin flats.

So maybe I do live in the East, if only by a narrow margin. I'm a Great Lakes native by birth and inclination. I love our watery world here—just as much as I love the high arid desert. But I love to drive West from here, and leave the East behind, and all its cares and tribulations. That big silence is worth the trip, every time.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

This is a wonderful post, art. you've introduced a whole new wotrld to me, one I've seen snippets of in movies. It reminds me of aspects of western Australia, equally huge distances across arid zones, deserts, extraordinary beauty and solitude. thank you for this exquisite piece of writing.

I hope you have a wonderful journey. Why not defy yourself and sleep well in anticipation. I look forward to your report once you return.

Please tell us about all the problems you solve while driving across those massive distances.

3:51 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Elisabeth, glad to introduce you to one of my favorite regions on the planet. Your comparison to Australia's open spaces is great. Someday I'd love to visit Oz, and see those space and places there for myself. Someday I'll visit them. Roadtrip, anyone?

I did sleep well last night, actually, although I got to bed late. It meant waking up late, but I do feel rested this morning.

I tend to post when on the road, don't worry. Sometimes it's just the day's catch of photos and haiku. Sometimes it's more. My health being what it's been the past few months, I'm going to take this current roadtrip slow, not push myself physically too hard, and plan to have tons of fun. As well as make lots of new photos.

11:28 AM  
Blogger mand said...

As a Brit, i suppose i have no idea of the size of some states... I'll have to get out there one day. ;0)

I have seen little bits of desert and true wilderness in my life, adding up to less than a fortnight probably, but enough to recognise it as my natural habitat.

Ho hum.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

That's terrific art. Have a lovely trip. I look forward to those postings along the way. There's something wonderful about sharing life 'on the road'. It helps lift the tedium for those of us left behind at home.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Natural habitat, indeed. Something the Desert Fathers knew, a couple of millennia ago, was that living out in the wild desert areas focuses the attention like nothing else. Life gets pared down to essentials, on all levels.

I expect to be able to post periodically, if in bursts rather than steadily. I like to put up the day's catch of the best photos, if I can, as I said. It all depends where I'm at, and if the internet is accessible there. It's actually good NOT being able to connect, when traveling. Another kind of desert, that focuses the attention.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

In the UK the dividing line is between the south and The North. By ‘north’ they mean the north of England. I live in that strange place beyond the north: Scotland. The North probably starts with Lancashire and Yorkshire, that line, but again, it’s an arbitrary term. Suffice to say northerners are looked down on. People love to divide up places. It’s like in Glasgow (and the same is true of London), the West End is the place to live.

As for wide open spaces, we have a few in the north of Scotland but you don’t often go for long without seeing the lights of some cottage in the distance. I don’t like being out there. For a few months I worked as a van driver up there and even though I was young and cocky I was still a bit fearful out there on my own. I crashed once not far from Loch Ness – I hit a sheet of black ice – and a vanload of Geordies appeared out of the mist and heaved me out of the ditch and got be back on the road again. I’ve always had a fondness for people from Newcastle after that.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I suppose I'm more educated on Britain past than Britain present. I always thought of the dividing line as Hadrian's wall. Silly, I know.

I still hope someday to visit Orkney. Another kind of desert is the vast sea. Half of my ancestors were Vikings, and my own grandfather was a merchant sailor among other things. There is such a Viking connection to Orkney, and the history of the Earls; I've read the Orkneyinga saga, as well as several of the other sagas, and they all talk about the sea being another kind of desert, a trackless waste filled with danger and thirst.

10:58 AM  
Blogger mand said...

Jim, they do say that wherever in the world you are there'll be a Geordie – but your story beats all. ;0) I've got a soft spot for them too.

As a southerner i've always found northerners are at least equally capable of looking-down-at. In fact i suspect some do so in the spirit of attack being the best defence. I do wish Brits in general were less inclined to divide people into categories...

And Art, from what i gather the Orkneys are as foreign to, say, Edinburgh as Lyon is to London.

I'd agree about ocean being desert, in fact i was including it (and the Arctic) when i mentioned wilderness. The snowy kind is the one i haven't tried in person but there's something about the bareness and wideness of those places. For some people it's mountaintops, for some it's woods, for me it's wastes.

('Good NOT being able to connect, when traveling. Another kind of desert' - definitely.)

11:55 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree, there's nothing quite like walking across a vast white tundra in a blizzard, everything around you white, no way to tell sky from frozen land, the horizon line hidden by the snow blowing around. I've walked across frozen snowcovered lakes in snowstorms like that, no way to tell what direction you're walking in, just hoping you're aimed right to get to the near shore rather than the long length of the lake. Those parts of the North American kraton, the old stone heart of the continent, which dip into the northern Great Plains states but are mostly flat all the way up through Canada to the Arctic Ocean, and nothing between Alberta and Lake Michigan to slow or break the wind. So the storms that come down across the flat frozen land can be among the fiercest, coldest, most dangerous.

Welcome to where I live.

12:13 PM  
Blogger mand said...

{{big round eyes}}


2:53 PM  

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