It is hard to describe to anyone not born and raised in the eastern portion of this country what a shock it is to see the American West for the first time. One gets used to the thick forests and twisting roads and the dense population of the East.
I had managed not to see the West until I was nearly 35. I was unprepared for what I found. There were mesas, buttes, mountains, geysers, chasms, canyons and prairies. There were deserts, high plains, cactus and arroyos. My eyes were pie plates. It was all new. We’re not in New Jersey anymore.
The air was crisp and dry. You could see 50 or 100 miles through it. Every day, there was something I had never seen before and had never even imagined.
This was in 1982, and in one single summer trip my wife and I put 10,000 miles on our car while driving in a huge loop around the Western half of the continent, and we saw everything from the Grand Canyon to Mount Rainier. We felt like mere babes, dumbstruck by a world we only knew through paintings by Thomas Moran, movies by John Ford and photographs by Ansel Adams. We hadn’t really believed what we had been shown: Nothing is really that gobsmacking.
We had some incredible luck. By accident, we came to Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona by the back roads and found a place along the edge of it that was not crowded with tourists. We sat alone on the rim looking down into the abyss for hours, listening to the breeze and the birds, before another car even drove by.
We were lucky enough to drive through California’s Death Valley in June. It was empty also. Few people are crazy enough to go there when it is 115 degrees. But it meant we saw Death Valley at its most characteristic. It is well named.
We were lucky to pass through Depuyer, Mont., when the cottonwood trees were shedding their ”fluffy-duffies” and coated the whole town like a blizzard.
”I love this time of year,” the woman behind the store counter told us. ”When I was a little girl, I would collect as much fluff as I could and make little doll quilts from it and use it to stuff doll pillows.”
There was a mile-long climb up the Lake Angeles trail in the Olympic Mountains of Washington, and at the top we came to a fog-skimmed lake with the rocky precipice of Mount Angeles on the other side, looking like a living, breathing Thomas Moran painting.
About 20 miles west of Cody, Wyo., we passed a road sign that read ”Weather Info Tune to 1610 AM.” We had seen such signs before, but this time we thought we’d try it out. Just as we did, the land opened up in front of us and we saw the sweeping plains that spread out towards the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, about 10 miles in front of us. The scene was perfect: Purple mountains trailed off into the distance, broad plains and a lake intensely blue spread like a feast before us, a sky higher than any we had seen, filled with four or five different kinds of clouds and interspersed with an ultramarine, rippled out to a visual infinity. I clicked on the radio, and instead of weather, we heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Star-Spangled Banner with the richest kitschiest accompaniment the Philadelphia Orchestra could muster.
I’m not much given to patriotic sentiment, but I could not hold back a tear. I felt as much an American as George M. Cohan ever did. I felt the shores of Tripoli, the amber waves of grain, home of the free. The choir sang all the verses and at the very end, in a vocal trick now commonplace but brand-new then, the choir jumped an octave on ”free-eeeeeeeeee” as it ended, and I swear it sounded like Beethoven’s Ninth.
Of course, when we later moved to Arizona, some of the glory wore off. We lived in Phoenix, which is pretty much Cleveland in the desert, and after 25 years working there — it isn’t that we didn’t still love the beauty of the landscape, but that it became familiar; it no longer astonished us. The human psyche can get used to almost anything.
“Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
“Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”
Now that we have moved back to the Blue Ridge Mountains — an entirely more comfortable, less spiky, less prickly landscape, softened with humidity and afternoon showers, green of the forest replacing the tawn of the desert — now that we have moved back, the night splashes full with dreams of distant impossibly white clouds with charcoal bottoms floating over red buttes and vast bajadas.