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It is an hour or less before the setting of the sun, a shadowless moment already greyed out, with an evenness of tone across the landscape, and it has begun raining, a heavy downpour, a late summer evening drenching. I first hear it, and drawn to the door, I look out and watch.

It is not just the rain, coming down in parallel lines across the trees, but the sudden humidity, a thickness in the air, and a kind of cool warmth — the air being cooler than the daytime, but the mugginess felt as summer heat. The drops splatter on the pavement outside the house and bounce up as they explode, making a kind of haze above the ground. 

It is a multi-sensory event: the hiss of the rain, the sight of the shower diagonal against the trees, the feel on the skin and the damp in the nostrils. As the weather develops, there is distant thunder. It rolls rather than claps. 

And the presence at my door cannot help but expand beyond this afternoon and its downpour. I am 70, and there are seven decades of familiarity to the rain. This moment and the emotion I feel watching is a palimpsest of all those years — each time it has rained, overlapped one on the other to make not a single day’s weather, but a book of pages, each another storm, bound in morocco to make a life. 

As a boy, growing up in what was then rural New Jersey, a brook ran through our yard and when it rained, it would flood, rushing down its channel the color of chocolate milk.

As a Boy Scout, there were camping trips in tents made from heavy oiled canvas duck, with no floors, and in the rain, the heavy drops would splatter through the weave and spray us as we tried to sleep with a mist. 

Later, in summer camp and living in large tents on wooden platforms, the rain would make a sizzle on the canvas that was pleasantly soporific. 

In my 20s, trying to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, rain would sometimes keep us sheltered in a lean-to to wait out the weather, and after a night of downfall, we would wake up to a glazed world with leaves dripping, wet and clean, into the earth below and the long curved stamens of the rhodora flower weighted with a single bead on each tip. 

In Oslo, Norway, it rained every day in the summer at 4 p.m. You could almost set your clock by it. The downpour lasted perhaps 15 minutes and then it stopped, leaving streets running and the sound dampened by the humidity.

Eshowe

In South Africa, we were almost stranded on our way to Eshowe in Natal Province in 1987, when heavy rains washed out the John Ross bridge over the Tugela River. Eventually, our bus crossed the river on a railway bridge a few miles north. 

And, of course, I lived in Seattle for a while. The city is famous for its rain, but unless it was a gully-washer, no one even noticed. The constant winter mizzle was considered by most of the populace as fair weather. Or fair enough, anyway. 

Once, traveling across the continent, my wife and I were camping in Shamrock, Texas. In the middle of the night, a storm and tornado struck. First, our tent began floating as the drainwater created a flash flood, and then, when we abandoned the tent to find more secure shelter, the wind grabbed the tent like a kite, and I stood there, lit by the lightning, holding onto the airborne canvas trying to keep it from blowing off to the next county. I managed to get it caught under the tin roof of a picnic table and was able to dismantle it in the torrent. 

These and a thousand other pages in my morocco bound memory come to mind. But it isn’t merely the personal that maintains this resonance. Rain animates some of our best and most beautiful art, from Chaucer’s “shoures soote” to Lear’s “Blow winds, crack  your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes.” (When I watch Lear in the theater, I cannot help thinking of Shamrock, Texas). “Hey, Ho, for the wind and the rain. … For the rain, it raineth every day.”

There’s the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the wind machine in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude. 

There’s the downpour that begins Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the hurricane in John Huston’s Key Largo. The shower in The Big Sleep, when Humphrey Bogart ducks out of the rain into the bookstore with Dorothy Malone — when I first saw the film on television as an adolescent, the scene counted as pretty racy stuff. 

Looking out my door now, the trees across the road are a grey mass, not a boring cardboard grey, but a rich, charcoal and velvet grey, a grey made up not of a lack of color, but of all the colors veiled over each other. 

The visual poet of such rich greys in the rain is the Japanese woodblock artist, Ando Hiroshige. In so many of his Ukiyo-e images, the rain has dulled the contrast of the trees, leaving them a blank wash of charcoal or slate. It is what I see across the road — the overlapping of ever lighter greys as the landscape recedes. 

In 20 minutes, it is over. The street is flowing with runoff, more leaves have blown from the trees and collect in the wash along the curb. Fall is not too far off. The sky is barely brighter than the silhouetted trees; night will be here in another 10 minutes. 

Aprill with his shoures soote cannot match the end of summer and its late afternoon drenches. Trees all leafed out are ready to give up and let go. A certain exhaustion can be felt in the air; we have pushed so hard into the growth and flowering, and in seed time, we recognize our day is over. 

I close the door; the rain is forgot. I am remembering it now — emotion recollected in tranquility. I recall to mind the humidity on my skin, the sound in my ear, the riot of greys and the street wash. 

I love the rain; it is infinitely more beautiful than sunshine, which blares and obscures in shadow. The forms of things are revealed in sunless weather that are obliterated by sunlight. You see the world the way it truly is, not split into a manichean dichotomy of bright and dark — of Ahriman and Ormazd. 

It is the middle of August. I write this with some trepidation, remembering a warning by Sylvia Plath, who wrote: “It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: ‘After a heavy rainfall, poems titled Rain pour in from across the nation.’ ” 

goode mapWhen I was growing up — in the Antediluvian Age when everyone smoked Lucky Strikes and cars all had clutches and carburetors — the maps in my grade school rooms had 48 states on them.

Those classroom roll-down maps were beautiful to my young eyes — all that green, yellow and ruddy brown in wood engraving density. They are maps that have never been equalled, and I knew, looking at the map, pulled down in front of the black chalkboard, that I wanted to go to every one of those states and see if Colorado were really the color of chestnuts, if Florida were really Kelly green. It seemed so lush.

Over the years, I’ve gone to — and written about — all 48 contiguous United States, seven Canadian provinces, a couple of edgings into Mexico and a few places in Europe and Africa.

In each of the places I’ve been, there is a top sight to see, like the Grand Canyon in Arizona or Yellowstone in Wyoming. And I’ve loved them all.

But there are also smaller, less well-known places that have quietly become some of my favorites. I’m sure everyone has the same: places where something special happened, or that sum up the qualities of a state or region, or that just seem so relaxed and beautiful that they draw you back over and over.

For me, such places are often remote from normal tourism attractions. I am a sucker for unspoiled grasslands in the Great Plains, for alligator-filled swampland in the South, for backcountry roads in the Appalachians. Others may look for happy crowds to join, for music and dancing or roller coasters. My favorites, however, tend to be empty of people, silent and to provide long views over a significant arc of the planet.

So, here are a few of those places, listed state by state.

edmund pettus bridge

Alabama

If you want to learn about the Deep South and how much it has changed, you should visit Selma. It is where the great Civil Rights march of 1965 began, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heading on to the state capitol at Montgomery. If you think the battle is over, you should visit Selma and see, despite how far we have come, how distant is the horizon.

Badger Springs Road 1Arizona

Of course, the Grand Canyon is on our license plates, but almost any other square foot of the state is nearly as wonderful, from Hoover Dam to Douglas, from Four Corners to Yuma. But I have a special place in my heart for an obscure exit ramp from I-17 north of Phoenix. Badger Springs Road is a bit of largely undisturbed desert, with trails and cactus, and I can always pull off the highway and find a bit of peace and quiet.

Arkansas


The state is rich in rural areas, craggy in the north, flat and muddy in the east through the Mississippi flood plain, steamy with hot springs toward the south. But the little town of Toad Suck in the center of the state seems even a little quieter, a little more remote than most, and is graced with a state park as well, along the Arkansas River. No hotels, but friendly people.

manzanar

Northern California

California is too rich; I have to split it in two. Even then, I could name a dozen places in each half: In the north — Tule Lake National Wildlife Reserve, Mono Lake on the eastern side of the Sierras, Lassen National Park, the Humboldt Redwoods, the tule marshes along the Sacramento River. But I keep coming back to Owens Valley, just below Mt. Whitney. From the soda-flat Owens Lake north to the ruins of the Manzanar Relocation Center — where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II — the valley is both picturesque — the Alabama Hills where so many Western films were shot among the wonderland of rocks — and historic — in addition to the concentration camp, there is the sorry and violent tale of how a thirsty Los Angeles stole the valley’s water earlier in the century.

Southern California

East of San Diego is one of California’s most pristine deserts. It is called Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and it is the primordial home of all those Washington palm trees that line the streets of Phoenix. Borrego Springs is a surprisingly kempt little town in the middle of it, but the rest of the park usually seems as empty as a college campus during spring break.

Pawnee Buttes 5 copy

Colorado

For most people, the state probably brings to mind skiing or expansion baseball, or an over-hyped beer, and certainly Colorado is best remembered for post-card mountains — all those “fourteeners” — but I love the Pawnee National Grasslands, one of the best places to get a sense of what the West was really about, what the Great American Desert was — not desert, but the Great Plains, vast, sweeping and grassy.

Connecticut

There is no more peaceful a river valley in the nation than the Housatonic north of New Milford. The Appalachian Trail winds along a portion of its banks. There are covered bridges, meadows and not too far away, near Cornwall, there is a large stand of virgin white pine, called the Cathedral Pines. U.S. 7 parallels the river most of the way.

Delaware

Delaware is a tiny state, and most people notice it, if at all, for the chemical plants and refineries that stick their bellowing smokestacks into the air, and the highways that pass through it on their way elsewhere, up over the twin Delaware Memorial Bridge. But there are the “Hooks” — Prime Hook and Bombay Hook national wildlife refuges, swampy and woodsy on the broad mouth of Delaware Bay.

Florida

If you cannot get enough of the Everglades, or if the national park is too crowded, head north off U.S. 41 on any of a dozen gravel roads into Big Cypress National Preserve. Or take the loop road to the south, through incredible cypress wetlands, with sagging Spanish moss and blackwater swamps.

Okefenokee

Georgia

The Okefenokee is my favorite swamp. That’s saying a lot. I’ve seen more wildlife in it than in any other. Drive up Georgia 177 from Edith into the Stephen C. Foster State Park and rent a canoe. Paddle within inches of swimming alligators. Look into the trees for the snake birds — anhingas — with their darting necks and their wings spread out in the sun to dry.

Idaho

With its camas prairies, steep mountains and gaping canyons, the Nez Perce Indian Reservation is one of the most beautiful parts of this beautiful state. You can see the valley where Chief Joseph began his tragic 1,500-mile unsuccessful flight to freedom for his people in 1877.

Mississippi barge

Illinois

Chicago has big shoulders in the north, but down at the very bottom are the forlorn toes of Cairo, one of the most memorable of Mississippi River towns. It is aging, with peeling paint and boarded up storefronts, but you can feel in the humid air the history behind it. And you can see the conjoining of the muddy Mississippi water with the clearer, faster moving Ohio River. Boats and barges move past in the misty mornings like iron dreams.

Indiana

If you want to find the prototype of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.,” you couldn’t do better than to see Paoli, in the southern part of the state. No more perfect quiet little Middle-American village can be found. There are no tourists and nothing to do, but imagine what it must be like to live there, under the spreading chestnut trees just off the town square.

Iowa

Iowa is sometimes surreal: At the bottom of the bluffs of the Mississippi are cities filled with Victorian architecture. There are trees and vines. On top of the bluffs, there are endless rolling farms, with silos instead of trees, like some Grant Wood painting. The best of the cities is Dubuque, one of the greatest surprises of my travels. It is one of America’s most beautiful cities.

Kansas

If you want to get away from civilization, you can hardly do better than the middle of Kansas. Just north of Lebanon is the “Geographical Center of the Conterminous U.S.,” which is a highly qualified title to be proud of. But    you stand there, looking out over the grass and wonder, if they dropped the Big One here, would anyone hear it?

harlan county ky

Kentucky

   The state is mud in the west, limestone in the center and coal in the east. Among the stumpy, round-bumped mountains of coal-mining Harlan County and neighboring Letcher County, are some of the poorest homes and interesting people of the country.

atchafalaya thicket

Louisiana

It surprises even me, but one of my favorite places is along the Interstate. For 20 miles, I-10 rises on piers over the Atchafalaya Swamp. Take an exit into the dark woods and drive along the river into old, mossy river towns, built where the terra is not so firma. Even the pavement seems squishy beneath your feet.

Schoodicwaves2x

Maine

Everybody heads to Bar Harbor, where the T-shirt shops and frozen yogurt stores are chock-a-block. Pass on that and head to Schoodic Point further north. Also part of Acadia National Park, it is one of the ruggedest, rockiest parts of the rocky Maine coast.

Maryland

Antietam National Battlefield, near Sharpsburg, is the most emotional Civil War site I have visited. Every aspect of the fight, and all the blood and bullet-holes, seem spread out graphically, and the spirits of the dead and suffering seem almost palpable at the sunken road called Bloody Lane.

Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

Massachusetts

Arrowhead is the one-time home of Herman Melville in Pittsfield. The house is actually a character in many of his stories, and you can look out the second-floor window of his study, where he wrote Moby Dick, and see the saddle-back peak of Mt. Greylock to the north, “Charlemagne among his peers.”

Michigan

The Upper Peninsula is a big place, but everywhere you turn, there are forests, lakes and rivers, including Papa Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River. It’s hard to pick a single place, but there is always the drive on U.S. 2 along the southern shore of the peninsula along Lake Michigan.

Minnesota

A river doesn’t really start from a single source, but the agreed fiction is that the Mississippi begins at Lake Itasca, southwest of Bemidji. The lake is not that large, by Minnesota standards, and seems quite placid. The “father of waters” begins at a reedy little outlet that you can step across and brag you crossed the Mississippi on foot.

Mississippi

The blues began in the Mississippi Delta, and they are still played in the shabby juke joints of Clarksdale, one of those old, cracked-concrete, grass-in-the-railroad-ties, dying-downtown Deep South county seats. Everybody you see, sitting on their porch fronts, seems more human, more profound. Maybe it’s the blues.

Missouri

The Ozark Mountains can be beautiful, with lichen-covered limestone and rivers that disappear underground. Like at Big Spring State Park on the Current River, where the river comes gushing back out of the rock like a fountain.

bear paw surrender site

Montana

Chief Joseph began his three-and-a-half month trek in 1877 in Idaho, he ended it on the flat, grassy, empty plains of northern Montana, at a place called the Chief Joseph Battlefield near the Bears Paw Mountains, only 40 miles from the safety his Nez Perce Indians sought in Canada. He was captured by the U.S. Army, and promised “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

bailey yard nebraska

Nebraska

People look at me funny when I tell them that Nebraska is probably my favorite state to visit. The sand hills, the puny “national forest,” the Platte River and Scotts Bluff — they all seem unbearably windblown and lonesome. I love them all, but in North Platte, you cannot feel alone at the biggest railroad freight yard in the country. You can watch trains all day.

Nevada

If Nebraska is my favorite state, Nevada is probably my least favorite. It is empty, true, but its emptiness seems hard and thoughtless, like a biker at a roadside bar and casino. But I cannot deny the beauty of such places as Big Smoke Valley, between the Toiyabe and Toquima mountains, and the wide sagebrush plains where you don’t see a car for hours, but maybe a dozen dusty pickups.

New Hampshire

The Kancamagus Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the country, winding through the White Mountains along the Swift River. It goes from Lincoln to Passaconaway and passes some stunning stony waterfalls.

pulaski skyway copy

New Jersey

This is the state where I grew up. I came to despise the suburban banality of most of the state, but I loved two things: the northwest corner, with its minuscule mountains and bucolic forests; and most of all, the industrial corridor of the Jersey Turnpike, with its refineries, chemical plants and the always-beautiful Pulaski Skyway.

New Mexico

At the top of the Sacramento Mountains, in the Lincoln National Forest is a place called Cloudcroft. There is great camping, wild animals and — usually — clean air that is so clear, it could cut diamonds.

Bear Mtn Bridge

New York

New York offers more than any other single state except California. There are dozens of favorite sites, from Montauk Point to Niagara Falls. But I will always have a special affection for Harriman State Park, along the Hudson River, and Bear Mountain, that looks down at the gorge, just south of West Point and its military academy. Seven Lakes Drive, through the park, is what nature in the East is all about.

Ashe County road, creek &dogwoo

North Carolina

No question here: Ashe County, tucked up in the northwest part of the state, above the Blue Ridge, is away from the normal tourist loop, but more beautiful than any other place north of the Smoky Mountains. Any gravelly back road will take you to something surprising and there is the New River to canoe down.

Sunflowers Zap North Dakota

North Dakota

It hardly counts for anything, and there is no real reason to visit, but I cannot get enough of Zap, a tiny crossroads, where the roads don’t go anywhere. Between Beulah and Golden Valley, Zap sits among the rising and dropping swell of the grasslands, with the occasional pond for cattle to drink from.

Virginia Kendall SP, Ohio 3 copy

Ohio

Just south of Cleveland, there is a small bit of woods and rock called Virginia Kendall Park. It is right next to the larger Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, and benefits from more people going there than here. There is a rocky bluff in the middle of the park and echoing voices in the forest among the leaf litter.

Oklahoma

One of the worst massacres of the so-called Indian Wars took place just outside of Cheyenne, along the Washita River. The site is now nothing but grass, a line of trees along the water, and some outcroppings of rock. But the surrounding Black Kettle National Grasslands can give you a real sense of what the land looked like 121 years ago.

Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

Oregon

The Columbia River Gorge is one of the scenic wonders of America, and one of the most scenic drives is along the old, outmoded Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway, which rises up the mountainside above the interstate highway, and takes you through more waterfalls than any comparable stretch of road outside Hawaii.

falling water

Pennsylvania

The second most famous house in America — after the White House — is probably Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a vacation home he designed for Pittsburgh’s wealthy Kaufman family beginning in 1934. It is also one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, sitting literally atop a waterfall and jutting out over the small forest glen.

Rhode Island

If you’re on the A-list, you’ll naturally gravitate to Newport and its extravagant mansions. I’m not on that list; I prefer the more humble Conanicut Island, where real people live. It sits in the middle of Narragansett Bay and gives you a good sense of what life on the bay is like.

South Carolina

Myrtle Beach gets all the traffic and spring-breakers, but Huntington Beach, 10 miles further south along Murrell’s Inlet, is the better place to be. With Huntington Gardens just across the street, with all those animal sculptures of Anna Hyatt Huntington, and a fresh-water alligator pond next to the salt marsh, Huntington Beach is a great — a great — place for seeing birds.

pine ridge rez

South Dakota

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation may be poor, but it is beautiful. And as with many places noted for its poverty, it is very real. The people take the time to talk to you and there is history at every turn in the road — not all of it very comfortable for an Anglo to remember.

Tennessee

Most of the crowds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park gather along U.S. 441 across the crest of the range, or in Cades Cove in the southwest of the park. But one of the great drives, and less crowded, is up the Little River Road through the back side of the park. It follows the cascading Little River most of the way, and finds its way back to the visitors center at Sugarlands.

lbj ranch grandparentshouse

Texas

Even Texans will tell you the center of their state is the best part: The Texas Hill Country is an oasis in the middle of a state that sometimes seems like nothing more than the world’s largest vacant lot. And the best part of the Hill Country is found at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City. It is no wonder that our 36th president loved his ranch so much. It is a jewel in a perfect setting.

Utah

Is there a square inch of the state that doesn’t deserve to be a national park? I haven’t found it. But one of the most overlooked gems is the ride along Utah 128 from Moab to Cisco. Through most of its route, the road seems to be the one you would imagine at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Well, perhaps that exaggerates it a wee bit. But it is special.

coolidge plymouth

Vermont

Near Plymouth is the birthplace and homestead of Calvin Coolidge, who has recently lost his title as the president we made the most jokes about. In fact, Silent Cal was a smart cookie and not at all the buffoon stand-up comics make him out to be. He was raised in a tiny Yankee village that is preserved as a state park.

Monticello Entrance Hall copy

Virginia

Virginia is another state that seems to have more than its fair share of special places. Perhaps it’s history, perhaps geography, but almost anywhere you turn, there is something that will draw you back over and over. Still, there is something special about Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home, Monticello, a monument to just how profoundly beautiful a little nuttiness can be. The Age of Reason meets Henry Thoreau.

Washington

Eastern Washington is largely a blank spot in America’s consciousness. Seattle, the Olympics, the Cascades, Mt. Rainier — they are all in the west. But there is hardly an odder or more peculiar and spooky landscape on Earth than what is called the Channeled Scablands east of the Cascades. The Grand Coulee Dam blocks the Columbia River there, where a prehistoric flood scraped the earth clean for hundreds of miles.

West Virginia

The Hawks Nest, on U.S. 60 between Gauley Bridge and Ansted, looks out over the deep declivity of the New River Gorge and is one of the great scenic views of the eastern U.S.

Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Wisconsin

Southern Wisconsin has many treasures, including the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, and the world’s largest six-pack of beer at La Crosse, but nothing can beat the genuine zaniness of the Dickeyville Grotto, a religious site in Dickeyville created out of broken bottles, seashells, stones and broken crockery. It is one of the great “outsider art” sites, and don’t miss the tribute to Columbus.

Wyoming

What’s the highest, most alpine road in America that actually goes somewhere? Undoubtedly, it is the Bear Tooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park. It climbs up over Bear Tooth Pass at 10,940 feet and provides more long Rocky Mountain views than any other road. Look out for the marmots.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

State Line tex-NMTo see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.Clouds from plane

A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.

It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.Sunflowers North Dakota

In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.

I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.

Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.

Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.

There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.

Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.

I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.

In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.Bear Mtn Bridge

American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.

If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.

Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.

There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.

I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.

But most elevators don’t have windows.

As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.

Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.

Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. New OrleansThat’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.

It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.

In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.

And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.

The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.

But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.

One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.Imperial Dunes California

Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.

There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.

Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.

We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.

And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

What makes for good driving?

I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:

–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.

–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.

–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.

–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.

— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.leo carillo st beach california

— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.

— A used book store in every town.

— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.

–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.Mississippi barge

Part 4

The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:

1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.

2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..

3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.

4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.

5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.

6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.

7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.

8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.

9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.

10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.

11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.

12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.Niagara Falls

Part 5

It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.

No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial development.mobile bay point clear

The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.

But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.Page Dam Arizona

To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.

Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.Sierra Nevada Mts California

Of course, I have my favorites.

Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.

California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.

And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.

The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.

Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.Monument Valley Arizona

It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.

But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.

And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.Zion National Park Utah

In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.

But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.

In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American city.mobile bay

There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.

west texas road
Two things about Texas: It’s big and it’s empty.

For most of us, crossing Texas along the interstate, it is two days of tedium, flatness and gravel, waiting to get from the desert West to the humid East.

But there is another way to eliminate the tedium of the unavoidable crossing of the world’s largest vacant lot: Slow down, take your time and enjoy it.

That is what I decided to do when faced with yet another transcontinental automobile trip. I stayed off the interstate and took the back roads from El Paso to Beaumont, passing great views, interesting topography, peculiar history and even more peculiar people.

Mile 0 is the boundary between New Mexico and Texas, entering the state at Anthony. I drove through in the early morning, with the sun just sitting on the horizon, the Franklin Mountains to the east looking the color and texture of gray suede. The dew had raised the smell of the creosote bush.trans mountain expressway franklin mts

The first real chance to get off I-10 comes with the Trans-Mountain Expressway, that lifts you up and over the mountains and into Fort Bliss, just north of El Paso. As you descend, you pass the U.S. Border Patrol Museum and the streets of the military Bomarc missilereservation named for out of date missiles: Minuteman and Bomarc.

The next goal is the Hueco Mountains along U.S. 62. As you get to the top, at mile 56, you can spot the Guadalupe Mountains, highest point in the state, some 75 miles in the future.

The road passes along the dry regions of western Texas, with few people and even fewer gas stations. The first is at Cornudas, a one-time Butterfield State stop, now a dilapidated gas station and cafe, with souvenirs.cornudas texas

The sign outside reads, “Welcome to beautiful downtown Cornudas, pop. 5 or 6.”

Inside, the cafe is covered from head to foot in collectibles: old hubcaps, old postcards, things written on old napkins, old license plates, old photos and newspaper clippings. The ceiling is hung with things, including souvenir ballcaps, each individually wrapped in clear plastic.

The tables, too, are loaded down with writings, some printed, some hand-written, then covered with plastic. The table legs are wrapped in blue-jeans legs and bottomed with cowboy boots.

And on every table, along with menu and salt and pepper shakers, are copies of Lyndon LaRoushe’s wack-o New Federalist newsletters. This is a cafe with a political point of view.

And one table, near the cash register, sit two or three aging, potbellied “cowboys,” dressed in overalls and scratchy with whiskers. They look up at me as I enter, as if I were a spy come to undo their righteous cabal.

Nevertheless, I have a wonderful breakfast, which I recommend to all, a good Spanish omelet, toast and sliced fried potatoes.

When I finish, I ask if I can get gas.

“Sorry, we’re all out,” the waitress tells me. “But you can get some up about 15 miles at Route 1111.”

Paying the bill, I say to the nice woman behind the counter, “You sure are a far piece from civilization,” and she said with a smile that was only slightly ominous, “That just the way we want to keep it.”salt flat texas

Unfortunately, the gas station at the crossroads is closed. But another 15 miles down the way, at Salt Flat, there is another. Actually, it is a pile of corrugated tin and stucco buildings surrounded with cyclone fence. I pull in, amble up to the office and find it is locked, despite the “Open” sign in the window.

A dog barks, then another, then a few more. Behind the fence they are howling. A house sits across the dirt lot from the pump. Its door is closed. No one stirs. The sun is beating down. I honk my horn. I ring the doorbell. Nothing. Silence, except for the dry, angry barking of junkyard dogs.

West Texas is a very empty place. The air is desiccated, the ground is sandy, the mountains are heated stones, even in October.

It is not surprising that this group of shanties in Salt Flat seems like a set for one of those cheap made-for-TV stalker films. The area was also the site of the 1877 El Paso Salt Wars, when private industry bought the land and began charging for the salt that had previously been collected free by Indians and Mexicans. Many lives were lost.road to guadalupe mts

The road curls just south of El Capitan, the prominent peak at the head of the Guadalupe Mountains and one of Texas’ national parks.

To the east at mile 105, the Delaware Mountains are lined with some 65 electricity-generating windmills.

el capitan guadalupe mountains

But it is the Guadalupes that dominate. In their wrinkled canyons are trees and streams. There is birdlife and butterflies. At the visitor center little yellow butterflies wink in the butterfly weed.

“We had fall color here last week,” the ranger tells me. “But we had a 90-mile-an-hour wind come through and we don’t have any fall color anymore.”

They also don’t have any gas. The nearest is in the next state, 35 miles to the north at White City, N.M., near Carlsbad Caverns.

But I take the turn southeast to Orla. At mile 145, I enter the Central Time Zone, but time is certainly meaningless here among the cows and chaparral.Orla Texas

At the Orla Grocery, mile 185, the sign says, “It’s a long way to anywhere from Orla Grocery.”

The town is made up of a few sagging shacks, some tilted all the way over. There is also a yard filled with oil-drilling machinery, marking a change in geography. From here to the Hill Country, there is oil.

Reeves County, which includes both Orla and Pecos, is a flat, arid grassy land. In Pecos, the historical marker tells about the Pecos cantaloupe:

“Nationally famed melon, originated in this city. Residents from 1880s grew melons in gardens, noting sun and soil imparted a distinctive flavor.”

It goes on to say, “Famed lecturer Helen Keller, Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, and many other distinguished persons have ordered and appreciated Pecos cantaloupes.”iraan roadcut

But it is oil that is most apparent, especially as you enter the rocky hill country near Iraan.

The town is named for Ira G. Yates and his wife, Ann. It was under his ranch that the Marathon Oil Company — then Ohio Oil — discovered the biggest oil field in Texas and one of the biggest in the world.iraan 1Previously, oil experts had agreed, “You won’t find oil west of the Pecos River.” But they did. Within a year of the first well, struck in 1926, the Yates field had 100 wells dug. It now has more than 600.Alley Oop

Iraan is also the birthplace of the comic strip, “Alley Oop.” It was created by V.T. Hamlin while he lived here. Giant statues at the town playground immortalize Oop, his girl friend Ooola and his dinosaur, a 65-foot-long Dinny.

In the middle of town, the school sports a sign that says, “Iraan Braves, 1996 Double-A State Football Champs. 16-0.”

It is a long draw — some 90 miles — to the next town, Eldorado. The road, U.S. 190, passes some of the most beautiful scenery in Texas, with mesas and buttes, trees and scrub.

But at the halfway point through the state, at Brady and mile 507, is the geographical center of Texas. Or so the town claims.Brady texas sign

As the crow flies, it is 437 miles to the state’s westernmost point, 341miles from the most easterly point, 401 miles from the most southerly point and 412 miles from the most northerly.

“Enclosed within the 4,137-mile perimeter of the state are 267,339 square miles or 7.4 percent of the nation’s total area,” says the historical marker. “Fifteen of the 50 states could be readily accommodated within Texas’ borders — with more than 1,000 square miles left over.”Brady texas

It isn’t only the land that changes as I head into the eastern half of the state. The humidity rises, so that when I wake up the next morning after a night in the motel at Brady, the streets are so wet with dew, it looks as if it had rained in the night.

The heavy dew also brings out the smell of the grass and the dirt.

South of Brady, U.S. 87 enters the Texas Hill Country, an bubble of limestone that rises in the center of the state and continues north from the Balcones Escarpment. It is an oasis in the monotony of Texas landscape, with streams, forests, lakes and the former home of former President Lyndon Johnson.lbj state park entry sign

It comes as a shock to me how incredibly beautiful the LBJ Ranch actually is. And it is also a shock to hear Johnson, in old TV footage shown at the visitor center, talk about his love of the land.

I grew up at a time when Johnson was demonized for his policy on the Vietnam War. I never thought of him as anything but a power-mad monomaniac. But the LBJ Ranch, mile 592, humanizes him considerably.lbj ranch house 2

On the TV footage, he talks about watching deer jump the fence on the farm, about watching a yearling fawn, about raising the cattle and sheep. He speaks with genuine affection and without any of the boilerplate rhetoric that was his signature.

And I realized how Southern he must have been, how much the land meant to him, despite anything he did in the “halls of power.”lbj ranch pedernales river

I walk around the property on the edges of the Pedernales River, along Williams Creek that empties into the river.

There is the tannic smell of autumn leaves on the ground; there is hackberry and post oak and Virginia creeper along the fenceposts.

The creek is filled with bluegill sunfish, Texas softshell turtle, minnows, yellow mudturtles, bullfrogs, Rocky Mountain toads, crayfish, Rio Grande leopard frogs and the blotched water snake.

It is nature full of its variety. The river itself has kingfishers, mallards, Texas sliders, coots, largemouth bass, red sunfish and catfish.Pedernales River

As I stand on the bank of the river, under a pecan tree, hundreds of years old, a black anhinga flies up over the small dam that creates a cascade in the river, and four white geese try to cross the dam from the opposite shore. No, it’s five.

A nature trail winds around a fenced in deer enclosure and one of them comes up to nibble some grass I hold out for it.lbj ranch farmstead1

The trail continues into a small demonstration farm, typical of those in the area when Johnson was young. Five sheep and two little lambs are resting and sleeping. One of the lambs is curled up in a ball next to the woodpile. lbj ranch farmstead2Uncounted chickens run around the yard under the shade of post oaks and sumac and one big old live oak.

A few feet on, I spot a newborn lamb, just a few months old, his ears sticking straight out, catching the sun from behind. He is looking right at me.

Over my head, I can’t quite see him in the sunlight, but I hear him tapping: It is a flicker.

And over the very top, there is a hawk flying, soaring over the top of the farm. The little lamb shakes his head and flaps his ears.

The ranch is a paradise, an Eden, and I want to stay here.

From the ranch to the Louisiana boundary, Texas becomes increasingly Southern rather than Western. The landscape becomes more forested, the towns closer together and the traffic thicker. And the humidity becomes intense.dripping springs texas

I pass Dripping Springs at mile 629, Ledbetter at mile 728. At mile 766, I cross the Brazos River. It is still full from last summer’s heavy rains.

At mile 803, I see my first mention of the word “Cajun,” and I know I am near the end of the state.dixie's cajun seafood

At mile 823, I enter Cut and Shoot, a town more memorable in name than substance. It is just another junked up Southern town, filled with pickup trucks and Carol Sue’s Country Kitchen: “Dine in, Carry out, We deliver, Barbecue and fixin’s.”

After the dryness of western Texas, it is frightening to see the Trinity River in flood, swollen way over the woods on each side of its banks. The adjoining farm fields are lakes, with a few old cornstalks sticking up through the surface. The river water is still moving with a swiftness that looks as if it could wash away a town.20120106-OC-AMW-0698

And north of Sour Lake, the many sections of Big Thicket National Preserve looks as if it might as well be Louisiana, with its cypress sloughs and dense forests of beech, magnolia and loblolly pine.sabine river 2

I join I-10 once again in Beaumont, mile 905, and it will be interstate from here on. And I cross the Sabine River into Louisiana at mile 933. The interstate mile marker reads 881, which means I have only added 52 miles by taking the back roads.

But I have seen, heard, smelled and tasted so much more.


road
I have traveled across the country so many times, I can no longer accurately count. Mostly east to west or west to east: on train, on plane and in automobiles. I’ve been across the top tier of states, the southernmost tier and across the middle. I’ve boon to every one of the continental 48 states and all Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island.

And I’ve gone vertically, too. Drawn a giant Tic-Tac-Toe grid across the landscape. Past blogs have chronicled the trips I’ve made from Tijuana, Mexico, to Vancouver, Canada; north along the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Nova Scotia; and down the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. 

In each of these trips, I’ve learned more about my nation, most of it good, but in a few cases — like the persistence of racism — troubling. 

One trip I haven’t blogged about yet I took in 1997 for the newspaper where I worked — up the Hundredth Meridian from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border. That line is the mythic backbone of the nation, a dotted fold-line that divides the country in two. It’s just a line of longitude, and therefore imaginary, but this particular line has traditionally marked the beginning of the West. To the east of it, more than 20 inches of rain falls annually; to the west, less than 20 inches. hundredth meridian map

That means that to the east there were once tall-grass prairies that are now farmland; to the west, the High Plains where cattle now graze.
kine

Of course, the change doesn’t exactly run due north and south; it meanders back and forth over the 100th Meridian, so the drive up its length passes from prairie to plains and back, moving from cotton field to feedlot, from pasture to spinach.

It’s the perfect drive to see the middle of America that is so often forgotten by the majority of us whose attention is too often turned solely to the twin coasts.

If you take a trip up this spine of America, you will see more than a few kine, some goats, some sheep and a couple of ostriches.

To say nothing of some interesting people.

Ah, green grass, blue sky and a yellow line down the center of the road.

Some things have changed since I wrote these stories: Harlow’s World Famous Bar-B-Q is closed; a flashy new visitor center has opened at the Washita Battlefield National Historical Site; and several of the elders I talked to have now passed on. But I thought the trip as a whole was interesting enough to revisit in this blog. 

It will take three entries; the first never gets out of Texas. 

THE TRIP
laredo texas 2

Mile 0, Laredo, Texas

The planet we live on is divided into 360 degrees of longitude, beginning with the one that runs north and south through Greenwich, England.
meridian mapNot many of the meridians carry much significance: The Greenwich Meridian has been the one that keeps the world’s time; the 180th Meridian, for the most part, is the International Date Line, separating Mondays from Tuesdays. And the 100th Meridian has traditionally marked the eastern edge of the American West.
It is purely a geographical accident, but the 100th Meridian is where the rain gives out. To the east, crops grow with little help; to the west, there is either dry farming, irrigation, or, mostly, cattle grazing.

I took a week in October to drive up the six states that form the central axis of the country, keeping as close to the meridian as I could, but occasionally detouring east or west for interesting sights.

The trip begins in Laredo, Texas.

The 100th Meridian enters Texas just to the west of the border town of Laredo.

The city’s downtown looks more like Tijuana than any other American city I’ve seen. There are the narrow, uneven sidewalks; the old storefronts with overhanging eaves, whose windows are filled with carefully lined up watches, wedding dresses or toys. The streets are narrow through the old part of town.

Laredo was first settled in 1755 and the Woolworth’s looks at least that old.

There are a bunch of border crossings in town, and the lines of people move constantly through the archways; maquilladores flourish across the border and the employees move from one country to the other.

North of the old part of town, Laredo looks more like any other Western American city. Along the interstate that pushes north are hordes of strip malls, Wal-Marts, Popeye’s chicken franchises and home-repair discount supermarkets. Every 1.6 miles, there is a McDonald’s.

U.S. 83 heads northwest out of town and soon crosses the 100th Meridian, then paralleling it in its march to North Dakota.

As soon as you leave the city, you begin to see evidence of the uncertainness of the geography, as you move from farms to ranches.

The prairie doesn’t turn instantly to plains: There is a wide, undulating transition zone.

First, surrounding the city are “winter gardens,” where tomatoes and other vegetables are grown for places that can’t. But as soon as we leave the garden area, we hit the chaparral, where there are hundreds of ranches in the scrubland filled with mesquite, juniper and, most of all, purple sage, which turns patches of the chaparral into an inky lavender.

But as soon as you hit the tiny town of Asherton, the ranches give way once again to agriculture.

spinach, crystal city texas

Mile 89, Crystal City, Texas

During World War I, the small community of Crystal City tried an experiment: to grow a winter crop of spinach. In only a year, spinach became the area’s principal crop. There was a “spinach boom.” People talked of “green gold.”

By 1933, the Crystal City Cannery was producing 10,000 cans of spinach a day. In 1945, Del Monte took over as primary processor; it now produces an average of 2 1/2  million cases of spinach a year.

In 1936 the Chamber of Commerce held its first Spinach Festival and crowned its first queen and Texas Governor James Allred proclaimed March 16-21 as “Spinach  Week” and Crystal City as “the world’s largest spinach shipping center.”

popeye statueBut the chamber of commerce wanted a symbol and found one in Popeye the Sailor Man. They arranged with Elzie Segar, the comic strip’s creator, to use Popeye to sell spinach and a “life-size” statue — if you can say that about a cartoon  character — was erected, which now sits on a pedestal in front of City Hall.

“Let us give three rousing whoops for Crystal City,” wrote Segar.

Crystal City has its Spinach Festival every year on the second weekend in November in honor of its “Patron Saint” Popeye. The city of 8,000 grows to 50,000 for the three day event.

Spinach, though, is no longer even the main crop. “We grow onions in the summer and cabbage in the winter,” explains the woman at City Hall.

There are also murals all over the building, including a giant cowboy, Mexican vaquero and a large crocodile. I don’t know what the croc is doing there, but there are some peccaries behind it, and an Indian on a horse with a spear and his head hanging low. Also a Jesus and an American flag, some campesinos and a woman in a graduation gown. It’s quite an iconographical salad.

But not all of history is rosy for the town. During World War II, a Japanese internment camp was built here, which at its peak, held 3,374 people, mostly Japanese American, with a few German and Italian families added, held temporarily as potential immigrants.

US 83 Uvalde Co. Texas

Mile 128, Uvalde, Texas

Uvalde, Texas, is best known as the home of John E. “Cactus Jack”  Nance, vice president of the United States under the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt.

The irascible Nance, who had been a powerful member of the Senate and House, termed the job “the first demotion of my life,”  and said that the vice presidency “ain’t worth a bucket of warm piss.”

During a long career in the House and Senate, Nance had built a great reputation as a parliamentarian, and over the years, he was given scores of “honorary” gavels to replace one he broke in use.garner museum

These gavels, along with his canoe, hunting rifle, official papers, tons of PR photographs and some very nice oil paintings made by his wife, are on view at the Garner Museum on one of the shady back streets of Uvalde.

About 30 miles north of town, a state park has been named for Garner, in the spotted green canyons of the Texas Hill Country. The park, along the Rio Frio, is bumper to bumper with visitors in the summer, but on an October morning, it is nearly deserted, save for one family swimming in the icy clear water of the river, which is lined with bone-white cobbles eroded from the limestone hills.

Farming has given way once again to grazing land, although most of what chews the tough dry grass are sheep and goats. Central Texas is the Angora wool and mohair center of the nation.

“But we don’t eat mutton,” explains the volunteer at the park information desk. “You know, there’s a historical antagonism between the cattlemen and the sheepherders. That hasn’t completely disappeared.”

“Oh, but it’s changing a little,”  says her colleague in the office. “You can buy sheep meat in the H.E.B.”

The H.E.B. is the local chain of supermarkets. It is short for its owner’s name: Howard E. Butt, a major figure in the area, whose name you keep running across for his charitable donations.

If my name were Butt, I’d name my store with my initials, too.

menard texas

Mile 260, Menard, Texas

The land flattens out by the time you reach Menard, Texas. The town was founded in 1858 and was once — this is a litany in the Plains states — prosperous. Now most of the old stores on the town’s main street are empty.

One exception is the old Luckinbach hardware store, which now houses one of the world’s most successful manufactury of hunter’s game calls.WF4 Deluxe Predator Call

Burnham Brothers specializes in predator calls, but they carry all kinds, from turkey to mouse calls. You squeeze them, hammer them, blow into them and rub them together, to make the variety of squawks, wheezes, yelps and chatters that will bring your desired prey into the sights of your 12-gauge.

Outside of Burnham Brothers, the towns main income comes from sheep manure, according to Coby Phillips,  who works behind the counter.

“My father used to work in the hardware store, and now I work in the same building,” he says. “It was his first job and this is mine.”

J. Morton Burnham is “recognized as the father of predator calling,” says the catalog. In 1952, his sons started up the business using their father’s know-how. They sold it in 1991 to its present owner, who supplies predator calls to the world. They have mechanical calls, cassette tapes of animal calls, and most recently, they have added 60 digital animal calls.

The catalog lists a Coyote Howler, which looks something like a child’s toy trumpet, a Buck Grunt Deer Call, a Coon Squaller, a Mini-Squeal and, Phillip’s recommendation, a Mini-Blaster, which has variable pitch and is “the best for calling coyote and bobcat.”

I am taken with a slate and wood turkey call and ante up the purchase price of $13.95.

“This is one of the top three turkey hunting areas in the world,” Phillips says.

Phillips was born in Menard and can’t imagine leaving. “Many young people do leave, but a lot come back when they are older,” he says.

He has a long list of reasons to stay, despite the generally depressed economy.

“The town is small, so everyone knows everyone else. There’s no crime to speak of and a good school system with small classes. My high school graduating class was 22.”

He was a Menard Yellowjacket.

And in the winter, “There’s only a week and a half out of the year that’s freezing.”

ballinger texas cotton

Mile 317, Ballinger, Texas

Near Ballinger, Texas, I start seeing fields of cotton. The fields are completely white with it, looking almost like snow.

Like many of the small towns — this one has a population of 4,170 — there is not much of note.

ballinger crossHowever, there is a giant high-tech steel cross on the rise overlooking town and a bronze statue of a cowboy in front of city hall. Like many such city halls, the building is the most impressive architecture in the county and and built of sandstone.

When I tune in the local radio station, the newscaster tells me there is some controversy in the city over the community center, which is sometimes used on weekends to hold dances.

Several neighbors have complained about the noise.

“Curtis Jennings appeared before the city council and said he felt past city fathers did not build the community center to be turned into a beer hall and dance hall.

“He told city councilmen that the music went on till almost 1 in the morning.

“Councilman Jerry Willingham said he felt 10 p.m. should be set as the time to shut down activity at the community center. Mayor Rudy Hoffman instructed them to set guidelines and make recommendations for the next council meeting.”

Big, white, puffy cumulus clouds are moving across the sky like a marching band.

abilene train

Mile 373, Abilene, Texas

Nothing says Texas like a good, thick steak in a sleazy tin-sheathed dive.

Harlow’s World Famous Bar-B-Q and Steaks in Abilene is just off the interstate and just the ticket. Ribeye is sold by the measure: from three-quarter inch (for sissies) up to 2 solid, meaty inches.

The ceiling is patterned tin sheathing, punctuated by six slow-moving fans. The walls are in need of a good scrubbing and are covered in a variety of neon beer signs. A piece of a Texas flag is framed at one end of the room and the 17 tables in the front room are lined up under plastic tablecloths. The chairs are  a grab bag of ’30s oak office furniture and ’50s kitchen dinette moderne.harlow's

Racks of potato chip bags hang on the counter next to the cash register and the menu is hand-printed on posterboard above the bar.

One old sign says “Beer 5¢” and just under it, “Dancing girls,” but the beer is the normal price and the closest thing to dancing girls are the jeans-and-T-shirt waitresses who hustle from one end of the painted concrete floor to the other.

The owner of this establishment is Timmy Harlow, who looks to be somewhere between 69 and death.  His white hair and gaunt body look like that of an old, worn-out cowboy. His beach-ball gut is largely covered by his red apron, but from behind, he has no shape at all: a thin, tubular body with neither shoulder nor hip nor waist. His jeans hang low on his frame and stay up only the way crew socks stay up on skinny shanks.timmy harlow

In actuality, Harlow is 49 years old and a worn-out former beer distributor. His Lone Star franchise fell through in the oil bust of the early ’80s and Harlow, always a hard-liver, had to drop out. There were divorces, some hard times and an inspiration.

So, he opened this restaurant in the former beer warehouse. The building still looks like a warehouse — or at least the back of it does: a  utilitarian cinderblock box with “Harlow’s” painted its length.

But in front of that, he has built a kind of garden, with trellises made out of unfinished wood and lots of climbing vines. You have to walk through this little paradise before you get to the fried onions and potatoes with sour cream.

There is a back room, also. It is fitted out with aviation memorabilia in honor of nearby Dyess AFB. There is also a shrine to Chuck Yeager, who has been known to eat here.

Yeager, in fact, so enjoyed the homemade honey ice cream that he asked Harlow for the recipe. Harlow said he wouldn’t give it away, but would trade it for one of Yeager’s flight suits. The suit now hangs near the front of the room.

There is also a wall full of dinner plates signed by celebrity customers. Among the 40 plates, I spotted George Strait, Clint Black and Lori Morgan. Many of the names are less luminous — at least, I didn’t recognize them; probably local radio personalities.

The clientele was a mix with on one hand,  well-to-do slummers in their “stone” colored chinos and Oxford-cloth shirts and on the other hand a few broad-bellied men with scraggy goatees and glassy eyes who looked like they just got off the construction site, or more accurately, had stopped on the way for a six-pack or two.

It’s a very Texas mix.

The mesquite broiled ribeye, by the way, was juicy and delicious.

crowell thunderstorm

Mile 492, Crowell, Texas

Crowell is one more dried up little town in the flat plains of northern Texas.

Most of the buildings along the downtown highway are closed up. There is little traffic through the town as I step into the M and M Family Restaurant across from the courthouse and order my breakfast.

“Two scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy and your largest orange juice.”

“I’m sorry, but I just ran out. I mixed up a whole gallon this morning and it’s gone.”

“That’s OK, I’ll have water then.”

I find out from three retired farmers who are lollygagging in the M and M that the whole land is thirsty for water.

“All there is in the wells is briny, so we can’t use that to irrigate,” says Abe, who is about 65 and has gone through two heart surgeries and is on the waiting list for a third. He wears a straw cowboy hat and a white shirt.

“The government has a brine reduction project with a pipeline that runs from Guthrie and tries to impound the briny runoff from wells, to reduce the saltiness of the Wichita River so cattle can drink out of it,” Abe says.crowell elevators

“But don’t give this gentleman the idea that we don’t like it here,”  says Joseph, who is in his late 50s and seems a little more cosmopolitan than Abe. He turns out to have once run the local newspaper.

“What do you like about it?” I ask.

“Everything,” Abe answers.

But the conversation seems to center on the disasters.

“The problem here is it’s always too hot, too cold, to dry and too wet,” cracks  Abe. “The weather is too irregular to make a regular living.”

And the weather is the constant topic of conversation — that and government policy.

The biggest weather they ever had was a tornado in April, 1942. It killed 11 people and tore straight through town.

“That tornado was the biggest thing that ever hit this town,” says Joe.

“I wasn’t here for it,” says Wendell, “But I got here the next day.”

Wendell is 92 and talks slowly. He is also wearing a white shirt, although it is now a couple of sizes too large for him, and a ball cap.

“It took the dome off the courthouse and took off three of the clock faces. One dial was left, but the works was blown out.”

“No, you can’t count on the weather,” Joe says. “We normally get 24 inches of rain a year, but in 1941, we had 40 inches and there were lakes all over.”

But the usual problem is not enough, or at least, not at the right time.

“It’ll rain all around us and Foard County won’t get any,” says Abe.

“Story is, when Noah had his flood, Foard County got a half-inch.”crowell wichita river

In the flat country around town, they tell me, the main product is cattle and wheat. A bit further south there is also cotton, but they don’t grow it anymore in Crowell.

“It’s the boll weevil,” says Joe.

“Deliver us from weevil,” says Abe.

“They got a weevil eradication program and it’s the best thing the government spends money on,” he continues. “Maybe one day, they will eliminate the problem — now I’m not saying they’ll ever completely get rid of it — but maybe they’ll reduce it enough that you can make a living with cotton again.”

He doesn’t sound convinced, more hopeful than anything.

As for government, Wendell says the only real non-agricultural industry in town is a company that makes “gimme” caps, but they are feeling the pinch from Mexico.

“I don’t like talking politics,” he says, “But you can hear that giant sucking sound that Ross Perot spoke of.”

North of town I spot a box tortoise slowly trying to cross the road, with his head tentatively dangling in front of his dome.
quanah parker

The roadside weeds are drying in the October sun. The sunflowers have passed the flower stage and a spattering of black seedheads dot the tan grass. Clouds blow quickly across the sky, leaving racing dapples of sun over the fields.

With the car window down, you can smell the damp straw in the fields, the wet earth and the smell of the cattle as they go by in a truck. Once in a while, the rhythm is broken by the smell of a roadkill skunk.

Just north of Crowell is the Pease River, where Cynthia Ann Parker was stolen back from the Comanche Indians in 1836 after 24 years of living among the Indians. Her Indian son was Quanah Parker, the greatest of the Comanche leaders. His name meant “fragrant.”

And the next town on the route is named after him.

Next: The Central Plains

o'keeffe road to the ranch 2Our eyes are the great nexus between the inner and outer worlds, where the outer existence pours into our consciousness as if funneled through our irises, and where, conversely, our inner selves are projected, like a light-beam, out onto the world. Neither is sufficient of itself, but together, they create our sensibilities.

vision x 1

It is a great “X” where the two lines cross on our retinas and expand outward into the landscape on one side, and inward onto our cortex on the other. Which open angle of the “X” subsumes the larger extent has been the subject of philosophizing for thousands of years.

(This is not meant as a scientific description of the physiology of sight, but a metaphor for vision.)

Andrew Marvell summarized this process, albeit in his witty turn on a once-familiar Elizabethan trope, in his poem, The Garden, where he creates an image out of this “X:” “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find” and then goes on to say how that interchange is always colored by the mind that perceives: “Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

Which is all a long, roundabout way of saying that landscape — the world around us: geology, geography, our neighborhoods, even the interior of our homes — is never neutral, but always has meaning. It is this meaning that makes the land we inhabit so important to our intellectual understanding of the world.

We can easily misunderstand “meaning.” It does not stand for the equals sign in an equation: this means that; but rather we should understand “meaning” as “significance,” as when we wake up from a dream thinking “that dream meant something.” We may not know what the dream meant, but we are left with the distinct conviction that it had significance. This significance — this meaning — is the electrical power that charges myth and makes it glow from the inside.

The land, as we perceive ourselves living in it, is a projection of ourselves, as much as we are a product of it. robt lee 1

It was the land he grew up in that Robert E. Lee felt compelled to defend in the Civil War. The causes and results of that war are manifold, and the self-interest of slave owners should not be underplayed, but when Lee discussed his motives, it was his patriotism, not for the Union, but for the single commonwealth of Virginia that drove his actions: and it was the landscape he grew up in that fueled that sectional patriotism. (Again, this is not to justify Lee or the Confederacy, but to understand how much the landscape he grew up in defined his vision of what the world was and should be). Yoknapatawpha.County map

The landscape informs almost every important piece of literature, from the Mediterranean upon which Odysseus sailed to the woods of Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner populated, back to the snowy steppes of Russia in War and Peace and forward again to the Pennsylvanian suburbs of John Updike.

It is not merely that the action in a novel or epic has to take place somewhere, but that the land itself becomes a character and influences the lives and thought of all who inhabit it.

The land we inhabit in life has the same kind of metaphorical power that it does in literature. In some ways, we each live in the novel (or epic) of our own lives, and the characters in our personal novels all have meaning to us, including the land we tread.

That mythic force is why we feel the rise in our throats when we sing of “amber waves of grain,” and “purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.”

Our ur-landscape also provides a model of the wider world, which can influence our thought, emotions and political views, even when that landscape gives us distorted information. If we live in a city, we tend to think of the world as thick with people who have to get along to survive; if we grew up in Wyoming, we are more likely to see the world as mostly empty, and our interactions with others as less important, and often intrusive, and our survival dependent on ourselves alone. Conversely, those interactions in the rural West tend to be understood more personally, while in the bustle of New York, you must create some private space among the throng, and therefore can seem more impersonal to a neutral observer.

In the city, horizons are blocked and the space in which we understand ourselves to be acting is constricted; in the American West, horizons are planetary, and we believe ourselves to be actors in a vast scheme. The mythologies that develop in such places are vastly different.

Manhattan and Wyoming are just two extremes, but each landscape provides its own influence, has its own meaning.

It isn’t a question of right or wrong, but of partial visions, each partly distorted, partly clear. The Georgia farmer and the Maine lobsterman or the Cuban immigrant in Miami don’t merely see their home towns and counties as different, but project those differences out into the rest of the country (there is a reason our so-called “red states” and “blue states” are organized geographically) and onto the rest of the world, including the Middle East, Putin’s Russia and expanding China. It is an unavoidable provincialism. Travel is the cure.

Not merely that travel introduces us to other peoples, but shows us other soil, and other relationships to that soil. Landscape has great power.

It is to seek this power that great landscape artists — whether painters or photographers — make their pictures. It is not to make a postcard of a pretty piece of scenery, but to find in the land a metaphor for thought, emotion or state of mind — or even a political philosophy.

I am reminded of a passage in Hector Berlioz’s memoirs, where he says, “It is like the visitor who go up into the colossal statue of San Carlo Borromeo in Como (Italy), and who are amazed to discover the room where they have just sat is the inside the saint’s head.”clearing storm winter

And one is surprised, looking at Ansel Adams’ Clearing Storm Winter, Yosemite, that the view is as much inside one’s head as it is of the outer world. That is, that the scene feels in some way a perfect metaphor for the imagined landscape inside the skull, including a floor, a valley with borders, a tall ceiling or sky, and lots of weather. “That’s my brain,” I say looking at the photograph.yosemites postcard 1

But, of course, the land isn’t always that dramatic, always that Romantic. Indeed, Adams’ photographs can easily drop into the picturesque, like some supremely crafted post-card image. And it isn’t only the great mountains of the West that have meaning in landscape art.

The other great Adams in photography, Robert Adams, can photograph a street in Los Angeles or the flat plains of Nebraska and find a way — to quote him from his book, Why People Photograph — “to affirm life without lying about it.”Hopper

Telling the truth, however, isn’t the same as reporting the fact. The truth of how land creates meaning is obvious in the paintings, say, of Edward Hopper, where the raking light of early morning gives New York City a glowing loneliness that says something more truthful than merely transcendence in the light or the alienation of the empty street. There is both. The disjunction gives the painting its power.

I remember the first time my wife and I drove out West. We both grew up in the East, with its forests and slope-shouldered hills, with its rivers and streams, its highways and billboards. But as we drove, the landscape slowly became less and less familiar as the trees thinned out and the hills flattened into the billiard table of the Texas panhandle. Then, suddenly, the bottom dropped out of the world, right at the New Mexico border and we descended from the tableland into a land of buttes and mesas in the Canadian River basin. The ground was dun and gravelly and we realized for the first time that the landscape of the Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoons was a real landscape, and that all those tall buttes didn’t so much rise up above the land, as that the land dropped away from the peneplain into vast miles of valley, with the buttes as remnants of the former geology. It wasn’t merely a change in scenery, but a completely different world.
Monument Valley mittensAs we traveled around the country, we kept finding new worlds, and each new world was a new birth for us, a new awareness of the variety of meanings and significances of the planet.

NEXT: West Virginia

Cadillac Ranch

There must be something in the water in the Texas Panhandle.

Something must explain what I saw beside the road as I drove past Amarillo.

First came the Cadillac Ranch, a series of 10 Caddies buried front-end down in the dirt in a cornfield just west of Amarillo.

It is not an officially sanctioned tourist location, says the nice man at the tourist info stop. But it seems as if there is always someone there, gawking at the Texas equivalent of Stonehenge.

It was built in 1974 by a group of San Francisco architects who called themselves the Ant Farm and was bankrolled by Amarillo millionaire and TV station owner Stanley Marsh.

Marsh, known as something of an eccentric, believed in public art with a sense of humor. He has also been responsible for a farm-field-size ”soft pool table”; a monument at the ”Grave of the Unknown Pet”; and a wood-frame ”Boot Hill” to which hundreds of old boots have been nailed.

His most recent project has been a ”drive-by art gallery” called the Dynamite Museum.

”There’s something wrong with art in a museum,” he once said. ”First you’re photographed on a hidden camera when you walk in. You’re intimidated by docents. The art’s hanging in grand frames with scrolls with gold letters. Behold. Genuflect. Art needs to be hung under expressways and in grocery stores and bowling alleys.”

So, in 1974, he commissioned the Ant Farm to bury 10 Cadillacs — vintages 1949, ’52, ’54, ’56, ’57, ’58, ’59, ’60, ’62 and ’64 — grille down and tail fins flashing.

The cars are now pretty rusted out. There is no more window glass, no upholstery. Only the metal and most of the tires, which spin when a breeze catches them. The original Body-by-Fischer paint job has been superseded by layers of graffiti, all brightly colored, leaving the calling card of many of the monument’s visitors. Underside of Cadillac

There is surprisingly little obscenity. Almost all the writing is of the Kilroy sort, ”We passed through, these are our names and the towns we live in.” I spotted listings from Sierra Vista and Tempe, among the many from other states and countries.

The cars, which, despite the oft-repeated claim, the artists deny are set at the same angle as the side of Cheops’ pyramid, are at the end of a dirt path a 10th of a mile into a working cornfield. The green stalks are all around. In the shade of two of the angles, corn is growing between the axles.

The only ugly thing — as long as you don’t consider the whole thing ugly, as I know many people do — is the mess of spray-paint cans. Many are tossed into the passenger compartments and pile up next to where the steering wheels used to be, among some empty Budweiser cans. But even more of them litter the cornfields, tossed out there when they empty up.

I don’t know how the farmer feels about the mess, but I thought it went completely against the spirit of the monument, which is otherwise a collective paean to the American spirit of On-the-Roadness. Groom Texas cross

But, although the Cadillac Ranch is the most famous Amarillo monument, it isn’t the only one: On the eastern side of Amarillo, I spotted a huge white cross beside the interstate. It must have been a hundred feet tall and made out of what looked like aluminum siding. At least it had that flat, white paint job and siding grooves. It has smaller crosses on either side whose function is to hold up the spotlights that illuminate the thing at night.

I must admit, I felt something less than admiration for it, perhaps because the last time I saw a huge, illuminated cross, it was at a Ku Klux Klan meeting. It was also impressive, but it certainly stood for something I find less than admirable. Leaning water tower

And less than a mile to the east, Britten, Texas, has a roadside water tower set into the ground at something more believably like the Cheops angle. It nods over, like a drunk on his barstool. I can’t tell if the water tank on top is functional or not, but I rather doubt it. It seems more like another American eccentric creating a memorable roadside monument.