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Glen Rio, Tex (N.M

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.Dawn, Grand Canyon

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.Goosenecks of the San Juan

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.White House Ruins

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.Zabriskie Point

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.Hurricane Ridge

There were the steaming clouds of limestone piled up in Yellowstone National Park, at Mammoth Hot Springs, glistening with trickled water.Mammoth Hot Springs

And driving east from Yellowstone, down the Shoshone River Canyon, dropping off the eastern face of the Absaroka Mountains, we passed rock formations and river rapids.shoshone canyon

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.Wheatfield, Pendleton, Ore

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.

SaguarosOf 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.

Olympic mountains precipice

Washington’s Olympic Mountains are wet. Their slopes are covered in rainforest, with broad ferns and tall redcedars with soggy, mossy bark. When it isn’t raining, it is drizzling and when it isn’t drizzling, the fog is so thick it soaks your clothes.

The western slopes of the mountains average 140 inches of rain per year; its highest point, Mount Olympus at 7,965 feet, receives the equivalent of 220 inches, most of it snow.

The Olympics are also steep. Everything in the Olympic National Park is vertical. Nearly every mountain is a towering cliff. Driving the 17-mile park road from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge, one side of the car views an uplift of rock only inches from the window while the other side looks out over cirques whose centers plummet thousands of feet straight down.

Mountain goats manage to dance up the sheer wall of rock as obliviously as dervishes.Deer at Hurricane Ridge Olympic NP

Hurricane Ridge is the place inside the park most accessible to the outer world, with a parking lot at the end of the road and a lodge and snack bar looking out over the Elwha Valley and the wall of peaks on the other side.

Even in June, the spring wildflowers are just beginning to poke through the snowbanks on Hurricane Ridge. Clouds blow over the mountaintop and sometimes in the middle of a white out, when you are inside a cloud and cannot see what your feet are stepping on, you are treated to the peculiar vision of a hole in the scud, a circular opening that will drift past through which you can see 15 miles to the sunlit peaks across the valley.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

But my favorite spot in the Olympics is not Hurricane Ridge with its car exhaust and souvenirs, but the trail to Lake Angeles.

Beginning at Heart O’ the Hills, it climbs 2,379 feet in 3.7 miles, or an average loft of about one foot for every eight feet. That is a grade steeper than any freight train can manage.

And the first time I made that hike, I went with a friend who was a bicycle messenger in Seattle, with a stainless steel cardiovascular system. I made the first two or two and a half miles just fine, but the fatigue began to do me in, while my companion might as well have been riding an escalator.

I continued, walking ever more slowly and thinking of Sir Edmund Hillary making those last steps up Everest at a snail’s pace, stopping to breathe after each choppy step.Near Lake Angeles, Olympic NP, Wash

As the altitude changed, so did the weather. What was a pleasant 55 June degrees at the trailhead became sleety as we moved from the Hudsonian biozone, out of the Douglas fir and into the subalpine zone with its spruce and cedar.

When at last the path flattened out and we turned out of the last cove and over the last ridge, we saw Lake Angeles. We had climbed from 1,879 feet to the lake at 4,196 feet and still above us, at the opposite side of the lake, were the triple peaks of Mt. Angeles rising to 6,454 feet.lake angeles

A sheer rock wall, partially obscured by mist, rose straight up to the jagged tops of the peak, like something from a Bierstadt painting.

In the middle of the lake was an island covered with Caspar David Friedrich trees and the colors of the whole scene were Thomas Moran’s.

I was standing in the mizzle, my glasses blotted out with droplets and my clothes too wet to wipe them clear.

Across the face of the cliffs beyond the lake was a line of falling water like a John Martin lightning bolt zagging its way 400 feet down the rocks and silently roaring at its half mile distance into the gray waters of the lake.

“We shouldn’t look at angels too long,” I said and we turned to descend.