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I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region. 

But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak? 

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.

After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb. 

It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.

The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section. 

Fort Bragg, Calif.

The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own. 

The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape. 

But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” 

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”

The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains. 

And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region; 

the mountain West; 

there is the desert West; 

and the Pacific West. 

Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each. 

Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.

The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung. 

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.

As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea. 

Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands. 

Republican River, Kansas

The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.  We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta. 

My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove. 

Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other. 

The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense. 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.

The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes. 

To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.

Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate. 

I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us. 

South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.” 

Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.

The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool. 

Miami, Ariz.

In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match. 

As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been. 

Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.

This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river, 

the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,

the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture. 

I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains. 

Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole. 

Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.

We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban. 

Yosemite Falls

And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing. 

Click on any image to enlarge

humboldt redwoodsAt a pull-off along the Highway of the Giants in the Redwoods of Northern California a lumbering, topheavy RV pulled to the side of the road and stopped. Its driver got out, walked to a spot about 25 feet behind the vehicle, raised his camera, snapped one picture, got back in and drove off.

I’d seen many people line the wife and kids up against a scenic backdrop, or ask Aunt Emily to smile in front of the Grand Canyon, but this was the first time I’d seen anyone take a picture of his truck.

In a way, it made sense. The redwoods are notoriously difficult to photograph. They seem like they’d make wonderful subjects: They are green, tall, impressive and make their own weather. But they only grow in the lowlands and river bottoms and are surrounded by dense hills. There is no way to step back and get them all in perspective. Heck, there is no way to step back and get them all in the viewfinder. One has to be satisfied with bits and chunks of tree trunk surrounded by ferny growth.redwood ferns vertical

And even that is disappointing photographically. I set up my camera at an especially impressive trunk, maybe 15 feet in diameter, covered in green moss. In front of it were the biggest ferns I had ever seen in my life, with fronds that were six feet long. I looked at them carefully in my viewfinder, with my camera set on a tripod. I groaned. Since everything was of the same immense scale, the picture looked like an ordinary patch of ferns in front of an ordinary tree.

The only solution is to put something whose size you know in front of the tree, something like the wife and kids — or your RV.

As an aside, I want to mention the obsessive proclivity of the West Coast states for naming every Department of Transportation speed bump in memory of someone. The Muriel O. Ponsler Memorial Wayside was little more than a widening in the road so cars could pull over and see the ocean. There is the Joseph and Zipporah Russ Memorial Grove in the redwoods. The habit is essentially harmless, but it helps if you pay attention to the name you are commemorating. We soon passed over a bridge named for Elmer Hurlbutt. The Hurlbutt Bridge: Someone was asleep at the switch when that got named.zion tourists

But what I meant to talk about when I started writing this column was why people make photographs when traveling. The answer seems simple at first: They make pictures to help them remember the trip, or so they can show their friends that they were, in fact, to the redwoods or the Grand Canyon.

But after years of watching people raise their Nikons to their eyes, I am not so certain anymore that the pictures are always aids to memory.

Because the pictures are made so offhandedly, and their makers so quickly jump back in their RVs and drive off to the next natural wonder, I believe they must use the photographs instead as a substitute for memory.

Instead of really experiencing the woods, with its dripping humidity and spongy forest floor, its green smells and muffled silence, they use the camera to arrest a slice of vision that they can take home and dissect, using the image rather than the trees as their primary experience of the redwoods.

It may be that we have become so acculturated to the television reality that the aromatic reality of primary experience no longer retains its validity. It must be transmuted into a Kodak moment — metamorphosed from sense experience to media experience — before it is taken seriously.

But, more likely, people have always done the same, zooming past the magic to chalk up another name on their life list of scenic destinations.

In 1937, long before television became the central fact of American life, photographer Edward Weston was using his huge, cumbersome 8-by-10 camera to photograph Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. A car pulled up with three German couples, among them were six cameras — “One woman had none, but one man had two.”

“The five enthusiasts lined up, focussed on the same view, decided on the exposure, made the picture. Four of them lined up at the other side of the turnaround, made a second picture in unison. Then they climbed back in the car and drove away.”

Panamint Valleybw

You know you are a devoted traveler — or a complete idiot — when you go to Death Valley in July. No mere vacationer or tourist would risk it.

But it is the only way to get the genuine Death Valley experience. After all, a cool, refreshing wintertime Death Valley isn’t really Death Valley at all.

No, the real deal is baking hot and glaring with sunlight. The air shimmers, as if uncertain on its feet and about to faint.

That’s the way I first saw it, about 15 years ago in a car with no air-conditioning. It’s the only way to go.

Since then, I’ve been back many times, and always in midsummer. Death Valley National Monument is one of the wonders of the world, and it will disabuse you of any notion that nature is a comfortable place or that wilderness should be equated with warm, furry animals with big brown eyes.

Even before reaching the National Monument, I was astonished by Nevada. The road north from Las Vegas passed the Sheep, Spotted and Pintwater ranges, and bordered the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, though it doesn’t look like the land could support any wildlife aside from sidewinders and scorpions. Zabriskie Point

I passed the Joshua trees in the flatlands of the Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range. The armed forces have used Nevada to test weapons, though how they can interpret the results, I’ll never know. How can a bomb crater look much different from a soda wash?

The names of places in the area are trying to tell you something: Coffin Peak, Ash Springs, Last Chance Range, Valley of Fire State Park, Furnace Creek, Chloride Cliff — each geographic name serves as a warning sign.

The heat, as I descended the Funeral Mountains past Corkscrew Peak, rose even higher. At Stovepipe Wells in the center of Death Valley, the air temperature was more than 120 degrees and the ground was cooked to 150. The average high temperature in July is 116 degrees, and the highest ever recorded was 134 — on July 10, 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, just over 100 years ago. That is serious heat.

The air rushing in through the open car window could have roasted a Christmas goose. It was literally like the blast of heat you get when your face is too close to the oven door when you open it. It singed my eyebrows. badwaterroad deathvalley

In Death Valley in July, you are alone in an area 1 1/2 times the size of Delaware, and all you can see are baked rock and the laser beam of sunlight. If you falter, no one is there to rescue you. And there are no Circle-Ks, no Slurpees, and most of all, no shade.

At a rest stop, I picked up a park brochure titled ”How to Survive Your Trip Through Death Valley.” And they weren’t kidding.

Even at rest in the shade, the brochure said, you can perspire away a quart of water in an hour. It admonished me to drink water frequently.

I had been getting a headache; I thought it was from driving hundreds of miles, but the brochure said it was more likely the first stage of heatstroke and I should down great quantities of water. I drank a half-gallon immediately and began to feel better. By noon, I had drunk well more than a gallon. Strangely, no matter how much I drank, I never needed to pee.

The high point of any trip to Death Valley has to be the lowest point: Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level — another record for the hemisphere.

From your car, you look out on a vast sea of blinding white. You might mistake it for snow, but a closer look shows you the spiky, lacerating surface of evaporated salts, like the pavement of Hades. If you walk across it, it crunches under your boot sole like plaster, which it very nearly is.

Road to Dante's View

Road to Dante’s View

But the best vantage point on Badwater is more than a mile directly above it. Dante’s View is a scenic overlook on the crest of the Black Mountains at the end of a 12-mile road. It gives you a panoramic vista of Death Valley and its surrounding mountains, the Amargosas and Panamints. The flat basin stretches 100 miles north to south below you, glistening with the white of the salt pan.

You can see it over the shoulder of a soaring vulture a thousand feet below you, wondering what it will find to eat, and knowing it could have been you.

There are many roads through the park, but, for mortification of the flesh, none beats the West Side Road, a gravel route designed by Torquemada.

I love to drive my little sedan where sensible people fear to take their Range Rovers.

I’ve driven through dust, sand and slop, spinning my wheels and sliding back and forth through icy clay and spitting gravel. I always come prepared with a military-surplus entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax, though I have only had to use them twice. Once was on a dirt road near Dynamite Road in north Scottsdale, Ariz., as I got caught in the deep sand of a stream bed and had to dig the car out. In fact, I had to dig until I hit bedrock before I could muster any traction.

The second time was on the Navajo Reservation after a rain when the wheels sprayed so much mud on my running board that the Toyota weighed a good 50 percent more than it did when it came fully equipped from the factory. I had to use the ax to hack off layers of mudpack. I couldn’t get it all, and by the time I got back home, the remaining layer had so dried that it took a pneumatic drill to peel off the stucco. The whole thing looked like a gigantic corn dog with windshield wipers.

So, the thought of going down West Side Road had a certain martyrish appeal.

I packed a picnic lunch at Furnace Creek and headed south to the 36-mile West Side Road that would take me along the western edge of the valley. It is a hypocrite of a road: As you leave the solid pavement of Calif. 178, the gravel looks well graded and flat. Don’t believe it.westsideroad1

It turned out to be the worst piece of washboard driving I’ve ever suffered through. Usually, you can either slow down or speed up and escape the resonance of the corrugation, but not here. No matter how fast or how slow I drove, my teeth turned into castanets.

Every mile or so, there would come a smooth spot, just long enough to delude me into believing the rough part was over and dissuade me from turning back. But in a hundred yards, the bumping would begin again in earnest.

In fact, the rattle was so bad, it turned my pint of milk into butter. And when I stopped to make my sandwich, the bread had had the leavening shook out of it. So I buttered my matzoh and when I reached for my bottle of water, the vibration had turned it into seltzer. I received the benefit of sparkling water without having to pay the premium National Park price for Perrier.

There were several sights on the way, including the ruins of an old Borax works, which were now nothing more than a few mounds of dirt covering the archeology. The road flirted with the foothills of the Panamint range and every so often, a subsidiary road would head out perpendicular into the mountains. Most warned that they were recommended only for 4-wheel drive.devilsgolfcoursedeathvalley

They would have had to be better driving than the road I was on.

And the worst was the last bit of it. As I could see on the horizon the junction of my road with the main, smooth, paved road, the corrugation took a turn for the nasty.

The last bit looked especially smooth; it was white dust and gravel and promised a change from the rattle-bone right of way, but in fact, it was the worst lie of the day. When I got to that part, it was the equivalent of a speed bump every eight inches for a half mile. I had to take it in first gear.

When I finally made it back to the pavement, I made a solemn promise to the Toyota that I would not venture out onto the gravel again for the duration of the trip. The car had made it through with its only damage being a dangling muffler.

It took me a good half hour of driving into Nevada before my eyesight regained control of its vertical hold.