Thursday, November 19, 2009

rocks and the road atlas

From Livingston to Palestine said the text on my phone. How delightfully enigmatic, I thought. Could be a reference to British colonialism (Dr. Livingston, I presume? the protectorate of Palestine?) Or the names of American towns? (Livingston, Montana. Palestine, Illinois ) Nope this time the names were towns in Texas and part of a song lyric by Lyle Lovett. Nearly made me reach behind the toybox to pull out Rand McNally. I am a road fiend, a travel junkie, and I can quote the lyrics to prove it. "Mama knows the highway now by heart" sings Hal Ketchum. There's 'roamin' Wyomin'" and "Abilene", songs we would warble on family trips as we pointed west. I only need to hear one line and I'm ready to "drive south" with Suzy Bogguss (just leave these legs showin, it gets hot where we're goin'). I don't have the towns in 'I've Been Everywhere" memorized, but I know the ones on "Route 66" and have been through most of them. How far do you have to be from home to be actually gone? In our parlance, past Lincoln and probably Grand Island. Past Kansas City for sure, that's local. Past Omaha's farthest reaches. Past St. Louis for a real journey, though its a fine destination itself. I have a certain inner sympathy with those who declared the 100th meridian the West. That's the line near Cozad, home of Robert Henri', whose Nebraska origins are invisible in the artworks displayed in the humble frame home there. But you can be gone before you've traveled that far. Go south through the Flint Hills and you are somewhere foreign, maybe the steppes, maybe some prehistoric vista where the ancestors of the horse will peer through the tallgrass. Go north to the Sand Hills and humanity's oases shrink into themselves and huddle behind screens of cottonwoods.
When I was growing up, I saw my first milo in Nebraska just east of Beatrice. Nebraska was exotic to me then. Iowa had looked like more of Illinois, but Nebraska entailed crossing a mighty river. The Oregon Trail was synonymous with Nebraska and the Platte was unlike any river I'd ever seen. I still enjoy travel along the Platte and the journey to its headwaters is a trip into our
Western saga. I saw my first irrigation though in Utah, on my great uncle's ranch. Lovely, organized ditches ferried the water to the alfalfa fields that fed his cattle during the winters. My aunt and uncle and their family were Mormon and we were steeped in the history and legend of the founding of Salt Lake City while we visited. What ever one thinks of Brigham Young, he had a fine sense of theater; is there a better climax to a tale than "This is the Place!"
I was lucky to traverse the country while I was young; early on I had good measure of how immense our plains states are because we drove them from end to end. We took the trains to the West coast and Utah. We took the train to Washington D.C. and I had the train's eye view of the emptiness of the West and the industrialized backyards of the East.
Traveling with our family has always been a much beloved production. The kids would pack their own suitcases which meant that sometimes vital items would be left at home. Big piles of books would come along; maybe or maybe not enough socks and underwear. One trip Ann didn't bring a long sleeved shirt and the temperature in the mountains of Colorado never budged from the 50s. I would bring out the big coolers and pack picnic lunches and breakfasts for a week. For years, that meant a mess of fried chicken made the night before departure. Nowadays, it means grilled steak for sandwiches. I would hoard rolls of film, stashing them in all kinds of crannies. Before our trip, I'd gather up the travel books and brochures; we wouldn't plan our stops or sights per se, but with one, two or three kids in the car, driving stints of more than four hours at a time were not relaxing. From the time I was old enough I had clipped the "free brochure" cards from my mom's magazines and sent them off. In a few weeks, glossy magazines from faraway states would arrive in the mailbox. I drooled and dreamt over these promises of beauty, history and magic for months and haven't really grown out of that habit yet! Now I get the 'Moon' books at Barnes and Noble, or look for inns on the internet, but we still have the hint of risk, of adventure, when we take an exit off the interstate or pull off into a little town with an intriguing name. There are chunks of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming in my garden. I haven't marked them so I don't remember where they all originated, but I know they are fellow travelers and that's satisfaction enough.

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