“Annie, get pictures.”
He’s nodding towards the hills on both sides of us. They are covered by giant earth colored blankets. The billowy folds makes them look like cartoon drawings. It’s an aesthetic Michael is fond of in his own sketchbooks and abstract paintings. But these cartoon hills are majestic in light of their size and the way the landscape around them reaches eternity.
I pull out the poloroid, a Christmas present I’d given Miriam in 5th grade and told her to bring along for our on-the-road scrapbook making (a project which still has not made it past our day in Dollywood). We’ve mostly forgotten it in the basket of arts and craft supplies we’re keeping tucked inside one of the dinette benches, aka, Ian’s bed. But today, as the trip winds down and the inertia of adventure is finally wearing off, I remember to gather these odds and ends, ideas planned and never executed, and snap a few polaroids here.
Every shot is framed by the interior of the vehicle. Our modern angles and white varnish superimposed upon these ancient shapes, irregular reddish towers enveloped by eons of blue sky. I give up on the polaroids and take out my fancy iPhone to try and capture more crisply the awe that we are feeling.
The beauty races on for miles. When the sun begins to crest and fall we’ve already been surrounded by this fantastic geology for several hours. Today is the trip finale. The last big show of the western frontier, the last of the sights on my mental checklist, the last hours I will spend making audible nosies at the view and persuading the kids to care. We are blazing through it all at 72 miles an hour (still way below the speed limit) and it feels like we are missing nothing. Somehow, for this stretch of hurried bounding towards home, the scenic splendor has rushed to meet us just outside our car windows. I would pick this road out of a match up, just to see the towering cliffs and panoramic vistas,. I’s unbelievable to me that that this is also the fastest way home. It’s the perfect marriage of highway planning and wild open countryside.
I stop taking pictures and think of my friend Kristy who has told me stories of Utah, how it seized her heart, defined her youth and made her soul stop wandering and claim this earth as home. I text her only this:
But we are not here for sightseeing. We are purpose driven in a new way. We’re racing the sunset not because of a campsite curfew, but simply in the effort to make it as far as possible, shorten the hours of driving ahead of us and make it home on Monday as promised. We are driving fast because that is what these western roads are made for. But we aren’t rushed.
The morning had been lazy enough. We all woke up with the sun around seven and toasted bagels on a re-kindled camp fire before putting our bedrooms away methodically, exactly like we’d done eleven mornings before this one. I did wake up as usual, a little before everyone else, and enjoyed a walk around the gravel covered campsite with my dogs. Then I’d settled into the corner of the enclosed dog play area where someone had thoughtfully placed up a small table and chair for just this purpose. The entire campsite reminded me of the forts I’d built in the woods as a child; paths lined with logs, discarded furniture turned into a place of rest or play. The dog park was more of a dog playground. Someone had built and painted plywood and made a wooden dog jungle gym. There was a red fire hydrant in the corner and a tunnel made from a section of plastic sewer drain. The sign on the door to the enclosure said “please do not play on dog equipment.” But when four loud children, all between the ages of five to eight, came in with their cocker spaniel, they ignored the sign, as well as their dog, and set a timer on my patience. I lasted about seven minutes. Libby stayed close to me, wary of the commotion, especially from clumsy hands and feet. But Samantha enjoyed thoroughly their small handed pets and ear grabs and high pitched voices. She also took interest in the smell of the new dog and pranced along after it, until I called her over to put her leash back on and say our goodbyes to the unruly children. We left the campsite just as the pool was opening for the day and began our first day with nothing on the itinerary, except driving.
The rest of my day is spent looking out the window and trying to capture the spirit. I have taken hundreds of pictures, and deleted most of them. I don’t have the skills to convey with a lens how it feels to instantly be made so small and at the same time to sense your insides expand as you watch the glory around you unfold. But the more I look at the billowy mountains, the towering peaks, the jagged weather torn and sun baked rocks, the wide expanses of greenery I don’t recognize, the cliffs of petrified history, and the wide open sky above it all, my insignificance is transformed into gratitude.
This are no gas stations, no flush toilets, not a store, a billboard, hardly even an exit for the next hundred miles. As we get deeper into the state, the rise and fall of the road is becoming more severe. The land beneath us is growing. At the top of one of these climbs there is a sudden sign for a scenic overlook, and Michael’s quick reaction takes us off the highway and around a loop to a lot at the top of the mountain. We park away from the other cars, where there is space for our thirty-one feet. When we get out, we run straight to the edge. Max captures with his phone (and some knowledgable editing) what I couldn’t…
Down a ways along the edge of the parking lot there is row of cars parked with their trunks open. On the sidewalk beneath the cars are blankets laid out one after another. On the blankets are carefully arranged showcases of jewelry, pottery, dream catchers and other handmade trinkets. I still have a few people at home who I want to find the perfect souvenir for, and they are mostly women so I head for the jewelry. I survey every different design set out on the blankets, avoiding the eyes of the old women who stand behind. I linger longer at the blanket where the seller is sitting off aways, resting against the trunk of her car. Then I see the bracelet that is perfect for Salina, greyish-milky, perfectly round stones with tiny black beads in between. She will ultimately hang it from her car’s rearview mirror for good luck. Then I see another bracelet with stones of all different colors, and charms in the shapes of Native American symbols. It’s perfect for Maggie. Miriam picks out a necklace with a cute turtle on it for Zoe, her elementary school friend who is taking care of our fish and hamster for the last five days of our trip. I ask the merchant for the total and she pulls out her phone, wrinkled brown hands punching numbers and then fiddling with the credit card swiper to get it jammed inside the phone’s jack. She swipes my card and puts my items in a bag.
But before I leave for the car, I have to take one last look. I came out to Navajo country with the desire to buy jewelry and so far I’ve bought myself Onyx earrings and a mystery stone ring (one gemstone merchant told me after a quick glance that it’s turquoise, but the color of the stone is a milky bluish green with a brown stripe, and I’m not convinced). So inevitably, I’m drawn to a necklace. There is a silver necklace with a tiny green malachite stone and 8 silver legs. Miriam loves the necklace as well, so creepy in theme, but so delicate and pretty in design. I’ve been woefully afraid of spiders my whole life. But in the last few years I’ve mastered my fear enough that I rarely scream or jump if I see one. I even rescued one from inside my tent once and was happy to let her live. I have come to appreciate the importance of predators in the balance of things. Remembering how I’ve conquered my childhood fear makes me feel confident that I can face this newer fear of heights and driving over bridges (and around bends, and anywhere near a mountain…). So I decide to buy the necklace as a token to remember my inner strength. I tell Miriam that we’ll share the necklace and hand the woman who made it a wad of cash.
After paying for the necklace I tell the woman about my new found love for Utah, that it’s the most captivating place I’ve ever been. I asked her if she lives around here. She explains that her son lives in town, but that she lives “under the mountain over there, near the river.” She said it the way I would say the name of the town I live in, and what city it’s closest to. I might be romanticizing the native ways, but it struck me how she described her home by natural landmarks and features, rather than political lines drawn on maps and named by governments. If only I knew one thing about the relationship of my home to the nearest mountain or river I might care more what happens to them.
Back in the RV I take over driving. The mountains around and ahead of us continue to grow. For an hour I am defying the uneasy feeling I get from driving at top speed so close to giant cliffs and gaping canyons. I’m wearing my new spider necklace to remind me of my potential for bravery. Nature’s beauty lures me like a wide armed mother. But there is a cold indifference to these ancient rocks that makes me want to avert my eyes. The grey road stretching out in front is the only assurance that I belong here and I try to keep my eyes fixed on it. But one orange cliff off in the distance grabs my attention. I have to work hard not to fixate on it.
As we get closer to Green River the signs of population become just barely noticeable. Finally we see a sign and I exit the highway to fill up on gas. Nestled into the bend in the road as it slopes down towards the river is the orange cliff I’d seen so far off in the distance. I get out of the RV and stare at it while Michael pumps the gas. I can see where the mountain was cut into a slice for the building of roads and parking lots and mini-marts. This cliff is all that remains of the mountain. But it towers over everything, reminding me of those overpowering forces that threaten me in my dreams. The color of the rock is like the orange of fire. I ask Michael if he will take over driving (again). The bridge over the river is only the beginning of the challenging topography that lies ahead.
We are nearing the Rocky Mountains.
After a few snapshots where I’m trying to capture the dinosaur spine-like mountain ridges of the rockies in the distance, I put my phone down. My pride is a little hurt for having to give up the wheel. But my own spine is straight with expectation as I watch the panorama. Every story I’ve ever heard from people who’ve driven out west tells of this approach, and I’m watching it unfold before us.
We cross into Colorado and after about an hour of climbing, we enter the mountains. The road follows along the Colorado River as it snakes its way through. For twenty-five miles the highway is one continuous bridge built into the edge of the mountain and propped on stilts at the banks of the river. The road is narrow and winding. The rock cliffs on both sides of us are a motley mixture of whiteish-grey and deep forest green. I can just barely see the river below, but I can feel it as it bends left and then right, bounding around in a grand swoop and turning back again. Slowly we are climbing thousands of feet into the heart of rockies.
I don’t take any pictures because I don’t have the wherewithal to take my eyes off the scenery. I’m desperately trying to get the kids to want to look. I want them to capture, as I am, every twist and turn, every steep climb, every giant A-frame building, and wavy ski slope for their memories. So they can bring them home and tell the world that they were here. But all they see is a pretty view and they’ve had their fill. They are sick and tired of seeing things. They don’t have the same references that I do for what it means to see the Rocky Mountains. They haven’t watched enough movies where vacationers, thrill seekers and scoundrels alike all come to these very slopes. They have no idea how many hundreds of millions of dollars are nestled in among the trees. It may be the off season, and everything is green instead of white; but I soak up every inch of it. I forget to take any pictures of our trek through the mountains. My written words are all I have to capture the memory and pass it around. I will have to tell the story the way I was told by my mother and so many others, and let the listener, or the reader, imagine it for themselves.
Eventually we leave the Colorado River and follow other rivers that cut through the crevices between peaks. We climb a total of seven thousand feet before reaching the crest. When we reach the open air at the top there is a beautiful lake, a fresh water reservoir framed by mountain peaks. Almost too late I remember to grab a photo, the one piece of proof that I was here.
The highest elevation on I-70 is a tunnel that cuts through a mountain ridge where there is no stream to follow. When we emerge from the tunnel we skate between the tops of mountains for just under an hour. I can tell we are loosing elevation, but there are no dramatic drops. It feels like a much more gentle winding back and forth along one creek and then another. But maybe I am just used to it by now. Maybe I’m like the kids, and I can’t see anymore. Maybe I’ve just seen enough for one day… for one week… for one lifetime.
The mountains end and the city lights of Denver begin. It feels abrupt to go from signs for ski slopes and mountain resorts to giant green signs for city boulevards and interstate crossroads. We’ve promised Max one dinner at Cracker Barrel during our trip, and Denver seems like the perfect spot to make good on the promise. The kids had even vowed in the beginning of our trip that they’d foot the bill for this dinner. But when the waiter brings the check at the end of our meal, Michael and I don’t mention it, and neither do the kids. Before we leave the restaurant Ian and I stockpile a bag’s worth of ideal gifts to bring back for his best friend Theo and his parents who took care of our tank-dwelling pets back at home for the first two thirds of our trip.
After dinner we are relaxed and rejuvenated. I know the land is flat for the next fifteen hundred miles or so, so I gladly agree to do the night driving once Michael gets too tired. We leave I-70 and take I-76 straight towards the northeastern corner of Colorado. We leave the city lights of Denver behind, but the suburban lights of super centers and housing developments cut across the flat midwestern night and cling to the highway like black flies to fragrant skin. It’s approaching eight pm. Michael and I decide we can make it three more hours and reach Nebraska. I book us two pet friendly rooms in a Super 8 in Ogallala, and close my eyes to the twinkling lights outside and nap. When Michael’s eyes begin to droop, I put on my playlist mix of Kate Bush, Sia and Ani DiFranco and sing my way to eleven pm.
We pull into the Super 8 and while I spend twenty minutes arguing with the front desk about our second reservation, the kids take the dogs for a walk and settle into their room. When I finally agree to wait until the manager arrives in the morning to figure out the discrepancy between my hotels.com confirmation and the reservation in their system, I pay (for a second time) for the second room and take the key for Michael and me. We stick our heads into the kid’s room where the TV is already on and they are snuggled into their shared bed situation (Max get’s his own but Miriam and Ian have to share). We tell them to set their alarms and meet us for motel breakfast at 7am. Then we take the dogs to our room, in a different section of the motel, on a different floor. Though we had high hopes for our one and only night alone, we don’t even have energy to watch TV. Our marriage is secondary, we are married to the road. We are committed to making it home on schedule. We have two days and 22 hours of driving still to go. So we lie in our motel bed snuggled together and kiss goodnight.
emails from the writer…
Join my community. You’ll get reflections on writing and my process and be first to know when I’ve published something new.