Friday, July 27, 2012

Seeing the West I’ve Read

Last week I drove from Chicago, Illinois to Sun Valley, Idaho – a distance of 1846 miles and three days on the road through incredibly diverse and expansive landscapes. Few Americans these days see this vastness since, given a choice, most would fly. I know I would!

But I drive because my two giant dogs, who will spend three months with me in the northern Rockies, can’t fly on commercial airlines, not since 9/11 - the date indelibly imprinted in our collective memories. I can’t afford to fly them charter, so each summer we take to the road.

I was only able to grasp the enormity and diversity of the U.S. after driving out west. Starting from Chicago, we drove west out of Illinois into Iowa, across Iowa on through Nebraska,
Wyoming, into Utah and then north into Idaho.

In Illinois and Iowa jade corn fields extending to the horizon transitioned from flat to rolling. In Nebraska fields of crops progressed to cattle feed lots so densely packed even the most committed carnivore would reassess meat consumption. In central and western Nebraska,hundreds of long inactive oil pumps had been modernized and pressed back into service.

The North Platte Valley was crossed by mile-long trains transporting loads of coal or flat beds stacked 2 high with global shipping containers. The scene brought to life Stephen Ambrose’s books, Nothing Like It In the World, about the building of the transcontinental railroad and Undaunted Courage, a history of the Lewis and Clark western expeditions. Yet, among it all,the North Platte Valley was dotted with rivers and lakes, lush with trees and fields that gradually
thinned as we climbed into Wyoming.

In arid areas, tumbleweed blew like sci-fi creatures across the interstate. The great American dust bowl was so cataclysmic, that decades later the west still bears its scars. Classics like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath became increasingly poignant across the miles as did Timothy
Egan’s incredible dust bowl era chronicle, The Worst Hard Time: the Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Herds or wild mustangs, white-tailed antelope bounding across plains, and occasional ranches where bison grazed were sad sparse remnants of the millions of buffalo that grazed on these same plains decades ago. Richard White’s amazing book, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West proved to be reading time well spent.

In Wyoming, landforms turned dramatic in our approach to the Vedauwoos vi də vu:), a rocky outcrop of Sherman Granite in south-eastern Wyoming  just north  of Medicine Bow - Routt National Forest.  The name, anglicized from the Arapaho language "bito'o'wu"  means "earth-born" and the cliffs are extremely popular with rock climbers from all over the world who test their skills.

I first read about the Vedauwoos in James Salter's book Solo Faces,  a novel in which the  fictional character climbs there and is based upon actual climbers Slater – himself a climber,  met. Seeing ant-sized climbers rappelling down cliffs faces is the only sense I get of how massive these rocks really are.  In addition to the exit marked “The Vedauwoo”, my favorite exit is Happy Jack Road, the alternate route to the main outcroppings between Laramie and Cheyenne.

Crossing from Wyoming into Utah brought to mind Sally Denton’s American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857. In it, she illuminates a still controversial battle between two Mormon sects. And so we turned north crossing out of Utah into Idaho and a shelf filled with yet more books and hundreds of others I forgot to mention!


  1. Marlene, this made me think about my own cross-country trip, watching the landscape change. You've also given me some ideas for great books to read!

    1. Lisa, thanks for your nice note! Until we started driving this route, I had all but forgotten about these books. The amazing thing is that there are so many others I've remembered during the course of our trips but given the limitations - or appropriate word limitations of blog posts, had to omit. Maybe another post about the trip would be a good opportunity! Maybe with regard to your own recent trip to Greece, books by Nikos Katzantakis would be fun for you? Looking forward to seeing you!


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