Blades of purple peaks, like the backs of lumbering dinosaurs, break the horizon, giving perspective to an immense flatness. Wind barrels across the nothingness, faster than the cars that are racing it anywhere. Mesquite and barbed wire do little to stop its onslaught, but readily gobble its contents, dressing themselves in gaudy American culture: Walmart bags and shredded blue tarpaulin. Now and then the road bends and my eyes must divert from the barren, expansive landscape splaying before me. The mountains and flats, stretched and bunched, basin and range, blue brown, grey, grayer and hazy roll out in waves crashing down on the distant shores of Sin City. Arrow straight, the road beelines for all that is good and all that is bad. It leaves only the remnants of our society in its wake; the trash of billboard wars between adult superstores and God, so much so, that I wonder if anything else exists, if anything else matters, or if there is even a difference. God though, doesn’t wage war on his creation.
I thank the engineers for cruise control and for straight roads. It is set on 80 and I am still getting passed. On my lap, my hand scribbles pages of notes, the stark nothingness pulling its converse out of me. Beyond my window, speed blurred electrical lines stretch outward, before mixing into the jet trails streaking the fading blue of the sky/land intersection. More ridge backs, more ancient gray dinosaurs ambling low across the horizon, onward to extinction
It is inevitable. It is everywhere in Wyoming, it is the Intermountain West. I drive east out of Lander, or maybe west, north or south. With every slip of shadow, change of direction and mile drove, my breath is taken away. South Pass, Crowheart, Jefferey City. Whichever direction I go, the Emptiness is in my face, haunting me, filling up my soul, rewriting my definition of beauty, of love, of Emptiness. And it happens again and again. I drive out of Boulder, Wyoming and my heart aches. Seventy miles per hour south with fading daylight and long shadows flowing over rolling hills of bleached sage offers nothing but solace, comfort and inspiration. This though, is not just there, it is everywhere and, ironically, nowhere.
The mountains don’t do it. The canyons don’t do it. It is the in-betweens, the spaces below or above, where the horizon stretches on for miles, where it pushes the boundaries of real and surreal, where I can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. Vertical terrain has always served to challenge me. The Alaska Range, The Wind Rivers, Indian Creek, Chalten Massifs, Sinks Canyon. What is the vertical though, without the horizontal? So often it is the horizontal that saps me of my words, leaves me breathless, makes me pull over and stumble out of the truck, lean on a fence post and wonder how I got to be so lucky. Uncapturable, unattainable. How is it that nothing can do so much? Pictures from mountain tops have been said they don’t do views justice. That may be true, but they do more justice than one from the lowlands trying to capture nothing, trying, in vain, to record something that isn’t there. It is the “lack of” that makes it what it is. It is where nothing is more powerful than something. The nothing is palpable.
Raised in New England’s tree shrouded, mountain shaded valleys, I know I was born in the right place with the winding, hardwood lined roads, with leaves that scatter as you pass over. They bend and they turn, they leave me confused and nauseous. In my youth, baseball was my first love, that was until my first love came along and until open country became the woman I was courting, the thing I couldn’t do without. It took years, but when I saw it, when I felt it, when I breathed it, I knew. My mother knew before I did. She has since told me that once I went west she knew I would never come back. It was that for which I had been searching. It understood me. It felt like home. Now I have forgotten all but that ideal landscape and the women whose souls it too has captured.
So often it is the horizontal that saps me of my words, leaves me breathless, makes me pull over and stumble out of the truck, lean on a fence post and wonder how I got to be so lucky.
I know I was raised in the right place, because now I know the New England landscape. I know, I go, I visit, but I long for the return to the Emptiness that has captured my heart.
My brother has made two trips out west to see me. Last year he came in from Rawlins. “The. . . it, I mean . . ., it’s incredible…” he stammers. “There is nothing out here…..I can’t believe it.” “Yeah, isn’t it awesome” I respond. The same words barely escaped his lips years prior when he visited me in Wayne County, Utah. That time though, it was the darkness that had him at a loss for words. The miles of unlit space. I guess him and I, we are the same. Wayne County still does it for me, Wyoming too; they leave me speechless, take my breath away.
Western Wyoming: Jackson to Boulder. Driving south down US-191 stretches the Wind River Range out before me. From my place in the Green River Basin sprawling granite summits reach down the eastern horizon. Alternatingly dark and bright, flat and jagged, they ride an emotional roller coaster: inviting then foreboding, sulking now ecstatic. The sky to the west and south spreads endlessly, its moods varying by the mile. Raining over here, clear over there, cotton balls yonder and cumulus congestus rearing its ugly thunder head above. The open space of the country allows me to see it all: to know what is coming, to not be trapped in the valley of doubt. I look around, and once again, my breath is stripped away by each space, by each differing angle of sun.
Southern Arizona: Vegas to Tucson. We point our steering wheels east on the laser beam trajectory of US-93 towards Kingman, Tucson and new adventures. We speed across the Red State’s blue highways, the ones that intersect every James McMurtry song, the ones that cut through emptiness, tears, and broken dreams. The dirt two tracks, darting here and there off into the greening Sonoran, beckon me to stay and dream but Tucson, work, and a woman pull me onward. Saguaros replace the telephone pole as the thing standing tall, blending occasionally with the cell tower and long forgotten wind mill. Google Maps says four more hours; I wonder why it can’t say forty. Amid granite domes, cactus and mesquite an old, faded billboard proclaims “NOTHING” above an abandoned roadhouse. At seventy miles per hour it too quickly fades into memory. Like all else, into the consciousness then out, in and out, in, out, in out inout.
Ed Abbey or McMurtry I am not. I can not write the heck out of open country but this open country sure can write the heck out of me, tearing open my heart, exposing my thoughts and emotions for all the world to see. The space, this land, it tears at my soul, makes me want, makes me think and makes me love. No where is freedom more felt. Now where can potential be so grandiose. No where do ideas flow so smoothly, come so vividly and feel so possible. I travel through this country and it writes across my soul, tattooing its presence all over my skin, my behaviors, my love.
I want nothing more than the space, and the road, to go on forever.
Featured Image: The ubiquitous barbed wire, synonymous with western Emptiness.