When you’re a kid, you are constantly blown away by what the earth is capable of because you haven’t yet mastered the generalities of physics or geography. Things like geysers or presidents’ faces carved on the side of a mountain seem like a miracle; the world seems like it’s run by a flamboyant magician constantly one-upping itself because you have no framework to explain or understand the unfamiliar or unexpected. But as you get older, science and logic fill in the gaps that magic and wonder once filled and the world becomes a little less, I don’t know, exciting? But I think there’s something about the American West that unearths the sense of awe and endless possibilities most of us lose sometime during the transition from childhood to adolescence. In the West, the mountains are bigger and more jagged, the prairies and meadows more expansive, the canyons deeper and the rivers more wild. The sky, too, seems bigger and more significant than it does in the East.
We started our road trip in Colorado, which is, in a way, an Alpine, outdoorsy dreamland. Although Virginia is a very nice place, I think it tends to be the kind of place you were born in or ended up in; I can imagine Colorado is the kind of place you aspire to go to or make a very deliberate move to. But not all of Colorado is meadows and snowcapped peaks; some of the more arid, lower-lying areas looked quite bleak, at least from the car window. There were some towns that looked like they belonged in the last century, places that made it easy to imagine a well-armed, rough-and-tumble, poorly-educated gold prospector walking out of the swinging door of an Old West Saloon.
We began our journey in Boulder and decided to take a longer but more scenic route to Aspen. We started out on the interstate, but then took Route 24 and Route 82, driving through Vail, Leadville, and Independence Pass on the Continental Divide. Vail (elevation 8022), is a Disneyland of ski towns, compete with Bavarian-style architecture and a European-style pedestrian area). It was a rainy and somewhat dreary day so we didn’t bother taking any pictures. Leadville (elevation 10,151) had a much harder, grittier vibe and lived up to what I’d envisioned of the lawless Old West. Our time in Colorado was fairly short, but I hope to come back to and explore the southern parts of the state.
As we descended down to lower altitudes in southern Wyoming, the sun got brighter, the sky got bigger and the land unrolled itself into vast expanses of short grass prairie and rocky, arid terrain, mostly in the form of terracotta canyons and plateaus.
In Virginia, summer days are so hot and muggy that there’s usually a lens of haziness over even the sunniest days. The nice thing about dry climates is that you get these crystal clear sunny days where everything looks so bright and shiny that it’s almost like you’re seeing the world with better than 20/20 vision. Many of the landscape we drove through on our trip looked like they had been expertly highlighted and outlined and then placed on display by an aspiring (if over zealous) artist. The only exception was Montana; there were wildfires burning in Alberta and the smoky air made its way south so that the sky looked heavy and dusty.
I talked about this in a previous blog, but life in the West has a more Libertarian edge than it does in the East. Although I do think some of this is due to the kind of people who move west — people looking for “wide open spaces” or perhaps hoping to escape the rigidity and regulations of more structured and regulated communities and societies — I think it has just as much to do with the population patterns and the land itself. The biggest city in Montana has just over 100,000 people; the biggest in Wyoming has just over 60,000; major towns are few and far between and you can drive for dozens and dozens of miles without passing another car or seeing a singular sign of civilization.
But the flip side of this Libertarian-do-what-you-want inclination is that so much of the land is uninhabitable; you can’t really live in a canyon or on top of a snowcapped mountain, and you definitely can’t live on National Park Land. In Virginia, about 9% of land is deemed public lands; In Montana and Wyoming, that number is 29 and 48 percent, respectively. So while there is a feeling that you can pretty much do whatever you want in certain pockets of the west, the government, in a way, exercises more control of the land than it does in the more populated, tightly organized and regulated east. I don’t know if it’s this conflict between personal libertarianism and expansive government controls of public lands that leads to the mythical — if stereotypical — rebellious image we have of the West and its inhabitants.
Of course, I only spent about two weeks in the West and most of that was in a car or at a national park, so I can’t say I have much in the way of hands-on, real-life experience to speak of. I don’t know where I’m going with this thought or what I’m trying to get at, but I feel like there’s something there, something in this tension between an individuals’ (self-proclaimed) right to do as they please and the governments’ prerogative to protect wilderness. So in a way, these more liberal societies on the East Coast and upper Midwest that push more government protections and regulations and support government’s control of protected lands — are the ones least likely to have to deal with it in any kind of direct way.
I think what this trip taught me is that the United States is vast and varied. There is no one United Sates, a concept I was first introduced to while reading this book. I was trying to come up with a philosophy, mission, vision or characteristic that unites Americans — or at least links them together in some kind of tangible way — but I couldn’t really come up with any. I think the myth we most prize is the rags-to-riches success story, but the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot straps” philosophy seems incredibly patronizing and ridiculous, when, for example, you visit an Indian reservation and see first hand that the entire premise of the American West was built on stealing an entire race’s boots and claiming them as your own. (I’ll write about our trip to the Wind River Reservation on a later post).