In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I LOVE to travel and I LOVE road trips. The freedom of the open road; the excitement of not knowing what you’ll find around the next corner; the varying beauty of the ever-changing landscape; the unique individuals you encounter along the way. For my final “Summer Trip” post, a compilation of the various thoughts/observations I had while trekking across the country this summer.
The Great Plains:
I’m always pleasantly surprised at how lovely I found western Nebraska to be with its rugged badlands and rolling prairies. As I always assumed all of Nebraska to be flat, I didn’t expect to enjoy it more than Kansas. Although its seas of green and brown crops (and cows!) has a beauty in its own right, I actually found western Kansas to be boring as it was “flat-as-a-pancake” flat–perhaps the beauty of the corn belt is lost on me having grown up surrounded by it. Both states showcased “horizon-to-horizon” blue skies and incredibly friendly people. The country roads lined with upside-down boots planted on fence posts accentuated the iconic scene.
Unfortunately, the Plains aren’t comprised solely of simplistic beauty. Many of the small towns we encountered were incredibly run-down with boarded up store windows on their main streets and lack of development. They just felt depressed. Many of these places appeared as though they’ve been languishing for decades. They’re either too remote, too small or they lack much impact on the greater country so they are forgotten and left behind. One can imagine the people living there may start to feel the same way. Traveling through these areas helped me to understand an often misunderstood portion of our population. In recent months, some people have asked, “how did we get here?” (politically speaking). For me, spending time in these downtrodden areas offered an explanation. It’s understandable that distressed people flock to anything that appears to promise relief from what has become the unfortunate norm.
Similar to politics that smell to high heaven, let’s talk about feedlots! 😉 The smell…the sheer size—thousands of head of cattle corralled in pens as far as the eye can see–the smell. I’ve had minor experiences with these while traveling around the country in the past but never to the extent that we encountered on this trip. Wow…did I mention the smell? Not only are they immense, but the odor emanating off a feedlot on a 90-degree day is something to behold! I thought the pit toilet we encountered at State Forest State Park was bad! 🙂 I almost felt bad for the poor bovines, being fattened for slaughter…and then I’d catch a whiff trailing on the breeze of someone grilling in their backyard and think, “mmmmm…steak…”
My memory of this state will always be of heading off into an endless expanse of desert punctuated by scrub brush and beautiful mountain mesas; under the watchful gaze of a buzzard poised on an electrical pole; as old telegraph wires frame the railroad that accompanies you on your journey. I expected the state to be desolate, but it felt even more rural than South Dakota, and that’s saying something! I also fell in love with a pink, blooming, cactus bush we encountered along the roadside that Google informs me is a “cane cholla cactus”.
I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but I never expected to see so much rain in this state. Isn’t it supposed to be a desert? We saw rain each of the 5 days we spent there and regularly experienced “sunshowers”—when a cloud would darken the sky and then rain would pelt your windshield as the sun returned. I certainly didn’t expect to see temps in the 50’s (in rain storms) in New Mexico that time of year!
The drastic change in ecosystems between the northern and southern portions of the state was stark. I found the south to be depressing, hot, dry, desert permeated by cracked earth. As you traveled north you quickly returned to almost a prairie-like scrubland. This area reminded me of northeastern Wyoming. The grass was such a verdant spring green color that it felt like going back in time to early spring even though it was the first week of June.
As we drove past a rockslide on I-25 that had closed both Westbound lanes, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the power of Nature and the fact that, even in 2017, we don’t really control it, we just react to what it throws at us. It was encouraging to see how it carries on. As an example, when the pines die from disease or fire, the aspen/birch shoot up in their spot. It may take a couple of decades and it may never be “the same” again; but Nature can’t truly be contained. As can be seen in the beautiful aspen groves, change doesn’t have to be a negative!
New Mexico has a unique landscape, Colorado has unique people. We met some very interesting characters on our jaunt around the Rocky Mountain state, but everyone was friendly, and seemed to be good-hearted. Sitting in a parking lot at a state park, a lady walked up to my window and accosted me with, “so…what do you think?” No “hello” or pleasantries. I was like, “uh, about the park?” She started laughing. As it turns out, she wanted my personal opinion of my Outback, which I then happily gave her! As we were talking with the kindly elderly volunteers at a southern Colorado Welcome Center, another verbose local engaged us in conversation regarding made-up cowboy names for our dog–who wasn’t there. (Another patron had brought a friendly dog into the store which initiated the whole conversation.) There was the wisened cowboy who closely resembled a certain “jolly old elf” (on holiday?) who was playing the fiddle at a rest stop (he was quite good!) We also spotted a van full of twenty-something “Hippies” surrounding a VW van at a gas station (it was a very iconic site) and there was the man who “followed” us from Mesa Verde to Ridgeway State Park. He was recognizable because he used no tent, choosing only to sleep in a bivvy bag out in the open, under the stars. This made him memorable and was probably the only reason I noticed him (I’m not sure he noticed us). He also just happened to be at campsites near ours at both parks.
One unique aspect we had not seen before was several miles-long trains, just sitting on the tracks that paralleled the highway. I got the impression their stay was intended to be long-term as there was a break in the line at EVERY SINGLE crossing we came across to allow vehicles to pass. I can’t imagine how much work it took to get that in place!
–I was heartened by all the solar panels we saw that appeared to be used privately as well a commercially. We also saw countless stretches of land accented by wind turbines. Regardless of any official policies that may or may not be put in place by local/state/federal governments, these sights encouraged me that the country as a whole has turned a corner and is “going green”. An exception to this would be the farming of cattle in arid areas. We saw quite a bit of watering of pastureland to provide food for the cows. I couldn’t help but marvel at what appeared to be the absurdity of it. Driving through land that is naturally arid and seeing water being used to keep grass green when it naturally wouldn’t be. I couldn’t help but think, “what’s the point?” I grew up on a small farm and I in no way wish to shirk people the joy of that lifestyle or to run them out of their livelihood, but I do believe in the principle of “Work Smarter, Not Harder”. It just seems that we should stop fighting Nature. As we feel more effects from climate change these struggles could become even more pronounced. Let’s make the land productive by working with it and letting it work for us. If there’s not enough water naturally to keep grazing land for cows in a given location, perhaps it’s time to initiate a new crop there that thrives in a dry climate; an example being succulents that some research suggests can be farmed for green energy.
–The regular appearance of “roadside tables” accompanied us along our route, and we enjoyed them very much! They make very convenient lunch stops, offering space for humans and our 4-legged companions to stretch our legs. We have also found picnic lunches to be more relaxing for the ease of stopping they afford. They offer more healthy food opportunities, they allow you to enjoy the outdoors more, and they’re cheaper than stopping at restaurants (fast food or otherwise!)
–One fun activity I’ve found as you start racking unique road trips under your belt is to compare how similar various areas of the country feel. Many of the mountain vistas we encountered in the Colorado Rockies reminded us of views we saw on previous trips to Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks. As we descended out of the Sacramento Mountains westward, heading into Alamagordo, NM, I was reminded of the Black Hills. The low mountains sporting the drier ponderosa pine forest made me feel like we had returned home. Western Colorado reminds me of Southern California with the desert/scrubland. I had no idea how dry it is. I knew the southern portion would be dry but I assumed the northern portion (east and west) would be wet and foresty, like Rocky Mountain National Park. Out near Grand Junction it was pure desert, which reminded me of nearby Utah and the Moab area.
–This trip helped us to really appreciate how spoiled we are living in the Black Hills. Beautiful campgrounds are plentiful that cater to RV’s and “tenters” alike; fires are usually allowed in campgrounds (unless the fire danger is high); firewood is easily available; the weather is frequently lovely (any time of the year); and, smoky days not withstanding, we’re regularly blessed with truly blue skies (air pollution is low here as is the haze you find in numerous other areas of the county). Although somewhat isolated, we have access to many opportunities usually found in larger cities while still being able to enjoy a small-town air. We’re also blessed to have areas that are thriving and changing, rather than falling victim to the passage of time. (All that being said, while it’s a nice place to visit, this is an AWFUL place to live and NO ONE should move here). 😉
Below are a few final pics from the Road Trip of 2017 (thanks as always to Mr. Trekker for many of these):
To conclude, I truly feel a road trip is one of the best ways to experience the diverse cultures that make up the “melting-pot” population of our great country. There’s things to learn from every region of this great land and the only way to truly appreciate it or understand it is to experience it! So get out there!