Posted by: MC | March 19, 2009

Saving Grace

Near the Airport
Salt Lake City, UT

It’s a long way from Chicago, IL to Salt Lake City, UT – especially in two days by car – tiny car.

Fortunately, there’s been saving grace – lots of it. One certain sign of this abundance is the fact that I’m sitting here right now, safe and sound after so many miles through all kinds of weather and, in the instance of I-80 through Iowa or I-70 out of Denver, with all manner of giganto-truck traffic.

 Two more specific forms of grace seem worthy of note – because giving words to such things is one small way I have for expressing the immeasurable gratitude I carry around lately.

First is the grace that shows up as THE WEST itself. From smack in the center of the American West, I sent an e-mail to the “friends and family list” this morning: 8:10 a.m., Mountain Daylight Time, Conifer, CO.

I’m sitting w/ a cat on my lap — a cat the color of a dreamcicle— those vanilla/orange ice cream treats I tend to associate with the Sweetwater, TX segment of my childhood. mmmmm.

The cat is warm and purring and gazing south like I am out the wall of windows that opens toward the contagion of shadows rising into the morning sky. There they are, the Rocky Mountains – courage and endurance in igneous relief.

How lucky can one woman be???

I (…make that ‘we’) can see Pike’s Peak from here. ‘Here’ being the beautiful high mountain home of yet another friend of a friend who generously offered me a place to stay.

Some of you will know that I’m early. Moving west across the top part of the country way faster than originally planned. Still getting great interviews and also very ready to get body, soul and auto back to Portland.

Given the self-elected fast forward on this leg of the trip, conversations have been more sparse. But they have been no less real. Sparse and real like the cities anchoring the sprawling canvass of land we’ve sectioned into the northern states west of the Mississippi. Sparse and real, too, like the smaller towns dotted on top of the broad brush strokes of plains, deserts, mountain ranges, plateaus. All of it the art of history and culture mixing in with countless eons of geologic ancestry.

In Chicago, my hosts were again most gracious: A graduate student and her mother, immigrants from Viet Nam in the late 90’s. Lien, the daughter, spoke of change in terms of her love of travel. She showed me pictures of Singapore and Oahu, of Toronto, South Carolina and LA. Lien gave few details of her family’s move to Chicago from Viet Nam when she was 12 years old. But, in modest and immediate narrative, she did describe the enormous personal challenge of living as the family’s generational bridge to English language and American culture.

From a life forged in extreme and constant change, Lien’s concern is for the preservation of what is good – safety, education and a reliable distance between bare survival and assurance that rudimentary needs will be met. In change, Lien’s concern is not for the ideal or optimal. For her family, there has been great relief and comfort in what most American’s consider to be the minimal.

On the road west of Chicago there were highway moments like these two:

— The baristas in the York, Nebraska Starbucks – which, from my considered (if high-speed) observation, is the only Starbucks between Chicago and Denver. The two young women – the first an immigrant from Eastern Europe, the second a local girl – commented on Change relative to their feeling that the media have a very bad habit of exaggerating the negative. “We get the wrong picture and start thinking no one can be trusted and that the country is doomed,” the first barista said. “Good luck,” the second and quieter woman said. “We need this – to know what Americans are really thinking.”

Bulleted ListDown the road I got a bit lost. Confident by now in the mercy of the road, I took the exit for Mack. There behind the door of a weather-beaten frame building and beneath the faded Sinclair sign made true by a single gas pump I found an odd and kindly pod of family and friends. All sizes, few teeth, generous smiles and expert travel directions.

This was Mack, Colorado – the last stop for services on I-70 west of Grand Junction. At least some among the gathered souls were bikers, judging from the well-worn Harleys parked out front, and like so many in rural America they were working people out of work.

In the filtered light of the last day of winter, overused hands variously held mugs or gestured into the air above the Formica tabletop. The interest voiced from the collective was to have work and income as reliable as the coffee, conversation and companionship inside these frame walls. Here on the doorstep of the Colorado Plateau, work they said would be the surest sign of Change.

Every conversation on the drive from northeast-to-northwest has served as social punctuation within the larger narrative of the landscape. With each westward mile, the tangle of asphalt stitching together the East Coast slowly unwound to become a single thread of open highway. Except for stretches of dizzying truck traffic, the world began to feel less complicated and my attention began to register again the precision, beauty and drama of changing American land forms.

Time may not slow down as one travels from east to west in our country, but space, less cluttered, gives more room for listening to the particular moods and messages of prairies and summits and nuanced skies. Another bonus of sensational space and drive time — A new collection road signs and “attractions.”

Maybe just a few examples:

— I-80, just outside Kearny, Nebraska: A highway sign of the official green-with-white-lettering variety reads, “Road built with 47,000 recycled tires.” Who knew?

— Just east of Lexington, Nebraska another official sign announces the opportunity to stop and consider the historic and contemporary artifacts collected in the “Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles.”

I stopped at that exit, but not at the museum. My interest pulled instead to the Sandhill Cranes resting in the farm pond next to the museum.

I’d been watching the Cranes for hundreds of miles by then – graceful birds feeding in fields and prairies, rising in small clusters, due to some startle or simply for variety’s sake to stretch their long wings into achingly delicate arcs. It was the time of day for concentrating on food and other ground-related activity, so flight lasted only a few seconds. Even in brief, the birds’ collective movement fulfilled a primal choreography of rhythm and synchrony that pretty much define words like supple and elegant.

The stay-at-home dad I interviewed in Omaha told me of these birds – of my good luck at driving across Nebraska precisely in the middle of the Crane’s spring migration pattern ( After the successful photo op near the museum of military vehicles and before I got back on the road, I sent a text message to my very best friend – Sandhill Crane sighting! What a complete privilege!

 Next, like telegraph signals across the late afternoon, irregularly spaced signs from western Nebraska into eastern Colorado show up to document random romantic icons of our country’s western expansion. Gothenburg, Nebraska boasts an “Original Pony Express Station.” And spanning the cusp of the Nebraska/Colorado border are a series of minor but notable remnants of the inescapably mythic “Buffalo Bill.”

— Then, finally there was today’s drive through the magnificence of Colorado – the part that came after my breakfast with the dreamcicle cat. Early miles (like the first 150…) were pretty much dominated by gasp after gasp as the vistas shifted. The magnificence of the Rockies “Front Range” yielded to the red rock of the Maroon Formation which in turn gave way to Glenwood Canyon.

Tucked among these giants of topography was every Colorado ski area you’ve ever heard of or longed for. Then there were the coupled signs – 100 or so yards apart: “Leaving Colorful Colorado,” “Entering Utah.” Followed immediately with what might be my all-time favorite, again in official green-with-white-lettering:

“Eagles on the Highway.”

Now, I’m sitting in the parking lot of a Hilton near the Salt Lake City airport. I made a lucky guess – free WiFi here.

I’m writing. And I’m waiting for a call. I’m going to have company on the rest of the drive. My sweetheart has come here to bring me home.

Journeys like stories – like this one – always have their own ending. I can’t predict the next few days any better than I could predict any of the 46 before them. Still – right here, right now, there’s a particular crispness in the night air, a drawing near of the stars in this western sky.

Surprising as it is comforting, mysterious as it is promising, there’s something reliable as the Wasatch Mountain Range that inheres in sitting here waiting for a call that the plane has landed and no longer must I travel alone.

The saving graces I mentioned at the beginning of this entry? This is the second one: Companionship in all this change.

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