Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

California Trip: In the Great Alkali Plain

I think that comes from Conan Doyle.

Until encountering The Founding Fish, I had known John McPhee chiefly for a style I've found very accessible. I was unaware that he has an interest in the American shad that surely crosses the line into obsession. The book on tape helped to fill in the duller moments of the first two days. On leaving Oklahoma City, we had a lot more to absorb us, including a phenomenon that counters some of McPhee's narrative.

I dropped the book at a point where McPhee was describing the changes wrought on American rivers by dams. From the fish point of view, the changes are negative. However, since entering the tallgrass prairie zone in Indiana, and especially as we got into the shortgrass prairie west of Oklahoma City, I saw what turned out to be another effect of dams: trees.

Trees had always tried to grow on the prairie wherever there was enough water to sustain them. Before Caucasian interference, they had little chance of survival. One reason, I now know, was the buffalo. The vast and vanished herds trampled what they didn't eat, including new-sprouted trees. Further, the buffalos' favoured grooming technique is a good rub against a tree, which did in a good part of the survivors. A larger reason, it appears, is that uncontrolled floods inhibited tree growth along rivers and streams. Now we have dams, and if the cottonwoods could vote, they'd be all for them. These two changes, which may not be for the good in many ways, have resulted in more prairie trees than at any detectable time in the past.

Leaving Oklahoma City before dawn, in massive thunderstorms, causes moments of reflection in the tornado-phobic. There wasn't all that much to look at, which was just as well. Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa show what you can do with sprawl when you have nearly unlimited real estate to spoil and absolutely no imagination. Christine's night vision is as dismal as her stubbornness is large. She had determined to take the first shift and was by God gonna do it. As her seeing-eye passenger, I was reminded of my friend Ray Bloomer, who with his two percent vision once managed to bluff his way into a Government driver's license, then drove madly around the Charlestown Navy Yard in a Cushman cart, with a sighted and suicidal passenger and a white cane.

The reflections and the phobia weren't helped by encountering a highway rest stop built as a tornado shelter (under a man-made hill) shortly after crossing into the Texas Panhandle. Despite the locals' morbid interest in the Northeaster, I was keenly interested in the conditions I was in, and very happy to leave the clouds behind. A midwestern friend had offered the helpful advice. "If you see a tornado, head for the nearest ditch and stay there." Trouble was, even the Oklahoma ditches were unimpressive.

McPhee couldn't compete with the scenery. For those who haven't traveled it, much of I-40 is at grade level, and one doesn't have the sense of separation from the countryside that interstates usually impose. It's a shock now and then to realise that one is on a divided highway. Perhaps if I had to cover this ground at three miles an hour, I might have been disturbed by the vastness. After a cold, dark New England winter and alleged spring, a limitless sky was a delight.

Not being awfully urban in my roots, I had been noting the change in climate by the progress of the hay. Through Ohio and into eastern Indiana, hay was still growing. By Illinois, farmers were preparing haying implements and the crop was clearly mature. When we got further onto the prairie, where hay existed, it was being harvested. In Texas, the bales were on their way to the barn.

Yes, the Big Texan is still there in Amarillo. That was never really on my list, since 72 ounce steaks don't exactly appeal, and since we hit Amarillo about 9:30 a.m. Yes, I know the Big Texan serves steak round the clock, but that struck me as another reason to take a pass.

Another delight was the suddenness of geographical transitions. A few miles into Texas and you're in a semi-arid belt, cut by gulches in the sandstone. It's back to prairie around Amarillo, and just short of the New Mexico border, the transition to mesaland is immediate and, for a Yankee, captivating. Evidently, many new Englanders retiring to the Southwest are fond of Flagstaff and the entire Kaibab area. Of course they are: it's a lot like home, with more heat. I thought the New Mexico mesalands were the more intriguing part of the trip, and the place I'd consider if I were ever going to retire.

It was in the mesalands that we first discovered that "limited access" is a pretty loose expression in the Southwest. If you have an interstate at grade level, I guess it's a short leap to the idea of having ranch driveways enter and leave the highway. It did seem strange that the first highway sign announcing the fact came several miles after the first driveways.

As a rule, I don't expect it's any more of an adventure than it is to leave any Massachusetts driveway. Subtract the truck and snowbird traffic, and the road would have been nearly deserted.

Christine's friend Carol had a great house in the eastern foothills of Albuquerque. The development was very Southwestern themed, with stuccoed concrete houses passing themselves off as adobe. (For the uninitiated, it seems you have to be very rich or very poor to have real adobe these days. Everyone else scrapes along with concrete, which demands air conditioning. One of the benefits of true adobe construction is that it doesn't.)
Architecurally, I think Carol got the pick of the litter. The house had nice details, a xeriscaped yard and terrific views. She showed the mark of a true cat person: she had cat-proofed two porches to let the boys get a breath of air without being coyote bait, but had not yet completed the human arrangements.

Before leaving, I was warned that the Ohio state flower is the orange roadside construction barrel, but I have to say that New Mexico wiped all the roadwork competition off the field. Of the 150 or so miles between Carol's house and Gallup, at least 50 were under construction, and a good deal of I-40 east of Albuquerque was out of commission for various projects. Note to the New Mexico administration: the thank-you signs do not help!

We knew we were getting onto "the res" by the prevalence of two features: billboards as thick as the old Burma Shave signs, but much bigger, and casinos. Despite a couple of contrary efforts trying to inject good taste into the proceedings, one gets the idea that gambling and schlock are the reservations' chief enterprises. This had been the leitmotif ever since we left the Missouri smut shops behind, but west of Albuquerque the twin drumbeats of gambling and tourist claptrap reach incredible levels.

After you drive through the pass (and the largest and schlokiest Indian tourist traps) into Arizona, there's another one of those sudden transitions. All of a sudden it ain't the steppes, it's the fricken desert! By this time the trek to Winslow was seeming like a bad idea. We'd found that heat the forecasters were talking about. If its 93 degrees at 6000 feet, simple math tells you what to expect in the lower altitudes. Also, I-40 steers uncompromisingly into the sunset, an expression that loses its romance after your irises start to curl up. There wasn't much choice, though. There are towns along I-40 in this part of Arizona, all vying for la dinero turista, usually with prefab hotel rooms. All of them resembled towns less than they did vast trailer parks. I forget if it was Holbrook, Chambers or Sanders that got the Grape's unofficial doublewide density prize.

Eagles fans, I'm very sorry to report that Winslow, AZ, and its "standing on a corner" statue are not such a fine site to see, at least after a long drive and a little altitude sickness. It's enough to say that the buffet at the Flying A truck stop was the classiest restaurant in town. Note to the Winslow Chamber of Commerce: you need more than a third-rate statue and a 35 year old song to be a tourist magnet. Maybe a flatbed Ford rally?

And so to bed after 14 glorious hours on the road, in a motel smelling of Chinese food, which *was* the choice accommodation in Winslow.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home