For the second time in little over a year, I point my car northwest on a 1000-mile journey, and then retrace it, through some of the bleakest land in the country. There and back in 32 hours last year, and there and back again a few weeks ago, this time sweetened in the middle by a most joyous event: the birth of our first grandchild. That the trip follows on the heels of a solid two months sequestered at home makes it all the more liberating, and I savor the trip almost as much as the heart-bursting reason behind it.
Like the previous trip, I do this one alone and almost in silence – no podcasts for me, or playlists, or even the radio most of the way (there really is no radio reception most of the way!). These are the times my thoughts get to meander as far as the land does, without limits or defined edges.
My mind yawns open like the arroyos out the window; the past and future wander into my head while the present plays out amid the rocking horse oil pumps, the wind turbines, the fields of grain and cattle, the ridges and folds and dusty flats that are palpable beneath my wheels. I point my phone camera out the bug-splattered windows over and over again, trying to capture a strange bliss I could never properly explain.
I savor mile after mile, hour upon hour, of the Texas Panhandle – beige and chalky, then red and earthy, reeking of cows, and beaten by wind. For long stretches I hear what sounds like a thin metal whip flaying the roof of my vehicle. It abates as I slow from 80 mph to pass through tiny, rural towns – a few battered houses, a feed store, a gas station from the ‘50s, a BBQ joint, a Chinese or Mexican restaurant from time to time.
In a few spots, I might catch a glimpse of a strip joint like the (surely beachy) Player’s Bikini Club, or perhaps a big-ass gun shop, or an ad for a steak the size of New York, none of which feature in my daily life and are therefore endlessly amusing to me.
In a matter of seconds, I’m through these towns and back on the open road. Many people would find the sere landscape dull or depressing, but I find its scoured featurelessness profoundly pleasurable. It’s a blank backdrop for old camp songs, writing ideas, life-plan reviews, a phone call here and there. I barely need to turn the wheel, and the hours effortlessly slip by.
I’ve started from barely above sea level, and by the time I hit Amarillo, Texas, I’m at 3000 feet, riding the high plains ever higher, to almost 4000 feet by the time I reach Dalhart, nearly 5000 by the Texas-New Mexico state line. I never feel I’ve left flat ground, though, inching through those feet of ascent ever so slowly.
Deeper into New Mexico, the gradual rise becomes steeper; by the time I get to Raton Pass and thunder down into Colorado, I am at almost 8000 feet, and both before and after the pass, my views become more three-dimensional and colorful. Late spring growth softens the land, and pine trees begin to replace the drier juniper, cottonwood and mesquite varieties. Distant peaks poke out of the corrugated foreground, some still snow-covered, adding a depth of field that I welcome in spite of my contentment with the monotony.
There are even some less natural sparks of color from time to time. My favorite is Cadillac Ranch, a field of half-buried cars outside of Amarillo, a scene I have wanted to see on the first three passes over this route. On the way home, I finally go out of my way to stop.
The installation is surreal – a garish row of spray-painted Caddies with their tail fins rising out of a sun-bleached cow pasture – and I roam the perimeter as much as I can, avoiding the painters who are encouraged to make their own marks on the “sculpture” of ten cars, originally buried nose-down here in 1974.
It is an hour before sundown on a scorching evening; the western rays are blinding, and the hot wind out in the field has me parched within minutes. Still, I walk slowly back to the car, prolonging what will be my last night in the vast emptiness.
As I drive closer to low ground, humidity, and the big city, I don’t want the trip to end. I choose an alternate way into Houston, sticking to smaller roads that bisect horse farms and white-fenced meadows. And then I am back to the 13-lane Katy Freeway, the gauntlet I must run to get home. Muscles tensed and brain overloaded for the first time in weeks, I finally snap the radio on. Already buffeted by stimuli, I figure a little more won’t hurt. I’ll stay in overdrive in my lush green surroundings for the next month, and then … I’ll make the same soothing trip all over again!