Observations on beauty from a Ramada in Barstow

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I am so happy I decided to come to California by car.

I have always liked car trips because of how much of the country they allow me to see. This particular trip has brought me through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, all the way to Barstow, California, where I'm now tapping this out restlessly in my bed at the Ramada. The days of driving that brought me here have yielded more beauty than I could have possibly hoped for, and I couldn't let them go unrecorded.

Just the changes in landscape alone are incredible. Between here and there I have seen scrubby prairie turn to dusty red desert, turn to meandering twists through snow-covered mountains. At the risk of sounding like a total lepton: I didn't know there was so much land in this country. I forget that there are places in the world that are not city – that there are, in fact, hundreds and hundreds of miles where there is literally nothing but land.

Between Roswell and Albuquerque, there is an amazing lack of anything vaguely resembling civilization, making you feel as though you've driven straight into some vacant desert planet. At a certain point along I-40 even the telephone lines disappear, and there is little to distinguish one mile of road from another. Spindly agave plants are the only thing tall enough to break the otherwise overwhelming flatness of the land. The sky is the most startlingly blue and unbroken thing you can imagine, stretching out immensely in every direction. The horizon seems barely able to button it down at the edges, and to give one a sense of up from down.

It occurs to me that that's the kind of landscape that can make people go mad. Pioneers heading west in the 1850's balked at scenery like this for the death and solitude it brought. The little girl in A Study in Scarlet said of the southwest that the land must not have been made by god, but by somebody else, because god wouldn't have forgotten the trees and water. Some settlers found the crushing omnipresence of the sky to be to much, and suffered from “prairie madness,” brought on by the vast silence and emptiness of such plains. I think it's nice, though.

Today, though, the red desert gave way to more mountains that I have ever seen in my puny little life. On the way down from Flagstaff on into California, I-40 was an endless mountain trail that tried the endurance of my old Eighty-Eight. Then evergreen thickets thinned out into watery plains, which turned once more into sage-and-tumbleweed prairie. By the time I made it to the flat Mojave, the sun was getting low and throwing all the mountains around me into dusky blue silhouette. While I chased the sunset through turns of the interstate through countless peaks, the most thundery purples and grays and the warmest pinks washed through the wispy clouds on the jagged horizon, and I realized that the word “breathtaking” was not just a turn of phrase, but implied that a thing can actually take the breath from you.

I am currently reading This House of Sky by Ian Doig, which has helped to inspire my sudden appreciation of the landscape around me. He writes things like “the clockless mountain summers” and “a few thousand acres hugging onto the Smith river just as it began kinking through sage foothills into the southern edge of the valley” about his childhood home in Montana, and it is all about as close to poetry as prose can get. So I might be getting a little sentimental, is what I'm saying.

Although I'm not usually one for magical thinking, I'd like to believe that California was sending me an especially perfect sunset in greeting. Tomorrow I drive the rest of the way to Mill Valley, my new place of residence and employment, and I'm now feeling better than ever about it.

Apologies to all my friends caught in the Second Polar Vortex – wish you were here.

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