Now that we’ve done it, we can’t believe it was real. Fortunately, we have photographic evidence. It was amazing to see so much of our beautiful country in all its glory. What we ended up doing was cutting a cross section right through the middle of the country. It was a transect–perhaps a more humble version of the ambitious transects Michael Fey has made through the rainforest.
A transect does not allow you to dive very deep into any one region, but it lets you see transitions and make comparisons.
Some overall impressions I took away from this trip:
1. Politics. We started in a Blue corner of a swing state, headed deep into Red territory, and popped out again into Blue. Our experience of politics was cursory and superficial. A billboard here. A random conversation there. I ended up feeling somewhat more concerned about political divisions in our country than when I started. It’s easy to dismiss political conflict as a media construct or something that “real” people don’t buy into. But in our little cross-section, we encountered ample evidence that a good many people ARE buying into a lot of very high-emotion, high-conflict positions. At the same time, my belief in how to deal with it is unchanged. Even confirmed. People need to get to know each other and communicate on a human level. And they need to do this with people outside their immediate cultural group, as much as possible.
2. Climate. It’s fascinating that much of the scenery looked exactly like it did in pictures. Yet having a 4 dimensional experience of it helped me understand how it all flows together, how one biome blends into another. How gradual transitions happen. How sudden transitions happen. How MOUNTAINS impact both climate and human geography. All of this is very hard to get by looking at a map and reading books. Our trip took us through many extremes. We saw fresh snow in the Vail Pass, and we drove through scorching 116 degree heat in the Mojave desert. I also got to experience how elevation affects climate, and that was fascinating. (Again with the mountains!) My observations led me to have serious concerns about so many people living in arid regions where they are so dependent on air conditioning and piped in water. That seems a wasteful use of resources, especially when there’s plenty of room here in Michigan where we have plenty of water, and it’s not so hard to do without A/C. It seems like if people are worried about fossil fuel consumption and water conservation, they ought to move out of the damn desert.
3. Drivers. We noticed strange trends in driving, passing through so many states. The most aggressive drivers we found were in Wyoming and Utah. We had people cutting us off AND flipping us off if we didn’t move fast enough. (And pulling a trailer, we often had to go slowly and carefully. No choice.) Drivers through the deep midwest, like Iowa, were probably the most courteous. People in California, especially the LA area, drive like they are on drugs. Yes, there’s a lot of traffic there, but we concluded that fully half of the problem has got to be caused by people driving with crazy desperation, trying to weave through and around the traffic, and thereby making everything worse. When we got back to Michigan, we again noticed an uptick in aggression and excessive speed, although still not as bad as Utah. (What the heck, Utah?) (Our on-the-ground experience of Utah was as a very friendly place.)
4. Culture. It was very interesting to see the heavy hispanic influence basically everywhere west of the rocky mountains. I enjoyed it, and when we were listening to spanish radio, I could feel my brain separating the language into known words and possible words in background mode. I wish I could soak up just a bit more and be functionally fluent in the language. I see it not only as harmless, but as greatly enriching to our diverse national culture. However, I can see how people who are predisposed to feel threatened by immigration may see confirmation of their fears everywhere they look. Unfortunately, there’s not much for that but for them to get OVER it already. Sheesh.
5. Altitude. We camped everywhere from sea level to 9000 feet. I expected to feel ill effects from the altitude but largely did not. I noticed a tad of lightheadedness when we first got to the Grand Canyon north rim (9000 ft), and I definitely got winded easily when we were running from the hail, but overall it was not really a problem for me. Others in our group suffered from headaches and other symptoms (especially the dogs), so we tried to minimize the time we spent at very high altitudes.
6. Hostile critters. We shared space with dangerous and aggressive wildlife including killer bees, mountain lions, and bears. We never had a problem and largely didn’t even see them.
Overall, although I thought the mountains, desert, and coast were extremely scenic, I felt relieved when we returned to flatland east of the Rockies. I found the barren landscapes uncomfortable, and at times scary and alien. It was a relief to be back where there’s green grass and trees grow without anyone watering them. (I know, I know, there ARE places like that out west. I’m generalizing on purpose, here.)
The trip was also more difficult and more expensive than we expected. Because we underestimated the amount of driving we could do in a day, we were not able to cook as many of our own meals as we wanted. Also, because the water pump was broken, we were unable to take advantage of as many free camping opportunities as we otherwise would have. It would have been nice to park overnight at a Walmart or something, but we would not have had any access to a bathroom. That meant paying for camping every single night. In the future, we will be able to do our trips more economically by cutting back on driving time and getting the water pump running so we can “boondock” (camp for free).