Thursday, February 09, 2006


The hardest part of a blog entry is figuring out where to start, which is why I always begin by talking to my alter-ego, Benjamin. Benjamin is Simon's brother, whom I pretend to be when I get drunk on U Street. Anyway...

So before I took this job ~1.5 years ago I hadn't really traveled that much, nor have I traveled that much as of the present, but I have been able to see much more of the U.S. than previously. Aforehand, I'd been up and down the East Coast between Vermont and Miami, of which about 1500 of the 2000 miles in between are for shit (see NJ, NY(-C), downstate CT, RI, VA, NC, SC, GA, northern FL). I'd also been to the Midwest aplenty (MI, IN, IL, OH (fuck Ohio)), and in my roadtrip in Senior year of school at UM(ichigan) drove through KY, TN, AL, AK, LA, TX. What's missing? Every state west of the Mississippi. If you've ever traveled through the central, western, or SWern U.S., you will probably have noticed very stark differences.

I've never been to Denver, or for that matter, any of the West or Plains states. I regarded Colorado as filled east to west and north to south with the craggy peaks of the Rockies, and the breadbasket states as tennis court-flat farmland. To my surprise, landing at DIA, the airport as well as the city were in the middle of the dead-flat was Denver. Denver is, yes, a mile high, but it sure as shit doesn't look like it. It is "nestled" conveniently against the shoulder of the continental divide, which actually makes a shitload of sense when you think about why it ever worked as a city (not many people live in the Himalayas, Andes, etc). In fact, probably about 20 miles separate the plains of Denver from the "foothills" of the Rockies. The Great Plains are so flat, in fact, it really blew my mind. Were a road straight enough, and the landscape not altered by human hands, a road really would disappear into a point on the horizon. I mean it's dead fucking flat. But then, to the west, you have these enormous orrogenies (seriously, it's a geologic term) jutting out of the plains like teeth; I mean, it looks like that crazy scene with the knight and later Atrayu in The Neverending Story. I can't even imagine what people like Lewis & Clark first thought when they came upon them (but here's a go at it). "Wow, Lewis, these ironically flat plains must go on forever, we'll surely discover the other side of this continent in NO time at ALL!" "Absolutely." and then... "What the fuck is that? Oh shit are you fucking kidding me? How tall are those fucking things? And oh my god...are those MORE mountains behind them, and they're taller? Oh fuck THIS!" In fact, when seeing the less developed parts of the country, one really has to give a big "fuck yeah" to the original explorers, not to mention the native populations they incidentally killed off.

An aside. If you've ever read Lord of the Rings, you'll have noticed an uncomfortable degree of landscaping described. The problem I always had with that was that I could never picture what he was trying to describe. The reason behind this, I believe, is that I had never seen landforms in any way similar to those in the book. I suppose most people in the world know how a gulch, gully, valley, and cleft differ, but you know what...I don't. I'm guessing that Tolkien was a traveler.

So I wasn't going to Denver, I was going to Boulder, which is nestled even more comfortably in the arms of the easternmost Rockies, in the foothills, I suppose. What surprised me most about the Rockies, other than how immediately they rise from the plains, was how the "foothills" were mountains of their own right, and there are only about two rows of them before you hit the real Rockies you see on Coors Light cans. Back in Maryland I'm used to the slowly rolling hills in the western part of the state ever more slowly revealing haggled mountains worn down over about an eon; this transition occurs on the order of 100 miles for God's sake. In the eastern Rockies, it's about 5 miles.

I am out in Boulder for a sciency conference on astronomy and earth science, and rather than sit through another afternoon glancing wistfully at the peaks out the window, I decided just to rent a fucking car and go driving. After a tip from a friendly local (I think there's only 5 unfriendly locals in all of Boulder), I drove through a winding road at the base of a canyon towards a mountain town named Ward. I really couldn't tell if the road was going up or not, which was a severe concern, since I wanted to see bald eagles and dragons clawing about on the precipitous snowy summits. Then, somewhere along the drive, my ears popped, I guessed I was going up. Then after about 45 minutes of obstensibly beautiful scenery through rugged terrain, I come upon the town of Ward. I'm almost certain that if I stopped in Ward I would've been shot for meat by the still-stranded Peruvian soccer team from the movie/reality Alive. Ward was at about 9500 feet, and apparently somewhere around that altitude, road signs are no longer required by state law, as you would understand if you saw this town. Ward, literally a ghost town (it's populated by about 400 ghosts and a van-full of stoned teenagers), sits protected on the leeward side at the peak of mountain. So I continue on my mystical journey up through Ward and take a turn onto a road towards my next destination, Nederland. The first 10 minutes of the road to Nederland is some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen in my life. Not only was the wind blowing at about 70mph along the ridge of the mountain, but the vistas that opened before me were awe-inspiring. At one point I looked down south over the continental divide, over the shorter foothills, and through a valley east into Colorado and further into Nebraska. I'm a terrible judge of distance, but I must have been able to see at least 300 miles out. If I was Legolas I would've shot an orc. To the west I could see the caps of the real Rockies, poking up higher and higher with their bald white peaks, as if each were struggling to be taller than the next.

As I continued on the road, several other views struck me with enough beauty to throw my purple Chevy Impala rental onto the side of the road and dash into 50mph winds and oncoming traffic to snap pictures that probably will turn out shitty anyways. The funny thing about running any small distance at high altitude is that you won't realize how hard you are struggling to breathe until you stop running about 100 feet from where you started and double over with your hands on your knees to catch your breath. Towards Nederland (apparently a pot-smoking mecca), the road dipped further and further, so I became disappointed that I had reached the zenith of my journey already. As you know, I don't like to peak too early on (that's for the ladies)... Driving through Nederland, I was a bit put off that the town had deceived me, only a mere 8500 feet above sea level. However, the drive back to Boulder reframed my entire impression of this journey. As I dropped closer and closer, the walls of the mountains closed in tighter and tigher upon the winding road, and there were even about 40 different pull-offs spots along the way where locals parked their cars, got out, and started climbing 1000-foot cliff faces right next to the road. How do I know they were rock climbing? I saw them, and it was so badass. In fact, until then I was proud of myself (as a flat-lander, as they call the Plains folk) being able to successfully navigate the road, but this put me to shame. My desire to take pictures led to a few tight traffic spots, but I think it was well worth it, including a badass shot of a shear cliff face with the setting crescent moon just above it.

I'm not really sure what the point of all this is; I guess it's to loquaciously tell ya'll that if you haven't seen the mountains in the West, you haven't seen shit. Also, I always feel that driving is the only way to really understand a place. You can fly to LA, Chicago, Houston, Denver, upstate NY, etc etc and just do your thing you came to do and never get to really understand it. I know that some people don't really care either way, but I'll never understand that. If you take the time, even just half a day, jump in a car, and explore, what you see and experience will really tell you so much more than anything short of living there. When I fly I never feel like I traveled anywhere, more like I jumped in a capsule a la Aliens and arrived at my destination, never having traveled through any space. I suppose, as Tolkien thought, I believe that it's the journey you take that opens the whole world before your eyes.

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