Monday, June 28, 2010


(see map of sites we visited, photographed and explored--select photos are in my FLICKR Photo Album (Set))

The Joys (and Sorrows) of taking the By-Ways and Interstate Highways across America: 

One of the benefits of taking a road trip across America--particularly from West to East--is that if you choose to you can opt for the longer and some say lonelier “byways” of western small-town rural America and thus see a whole different world than the canned sampling of cookie-cutter gas stations, motels, chain restaurants, and truck stops crowded around the infrequent exits of the concrete ribbons of the Interstate system.  Thanks to President Eisenhower’s Vision of a National Interstate Highway System-- most travelers by road rarely see the real America anymore.  The people and service centers along with the occasional tourist traps encountered could be anywhere and nowhere!

Unless you’re in a hurry to get from point A to B, then the Interstate is a practical but very BORING choice--though small kids (and many foreign tourists) love the "tourist traps" as a needed respite from the boring freeways and I’m sure the “pleasures of traveling with your siblings” on a long trip?

And, one has to laud the ingenuity and creativity of local entrepreneurs and citizens who try to counter the negative cultural impacts of fifty years of US road-building design and engineering by thinking of ways to get you off the Interstate!

But like many others, I worry about the image of America these people are getting from encountering these “canned spaces and places”?  No wonder when I meet my friends in Africa or the Middle East the view they have of us is SO distorted!  That is a shame when there is a lot to enjoy and prize in small-town America that explains so much about how we got to the 21st century!  Some of my most cherished experiences were those times we strayed off the main highway and let serendipity be our guide.  The results were often marvelous and gave me a much more profound view of Flyover Country—one that is often belittled and maligned in mainstream media!  Though as I expressed in my June 25 Blog—there are “downsides” to the worldview often associated with these small places that we need to be aware of and possibly change or redefine or update.

Why take the slow road?

To me the slow road is always preferable to the Interstate, where everyone whizzes by obviously trying to get somewhere as quickly as possible!  I might note that my all-time favorite road is still that portion of US Highway 50 from Utah through Nevada to eastern California around Lake Tahoe-- noted by some as the “loneliest road in America”.  The rest of Highway 50 also provides a great sampling of the real America as does the Historic Route 66 (see also HERE).  On this road trip I will definitely sample parts both great highways whenever I can. 

Why do I LOVE driving alone across these vast western spaces?  To me, watching the road uncoil before me into the shimmering distance when it is hot, and then seeing where the horizon intersects with the everlasting BIG SKY is breath taking.  Furthermore, the opportunities for introspection and reflection are unrivaled; on most other densely settled landscapes one can’t drive and think without getting into jeopardy with other vehicles or drivers who are all in a hurry!

And as a geographer I love seeing how the constantly changing weather, soil, geology, and vegetation patterns give clues to the origins and evolution of both the natural and human-created landscapes laid out before me, e.g. deserts, forests, rivers, sagebrush lands, and grasslands—and farms, ranches, ski resorts, mines, and other human-altered land use/land cover patterns.   And if you love geology—the western Red Rock lands are the very best textbook ever!—they provide exciting views into “earth history” like no other (see some of my photos in my FLICKR Album of  Bryce, Cedar Canyon, Zion National Park, Kodachrome Basin, the Aquarius Plateau, Glenwood Canyon, Battlement Mesa, Factory Butte).

Even the subtle and often minute changes in the human-altered landscapes (and human land use) seen east and west of the Rockies provide subtle but clear insights into earth history, climate and vegetation change, and how humans have managed to survive for generations by “knowing the land” and finding “where the water is”!

The contrast is what makes the “lived-in places” stand out from the “empty spaces”—and together the empty and the filled-in places create a tapestry that is SO Western US—so NOT like anything anywhere else!

I’ve worked in and explored many other large low-human density settled regions such as western China or the Sahel in Africa (which has its own unique allure) and the huge sandy wastelands of the Middle East where life is now driven by wealth below the sands—OIL!   Each has its own appeal, but for me there IS no other place like western America.   Likely that is because this is my “second home” (after the Mosquito Coast of Honduras). 

But if I can be a little provincial—I believe those who settled this region and this includes the Native Americans before us--passed on something that is unique in human history—something precious that needs to be saved, promoted and protected!  And now, traveling through western America at this point in my life, has given me again, an opportunity to reconnect with whats fundamental in life—friends, family, the land, and nature in all its many wonderful expressions from the minutest flower to glorious canyon and towering mountain range!

If my experience this time seems more vivid and accentuated—maybe it’s because I’ve been abroad for several years.  The specialists say this reaction is a typical expression of “reverse culture shock”.  Clinically I’m sure this is the correct explanation, but it doesn’t nearly begin to explain the joy (and pain) that comes from such a journey of the mind across both physical and human psychic space as this trip has become for me!  Therefore, I’ll try to be as balanced as I can in my BLOG so I’m not overly negative or positive.  But at the same time, the very act of writing about these feelings, impressions, and observations I believe is important to me for making a healthy transition to retirement and whatever else comes next in life!  And it might be helpful to others—I hope!

The Role of Radio in Flyover Country:

Many travelers find these empty spaces totally boring and consequently need to pass time by listening to tapes, CDs or the radio.  And of course now with iPods or other ICT tools you can take your own “audio world” with you and be totally distracted from the sounds and sights along the road!  But, I would suggest, that if you bother to listen with an open mind to the radio stations encountered along the way in Flyover Country-- you will truly begin to feel the pulse of what drives, excites and even inspires people who live, work, play, study, and die in these small places.  

The strength and reach of the radio signal and type of programming is telling in my view.  Of course, the dominant stations are the country, folk, rock, ranchera (for the growing Latino community), and occasional “Oldies” music stations (for the retirement crowd) around towns like Sun City and the ever present sports station—particularly if you are in western US where football, basketball and baseball in their season IS the religion.  But just as strong and quite influential are the often right-wing talk-radio stations and the always fervent Bible Belt preachers who each in their own way rail against what they see as the demise of America and call for us to repent from the latest moral outrage they see.  

If you’re lucky (and need it) the occasional NPR (National Public radio) station may be heard via repeater stations from the nearest large metropolitan center—usually based at a University--reflecting the more educated minority and often “liberal” or “moderate” political America (in contrast to the dominantly conservative talk radio stations)—the larger world associated with Washington DC, New York, Boston, LA and of course “Hollywood” or other cultural centers.  For those who want to live and work in small-town America, but who also want to maintain links to the broader urban world--NPR is a godsend!   And, if you love classical or jazz—the NPR stations have the monopoly on that across Flyover country!

In a few places, you can find localized “alternative” (avant-garde) community radio stations that cater to those isolated groups seeking (apparently) to “drop out” and “escape” from the dominant urban culture.  Yet though now embedded in these beautiful landscapes (in some cases contributing to the high real estate prices) they seem to not be fully comfortable with the surrounding conservative, agricultural communities they now live in.  After all, many came from urban America—many from California.  I heard several of these stations, i.e. one with the most interest broadcast to the Moab Utah area, apparently catering to the mountain biker group--there were other similar stations around the skiing communities in the Rockies.  

A Side-bar--two personal Encounters with locals:  A very interesting encounter from some that may see as fitting the above “returnee or escape” group was with a young single mother and her school-age child now living in Sterling Colorado.  They were out mowing the lawn and we were seeking directions to see some of the famous local sculpture by Bradford Rhea that Sterling is now known for (see photos in Album).  We eventually got around to asking “where she was from” and she recounted how about three years ago she sold in California (before the real estate crisis) and moved to settle in this small farm community on the eastern prairies of Colorado along the South Platte River.  She and her young daughter told us about both the joys and travails of that change, i.e. the beauty of living in a quiet place with “four seasons” but also the difficulties of living “where everyone knows you”!

We had a similar encounter with an older waitress in famous Sullivan’s CafĂ© (Cedar City Utah) who had come back from years in Las Vegas to live in small-town Cedar City to be with her aged mother—she was a joy to meet and so reflective of much of what I had hoped to learn on this road trip!.  A question I find worth exploring is—coming from having met some of the people along the way—is how will these “returnees” change rural America—that is an important issue to follow, I believe.

So, on this trip I decided to sample all the radio stations encountered along the way and see what it tells me about the people and land I was traveling through and observing out of my window.  Even though country, folk, rock, Bible Belt preaching, and talk-radio are not always my preference, this time I found much more to them than what I had heard or seen before.  If you listen to the lyrics, and the community announcements, and even commercials or agricultural reports, you begin to “feel” what it is really like to live and survive in these places—what is felt at a deep human level.  And you begin to sense some of the emotional attachments, pride of place, and strong beliefs, and the fears that many have about the impact of the broader world on their beliefs, values, livelihoods, and culture.  These are legitimate concerns, but the solutions often proposed in my view--from escapism to demonizing of all things foreign-- may not be either adaptive or satisfying!  I am still concerned that many of these circumscribed views associated with small places and perspectives, may have a severe downsides for coping in the 21st century (as I discussed in my BLOG of June 25). 

Yet, these places and peoples have a level of charm, beauty, caring neighborliness, knack for survival and coping, and pride in their sense of place that explains much to me about what is fundamentally right about small-town and rural America.  Keeping the positive and improving on the negative is what I want to promote just like John Steinbeck through his own travel writing.


From Yermo CA to Las Vegas:

Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner has always ben one of my favorite stopover points on the long, boring drive between LA and Las Vegas.  This time (June 11, 2010) we pulled in just as a large train was been loaded with military hardward (visible across the street—literally).  As I noted in my June 16 blog it reminded me forcefully that “America is still at War”—in the case of Afghanistan almost ten years). 

This stop, very satisfying for the food and of course the memorabilia of the 50’s is wonderful!  But it also brought back painful memories of my being in college and graduate school during the “end years” of the Vietnam War;  it reminded me of the tough decisions we all had to take about the draft and our futures.  I do think we are less divided this time over this war (particularly Afghanistan).  But I do sense the public either being apathetic about it or getting anxious to “get out as ASAP”.  Seeing many veterans at Peggy Sue’s Diner--some from past wars and some from our current wars—made me wonder how this one is impacting the families and veterans who are taking the full brunt of this very difficult, and some might argue—“unwinnable war”—just like Vietnam was?

And the reasons why it may be unwinnable are so similar as to Vietnam it makes we wonder whether we learned anything from that wrenching period of history.   Some of the increasingly contentious partisan debates I hear on the news and via talk radio as  I travel between those who see the need to remain steadfast vs those who want to get out now, remind me again (painfully) that as strong as America may feel about itself and its place in the world, we really are not the kind of country that can be at war for very long periods without endangering what makes us great!

We continued on to Nevada with a brief stop at the border at the Primm Valley Resort & Casino and later  Mesquite Nevada for gas and food just before the Arizona border (where there is a new Del Webb Sun City resort).  I’m always amazed with what we’ve done in Vega—is this really America in the 21st century?  I hope not!  We didn’t stop in Las Vegas because I had been through it earlier in the year (see few photos from around Lake Las Vegas where I saw some of the fancier gated communities, condos, and hotels I’ve seen anywhere). Yet even they went through difficult times--note this Wall Street Journal article.

Sin City USA—as some call Las Vegas Nevada--has been severely hit by the housing crisis (maybe worse than anywhere in the US) and of course some of the right-wing preachers on the radio feel this is “God’s punishment”!

But I’ve also seen what can happen to good people who were simply trying to “make a living” in Vegas!  Over the last two years while I worked in Rwanda—I came to make new friends  now volunteering for Project Rwanda.  Recently they had to “walk away” from their former homes and jobs in Las Vegas; their mortgage’s went “under water” (that is they owe more than the house is now worth)—the very term best conjures up in my mind the worst of the residential housing crisis on real people!  Even we felt it in California when we lost much from the sale of our house in California (see my blog on June 4 entitled Sold our House and can Now Move on with Life). 

Not surprisingly, as I’ve taken this road trip I’ve been on the lookout for signs of how the Great Recession and related housing crisis is affecting others (see some of the photos from around Loveland Colorado and even small-town Escalante Utah) where the signs of a depressed real estate market were very clear. 

What amazed me the most, is how when we traveled through central City of Las Vegas—along the famous “Strip”—the signs of continued massive growth and construction was very apparent.   I found myself asking “where does the money for all this come from” when the rest of us can barely hang on to our houses?  The fact that “big corporations” are still spending what some would characterize as “obscene” billions of dollars hit me hard.  It is not surprising some of the fear and concern expressed by common folk on the radio, at truck stops, and in the small local eateries and cafes!

After leaving Nevada we entered the Virgin River Gorge (passing through a small corner of Arizona)--it is truly one of the most impressive road segments in the west except for Glenwood Canyon Colorado (on Interstate 70) which I’ll talk about later) both in beauty and the engineering.

From St George to Green River Utah and to Loveland Colorado

From the Vegas and Mesquite area we went directly to Zion National Park after driving through the Virgin River Gorge and St. George in southern Utah (see June 16 blog).   Our first night’s sleepover was at a free camping site on BLM land among beautiful cottonwood trees along the Virgin River Utah.

Regular chain motels and hi-end RV campgrounds catering to the $100,000+ motor-home crowd were full or too expensive for our budget.  But the “low-budget” mode of travel has put us in touch with people, places, and events that provide good insight into how the Great Recession of 2009-2010 is affecting small-town western rural America (see earlier discussion).  

And, my reconnecting on this trip with America’s Best Idea—the National Parks—as Ken Burns so aptly calls it—has been sheer joy (see book)—though so many are missing the best by not walking the trails or getting off the crowded main park trams—try a bicycle or walk--again !  Yet, I am very happy that most of the foreign tourists encountered on our trip—as a group of French we encountered at Bryce or Italians in Green River--were coming to see and experience our great national parks--including state parks and preserves (with a mandatory side-trip to Vegas or San Francisco and Hollywood), .e.g. Zion, the Grand Canyon, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Capitol Reef NP, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, and my favorite Red Rock gem--Cedar Breaks National Monument, and one of the newest--Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument--a place I saw declared a monument (after a big fight) while worked in the Clinton Administration.  It still is a success story of an NGO I value and support--The Grand Canyon Trust.

In spite of all the misconceptions, misunderstandings and even conflicts we have with other peoples around the world—when they visit us they can’t go wrong by seeing our parks!  And if we can help others learn to manage and protect their beautiful places we’ve done something important!

Lincoln, Nebraska on June 28, 2010


  1. I am moved. I really think I would buy this in book form. Keep up the good work.

    -Joey of the Great American Road Trip Team

  2. Well thank you Joe... I'm still relearning a lot about writing and would appreciate any guidance. But your kind words do give me encouragement!