The Road West

With coal ash, oil and pipelines being regurgitated all over the country, I recommend a road trip.

Michael Wallis’ book Route 66: The Mother Road is a great guide to a historic route. Route 66 was the first major semi-transcontinental highway that connected Chicago, Illinois and Las Angeles, California. Today, mostly replaced by Interstates, it remains the last vestige of westward migration and one of the great symbols of the American continuity linking communities, local businesses that survive and federally protected areas. (Check out Greg Disch to get the image.)

In his book, Michael Wallis describes his revelatory first trip West:

For a kid that never traveled more than a few miles from home,… I believe it was the first time I saw myself in relation to the world instead of the other way around….

Yet even a brief drive along old Route 66 reminds you what is missing from that super highway and in our lives. On the old road every rise or dip every side road junction every new direction gives rise to the feeling that we’ve actually been somewhere, that we’re actually getting somewhere. In between the ever changing roadway helps us regain the experience of going rather than of merely being transported from place to place. 

My first trip West was with my grandmother when I was fifteen. We drove from Terre Haute, Indiana to McAllen, Texas then flew up to Denver, CO before driving home on I-70. In Colorado Springs, looking up at the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun from some city park I can no longer remember, the people and the place all felt so exotic… even ethereal. And I never did get over it. Thereafter I went back and forth from the Midwest to the West every chance I was given. 

In 2002 I drove West across the Mississippi to continue my work for Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. I would be living in the middle of 36,000 acres of old growth forest protected as wilderness in 1996. My Mercury Sable station wagon was packed with everything I owned. I swore I’d never move back East. 

Now I live in Arkansas. For those as geographically impaired as I was, it is on the West side of the Mississippi. And it’s in the ‘Bible Belt’. So you’ll forgive me for pointing out that in the Jewish Bible, God told them not to remove the ancient landmarks (here). We’re a Christian nation and apparently under grace so we can break all those rules. All the ancient landmarks which are now subject to being sloshed over by industrial waste. 

When the Shining Rock Miners and other activists fought to protect Opal Creek (read more), they were accused of wanting to keep “their own private playground”. Some may accuse me and others who opposed overdevelopment in the West of the same. My response is that I’m not trying to protect my own private playground. I’m trying to protect your children’s. That was the reason for the Old Testament injunction against paving over landmarks? So that whenever they passed by there again, it remained as a memorial to remind the next seven generations who they were.

At least annually we are cruising across the West with my children in the backseat. Between bursts of iPod games and graphic novels they look out the window. I bring up stories about this place or that landmark. They ask questions, usually along the lines of why did people do that? Which leads to conversations about motivation, morality, meaning. The West is giving a 4th dimension to their identity.

The National Park government shut down was recently found to cost the nation more than $400 million (read here). And the benefit we gain from the potential of Obama using his presidential prerogative to declare national monuments is much more than a last hurrah. It offers protection for the landmarks that define us as a country.

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