Growing up in Western Pennsylvania — with its cornucopia of caterpillar neon and army tank green or sunny golden and whorehouse lipstick leaves, it’s endless rolling hills, red berries on hedges and blackberries on bushes, with four season clearly defined by popping daisies and terrential downpours, by swimming holes and ice cream trucks, by tricks, treats and jumping into leaf piles and by the shimmering lights of a New Year on the thick white snow — I’ve come to have a very personalized view of what nature is and looks like. Indeed, just as it seems like everyone on television sounds just like your average well-spoken Pennsylvanian, so does it seem like pictures of nature immitate what the Northeast, or indeed the majority of everything east of the Mississippi. Of course, I could be completely kidding myself.
There is one thing that I know for sure, though, and that it takes a long time to change scenery, to drastically change scenery, when roadtripping across these United States. Indeed, it isn’t until you’re well past Chicago, closer to Omahas or St. Louises that the scenery begins to change from the endless wave of hillsides and proud standing, barky foliage, mediocring itself out to smooth plains and bumpy lumps now and then, your occasional lonely tree in the distance, crop fields sprawling endlessly into the horizon and, presumably, over the edge of the Earth.
But in all of the continental United States, there is one area that is so drastically different from anywhere else in the country as to find itself a most special, most alien spot in my heart: the Southwest. It begins somewhere in Texas, not near the Eastern cities but somewhere between the endless ranches and winding roads that connect them, and keep on going through to California. Scrubby bushes cling to their desert rootlands, seeping any moisture from the air before it can hug humid on anything or anyone. Armadillos hunch on the side of the road, pecking through fallen brush for whatever treats they’re after. Roadkill shows that if one were brave and beautiful enough to pull over to the side of the road and explore the thick bush on either side, one would run into wild boar and mule deer, opposum and skunk. The dirt on the road is more red and tan than dark brown, even the roads themselves have a different color. The sun sets more slowly, seemingly. Time in general moves less quickly, with the measures between towns quoted in hours, not mere miles.
Massive riverbeds were dry. Every rare car that passed by was 4×4 ready. The heat squelched the rubber from our tires. The occasional town boasted low priced gasoline and lower priced beers. The heat melted the glass from our windshield. The heat sapped every drip of moisture from the air and our tongues. In January.
We just kept pushing forward, chasing the sun towards the Pacific. But taking it decidedly more slowly.