Monday, October 10, 2011


The drive across the United States, from the East Coast to the Northwest, is a lesson in land use. Head out up I-270 from Washington, DC, and suburban Maryland rolls with the hills, part subdivision and part farmland. The trees change color in early fall as elevation climbs into Pennsylvania. The highway winds through the mountains, where the temperature drops and billboards implore travelers to support the coal mining industry, as if there was nothing damaging about blowing apart the earth and hauling out its inner contents, displacing entire towns and polluting the air and water along the way. As if the local economy struggling from the loss of mining was worse than the long-term multiple impacts of extractive industries.

Soon, the mountains give way to a familiar sight: the flat agricultural lands of the Midwest. There's not much here that existed 100 years ago. It has been plowed and plucked and mowed and developed over and again. You're never far away from an ear of corn, a bale of hay, or a tractor. The highway through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois is a lesson in monotony. The giant aluminum siding cross at Effingham, Illinois, is the only distinguishing landmark for miles. But the sun setting over the Mississippi River approaching St. Louis is a thing of beauty. The Midwest is full of simple beauty, seemingly empty but at peace with it, knowing that important things are happening just beyond the view from the highway.

Missouri is a different story. It's a nice mix of farmland and foothills - more dramatic than other parts of the Midwest, because it has more to offer. It's multidimensional. And driving the cliffs along the Missouri River encourages vulnerability and the need to throw it all into the muddy water and leave it all behind. North along the river and through Nebraska is the last chance to enjoy the flat lands with the wide yellow sun, for just beyond the Wyoming border, the earth takes over. The Midwest looks wide and flat, but it's nothing compared to the wide open of the West. In the Midwest, one still feels under the watch of the sun and stars, and clouds float close overhead. In the West, storms arriving can be seen floating in mid-air, approaching but never actually coming close. The land out here is what it has been for thousands or millions of years. People out here don't use the land; the land permits them to reside where they dare, puncturing the upper crust in small splotches. Cows, goats, sheep, and horses graze in dispersed groups on hillsides, barely visible among the patches of sagebrush and the shadows cast by passing clouds. It's a humbling feeling to be out here, like we could disappear at any time and the earth would just swallow us up unnoticed.