Into the West

Last week, I swept across the American South like the needle on an old-time radio dial – tracking west from about AM 650 to 1500. Starkville, Ms., to Amarillo, Tx. Nine hundred miles in one throw. That’s an adult portion. Whew.

I didn’t do much planning for this trip beyond the first few stops. And I hadn’t planned on driving more than 300 miles in a single day because I wanted to stop frequently to bike, hike or just gawk. But after driving the Natchez Trace Parkway out of Nashville and crashing in Starkville — Hurricane Gordon like a hell-hound on my trail — I hammered down just before sunrise and gasped into Amarillo just after sunset.

After crossing the Mississippi, driving the Delta Blues Highway up through Arkansas was a dream, but at Little Rock I reluctantly merged on to I-40 West. I hate driving the interstates; even when they cleave dramatic landscapes, their exits tick by with numbing sameness, each terminating in a thicket of depressing franchise towers. Still, I-40 offered the speediest route west and there wasn’t much I wanted to see in Oklahoma or the Panhandle anyway. What I did have an an urgent desire to see was my daughter Kate.

As I drove across Mississippi, I realized that if I made Yampa, Co., home to her U.S. Forest Service base, by Saturday, there was a good chance we could spend more time together.

Firefighters like Kate are deployed at short notice on wilderness rolls that typically last 14 days. She just missed catching a roll the day before I arrived.

The marathon trek to Amarillo just about killed me, but like my father before me I took comfort in “making good time” — and now had a cushion in my race to Yampa that allowed me to stop in Santa Fe, N.M. and Durango, Co. I took full advantage, exploring each city by bike and sampling local brews with dinner.

Santa Fe was a revelation. With its low-slung adobe architecture, lack of generic office towers and a hilly street plan that spreads out from the nucleus of an old Catholic church, Santa Fe reminded me of a European capital; I’ve not seen an American city remotely like it.

I’ve been to Durango before. It’s a prosperous, neat-as-a-pin little burg tucked into the San Juan mountains that caters to tourists interested in skiing, hiking and/or a hooking up with a convivial old gent I like to call Bob Maryleycorn.

Durango is a highly aromatic municipality.

A good bit of my long drive on I-40 roughly paralleled the U.S.-Mexican border a few hours to the south. Driving mile after mile, hour after hour through a vast desolate landscape brought home the folly of the proposed border wall. Even driving far less than the distance of the proposed wall (900 miles vs. 1,989 miles) it became clear it would be a gigantic, endless waste of cement and steel … not to mention a substantial chunk of the national treasury (ours, not Mexico’s). And it would be 99% symbolic. Determined and desperate people would solve it in no time and find ways over, under and around. (And if they need a bit of technical assistance, Mother Russia will gladly lend a hand.)

The idea is as flawed as France’s Maginot Line: Built as a defensive barrier to block the route invading Germans used in World War I, the Line proved useless in World War II as the German Army simply skirted it and the Luftwaffe flew right over it on the way to Paris. Duh. They knew it was there.

The Maginot Line

From Durango, I traversed the magnificent Million Dollar Highway through Silverton and Ouray — an eye-popping, heart-stopping drive thorough otherworldly mountainscapes that had me muttering, variously: Wow. Geez. Holy shit. Wow. Don’t take your eyes off the steep, winding road for a second, though, or you will surely find yourself soaring off the shoulder and into thin air. It’s a looong way down.

Intact and, yeah, feeling like a million dollars, I made a quick jog across I-70 East to State Route 131 and sped north through the southern Routt National Forest to the regional station of the U.S. Forest Service in Yampa, whose red-dust main street I nearly passed by.

Yampa is straight out of Northern Exposure, with Penny’s Diner and The Antlers Cafe and Bar crouched cheek to jowl on Main Street. We sampled both establishments and on Sunday, a rare day off, Kate took me far up a washboard red-dirt road through the Routt to a gorgeous vista where we talked for hours, our conversation punctuated by Kate picking up her guitar and singing songs by Dave Von Ronk, Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon … as well as one of her own compositions. Kate sings like a bird, with gorgeous pitch and surprising power that belies her lean form. Even an elk came down below the tree line to listen.

On workdays, the Routt is Kate’s office. Whether on an extended roll fighting a fire or working day-to-day out of Yampa charting fire danger, or culling dead and beetle-infested trees that would serve as fuel to feed a fire, she is deep in the forest nearly every day in her U.S. Forest Service helmet, turnout gear, and big bad boots, lugging a chain saw over hill and dale. So do us both a favor and don’t start a forest fire, okay?

Just as I marveled at visiting Nora and Sean’s unfolding life in Nashville, so I kept shaking my head as Kate told me war stories about the summer’s fires and pointed out the peculiarities of Yampa.

As I listened, it occurred to me that something strange and unexpected happens as you age and your children come into their own as adults. They still count on you for support and advice but at some tipping point you realize that you are now learning more from them than they are from you. If you’re open to it, it’s a beautiful thing. I gladly cede the first chair and take up second fiddle.

Nora is a whiz with technology and data and social media – she gets all the nuance of a world that is alien to me. She also understands most people better than they understand themselves. She would make an excellent advice columnist – or a profiler.

Kate, meanwhile, has beaten a retreat – sort of – from technology: U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters use GPS to map fire and pinpoint where it might break out next, and they rely on an impressive communication system to coordinate units where phone signals are nonexistent. But Kate explained to me that in her world it is more important to be able to read nature than a screen – to know which trees have high moisture content and thus will slow the spread of fire, to know where to use a drip torch to set a backfire that will (hopefully) starve the big fire spreading towards it of oxygen. She’s also learning to read clouds – yes, read clouds — and gave me an impromptu seminar in the stormy portents of stratocumulus and cirrus clouds as we strolled over to The Antlers for a brew.

I thought the cloud on the far horizon looked like a guy running from a dinosaur.

I could relate to both.

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