El Dorado National Forest), August, 2011
Driving east from Sacramento, the change from valley to mountains happens so suddenly it’s a little disorienting, and it would be beautiful if it weren’t for the development that’s taking over—clumps of ugly, thoughtless houses advancing on the wilderness, shrinking its vastness, taming something wild and exciting into nothingness.
And yet, even now, there’s something so intense, so fiercely romantic about the way these mountains rise out of the valley. Each time I drive this way, my heart opens. Because there’s something about the way this vast wildness leads east, further into the rest of the vast wildness that makes up this country. There’s something about driving across such a magnificent expanse of land that makes you aware of what it means to be from somewhere—to be born into a place that will always be a part of you.
America is boring and exhilarating. It’s covered in bad politics; problematic history; ugly, cheaply made houses; cloned shopping malls; racism and other brands of small mindedness. But underneath all those ugly houses is the land. And inside the ugly houses are people. And those people, all of us Americans, are capable of so much more beauty and kindness and love for one another and for the land than we remember to practice on a regular basis.
Every time I hear a Woody Guthrie song, or Martin Luther King’s voice on the radio; every time I think about riding through Indiana, trying to capture in scribbled words the purples and greens and pinks and grays of a Midwestern June landscape; every time I reread the Little House books; every time I sit on a cliff over the Atlantic Ocean, the honeyed scent of pine trees at my back; every time I hear a guitar played or a voice raised in song a certain way; every time I remember hitting the eastern edge of the Rockies for the first time, feeling the cool, dry, clear mountain air on my skin; every time I ride a train north along the Hudson River; and every time I drive out of the Central Valley and into the Sierras I remember that the sights and smells and sounds of this land are part of me in a way I can’t escape. I can leave it, but it will always affect the way I feel about everything, all the ideas I have about the world.
Because how can you see the Rockies, how can you listen to Dr. King’s voice, how can you laugh with a perfect stranger over breakfast in a diner in Wyoming and not believe in freedom, and democracy, and love, and the beauty and resilient strength of the human heart?