Fourteen hours of gently rolling green dunes and acres after acres of cow pastures made me doubt my eighth grade science teacher’s enthusiastic lectures about America’s diverse geography. Obviously she had never driven through the Midwest. Flat monotony was how I described it as I crafted a lethargic, uninspired poem about a cow who gets lost in the flat lands of Nebraska. How was he to know which farm was his when everything looked the same?
My drive from Chicago confirmed one thing. The middle of America had nothing to offer me. Not one tree or mountain of inspiration. And I still had two days to drive before reaching my new home in California.
As I sipped my coffee and stared at the long road ahead, something gold and purple on the horizon caught my eye. A mirage in the sea of green, perhaps, or the eastern sun playing tricks on me as it crept up from behind. I waited for the colors to dissolve into the blue skies and leave me along with the pastures, but the gold and purple remained in the west, growing bigger even, as I drove toward them.
“Welcome to Colorado,” a giant sign greeted me. Not five minutes later, the America I’d pegged as bland, flat, and stuck in her traditional ways transformed before my very eyes, shaking out her skirt of amber grains, waving her wheat ruffles in the cool winds romping across sloped hills. They beckoned me toward the tallest figure I’d ever seen. Jack’s giant was never as large and looming as the body of jagged purple mountains blocking my view of America’s west. This was the wall I had to overcome? Having seen the Appalachians almost every day for 22 years, I thought I knew mountains like the back of my hand. The Blue Ridge was an overconfident braggart, a fake, I realized now. What lay before me was the real thing. These were the mountains of majesty about which I crooned in my elementary school chorus group.
Virginia’s winding roads were meager ant hills compared to the vertical spirals I was climbing, my car wheezing and groaning as we labored up the giant asphalt trail. My foot pushed against the gas pedal with all my might, and still it wasn’t enough to move us more than five miles an hour up the mountain. I prayed that we’d make it to the top, and somehow we did, only to see more of the Rockies’ endless walls sprawled left and right. If we wanted the West, we had to earn it.
With one of many mountains behind us, I pushed the car into neutral and coasted down the back side, preparing my soul for the next steep hike. There was nothing left for me in the plain and simple east, but there was ample for me to gain in the wild and reckless challenges of the west. I wanted to be tested. I wanted to know if I could conquer her greatest feats.