The author of Out of Africa described the highlands of Kenya this way: “There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere. It was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet like the strong and refined essence of a continent.” I’m with Isak Dineson. To me, the most evocative, and, in many ways, most beautiful landscapes are semi-arid and preferably 4000 feet or higher. Oh, I know there are people who can only find beauty in lush, gently rolling hills and green leafy trees. But I never really trust their judgement when it comes to quality over quantity. I suspect they are the kind of people who would reject a bowl of perfectly ripe just-picked organic peaches for the All-You-Can-Eat buffet on the basis that you get a greater volume of food for your dollar.

I don’t mean to denigrate very green states like Vermont and New York, but when I drive through them, my eyes glaze over. It’s all just one mass of green that makes it hard to see the trees for the forest. But with a more arid landscape, you really start to notice things. The plant palette is a subtle shift of browns, smoky grey-greens and bluish-greens. And since, in a semi-arid environment, vegetation doesn’t cover every inch, there is an equally interesting palette in rocks and earth. It’s the perfect neutral background to let any little bit of color really pop. As an added bonus, this sort of landscape seems to occur in huge, unpeopled swaths. At least in Central Nevada, Southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon where I’ve been roadtripping. So even as you speed by at 70 miles an hour, you really notice details as you never would in, say, Pennsylvania.

Overlooking the Oregon Trail along Rte 26.

Eastern Oregon along Route 26: looking over a part of the old Oregon Trail that pioneers took to the West.

First of all, the contrasts become more intense. The sky is a more brilliant blue. A mass of poppies or dwarf buckwheat seem startlingly gold. One white Jimson Weed on the side of the road stands out in stark contrast. Georgia O’Keeffe would agree with me, especially on the Jimson Weed. She explained her large scale flower paintings this way: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time…I decided if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty. ” What I’m guessing she understood is that the art audience — mostly East Coasters — weren’t used to really seeing flowers other than as part of a mass of vegetation. But walk through a desert and that flower stands out. Even whizz by at the accelerated speeds Western states seem to allow, and you still see such details much more clearly.

an overlook to the John Day fossil beds

An overlook to the John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon. This is the site of ancient volcanic activity.

I’ve been logging five to seven hours a day of mostly uninterrupted driving as I crossed the center of Nevada, turned north along the eastern border to Idaho, crossed the southern part of that state and into and across Eastern Oregon. All of the time I’ve been no lower than 4000 feet above sea level, frequently climbing to 7000 feet and, in Great Basin National Park, up past 10,000 feet. When I stopped at the Welcome Center when I hit Oregon, I took in my well highlighted map to double-check that there were no forest fires near my planned path on two-lane Route 26. The woman at the information desk tried to steer me back to the Interstate: “But there’s NOTHING to see for miles and miles on that road!”

But there is, there is. To the unimaginative, two hundred miles of high desert sagebrush might seem monotonous. I find it illuminating. I start to notice the contours of the Earth and wonder what geological forces shaped the particular area. I notice a sudden dense patch of intensely green vegetation and start thinking about the underground aquifer that must be bubbling up right at that point. Because such a drive can go dozens of miles with no sign of modern life, I realize I’m seeing the area in the same way the pioneers saw it, or early trappers and explorers. I get an understanding of how the Native tribes would have lived on this land. And I think about the future and possibilities. Because nothing opens your mind like the wide spaces and big skies of the West.

So, no offense to more manicured and more lushly watered states. I’ll keep my road trips in the West. Preferably on the old two lane blacktops.

Sagebrush, dwarf buckwheat and geological formations at the John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon.


More of today’s pictures here.

In case you are just joining us, Lucy, my Smooth Fox Terrier, and I have been doing a themed roadtrip — The Road Less Traveled — circling a section of the West on two lane highways and visiting some overlooked sights.

Catch up with posts on the pre-planning here and here and Day One, Day Two, Day Three, Day Four.