June, thank God. Summer has all but burst onto our mountain stage, much to the relief and glee of upstream Crevice dwellers in Lovely Ouray. Yes, long shadows are in retreat, lilac blossoms perfume the air and waterfalls gush headlong from burgundy cliffs in veils of white that’d be the envy of any blushing bride. Ours is a vertical world; the angle of scenic repose in Ouray cricks the necks of flatlanders who, beyond the rare eclipse, never had reason to look up before.
Warmth inches into the high country, eating away at the last vestiges of winters’ dirty white sheets. Blame it on Utah’s windborne red dirt; it seems to soil our snow every spring. Now, a couple feet of snow and June are all that stand between us and a bazillion alpine wildflowers bending in the breeze. As a sum- mertime loving hiker, photographer and ama- teur watercolorist, I’m itching for the upcoming “limited engagement” show.
Speaking of “itching,” summer always breaks me out in another rash — that inexpli- cable American longing to get behind the wheel for a road trip — be it “Blue Highway,” back road, or Jeep trail. I need only look as far as my peripatetic parents to find the source of that rash. Life and people were too predictable in Ohio, so they piled possessions and three children into a ’49 Ford convertible, snagged Route 66 West and moved to Arizona. What an oppositional landscape, the geographical and climatic antithesis of home. My Ohio granddad, Sam Carder, had a love affair with Ford Falcons, bought a brand new one every other year and only drove them to church on Sunday — until we went and spoiled it all by moving west. In order to stay in the good graces of Grandma Sallie, Sam had to un- garage his prized Falcon du jour and drive 2000 miles west in order to see their deserting daughter. Like most men, Sam knew where his bread was buttered, and endured cracked windshields and paint chips with reluctant generosity. Depreciation aside, those road trips were probably the greatest adventures of Sam and Sallie’s lives.
My nephew, Darin, suddenly broke down and scratched his road trip “itch” last week — a particularly nasty “rash” fueled by a pro- longed, frigid and dreary Pennsylvania winter. One week he’s dutifully bagging dog poop and mowing his spring lawn, the next he’s packing a bag, camera gear, and icing a cooler of IPA’s. Under the lame pretense, “Need to visit far- flung family members,” (two of which just hap- pen to live in Colorful Colorado, wink wink), he bid wife and pets farewell and drove into consecutive sunsets in “flyover country.”
I almost snickered when he waxed poetic about how beautiful Kansas was — a mountain-less state where silos and grain elevators outnumber trees and livestock outnum- ber people. I figured he was talking about the state’s lib- eral interstate speed limits.
But upon realizing he was serious, I wondered why Kansas, of all places, plucked his Walden heart- strings. Then it dawned on me — for the typical easterner headed west, a person who’s like- ly led a relatively sheltered life geologically and geographically speaking, Kansas is where the landscape finally makes a noticeable and dra- matic transformation. Suddenly, after enduring monotonous concrete freeways state after state after state, bumper to bumper stall-outs around every sizable city, tedious clear-cut swaths with hundred-yard horizon lines of deciduous jungle that lull drivers into head- bobbing fits of near unconsciousness — bang, you’re hit with abrupt 360-degree far views and a sky so big it seems in danger of collapsing. To his credit, Darin ditched the Interstates, now an endless string of franchised food joints, and opted for “Blue Highways,” olden crossroad towns set in an endless expanse of undulating crops, prairie and stockyards. Sinister black clouds rode “shotgun,” turbulent, rotating — spouting bolts of lighting and casting darkness upon the land. Suddenly, a harmless lonely back road had become the opening scenes out of “The Wizard of Oz.” Darin’s “Blue Highways” promenaded fading farm towns. If you could look beyond peeling paint, rust and deterioration, they were once fine Norman Rockwell paintings. But something was missing; there was a conspicuous absence of the next generation — "future farmers." Maybe things have changed. Maybe kids would rather not come home to take over the family farm after college — work seven days a week, fight the elements and play Russian Roulette with the weather gods. The epitaph is written: unless there is natural gas to be Fracked, crossroad Kansas towns are in danger of becoming geriatric wards. Darin thought it was sad, yet strangely beautiful through his lens — black and white images of “abandoned towns, relics of so many broken dreams.”
When it comes time to take your summer road trip, try and remember Erol Ozan’s admonition, “Some beautiful paths can't be discovered without getting lost.”
Mark Johnson is a restless soul who lives in Ouray, Colorado with his wife, Bobbie. He is happiest when exploring the West's nooks and crannies, hiking, climbing and mountain biking. He authors two "wanderlust" based blogs: www.Artfulrvadventures.com and www.Boxcanyonblog.com.