The Pilgrim Prefrosh: Part II, West, North, and Back East, Again

All photographs by Christina Teodorescu.

Having spent the first week of our American road trip in the South, my family and I now turned north toward the Rocky Mountains. We cruised out of Albuquerque back into the dusty New Mexico desert, passing through Navajo lands on our way to Colorado. As sand gave way to grassy fields and bare rock formations sculpted over millennia gave way to rolling foothills, the faint outline of the Rockies appeared on the horizon, barely visible against the hazy afternoon sky.

The highway narrowed as it snaked upward, hills becoming mountains as the meadows rose to meet pine forests that stretched unbroken to the horizon. Our car struggled on the high altitude roads and our speed decreased – but despite the occasional shudders as the car adjusted to the change in gear, the more leisurely pace gave us time to fully appreciate our surroundings. And what surroundings they were: the sun was setting and storms were gathering in the distance, illuminating the clay-red peaks that shone, resplendent, against the clouds. Occasionally deer would flit onto the road and just as quickly retreat to the shelter of the forest, brown eyes wide, gazing warily at the passing cars; hawks and eagles soared in the sky above us.

During the day, the Rockies were even more impressive. The brighter sunlight of the mid-afternoon threw the mountains into sharp relief, casting dramatic shadows across the many valleys and painting the forests green-gold. We drove up through passes that climbed past the tree line, leaving only tundra and scattered mountain ponds clear as the sky. As I stood at the highest point in the lower forty-eight states I gazed down into the ancient forests below, untouched by humanity, and felt immensely small. The mountains stretched out in all directions; the only indicators of civilization were our fellow tourists, standing awestruck on top of the world.

The change in scenery was mirrored by the change in culture. The warm openness of the South was replaced by a slightly more reserved — but no less friendly — general disposition. The accents vanished but the amiability remained. At one stop in the historic mining town of Silverton the convenience store cashier warned us about his “Jedi microwave” and advised us to use the “young Padawan” instead; he then proceeded to outline for us the most scenic drives in the area and describe his favorite sites, all the while chatting about his childhood spent in the mountains.

In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Sicinius asks the citizens of Rome, “What is the city but its people?” The same, I have found, is true of countries. The striking landscapes and beautiful skylines of America are part of it, but do not define it; Americans themselves shape their own nation. Throughout our journey the most memorable moments have not been those spent viewing nature or driving through cities —they have been the interactions with our fellow Americans, the small kindnesses and passing gestures that are never forgotten.

As we continued still farther north, the Rockies faded into the still-beautiful but less-impressive Cascades. Pine forests gave way once again to fields, this time of wheat rather than grass; the land shone as if it had been sown with gold. We cruised along the Columbia River as the sun went down and watched the sunset on its shores. That night we wandered through Portland and snacked on maple-frosted donuts topped with bacon (allegedly a local specialty).

It was around this time that I received my housing assignment and began to talk to my roommates, and it was around this time that I grew torn. Part of me wanted desperately to meander through America forever, taking note of the most memorable sights and cities and coming back to them again and again; I never wanted the journey to end. It was painful to have to leave each location so soon – each new stop was full of tantalizing secrets, waiting to be unveiled. But after this reminder of what was to come when I returned home, it seemed fall couldn’t arrive quickly enough.

While we were in Seattle we saw signs for Interstate 90, which I discovered – upon closer examination – to be the very same I-90 that cuts straight through Boston, just over three thousand miles across the country. It was incredible to me that I could begin on a highway in Seattle and conceivably pull into my hometown a couple of days later without ever hitting a stoplight.

From Seattle we crossed briefly into Canada and visited Vancouver, a jewel of a city tucked between the ocean to the west and mountains to the east. The waterfront was vibrant with restaurants of all kinds and a lawn overlooking the harbor; street performers juggled torches for the amusement of dozens of families as the sun descended hazily over the Pacific.

Our return from Vancouver and subsequent turn eastward marked the beginning of the end of our journey. From now on we were homeward bound, no longer exploring but returning instead to familiar territory. It was a bittersweet shift from forward to back: for the first time I fully realized that this once-in-a-lifetime adventure would soon be over, that these moments would turn to memories in a matter of days.

With this realization time seemed to accelerate as we sped across Washington and into Wyoming with record speed. The Rockies were not only our introduction to America’s natural beauty; in Wyoming we drove through Yellowstone National Park, narrowly avoiding bison as we hiked past often alien landscapes. The geysers were fascinating enough, but what truly interested me were the rainbow hot springs which glowed vibrant blue in the center and faded through the spectrum to a rusty orange around the edges, nature’s palettes. Scattered throughout the park were boiling pools of mud, spewing sulfur and bubbling ominously below the rickety wooden trails.

But these bizarre features were cloaked in an otherwise classically beautiful landscape. Yellowstone had as many lush forests and stunning meadows as it did geysers. Wildlife wandered the rolling fields and tourists swam in the many mountain creeks. The land that had been ravaged by wildfires years ago was thus all the more striking – the charred gray remains of what had once been pine forests stood stark and skeletal as they overlooked Lake Yellowstone, an eerie monument to the consequences of carelessness.

Much of Wyoming was open sagebrush plains and two-lane highways that stretched as far as the eye could see in an unbroken line. As we continued eastward, we began to pass through the Great Plains —and the heartland of America. Endless acres of cornfields lined the highway, interrupted only by the occasional silo or postcard-perfect red barn. The rich farmland would sometimes fade into dusty fields and back again, but the overwhelming flatness of the landscape around us continued for hundreds (if not thousands) of miles.

From the purple silhouettes of the Rocky Mountains to the rolling cornfields of the Midwest, America is overflowing with natural beauty. One can only imagine the wonder with which explorers first encountered the Rocky Mountain slopes or the geysers of Yellowstone centuries ago. As my family and I continue eastward the spectacular landscapes of the West fade into the sunset with each passing day, but the awe and wonder they inspired will last a lifetime.

Christina Teodorescu ’16 thinks this country looks best rolling past at 75 miles per hour.