Wander West, Young Man

Moving across the country inspires a certain kind of madness, notably different than fleeing over an ocean for exploits requiring little more than two suitcases, a camera and a backpack.

After more than a year of wistful gazes towards the sunset, I had finally left for the mountains, and that monumental shift pushed every priority down a peg. Politics became a blur of white noise among the shuffling of moving boxes, while work played second fiddle to the welcome laughter of farewell parties. The world at large had shrunk to the size of me and my partner-in-crime, along with a calico kitten and a 16-foot truck packed full of pesky possessions.

Although spring had come to Chicago, summer remained too distant to tempt us into another delay, and on a brisk Wednesday morning, we caravanned away in a cloud of questions. I-80 is a lonely highway, as are most, but it provides plenty of time to think about the buildings shrinking behind and the blurry horizon tugging the wheels two hundred miles between pit stops.

If you drive for long enough, any vehicle eventually becomes an extension of yourself; the curved edge of the hood and the white stripes flickering by form a seamless track, easily followed as you fall into the flow of the road. Every bump and gust of wind becomes routine, and your muscles unconsciously clench and adjust at the slightest waver in your headlong flight.

The highways of this American beast have long been compared to veins and arteries, pumping resources and human capital, slowed by clots of commerce and tourism, pitted with potholes, sprouting capillaries to feed new tumors of civilization. From the cab of the truck, however, chewing up miles of asphalt, the highways feel more like scars, blasted strips where life has been denied a home.

They slice through vast swaths of otherwise virgin land like burnt-out tissues, wounds that are cut and then abandoned after linking larger pockmarks of urban blight that perpetually grow unchecked. Their broader purpose is essential, but even that statement is indicative of the superiority humans not only feel, but also use as justification for our savage abuse of the natural world.

The sheer scope of our mortal sprawl is mind-boggling, but it is perhaps most obvious on a cross-country drive, where every few miles, a patch of humanity springs up, although few blossom. Even a short sprint in the country takes one past immeasurable tons of concrete and asphalt, a seemingly infinite stretch of guardrails and truck stops, motels and floundering towns so small that you never even catch their name. Intent on bending the massive expanse of this land to our will, we laid our claim with a web of transient creation.

Perhaps that is why the urge to move west remains strong in so many people, particularly those who have begun to lose hope in the Old Guard bastions of logic and leadership. There is something humbling about the rising gaze of mountains in the distance, a reminder that some corners of nature can still deny potential conquerors, despite our worst efforts.

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Go find your own wilderness, but first, finish this western musing in SN10: The Green Issue, available through Amazon on June 5th!

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