This marks the point when summer comes to an end in the Northern Hemisphere, and cultures all around the globe honor the coming of fall by harvesting crops and preparing for winter and the end of the year. Our own cycles coincide with this seasonal shift, as – with great sadness – we leave our beloved California home, friends, and family and with great excitement drive across the US to move closer to B’s family in New England. California has always felt like home, yet now I look forward to making a new home with loved ones on the East Coast.
With our brave old cat in her own cozy compartment in the rear of our car, we set off on Interstate 80, crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains beloved to me since childhood. The clear pine-scented air instantly brought me back to camping trips with my father, backpacking with friends in the nearby Desolation Wilderness, and cozy cabins by Lake Tahoe. I felt my heart tug at the thought of leaving this landscape, part of me for so long.
Now this area, like too much of California and the West, is besieged by wildfires, exacerbated by over a century of fire suppression policies, and by the drastically increased drought and heat of climate change. Scientists and policymakers are literally learning by fire, about fire ecology and indigenous practices like prescribed burns – beneficial and necessary for underbrush and fuel control, and healthy forest regeneration.
The lichen-covered granite that forms the Sierra Nevada range straddling California and Nevada is evocatively portrayed in John McPhee’s masterful Assembling California, about how the geology of the state formed over millions of years. Marc Reisner’s journalistic masterpiece Cadillac Desert tells the story of California’s water – which, along with fire, encompasses the history of the state and of the entire West – how this resource, always scarce, was robbed from the Colorado River and from Owens Lake to build vast desert cities like Los Angeles.
Crossing into Nevada, we watch nature’s grand spectacle reveal itself, as Reno’s huge hotels and casinos give way to the Great Basin. Here, another of McPhee’s award-winning geology books, Basin and Range, came to mind. The massive rock formations, great ships moving across the desert. Over millions of years, the wind and waves, the sandstone and basalt, were building castles in this ancient sea.
As we stop to walk the kitty at various points along the original Pony Express route, cottonwoods shudder in the late-summer wind, and herbaceous scents of spiny thistle and sagebrush remind us we’re in new territory. On the car stereo we listen to Miles Davis’s seminal jazz album, In a Silent Way, yet nothing prepared us for this land’s astonishing silence – seemingly endless and desolate, yet teeming with desert life.
Highway I-70 takes us into Moab, Utah. In Canyonlands and Arches national parks, all superlatives fall away, meaningless in the face of these ancient redrock monoliths. For thousands of years, they’re constantly changing, worn away by eons of wind and water. These are some of the remotest places on earth. The camera cannot capture the sheer scale of the landscape, nor can this puny human comprehend such jaw-dropping scenery. Friend and writer Heidi Ridgley conveys this awestruck feeling in her Canyonlands article; Craig Childs’s books vividly describe Southwest canyon country; and Poet Laureate Joy Harjo writes poetry and nonfiction about these lands sacred to Native Americans for thousands of years.
The rock here is sandstone, schist, and slate. The clastic soil, made of fragmented minerals, and the protolith – original unmetamorphosed rock – form the area’s distinct biological soil crusts. Comprised of cyanobacteria, lichens, algae, and fungi that interact with soil, they support plants in this harsh landscape of scorching summers and freezing winters. These plants include small yellow snakeweed flowers, of the aster family; rabbit brush shrubs; silvery blackbrush, a rose relative; numerous grasses; horsetail relative ephedra; gnarled Utah juniper, yucca, prickly pear cactus, and pinyon and Great Basin bristlecone pines.
As we head to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and cross the Continental Divide, which separates water flow to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans, I’m hearing John Denver’s sweet strains of “Rocky Mountain High.” Thinking of Mary Ellen Hannibal’s Spine of the Continent, her impassioned book advocating for conservation via wildlife corridors; and Lauret Savoy’s Trace, her personal treatise on natural history and its intersection with race; I struggle to express my own feelings: majestic, spectacular, awesome! Words are insufficient and imprecise, yet they tumble out as I strain to capture the sheer joy and exhilaration of being alive. Here, boundaries with our surroundings vanish and I truly feel a part of nature.
At the highest point of the park road, around 12,000 feet, the conifer treeline gives way to delicate tundra, supporting minute wildflowers and multiple lichens; on the glaciated moraines in the valley floors below, alluvial fans and soils host some of the largest and oldest organisms on Earth: the multiclonal colonies of aspen, tinged as if by an artist in autumn’s first stripes of orange and gold.
Other flora include lodgepole and ponderosa pines, fragrant Douglas and subalpine firs, Indian paintbrush, and purple gentian – surprising so late in the season. Fauna range from tiny chipmunks and ground squirrels ducking over and behind boulders, ptarmigan in camouflaged fall plumage, osprey soaring over the water, and moose foraging near mountain streams. And so many elk! running through the center of the town of Estes Park, where we stayed, or roaming in bachelor herds. As we hiked a meadow trail, we were startled by the eerie bugling of a bull elk with his harem – at the height of the fall rut, not to be messed with. When the magnificent half-ton male with full antler rack bluff-charged toward us, we turned around and backed off, returning the way we came.
Our next stop takes us through Kansas prairie grasslands, to St. Louis, Missouri. Across the great Mississippi River, in Illinois, lies our destination: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, at 2,200 acres this was the largest pre-Columbian indigenous city in North America. I only heard of Cahokia recently, regretfully never learning about it in school. B, having studied archaeology, knew of this sophisticated civilization – which lasted from about 700-1600 A.D. At its peak around 1200 A.D., its population exceeded London’s. The Mississippian culture occupied this city, using agriculture, hunting and gathering, and fiber and pottery crafts; along with building techniques that allowed them to construct multiple burial mounds, a defensive 2-mile-long stockade, and a Woodhenge sun calendar – where seasonal changes are still honored by sunrise rituals (which we missed, although came in time for the equinox). The site is massive, and after exploring the excellent, informative Interpretive Center, we hiked up and around several of the largest mounds – which themselves are open to the public from dawn till dusk. The website is an amazing source of historical and cultural information, and YouTube videos capture some of the grandeur of this “lost city.” It is still unknown why Cahokia declined, perhaps elements of climate, cultural and societal upheaval, or conflict with other societies.
Sonoma County writer and wildlife tracker Meghan Walla-Murphy, echoing Native American beliefs, remarked that every plant, stone, and landscape tells a story. That each time we move to a new place, we become different, developing new relationships with the land. I’m trying to be mindful of how brief our time is on this planet, that our stay on the land is only temporary, anyway; that more than one place can be home (if we’re lucky), and most of all, it is people who make a place home.