Gates of the West

Dear Friends and Family,

This is the end of the west.

This photo is taken at this exact spot (39°42’36.6″N 105°17’41.0″W) on the Mt. Vernon Road overpass of I-70 and US-40, 16 miles west of downtown Denver.

This is the view looking west. This is the view looking at all of the west, at all of the mountains and canyons and wild rivers rushing. Out beyond these peaks are Rockies and Bighorns and Sierras and Cascades and Tetons, and Glaciers and Yosemites and Zions and Bandoliers. Out there are bison and bears and mountain lions and seals and starfish and gay little slugs living under gay little logs. Out there are a hundred million starfalls and sunbeams and salt-tasting sprays, out there are a hundred billion whoops and hollers and jeers and cheers, yells and bellyaches, laughs and moans and waxings philosophical. Out there, on the shore of Lake Solitude, is the home of my soul. Out there is my home in the world since May 1st, and out there is me, taking it all, dancing and whirling and ribboning in the wind.

And here is the view east:

Here is the view to everything else. Here is every friendship, every kin, every lasting bridge through the human condition I have ever built. Here is the fractal infinity of my lived experiences, here is every feature and pitfall and victory and anxiety of my life. Here is every home I have ever known, loved, and ceded to circumstance. Here is every stand I’ve taken and here is every time I’ve said “ah, fuck it.” Here is everything I ever did that was worth doing, and everything that wasn’t. Here is the rest of my entire life.

God in heaven, what a precipice.

I have written and rewritten this part of the post several times. I have wished and washed back and forth between sweet and sorrowful, overjoyed and overwhelmed, nostalgic and melancholy, in relief and in respite. Perhaps the end of a thing is too big a feeling to capture. Perhaps it is too difficult to bookend a story you know you will continue to write.

I will address these feelings later, and I promise I will flesh them out fully when the trip itself concludes. I hope these musings about geography suffice in the meantime.

I grew up thinking everything beyond the Mississippi was “the west.” Stand down, Iowans! Drop your pitchforks, Kansans! Yes, I know this is controversial, but I know you don’t have broadband or basic literacy either. #SorryNotSorry. When it is no longer possible to cross your entire states without leaving a cornfield, I will hear your complaints.

But I know now this view is not correct. The precipice, the potency, the portent of that overpass on I-70 proves that fact. It was too steep, too high, too immense to not feel like you were diving off a cliff back into some vast, roiling sea of ennui. I climbed that cliff all the way back on May the 3rd, in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. I came back to the cliff on July 29th in the Bighorns, but hesitated to jump, and turned back into the Rockies. And now it was August 6th, and I had nowhere to go but down from the mountains and into the sea.

It’s the end of the mountains that hits you first. When the Front Range finally disappears in your rear view mirror, you are awash again in sea of dry, yellow grass and clear, blue skies:

The Black Hills come and go, their dark crags and Ponderosa Pines an island in the sea of grass:

You eddy and swirl through the browns of the high plains, and drift through the calcite and lacy jags of badlands and good lands:

Now you are seeing green return, in pockets and gullies and well-watered creek beds. In the west, water and its greenery is a flighting thing, it is hidden and protected in canyons and gulches and arroyos, and it’s always a long ways from everything else.

But here you feel the presence and the memory of water everywhere. In the stains on your pantlegs, on the bottoms of your feet. And its green creeps and stretches out of the gullies and into the Earth in full:

Now you really feel you are descending, returning, immersing in the green life all around you, like you knew back home. Now the water is no longer hidden, it is collecting, growing, moving and migrating and ushering home.

At some unknown bridge on I-90, you cross that great western river, the Missouri, and you remember the glaciers and parklands to which her spindly fingers reach:

And now the world is familiar again, now you know the pattern of its lands and lakes and geographies. Now, in earnest, you can guess what comes next.

It is the corn:

Yes, that humble monocrop comes back into view, back from your memories, back in its tidy lines and droopy leaves. It comes back with memories of fireflies and long car rides (well, not nearly as long as this car ride) and dozy summer evenings.

The sun is setting now and great third leg of my journey is bookending. But not before I see the last mile-markers, the very last gates, opening homeward before me and closing the west behind me.

The tree:

Just a little one, just a humble little tree in the ditch. A humble little tree, growing old but slowly, growing up in one place, planning to live the simple life for a good, long time.

And you say hello and wave at it, like you would to any other nondescript person from your home, the Midwest. Because when the trees come back, when they grow from the ditches and out around the corn, out by the property lines, out in the stands and groves and lots left up for deer to browse in, when they all merge together out in that endless and deciduous home you call “the woods”, then it feels like home:

Yeah, then it feels like home.

I don’t know where I left the west in that long drive home. I don’t really know where on I-90 I washed up out of the sea and back on my home shore.

And maybe that tells me the end of the west isn’t a cliff. Maybe it’s more like a gate. Maybe it’s more like several gates. The Grass Gate, the Brown Gate. The Green Gate and the Riverine Gate. The Lone Tree Gate and the Home Tree Gate. They gently open and close for me as I wish, one at a time, whenever I seek the peace of their precipice.

And I think I am fine with thinking of them as the Gates of the West. I can always go through them some day, some time, some future again.

That’s all for now.

Stay well everyone,