Our country is large, but our Wal-Marts are larger

I just finished driving from Seattle to Washington, DC, which explains my neglect of the blog. I’ve been more concerned with straightening out last-minute snafus via cell phone, than with posting here. And sadly, I was traveling alone, so I couldn’t spare the time to pull over at each tempting vista and take photos, and I have no pictures.

Before Monday, I had never driven past Idaho. So as I left on my journey, I was naively hoping to “see the country” in some sort of enlightening, trans-generational, road-trip-through-Americana way. That didn’t happen. Cruising I-90 might allow one to view the panoramic vistas of the West, but those vistas look pretty identical until Minnesota. And in the Midwest, the tollways become downright boring. I could hardly see anything, even in Chicago. Chicago was two horrific hours of my life that I will never have back, for which I paid some $13 in tolls. Gah.

Certain trends were apparent: there is a strong linear relationship between progress eastward and the square footage of Wal-Marts. Meanwhile, any relationship between posted speed limit and actual speed collapses. People drove about 75-80 mph the entire way, but in Montana the speed limit was a realistic 75; from Illinois it was frequently 55. Call me provincial, but it was odd going 30 mph over the speed limit. Not to mention paying tolls every 30 miles or so.

In the West, driving is mostly toll-free. And it’s an entertaining experience, complete with gratuitous roadside attractions and bizarre signage. Idaho’s highway department wedges enthusiastic adjectives in everywhere: “Now Leaving Wild and Scenic Lochsa River.” Montana has a creative, rather touching collection of homemade anti-meth warnings. Roadside signage reaches its apogee in South Dakota, where there are literally hundreds of billboards advertising a rural Disneyland-cum-curiosity-cabinet called Wall Drug. I did not stop at Wall Drug, although it was mighty tempting; they promised 5-cent coffee (free to vets and honeymooners), a shooting gallery, and a 40-foot tall dinosaur! If I’d known how desolate the highways would be for the rest of my trip, I would not have passed up the Wall Drug experience.

Overall, the thing I noticed most was the physical change in the landscape. It got softer and lusher and progressively more claustrophobic, as the humid vegetation and remarkably low clouds closed in around the road. I have never seen so many deciduous trees in my life – rolling mounds of them, like green cotton candy. Lovely at first, sure, but then unsettling. By the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I had goosebumps, recalling the sinister vegetation of Lovecraft and Hawthorne. I have no fear whatsoever of forests at home – I’ve been camping in pitch dark and feeling my way tent-to-tent trunk-by-trunk since I was seven years old. But the trees in Pennsylvania were creepy. They felt off. Their shapes seemed feverishly primordial, in a way the much older conifers of the West do not. Which makes no phylogenetic sense at all.

Obviously the trees of Pennsylvania weren’t out to get me. So why did I feel as if they were? Was it too much Mountain Dew? Too little sleep? Or does our local version of “Nature” imprint itself upon us so strongly that foreign vegetation seems a little bit unnatural? I once took a road trip with a Wisconsin native who absolutely refused to leave the car in a patch of scrubby, burned-over Idaho wilderness. I thought he was a wuss, but who knows? Maybe he was tapping into some visceral, biological aversion to the unknown.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll become a resident of Washington, DC, and will most likely be on the East coast for the next several years – plenty of time to adjust to crazy Lovecraftian trees. In the next few days I’ll resume the account of my trip to London. I have good stuff to share, but just haven’t had the time to write and upload photos. More to come – as soon as I’m moved in and have internet access, that is. . .

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9 Responses to Our country is large, but our Wal-Marts are larger

  1. Nick says:

    Last summer I drove from Los Angeles to eastern British Columbia. As a life-long resident of Southern California, I was amazed at the increasing density of trees on my way up the I-5. I’m pretty sure I saw more trees in my week in British Columbia than I have ever seen in the rest of my life combined. It did feel creepy to be so surrounded.

  2. Helen says:

    Imagine my agoraphobia as I travel west. I’ve lived in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for my entire life, and places that are less green feel sad to me; not as in pitiable, but as though the places themselves are unhappy. I still think other places are lovely, but it’s uncomfortable to have no canopy or tree frog choruses.

  3. Welcome to the packed east coast, Cicada.

    Being a native of these parts, I’m comfortable with the landscapes of the southeast and New England. Oddly, though, I’ve never experience anything but excitement when traveling in other settings, including the great northwestern forests or the sourthwestern deserts. They all make my spirits soar.

    The only landscape that puts me on edge? Suburbia…in a big way. I become anxious and ill-tempered when plopped down among malls and housing developments. Give me a crowded city/town or the country.

  4. Pierre Carl├Ęs says:

    Good luck with your new life in Washington DC. I have never been there, but I may in a year or so. Washington is on my list of cities to visit in the US, along with NYC which I have not seen either.

  5. cicada says:

    Pierre – thanks. I’m not a “city girl” and I know I couldn’t handle New York or Chicago. But I lke it here in DC a lot. Of course it helps that my apartment is right on the park, with a view of. . . trees! (Not creepy ones).

    HH – I figured you’d have something to say about this post. I expected to feel like you – excited and happy to see new versions of nature. Intellectually, I am excited about it. But I can’t deny I was also creeped out. Nature has never made me feel that way in my entire life, but I guess I do have my limitations. I hate having limitations! ;)

    Helen – We used to live out in some Ponderosa/tamarack forest, where there were adorable little black-masked tree frogs. And one year we had literally thousands of penny-sized frogs hatch out in the mud all at once, and swarm all over the roads; you couldn’t help walking on them. So even the dry inland Western forest does have some amphibian life, though not as much as Pennsylvania.

    Of course if you go all the way West, you hit Olympic rainforest, which is very lush indeed – as Nick observed. So maybe you should just keep going? :)

    The green forests of western Washington always make me happy, without exception. I do miss Seattle already. And it’s only been a week. Uh-oh.

  6. cicada says:

    Update: I have been to two Walmarts in the greater DC area for the sake of comparison, and they are no bigger than the ones in Idaho! Darn. I had such a good hypothesis going. . . perhaps I’ll just leave these Walmarts off the graph. . .

  7. Wunx~ says:

    Like Helen, traveling west was very strange for me; I’ve lived in Utah for seven years and the landscape still feels barren. What’s the absolute most unsettling, though, is camping. How can you sleep outdoors without the nurturing cover of green trees? It feels positively naked.

  8. Michael says:

    Not too long ago I did the reverse trip (VA to Seattle). After long hours of staring at Wall Drug signs I was seized by the desire to do a little guerilla art. Making up ‘new’ billboards was a fun diversion, but I would kill to have someone actually make a “Wall Drug: Free Hookers” sign. BTW, I’ve been there twice (both against my will, for the record). Don’t go. It sucks every bit as much as you would imagine.
    As for the lovely, deciduous woods of the East, I have two suggestions. First, make a trip to Massachusetts in October someday. That is the real deal for creepy woods. Suddenly Halloween makes a whole lot of sense. Second, learn what Poison Ivy looks like and NEVER stop looking for it. You may not be allergic (yet), but my mother didn’t get it until she was in her 40’s, so it’s never too late.
    Enjoy DC. Thanks for the fun blog.

  9. cicada says:

    Michael – I hear that everyone who moves to DC gets allergies. In fact, during the last week, the locals have delighted in predicting all the bad things that are bound to happen to me (muggings, allergies, speeding tickets, the DMV) and asking why the heck I left Seattle. It’s disconcerting, because my old grad school friends all claim to like it here. . . but if their frame of reference is grad school, perhaps I should not have listened to them? Uh oh!

    Anyway, Vashon is beautiful. I had family friends there for a while and it was always a thrill to go out there – it was every bit as lush and green as the East. And definitely campable. I agree, Wunx – no one should camp in a barren expanse of prairie or scrubland – you absolutely need trees and you really ought to have water, too. And what the heck are people thinking when they drive their Winnebagos out to a desert and park? Insanity!!!

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