Friday, July 3, 2009

Westward Across The USA

I got lucky. Good weather. A clear cloudless sky and a window seat on an early morning flight from Baltimore to San Francisco. In 1804 it took Lewis and Clark nearly two years to reach the Pacific. Wagon trains following the Oregon Trail took between four to six months to cross just half the country. In 1876 a train from New York to San Francisco took nearly 84 hours. In late June 2009 a standard flight took me under six hours.

I still have a childlike enthusiasm about flying. I always try get the window seat and, if the weather permits, prefer to look on the earth below rather than close the blind and watch the latest movie. To see the country unfold before you is an experience that borders on the magical.

First we rise from the tarmac to leave the eastern seaboard. It is late June, early morning. Below, the earth is sensuous green almost tropical, heavy with humidity. The sprawling suburbs of Megalopolis soon give way to the wooded ridges of the Appalachians. I look out for the telltale signs of mountaintop coal removal. Too far north. It looks like virgin territory, the river systems outlined by the sinuous lines of early morning mists.

Appalachia: photo John Rennie Short

We cross the Ohio Valley. A giant coal-fired power station shooting a white smoke high into the air to fall as poisonous particulates where I live and breathe. We fly west into the land of the giant grid. The landscape here is an embodiment of rationalist enlightenment thought and the product of the 1785 land ordinance that divided the lands into units of 640 acres combined into one mile squares that stretch in a seemingly unending grid across the land. We fly west across the well watered river plain rich in alluvium into the drier lands where the square grid now share the same space as the round circles of the center pivot irrigation systems. The land is all geometry, a humanized rational landscape.

The giant grid: Photo John Rennie Short

We cross the 100th meridian that marks an important climatic divide between wet and dry, fertile and arid. In the late nineteenth century, John Wesley Powell suggested that west of this line the climate was too dry to support intensive agriculture. The powerful railway lobby overrode his proposal and generations of failing farmers paid the price. The dry landscape is still a testament to Powell’s sage proposal. The grid begins to disappear as we fly across the gently rising upper plains and then…almost without warning the western edge of the Rockies rises up dramatically. The first sight of the snow capped peaks take me by surprise and elicit wonder. It is midsummer yet they are high enough to retain winter snow in north facing crevices and shaded cracks.

The Rockies: photo John Rennie Short

The sharp edge is soon replaced by the high plateau, an eroded gullied landscape still freshly scarred from the turmoil of its recent creation. Stark, beautiful and empty. It is a dry, desiccated landscape full of gorges and gullies, long strips of ridges, possibly a meteorite crater quickly glimpsed before it disappears. Slashed and gashed, jagged, raw and rough.

The High Plateau: photo John Rennie Short

Then, another sharp rise in topography as the snow streaked peaks of the Cascades mark the western edge of the Rockies. I look straight down and glimpse the convex granite slopes of Yosemite, one of the nation’s first wilderness parks. Their vertical majesty flattened out by my 35,000 feet aerial perspective. Then the grid of the Central Valley, one of the most productive lands in the nation. There sits the grid square of Sacramento. The ocean is almost in sight. We cross the dry foothills, golden and brown, the plane loosing altitude rapidly as it gets ready to land. We fly low across Silicon Valley, skim the bay and land at the airport.