When I was a kid, I hated roads that went to nowhere. Lonely and, to a first-grader’s eyes, completely featureless, the high desert of my childhood had plenty of them. Roads to nowhere meant frustratingly long rides in a station wagon without air-conditioning, whizzing along flat open spaces with tumbleweeds blowing across the highway, the only fun coming when one of them lodged under the car and my stepfather would swear, thus increasing my knowledge of words six-year-olds shouldn’t repeat.
At that age I had no appreciation for the relics of mining towns or the austere splendor of a turquoise sky. As a child, I longed for trees, real trees with real leaves, and resented those "stupid" juniper things that grow wild or cultivated throughout the West. I despised grass that was dead dry and felt prickly against my bare legs. I wanted to live where hill after hill was covered in soft green grass and spring was like my vision of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, a land of magical woods and broad, splashing rivers.
I’ve since lived in Narnia, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am to be back home. Narnia, a.k.a. West Virginia, where I’ve spent the last four years, contains some of the most spectacular forests I have seen or am ever likely to see. As the state tourist board proclaims, it is "wild and wonderful," with rivers and streams at the bottom of nearly every hollow. My first spring in this charmed forest world, I struck out on a walk one morning and was stunned by the choking gorgeousness of the plant life that twined and bloomed and wrestled itself along my country road, like walled nests of bright green snakes.
Can the very nature of one road make it feel like a prison, while the characteristics of another instill a sense of freedom? As a Westerner I felt claustrophobic in the Mountain State, where a straight stretch of road is a rare commodity and it’s difficult to see the mountains because you’re always in them, never able to view them at a distance. I marveled at the intensity of the green, but longed for a decent view of the sky. It came at you in pieces there, normally a misty gray, and I often felt as if I viewed it from the bottom of a well.
These days, my car crests the Abo Pass near my home in the mountains southeast of Albuquerque, and I gaze down at the entire width of the Rio Grande River Valley. It is so expansive, the space so unhindered, that I imagine I can see the curvature of the Earth itself. To the west, Highway 60 stretches in a straight line, all the way to the horizon without a single curve. Incredible, I think. I turn on Route 47 toward Belen and contentment washes over me as I watch miles of grey-green sagebrush fly by.
"How can you love a road like this?" a friend visiting from the East Coast asks me. "Miles and miles of nothing. Just dirt and a couple of lousy bushes. It’s so dull."
"You don’t see what I see," I say.
On my right, the gentle swell of desert pasture makes a seamless transition with the Manzano Mountains. I’ll find piñon and juniper up there, and now realize that they are every bit as real as the hardwoods of the Appalachians. A bone-dry arroyo is a visual wonder, cutting through the plain like a jagged, earthbound thunderbolt. I detect dozens of subtle variations in hue amongst the rocks and shrubs, birds and clouds. As we stop and wait for a freight train to pass, its cars echo the region’s many colors, the leathery green of cholla cactus, the clay red of a Santa Clara wedding vase, the silver-slate of the Rio Grande on a winter afternoon.
These high desert byways aren’t roads to nowhere. In the desert Southwest, you are always Somewhere. The trick is in understanding the road’s uncluttered beauty, that property which allows you to isolate and appreciate individual objects as small as a roadrunner darting across your path or as large as the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, purple in the distance, blood-red at sunset, mysteries waiting to be made brand-new again each time you see them.
The John Denver song was right: West Virginia is "almost heaven." But these days, when I cruise the high desert’s wide-open byways, I can touch the sky above me. I feel like I’m inside it, driving through heaven.
Claudia O’Keefe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Mountainair, New Mexico.
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