I have seen the face of what lies east of the mountains and know it to be a spare and cheerless land with room aplenty for desperation. From the lea-side of Shuksan to the Dakotas and south to Mexico is a thousand mile slice of dust and dry stalks, grit-wind and unexceptional towns, each one boarded over with movie-theater size adverts selling Technicolor dreams. Visit Hawaii (it’s beautiful), drink Pepsi (the models are beautiful), consider cosmetic surgery (you’ll be beautiful). Every town provides glimpses of other places and the means to get there, and never the home-turf. It makes me think of Steinbeck who wrote about this in Travels with Charlie, "I was to see over and over in ever part of the nation a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any here."
Should I go east, then it will be to that waterless land that rations its green till the Lakes. I think of it as the Cottonwood Country, for that is the most widely found tree of that land. Those trees do not grow so well where the rain is measured in feet, yet still prefer to sink their toes in streamsides than pumice dust. There they grow as they can till they can send their breeze-loving seeds on the west wind to drift across the Rockies and blow about the plains till they can find some mud, sprout, shoot, and set seed in turn till the descendants come at last to a place too hot, too wet, or too salt and do not sprout. By then there are other trees – maples, poplars, pines, oaks, birches, willows – and the cottonwood country has long since ended.
That land has its defenders and heroes who do not see it as I do now. For they, open skies are the wages of freedom, and a world held between a sheet of blue and a sheet of brown does better for them than one between grey and green. Cattle do not do well in forests. Guns are better shot in the open where the crack of the echo can scare the crows into flight. I care for neither cattle nor guns. My soul needs shade. When the west wind blows over the Great Basin and across the prairies, bending the cottonwood, the cottonwood does not beckon to its own country, but thru and past, to wherever it has sent its seeds.
Bleak rendition, I realize, of a full third of the nation, and unfair to those who have chosen it as their Eden. But I am a Pacific-American, by choice if not birth, and my heart sets to the nearer side of the dividing mountains. From the Sierras and Cascades, west. This is the place – for now – that I need.
I think then, that the spring will send me north, to British Columbia, where the dome of trees keeps the sun from the earth. I want to keep the salt on my skin and the smell of cedar in my clothes. I am avoiding the cottonwood country. So long, and so treeless, I think. Perhaps, I may even go around it.