After driving 50 hours on a single freeway, I am now uniquely qualified to call I-40 my new best friend. With graduation engulfing campus, champagne corks lined the sidewalks, and caps and tassels were sent flying. Yet after a weekend of celebration amongst Duke students, boxes were filled, goodbyes were said (cried) and planes were caught. In my case, however, this meant the beginning of a cross-country road trip back to California taking in the national parks, quirky attractions, roadside pit stops, Route 66 towns and local restaurants on the way. But perhaps the most striking element of driving almost 3,000 miles is not the sheer scale of it all, but rather the slow shift in landscape and ecosystems along the way.
We started our journey surrounded by lush forest, green, green, and more green. The transition started quickly as we left the Piedmont, marked by its loblolly pine and dogwood, and drove towards dense forest and rocky mountainous land on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.
Stop 1: Nashville. Marked by rock-climbing, country music and dueling pianos, we embraced all things country music and southern as we drove westward.
Stop 2: Memphis. History of the changing landscape and the slow loss of longleaf pine was not the only history we explored. Stopping over at the National Civil Rights Museum, we dived into the history of the civil rights movement, witnessing the place Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 50 years ago. The incredible influence of a single man was ended outside room 306, marked by its teal doors and old cars parked below. The mood was lightened by a march of ducklings at the Peabody Hotel. If in need of a change in profession, the duck master may be your new calling.
Stop 3: Little Rock. I apologize to Arkansas for being our “chug through” state.
Stop 4: Oklahoma City. Come hitting the middle of the country, I had expected to transition from the almost subtropical environment of Arkansas to the beauty of the open plains. But to our surprise, Oklahoma City was filled with even more green. The city was bustling, with people meandering along a canal that weaved its way through barbecue joints, breweries and an overwhelming amount of Bison souvenirs. However, the true surprise was what now tops the list as one of the best climbing gyms we have ever visited. Tucked away in an old gravel parking lot full of weeds stands Climb Up, an Oklahoma climbing gym built from an old grain silo with an incredible view of the city skyline. Towering cement structures came alive with a vibrant mural painted along the 90 foot walls, lined with jugs and holds the entire way. It is a view you will certainly have to work for. On the way out of Oklahoma, we even stopped in the small one stoplight town of Erick, Oklahoma. Here we got the true experience of small-town USA. Meet Harley, a Route 66 singing, overall-wearing, self-described redneck who embraces all things America. It was quite the experience.
Stop 5: Amarillo. Welcome to the open plains and land of graffiti cars.
Stop 6: Albuquerque and Santa Fe. By the time we had reached the Southwest, the open plains had been left behind for a desert landscape and hanging chile ristras. New Mexico was filled with museums. Wandering the creations of Tinkertown, we experienced creativity at its peak and retirement at its finest. The museum was filled with moving parts and lights, stories and handcrafted work. We then swapped out carved creations for painted ones and delved into Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. Inspired by the land, her paintings captured the beauty and barren landscapes of New Mexico. Flowers came alive while rock formations and skulls were captured in a manner that transformed desolate into stunning. Following the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, we meandered into the chaos and imagination of the Meow Wolf exhibit. Amusement park meets art installation meets science fiction movie, Meow Wolf leads you on a journey of lostness and awe as you wander your way into alternate universes through the entrance of a mundane kitchen refrigerator.
Stop 7: Monument Valley. Right on the border of Utah and Arizona lies the geological wonder of Monument Valley. Here lies the eroded remains of sandstone deposits taking form in buttes and mesas. The valley is filled with vivid red rock, derived from the iron oxide in the weathered monuments. Yet perhaps the most intriguing part of our trip to Monument Valley was not in the structures themselves, but the land they stood on. A part of the Navajo Nation, the area is marked by tradition and culture. Here, the land and formations become more than breathtaking natural wonders. Within the Navajo Nation, the valley is referred to as Ts’ Bii’ Ndzisgaii. Arid and harsh, the land remains as home and each monument extends beyond the shape of a mitten or elephant, but contains a powerful spiritual presence of ancestors and Navajo stories passed down. As Willa Cather described the valley: “elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world, but here the earth was the floor of the sky.”
Stop 8: Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. Both of these places truly reminded me of the power of water. Marked by their fiery wavelike shapes, the slot canyons of Antelope Canyon are a testament to the beauty of sandstone, limestone and the power of light. Horseshoe Bend offers a stunning view of the Colorado River and our first glimpse at the grandeur of the canyons of the west.
Stop 9: Grand Canyon. Here, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.
Stop 10: Joshua Tree, yucca brevifolia. As a California native who has so often heard of Joshua Trees, I had never realized the rarity of the species. Endemic to just the Mojave desert, this tree species is one that is predicted to have a diminished range due to the changing climate. We got to take in the beauty of the tree species as it was illuminated against the background of a California sunset.
Over the course of our 12 day trip, I became not only good friends of I-40, but well acquainted with parts of the country I would have otherwise overlooked. From the rolling plains of western Oklahoma to the dense forest of North Carolina to the desert landscape of Arizona and New Mexico, the country is certainly one of natural beauty—natural beauty that is worth protecting.