Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Crossing State Lines

1,700 miles from Denver to Montevallo on back roads in a Firebird convertible with the top down all the way and my guy in the driver’s seat. That’s what I did on my summer vacation, folks, and it was a blast.

The ground rules:

1. No cameras – just pure observation and enjoyment.
2. No eating at chain restaurants – local cuisine only.

We left Denver going south through the mountains into New Mexico, and my heart ached a bit to be leaving. I soaked in the now-familiar Colorado landscape. The brown slabs of mountains were just beginning to show the golden glaze that signals new spring growth in the Rockies. Isolated houses painted dark red and forest green were perched on lonely crags, built by the true pioneers who secured their little piece of mountain and still live on it. The ferrous oxide in the soil, I’m told, made red paint plentiful, and so the color scheme is ubiquitous, even in the city.

As we approached New Mexico, the landscape changed. It was dusk. Suddenly the vista opened up to a purple sky framed by a wash of gray mountain peaks, behind which was rising a fat, yellow full moon. “The Land of Enchantment,” said the sign at the state line. We concurred.

Now the houses morphed, too. Compounds of Airstreams and old school buses huddled together on the dry, sagebrush landscape. Pastel-colored adobe towns looked like organic outcroppings. It was a complete transformation of state identity – everything from terrain to color palette to plant life to habitats – all within miles of the state line. This piqued our interest. What kinds of changes would we find at other state lines?

We crossed next into Texas, which abruptly had none of the visual charm of magical New Mexico. The sign at the state line said brusquely, “DUI. You can’t afford it.” Rest areas featured spartan metal tables baking in the hot sun with no cover for shade. The vista was an endless flat landscape of oil drilling pumps. We imagined Texas saying to us, “We’re not big on enchantment, we’re just big. You want enchantment? Go to New Mexico.”

In Oklahoma, the prairie turned into rolling farmland, with huge expanses between farms and more cemeteries, by informal count, than houses. There was a florist in every little town. Lots of funerals, we figured.

In Arkansas, we were suddenly in pine woods. We started hearing songbirds and cicadas, and we began to be bothered by flies. In Mississippi, huge rice paddies filled the vista, explained by the Uncle Ben’s plant we passed near Greenville. As we crossed into Alabama, the landscape became even more verdantly lush and the mimosa trees were blooming.

Finding local places to eat on the back roads wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. We passed through a lot of towns that didn’t even have a gas station, much less a restaurant – just clusters of broken down houses and the shell of a downtown.

We also discovered that local lunch places in small towns on the back roads of America close at 2:00. We were on the kind of relaxed schedule where getting an early start means being on the road by noon, so we seemed to miss lunch everywhere we went.

Our first day out, we pulled into the 4th Street Café in Saguache, Colorado late in the afternoon. It turned out that they were closed, but a local political group was holding a meeting there, so they had coffee ready, some leftover homemade desserts, and a little half-built patio out back where we were graciously invited to sit and have a bite to eat. The light-as-air peanut butter pie was a milestone in homemade pies. I’ll be trying to replicate that one.

One day we rolled into the nice little town of Granite, Oklahoma around 3:00 looking for something to eat. The one café was closed, but we found a drug store in town with a soda fountain where the friendly soda jerk made us thick and creamy chocolate malteds. Homemade pie and ice cream, we found, were much more accessible on the road than real food. I started craving other food groups.

That night, as I drifted off to sleep at the Brandenburg Motor Court in Atoka, Oklahoma, I wished out loud for some fruit. When I awoke, there on the nightstand was a bag of orange slice candy. My husband had walked to the truck stop to find his gal some fruit.

In Foreman, Arkansas, we lucked out at the Wooden Spoon Café which featured home-cooking in a roomy old house. A big bowl of turnip greens and cornbread was a cure for what ailed me.

Driving the back roads of this little slice of America gave us a window into the surprisingly distinct personalities of the states along the way. We can’t help but wonder – what would we find crossing state lines on the myriad other back roads in our land? It would take a lifetime to find out, but I‘m game. Note to self: Bring fruit.

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