by Geoff Roes
Of the various images I have in my mind of the American West and what it means to me, it is the oldest of these that burns the most clearly. The picture was in my mind as a young child. So clear was this image in my mind that I felt at times as though I had certainly experienced this remote and harsh landscape firsthand rather than through TV and grade school history lessons.
First it was the barren windswept land of Cowboys and Indians. Ravens soaring overhead, searching out recently dead animals to scavenge. Endless miles of rock and sand. Rocks in formations and size that only the imagination could describe. Splitting through the middle of this image though is the open road that several decades ago came to define this region. As a youngster I pictured these roads as paths that only modern day Cowboys or Indians would travel. Tracks of pavement, slicing through a dry, harsh, unlivable land. A sign on the side of the road reads, “No gas next 79 miles.” Skeletons of horse, deer, and coyote line the shoulder, and once again the image of the raven soars overhead, circling continually in the piercing sun.
It was always an image of immense solitude, beauty, and intrigue, but also one of discomfort and fear. So hot and dry and intense. As a youngster this land seemed as far away and as strange to me as Mars. So close did the vividness of my image make it feel, but so far away in its harsh reality. I always knew that I would someday experience the American West, but in the back of my mind there was an excitement, anxiety, and fear of doing so that always made it seem so much further away than the two day drive that it is from New York.
Eventually, though, I made the drive, and slowly over the 7 years since first coming west I’ve come to find a home here. I’ve found complete comfort in the hot, dry, intense desert. And now as I bike down this open road, passing the sign that reads, “No gas next 79 miles,” I feel a sense of comfort comparable to any I’ve ever known. I think ahead to the coming weeks of this cross-country biking adventure and I realize that what seems somewhat discomforting to me isn’t the harsh, spacious, intense west, but rather the feelings of confinement that will come with moving eastward. Out over the Rockies and eastward across the Great Plains we will drop lower and lower toward sea level and all the while everything will get closer. The towns will begin to come in doses of two or three a day, rather than the current rate of one every two days; trees will become abundant once we approach the Mississippi, slowly inching closer and closer to completely surrounding the roadway; and most noticeably there will be more cars and more people. The west will have become a dream of immensity and harshness that I will take great comfort in having become such comfortable friends with. A friend that despite its temporary absence, I know will always be there for me.