Prairie-land and I don’t go well together. I ascribe this to my pioneer ancestry. My DNA remembers too many meals cooked over buffalo-chip campfires, and so no matter how expansive the arched cerulean sky, I can’t help feeling trapped in the endlessness rather than freed by it. Too many heirlooms left on the side of the trail. Too many shallow graves.
I am ready for mountains.
It’s early March in 2018, and today began in Council Bluffs, Iowa, barely across the border from Nebraska. Yesterday I departed Madison, Wisconsin in the early afternoon, and by midday tomorrow I’ll arrive at my sister’s place (and my new home) in Las Vegas, Nevada.
I’ve spent the morning and early afternoon crossing Nebraska on the I-80, and as I veer left to continue onto the I-76 towards Denver, I’m eager to leave the wintry prairie behind.
Athena—my ten-year-old cat and only driving companion—looses one long caterwaul from her belted-in carrier, roused to attention by the disembodied GPS instruction to remain on the I-76 for 186 miles. “I know,” I croon to the cat. “I know.”
Spring has not yet come. The prairie grasses are brown and ragged and short, trembling in the wind, and the famous sky has been tepidly overcast for much of the day. My eyes appreciate this from a practical perspective, but a dishwater sky does precious little for the soul. Farmland stretches empty on either side, the umber soil tilled but glinting with frost.
There is no snow—none on the ground, and none falling. I don’t yet know that the Rockies will betray me with a blizzard a few hours hence. I’ve caught Nebraska on a bad day, but at least there’s no snow.
Stale, pallid asphalt vanishes away beneath my wheels, but the supply stretches straight to the horizon, interrupted only by the plodding rise and fall of the brown terrain. Bare trees huddle in sporadic clumps, visible in the distance and growing more and more wan on the approach, detail washing them out against the dingy sky. This is a landscape despairing for spring.
From my place behind the wheel, I can see, but cannot feel or smell the cold, damp day outside. Encased in the vibrating car’s low hum, Athena and I are cozy and, but for the occasional exchange of caterwaul and comfort, quiet. Wind gusts judder the car, but only softly, and only sometimes.
The foot on the gas pedal is impatient for the end of Nebraska and the beginning of Colorado. My foot is impatient for the tall evergreen Rockies, impatient for the red desert beyond the mountains.
Something square and new is rising beside the road, up ahead. Still the ashen road slips behind me, the blotchy drained sky rolls away, the sepia farmland ridges and frayed dead grasses and the dull trees making way.
The something is a sign—tall, dark, brown. My GPS announces my arrival into Colorado, and Athena responds with a long, loud wail. “I know,” I tell her, feeling a knot loosen between my shoulder blades, relieved to be crossing a threshold. I’m squinting at the approaching sign, easing up on the gas pedal.
WELCOME TO COLORFUL COLORADO
Wood painted dark brown, with jagged stylized edges, the sign is supported by brown stone pillars on either side. The words are painted in white, with “Welcome to Colorful” depicted in slopes suggesting the elevation to come.
The scrubby grim brown-and-grey prairie extends to the overcast horizon in all directions, with this brown-and-white sign at the focus.
WELCOME TO COLORFUL COLORADO
I blink several times, the contradiction taking hold.
At this instant, the largest tumbleweed I have ever seen bursts from the shivering roadside grasses. The car quavers against the momentary gust. I lift my foot off the gas and move for the brake, my eyes wide, taking in the vast tan tumbleweed—four feet across at least. But my caution is unnecessary. Tumbling as though this moment has been rehearsed, the giant bounces once—twice—three times, spinning like a misshapen twiggy beach ball, clearing the highway, and skidding to rest at the grey foot of the Colorful Colorado sign as my car whistles by.
I cross into Colorado laughing as though I will never stop.
Note: I’ve since learned that Colorado has posted “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” signs wherever a state-maintained highway crosses the border. A photographer named Bobby Magill has photographed all 41 of them. The group of photos together do, indeed, showcase a very colorful state (my experience notwithstanding!). Visit Magill’s project here: http://bobbymagill.com/welcome-to-colorful-colorado
Has something unexpected ever happened to you on a road trip? How has the native landscape surprised you during your travels? Let us know in the comments below!