True, those forest fires out West burned millions of acres and left thousands homeless; but even more tragically, they all but ruined my summer vacation. You couldn't see any of the scenery; the famous mountains were hidden by something that looked like smog. And it did something to the air conditioning in my car. Apparently the coils got covered with it, and all that came out was tepid little gusts. And most galling of all, the firefighters got priority seating in the restaurants. You would be waiting in line and a bus full of firefighters would pull up and they'd march right in ahead of you and get all the good booths. It was appalling.
Still, I did get to see this great country of ours firsthand, and that was quite an experience. The thing that impressed me the most was the way that every state has its own "look." Once you get a mile or two past the Welcome Center-a good source of free coffee and discount coupons, by the way-the landscape takes on its own particular characteristics and voila! There you are, unmistakably in a new state.
Of course, some states are nicer than others. So in the interests of fellow travelers who may be planning a similar trip, I thought I would "rate the states." This way you can avoid the dreck and concentrate on the good stuff. Here they are, in more or less geographical order:
Georgia: Forget about it. Too many pine forests and the dirt is this funny red color.
Tennessee: Another loser. Too many hills, too much country music.
Missouri: Can't remember a thing. Must have been napping.
Kansas: At last, a good state. Amber waves of grain and lots of nostalgia-drenched little towns, all with billboards proclaiming they were the childhood home of some famous person, usually an astronaut. I did have a brush with death here, though. A sudden, dramatic, very Wizard of Oz storm sprung up. The sky turned black, and the rain and hail came down with the force of a freight train. I became trapped in the door of the men's room of a gas station. I was half in and half out; the tornado force winds were so strong that I couldn't push the door open any further. I was caught like a rat in a trap. Exhausted, I sank to the ground. My upper torso lay outdoors on the tarmac, soaked by the rain; my useless legs were still on the tiled floor of the men's room. Luckily, the gas station attendant saw my predicament from the cash register, where he stood watching with several friends, all laughing uproariously. He finally came out to rescue me. I was completely drenched and shivered all the way to the next state.
Colorado: Too crowded, too cute, too "California." I did make a pilgrimage to Jon-Benet's home in Boulder, though.
Wyoming: Is this supposed to be a joke? There's nothing here. No trees, just endless prairie. The few towns are hundreds of miles apart and are mostly comprised of bars.
Montana: Hit or miss. Some of it's quite pretty; the rest is like a western version of Appalachia. I was quite taken with Butte, however. True, it regularly wins "Ugliest City in the Country" contests, and with good reason. Not a tree in sight, and the mountain right next to it has been eaten away by strip mining. But it was a boom town back in the early 1900s, the largest inland city in the West. Today it is only a third the size it once was, quite shabby and decrepit, and you know what that means- great bargains in real estate. It is, in fact, a historic preservationist's dream. Houses, hotels, office buildings, all just sitting there waiting for clever re-dos. There's an empty bank downtown that's built in the style of an Egyptian temple! I'm definitely going back.
Idaho: At last, the perfect state. It has a very clever layout (narrow at the top, wide at the bottom) and a river runs through it. The same river that runs through A River Runs Through It, in fact. Everywhere you look is a beautiful mountain range; the air is so clean you cough, and there are very few tourists around. One afternoon we took a drive up to the snow line and I can't tell you how beautiful it was. A deer ran right in front of the car. Then another deer. Then another and another. Peanut was going wild and so was I. It was like dodge 'em cars, only with deer.
Utah: Billboards advocating the legalization of polygamy add a distinctive note to this unusual state. The southern part has a Martian theme, with mile after mile of red rocks sculpted into intriguing shapes. If you're lucky, as I was, your visit will coincide with one of the frequent high-profile trials of a prominent Mormon on sex and/or drug charges.
New Mexico: Perfectly named, as it is a dead ringer for Old Mexico. But the food! Have you ever wondered why, with the possible exception of an Eskimo Pie, there are no famous Native American dishes? Or restaurants? Well, I found out why. On the truck stop menu was something called a "Navajo taco," and I just had to try it. After I salivated for 20 minutes in breathless anticipation, it finally arrived. Shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and hamburger meat, all heaped on a large round piece of fried bread.
The trip back is somewhat of a blur, as the states involved-Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama-are quite nice, I'm sure, but they're not very scenic. It was a race against time, from one Motel Six to another. I always stay at the Motel Six, by the way, not for reasons of economy but because of Peanut. There is nothing more frustrating than to pull into a strange town after dark and drive from motel to motel looking for a place that will take pets. All Motel Sixes take pets. One even took pigs, and there's one in Montana that takes horses. They can't stay in your room, though. There's a corral out back.
But after a while a steady diet of Motel Six starts to drive you hooey. The same scratchy bedspreads, the same polyester sheets, the same frugal retired couples. And the beds were so high that Peanut could not jump up on them. I had to construct a little "doggie staircase" each night, composed of a tackle box and my toupee carrier. For a change of pace I would occasionally splurge and check into La Quinta, some of which take pets. Here you get a free breakfast (get there early) and adult movies (press "menu" on the TV remote.) You would think that out of 12 adult movies there would be one decent one, but no. It makes you wonder if it's really worth it to upgrade.
I learned many lessons on my trip across our great land, but the most important is this: We still have plenty of room. The tree huggers keep telling us about overcrowding and depleting our resources, but once you're out West you realize we've still got plenty of everything. Mile after mile of empty land just waiting to be developed, trees just crying out to be cut down. It's enough to make you think like a Republican.