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  • Writer's picturewwambrose

Finding America

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

After four days of driving we are home! Well, how about it? We went looking for America, what did we find? It may be months and years to fully digest what we've experienced, but here are a few early reflections. By the way our last hike with Charlie was in the Black Elk Wilderness Area in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota. Afterwards we stayed in a hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota that happens to have a casino and a sports bar -- what could be more American than that. I had a bison burger with a fried egg and bacon on top.

To begin with, we found an America that is still reeling from the impact of Covid, but also a sense that the pandemic laid bare much deeper fault lines in the American social and economic landscape. Driving east across Washington state we pulled into Washtucna, just off Rte 26 about 50 miles from the Idaho border, hoping to find a sandwich. What we found was desolation. It could be any number of stops we've made on our tour of America's heartland.

We don't know Washtucna, which was incorporated in 1903, so we don't know what it once might have been. But the town now looks nearly dead. Known as the Gateway to Palouse Falls, Washtucna was certainly hurt by a Covid drop in tourism, but most of the private sector jobs in the area are tied to the region's agriculture. Like the ghost towns of the southwest that were abandoned after the gold rush, Washtucna's main street was lined with boarded-up storefronts, many tagged with for-sale signs as weathered as they are. Has the new tech economy abandoned towns like this?

Downtown Washtucna, population 200+

We found an America that is culturally divided. OK not news. But on a visceral level we felt a striking difference between the states or parts of states that respected and did more to protect the environment -- Colorado, New Mexico, parts of Oregon and Washington -- while others (Utah, South Dakota, Idaho) seemed driven to exploit the wilds as much as possible. Maybe a reflection of blue vs red?

Street art in Silver City NM, a parade to foster environmental awareness in Bend OR, a vacationing billboard in Kanab UT

We picked up some history along the way. Lewis and Clark sites abounded. On the way out of Montana we stopped at Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, where in the 1800s Native Americans hunted bison by channeling stampedes off a cliff to their death. A stop at Little Big Horn gave us a view of Custer's last stand, white stones indicating where he and his men fell. Not until 1991, at the direction of President Bush, was an effort made to provide a perspective of the brave Native Americans that were defending their homeland. A telling example of how the GOP has changed. By contrast, Mount Rushmore seemed to attract a vocal MAGA contingent during our visit (Amy's expression says it all).

A Confederate cemetery in Mississippi, Custer's last stand, Mount Rushmore in the background

We found a country that is being pummeled by climate change. Nearly every National Forest we visited had recent signs of forest fires. The southwest and plains are in the midst of a 20-yr drought. As I write this the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico has reached 300,000 acres and is now the largest in the state's history. Water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at historic lows. The Rio Grande River dried up last week in Big Bend, where we visited in February.

Fire-thinned forests in southern Colorado, western Montana, and South Dakota

The low volume of the Rio Grande in February, the dry plains of Arizona, low water levels at a Montana reservoir

Charlie found that life on the road was not all that bad. Her romantic encounters are, of course, legendary. What were harder to catch on camera were the countless greetings and pats from friendly strangers, whether on a trail in Idaho, a street corner in Bend, or a hotel parking lot in Cleveland.

Charlie, Amy and I found an American West that is vast, accessible, and breathtaking. We felt throughout our trip that we were chasing winter. We had snow at our first destination, Pinos Altos NM, in February and we had snow at our last destination, Whitefish MT, in May. But we had warm, short-wearing, sunny days in both places and everywhere in between, and very little rain. The time of year may have helped us avoid the crowds, but we also found that while National Parks were packed, most National Forests had few if any fellow hikers. Here are a few places that haven't appeared elsewhere in this blog.

Off the road in Santa Fe National Forest, sharing a trail with mule deer on a Durango morning, a trail outside Abiquiu NM

First Notch CO, Wallowa River OR, Split Creek ID

Charlie, Amy and I found that we are compatible travel companions. A few bumps in the road, flat tires and what have you, but we found a nice rhythm. We decided it may have been the trip of a lifetime, but it won't be the last. That's a wrap for now. Thanks for following along, I hope you enjoyed the ride!

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