On-the-road edition: Mississippi to California

September 19, 2004

Last Monday, September 13th, at 4:30 PM, the Greyhound Bus pulled out of the Natchez station with me aboard, and we were headed south.

Natchez is all green beneath a blue sky scored with raggedy-edged, white, cumulus clouds. The landscape's main gaudy color is the tentative pinkness of petering-out Crepe Myrtles. Along US 61, fall's goldenrods are just beginning to show a bit of yellow and weedy eupatoriums are barely showing a bit of white. In bottomland fields cotton plants are dark green but down among the leaves' shadows you can see fluffy white balls of cotton.

Our first stop is in Woodville. Someone disembarks to be received by a young woman who runs across the parking lot with her arms open and a huge smile on her face. After heartfelt hugs the friend remembers us on the bus and she smiles again and offers a huge wave to everyone, clearly mouthing "hello to you all," and several on the bus smile and wave back, though through the tinted windows I doubt anyone sees anyone else. This kind of friendliness is something special about Mississippi, and I feel a twinge of sadness leaving it behind.

The farther south we go, the more white Cattle Egrets there are standing next to cattle in pastures. At Baton Rouge I change to a west-bound bus. In LaFayette, workers evacuating oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf come aboard, talking loudly about the big waves they've seen preceding the approaching Hurricane Ivan.

At dawn I'm spending a four-hour layover in a park near the Greyhound station in San Antonio, Texas. Even before the sky turns pale Great-tailed Grackles (www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i5139id.html) perform a cacophony of shrill whistles, shrieks and squeaks as they flutter among the trees. Boat-tailed Grackles don't make it as far north as Natchez. They're telling me now that I'm transitioning from the Eastern Forest biome into the vast, arid American Southwest.

The sun's first rays find me continuing west from San Antonio. The forest no longer is lush and tall. Here it averages about 30 feet high, higher along streams and lower on hills. There's a silvery cast to the thicker, smaller, more leathery leaves on trees here, and the oaks have such gnarly trunks that they look like overgrown bonsais.

Entering Kerr County, Texas, low, rambling communities of pricklypear cactus begin appearing in thin soil atop limestone bedrock. The thorny thickets average about ten feet across and I feel sorry for any cow or deer, maybe spooked by thunder, who runs into them. Now in some places the thin forest completely gives way to grassy spots. By Junction, Texas, it's about half scrawny-looking forest and half grassland, and in places the grass gives way to bare, rocky dirt. Several folks on the bus remark on the interesting layers of white limestone outcropping in roadcuts and hillsides. It's always like this: As botany withdraws, geology emerges.

East of Sonora, Texas we enter savanna -- grassland with widely spaced Mesquite, PROSOPIS JULIFLORA, (www.peds.arizona.edu/allergyimmunology/southwest/trees_shrubs/mesquite.htm) -- with a few Sotol agaves, DASYLIRION WHEELERI (http://helios.bto.ed.ac.uk/bto/desertecology/sotol.htm). Flat-topped mesas rise all around just as in old Roy Rogers movies, and there's endless barbed-wire fences and small flocks of cattle, goats and sheep. We're in the famous oil-producing Permian Basin and along the road a few pumps laboriously suck up the deep oil. But also 280 miles east of El Paso I'm tickled to see the future of energy production -- a "wind farm" consisting of several hundred huge, three-bladed, electricity- producing wind turbines, or "windmills."

Exactly 24 hours after leaving Natchez I'm 40 miles south of Pecos in extreme western Texas, with the Glass Mountains rising to the south. The flatlands around me are mostly white dirt, gravel and limestone bedrock populated by widely spaced, knee-high Creosote Bush, LARREA TRIDENTATA, (www.desertusa.com/creoste.html). In the afternoon, dust devils are forming, and they are much too large, robust and dirty with stirred-up dust to be called mere whirlwinds.

At a break in Van Horn at 5 PM it's windy and 97°, but it's so dry here that that temperature feels the way 80-85° would in Mississippi. What a novelty to stand in September sunshine and not be drenched with sweat!

Also in September sunshine I stand looking at my fellow milling-about passengers. What a diversity of humanity rides these long-distance Greyhounds. We're about evenly divided among whites, blacks and Latinos, with a few Orientals and undefinables as well. There's every manner of hairdo, body piercing, tattooing and clothing strategy imaginable. One sees everything from immodest cleavages to bare midriffs exposing vast acreages of over-the-belt flab. Most of us are from lower social strata, and on the average we're clearly more eccentric and streetwise than usual. Most of us have been together for the last 24 hours and we'll stay together a lot longer. We seem to have bonded in a primitive, good-natured way, so even the lady in pink hair-curlers who's been yelling into her cellphone since Houston has no trouble finding someone to hold her rootbeer when she needs to make yet another call.

At 4:30 AM we're leaving Phoenix, Arizona, having passed through a great deal of wonderful scenery during the night. Barely visible right at the edge of the interstate outside my window, ghostly forms 35 feet and higher show up in the bus's side-light, looking like round-topped telephone poles with thick, upraised arms. These are are Saguaro Cacti, CARNEGIEA GIGANTEA (http://pakhomov.uah.edu/PHOTOGAL/Saguaro.html)

The sun's first rays at 6:30 find us in Blythe, California, and it's great seeing all the Fan Palms (click here for picture) rising in grand stateliness above a seedy homogeneity of fast-food joints, gas stations and chain motels. The main ornamentals here consist of white-flowered and red-flowered varieties of Oleander (www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/carr/images/ner_ole.jpg) Inside the MacDonalds we're supposed to eat at, about ten young men with perfect bodies, great tans and earnest faces sit next to the bathroom entrance conducting a Bible study class.

West of Blythe we travel through a broad valley framed by gray hills with very little vegetation on them. Here and there shockingly green, irrigated fields of alfalfa, I guess, punctuate the valley floor, which otherwise is naked gravel and dirt populated with knee- high Creosote Bush

In Indio we have a break and as we all stand around stretching our legs and sipping coffee Jay Hemmert, a slightly pudgy young man in shorts, with a great tan and a stuck-on smile, apparently chooses me as the most destitute looking, walks up with a wad of bills in his hand and offers me enough money for a good meal. He's a member of the "Body of Christ" movement and he says he's doing what Jesus moves him to do. His fake smile is so painful to see and there's such desperation in his eyes that I feel moved to tell him that if ever he begins to doubt his current beliefs yet continues to yearn for a more meaningful spirituality, to not give up, to not lose faith in the generosity of the Creator, for beyond the veil of mankind's religions there is a realm of spirituality in which anyone can find not only relief, but outright joy. He turns and runs away, perhaps to catch his own bus.

Probably the day's most impressive view is that of another "wind farm," this one with some 3,500 large wind turbines producing electricity near Palm Springs. You can see this one at www.ilr.tu-berlin.de/WKA/windfarm/sgpcal.html.

80 miles east of Los Angeles suddenly I realize that the mountains at the valley floor's edges are no longer visible. Already we are into the realm of smog. The landscape is a muddle of low hills, homes with beige roofs and businesses that look exactly like those of any US city. There are lots of palms and eucalyptus trees and the hills are brightly straw-colored but oddly dotted with occasional deep-green shrubs and low trees.

The entrance into Los Angeles is like that of a disembodied spirit sailing into purgatory. It is made more surreal by the music from my little transistor radio, which I listen to through headphones. During most of the trip radio stations have been so far apart that I had little to choose from, but now the entire radio band burgeons with untold numbers of stations competing for bandwidth. What I hear is a superfluity of mediocrity butting up against occasional weird shamanistic chantings, rather like the landscape, all things clustered along the freeways' vast cloacal workings, and one phrase blossoming from a breaking-up signal in an ocean of static is this: "sex-magosso- afro-avant-garde."

From the perspective of a bus rider coming in from the east, five landscape bubbles, one within the other, encapsulate Los Angeles:

1) The open desert
2) Mankind living comfortably with the desert
3) Overcrowded, tacky mishmash mosaic, with random patches of big dreams, some dreams busted, desolate and gray, but some still gorgeous and green
4) High-pressure weirdness, 15-18 lanes of heavy traffic held claustrophobically and anonymously between gray concrete sound-barriers and everything flowing ceremoniously toward skyscrapers rising through the smog while Hildegard von Bingen's echoic Divine Harmonies shimmer in the earphones
5) Inside the city, like all big US cities, somehow there's desert again, but this time there's no elegance.

Around 2 AM an overnight bus deposits me in Sacramento, two blocks from California's Capital Building. Backpacking the streets at dawn the most attention- getting event is a vast stirring of Common Crows, their raucous calling, their many silhouettes agitating the milky sky. They've spent the night in streetside sycamores. By the time the day's first sunbeams penetrate into the streets, all the crows are gone. They were the same crow species found in the East.

The most common street trees in this part of town are American Sycamores, Sweetgums and Southern Magnolias, or horticultural strains thereof. None of these species occurs naturally farther west than the Rockies. I would have been happier to see indigenous trees pressed into street service here, species genetically programmed for California conditions.

Around the Amtrack Station they've planted orange trees that now drop oranges onto the parking lot, where they are run over and squashed. Finding one not yet flattened I discover that they are too sour and bitter to really care for but, since I've been on a granola diet for three days and nights, I'm glad to have it.

Now for the last leg of this current part of my wanderings I head back eastward, toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

And what I find there will be the stuff of my next Newsletter.