On-the-road edition: California to Kentucky

October 17, 2004

Last Monday I descended the Sierra Nevada foothills into Sacramento in California's Central Valley. At 3PM it was sunny, windy and 90°. That night, leaving Sacramento on a Greyhound bus, darkness fell before I entered new territory.


At dawn, after traveling through Reno, Nevada during the night, I awaken in the desert next to Utah's Great Salt Lake. In the dim light, waterbird silhouettes sprinkle the lake's placid, silvery surface. As dawn progresses, the landscape reveals itself as a broad, barren plain broken here and there by steep, rocky mountains abruptly emerging from gray flatness.

In Salt Lake City, gulls I assume to be Ring-billed Gulls walk in the downtown parks as if they were pigeons. Leaving town, on the radio I listen to a discussion about the growing water crisis in these parts and elsewhere, but outside the window I see unrestrained building and urban sprawl. It is exactly the craziness of someone knowing the health effects of smoking, but who smokes.

Eastward from Salt Lake City the interstate climbs continually all the way to the Wyoming border, and then keeps climbing until more or less leveling out between 7000 and 8000 feet in elevation. At first the geology looks like red sandstone cut here and there with ancient lava intrusions -- dikes, sills and volcanic necks. Higher up, roadcuts and natural outcrops are gray, apparently composed of volcanic ash. On the red sandstone, dark green junipers are conspicuous, but on the gray ash higher up, gray sagebrush and dun-colored, drought-killed grass predominate. Especially in the red sandstone zone, box canyons lead off the valley through which the interstate runs. The sensation is of climbing onto a high tableland surfaced with low hills up to 300 feet high, while in the distance real mountains rise through the haze.

It looks like Wyoming has no trees except for those along streams and in towns. The trees present bear only a few yellow leaves or are leafless. Heavy frost melts from the grass as the sun rises. I see a herd of 15 Pronghorn Antelope, ANTILOCAPRA AMERICANA, and about an hour later there's another herd, and before the day is over I lose count of all the herds, which are much more numerous in the east. There's more about these beautiful animals at www.jacksonholenet.com/nature_wildlife/antelope.php

For a couple of hours as we travel eastward across western Wyoming's rolling uplands, it's hard to take my eyes off the majestic, snow-covered cluster of jagged peaks towering to the south. These must be the Uinta Mountains, down in Utah, and you can read about them at www.go-utah.com/Uinta_Mountains

Wyoming is an essay of gray on gray, with a tad of pea green and tan. As morning progresses the wind picks up. An 18-inch-long Black-billed Magpie, PICA HUDSONIA, with its striking black-and-white body and long, greenish-blue tail, has a hard time keeping its tail under control as it perches on a barbed-wire fence beside the road. You can see this bird at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i4750id.html

In mid morning we make an unscheduled stop, pulling off the highway so the driver can check something. I spot three White-tailed Prairie Dogs, CYNOMYS LEUCURUS, who emerge from their dens, snip some vegetation, rise onto their haunches, and look around as they chew. More info at www.greglasley.net/wtprairie.html

In mid afternoon a sign announces that we are crossing the Continental Divide at 7000 feet in elevation.

In eastern Wyoming real mountains appear, sometimes snow-capped, with trees growing just below their snowlines, and atop lower mountains and ridges. Then below the tree-zone there's gray grass, with trees reappearing in the valleys along streams and in towns.

In the late afternoon with sunlight slanting through the windows the bus grows too warm and stuffy, and I doze off for surely no more than half an hour. When I awaken we're in Colorado and outside the window I see cornfields and trees scattered across the valley floor, and grass along the highway is green. While I dozed, somehow we traveled from gray shortgrass desert to this comparative luxuriance. Surely we dropped in elevation, or maybe the local climate has changed because of a mountain range I missed. I ask my seatmate, who has been gazing out the window the whole time, if he noticed any reason for this profound change in the landscape, but he hasn't a clue as to what I'm referring to, and rather seems to think I am nuts


At dawn I'm leaving Kansas City, entering Missouri. During the night we've entered the Eastern Deciduous Forest Biome, and the forest is bronzed with a few scattered yellowish trees -- the beginning of fall colors.

In contrast to the Ponderosa-Pine/ California Black Oak forest I've been in for the last weeks, now along the highway I see tree species I have known since I was a child: Hackberry, Boxelder, Redbud, Eastern Redcedar, and Winged Sumac, the latter brilliantly crimson in fencerows. The sky is no longer inevitably blue, but rather leaden, gloomy, and threatening rain. The air is penetratingly chilly, for we are back into the land of high humidity. The vegetation change between here and what I saw yesterday in Wyoming, and the day before in California, is as great as between here and Europe.

Fifty miles west of St. Louis my little transistor radio picks up a National Public Radio interview with an artist talking about her new book on the subject of painting with colors. She says that one of the first big challenges the average art student has is to overcome blinding preconceptions. Students arrive in her classes programmed to think in terms of yellow bananas, blue skies, green grass and brown tree trunks, and they paint those items their culturally ascribed colors, even as their eyes reveal that sometimes these things are colored otherwise. I sit looking at the subdued but colorful landscape and reflect on the fact that this kind of blindness is not restricted to colors. It is a general feature of the human condition.

For example, nowadays we see that if a politician uses the terminology of a person with high morals, very many cannot see past the words to judge for themselves the morality of that politician's actions, the wars he starts, the social programs he savages...

Late Wednesday afternoon we cross the Ohio River from Indiana into Kentucky. The landscape is somber and wet during a slow drizzle, yet lovely with fall colors.

The birds I've been seeing lately in the deserts and droughty mountains have been diligent ones, always working hard to store up fat for the coming migration or hard northern winter. But now in this prosperous agricultural region, along the road hundreds, even thousands, of plump starlings and blackbirds perch complacently in rows on power lines. Sometimes they gorge themselves on grain missed by big combines lumbering across big fields, so now in this cold drizzle and with the flat, fallow fields behind them, they can rest, simply watching the traffic.

This is the mood in which I return to my Old Kentucky Home.


There's something to be said for having a home -- the kind of place where Robert Frost, I think it was, said that "When you go there, they have to take you in." Happily, those remaining of my family take me in graciously and lovingly, and make sure that I am received with hot vegetable soup and Kentucky cornbread just as in the old days.

What a thing to behold the family, a four-dimensional ecology of spirits I know well. The fourth dimension is time. Each face and circumstance is a blossom whose invisible roots are my own. The naturalist seeing his own family discovers an emotional and social mutualism. There is something like a Nitrogen Cycle in it, but consisting of a currency of shared notions instead of nitrogen; and there are dynamics that could be plotted as if in an energy flowchart, but tallied in measures of emotional transfer instead of energy.

The thing about Calhoun, Kentucky is that many of Main Street's maples survive, and those maples in October, with their yellows and oranges and reds, can make an old Calhounian cry just to look at them. There's a fine, big river, too, at the end of Main Street, and tugs pushing barges of coal to who-know-

where. I grew up on a small farm five miles south of Calhoun, but there's not enough left of that life to talk about. In Calhoun I stay with my closest living relative, Grandma Taylor, who will be 93 in December, and who lives alone.


Kentucky is noted for its racehorses. However, the racehorses are found mostly in the Bluegrass Region, a large area defined by its outcropping limestone in north-central Kentucky. That limestone contains minerals important for the production of strong horse bones. In western Kentucky where Calhoun is located, many people keep Tennessee Walking Horses. My Uncle Rock breeds and trains them. You can read more about them at www.imh.org/imh/bw/tenn.html

On Friday, Uncle Rock invites me to ride with him in his old but newly painted red pickup truck to a feed mill in Stanley, to get a load of good-smelling, molasses-coated horse feed. It's a pretty day, fall colors are on display, and we are in no hurry.

The feed mill in Stanley is an old one with chutes crisscrossing the dusty, dark expanse inside the warehouse-like building. The entire area vibrates with the grinders' deep hums, sounding like enormous vacuum cleaners, and the air smells of freshly cracked grain.

On shelves next to the cash register there's a museum of items not found at Wal-Mart -- horse-deworming pills, fancy gate latches, hoof-cutting knives, horse-show-class halters... and the fellow behind the cash register is willing to lean on his elbows and talk about getting in firewood, and the latest news from McLean County.

Halfway home Uncle Rock decides we need to drop by his barn, pick up a mare, and take her to friend's place near Sacramento (Sacramento, Kentucky this time) to breed her to a certain stallion. I wish you could see the look on that stallion's face when he first gets a whiff of our mare. He sticks his nose through a hole at the top of his stall and his nostrils flair like black butterflies spreading their wings before flying. Then he puts one eye up to the hole and until now I'd never have believed that any mammalian eye was capable of displaying such fiery passion. If I'd see such an eye on a human, I'd just get out of the way.

Tying a mare to a post and bringing a stallion to mate with her is a process requiring words that would trip anyone's email porn filter. It's a thing to behold.

Still, it's all done matter-of-factly, and the rhythm of conversation hardly misses a beat. It's all horse-

talk, talk about horses so many hands tall, maybe 15 or 15½ hands, dark horses with blond tails that can be highlighted by washing with lemon juice, horse  scratches that can be healed with liquid black shoe polish, horses with good or bad dispositions, what an offspring of this or that mare might be like if mated with this or that stallion, horses that look good but are dumb, horses with a knack for showing well, the tricks of getting a horse to step calmly into a trailer...

It's clear that these people live for horses, eat, breathe and dream them.

In this Newsletter I have often expressed my opinion that the Creator has created each of us with a certain inexplicable passion or talent, the expression of which brings fulfillment, and serves humanity someway in the deal. With these horse-loving folks I see people being fulfilled and enriching us all in their own way, and it is a fine thing to see.


Tomorrow, Monday, October 18th, I leave on Greyhound to return to Mississippi for two or three weeks before launching into yet another trip even more wide-ranging than the one now ending. I'm not sure if I'll still have access to the Internet when I get to Mississippi.

The next Newsletter will eventually appear, if not one week from today and from Mississippi, then someday, from someplace


Best wishes to all Newsletter readers

Jim Conrad