A month on the road in the pandemic American West

Canyonlands National Park (Alec Cowan)

“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view.”

It was September, and a cool start to Autumn. Eight months into the pandemic. And to be sure, my partner and my’s experience of the pandemic has been blessedly smooth. We work from home, and despite losing my job at the beginning, I was able to find work to keep me going. But the byproduct of our new lifestyle was that home became the total circumference of our world. As the days droned on into unraveled months, we were separated from a reality of chaos outside our California walls. COVID cases continued to rise. In August the wildfires came. And yet all of it was dissociated from our lived experience, our literal bubble connected to the world by genius wires and invisible tides of internet.

It was at this time that life became monastic, both in its isolation and its assumption that life was actually continuing elsewhere. The world was both real and theoretical — something we didn’t feel until we left home for a month-long road trip across the American West, from Oregon to Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and finally, a return to California. Our departure was the first time my partner and I would take such a large road trip: thousands of miles across forest and red rock and desert. We needed a return to the flavor of life, in all its pendulous beauty.

To start, we downloaded the 1947 classic On the Road as an audiobook to accompany our journey. Perhaps this was to feel a generational kinship of tires over pavement, country brush to either side for miles, accompanied only by the occasional passerby. Sal Paradise, our protagonist, hopes to leave the blasé world of the educated North East in favor of something he doesn’t understand but knows he wants. He brings few expectations to his cross-country escapade through the modern American West.

As we set off listening, the 70-year gap between Kerouac and our own journey was stark — namely, the isolated experience of it all, then as now.

Today, we have our individual vehicles, individual pods of families and familiars, our cars taking us hundreds of miles to connect the quarantine dots. We knew at the outset that we weren’t living the authentic Kerouac experience of hitchhiking, sharing a swig of booze over a pallet truck with 10 strangers also striking out from New York.

No, today the world is out and settled, our cities connected through interstates that hint at miraged towns in the distance. The modern road trip is a viewing more than an experience, a panorama in motion. The livery of Kerouac is the characters, the conversations, the caravan of disparate lowlies brought together through their dreams of mountains and hushed, yawning valleys. But the edges of Kerouac’s world are filled in now, complete with street view.

This is where I was as we set on the road. More connected than ever, our isolation is cutting deeper. But even that’s a misnomer — we don’t connect, we engage. This is the narrative regarding our contemporary isolation. Bus rides are filled with careful glances, afraid a bumped shoulder will veer us out of our cellular tunnel vision.

As we leave The Bay and crest into far northern California, near the border with Oregon, we marvel at the overwhelming confidence of Sal, the romantic quality of the novel: he’s unafraid to ask a waitress where she wants to take her life, what the soul of the thing is, sharing drinks at local pubs and indulging in the existential angst of aimless journeys. Being lost was the norm more than the tried exception. Today it’s difficult to be lost even if you really try. That fact is compounded when you take into account that we’d been spending eight months in the same four rooms, with the same three people, with the days spent scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

So we packed up the car with camping gear and essentials, and we left. Our trip would take us 3,100 miles across the American West, to places new and old, thriving and dying, the frisson of a foot on the pedal and the road hungry for our tires.

Energy lines outside Eugene, Oregon (Alec Cowan)

Oregon to Idaho

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

We snaked along the river in a caravan, occasionally passing a cyclist and small-town spotted with a handful of buildings, everything cast in the brown pale of wildfire smoke. It’s been a devastating week, with the largest wildfires in Oregon history burning hundreds of thousands of acres and displacing residents across the state. Our trip is in jeopardy when the three major highways over the mountains close down. That’s why being here, in the bald hills of Eastern Oregon, feels miraculous at this point. Every second has been gifted back to us. As was the case with the pandemic thus far, we seem to dodge disaster at our quite literal doorsteps yet again.

Gone now are the bridged cities of the coast. It’s all small world America now, Kerouac’s diners and barns and old trucks and things. I love these towns because they remind me of the constellated hamlets outside my hometown, the Biggest and Last Stops for a While, where nothing’s been built after 1970 and things feel broken and thriving at the same time. An exercise I’ve tried perfecting on trips like these is doing my best to pretend I’m seeing it for the first time, or to pretend this is a foreign country, framing it in my mind like something I’d see on a computer wallpaper rotation. That’s to say squaring down the borders to remove any familiar context and seeing it as you’d like to idealize it later on, like a live-in memory. Or maybe it’s a twisted reverse-engineering, an exercise in bringing the internet to life.

The fields and hillsides grow with a kind of new life, and I rest my head against the window breathing in the freshness of it all. Maybe this is what the Scottish Highlands will be like, I think over the plains, Maybe this is a drive through the hillsides and buttes of Mongolia, something people want to travel to for itself and not just a highway interstice. That’s the problem with an American road trip: there’s just too much to see, a viewshed of excess. Maybe if Oregon was really its own small country, like a European nation-state, the details would feel more like an exclusive resource. Boundaries create want.

In Ontario, on the Idaho and Oregon border, I remember the first time my mother and I visited on my move out to college. It was early morning and we needed gas, so we stopped and fit the nozzle to the car when an attendant came out waving, pushing her hands to the side in a motion for us to stop. ‘In Oregon you can’t pump your own gas,’ she tells us. ‘If you do, you’ll guarantee yourself a $500 fine.’ This really is a brand new place we thought, as she took cash from our window and told us we were good to go.

This region smells like onions everywhere you go, because it’s the ‘onion heartland’ of America. If, like me and my mother, you drive out early enough on an autumn morning, the fields glow white from the bulbs breaching the soil, giving a kind of spirit to the place. Aside from making you hungry it really is quite strange, how fragrant it is, different from the fields of corn throughout Iowa or the olive orchards in California. From here on out our distance is measured in vegetables and superlatives, the onion and potato and beat ‘capital of the USA,’ where the village signs show off their staple crop and you half expect the regional schools to have a smiling spud as their mascot.

In the flat plains of Idaho, we ran alongside the miles of parallel telephone lines into the blue evening. Boise sneaks up on us and is really only noticeable from the two lanes briefly added to the interstate. Nothing out here but brush and the telephone poles, carrying conversations across thousands of miles in short blinks of moments. The highway follows the river like a bad outline.

I think: what a life it must have been to live as one of the workers putting up these poles, unwrapping coil and moving on to the next one. Pioneers paving hallways for the long-running towers, cradling voltage. They go forward and stop every thirty feet, unspooling and wrapping, again lifting and moving to plant and connect again, like crosses along the road to Rome, or a long stitch of humming thread, or maybe a grounded and stretched rainbow that’s always visible except for where it starts and stops, or also like old greek statues, stick figure Atlases shouldering our conversive world.

180 million telephone poles punctuate the United States. Their stolid beauty elicits at a number of comparisons as we watch them, as ever-present as the road beneath us. When our cities have fallen, crushed down into a handful of paragraphs in a book, these will be our markers of civilization. When the archaeologists move the earth and find the rusted wires they’ll be left puzzled, left to imagine the things we use to say. They’ll hint at something deeper than anything — a world connected by the thinnest of margins.

But it isn’t all telephone poles. We pass a replica of a covered wagon and I realize the significance of our parallel journeys. The goings and returnings over eons. If only the pioneers could have seen the Flying J and adjacent McDonalds. We point out lifted trucks when they pass us and I feel needlessly offended by their size. I try to imagine a pioneer family of five in a diesel F-150.

We arrive at our first stop, in Twin Falls, and are amazed at the suddenness of its chasm, which opens right beneath you before you even have a chance to notice it. Without mountains or hills or even a bluff to telegraph the white and pearl and granite fallaway, you can’t help but try and look over the guard rails at what you’ve stumbled upon — quite literally stumbled upon, which is hard to do in a car, I realize — and just take a deep breath.

When we check into the hotel I realize it’s been ages since I was last in one. Parents stress-walking around a pool, kids collect tourism maps like trading cards, and squads of residents walk through reception talking about a rendezvous at Applebees or Texas Roadhouse. The two of us carefully lean on the kiosk and cross one leg over the other, like old movie stars, inspecting the local brochures as our room is confirmed and we’re handed two key cards we’ll likely forget on our departure. The lobby is one of those anti-places, meant only for coming and going, never for staying, like many of the towns we’ve just driven through. In our room on the third floor, we overlook a parking lot for a strip mall, the eponymous maw of Twin Falls impossibly visible behind a Macy’s, Target, string of chain restaurants, and yes, more wildfire smoke. We crack open a brochure and decide to drive down to the falls in the morning before beginning our descent into Utah.

The gorge near Twin Falls, Idaho (Alec Cowan)

Idaho to Grand Junction, Colorado

“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”

After leaving Colorado, a handful of years or so ago, I’d only been back once.

Home is such a silly concept. Silly because of how intangible it is. It’s a feeling, but one of those feelings that feels surprisingly accessible, like a song you can reliably count on to change your mood, or ice cream on a hot day, or one of those many tangible intangibles, little peeks at what makes us tick. Reliable yet still mysterious. There’s a button you can push for home, but the trick is taking the time to find the right one. For me, it’s kitschy useless things, like keychain dongles, stickers, and replica lego sets.

But when we began to descend into Ogden, Utah, the Great Salt Lake pale and thirsty, some kind of besotted charm fell over the mass highways and paced steeples. We pass by flashes of my family mythos, water parks and turn-offs and small mirages of childhood built from semi-desert sun. Memories are as detailed as a single name. I remind myself that this sprawl is someone’s promised land.

Groves of aspens rise as an aside. We croon over the high hills and desert canyons, which once over Utah’s mountains begin to build their contrast in toothsome rock walls. The emptiness is home, arid and inhospitable. The grandeur of the American West, full of pocket communities and always following some body of water.

What is Grand Junction, Colorado? One of those river places tied together with strings of canals. It’s another last big stop before nowhere (the “junction” is the separation of two rivers, the Colorado and the Gunnison). The town is a gateway to the Colorado National Monument and Mesa National Forest, and a former meth capital of the world. My mom calls it a fishbowl, both because of its valley circumference and because many people spend their whole lives there. It’s an insular way of life. That’s why I wanted to leave, in search of a new world to experience outside of our thin Main Street and country trails. The nice thing is that being gone for so long helps recontextualize home and throw a fresh coat of paint over your eyes.

In the last stretches of desert, I begin to realize that Kerouac’s brazen honesty is an artifact. After all, hasn’t the internet given us a healthy fear of others? Early on, the promise of the internet told us that everything is worth sharing. Like Sal hitchhiking on truckbeds and empty train cars, the premise of strangers renews our interest in our own personal narratives. We want to share our details, probably because we’re searching for the pieces of ourselves in others, assurance that we’re not as weird or lost as we believe we are, or that there is a different way to live, a different person to be, if only you seek it out on the open road. Others are the only real way to know ourselves.

Maybe that’s why home felt so exciting, despite the beige, industrial nature of it — it was a reminder of who I am, even after my odyssey so far. A reminder that there are details worth keeping, and not only keeping, but sharing, which is itself a noble act these days. Place reflects people, or maybe it’s the other way around, or somewhere caught in the middle.

For Sal, everything is open-air, youthful energy bursting over late-night coffee. It isn’t enough for him to know who you are, he wants to know what you are, the stuff you’re made of — the dreams and bricks they’re built upon. You can’t give that kind of honesty away now. It’s too easy to get to know someone without ever speaking to them. We’re reticent, quiet as we tap our phones. Our solipsism demands respect for the urgency of our boredom. I don’t want to speak with you, not because I don’t like you, but because I haven’t checked Facebook in 5 minutes, which is honestly more interesting. Technology gives us opportunities to indulge in ourselves, a positive and negative thing, and a refuge against the conflict of comparison when we speak with another. The self-analysis of social media has us all feeling conscious of our fumbles and foibles. It shuts us up. I want to see a modern retelling of On The Road, the one where Sal gets a cellphone and drops mysterious drugs in barn raves before collapsing into his self-doubt.

Would that feel exhilarating for him, or empty? Maybe hometown coffee and an evening hike are all you really need to find another pocket of livable life.

The Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction, CO (Alec Cowan)

Grand Junction, Colorado (Continued)

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

I saw my grandmother for what must be the first time in 15 or so years. Even without my grandfather holstered by her hip, she’s exactly as I remember her, curling hair and jowls that shake at you when she emphasizes something. Her glasses are those classic old folk glasses, with the jeweled string around her neck, and she always sits with them at the farthest reaches of her nose, teetering.

She talks the same, ebullient and cutting jokes. We’re seated on two benches and a rocking chair outside a nursing home just down the drive from where I lived most of my life, making it strange to actually interact with a building that was always part of the passive landscape of home. When we arrive I half expect the facade to fall over and reveal it’s just a sheet of painted boards and there’s nothing more to the set-piece of childhood. When my grandmother comes out she arcs over a walker and lets out a long sigh, ancient and young, as we settle into conversation. We fiddle with our masks and say hello as more residents arrive for their prescribed fresh air.

It’s been 15 years without a word. Just secondhand tin can conversations through other family interpreters. We talk about life, what’s gone on, skipping over graduating from high school and going to college and relationships and jumping straight to now, work updates, the immediacy of what brought us here today. I mention living in San Jose, which is really just the Bay Area, which is really just San Francisco for most folks, and she talks about a hazy memory of visiting as a young woman, where she had to cross the Great American West on an all-female bus. I think back to Kerouac. I think back to how little I know about her — nothing, really, which makes the meeting that much more interesting, if half-hearted. It turns out she really meant San Diego, though, and her experience blurs. My father shows her a gallery of pictures I’ve sent over the last year, which give life to conversations that are usually no more than simple characters.

“You two are supposed to talk,” she tells him, referencing my father and my uncle. My uncle is a local, while my father lives in Phoenix. We were both visiting Colorado at the same time, hence the serendipity. She says she wants out of the facility. When we say that isn’t a possibility, she improvises.

“You have to talk about how to get me out of this world, then.”

This must be a wonderful conversation to listen into, I think, as I’m listening in to other conversations on the patio. Two others came to join us, one introducing herself as Shirley and the other as Margaret.

“She went out looking for her dog,” one woman tells another, both of them facing the parking lot. “She’s been gone for two months. Nobody knows what time she was there in the morning. She slipped down the hill into the duck pond. She’s got two bruised knees.”

“I’ve got an annuity. So when I die, that goes to you,” my grandmother tells us. There’s an exchange as we go back to pleasantries, everyday life shop talk.

“Does she have insurance?”

“No, she owns her own company”

“Oh, so she’s a contractor.”

“For now we’re living off mine.”

I turn back to the women admiring the parking lot. One is pointing at a nondescript tree like a perp in a lineup.

“Do you know which tree the man hit?”

“Oh, it’s right down there. Do you want to go for a walk to see it?”

I rejoin our conversation. More family talk about other family, most of whom I haven’t seen in more than a decade — which is a weird consideration at 25.

“They pay him twice as much for a job they’d happily pay twice as little.”

Another woman joins an empty bench across from us and is talking on the phone.

“We had a guy with one of those motorized scooters. He’d go into the kitchen and grab all the bacon. He even wrote us a letter about it, saying that he was going to take all the bacon.”

It’s getting close to 6:00, which is when the outside doors are locked. We say goodbyes and exchange awkward, frail hugs. Our conversation has bounced from happy updates to constant pleas for just ending it all, just get me out of the way, I’m tired of this kind of living and that way you can all get your inheritance anyway. Everything gets laughed off or shrugged or — you know — that maneuver you do when you break eye contact and bounce your head forward, staring at the ground with a consternate half-smile on your face, evaluating how you can deflect. We’ll be here tomorrow, love you so much, so good to see you, and let’s not wait so long until the next time.

On the way home we stop for some quick food at an empty Village Inn, where I order a massive hamburger and the waitress jokes that she’s never seen someone take such a proficient bite of this particular menu item. My father and I haven’t had many of these one-on-one dinners, so the conversation is a little awkward as we work around our masks whenever the waitress comes by the applaud my progress on the burger. We’re in a booth seat and the window opens up onto another strip mall parking lot.

On the way back home Prince comes on the radio, and I ask him if he was ever a fan.

“We had this guy who worked with us,” he starts. “He got signed on as security. At one point he put an earring on, got a chain, and dyed his hair purple. He named himself Prince.” An interesting story, I think, considering this was at an aerospace company. I’m also expecting some older opinions on ‘colorful characters,’ as my mother might put it. “It didn’t work out with us for whatever reason. Well, about two years later, we heard he got caught for child molestation and offed himself in prison.”

“That’s all to say I don’t have fond memories of Prince,” he says.

Like all awkward moments prior we laugh it off and continue our drive. This day sticks out to me because of its nakedness, or maybe because of its realism. After months inside, working from home, most of the world became pseudo-hypothetical. People existed but only as imaginary figures, small interactive icons. Tragedy is rejuvenated each day as is the sadness and outrage. I guess it felt good for once to see people in pain, and to also share in its blossoming. Because pain shocks. It introspects. But pain online is passive. It spins by you before you’ve even noticed what it’s done to you — which, to be clear, isn’t nothing. The growing gnaw of apathy on every single day is a result of the inundation of pain and suffering we’re newly obsessed with.

After growing up in the youth of social media, I’ve begun to quit engaging with it — quit posting, quit finding significance in the blur and hum of the at-home-office, perpetually hyped on caffeine but chronically tired, just wanting to close my eyes and leave the digital insulation of the home. Each day is different but the same, the same horrors remanifested in new people. It feels like the unspooling of your own personhood as you feel you have nothing more to say than what the world is already churning through. You feel insignificant because not only are you failing to make a difference but you’re failing to create a difference, spectacularize it. Just some middle-of-the-road existence wedged between those who suffer and those who do something about it.

The coping mechanism of isolation has been pain, acknowledgment, interpretation, humor, and back again, making it nearly impossible to take suffering seriously simply because there’s so much of it. You’d think this makes us better at coping. But what more can you say? Why even need to say it? I begin to wonder if I too have suffering in my life and if it’s enough to make me feel significant. It’s not enough to make itself known, and maybe that doldrum is what drove Sal out West.

Here, on the patio, is where I found some piece of redemption. The dead and dying in front of me, with me. Silences filled with leaves and birds and buzzing wings of unseen insects. You don’t have to say anything, just enjoy your decay together, in quiet peace. The world feels more full because it becomes so obviously short. People online are so certain of who they are, and me much less so. Maybe that’s why it’s so impossible to interact or feel like I’m one of the fish in the digital school. Apathy isn’t dangerous because you don’t care about anything, no; it’s that you really want to care about something and yet you can’t find it. Finding the pieces of life that make you care is difficult, especially if one of those pieces is your own life. Sal and I share that feeling, at least. Care is worth searching for.

You’d think our current moment would help that. But the toll of the pandemic is being stripped of any socialization, trapped with yourself, all of us patients in a grand experiment made to rehabilitate us into a more conscientious normal. But here, it’s conversations about falling and accidents and petty bacon slights. There’s a little too much living here, too much honest experience, stripped of all the fantasy that makes dying so compelling. This is pure vulnerability.

Kerouac ran to the west as his cure for his elite coastal apathy. Days spent in dusty rooms as opposed to late-night escapades in the Rockies. Sal is also chasing something — newness in a literal sense, and himself metaphorically. And indeed, travel can be rejuvenation — it can be epiphany. But it always comes with a shadow of escape, the old you just two feet behind.

So here the three of us were, sitting on a patio at a nursing home, broken out of our individual prisons. Living, or at least trying to. Meeting death in the face and not as a chatbot or text, surviving the pain for what it’s worth.

And that became the last time I saw her.

Mesa Arch at Canyonlands National Park (Alec Cowan)


Onlookers gather to stare at the arch, columnar, whole yet empty. They say that these rocks were formed as strata, long fins of rumored buttes left for our deciphering. The wind then hollows out their centers, creating the arch. A single drop of water can nest within the bodies of these surfaced titans for months. We join them, schools of flat-footed and gawking fish, each step pushing microcosms of sand down to the desert floor, or clinging to our boots.

But we’re not here for just the arches. The families are all gathered, smiling and swapping with one another. The beauty of the background… A younger boy directs a group of four sitting in a row. A family of three links arms and makes jokes about their appearance, the “don’t worry about me, we’re here for the scenery” kind of banter. Two men exchange a camera and take turns working at knots in their backs. They both have hanging beards and enjoy the praise of the camera, the zealous artist and the flattered subject. I wave at a dog but it doesn’t see me.

We’re sitting on one of the textured rims of Canyonlands National Park, southwest of Moab. The park is sprawling, encompassing three descending rings of canyon, like a backward matryoshka of interminable rungs in rock. This park was nearly accidental, what with its proximity to Arches National Park and the superabundance of grandeur in southern Utah. Both were charted and proposed by Bates Wilson in the midcentury, a legend in his own right.

“…it’s a complex network of canyons, and it does require a great deal of riding or horseback to cover it. The canyons are big, long, and twisting. A man could spend two weeks in there on foot and never cover the whole thing,” Bates told Western Gateways Magazine in 1967. He first spotted its potential by plane, and as birds perch in the juniper next to our vista, I wonder what the smoothed lines must look like top-down. An immense hieroglyphic, I imagine, a snaking X marking the spot. The void is the opposite of our boxed home.

We spent the day getting red on the edges of craters, climbing sandstone buttes, and meeting arches in the golden dawn. I think that in mythology, the desert should always be a trickster. The immense beauty hides the lurking hunger of the soil, conceals the fact it takes thousands of years of emptiness and heat and elements to press these red rock diamonds. At lunch, we watch a desert mouse with dumbo-like ears get gutted by a crow. And, of course, this only happened because we’d pooled some water in the dirt for a mouse friend to sip on in the afternoon heat. I felt like I understood something new about God in that moment, the idea that what’s best for people can also be the most dangerous. The drama of ignorant power. At least he spent his last moments drinking with company.

Now, we’re watching the sunset over a grand vista. At the canyon rim, an older man with a limp goes to the edge and wields his phone, squinting at tested exposures. He’s wearing a leather vest with illegible patches, sunglasses pushed up over his sparse white hair, at once hardened and gentle. After five or six shots he walks back to his wife on the rock, disappointed, her asking “did you get a good one?” and him shaking his head — “nope.” He’s clearly worried his practice didn’t pay off.

In my head, he’s reviewing the camera’s graphical precision to capture more dusty lumens. Their brief interaction looks to me like one of those bargained-for vacations, one which had a little something for the both of them, and though their enjoyments were different, they nod and comport at their opposite and inaccessible joys. She knows the pictures are what brings the thrill for him, even if it isn’t her metric of happiness. They’ll be great for a work email chain. For some people trips like this are memories in hand, still in the packaging, and will conform to our six-by-eight picture frames. For others, it’s more miles logged on heels and cracking knees, another blister to pick at in the morning.

Sal never came to this corner of Utah, instead slipping through the northern edge. I’d never even been prior to this view, and I grew up just two short hours across the state border. All this, just beyond the horizon. But I guess everything works like that if you choose to plant your feet in any one place. Maybe the West is so special because the sun sets on its crease, a circadian denouement, a more contemplative direction than its rising on the east. We watch the day end and wish there was more promise in the hours. That yearning is what’s driven us toward the edge of our continent.

Our Utah photographer friend looks through his work and smiles at the surprise of the moments he forgot he had. This is the masterwork of the evening. I wonder where he came from and if this is an item on some lifelong list. Everywhere, everyone is smiling. Disparate wants and generous givings. Everyone leaves in a herd once the sun drops and the blue hour brings a soft breeze. Jet trails look like falling meteors over the gradient sky. The stone is vibrant and protean, accidental classics. It feels like I could lay down and become prehistoric.

We set an alarm for just past midnight. Here in the desert darkness you can get some of the most pristine viewings of the Milky Way, something the two national parks are actually certified for. You have to wait for moon-set, because even the lunar light will get in the way. I’m a little skeptical that we’ll see something as good as the photographs say you will. But we stir as the moon crests below the west. It takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to acclimate in the darkness, allowing you to see things fully. We wipe the drowsiness from our eyes, acknowledge that we did it — made it thousands of miles out here, through wildfires and highways and awkward family reunions and are now looking at the Milky Way — and fall back into our nest. That’s enough time for so much perspective.

But all around us is the hum of the unknown. Conversations happen in whispers. Telephone lines chart calls into Moab. Our phones go on untethered. For once I’m glad to not know anything about what’s going on. The blur is slowed, the lights are out. This must be what Kerouac was searching for, this depth of quiet. I wish I could capture it like a photograph. But even that would defeat its purpose.

In the morning we rise to see the sun dapple through the Cathedral Rocks, visit the grand arches, and begin to tire of endless buttes, mesas, and warbling red rock.

Overloaded on beauty, it’s time to head home.

The gondola at Telluride, CO (Alec Cowan)

A brief detour to Telluride

Of course, that’s a lie. We have plans to weekend in Telluride, one of those mythical places of my childhood. I speak like an expert while we snake through the dramatic names of Western Colorado — La Sal, the Paradox Valley, Nucla. I think I’ve been here before, maybe younger, staying with a friend who taught me to drive a Jeep in the Paradox cemetery. Climbing the juniper hills and hearing a wolf in the distance, or a cougar, or some large, wild thing. It’s unrecognizable, as all unchanging things are eventually.

We pass by legions of signs for ‘The Hole in the Rock’, which features on billboards and is even painted in large block letters on a cliff face. It’s so honestly touristic that you can’t help but want to peak the view, if only to call the bluff.

Our time in Telluride is magical, bathed in sunlight and golden aspen leaves that dance on the breeze. You can hike a ski run in the early morning and take a gondola back before breakfast. We marathon Family Feud in the evenings and marvel at the president catching COVID in the same televised hour.

By the creek, a mountain fly — long and skinny compared to its fat cousins — came and rested on my pant leg, perfectly still. He didn’t do what I’d expect, which was clean his hands and hind hands and whatever else it is flies do for the brief moments we’re playing host. He just sat, quiet, still, bathing in the alpine sun for our brief doldrum. That or he was staring at me while I read, like a child on your knee waiting for a bedtime story. I moved my leg and he stayed. Eventually, he stood up and scrubbed his legs, setting himself for a long stay. He smoothed back down, and we drank the wild morning sun together.

When the tiny birds chirp their whole body shakes. Their wings beat up and down in rapid-fire. If you listen even closer you can hear the tiniest of insects buzz in higher and higher pitch, slotted like a scale on a tuner. This is a place where life feels syncopated, aligned yet independent. If the desert was scarcity this is sinful indulgence.

The wind pushes the water against itself, breaking and curling and meeting itself for embrace after the long waves meet the corral of the shore. Their peaks glitter like a punch out, the white sparkles after being hit by something big, your high school bully, your first breakup, the serene promised from centuries of chipped rocks and melted snows. It’s cold when you plunge, but like all shock, it only needs time to get used to.

A woman comes by with a shawl and squats on the lip of the shore. She looks around like we all do, at me, at the water, at campers nearby, at the parachutes launching from the Mountain Village, perhaps caught up in deciding what to do when there isn’t the noise of people on the air. She plants her bottle in the water and stirs. Just a little mayhem for the morning.

What does it take to be a kid from here? A kind of place where youth are knighted with skis and luxury mountain wares. A coveted place, a secret worth being open. To be fair, we have a Walmart Supercenter in Grand Junction. Oh, and at one point there was a Krispy Kreme.

Arches National Park (Alec Cowan)


The rest of the trip is a long slog through dusty towns. No saloons to bust through and assert a kind of cinematic space. A dingy hotel in Kingman, Arizona, that still brags about its flaking Route 66 sign. A gas stop at an old west main drag. Hours through the wide-open Mojave, where we switch books from Kerouac to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s a different kind of aimlessness but the spirit is the same.

There are so many homes stretched across the hills, but where are the people? Where are those who today state they’re from Kingman, from Telluride, from Moab? Where do they all go? The kids who never go downtown because it’s all tourists, having to wait for the off-season so the town can settle back into itself. The kids who bus to regional schools on icy morning roads.

Do they have nicknames too? We called Grand Junction “Junk-town.” But nobody really wants to say that to a stranger. Instead, we’ll mention the red rocks, the aspen groves, the retirees. If that goes well we might mention the meth — after all, we don’t want anyone getting too interested in our little alcove.

What’s the difference between a ghost town and a dying one? They all fight for the same facelifts. Empty lots receiving Costco EKGs. Newly assorted rocks and heretical green lawns. Maybe a university if you’re lucky. But I don’t see any of those on our long stretch of I-40. Only flashes of what’s clashing with the boring.

The land of wildfires returns. Joshua trees rise like gravestones in the smoked skyline. Oil wells outside Bakersfield dip and dip and dip. We’re once again placeless in our minds, dependent on our devices to show us the road and burn time. We gave up on Kerouac, which means that yes, the end of this trip isn’t neatly wrapped in metaphor and allegory. We aren’t on a sojourn but an escape, a beautiful distraction.

When we arrive back in San Jose we breathe deep sighs. Sink into our seats.

When we get inside the first thing I do is unpack and sit in the office. We return to the real world, the digital one, the context we so carelessly lost by seeing the back alleys of the nation, by meeting real people in real places, by watching the fire evacuation zones slip closer, by having final conversations and awkward reconnections, by watching nature fold in on itself, by rediscovering home and seeing what we lost in the meantime, by rising at dawn for primeval sunrises and crowded vistas, by taking a 10,000-foot gondola in the moonlight, and by seeing a world which for a long time will only exist in lore, until the next time, if there is one for any and all of us.

Did Kerouac ever return? What did he think of home? Was there something still left for him there? Or did he realize that the West is all restlessness, interstitials, a means to somewhere else’s end? You’re not meant to stay in one place here for long. The prodigals can all tell you that, if only you can find one.

It’s all home to us.




Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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Alec Cowan

Alec Cowan

Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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