Janet Sheridan: Beloved land

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Janet Sheridan

We watched Colorado burn.

Nightly, reporters posed in front of leaping flames to talk about acres blackened, homes destroyed, lives lost. And it seemed unending.

In Moffat County we worried about those caught up in the destruction of distant fires, watched smoke invade our valley, listened for the wail of sirens and hoped our luck would hold. Though we had experienced smaller-scale fires, so far we’d escaped the widespread devastation on the Front Range.

Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Idaho also burned. I followed news reports about the distant fires and wondered if the land that had nurtured me all of my life—lands of towering grandeur and rushing streams—could survive the onslaught.

As the fires raged, Joel and I took a long-planned road trip with our daughter Jenny and her family. As we traveled from Craig to Cody, the children—Sophia, age 12, and Harrison, 9—surprised us by oohing and aahing at the scenery as often as they squabbled.

Born and raised in a small town set in the even terrain of southern Illinois, they were accustomed to flowing fields of corn, vivid shades of green, an abundance of giant trees and wide rivers of stately pace: a landscape that eases eyes and soothes souls.

They found the mountainous West breathtaking.

Jenny took hundreds of photographs as we traveled north on Highway 191 through amazing country: the photogenic poses of the Gros Ventre Mountains, the giant, jagged spires of the Tetons, and the wonder of Yellowstone with mud that burps, pools that steam the colors of the rainbow, and columns of hot water that climb the sky.

After our first day in northern Wyoming, Jenny expressed her reaction to the new world her family had explored: “It’s so beautiful, Janet; it’s like it gets inside you, grabs hold, and takes you outside yourself.”

With that statement, she cemented the affection and admiration I’ve felt for her since she entered my life along with Joel. I found her words as powerful and compelling as the scenery she described.

Though I must admit that some of the miles we traveled were less interesting, perhaps even a bit monotonous, as is also true of western terrain.

During one portion of our trip, a series of dune-colored hills gave way to another like waves lapping a beach, serving up an occasional fleck of scrub brush, a shelf of unexceptional rock, or a single forlorn-looking antelope devoid of a herd.

We gazed at miles of water-deprived sameness beneath a heavy blue sky that seemed to pin the car to the sun-softened pavement of an unending road.

The squabbles increased.

But in the vastness of the West, less interesting vistas often occur during lengthy trips. We live in a land of contrast, a land that can cause attentive head-swiveling at spectacular sights and the desire to nap during more monotonous expanses.

I first remarked on the fluctuation in western scenery from splendid to commonplace as a young adult when my husband and I traveled in old cars on bald tires, carrying our essential household possessions across the salt flats of Utah. We drove a two-lane road across white, salt-soaked flatness, watching for the occasional flash of interest provided by the rock-formed messages of travelers in need of self-expression.

As our car crawled along the barren miles, Utah’s soaring sculpted arches, sky-high monoliths, and mountain meadows sprinkled with wild flowers and clear streams seemed an impossibility.

I’ve found areas of scant appeal throughout the western states, but I now realize that the power of contrast found in great works of art, literature, and music is also found in nature: moments of less emotional intensity that allow us to rest in preparation for the more dramatic moments to come.

So I continue to anticipate the sight that always arrives when I wander in the West: the glimpse of a distant peak brushed by clouds—the promise of wonders to come.

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