Cross Country: A Story of Color and Light

Author:  Dorran Prescott

My children are off to college in Ohio and Southern California, so this past fall my family took the opportunity to experience and fulfill a bucket list dream to drive cross country as we played school Uber parents. Previous to this trip, I had been to all but two of the contiguous states but never had I driven from ocean to ocean. One particular interest of mine was to see the amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties and alabaster cities from sea to shining sea. Or better said, how light and color create the fabric of our country…

Leaving Home (South Shore)… Having lived in the North East my entire life, seeing red brick, white clapboard and natural wood shingle sided homes and buildings are the everyday. Light touches the rolling hills of mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, and as the seasons change, so too do our perceptions of life–from the optimism of spring to the doldrums of winter. Variegated sky and brown earth appear to dovetail, inseparable from one another as morning sun rises over calm or tumultuous dark waters (much better described by Thoreau or Melville).

The Leveling (Massachusetts to Ohio – 870 miles)… As we leave the Appalachian range that spans the Mid-Atlantic states, the topography continues to flatten. Colors became manifest in late-summer low green crops of soybeans and cornstalks. Neutral farmhouses accompanied by red barns sprinkle the landscape as roadways split fertile soil like a string-wrapped package, only to be interrupted by the sharp rise of industrial cities built on the blue steel and carbon black. Evening sunlight creeps over the farmland, creating long solitude trees or property line thicket shadows that stretch across the farmlands. In my head: queue “My City Was Gone” by the Pretenders.

The Mighty Mississippi (Ohio to Missouri – 630 miles)…  The landscape continues to pitch ever so slightly to the waterways that eventually join to the old national divide. The multitude of red and painted brick buildings in the cities gives proof that the urban fabric history of US cities has been woven with clay. Beige-white Indiana limestone civic structures (not to be excluded) are a show of local pride (Indiana) and the silver Gateway Arch marking western expansion is an awesome bridge from the lush greens of the East to the earth tone plains dotted with black-white and brown livestock herds to the West. Light begins to define and separate between ground and sky as contrast in color not broken by tall vegetation filigree (and as the distraction of large populous cities) are now in the rearview mirror. No musical blues for me, though, because all I can think of is Mark Twain’s characters riding on a lazy river boat to places not yet explored.

The Rising (Missouri to Colorado – 700 miles)… The drive from Kansas City to Denver gave expectations of a sea of yellow, but the Sunflower State (Kansas) would better be coined the windmill state as we discovered why some believed the earth was once flat. In the distance, mountains arose, somewhat purple hazed by the cloud of forest fires that ravaged the West coast last Summer and Fall. The drive through the Rockies was spectacular, as the walls of the cold grey granite and sharp shale stone drop to the run-off rippling streams that meander between the soon to be snowcapped tops. As awesome as the incline is, the other side of the Eisenhower Tunnel is continuous winding decline that spirits some of the world’s greatest ski resorts. Straight tall pines reach for the heavens despite growing out of the raggedy surfaces to decorate shear walls and ski runs that vertically carve the peaks. Light is as dramatic as the elevational changes. The sun attempts to wrap its arms around every hill and sink into valley crevasses as large shadows are cast on the mountainous canvas. The other captivating aspect of light is the night sky; being on one of the continental pinnacles, the moon and stars appear to be within reach. The climatic landscape causes one to wonder how settlers pushed West, and I think of John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High,” which today may be double speak for the number of dispensaries that line the streets of the mile-high city.

The Great Divide (Colorado to Nevada – 650 miles)… The downhill to the West coast has the most dramatic color differentiation. BIG country sky plays backdrop to columns and bridges of stratified stone. The plateaus have regular linear exposed color rings where water once carved paths. Shades of red, orange and yellow lines are most notable in some of the national parks here in the breathtaking State of Utah:  features rising from the bed that feel other world, disparate for western and alien movie sets alike. As impressive as the landscape is, it forfeits relief from the heat and the cool night air.

The land is unmistakably one of the most dramatic places on earth; the expanse of light and space gives one a humbling feeling, but the end of that road terminates at Las Vegas. Light and color infused in the city strip (that NASA has given the dubious distinction as the brightest spot in the world) can cause one to lose touch with whether it is night or day. The manufactured appearance that attempts to steal the best of NYC and Paris is the gambling mecca, but alarming to those who prefer to see a different type of green-sustainable initiative. The landscape was captured by Georgia O’Keefe but, in my opinion, it’s undoubtedly best for everyone if “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

La La Landed (Nevada to California – 300 miles)… The stretch of land to Southern California is a sea of desert where roadside gas stations in one-horse towns display the sandstorm washed cars from yesteryear broken down, their drivers deciding to stay rather than completing the trek. Wanting to hear the stories behind the scrap metal lawn decorations, we kept driving as we could hear the call of blue waves crashing on West Coast palm tree lined beaches. The green, lush Pacific coast appears like a mirage as cacti give way to lush mountains that drop down to an ocean of paved, twisted pretzel numbered highways. Red tiled roofs and tan stucco Spanish influenced dwellings stand in contrast of reflective glass structures that define the city of angels and the surrounding counties. The city is as colorful as the neighborhoods within: beach towns like Malibu, Santa Monica, Newport and Balboa are filled with bronzed beach bums. The stark hills are crowded with cantilevered modern white houses and Beverly + Hollywood are a menagerie, a soup to nuts spectrum of people seeking a more constant temperature. The brilliance of left coast light can only be summed up by the ocean sunsets.

Home again (SoCal to Boston)… The visible light and color range was refreshing to see, but the realization that I have been conditioned to love seasons constantly draws me back to New England. ‘I Love LA,’ ‘Another Day in the Sun’ or ‘City of Stars’ are songs that attempt to lure, reflecting the dreams of stardom and the beauty of the destination, but it was not going to keep me from boarding the plane. A fan of the Mama’s and Papa’s–but not California Dreamin’– as I look forward to the coming bursting flower blooms of Spring as we returned to the rich vibrant colors of the South Shore in Fall. Likewise, the celebration of light that comes with Summer solstice at a lobster bake or the dim Winter twilight where window candles flicker, chimneys providing warmth inside to match the red bow on the green wreath pinned to the front doors with love. Thank goodness we’re home, but missing our children. And we have discovered that an empty nest can prove to be a lack of color and light.