The open road in the Big Empty part of the American West has always been therapeutic. Vacant skies, horizons that stretch to infinity, country without clutter. The soul needs to roam, too.
After six months of confinement, I was a caged bird gnawing at the bars. Ahead were mountains beyond mountains, rivers that hustled out of tight canyons and winds strong enough to knock a prairie chicken down.
Alas, my map was obsolete. The West of 2020 is very sick. Like much of the country, we Westerners are at each other’s throats, struggling to put our lives back together under a madman for a president. But unlike the rest of the country, we’re also choking on smoke and staring out at Martian-red skies in a world becoming uninhabitable.
My map should have included hot spots of the coronavirus and wildfire. I spent as much time checking an air quality index app as the weather forecast. And the live-free-or-die ethos of tumbledown towns defying mask orders turned many a curious detour into a perilous proposition.
Even the historical markers, commemorating wagon trains in trespass over Native land, rivers dammed for oligarchs of industry and agriculture, rail lines built on migrant labor, seemed out of sync and out of time.
I left Puget Sound with the sun burnishing Mount Rainier’s glaciers, a string of bluebird days in the contrails of the season. But I no sooner crested the Cascades than the smoke of the arid interior blotted out the way ahead, a harbinger of a week when the West would blow up.
About 330,000 acres of the Evergreen State burned Sunday — more land consumed by fire in a single day than all the acreage of an entire typical season in Washington.
Yakima Valley, ripe with Christmas ornament apples and pinch-me peaches, was monochrome gray, in fierce battle with runaway flames. But it’s also one of the hardest-hit areas in the country for COVID-19. This year, all that beautiful fruit is picked at a terrible cost, in lives and sickness, to people living in cramped, temporary quarters.
Then, I went across the mighty Columbia, the river of the West, and along the Snake, formerly two of the most crowded salmon highways in the world, now held in the harness of hydroelectric dams. Some of the feeder streams — the Umatilla, the Grand Ronde, the Malheur — looked anemic and infirm.
Oregon held California’s smoke, and many of its recent refugees. A record 2.5 million acres have burned in the Golden State this year, and the fire season has only just begun.
“I have no patience for climate-change deniers,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a state with 150 million dead trees and temperatures that recently reached 121 degrees in Los Angeles County.
Meanwhile, the world’s most dangerous climate-change denier continued to spout gibberish. “You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests,” said President Donald Trump, scolding California.
That’s like telling people to drain their wading pools in advance of a hurricane. Nearly 48% of the land in California is federally owned. Those are his floors. And this West in distress is made sicker by his defiance of the globe’s existential threat. If ash were falling on his hair, he’d be more alert.
We followed a road along the old Oregon Trail into Idaho, then picked up parts of the southern branch into Utah. The historical markers note that immigrants recruited by Mormons pushed and pulled wooden handcarts, essentially large wheelbarrows, across the continent’s midsection. It was insane, leading to many deaths.
I’d always marveled at those who walked thousands of miles to grab off a piece of dry turf to call their own. But this time around I wondered more about the people whose land was being taken. The Shoshone, Bannock and Northern Paiutes lived well without having to push 300-pound carts over the Continental Divide.
I’d never seen southern Wyoming in such a bad way. The sky was white with heat, and then blue-white with smoke, the endless beige tableau of the land littered with the detritus of oil, coal and gas extraction. We saw one fire go off like a nuclear bomb.
Here is another bit of insanity in the hellscape of this season: Wyoming’s desperate effort to hold onto its earth-killing coal plants is a contributing cause to all the climate-change fires.
An unrelated thought: How come Wyoming, with a falling population of 567,000, has two U.S. senators, while Washington, D.C., with more than 700,000 people, has none?
Colorado’s skies were blood-red, another Rocky Mountain sigh, as we came under the cloud of the Cameron Peak Fire, one of the 10 largest in state history, all of them coming since 2002.
The authorities urged everyone to stay indoors. My parked car, in Boulder, took on a coat of falling ash. Overnight, temperatures dropped 50 degrees, and by morning snow was falling on cedars and muffling some of the fires along the Front Range.
Back home, an endangered orca named Tahlequah, who had captured the world’s attention when she carried her dead baby for 17 days in 2018, gave birth to a healthy calf. New life in the Salish Sea, fresh snow on the Flatirons; it was enough of a hint that nature can make things right, if only we give it a chance.