Saturday, September 19, 2009

Coast to Coast

Flying across the country from Boston to Seattle, several images come into sharp focus. This country is vast; despite the speed of air travel, it took us all day hopping from Boston to Chicago, then on to Denver, before finally landing in Seattle. The sky was clear across the entire country, offering spectacular views of the changing landscape below.

From western New York to to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains the land is broken into geometric patterns by roads, woodlots, and farm fields. In this region, roads run straight, outlining sections of land one mile by one mile or 640 acres. These in turn are divided by roads or fields into smaller parcels of 160 acres, 80 acres, 40 acres, and down. Streams and rivers snake through these sections, breaking up the quilt-like patterns of land surveyed hundreds of years ago. Some waterways are bordered by thin ribbons of green vegetation, others are cropped to the shoreline or drained entirely. Sprawling development spreads out from large towns and major metropolitan areas gobbling up 20, 40, 80, 160 acres, and then whole sections of open country are gone.

Not until we left Denver and climbed over the Rocky Mountains did we see vast areas of undeveloped land. This rugged country extending from the Rockies to the Cascades is dry. Small pockets of smoke rose from forest fires in the Rockies, fields were brown except for those few worthy of irrigation. Much of western Wyoming looked barren and empty.

Leaving the Rockies behind we flew over the Snake River, watched it wind through remote country in western Idaho, and then into Washington and over the massive Columbia River as it winds its way toward the Pacific, hampered by numerous dams along its length. Continuing on our northwest journey, the arc of volcanic mountains emerged -- Mt Hood, Mt St. Helen's, Mt Adams, and then Mt Rainier.

Sitting on the left side of the plane (thanks to tip from a Southwest flight attendant) we watched as Rainier, covered in snow, loomed into view, larger and larger as we approached. The descent into SeaTac airport brings you close to the mountain. Rainier, at more than 14,000 feet, dominates the landscape. This in a landscape of incredible beauty of evergreen forests, coastal mountain ranges, islands among sparkling lakes, and coastal waters.

The long day ended under clear skies. We started the day watching the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean, followed its path westward, and saw it set over the Pacific Ocean. The image as we crossed the country is one of human exploration and domination of the natural landscape -- cultivated, carved, drained, developed, changed. And yet, tracking the sun's path, seeing the volcanic mountains, the ruggedness of the mountain ranges, looking down at vast areas of barren lands, there are signs that nature still has a hold on this great land.


  1. Ellen, this is some very special writing. I didn't want it to end. Thanks for bringing me with you, for that's exactly what it felt like.

  2. Thanks Tom,

    It was a great journey across the country under blue sky. Stuffed into an airplane yes, but the views out the window were amazing.