The following is part of a series on several months of traveling the western United States in a 1971 Volkswagen camper van.
Unless you live right on a border, it takes a while to leave Texas, physically and emotionally. As for the latter, it’s really almost impossible. A native can become a lapsed Texan or, if you prefer, a recovering Texan, but a certain fundamental Texan-ness will always be a part of who we are. I won’t go into that here.
If you live somewhere in the middle of Texas, it’s also difficult to get out physically, especially if you try to leave in August in an old VW Westphalia. As I’ve mentioned before, heat makes such a vehicle, air-cooled as it is, run unreliably. Heat also makes driver and passengers wonder if it might have been the better course to stay inside in air conditioning until the weather gets less hostile – reading books, watching old movies, ordering food delivered. To make escape more attention-getting, the stifling, inertia-inducing heat does not turn off even after you cross the state line and drive several days in a northerly direction.
I’m happy to report that on Wednesday, August 21, Ann and I and BK reached a part of this great land where the temperature was not oppressive. BK rose up from her place on the van floor on shaky old legs and looked a little perkier, and Ann and I had an improvement in attitudes. At the end of the day, we arrived in Pendleton, Oregon, where the locals make much of its location near the end of the Oregon Trail, a matter of some significance to the pioneers of old.
Our journey had been challenging – too hot, too windy, too mountainous for a ’71 Westphalia – but it hardly compares to the months of nearly impossible slogging endured by the original Oregon trailers. The parallels come to mind, nonetheless. In Pendleton, we had sort of gotten to where we’d meant to go. As we neared it, we were relieved to be where rivers flowed steadily and morning temperatures were refreshing. Energy and life began to return. Those terribly beaten-up pioneers must have felt some of the same.
Maybe environmental determinism was not such a mistaken notion as we thought when it appeared back around the time when the Westie was young. Certainly it did not explain everything, and, in fact, it was just wrong to say that warm-weather peoples did not become industrialized just because they didn’t have to store up nuts for the winter. But it is not a mistake to say that waking up to a cool morning offers energy and eagerness to an extent not found when you step out of air conditioning into about eighty degrees of oppression to pick up the morning newspaper. My grandmother always started such days with, “it’s gonna be a scorcher.” But then, of course, she managed to put one foot in front of another and do what had to be done, though not as enjoyably as on a less hot day. Probably not as energetically either.
So, a cool morning in August calls up a question that I had thought settled. It also calls to mind a related matter, though one that is not a question at all: climate change. Throughout the modern era, the trail from Texas to the northwest has been hot and dusty, but it’s getting more so, and it’s changing so rapidly as to be noticeable when simply taking a summer vacation.
Oh well, Ann and I are almost done with further stays in pet-friendly La Quintas and about to begin camping. First though, we’ll celebrate American, grand and great, with a couple of days along the Columbia River surrounded by vineyards and harvest-ready fields of apples, cherries, and apricots, snow-capped Mt. Hood on the horizon and the legendary Union Pacific running alongside and singing “Roll on Columbia” with Woody Guthrie and thinking about hoboes and westering and marveling at how we came to be who we are. Then, we’ll have a few days in Portland where history is being brought up to the present by violent street conflicts between white nationalists and antifa
Lately, the national dialogue has included an argument about whether America is a place or an idea (even though even the least reflective among us must surely realize it is both). Myself, I’ve been more focussed on America as a process.