Thursday, July 3, 2008

America, You’re Beautiful!--Part 1: the Journey

My impressions of America are as varied as its people and its land, a major factor in one’s culture. As an ecologist, I was fascinated with this aspect while I traveled across the United States through several very different environments, including the wet coastal forests of Washington, white pine forests and taiga of Idaho and the prairie deserts and chaparrals of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota then the farming country and prairie grasslands of Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana and Kansas on through to the temperate broadleaf deciduous forests of Kentucky. My fascination with road trips comes with my love of travelling (you can see all the places I’ve traveled to on my Facebook profile. Those of you who know me personally and/or have kept up with my blog posts, know that I recently went to Paris to research my current historical fantasy. Of course, I flew there.

Road trips, however, are a destination themselves. Each mode of travel has its particular magic and its own “crystal ball” or window for the curious traveler. I walked in Paris. Years before, I walked much of southern England, which was a great way to experience the details of its fractal terrain, foot by foot (pardon the pun; couldn’t help it), through all one’s senses.

Travelling by car offered me yet another perspective, that of “relationship” in a vast land of contrast and differences.
By driving across several states in a fairly quick time—I count twelve states so far in a little over a week—I gave myself the opportunity to make a sweeping overview of each state and its people to compare in rapid succession.

I didn’t have the luxury of forming more than a first impression of each state because before I knew it, I’d entered another one. What I can tell you is that each state was beautiful, each in its own way.

Of course, I chose as my trusty and discreet companion, my old friend Toulouse, who had accompanied me to Paris a few months ago. We started our trip crossing the border into Washington State and drove south to Seattle, before striking east toward Spokane. Washington, Northern Idaho and north-west Montana reminded me of my home province, British Columbia, a land of hills and conifer forests. I found the drive very easy on the eye and the freeways clean and well-maintained. It got progressively hotter as I moved east and then south through the central states. Several of my friends in Kentucky and Ohio were surprised to find that I drove through the central states with only “Armstrong” air conditioning in the car (e.g., opening windows to catch the breeze!).

A highlight for me was descending into the Great Plains of south-east Montana and into Wyoming, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. I had struck south on the Interstate 90 E where it met the Interstate 94 and proceeded to descend into a vast rolling sea of russet, yellow and green. The undulating expanse to the horizon in every direction caught my breath and I just had to stop the car for a while to take it all in. I felt both exalted and humbled; all I could think of was, this is truly God’s country. Buffaloes used to roam in the thousands here before we destroyed them all. The state of Wyoming adopted its name from the Delaware Indian word meaning "mountains and valleys alternating", which aptly depicts the landscape of Wyoming.

Another highlight was traveling through the Black Hills of South Dakota, near Keystone, and seeing Mount Rushmore for the first time. This monumental granite sculpture by Gutzon Borglum involved the use of dynamite, followed by the process of "honeycombing". About two million tons of rock were blasted off the mountainside to create the impressive sculpture of the four presidential faces: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

One of my overnight stays was Sheridan, Wyoming, after a very windy day of driving south from Montana. Once in the motel, the news warned of tornadoes. I had, after all, entered the infamous “Tornado Alley”, the plains between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, where tornadoes lurked and I could expect an event during the majority of my continued drive to the east into Kentucky and Ohio. The following day, as storm clouds chased me on my drive, I couldn’t help periodically glancing over my shoulder and envisioning that terrifying image of a dark funnel descending from the boil of black cloud billowing behind me (I’d unknowingly experienced a night-time tornado in Louisville, Kentucky the previous winter). Thankfully, no state policeman caught me speeding faster than usual along the Wyoming interstate that day. As I drove, however, I realized that a part of me yearned to see a tornado and experience the thrill of its mercurial “personality”. says it this way: “one of the most alarming aspects of [tornadoes] is their randomness, almost as if they had vindictive personalities.” Stu Ostro, The Weather Channel senior meteorologist adds, "Tornadoes [will] appear suddenly and take out one house here, but leave its neighbors and the houses across the street untouched." My friend in Kentucky would testify to that; when she was standing on the school grounds as a child, she witnessed just such an occurrence—a capricious tornado dropped down from the sky and “took out” a house across the street then disappeared, leaving the rest of the street untouched. posts a "True or False" Twister IQ. I’ve included it for you to test yourself. I’ve posted the answers at the bottom of my post. Did you get seven out of seven? Find out below...

1. Tornadoes are always visible from a great distance.
2. Tornadoes cause houses to explode from changes in air pressure.
3. By opening the windows, you can balance the pressure inside and outside your home so a tornado will not do damage.
4. The best place to be during a tornado is generally in the southwest corner of the basement.
5. Tornadoes cannot cross water.
6. A tornado is always accompanied or preceded by a funnel cloud.
7. Downward-bulging clouds mean tornadoes are on the way.

Here are some of my personal experiences and impressions (in no particular order), that you won’t find in a tourist book:

  • When I stopped in Gillette, Wyoming, to fix my computer, which was refusing to accept wireless internet, to my great fortune, I was directed to a very cute and helpful IT specialist at Gillette College and after almost an hour of his painstaking work, my computer was humming with the sounds of the web.
  • I got lost looking for a gas station in the plains of Montana by foolishly veering off the interstate onto a gravel road (shades of “Rat Race”)… A man in a pick-up not only gave me directions on how to find a gas station, but drove ahead to show me.
  • After mistakenly cutting me off in the pass-lane, a trucker in Montana profusely apologized (I’ll let you imagine how) then we proceeded to playfully shadow each other for the next fifty miles.
  • And what’s with you Nebraskan drivers? You remind me of my Montreal days, weaving in and out of traffic as fast as you can. One Nebraskan driver, in an attempt to get ahead, practically barreled into the road blocks on one of the many parts of the interstate where roadwork was occurring.
  • Drivers on the freeways of Louisville, Kentucky, remind me of drivers in my home province of British Columbia, merging without looking. Scary! But ya gotta love their sweet tea! And they do beat Paris drivers (who seem to prefer the sidewalk at times!).

Answers to the Twister IQ:

1. False. They can be hidden in heavy rainfall.
2. False. Homes are damaged by strong winds, not air pressure changes.
3. False. The force of a tornado can rip through a structure, whether the windows are open or not. One should not open the windows when a tornado threatens -- this could actually make the situation worse.
4. False. This used to be a safety rule based on the idea that debris would usually not be deposited there, but this has now been rethought. The current best advice is to move to a protected interior room on the lowest floor of the building, as far as possible from exterior walls and windows.
5. False. A waterspout is a type of tornado that forms on water, and tornadoes that form on land can cross bodies of water such as rivers and lakes. Tornadoes, especially the more violent ones, can also travel up and down hillsides. Therefore, a belief that your location is protected by a river or ridge could prove to be a dangerously invalid one.
6. False. Especially in the early stages, a tornado can cause damage on the ground even though a visible funnel cloud is not present. Likewise, if you see a funnel cloud but it does not appear to be "touching down," a tornadic circulation nonetheless may be in contact with the ground.
7. Not necessarily! This may be the case, especially with those that show evidence of a rotating motion, but many of these clouds are not associated with tornadoes and may be completely harmless.

So, how did you do?...

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


blackburn1 said...

Good post. I envy you your trip! Perhaps one day.

I've always had a soft spot for the US... we saw many of the sights you've described when I was young, and there's a nostalgia that remains.

Happy Independance Day, USA.

(Didn't even come close on the pop quiz) =S

sfgirl said...

Thanks, Blackburn! Yes, it is a beautiful country. When I grew up in eastern Canada, we did the yearly camping trip in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. I have very fond memories of those trips (e.g., drive in movies, swimming in lakes, beautiful mountain drives and the first time I ever saw the ocean!)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A wonderful feature about the US on it's special day. So much to see!

sfgirl said...

There is, indeed, Jean-luc! I am looking forward to the loop back through the central states again. Hopefully I can take my time a little more and do more sight-seeing... I would love to see Yellowstone National Park!

kathleenmaher said...

Beautiful photographs. Here in NYC, I miss the expanse out west.

sfgirl said...

...but you have all the action! LOL! And you live where the publishers are! You can always do a booktour like me and end up in the rolling hills of Wyoming too! Thanks for the compliment on the pics. Not all are mine, but I did choose them (LOL!) and the United States is so photogenic. I'll be posting more on my trip, so stay tuned to more photos too... :)

x said...

What you were in Idaho and didn't stop to see your favorite blogger? Maybe on your trip back you will be in Boise ay? If you do I will give you a preview of some writing I am doing. Speaking of which; how is that Darwin's Paradox being received? I have been looking to pick up a copy.
Glad you are in America Nina. (Rat Race call out was funny: "You girls wanna buy a squirrel? They make crackerjack pets!") Have a wonderful journey!

sfgirl said...

HAR! I can still see that scene with the squirrels! LOL! Hey, Esau, I WAS seriously thinking of returning via Boise... Send me your telephone number (email it to me). I will call you and we can do lunch (and autograph my book; LOL!)

rv dealers said...

US is such a huge country . I am planning my 6 month trip next year . I am all ears for your experiences.

sfgirl said...

Six months! WOW! I wish I had six months to do what I'm doing... Good job! Stay tuned here because I will be posting several more posts on my experiences throughout the US, which I think you will find both entertaining and educational and (like I said in the post) full of information you wouldn't find in a tourist book! LOL!

Baby Brie said...

Being an ecologist on the road, I thought you might be interested in a few tips for the trip home and for trips you make in the future. I took these tips from Natalie Ermann Russell's article, "Green Road Trip" which was published in the August 2008 issue of "body and soul".
Is your car in tip-top shape for the drive home? Properly inflated ties can increase fuel efficiency by 3 percent. A clean air filter can boost fuel efficiency another 10 percent. If you need to add oil to your car, purchase oil that is labeled "Energy Conserving" by the American Petroleum Institute which will increase your fuel economy another 3 percent or more.
Slow down. According to, one second of speeding can produce the same amount of CO2 emissions as a half hour of normal dirivng. If you go 70 mph instead of 60 mph, you are paying 40 cents more per gallon of gas.
Stay at an ecofriendly hotel. Visit for a list. If your hotel isn't officially green, turn off lights when your are not using them, switch off the AC when you leave, take shorter showers and use your own toiletries instead of the packaged ones left by the hotel.
Park in the shade so your vehicle won't get so hot and you will use less air-conditioning (if you have air-conditioning...)
Take fewer left turns. UPS estimates that in 2007, it saved more than 3 million gallons of fuel and reduced its trucks' CO2 emissions by the equivalent of taking 5,300 cars off the road, just by planning routes with right turns in mind.
Join the Better World Club which is like AAA for environmentalists!
See Russell's aritcle for more tips.
Happy Travels!

sfgirl said...

Thanks, Baby Brie! All excellent tips for the rest of my roadtrip. I'm fascinated by the UPS study on how left turns are connected to increased fuel consumption. WOW! Neat! I NEVER would have guessed. Okay, everyone, you read it right here! (get it? RIGHT here?... okay, bad pun...)

webdesign brno said...

US is such a big country and there are lot of cultures. Hey happy 4th of july btw .

sfgirl said...

Yes, I am finding that too, first hand! What an experience! I'm so loving it! Stay tuned for more posts on this...starting with some of the neat people I've met.

oval said...

Beautiful pics and beautiful contry ....

sfgirl said...

Thank you, Oval. Did you see my second post, on Louisville, Kentucky? Here it is: ... more pics... :)

Romantic bed and breakfasts said...

Hollywood is a district in Los Angeles, situated west-northwest of Downtown Los Angeles. Due to its fame and cultural identity as the historical center of movie studios and movie stars, the word "Hollywood" is often used as a metonymy of American cinema, and is often interchangably used to refer to the greater Los Angeles area in general. The nickname Tinseltown refers to Hollywood and the movie industry. Today, much of the movie industry has dispersed into surrounding areas such as the Westside neighborhood, but significant auxiliary industries, such as editing, effects, props, post-production and lighting companies remain in Hollywood, as does the backlot of Paramount Pictures as well.

SF Girl said...

Cool! Thanks for the info... :) Oh... and I really like your use of the word "metonymy" ...