Hope for a Beautiful America: A Road Trip for Independence Day

[Originally posted on Jul 1, 2012]

On this fourth of July week, I look out at a blue sky with cotton-like cumulus clouds floating over the Rockies – the majestic range of purple mountains we sing about this time of year in praise of the beautiful country we live in.  We arrived here after taking a road trip up from Phoenix to the Vail Valley.  I can’t think of a better way to spend this holiday than by experiencing 800 miles of the American Southwest by car.

We left the sweltering heat of Phoenix and headed up the I-17, a route familiar to many Phoenicians who escape the heat by traveling to to the cooler, smaller town of Flagstaff, Arizona.  As anyone in the southwest will tell you, the government’s definition of “forest” is a loose one when you see the national forest signs and nothing but two foot tall brush as far as the eye can see.  On this trip between the two cities, you experience the change of climates and see the forests truly develop – the brush become bushes, the bushes become six foot tall trees, and the trees become enormous pine trees, greeting you as you enter Flagstaff.

We headed east on the I-40 to pick up the US-89, driving past dormant and extinct volcanos that make up much of northern Arizona.  One of the areas we drove past is a favorite destination of ours – Sunset Crater National Park.  At Sunset Crater, you still see the black lava from an eruption that took place less than 1000 years ago, along with the forest life that found a way to grow beyond its ashes.  Next to Sunset Crater, you also have Wupatki National Monument – ruins of a civilization who thrived after the eruption, thanks to fertile soil created from volcanic ash.  When my parents saw this area a few years ago, my father commented that it goes to show that specific things die and species become extinct, but Mother Nature always has a greater plan, and there’s nothing we can do that will get in her way.

Past Flagstaff and just past the easternmost part of Grand Canyon National Park, we hopped onto the US-160, which takes you into deep into the Navajo Nation.  In a few days we will celebrate our freedom and independence, yet the history of this land serves as a reminder of how easily it can be to move from the oppressed to the oppressor.  By the mid-to-late 1800s, the U.S. Government and the Navajos had ongoing problems with raids, violence and violated treaties.  The U.S. rounded up the Navajos and placed them in an internment camp with other tribes – 10,000 people living in an inhospitable area that was only 10 square miles.  Food was in short supply, the water wasn’t clean, and disease ravaged the camp.  Eventually, the U.S. established a larger boundary for reservation land, giving the Navajos back a lot of the land they were taken from, and those who survived were allowed to return home.

I know this time of year we don’t want to talk about our country’s historic failures such as this, but I think we need to – what makes America great is that it is in the hands of the people.  No matter how badly Texas lawmakers don’t want you to think critically, it is human nature to do so, and the success of this country lies in our ability to think for ourselves and to take a stand when we see oppression.  If you are on the left or the right, that previous sentence has got you thinking of two completely different things.  That’s fine, I suppose, but as we watch the fireworks, as we sing “Yankee Doodle,” let us remind ourselves of the founding fathers and the revolutionaries who died not for our complacency, but for our activism.  They fought for the belief in a government for the people and by the people.  Not for and by the 1%, corporations or lobbyists, and not so we can passively elect political party caricatures to represent the signer of their largest campaign check.  As I drove through land that tells a tale of a darker American history, I’m reminded we cannot afford to sit idly by when a government supports fear mongering and inhumanity.  As all of history has shown, one thing always leads to another, and complacency will ultimately lead to an inhumanity comparable to the Long Walk of the Navajo.

History is a combination of triumph and loss, hope and despair.  This road trip through history is no exception, as evidenced by the wonderful national parks we encounter.

Author Wallace Stegner once wrote, “National parks are the best idea we ever had.  Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”  Following this road trip from Phoenix to Colorado, you encounter some of the most exceptional national parks in the country.  In addition to Sunset Crater and Wapatki, you’re reasonably close to the eastern end of the Grand Canyon, and aren’t too far of a drive from the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.  After driving through Navajo Nation and onto the 191, you end up in Moab – a quintessentially charming Utah town once famous for its uranium mining back in the Cold War days.  Moab serves as a gateway to two other great national parks, Canyonlands and Arches.  These parks represent the love and respect we have for our land.  As we drove past deep red rock formations and copper-rich green mountains, I felt grateful for living in a country with such a variety of beauty within its borders.  Our geology is as diverse as our people, and we are inherently lucky for both.

The Colorado wildfires remained on our minds through the trip.  We took a brief detour around the Four Corners to go into southern Colorado, and the hazy air and smoke plumes were heartbreaking to see – it really seemed as if the entire state was on fire.  As Arizonans, we are all too familiar with the danger and devastation of wildfires – to date, Arizona has lost land greater than the size of Connecticut to wildfires.  Even considering that, what is happening in Colorado is like nothing we have ever seen.  Our hearts go out to the communities affected by these fires, and we hope for fast containment as well as the safety of the firefighters.

Driving past Grand Junction on the I-70 gave us a remarkable view of the Pine Ridge Fire, a fire believed to be caused by a discarded cigarette.  As we drove east on the 70, we saw white and black plumes fill the sky.  Freeway signs warned that the fire was nearby, but we were not in danger by any means.  As we headed into De Beque Canyon, we were surprised to see exactly how close we were to the outer edge of the fire – you could clearly see the flames from the freeway, small pockets of them, gradually cascading down the steep slopes of the mountain.  We spotted two helicopters doing remarkable work to fight this fire.  The pilots would lower the chopper down to the Colorado River, which separates the mountain from the freeway, to the point the chopper would be level with the cars on the freeway.  They would scoop up water from the river, then carry it over to the fire line, piloting perilously close to the edge of the mountain to attempt to aim the giant bucket of water to fight the flames.  These choppers were doing this over and over, for who knows how long.  Just imagine – these pilots are putting their lives at risk because someone mindlessly threw a cigarette out of a car.  This is a typical story for wildfires – it seems when they are not caused by arson, they are caused by self-centeredness; a discarded cigarette, a campfire improperly extinguished… the beautiful America we sing about is taken for granted far too often.

Now that we are at our destination for our fourth of July, I am glad we decided to trek through the hauntings of our history and our present to get here.  Like all history, the history in this region is one of beauty and ugliness, greatness and shame. We must accept it all and embrace the spirit of those before us who took a stand for better life and better government.  We must continue to show commitment to preserve the beauty of our land, live consciously rather than mindlessly, and speak loudly when the voices of others have been muted.

In other words, as we celebrate this fourth of July, let’s all be great Americans.

Photos copyright 2004-2012 Anne-Marie Pleau and Chris Giard.