It’s hot. My feet are sweating. Why did I decide to wear socks and sneakers? I consider taking them off and pushing the petals barefoot when the car in front of me inches two feet forward. I must follow.
The air is perfectly still. It has become viscous, coagulated into a clear jelly suspending us all in place like pieces of fruit lodged in a Jello salad. In front of me, a long snake of traffic winds up Highway 36, writhing its way toward Denver in a trance. The backs of cars emit a brilliance, visible heat swirling off their roofs and bending the light up into the bright blue sky.
“Where is our exit?” asks my patient friend from out of town.
I always get confused on this part of the highway. Even when there weren’t so many buildings and billboards, a decade ago when I could tell where I was by “Great Scott’s Eatery” on my left, and that steakhouse with a giant neon necktie being lobbed off by a giant pair of scissors on my right, I still got flustered when navigating my way around these suburbs.
“I think it’s coming up,” I assure her, not wanting to let on that I’m not exactly sure what exit to take, trying to spare her my heat-induced nightmare. Now that we’re crawling along the road like a mass of rodents, I can’t track my progress by speed. I can’t estimate which one of these ramps to pull off on, because normally I would take the one I hit after ten minutes or so, but we’ve been sitting here motionless on the melting asphalt for at least ten minutes. She pulls her hair up off her sweaty neck, holds it behind her head with both hands, and gazes helplessly out the window.
I know where she needs to go. We need to make our way, as the crow flies, about five miles northeast. I could toss a stone directly onto her rooftop if I had the strength. But a sea of metal and concrete is in my way. Gazing in that direction, I make out small hills covered with condominiums, wide winding avenues and giant colorful signs for Circuit City and Costco. I see metal guardrails and dangling traffic lights, oceans of parked cars and tons of drive-through banks.
But when I narrow my eyelids and let the stifling heat seep into my mind and overpower my senses, I see something else: a beautiful, lush valley as it was three hundred years ago laying trapped beneath all this hubris and construction; a palimpsest of the old and the new, the past visible underneath the present to anyone with eyes sore enough to search for it.
Landmarks remain: the huge cottonwood tree with branches thick and heavy with green leaves, clinging to an island of soil surrounded by pavement in a pet store parking lot. The gentle slopes of once-grassy hills where Native American children may have somersaulted, now coated in cars moving in lines like ants carrying out their civic duties.
The longer I look, inhaling the fumes of idling pick-up trucks, the more I see. Teepees crop up in small groups alongside running streams filled with fish and frogs. Deer and elk roam the hillsides. I hear the wind in the trees, the babble of water on rocks, the crack of twigs as deer tread lightly. A serene, peaceful stillness envelopes me, disturbed only by the piercing cries of an eagle, screeching screeching screeching—
Eagle is a car horn. The guy behind me is pissed off. I should be moving two feet forward. Our march continues.
Like Edward Abbey and his fervent wish for the American deserts of the West, I hope one day this land will be returned to itself, left alone of man and our “iron dinosaurs.” If men “in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelope the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas,” (which seems as likely as ever), I too am rooting for the land.
I am rooting for this valley in particular-this valley I know will win. I know that once these clogged arteries are empty of automobiles and deer once again have the right of way, this valley will heal the wounds we dug into it. Only the subtlest scars will remain. A Taco Bell sign popping just slightly out of a thick patch of grass. One of those plastic tubes that shoot magically into bank teller’s hands from our car windows, bobbing along Boulder Creek on its long path to the ocean. This lush valley of the past, which I can see with my eyes half closed and hear over the din of idling engines and distant honks and tire squeals, will sprout aspens again and cottonwood groves will line the banks of the creek.
I know it will return because I can feel its spirit. I used to think it was the Indians I could feel, the people who lived here long before me. But today, in this horrid stifling traffic jam, I understand that it is the land I am feeling. There is a spirit here that has not been killed, even though it has been paved over, flattened, built upon and dug into. A spirit drifting on the heat into the pores of my left arm resting out the car window, seeping into my skin and addressing my soul.
I am still here, the land whispers. I am stuck just like you, imprisoned in the maw of civilization. But I am waiting. I will hold my breath and lay quietly until you all make your way home one last time.