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Mountain Home

Although I’ve always lived in relatively flat places in the Mid-Atlantic region, something about the western mountains just feels like home. On long road trips, the first glimpse of the mountains after days of travel across flat plains sparked gasps of delight. My family spent many happy hours hiking in the Rockies, tossing pebbles into rushing streams, and spotting wildflowers, birds, and mountain animals such as elk, marmots, and bighorn sheep.  

This summer, our first glimpse of the mountains after a long westward drive came near Taos, New Mexico. I pulled the car over and paused a few minutes to absorb it, stepping out to smell the sweet scent of Ponderosa pine. “Nothing like it, is there?” noted a fellow driver who had stopped for the same purpose. Nothing indeed.

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Nothing like the mountains

Taos seems just a bit enchanted. The area attracts artists, independent thinkers, and lovers of the outdoors. Earthships, an off-the-grid settlement, occupies acres of land on the Taos Mesa. Its name hints at the otherworldly feeling of peering at pods tucked into the desert like a settlement on some faraway planet. A few miles away from Earthships, we stayed overnight on the mesa in a funky domed house, gazing at the stars and dreaming of those other worlds.

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Domed house in New Mexico

The next morning, more up-and-down miles brought us to Moab, Utah, where dramatic land formations characterize Arches National Park. Years ago, I’d read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, which details his time as a park ranger at Arches. I’d worried about the human destruction of Arches after reading the book, but for now, the park seems to be managing its visitors wisely. In our experience, park guests seemed to respect the trails, content to marvel at the gravity-defying sandstone arches without feeling the need to desecrate them.

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Double Arch at Arches National Park

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Turret Arch

At last, after nine days of driving from Maryland, we reached our destination, Salt Lake City, our home base for the summer. Cool summer nights perfect for runs and bike rides in Liberty Park, friendly local people, inviting coffeeshops and restaurants, and the ever-present Wasatch Mountains just a short distance away: all of these are enough to make a place feel just like home.

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At home in Utah

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Beyond OK

My interest in Tulsa, Oklahoma started with books. The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s 1963 classic, earned a spot in my heart after I saw class after class of middle school students fall in love with its sensitive protagonist and his tough, loyal group of friends. Stay gold, Ponyboy!

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Just last year, reading Jennifer Latham’s compelling novel Dreamland Burning awakened me to another Tulsa story, a 1921 riot that destroyed a thriving black community in the Greenwood neighborhood and killed and injured hundreds of people.

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Around the same time as the riot in Greenwood, another racially motivated mass killing was taking place in Oklahoma, this one involving a wealthy Native American tribe. David Grann’s excellent nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon details the years-long conspiracy to murder Osage people in Oklahoma during the 1920s, and subsequent FBI investigation into the deaths. My bookclub read and discussed this book a few months ago.

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Modern day Tulsa is diverse and green, with an active arts scene and vibrant neighborhoods. Several filming sites of the Outsiders 1983 movie remain, though some have changed notably in 35 years. The Greenwood neighborhood no longer exists as it once did;  however, the Greenwood Cultural Center and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park stand near the site of the 1921 riot and remind us both of a dark time in Tulsa’s history, and the resilient potential of people and communities.

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John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. Image from Flickr, taken by JasonC_Photography

The town of Pawhuska, located about an hour’s drive from Tulsa, is the center of Osage tribal culture, as it was in the 1920s when the events detailed in Killers of the Flower Moon happened. Present-day Pawhuska has a museum dedicated to Osage culture and history, where a young docent chatted with us about the tribe’s rich traditions and resurgent interest in preserving their unique language.

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Downtown Pawhuska, Oklahoma in 2018

Nearby, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve protects a huge tract of original prairie lands, and supports a herd of over 2,000 free range bison. These magnificent creatures, once prolific in the eastern and western United States, can grow to weigh up to a ton. These (mostly) gentle giants ignored our gawking as they peacefully munched prairie grass.

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Tallgrass prairie bison

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Watch out for loose bison!

On our way from Tulsa to Amarillo, Texas, we stopped to pay our respects at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which honors those affected by the April, 1995 terrorist attack at the Murrah Federal Building. A ranger explained the significance of the memorial’s design: gates which mark the time of the attack and the beginning of the rescue and recovery mission, empty chairs which symbolize the lives lost, including tiny chairs for the victims who were children, and the Survivor Tree which stood through the attack and continues to thrive. Despite the horrific events that occurred nearby over 20 years ago, the memorial is a surprising oasis of peaceful reflection.

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Gate and reflecting pool, Oklahoma City Memorial

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Field of Empty Chairs, Oklahoma City Memorial

Prior to our visit this year, my only experience in Oklahoma was a few hours driving through on a childhood trip. Rich in history, resilience, and natural beauty, the state merits more than a quick drive though. I’m glad we made time to visit a place that’s more than just OK.

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Pausing in the Ozarks

Since October, my husband has commuted nearly every week from Maryland to Salt Lake City. This summer, we took advantage of my flexible teacher’s schedule to relocate to Utah and save him the weekly trips. As it worked out, we are both traveling more than ever this summer, by chance and by choice! We are both nomadic souls who rarely refuse an opportunity to be on the move.

We decided to bring a car out to Salt Lake City, taking a leisurely course through nine states. As a child, I had patient parents who drove us through much of the United States on long family camping trips. Over thirty years later, many of those beloved trip memories are turning fuzzy, and I was eager to make new cross-country memories.

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With my brother, causing trouble on a road trip circa 1983.

A bonus and challenge of the trip was driving Mike’s Tesla electric car, which has to be charged every 200 miles or so. A network of superchargers, many located near interstates, allows for “quick” charging, about an hour in most cases. Luckily the chargers are often near hotels, restaurants, or coffee shops. While the car charged, we slipped into those places for air conditioning and free WiFi, having a bite or catching up on email and news while we waited.

After lightning quick stops in Morgantown and Louisville, we slowed down for a couple of days in the Ozarks. We didn’t know much about the area, beyond a few references from movies and TV, not always of the positive variety.  We had few expectations besides a slower pace of life, much welcome after several days of moving at 70 miles an hour.

The farmhouse Airbnb where we stayed was charming, with glacial Internet service that encouraged us to unplug and enjoy nature instead of depending on constant technology. On the same land as the farmhouse was an original 1800’s log cabin, hinting at the area’s pioneer history. The Laura Ingalls Wilder home is not far away.

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Log cabin in Missouri, on the site of our Airbnb

Our sleepy break in the Ozarks featured one adventurous mishap in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways National Park, which connects 125 miles of rivers. We discovered just how scenic they are when our car bottomed out as we crossed one such river on our way to a trailhead. We spent over an hour stuck in the river, unable to move the car backward or forward, watching helplessly as water trickled inside. Luckily, two park rangers came to our rescue and towed us out. Our car and belongings were waterlogged, but otherwise unharmed. 

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Stuck in a scenic river.

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Our ranger rescuers

We celebrated in relief that evening with local moonshine, learning from our bartender that moonshine refers to unaged whiskey, and does not need to be bootlegged or made in a bathtub.

Among some, Missouri has acquired a less than savory reputation: in books, movies, and shows such as Gone Girl, Winter’s Bone, and Ozark, it’s depicted as a backwards, unfriendly place where few people would choose to live. It even made Fodor’s 2018 “No List” of worst places to travel for some policies and practices that are deemed less than progressive. Like any stereotype, though, there’s another side to Missouri for those that care to take a deeper look: scenic landscapes, kind and neighborly people, and the smoothest of sweet tea moonshines.

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Cave Spring by Thomas Hart Benton