In my novel Nearly Canaan, Joshua and Jaya settle into a place unlike anything they would have imagined. It’s desert, for one thing, where nearly everything has to be irrigated, for another. Quite simply, it’s a lot like Yakima, in the middle of Washington state. The closest big city was Seattle, three or four hours away. And that, too, was far from much else.
Just consider these in miles, apart from flying time, even when you could fly direct.
- Anchorage: 1,448 miles. Alaska has a spiritual affinity in the Pacific Northwest, like it’s just up the road, more or less. Plus, it had good summer jobs on the crab boats, forget the riskiness.
- Honolulu: 2,680. Naturally, driving isn’t an option. As a vacation destination, though, this was a highly popular option, especially considering the sunshine.
- San Francisco: 679. Like this was the next town south, and like a grown-up version of Seattle, a few decades back. It’s still a long way to drive.
- Las Vegas: 871. Seemed close, especially in winter. Say a weekend getaway. Again, factor in the sunshine, if you ever left your hotel/casino.
- Denver: 1,024. While many think of the Mile High City as Western, we thought of it as Out East. Our awareness largely skipped right over it. See next item.
- Chicago: 1,737. Alaska was closer, and more of a kindred nature.
- New York: 2,408. Largely didn’t matter in our eyes.
- Washington: 2,306. Ditto.
- Tokyo: 4,792. Psychologically, it felt as close as the East Coast of the U.S. and about as influential. We shared an ocean, after all.
- Atlanta: 2,182. And you still had to get to Florida, which didn’t matter since we had Hawaii when you added it all up. Blah!
My novel Nearly Canaan starts off in a railroad crossing called Prairie Depot, and my story The Secret Side of Jaya returns there.
Prairie can be found as far east as Ohio, but it’s more extensive out on the Great Plains.
Here are some tidbits about the landscape.
- It’s bigger than I thought. The region runs from the Rio Grande river bordering Mexico all the way to the Arctic Ocean in Canada, and along the Rocky Mountains to the west. Its width is about 500 miles and it covers about a seventh of the continental U.S.
- Rainfall ranges between 13 and 20 inches a year, too little to sustain trees.
- Its natural vegetation is a variety of grasslands. And it’s flat or gently rolling.
- It had immense herds of bison as well as pronghorn. Prairie dogs, coyotes, prairie chicken, and rattlesnakes remain prominent.
- Native American tribes included Blackfoot, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche. The nomadic tribes followed the bison migration through the year.
- The introduction of the horse from Europe dramatically changed the Native culture.
- The rural Plains have lost a third of their population since 1920. Ghost towns, which have lost so much population they’re considered extinct, are the most common category of towns.
- The climate includes cold, harsh winters and very hot, humid summers.
- Without natural trees, hills, or mountains, there’s no protection against wind and erosion.
- The region includes Tornado Alley, based on the frequency and intensity of the twisters generated in its open spaces.
What surprises you here?
When Joshua and Jaya finally arrive in their Promised Land in my novel Nearly Canaan, they discover how far they are from other destinations.
As I recall, some people would drive hours for a fine dinner, and hours going back.
Here are some drive times from Yakima, Washington, to other Western locales.
- Seattle, 2 hours, 16 minutes. I remember it taking more like three or more.
- Spokane, 3 hours, 9 minutes.
- Walla Walla, Washington, 2 hours, 6 minutes. Having the Interstate down the valley has certainly cut the time here.
- Wenatchee, Washington, 2 hours.
- Portland, Oregon, 3 hours, 6 minutes.
- San Francisco, 12 hours, 6 minutes.
- Boise, Idaho, 5 hours, 33 minutes.
- Salt Lake City, 10 hours, 11 minutes.
- Denver, 17 hours, 19 minutes.
- Missoula, Montana, 6 hours, 9 minutes.
And that’s not stopping for fuel, food, or comfort.
How long does it take you to get to a favorite daytrip destination?
In my novel Yoga Bootcamp, Jaya’s guru is a native of Memphis, there on the Mississippi River.
And much of the action in my novels Nearly Canaan and The Secret Side of Jaya takes place in Arkansas, right across the river.
It’s more influential than I’d thought.
Here are ten tidbits.
- It’s populous. With a metro population of more than 1.3 million, Greater Memphis is the most populous locality in Tennessee. However, the city itself has 650,000 residents, making it second behind Nashville.
- FedEx headquarters. The airport is the world’s second-biggest cargo operation.
- The river. The busy shipping port moves 11 million tons of cargo a year, much of it arriving by train or truck.
- King Cotton. Half of the nation’s cotton is traded at the Cotton Exchange on the riverfront.
- Music. Sun Records (founded in 1950) became the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. It was the first label to record Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. It was sold in 1969 and eventually moved to Nashville. Meanwhile, Stax Records (1959-1976) was a fountain of the Memphis Sound, mixing blues, rhythm and blues, and soul.
- Graceland. Presley’s mansion is visited by 600,000 tourists each year. In America, only the White House attracts more.
- Civil rights. The motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in 1968 now houses the National Civil Rights Museum, a Smithsonian Institution affiliate.
- Edible flesh: The city is the largest livestock and meatpacking center in the South.
- Fire up: The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest each May offers $110,000 in prizes.
- Namesake: It’s named for the city on the Nile in Egypt.
Ever been there? What struck your fancy?
Outfall No. 5
Outfall No. 7
Getaway? I was about to say vacation. Who am I trying to kid? I’m retired!
Actually, when I was dutifully employed, “vacation” usually meant hunkering down at home to concentrate on my literary enterprises and revision, or maybe even a reading orgy, or taking off to a family or Quaker gathering. T’ain’t quite the same as going fancy free. Still, I managed to get away on some memorable trips.
In this list, I’m ruling out daytrips. Gotta be an overnight, at the least.
Here are ten I remember fondly, sometimes even from repeated visits.
- Appalachian Trail. Backpacking when I was barely 12 was an ordeal. One that’s everlasting deeply imprinted in my soul, especially the mountaintop of blooming rhododendron at the end of our week. What I recall most is the discovery that if you go far enough away from the trailhead, the litter disappears … and then you’re in a whole new, pristine, world.
- Fort Warden. The location itself didn’t overwhelm me, even though it overlooked the point where Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca come together. I think that was because of all the remaining fortifications. But such incredible waters! The former World War II naval post had become a Washington state park for the arts and hosted a weeklong workshop with some of my favorite poets. Nearby Port Townsend gave us some fun bars for our evenings. The former base is featured in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
- North Cascades National Park. My three times of camping there and a single mountain climb with views of Mount Shuksan included finding gold dust in my dishes as I washed them in a mountain stream that swelled with melting ice during the day. I had no idea how many tall peaks rise in British Columbia till I crested the summit that day and looked north.
- San Francisco. It was the southernmost point of a two-week vacation that included North Pacific Yearly Meeting sessions in Olympia, Washington, and camping in the North Cascades. My then-wife and I spent two nights in our sleeping bags in the San Francisco Friends meetinghouse (I think we paid two dollars a day). My introduction to fine Japanese and Thai cuisine came just around the corner. Why haven’t I returned?
- Chicago. Repeatedly, each one leaving vivid memories. The art museum alone is worth the trip, but I’ve also spent time high in the Chicago Tribune tower with Pulitzer-winning journalists. The last few visits were helped by having a lover residing in Hyde Park.
- Greensboro, North Carolina. It was a genealogy-research trip that then swung northeast to Philadelphia and Brooklyn. I need to go back and see more, now that I know what to expect.
- Lake Sebago region. The year before I remarried, I spent a week in October in a rustic cabin on the shore of Crescent Lake in Maine. Cold nights required a wood fire, that sort of thing. Learned to canoe there, too. Guess it was my Walden Pond experience.
- Cape Cod. Since the kids’ grandfather lived in Wellfleet, we had a great excuse to visit. It was an easy walk to the ocean and a short drive to Provincetown.
- Providence. We found a great deal on a luxury downtown hotel, one where we looked down on the dome of the Rhode Island state capitol. The mattresses alone were enough to make us not want to go anywhere else, but we did enjoy innovative cuisine and easy public transportation. Our strolls along the river and Colonial neighborhoods were enchanting. And then there was our tour of the Slater Mill and the industrial revolution.
- Eastport, Maine. To put this in context, we had earlier visited Camden in dead winter and were delighted. But that’s a tony, crowded tourist hive each summer and way out of our league. Ditto for another B&B up the shore in Belfast, when we attended the Common Ground Fair. Our trip to Eastport on a Memorial Day weekend, however, was more inviting. The unpretentious, working-class easternmost city in the U.S. simply felt like the real thing. And yes, the ocean views and fresh seafood were spectacular.
Where would you suggest? Any great memories?