12 March 2012


When I finished college I kicked around a few temp jobs in Milwaukee, and then I got lucky - I got a job in admissions at Regis College in Denver, Colorado in May, 1992. I loaded up my meager possessions into the Caprice Classic (thanks, Dad!) and drove west.

I didn't know anyone in the whole timezone, and didn't know much about those huge, square states between the Midwest and California. They weren't interesting geographically, so I hadn’t taken the time to learn much about them. On my mental map, the space between Lincoln, Nebraska (in my world, decidedly Midwest) and Sacramento (West) was blank.

I was confronted by my own ignorance, and was surprised in waves at what I found "out there" - mountains, yes, but space. So much space. I drove 18 hours to cover the 1100 miles from Milwaukee to Denver, which made some sense to me because Denver was in the West. California was in the West. What shocked me was that after all that driving I was not quite halfway to San Francisco. In my mind's geography, the rest of Colorado, Utah and Nevada simply weren't that big, and Denver was, oh, a seven or eight hour's drive from the west coast. (It’s 19 or so.) It's not quite as bad in degree as the error that Christopher Columbus made when he got to the Caribbean and thought he was in the South China Sea, but it was bad. This was precisely the type of thing I was supposed to know. How did I not realize this, I wondered?

As I lived in Denver, I learned a lot about the West - what mountains do to weather and roads and accessibility and culture; how water, a resource that is so bountiful in the Midwest as to be wholly ignored, was scarce and precious; what urban sprawl does, irrevocably, to natural beauty.

As I sat in Denver, broke, I'd think about weekend roadtrips to Cheyenne and the Rocky Mountain National Park and, yeah, on occasion, Milwaukee, and that required logistics and planning and thought while looking at maps. I'd then drive the roads that I saw on the map and I learned their beauty or desolation or both. I'd find a restaurant with taciturn locals and improbably good steaks for ridiculously low prices. I'd find a replica Statue of Liberty in Kansas, moonscapes along I-76, and good fry bread in Native American land. I got to know it. From Denver I explored to the Four Corners and over to Vegas (for Christmas one year for a Marquette-UNLV game), down to Albuquerque, up to Boise and Pullman, WA, and laterally from San Francisco and SoCal to Milwaukee and Chicago and St Louis at different times. I filled in the spaces in my mental map of "the west" with data.

As I looked out my 8th story window in Denver to the mountains and thought about and planned and tried to impose some sense of all of that space, all of that space was imposing a sense on me.

The same thing happened as I looked out my 8th story window in Dhaka. Before my trip to Bangladesh, when asked if I'd been there or to that part of the world before, my standard response was "No - nothing between Singapore and Venice." I knew what countries were there, just like I knew that Utah and Nevada were between Denver and the Pacific, but that's very slim knowledge on which to - well, on which to base anything.

Being in Dhaka filled in my mental map of a region that had been tabula rasa. What I learned from being there gave me insight into a whole region of billions of people. Not that I know what life is like there, but I can conceptualize it in a way that was impossible for me in January.

It's an imperfect analogy, but what I'm most reminded of is when a felt tip pen has extended contact with a cloth surface: the ink spreads out from one point to fill a growing space, and the longer the contact the broader the circle. Usually, that ink is indelible.

When I moved back to Chicago from Denver, my perspective had changed, indelibly, and I had a new lens through which to see things that were familiar. I loved - LOVED - Lake Michigan and treasured it in a way I hadn't - couldn't have – done before I realized what an amazing and beautiful natural resource it was. I loved the fact that I could get on a train in Chicago and in ninety minutes be in a whole other city, unlike Denver's isolation that required a 500 mile drive to be in Omaha (Omaha!) or a 600 mile drive to be in Kansas City. I loved the trees in the Midwest that I'd never really noticed before, and that deep green that fields and grass get in the summer that you don't get west of the Missouri River.

I was in Denver about 28 months; I was only in Dhaka about 28 days. I don't want to overstate the case.

I do know, however, that even though the tip of the pen might not have been left on the cloth that long, an indelible mark was made. I won't forget what I saw. I only wonder how it will shape what I see in the future.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writing.