CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — In Search Of America

The last time I wrote to all of you I was about to embark on my John Steinbeck Jr. camper truck journey in Colorado. I had no idea what to expect. The rig I rented in Denver was really designed for back country exploring — heavy tires, a very powerful engine, shovels and other equipment latched to the side and four extra cans for gas affixed to the back of the rig. I could have gone off-road into the slickrock canyon country of Utah.

But that was not my intention. I spent my week in the fabulous country between Rocky Mountain National Park and Salida, between the Rocky Mountain front and Aspen. There are dozens of National Forest campgrounds in that region, sometimes labeled the Top of the World. I stayed in seven of them.

I was alone. There were a few people I would have shared at least part of the journey with, but this one needed to be solo, for a variety of reasons. The camper had a refrigerator, a kitchen, a queen-sized bed up over the cab of the pickup, a table and, as Steinbeck says, room for three or four people if you don’t have many personal space issues.

I’d find my next National Forest campground about 1 or 2 p.m., determine either the most scenic or the most isolated campsite, claim it, pull out my yellow camp chair and a cold soda and read off and on for the rest of the afternoon. I’d walk around snooping out other people’s rigs and make sure there wasn’t a much better campsite to move to, but mostly I would read and take notes and doze and gaze at the Aspen or cottonwood trees, or listen to the breeze in the pines.

There is no joy greater (well …). There are few joys greater than reading for an afternoon in a beautiful place. A comfortable chair, a cold drink, the breeze in the pine trees, the low ripple of the river slipping by on its way to the gulf. The pure joy of feeling the sun on your face after a long winter. Later in the afternoon, you look up to study the sky. Perhaps a modest thunderstorm forms in the west. There is still snow on the mountains. People walk by with their dogs and they speak in hushed tones. If the reading is good, the cold drink is eventually replaced with a glass of wine. You are almost too lazy to get up and cook dinner. Read, daydream, read, take a stroll, imagine, fantasize, read, read, sip, gaze into thin air.

I was never afraid except once, when a cluster of homo sapiens commandeered a whole National Forest campground as a place to shoot guns, fireworks and play the most aggressive country music deep into the night with decibels enough to fill Denver’s Red Rocks. Add some serious grain alcohol to that mix and you begin to feel you have woken up into a “Mad Max” movie. I fear no bear or moose, but I admit to sometimes fearing homo sapiens.

There is no greater freedom than being somewhere in the American West with nowhere you have to be, ambling in search of the perfect platonic campsite, living on little and just giving yourself to all that astonishing open public land. When I have lived abroad, the thing I have missed most is the outback, the national forests, national parks, national monuments, the endless highways, especially secondary highways, the sheer immensity of America and all the lesser-used state parks. Ken Burns called the national parks America’s best idea. I don’t agree with that — Jefferson’s great sentence beginning “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is America’s best idea, but the parks and forests and monuments and wildlife refuges are right up there.

I read more in a week than I get to read in a month. I wrote a good deal, and my Muse was a sweet gentle generous breeze that laved me like a Greek goddess.

I came away with a few insights and a few resolutions. Here’s a resolution. I’m writing a new book. Actually I am simultaneously working on several. On about Day Two, I tried to reckon how much of my life I have spent watching TV. This after one of the books I was reading, “The Heart of the Humanities” by Mark Edmundson, argued that watching TV is a kind of double offense. First, you are watching TV and not doing something more Jeffersonian. Second, you are sitting on a couch or a chair. So you are wasting your mind and wasting your body at the same time.

Though this is obvious, I had never thought about it in that way before, so I spent a lot of time blushing in the wilderness and looking for a tree to hang myself in. So I resolved not to watch any television until I finish writing this book, which I reckon will be about Thanksgiving. By then, with any luck, I will have forgotten what television is.

I seem not to have missed much. When I disappeared into the wild, President Trump was saying and doing things that pleased his base and drove everyone else nuts. When I came out, President Trump was saying and doing things that pleased his base and drove everyone else nuts. It’s like I turned off the universe with a switch for a week and a half.

Second resolution. I’m going to find a way to spend much more time in a Steinbeck-like camper rig. Steinbeck knew what he was doing. When I see those giant bus-RVs of the sort that rock stars use, or the fifth wheels that are as long as a semi-truck, I’m grossed out. I am intrigued by the wee little tear-drop trailers that are quite common now, the ones that fold out and become a kind of one-person sensory deprivation chamber. My young engineer friend Robin was last known to be building her own little trailer rig by welding spare rocket parts and struts from old windmills. But the Steinbeck camper van is for me just tidy and miniature enough, just comfortable enough, capable of going wherever a pickup goes in the world, and intensely romantic.

My dream is to buy a used rig and a used pickup and go see the country for a year or two — about six monthlong treks per annum, with stops at home in Dakota to swap out my traveling library and take care of some tasks. I named my little starter trek “Clay’s Search for America” (or a bit of it), and I would expand that to a full meandering exploration of America. I always cheer up when I get out into the heart of the heart of the country, into rural America or into the wild. It’s always wonderful to realize again how vast America is, how diverse, how astonishingly beautiful it is, how much of it has been set aside — thank you, Theodore Roosevelt — for our spiritual renewal.

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