Breaching the iron wall of I-25
When I was a kid in South Carolina, this fascination was directed at the ghost towns and blank spots on the map in Nevada, a state I'd never been to. Nevada, in the late 1980s, captured my imagination because it seemed so untracked and unexplored compared to the well populated rural areas of the South. The prospect of disappearing somewhere in the Basin and Range district for a while seemed to my barely pubescent mind the greatest adventure I could imagine in the Lower 48, particularly for a kid whose explorations were limited to the monoculture loblolly pine plantations of the muggy, mosquito-ridden hell hole of the Francis Marion National Forest just up the coast from Charleston.
Nevada's open spaces, empty highways and long-forgotten ghost towns epitomized the West for me. That vision of spending days slinking about old mining towns faded as I visited one western state after another, but always I was most interested in exploring the places few others seemed to care much about: Catron County, New Mexico; the blank spots on the Utah map between Moab and St. George; the even blanker spots on the map in western Utah and southeastern Oregon; the list goes on.
Today, I live in northern Colorado and, though I love the mountains and the desert here, my fascination for overlooked places is directed at the one part of Colorado everyone else turns their noses up at — the Eastern Plains. I've written before about how Interstate 25 might as well be an iron curtain, both politically and culturally. People in Fort Collins tend to look toward the mountains for all things interesting, fun and progressive, so if it happens east of I-25, nobody cares much because it might as well be in Kansas.
And Kansas, it's always said, starts at Denver International Airport, which is to say that everything east of I-25 is part of Kansas even though everyone drives around with green and white license plates.
Of course, for many Coloradans, there's no place that represents boredom, banality and backwardness more than Kansas. I mean, Kansas is flat, and there are lots of farms there and good Asian fusion restaurants are hard to find and Topeka has Fred Phelps and iPhones don't work well there and Kansas is just generally worse than Nebraska, even though people can't quite say why. Therefore, Kansas must be home to anti-altitude, corn-eating, mass-transit-hating freaks with a tornado fetish. Which means, of course, people with a better view of the mountains tend to fly through Kansas and the Eastern Plains as fast as possible on their way to somewhere else. Because elsewhere is always better than there.
And the grass is always greener in states that have mountains.
There's a grain of truth in all of that, I suppose, but I'd like to call bullshit on the idea that the Eastern Plains aren't worth exploring. Curiosity about what happens out there in the plains — Kansas or Colorado — is often greeted with the same kind of sneer you might get if you said you've lived in Denver all your life but have never visited the mountains.
Whatever. Breaching that four-lane iron curtain reveals much to appreciate.
That's why I enjoy the occasional roadtrip into the plains, where the collapsed storefronts in places like New Raymer and Bristol have their own stories to tell. Where the history on display at Sand Creek Massacre and Bent's Old Fort national historic is plenty rich. Where the oft-unnoticed badlands between Kim and La Junta in the Purgatoire River basin beg for a long hike. Where off-roading near Lamar last December was the most fun I've ever had in an XTerra. Where many of the county courthouses are some of the most architecturally interesting in Colorado. Where Burlington's carousel is one of the most odd curiosities on I-70 between Topeka and DIA. Where some of the emptiest, loneliest and most open landscapes in Colorado spread out before drivers along U.S. 385 or U.S. 160, which receive very, very little traffic.
In short, the Eastern Plains, like most everywhere else, are interesting. You just have to look a little harder to see it. And remember, the mountains will always be there when you come home.