Columnist Amber Black: Mother and daughter explore America in cross-country trek

  • Chavez Southwest Market in Antonito, Colorado, advertises the “best homemade biscochitos” and other traditional food of the area. AMBER BLACK

  • Dusk at a remote campground and hot springs at the foot of Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. AMBER BLACK

  • A mural in the city center unofficially dubs Bellingham, Washington, as “Ye Olde City of Subdued Excitement.” AMBER BLACK

  • A gray whale feeds off Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, with the Olympic Mountains in the distance. AMBER BLACK

  • Some of the many services available under one roof at “The World’s Largest Truckstop” on Interstate 80 in Iowa. AMBER BLACK

  • Owner Donald Chavez stocks a wide selection of local foodstuffs at Chavez Southwest Market in Antonito, Colorado. AMBER BLACK

  • The writer at sunset in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. EVA BLACK

  • Hispanic heritage is evident on Main Street in Antonito, Colorado, population circa 500, just north of the New Mexico border. AMBER BLACK

  • Wildflowers dot the meadows along the base of the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado. AMBER BLACK

  • An impromptu stop in Grinnell, Iowa, let the writer’s daughter, Eva Black, left, celebrate the college graduation of Katie Parrish, a former high school classmate at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley. AMBER BLACK

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The idea for our trip first took hold last fall. I mentioned to my 21-year-old daughter Eva that I was itching for a cross-country drive, one that could stretch out over a longer period than my hurried, caffeine-fueled treks when I moved from Massachusetts to California and back, in the 1990s.

When her reaction was “I want to do that!”, idle musing shifted to exploring whether it would actually be possible. Once we determined that we could manage five weeks away and the best time to leave would be April — the month I turned 50 — I decided that would be a fabulous way to celebrate, and it was on!

As we planned, we had several priorities. With our country so fractured and the values of many Americans seeming so foreign to me, I felt called to get out of this very blue corner of this very blue state. I wanted to go to places I’d never been, and show Eva parts of the United States she might not have reason to visit on her own. Relatedly, Eva hoped to explore with an eye toward relocating and launching her post-college life outside of New England.

On the epic trek that ensued, we visited 22 states and four time zones, and covered more than 9,000 miles (6,000-plus by car and about 3,000 by plane). We spotted license plates from 49 states, Washington, D.C., and six Canadian provinces — only North Dakota eluded us.

We were at sea level and 10,000 feet, and experienced temperatures ranging from the 30s to the upper 90s, and amazingly, only three days of rain or snow.

From Easthampton we headed for Virginia, the Appalachian regions of North Carolina and Tennessee, and eventually, Alabama. Our route then took us across the deep South and Texas to Albuquerque, where we left our car and flew to the Pacific Northwest. A week later we returned and meandered north to Colorado, then headed home across the Midwest, skirting Lake Erie and stopping at Niagara Falls.

We crossed the Hudson, Mississippi, Missouri, Rio Grande, and Columbia rivers to name a few, and traversed parts of the Blue Ridge, Smoky, Olympic, Cascade, and Rocky mountains. We spotted antelope, a snowy owl, a road runner, bald eagles, and gray whales, and after reading alarming warnings at various stops, were relieved we didn’t run into rattlesnakes, mountain lions or bubonic plague-carrying prairie dogs.

Meaningful interactions

But the most meaningful and memorable aspects of our journey were our interactions with the landscapes, institutions and people we encountered along the way, and our time with each other.

We giggled when we saw the sign for Chunky, Mississippi, the “Ye Olde City of Subdued Excitement” mural in Bellingham, Washington, and a series of billboards in the Dallas area for a dentist that proclaimed, “I make sexy teeth!”

When I handed my license to a hotel desk clerk near Shreveport, Louisiana, he asked me with awe, “Massachusetts?! Is that near Canada?” When I said, “About a four-hour drive,” he replied excitedly, “Wow! That’s fancy!” As we chatted more he warned, “Do NOT get cajun food here. I’m cajun, and this is NOT cajun country. This is northern Louisiana. Or as I like to call it, southern Arkansas.”

We spent a night in a remote campground in the San Luis Valley, a narrow stretch of high desert flanked by two ranges of the Rockies: the San Juans to the west and the Sangre de Cristos to the east. As the sun set, darkness fell, and the mercury plummeted, I lay on a picnic table in a sleeping bag, and marveled at the sky. I was almost overwhelmed by the quantity and brilliance of the stars, thanks to zero light pollution and an altitude approaching 8,000 feet.

Earlier that evening, after a soak in the hot springs on the grounds, Eva had treated me to a belated Mother’s Day gift of a massage, on site. As the masseuse ran the credit card and made small talk, she asked, “Isn’t this place weird?” “I don’t know,” I replied quizzically, “is it?”

“Yeah!” she answered. “There’s nine miles of quartz underground. And vortexes. And all the extraterrestrial activity. Sometimes you see red or blue lights, or sometimes gold, which can put you in a trance. I was in a trance once for an hour! You can’t move, but they’re communicating with you. Not with thoughts, though. With feelings.”

Vortexes or not, I was blissed out, for sure, when I fell asleep that night.

In tiny, dusty, Clarendon, Texas, we had lunch at a Lao-Thai cafe that startled us as we came upon it, like a mirage. “This is either going to be really good, or really bad,” I predicted as we turned the car around. It was outstanding — very authentic, according to Eva, who recently spent a month in Thailand and charmed the waiter by speaking a few words of Thai to him.

Chavez Southwest Market

Perhaps my favorite spontaneous experience happened in Antonito, Colorado, population circa 500, just north of the New Mexico border. We initially stopped to look at the Mexican-influenced murals and adobe buildings. But then I noticed the hand-written signs at Chavez Southwest Market: “Pueblo green chile! Empanaditas. Best Homemade Biscochitos.” I bubbled to Eva, “I don’t know what biscochitos are, but they have the best ones! Let’s check it out!”

We stepped into the humble little market and were treated to a tour by proprietor Donald Chavez. With pride and in exquisite detail, Donald explained how his grandmother had prepared the native herbs, beans, chile and corn-based products, and other local foodstuffs he stocked.

I was suffering from seasonal allergies and altitude sickness. Donald recommended chewing oshá, a root indigenous to that area and used historically in Native American and Hispanic cultures. It helped.

We purchased chicos, dried corn kernels, typically added to beans and other dishes; atole azul, blue corn meal used to make a thick, warm, beverage; and of course, biscochitos. Granted, we didn’t taste any others, but even so, I’m confident in the veracity of Chavez Southwest Market’s advertising claim. Those delicate, whisper-light sugar cookies laced with cinnamon and anise, were, indeed, the best.

Along with regional cuisine and quirky people, music had a starring role in our journey. Before we left, Eva curated a playlist of songs about the road and many of the spots on our itinerary. We drove on the Doc and Merle Watson Highway and passed the turn-off for the hometowns of Pete Seeger, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Kurt Cobain. I visited the Hank Williams Museum and saw the sky blue Cadillac he died in at age 29, on New Year’s Day, 1953.

We heard “Over the Rainbow” performed live, twice. The first time was at a bluegrass jam at a brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, when a fresh-faced young woman (visiting with a group from Boston, and clearly not familiar with the genre) was cajoled by her friends to get onstage. She belted out the song, musical theater-style, for the dozen of us in the room.

A few nights later, in a dramatically different setting, we watched Grammy Award-winner Patti LaBelle deliver a soul-drenched version in a packed, 5,000-seat arena in Montgomery, Alabama.

We saw wildflowers and watched spring advance and retreat and advance again multiple times as we moved through different regions and altitudes.

We observed widespread poverty and a remarkable number of churches and gun shops.

We spent a lot of time on secondary highways and local roads, and came across fewer Walmarts and more lively Main Streets than I expected. We wandered around the World’s Largest Truckstop, felt the vastness and isolation of the rural areas that make up so much of this nation, and admired the scenery in every state we visited.

Along the way, we spied Confederate flags, and toured a new museum focused on slavery, the Jim Crow era, and mass incarceration, and a new memorial honoring the thousands of victims of racial terror lynching in this country.

We sensed our otherness and were acutely aware of being in places that were far from home, literally and metaphorically. But we never felt unwelcome. I reflected on our status and privilege — economic, racial and otherwise — that allowed us to make this trip, with this level of comfort. And I thought about people I know who don’t have the means to do what we did, or would have felt uneasy or unsafe, in many of the places we traveled.

We were blessed with abundant help and hospitality (and flexible co-workers) to make this journey possible. We loved seeing this enormous, diverse country. And we had a precious mother-daughter experience that I’ll cherish forever, especially once Eva departs for the next chapter of her life.

I’ll miss her terribly, but I expect I’ll visit her often where she’ll be living, only a few, fancy miles from the Canadian border, surrounded by tall trees, big mountains, and the sea.

To get there, I’ll fly over the places we explored this spring, and I’ll remember how in every corner of this nation, folks love the land, people and traditions that surround them in the infinitely varied places we Americans call home.

Amber Black, of Easthampton, is the communications director at the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Her daughter, Eva Black, is preparing to spend the summer in Vermont before moving to the Pacific Northwest.