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I spent the past week and a half on a road trip of several thousand miles that encompassed eight largely western states. Five of the eight I’d never seen before–I think I’ve previously noted here that I am not well-traveled. I am well read, so the things I see in new places, though I’m seeing them for the first time, serve as visual confirmation of what I often already know.

I have heard that the Texas Panhandle is one long stretch of wind farms, but until you see it, mile after mile of turbines turning lazily in the breeze, you don’t picture the extent of it. It sort of makes you reconsider your devotion to alternative energy, what a visual blight all those spinning blades are across the landscape; but of course our obsession with fossil fuels has ruined entire landscapes, leveled whole mountains, and done much worse to the environment.

I was mostly in New Mexico. I knew I would encounter different menu items at restaurants. I ate things like huevos rancheros and polenta con chorizo for breakfast. What I didn’t prepare for was being asked with each order whether I wanted green or red chili. I soon learned that red is usually milder–though it is an incremental distinction and not a comfort provided to Mid-westerners who are used to Cheerios and Pop Tarts on the breakfast table.

At a café in Chama, New Mexico I asked what was the soup of the day. It was chili, the waitress told me with only a hint of attitude, as if it would be anything else. I declined to order it, but she brought me a small bowl of it anyway, insisting I try it. It was delicious, but I still didn’t want chili for lunch. I probably didn’t make any friends in Chama that day.

I spent time in the area of the Four Corners, and I know that all these western states hold vast Native American Reservations. I passed through many, the Navajo being the largest, and the proliferation of casinos being the most notable sign that I was in Indian territory. In Santa Fe I saw scores of Native American craftspeople with their wares–mostly silver and turquoise jewelry–on display outside the Palace of the Governor. In Farmington I provisioned at a WalMart, where poor and unhealthy-looking Indian families thronged the aisles buying liters of Dr. Pepper, boxes of snack cakes, and frozen dinners.

As I say, none of this really surprised me, it only confirmed things I have read. But the most culturally striking event occurred the morning I left Hovenweep National Monument, where I had been camping. I had been unable to light my camp stove, and couldn’t make coffee that morning, so a stop at the first café offering breakfast was a necessity. It took an hour to reach a little town and find that café.

The place was busy, mostly with Indian families. The waiter was a polite young man who introduced himself as Corey and asked if I needed anything to drink. ‘Yes,’ I said, smiling, ‘Coffee! Lots of coffee!’ Corey did not smile back, and for quite a while the coffee did not come. When he finally produced a cup and poured me some coffee it was good and clearly freshly brewed. But a few moments later, when I had exhausted the contents of that cup, a refill was not forthcoming. I had to signal Corey to get him to produce the pot again. I found it odd that a place specializing in breakfast would be so stingy with the java.

Then I realized: I was in Utah. Looking around, I noticed that nobody else at any table had a coffee cup in front of them. I recalled that Mormons–the larger percentage of the population of the state, did not drink coffee. This to me was very odd. There was a table of four old guys, overalls and ball caps, just like a table of farmers you might see in Missouri, sitting there shooting the breeze, but not one of them had a coffee cup before him.

I have heard that this is because Mormons do not approve of the consumption of caffeine, but that can’t be true. In place of those coffee cups everyone had either a tall glass of iced tea or of soda, and while those drinks may hold a bit less caffeine than coffee, they are caffeinated beverages. I just found it so odd that people in Utah choose to get their caffeine from soda and iced tea instead of coffee in the morning. I continued to ponder it after I finally squeezed a few more cups out of Corey and hit the road towards Colorado.

 

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