According to the infoplease website, 6158.5 miles separates Istanbul, Turkey from Boulder, Colorado. I never even had a remote curiosity about such a fact until about nine months ago when my sister-in-law moved from our collective home state of New Jersey to the edge of the Rocky Mountains. What motivated her move was a combination of a paucity of jobs in NJ, the short one-year requisite time to gain residency in Colorado for in-state tuition purposes and a yearning for nature born of trekking the northern third of the Appalachian Trail. My wife and I had been in Turkey for two and a half years at that point, holding steady jobs teaching test prep to Turkish students. My own freelance writing career had also blossomed substantially during that time. We didn’t think much of Colorado but over time my SIL’s descriptions of Colorado’s idyllic greenery and liberal attitudes contrasted markedly with the congestion, air pollution and conservative attitudes of Istanbul and started sounding really good to us. My wife also began to develop a progressively stronger desire to continue her education. Finally, after a lot of animated discussion and planning, in March we informed our boss that we intended to leave Turkey in May for Boulder, Colorado.
A year ago what did Boulder mean to me? I had only bestowed two thoughts on Colorado in my life. First, I had never been west in my life. In 30 years I have traveled from Maine to Florida and most of Europe but I had never been west of Pennsylvania. For me, Colorado and the Rocky Mountains pretty much exemplified the great American wilderness that I had never seen in my life. I had tentative plans to move to Colorado about five years ago but I ended up in Manhattan instead (long story). Secondly, the town of Boulder has particular significance to anyone who as ever read any Stephen King. In the great author’s horror epic The Stand the author kills of 99.9% of the world by means of a military grade flu virus that accidentally escapes confinement. The survivors of this pestilence, who have a mysterious immunity to the Super-flu, begin having dreams drawing them to one of two locales: Las Vegas and Boulder. According to the character and goodness of the individual, people gravitated to one city or the other. Guess where the bad people went. The middle portion of the book details how survivors arrive in caravans from all over North America and begin to rebuild American society in Boulder. I first read the book when I was nine and I had absolutely no inkling that I would one day live in Boulder; the town of King’s fiction did not resonate with me at all.
Our plan was an Odyssey in itself. First we would pack up as many of our possessions as we could in suitcases and carryon bags and fly it all to New Jersey. What we could not fly we would either ship, give away or throw away. Fortunately we lived in a furnished apartment so we didn’t have anything in the way of furniture to worry about. Still, it cost us nearly $400 to ship four thirty pound boxes via Turkish post to Colorado. Our flight home was on Turkish airlines. The cheapest flight cost less than $700 per person but also flew to Philadelphia via Chicago. Once in New Jersey we would have to renew my wife’s driver’s license, purchase cell phones and a plan and finally buy a car, which we would drive the 1,800 miles to Colorado. We would also be taking as much furniture as we could fit in the trunk and back seats of a mid-sized Sedan. Once in Colorado, we already had a new apartment waiting, which my sister-in-law had found for the three of us. In theory I would resume teaching for Kaplan test prep and earning supplemental income via as much freelance writing as I could muster. It sounded intimidating and insane at the same time. I was quite excited at the prospect.
A flight from Istanbul to Chicago is exactly as long as it sounds. It takes about 13 hours and you cross eight time zones to get there. Fortunately, since we flew west, what we really got was just a never ending day. I watched “Casablanca,” “The Departed,” “Ocean’s Eleven” and “The Last King of Scotland” and we were still stubbornly airborne. The flight itself was blessedly free of turbulence, which was a welcome relief since Mountain RSTUVWXYZ in Iceland was still belching ash clouds into the upper atmosphere. We ate two meals, drank countless glasses of water, orange juice, club soda and tea. We took sleeping pills and melatonin, which granted us perhaps two hours of sleep. Still, we were in good spirits. As the plane crossed Lake Michigan, aimed squarely for O’Hare airport, we looked out the window as the Sears Tower, bathed in afternoon sunshine, came into view. As a last treat from our Turkish Airlines inflight entertainment system, as we came in for a landing, the screen changed to the pilot’s view. We watched the runway grow larger and larger. In those last moment’s airborne, the Windy City lived up to its name and gusts buffeted our craft, causing the runway on the screen to drift alarmingly left and right. With a bit of English our Turkish pilot eased first one, then two then three wheels onto the runway and with a burst of noise from the reverse thrusters, we came safely to a stop.
The layover in Chicago was strange. We waited on a line for passport control that trailed down a long hallway covered with murals and then entered a large waiting room at which point it snaked perhaps a dozen times back and forth before, after 30 minutes wait, a passport control officer gave us a hard glance, stamped the passport and ushered us unceremoniously back into our native land. No one gave me a hard time about the 50-odd bootleg DVD’s that we smuggled nervously behind real DVD’s in our massive movie wallet. No one prodded us about the Turkish coffee, Turkish tobacco or the sack of Sicilian sea-salt that looks eerily like a kilo of Colombia’s finest heroin. We were home.
Unfortunately we also had to retrieve our bags and then check them back in for our connecting flight to Philly. That was a simple enough process of carting the bags to a group of Burly TSA porters who sent them back into the mysterious warren of conveyor belts from whence they came. One of our worries was being hit with four of those nefarious baggage fees that American carriers have introduced but said fear turned out to be groundless. The second leg of our flight was on a dingy 737 piloted by United. As we flew I read Hemispheres inflight periodical with relish. I contributed two articles to the inflight magazine in 2009 and 2010 but I had never seen it before. Another source of excitement was the impending arrival of heavy thunderstorms in Philadelphia, which our brave captain aimed to beat with a little faster than usual airspeed. We almost made it but just as we were coming in we flew through a few thunderheads, which pitched our plane about and lit up the cabin with so many lightning bursts that it felt like a fireworks display. We landed safely on the wet runway thirty minutes early and then promptly waited thirty minutes for the back log of planes in front of us to safely taxi and park. During the wait I learned from my seat mate and his trusty Blackberry that the Philadelphia Flyers had just engineered a third period come back from a three-goal deficit to become the fourth American sports team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win.
My wife’s grandparents picked us up at the Philadelphia airport and drove us to their home in Delaware where we would stay for two days until my wife’s parents could pick us up and drive us to their home in New Jersey. We were grimy, exhausted, headachy and irritable-nothing that 14 hours sleep, a shower and a massive bacon and egg breakfast couldn’t cure.
Our time in New Jersey was consumed by car shopping, visiting friends and relatives, packing and sleeping. We did our best to avoid splurging too much on dinners out, drinks and shopping. Since I kept my Nokia 5800, which I bought in Turkey and was unlocked, we saved some money at AT&T Wireless. We shopped for cars for exactly two days, browsing Honda’s and Nissan’s until finding our car, a 2008 Nissan Altima that was in mint condition with 14,000 miles on it.
After two and a half weeks of making such arrangements, we set out at 5 AM with a fully packed car, heading west-bound on route 80. As we drove through the foothills of central Pennsylvania I grew increasingly excited by the approach of the Ohio border, the beginning of new territory. Our planned route was to take 80 until Akron, Ohio at which point we would swing southwest on 76 until Columbus, at which point we would pick up route 70 for a straight shot through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and finally Colorado. We planned to do the entire trip in two days and I set St. Louis as a halfway point.
We packed two coolers with assorted snacks and drinks: trail mix, nuts, beef jerky, turkey jerky and four turkey/cheddar sandwiches along with a twelve pack of water bottles and a twelve pack of ghastly-sweet Lipton green ice bottles. We drove in four to six hour shifts, stopping to switch and for bathroom breaks.
Passing into Ohio we began to leave the forests of the east coast behind and entered more rolling country with neighborhoods, farms and open fields. We began to see landmarks along the side of the road that are uncommon sights for New Jersyans: ads for fireworks, Barbeque steakhouses, pro-life ads and exceedingly large crosses. Our route also passed several notable sports stadiums. In Indianapolis we passed Lucas Oil field where the Colts play, Busch Stadium five miles down the Mississippi from 70, the KC stadiums of the Royals and the Chiefs and finally Coors field and Invesco field (the Rockies and Broncos respectively). After Indianapolis, Indiana and Southern Illinois gave way increasingly to large tracts of farmland. As the sun was setting we grew excited as the Mississippi and Missouri rivers grew closer and closer. My sister-in-law warned me that many people setting out from New Jersey aimed to reach Saint Louis but stopped before the Missouri border. The Mississippi-the river of Mark Twain, New Orleans and devastating mid-western floods-was wide, brownish and steely. To the south we could see the Gateway Arch and downtown St. Louis. We had gone from the west to the east in a day, exceeding our target. That night we had dinner at an Olive Garden in Wentzville, Missouri and stayed at a Best Western.
Being in Missouri gave us the off quality of being in the south although the state lies halfway between Mexico and Canada and according to most presidential elections is the best barometer of national political sentiment. We had biscuits and sausage gravy (one of my favorite breakfasts of all time) and weak cups of coffee. As we resumed our westward sojourn on route 70 we entered the Great Plains, a sea of grass in which trees and towns grow more sparse (excepting Kansas City) until you reach Denver. We hit severe weather in Central Missouri. A cold front to the north rove a line of thunderstorms in our direction. The lip of these greyish/black thunderheads resembled a horizontal tornado and as the sky grew increasingly ominous we very conscious of the fact that we had entered Tornado Alley. Thunder, lightning and rain drops the size of silver dollars slowed our speed to about forty miles per hour.
We passed Kansas City, which route 70 passes directly through, until, ironically, we entered Kansas. Kansas is one of those states that goes on for a long time. The road is not as interminably straight and the countryside is not as boring as is commonly reputed. The enormous swathes of blue sky, the occasional herds of cattle, the gradual rise toward Colorado and the change to prairie grasses, the silver of grain silos and the neat symmetry of corn fields and farmhouses surrounded by small clusters of shade trees are all beautifully surreal. I was reminded of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the prototypical non-fiction crime novel in which two ex-cons drive across the country side and kill all four members of a family in an ill-fated 1959 robbery attempt. The openness of the Plains is eerily remote.
At last, our windshield splattered with the shattered remains of errant prairie bugs, we made it to Colorado. Driving through the high plains we drove in and out of low hovering thunder storms. One of the first things about Colorado that was new to me is just how low the clouds seem when you are over 5000 feet in elevation. A mile above sea level, looking up at the sky in Colorado feels like being at the top of a ladder with cumulus clouds as a ceiling.
We began to challenge one another about who would spot the mountains first. After Limon, route 70 hooks northwest toward Denver. The speed limit is 75 mph and everybody does 90. Finally, about fifteen miles east of Denver the southern range of the Rocky Mountains rising as grey smudges in the background. We hit traffic in the maelstrom of roads around the city but using the GPS on my cell phone, we navigated our way onto route 36, the badly potholed and weathered road leading into Boulder. Turning northwest we headed toward the front range.
Boulder, Colorado nestles in a valley at the foot of the Flat Irons where the prairie grass breaks at the foot of the mountains. It is a regular grid of streets with small houses, beautifully manicured yet haphazard gardens and obvious medicinal marijuana dispensaries. It is home to the University of Colorado Buffaloes. It is now my home.