Southweat Bounty of Space and Color

THE gift of the Southwest to the American spirit is - boundlessness. Its lingering images are distance and expanse. Its operative prefix is "un": unlimited, untouched, uncivilized.

What was for early pioneers the starkest stretch of a transcontinental trek remains so for disgruntled travelers today. Ask anyone who has tried to drive quickly through Arizona and New Mexico: There is simply too much land.

But here is enshrined the universal traveler's reminder to anyone racing from Point A to Point B. The journey isn't just your price of admission. It's also your reward.

The obvious bounty is deep color: green cactus, red dust, sienna buttes, and golden sunsets.

But other bounty abounds here.

Humor: boulder formations as comical as a set from "The Flintstones." Drama: lunar-like terrain so ominous that even lines of latitude and longitude hesitate to cross. And history: Indian dwellings as old as your imagination.

Objects in the Southwest are only punctuation marks to the distance: saguaro cactus silhouettes, tumble-down shanties, a far-off spiral of smoke. Each taps into the Rolodex of cliches carried in the memories of passersby.

One person conjures up a lanky Gary Cooper in boots with spurs or the shadow of Apache chief Cochise flickering on an adobe wall. A second sees the perfect set of striations for a geology lesson. A third sees only the reflection of his own boredom.

"Real" life intrudes but can be, and usually is, nimbly edited out.

The sad reality, for instance, of an Indian reservation filled with rusting mobile homes doesn't find a way into postcards sent home. A similar, mental white-out covers the tacky souvenir-stand signs, the tacky souvenir stand, and the tacky souvenirs.

Remembered instead are the romance of the white stallion against fall colors, the empty railcar, the trickling stream, or a herd of longhorns (maybe they were just a handful of cows).

Like some Zen master emptying his consciousness of all stray thoughts, this landscape has managed to stay empty of man. For the most part.

Back in the straight-jacketed world of boundaries - city blocks, cul-de-sacs, crosswalks - the lingering joy is the memory of a world where there aren't any limits.

Back in the "real" world it hits you: That might not have been a road trip, after all. It might have been a prayer.

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