Heaven on Earth
A Cross-Country Adventure

Jaclyn Pietrafetta

© Copyright 2011 by Jaclyn Pietrafetta

White House ruins at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.

When I was 18 years old, the summer before my freshman year of college, my uncle surprised me with a graduation gift that far exceeded my wildest dreams: a road trip around the country.
At the time, I only knew a few things about the trip. I knew that we were leaving from Massachusetts, driving through the southern states toward Louisiana, across Texas and Arizona, up the California and Washington coasts all the way to Vancouver British Columbia. I knew we also had planned to go through Montana, the Dakotas, and Michigan, making our way east back toward Massachusetts. And I knew that we expected it would take all but six weeks.
What I did not know was the lasting impact the trip would have on me. What I did not know—but came to find out—is the true definition of majestic beauty. Put simply, what I did not know was America. But I can tell you that when I finally met Her, it was love at first sight.
Nearly six hours after leaving my sleepy coastal hometown of Swampscott, Mass., our first stop led us to Fulmer Falls in Dingman’s Ferry, Penn. I don’t know if it was the warm weather, the serenity of the surroundings, or a combination of both, but few things are more meditative than immersing your soul in the power of the falls. Go on a hot summer day and watch the water flow like silk over the moss-carpeted rocks, while you listen to the roar of the water and watch the trees sway to the soul-feeding singing of the birds that glide around the heavenly abyss, and I’m telling you, it is nothing short of an out-of-body experience.
Following Fulmer Falls, we then continued on to Intercourse, Penn., where I lost my Amish virginity. In today’s technology-obsessed world of iPads, iPods, and the latest got-to-have gadgets, there is something truly extraordinary to be said about an entire community that still depends day-by-day on horse-drawn buggies, handheld wash bins, and old-fashioned outhouses straight out of Little House on the Prairie, the type of place where the only Kindle they know of is the kind they burn in their wood stoves at night.
Intercourse, Penn., also is an impressive testament to the meaning of a hard day’s work, where farms replace grocery stores, sewing machines replace department stores, and where the closest coffee shop is the cow in your backyard. Again, the natural beauty of everything strikes me—a colorful expanse of yellow and red tulips surrounded by miles upon miles of corn and wheat fields below an endless blueberry sky.
From the sky, we headed underground…spelunking in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, the longest-known cave in the world with more than 393 miles of interconnected passages. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, spelunking is the recreational activity of cave exploring. I’m talking about literally slithering like a snake through the deepest, darkest crevices of the world. In total, our underground journey took six hours. For the faint of heart and the claustrophobic, I’d recommend the much easier walking tour. ;)
Our cave adventures continued in Sweetwater, Tenn., at the Lost Sea, the largest underground lake in the country, where a tour guide led us to an amazing underground lake hidden hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface. As if the site of the lake isn’t magical enough on its own, a glass-bottom boat ride through the caverns almost makes you feel like you’re in a scene right out of Harry Potter.  
Then there are those American hotspots that are just pure rich in history and intrigue. For me, on this particular trip, it was the Bourbon Street of New Orleans, the old-fashioned attached houses with second-floor porches, an unspoken quiet atmosphere, even in the absence of Mardi Gras that makes you want to dance up and down its streets.
But Mother Nature makes me dance in a completely different way. It is music that doesn’t just move my body. It is music that feeds my body, mind, and soul. It is music that I NEVER would want to turn off, because I NEVER get sick of listening to it.. It is music directly from the Heavens, and it is beautiful. That is how I felt about New Mexico and Arizona—the one part of the country that I completely fell head-over-heels in love with.
If you ever want to feel—truly feel—natural, artistic beauty, Carlsbad Caverns State Park in New Mexico is the place to be. It’s as if God took a paintbrush of deep-blue sky, clay-colored rocks, green cacti and thorny shrubs and swirled it all together to make a beautiful flat canvas. Looking around this great barren land, I find it difficult to imagine how any life can survive in the heat of a desert…until I turned around and saw a preying mantis camouflaged on a cactus. Gliding him onto my finger, I stare into his dark, beady eyes, wondering with utter fascination what he’s seen and experienced of desert life that I have not..
Carlsbad Caverns State Park is amazing in another way: it’s a complete underground world of rock formations in such shapes as a “Whale’s Mouth” and a “bashful elephant,” some of the most fascinating natural creates I’ve ever seen in my life. Later at night, just when the sun takes its final bow for the evening into the horizon, so begins the Bat Flight from The Natural Entrance of the Cavern. Listen and watch QUIETLY at the state park amphitheater in front of the Caverns at sundown, and you can witness millions of bats, like a dark-swarming cloud, fly out for their evening feeding—a motion picture so impressive that even Siskel and Ebert would give it two thumbs up.
Our next incredible stop was Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, in particular, the “White House Ruins.” Built by the Anasazis (meaning “the ancient ones” in Navajo), the White House ruins were originally an 80-room pueblo carved LITERALLY into the edge of a canyon. To think of the painstaking time and effort that it took the Anasazi culture to build this structure pains me to describe it in mere words. It’s truly that extraordinary.
And speaking of extraordinary, I definitely cannot sum in one word up our next stop. I cannot sum it up in any words. How do you describe the Grand Canyon? How do you describe one of the greatest geological masterpieces in the world? How do you describe colors so rich you’ve never seen them before? How do you describe a sky so vast that it makes you feel invisible? How do you describe a land that COMPLETELY, TRULY, humbles every part of your very being? You can’t. You simply can’t.
As humbled as I felt about the Grand Canyon is equally as humble as I felt being among the giant sequoias in California’s Redwood Forest. To walk into a land as enchanted as the Redwood Forest, to look up at these massive living giants that are literally nearly as tall and as wide as buildings, and to think of the history—the millions of sunsets and moons—these living giants have witnessed, it is unconscionable that anything but personal experience can do them justice.
And then there are places like Jasper National Park in British Columbia, where turquoise water lakes shimmer like liquid crystal below rocky majestic mountain peaks, covered in thick blankets of ice fields hundreds of years old.
The same breathtaking beauty also is what describes places like Yellowstone National Park, home of Old Faithful and so many other extraordinary geysers and rainbow-colored hot springs. And none of that is to mention the wildlife we saw along the way: buffalo, grizzly bears, wolves, elk, a fox, mountain goats. I was, frankly, horrified and appalled to see some people throw food out of their cars to feed the animals, when there are signs posted all over the park, warning not to do so. Yellowstone is their home, and we, merely their visitors.
Devils Tower National Park in Wyoming, a sacred area for several Plains Tribes, is another site for sore eyes. According to the Native America legend, seven young girls were out playing when they encountered a giant bear that began to chase them. When the girls realized they couldn’t outrun the bear, they jumped onto a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit for help. At that moment, the rock began to grow higher and higher into the sky. The bear kept jumping up against the sides of the rock, leaving the giant claw marks that remain there today. The girls, meanwhile, remain safe in the sky, where they are now known as the seven stars of Pleiades. Given my personal fondness with Native American history, I love that story.
I also was fascinated to watch avid rock climbers, which appeared to be no larger than ants, scale (and repel) the face of this boulder, rising 1,267 feet above the landscape. It’s also fun to watch the black-tail Prairie Dogs pop in and out of their burrows as you enter and exit the park, almost as if they are greeting you, and then wishing you farewell.
Approximately two hours from Devils Tower is Mount Rushmore. While never my best subject in school, history is hard not to appreciate when you’re staring it right in the face. Literally. Many are familiar with Mount Rushmore as the sculptures of former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, but to see it in person is far more impressive than any postcard.
Our next stop, another one of my personal favorites, is what I like to call the “mini-me” of the Grand Canyon: the Badlands of South Dakota. My favorite part about the Badlands is the general colors of the landscape: peach-colored rock mountains, dripping with pink-colored peaks, surrounded by emerald-green brush and a deep blue sky.
Ending this story of my journey wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Great Lakes. How remarkably cool it is to be in the middle of the country and encounter a body of water as vast in appearance as an ocean, and as clear and blue as the Caribbean sea! To say, as their name implies, that they’re “great” is truly an understatement. Lake Michigan, in particular, enticed me enough that I’ve since revisited it many times, and every time I go, I’m still amazed by its grandeur.
As I mentioned earlier, at the time we left on our road trip, I didn’t know a whole lot. But by the time we returned, I had met and fell in love with America.
I wanted to share this trip with you, because I realize that I’ve been blessed with an once-in-a-lifetime experience that not all people have yet had. And it is my hope through sharing this experience that you, too, will be encouraged to meet America and everything that makes Her beautiful.

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