Our September pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This,” is “Earning the Rockies” by Robert D. Kaplan. Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here and see all the previous book club selections here.
To really earn the sight of the Rockies and comprehend what those mountains mean, Robert Kaplan writes that you have to drive for days across the prairie and the Great Plains. Flying there in an hour or two won’t cut it.
So Kaplan does just that, following in the footsteps of his truck driver father to cross the U.S. on wheels, and taking his own journey to understand America’s geography. The resulting book is part road-trip book, part history, part political analysis.
Below, Kaplan annotates a page of “Earning the Rockies,” explaining where he gets his ideas, delving deeper on the title phrase “earning the Rockies,” and writing that each insight in the book was “learned hard.” (Click on the yellow text to see the annotations.)
The path of the sun demonstrates the span of the continent. As I drive west the sun sets later in the evening, even as it rises later in the morning, so that the mornings are darker and the evenings lighter. But then I cross from Indiana into Illinois, set the clock back one hour, as I am now in the Central time zone, and the process begins all over again, and again, as I cross into Mountain Daylight Time in western Nebraska and into Pacific Daylight Time in Nevada. To fly to California and set your clock back three hours is not to know the ground you have covered, because you haven’t seen all the different mornings and evenings along the way.
A few miles into Illinois there is another gradation: the prairie truly begins. The earth has flattened out entirely. The tight packs of trees have receded to the edges of vision. There are miles of rib- boned ground bearing corn and soybeans, punctuated by wide, circular metal silos. The native grasses and black earth alleviate the loneliness of the landscape, reminding you just how wealthy it is. Because this production and fecundity will go on for hundreds and hundreds of miles, both north and south and east and west, it constitutes the basis of continental wealth that, in turn, permits an approach to the world so ambitious—marked as it is every few decades by an epic, bloody disaster—that the human and material costs are easily absorbed by the very wealth and sheer size of the land that began it in the first place. It is these Illinois cornfields that ultimately allow elites in Washington to contemplate action, even as others may suffer or be sustained by the consequences.
A scene repeated over and over before my eyes: a Union Pacific freight train, stretching seemingly over the curvature of the horizon, pulling up with a groaning roar to a complex of corn or soy- bean silos to have its cars loaded. Such expressions of national power have not changed much in decades, but few in actual positions of power actually see or are aware of them anymore. The sight makes me humble. I know that it is the immensity of the continent that required the development of more powerful and efficient locomotives than in other parts of the world, something which, in turn, enabled the development of long-distance engines for our warships, so that the strength of our navy is directly related to the size of the dry-land continent and the rail lines spanning it.
The sight makes many midwesterners humble, too, a reason why those brought up on the prairie and Great Plains tend toward caution in foreign policy decision making. They intuit that just as the vagaries of the weather can destroy crops, other things over which we have no control can interfere with grand plans made in Washington.
Springfield, Illinois, the state capital, looks as exposed to the wind and prairie as it did in Lincoln’s day. The sound of the freight trains is everywhere in the middle of the city. You see the blight of boarded-up store windows a hundred yards from the state capitol building. There are insufficient trees, and the wide gridwork of boxy concrete buildings—as though from the brutalistic 1970s—often looks indistinguishable from the parking garages. The gridwork of streets in Lincoln’s day was of the prairie, with all of its futuristic possibilities and the grinding down of human differences. But today’s Springfield looks less a place of possibilities than of being passed over by Chicago and other, more vibrant midwest-