Posted by: kshayes513 | June 23, 2013

The Traveling Worldbuilder Drives Across a Continent

This month, I drove from Rhode Island to California, helping a family member move. We drove 3000 miles in 3 days. Even in the relative comfort of a 21st century car, that’s a lot of traveling in a short time. It’s a trip that, before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, took months, by any possible route. What really struck me, though, is how the landscape we passed through both changed and didn’t change. In 72 hours, we drove from this:

Chafee sunset 2 2012

Even the stone walls in Rhode Island can grow green stuff!

to this:

SoCal high desert - less green in 100 sq miles than in that one field in RI

SoCal high desert – less green in 100 sq miles than in that one field in RI

Of course, the transition from RI  meadows to high desert is much more gradual than these photos. Most of the time. For the first thousand miles, the changes in the landscapes are so subtle that you notice relatively little difference in the building styles or the types of trees and wildflowers growing along the road. Even the hills look much the same; there are just more and higher ones in some places.

Hills and farms in Tennessee look pretty much like hills and farms 1000 miles away in New England.

Hills and farms in Tennessee look pretty much like hills and farms 1000 miles away in New England.

I’m speaking of rural landscapes, of course. Urban landscapes in the US are pretty much the same anywhere you go. Apart from any trees and plants bordering the parking lots, a strip mall in Yucca Valley, CA is almost identical to a strip mall in Warwick, RI. The analogy that comes to mind for me is the Roman Empire, where the temples, roads and fora in a town in Britain probably would have been perfectly familiar to a traveler from Roman Africa. Then and now, you have to look away from the centers of commerce and power to find the local differences.

After a thousand miles of mostly the same rural landscape,  you come to places in the continental US where the land changes as sharply as a drawn border changes the color of a map. The Mississippi at Memphis is one such border. On the east bank, it looks much like the picture above, heavily wooded, and still rolling, if not mountainous. But the Arkansas bank might be a different country:

Eastern Arkansas: what happened to the woods?

Eastern Arkansas: what happened to the woods and hills?

Here, the fields extend to the horizon, and there’s not a hill in sight, until a couple of hours later when we got into the Arkansas end of the Ozarks. Once past those hills, the land flattened out again, and the trees grew more and more sparse, until the dense, wooded windrows of Arkansas were gone, and we were crossing the treeless prairies of the Texas panhandle. It’s a wide, lonely-looking landscape of tiny towns and isolated farms standing far, far back from the highway. Even the towns are only a few blocks across (in many cases, blocks full of closed businesses and empty houses), and the regional metropolis of Amarillo goes by in minutes.

Texas panhandle, east of Amarillo: the land just keeps getting emptier, and the sky keeps getting wider.

Texas panhandle, east of Amarillo: the land just keeps getting emptier, and the sky keeps getting wider.

And here’s where the sharp contrasts really begin. Those well watered wheat fields and cattle pastures seemed to go on forever – until we suddenly drove off the edge of them and into the desert:

It starts with a small arroyo...

It starts with a small arroyo…

And ends a few miles later in the middle of a John Ford movie landscape

… that leads you in just a few miles to the middle of a John Ford movie landscape.

A seemingly small canyon cut by erosion widens to join another canyon and another, and soon you see that you’ve actually driven off an escarpment marked by miles and miles of buttes. And that’s the end of the grasses and the farmlands. For the next thousand miles, the vegetation is all desert scrub, and the flat, unrolling landscape is broken by buttes and mesas of barren, weather sculpted stone. It’s only when you’re close to the mesas, or descending a pass, that you see, again, the sudden changes in the desert landscape.

East of Flagstaff, AZ. Hundreds of miles and two states later, still in the middle of John Ford land.

East of Flagstaff, AZ. Hundreds of miles and two states later, still in the middle of John Ford land.

I don’t have to tell you (I hope!) that a plausible imaginary world has more than one type of landscape or climate, even if the landscapes are artificial – no Tatooines and no Coruscants, either. But when you’re planning your world, and moving your characters around in it, consider that not only do landscapes change, they can change both gradually and suddenly. What kind of changing landscapes are believable in your world, and which have you found to be the best ones to serve your plot and challenge your characters?



  1. Enjoyed this Karin-I read it quickly but will return and re read-so many folks always want to go to other countries, but to me our own USA is pretty spectacular – I would like to read more of the “Ghost Towns” were people have lived and for many reasons abandoned their Homes to go elswhere=I know it’s most likely that they were unable to earn a living-but I’m sure there are many stories to tell-where might I find true stories of these folks?

  2. Wonderful descriptions of the changing landscape. I think the sameness of commercial areas and restaurants is unfortunate and that too is something to consider in world building. Do you have the equivalent of Big Macs and The Gap or does the culture vary completely with the landscape?

  3. Thanks for taking us along on the trip with you. Is it a coincidence that I’m just moving my characters out of a desert and into a Marshland landscape? I’ll have to check to be sure that I have everything consistent. I’m in a moral conundrum these days, torn between finishing my environmental trilogy and doing activist things on behalf of our lovely earth. Any advice?

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone.
    Elva – sorry to say, I’m far from an expert on ghost towns, I’ve never done any reading on them. If I wanted to know more, I’d do a Google search or talk to my resident librarian.
    Annis – desert and marshland? sounds like your world is bigger than I realized. As for your moral conundrum, why not both? You can’t be writing all the time, we always need outside activities to stimulate us. Activism will surely nourish your writing by bringing you new questions and information and experiences; and writing can be part of your activism, whether its from the stories or other kinds of writing.
    Cynthia – doesn’t the existence of commercialism depend on the size of your universe’s cultural and economic communities? But even the mass produced always has a local aspect brought in by the people who are operating it locally. You’d never find grits at a breakfast chain restaurant in the northern tier – or if you did, they’d probably be awful!

  5. Hey, great post, Karen! Love the depictions of the landscape changes. I only drove cross-country once, when I was in college, and that across the north from Oregon back to Massachusetts. No deserts (though I have spent some time in New Mexico – so amazingly different landscape than anywhere back east).

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