U.S. Western August 2007.
Las Vegas - Zion Park - Salt Lake City - Jackson - Yellowstone - Bannack - Wisdom - Boise - Pioche - Las Vegas. Two weeks.
Unsustainable light, discontinuous song, unpayable debt. A display of surplus energy not yet accounted for: a burning cauldron, a mass of bright lights surrounded by blackness as the plane descends towards Las Vegas. And before you’ve got your foot on the ground the music of it surrounds you: tinkling gambling machines – mesmerised, already. Hire a car and get out of it, past the hypnotic towers of light, the shining monuments to surplus energy, stare in amazement but go on, into the night. The desert either side of the road pitch black, the desert of fun pitch bright disappearing behind to a flicker and we are alone. Such lights will always leave you alone, looking for somewhere to lay your head.
We go on and on, the black desert goes on and on, it gets later and later. Pull off at a motel sign: Glendale. A row of closed doors with bright street light shed on them, an owl sailing over, machine noise in the night. The quietness of American confidence, always with machine noise in the background, for the running never stops. We can’t stay here, we get back up onto the big road, the night-running road that brings the necessities from afar, for none of them grows here. Quiet road now, but not stopped. Now 100 miles from Las Vegas, perhaps we’ll drive until dawn, but then an exit lane down to an outlying piece of funland rather ironically called ‘Oasis’, open and not exactly busy but at work. It’s 3 o’clock. Evidently the gambling never stops either.
Wake to an American blackbird on the lawn among grey apartment blocks. It costs so little, generosity of the surplus, cheap accommodation, plentiful breakfast to the music of gambling machines on the floor below, protected from daylight, tended by Hispanic and Asiatic servants, of course. Glimpses of barren hills between the blocks. Plenty of room in the parking lot, plenty of water in the supermarket, plenty of everything in the desert.
Dirt trails depart from the interstate and lead to a fence round a couple of trailers on a rise of land in the desert, under the heat. At night a small cluster of electric lights, visible miles away. The resources of half the globe have been pressed into service to furnish these few lights in the desert, surrounded by broken stone. New housing developments on the flanks of desert ridges, walls round them, like fortresses. Who lives there, where are they from, what do they do, how will they manage with an unsustainable water supply and far too much light? What can you do with too much of everything all round you? Watch the TV, but every time you look up those elegant long-distance lorries cruising along the sandstone horizon.
Turn off the road and stand for a few minutes on this barren ground, red and brown, rock and grit in a long curve across to the distant ridges, dim in haze. A small rodent scurries away. Biblical landscape, as the Mormons recognised, searching for green pastures across vast nothing, that never changes and never has a thing to offer.
This would be where to sing the hymn that eludes me, to invoke the total in measured periods from a grave platform, like the tight shrubs with yellow flowers, all a regular distance apart. Such as the hymn called ‘Africa’: God on his thirsty Sion-Hill / Some mercy-drops has thrown. The world waits. Deep on the palms of both my hands / I have engrav’d her name. Africa waits, for the promise to be met, the metaphor to be untied.
Springdale. All the old settlements are linear, follow the line of the valley and the thin thread of viability that runs down it. A few side tracks turning away between sandy hills. In the motel a humming-bird tries to feed itself from the American flag sticker on the glass doors. Unsustainable hope, we all know it very well.
Zion Canyon. Navajo sandstone towering above, monument to erased nations, seven chapters inscribed on the sides of the canyon in red ink, memoirs of the biggest emptiness of all. Neither the pueblos nor the northern tribes could keep these places going: exhaustion of resources, outbreaks of war, under-nourishment, hysteria, all pack up and go. The eagle’s eye stares down at the strip of running water far below bending this way and that and its green flanks, patches of grass and the tops of trees. Water stored in the rock for hundreds or thousands of years, seeping out at the shale junction like sap, a whole river sustained by it. It runs down the river-side cliffs, spouts out of the canyon sides making green arbours and enclaves, waterfalls, dark pools with bats flitting over them, tree frog habitats. Mule deer browsing in the dark.
Nobody wanted it all that much. It had water but it didn’t have width, extent of land. People were thinking of supporting future populations on the spot, not isolated smallholdings doing some trade. What population has actually thrived for any length of time here, or is likely to without massive external support? Zion area abandoned by Pueblo circa 1200.
A blue jay moves from one treetop to another. We are punishing ourselves again, we are toiling up very steep tracks in extreme heat. Naughty chipmunks jump onto our backs. Great cliffs of white rock in strange tubular formations like elephants’ legs. Dusty tracks across the pale tops among red bushes that dry into grey. The forms and conditions of the landscape are again Biblical: the scarcity of resource, the water from rare clefts in the hills bringing precious sustenance in green shade, to sit under the tree and sing, the psalmic mode of earth-thanks for respite. Always at a frontier, searching for renewal, untrustworthiness of the newly gained ground. Experience then is forward, against a semi-nomadic shuttle service which follows the earth’s results wherever they wander. It breaks out into multiple marriages and lonely deaths. But also the other sense of desert with the accent moved forwards, hard-won success. Minds pushed constantly to the frontier zone, pushed Europe across the Atlantic and they had it behind them and found it ahead of them, and now it comes to its terrible circle at the Near East, the new American West. When they have destroyed the Arab world the West will spread across half of Asia, an emptiness with valuable minerals in it, as the mountains always were, to maintain the forms of American appropriation with its subservient workers, concealed poverty, profit takers far away, pretending it is permanent. Technical modernity and business ethics were there ahead of them long ago. The Indians also failed in this land, before the Spanish arrived, over and over again, but at least they failed unto themselves. Sadly triumphant American West, desert spreading over the world. Labor day in a drooping flag, bewildered.
Transcend this. Up on the highest zones, the Carmel formation, white rock streaked red and pink in great flowing masses. Evening comes on, tidal winds develop, you hear them coming towards you as a hissing, brushing across the white rock planes while the light lowers. And the wind reaches you and breaks over you, then calm again. Then a new wind, white sound over white rock, coming across the tops, hardly stirring the tough shrubs that huddle in the lower clefts. Eventually the stone hills are lighter than the sky.
This would have been a good place to sing ‘Abide with me’, preferably in Joseph Funk’s (1822) version, parlando, choral speech, if I could get together at least ten interested persons. Here, or a Mennonite wooden church in Virginia with the horse traps waiting outside and the whole of modernity given notice to quit. Under the whisper of the wind on the white rock, a fragile hope, a sustainable loss. And where after all is death’s sting? It’s on it’s way, and still we smile, and offer a choral shuffle to the fall of the world.
Bighorn sheep near the car park, dimly visible in twilight, leaping over unsteppable rock slopes. Don’t worry, Bighorns, the Sheepeater Indians will not get you now; somebody got them.
We get back to the motel. Grand Teton Spring-grass India Pale Ale from the gas station and the quest for a bottle-opener. The nervous serenity of the non-combatant sometimes abides with us, busying ourselves elsewhere. Decision not to buy Polygamy Porter.
Evening and next morning both find us at The Mean Bean, a small unpretentious café on a side street. Cuba is all poverty, and USA is all wealth, but no Cuban would tolerate the quality of the blended coffee you are served everywhere in the States. Cubans expect the best. The only way to get a good cup is to find an independent coffee house, like The Mean Bean. Among books available there for browsing is a fairly recent demographic atlas of USA which shows the proportionate increase in ‘non-white’ populations clearly but also shows that even if they reach a sizeable majority they will not get power, because the ‘white-only’ states still greatly outnumber all others. It’s not somebody’s wicked scheme, it’s the inherent structure of advantage, that it will perpetuate itself by exclusion.
Salt Lake. The wide-spread fertile valley with the flowing streams, the promised land, the earthly paradise, became a mountain of money, as if that was its ultimate purpose, became a metaphor. Not much culture, but expensive uniform dark suits and a lot of eternity safely stored in the bank vault of the heart. But in the great Nonconformist song books the happy land was essentially far far away and then we shared our portion with the rest of humanity.
A city founded on evangelism. Isn’t that what America is all about? Joseph Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Jackson Pollock. People getting visions, unable to see anything but what blinds them, getting the new dispensation and the world has to know, urgently.
But what was that hymn they sang? The enormous choir in the enormous building, vast as deserts disappearing into the distance. Is this the hymn that eluded me, with the trees of the river meadow moving behind it? ‘Lead, kindly light’ gently and firmly, with massive support: the sound of certainty, still touching even in its desertified form. The kindly light led us to the fruitful valley and the green pastures, and then into the bank vault and shut the door. Well, in song the enclosed always have the advantage, and we love them for it, creators of the image of the perfect home that they still long for. And we walk out into the open air, noting sadly that we shall never be able to lie with you in your exquisite, monumental box. It is our loss entirely.
But, grateful for our existential anxiety we wander the town and successfully evade the recruitment drive, mainly by being away from the centre. It’s good to be reminded by the Utah Folk Arts Museum that it is, or was, perfectly all right for big tough American farmers to pass their spare time doing elaborate crochet work, and we’ll never get another farewell like the one we got from the lady in charge as we left: ‘Thank you for your culture and your greatness’. I guess she was thinking of the country rather than us in particular but that doesn’t stop us from feeling flattered.
And next day drive over more mountains and find little to say about Bear Lake but it was great to be here and when do we expect to notice a recognisable native American? The bright blue, approaching turquoise, expanse and ‘American rural’ from there on to Jackson, timber-framed houses, centre-peaked wooden barns, wooden fences round corrals and quite moderate fields. Occasional small towns with false-fronted buildings. We have been here before, perhaps in France or perhaps in Romania or somewhere in Wales. Always mountains in the distance. We shall be here again. It’s a kind of transcendental home, an idea of peace and production, very little to do with the actual people who live here, worthy as they may be. A kind of promised land momentarily glimpsed in passing. A sentiment too, but fairly well grounded in ecophenomenology (and so not an enemy or avoidance of politics) (but the very aim and purpose of politics) (I have gotten drawn into strings of parenthetical declaration again). Most towns around here have false fronts; Jackson has false false fronts.
And shops which seem fairly normal or quaint outside and when you go in it fills the entire block. We have been here before, though the goods on offer didn’t previously include a stuffed moose for $200,000. Is this a town or a theme-parked supermarket?
The sense of a town returns when you wander around in the late evening. There are signs. A row of old steel-framed chairs out in the street in a badly-lit space near the bus station with a few youth sitting on them. It could be Poland, or a fenland market town or anywhere on a Greyound route. They are not smoking top brand Cuban cigars, tobacco ‘grown from seed in Guatemala’ and obviously the profits go somewhere else.
We sleep in a fake cabin, comfortably. Ranging through these contradictions is part of the adventure, glad to be here, holding a CD of mediaeval English carols by Anonymous 4, found in a thrift shop on the high street at $2. Working out how that could have got there will take up most of the night.
Here the contradictions stop for several days, and we are witness to an almost-intact ecosystem, approached gradually from the south. Another purpose of the polis is to facilitate the creation and maintenance of such things, so there is some sense in which the politics work. Or at least, it makes no sense to say that Iraq had to be destroyed in order to run such places. That was to pay for something else, perhaps Las Vegas. Money is actually quite subdued in Yellowstone.
Where we aren’t yet. We’re sailing over Jackson’s Hole and along the side of what accurate translation can only call the Big Tit Mountains, a commmon enough mountain name, as in the Paps of Jura. And increasingly the land is spread out before us, land where people don’t live, and maintained thus. Not empty or natural but a product of human work, a work-place. A wildness factory.
So through the pay station and enter, arriving just in time to see Old Faithful erupt, watched by about 200 people sitting on rows of benches, I thought for a moment they were going to applaud.
Vast stretches of forest, mountains, lakes, rivers plunging through canyons and winding through wide grasslands, people all over the place but dominated by the creatures, who move around about their business seeking fodder and prey and each other, in (‘almost’) their own terms of success and failure. The rivers are fresh and strong and meander freely in great meadow and valley spaces, the canyons are deep and rugged, the forests seem to go on for ever. A construct of the earthly paradise, as sculpted to that image as any Renaissance garden.
Bison coming down to the river to drink in the morning. Bison wandering over the hillsides in scattered herds. Bison in the car park, standing looking at the cars. Bison head-butt each other, one of them picks a fight with a bicycle. In the herd the adult males keep up a steady low snorting rather like distant thunder, or rather more like snoring at close quarters. It is like a wall thrown round the community. Bison stroll down the middle of the road halting the traffic, brushing against the sides of cars. They have thick fur over their front half like a shawl, and the rear half covered only in tight black hair – like a ballet-dancer in a big tunic with padded shoulders and tights. A bison finds a dust patch and rolls in it, creating a cloud like a small geyser eruption. And from time to time there’s a lone male bison ambling over the plains, one of those that lost the fight and didn’t get himself a herd of wives and children, convinced Darwinians that they all are. The Bison’s head: constant slow alertness modelled into a slightly capricious (goatish) mask through which the steady eyes’ purpose of noticing, for continuance.
Lone animals going about their businesses. A coyote walking over the meadows, stops and suddenly rises a foot in the air to descend on some rodent. A big moose wading in the edge of the river as if it has a long way to go. Is it a happy moose or a sad moose or is it just posing for the cameras? Who can tell? Is it saying to us, ‘Here we have it our way’ as they (‘almost’) do? ‘We’re willing to put up with you as long as you don’t get in the way.’ If we managed not to get in our own way we would know something about the earthly paradise.
The earthly paradise here is in fact somewhat complicated by diabolical heat, by being situated over a hot spot, magma much closer to the surface than is either usual or safe. A caldera, a collapsed volcano about 50km across causing all kinds of disturbance. At the far side of the grasslands before the forest edge, puffs and shoots of steam going up, like a distant prospect of a busy railway station in the 1940s. In the mornings you suddenly notice that some of the rivers are giving off steam and great clouds of it are projected into the air from roadside vents and springs. Not much of beauty when you enter the geyser basins, mostly an industrial aspect, the ground covered in various kinds of silicon effluent like the run-off from a chemical factory, stained ground: browns reds yellows blues acid greens and white while these things huff and puff and slobber. Pools of boiling mud, ponds of bubbling water overflowing onto a hillside stripped of all vegetation. Plenty of colour but outstandingly barren, destroyed. Fumaroles, mud-pots, hot springs, many of them stinking of hydrogen sulphide. Extremophile microbes living on the boiling hot edges of the vents, cunningly using hydrogen as an energy sources and adding to the coloration. And here and there a true geyser which will from time to time throw a great column of boiling water into the air, all glitter and transparency in the sunlight. And the ground sizzles and bubbles and seethes with an energy which is a risk of the earth’s entire structure.
One of these boiling amphitheatres would have been a good place to sing, with orchestral accompaniment, ‘God save America’, preferably next to an erupting geyser with umbrellas up. From its oil industry for one.
And unexpectedly, in a rather dark offshoot of a place where they sell plastic chipmunks, the remarkable Yellowstone watercolours of Thomas Moran, 1871-2. Paper stained by earth forms, a kind of hymnody, grateful amazement. Nobody believed it, of course, nobody ever does. There is also a persistant tension in the pictures that bespeaks some anxiety, some dismay before these manifestations of the earth at its most capricious. There is some kind of backing off.
This construct of the earthly paradise retains an edge of fear. Walk freely in the vast and open landscape with the faint possibility of encountering at the worst a bear or a wolf, or getting the wrong side of a bison or elk, a fear which, especially as a newcomer, you can never relinquish, that edge is always there wherever you go. And the officially ‘remote’ possibility of the Yellowstone volcano going up again, last time was 600,000 years ago: the whole caldera, shooting several thousand cubic kilometres of molten rock into the air and destroying a large portion of U.S.A., directly or by burying it in ash. Which portion depends which way the wind goes and Hispanics are traditionally very unlucky in these matters. It would anyway be the end of the state and no victim population to hold responsible for it. Lesser but devastating earthquakes are also available, the last 1975. These things ‘never happen’. We could cultivate our fear as a kind of lens, we could get out of the habit of assuming that only portions of Africa and Asia are doomed parts of the world.
To think you can eradicate anxiety. Build such defences round an enclave of heavy profit-takers that nothing can touch it, ever, neither want nor accident, not the poor or the blacks or the whole of the southern world. Destroy any country whose resources you need including your own. And nobody will fight back, you can fix that, no trouble, they will just fight each other. But insecurity is our birthright, we can’t act without it. It keeps us upright. It keeps us out of trouble. It keeps us alert to the world’s tricks. Without our fear, which includes our concern, we are imbeciles. And then the false fears gather round us in the night.
In the forest camping ground at the end of the day. Squatted round, heating cans of meat and bean mixes on a wood fire in an iron ring. A few bottles of Spring-grass Ale still left, rather warm. Soon to sleep, or try to, on hard ground with cold feet, worrying what a bear’s tread would sound like. What imbeciles!
A charmed zone but it has no fences round it. Bears and ghosts move freely in and out of it, ghosts of Indians, miners, dead antelope, that pursue you through the Rockies. We are on the road again, through a zone of serious destruction by earthquake (1959) and another of serious destruction by theme-parking and a lot of up and down and round and back passing several fairly tired looking settlements the occasional herd of pronghorns and a lot more trees, and by mid afternoon up Big Hole Valley following a school bus, that stops to drop its charges every few kilometres at ranch entrances or the ends of tracks. Then a lesser road to the south and then another, further into the side of the valley, and roll slowly along a dirt track, to a ghost town. O could the entire U.S.A. power but fix itself into ‘arrested decay’!
Late enough by the time we leave to be on the edge of evening. No other visitors left, the woman in the shop beginning to pack up. Another two hours and the place will have separated itself from its history. ‘Evening, with its blues and browns’ and a street of empty wooden houses stands as what it is, as things do at closure, in a state of ‘arrested decay’. A bob-tailed rabbit lopes around in the quietness, evening wind coming down from the hills slightly moves the grass in the spaces between the houses, and behind the houses among the outbuildings, the space with the bar where the horses were hitched, the wide grassy high street, the space in front of the school with a round-about. A dimness starts to gather on the further spaces beyond the town, the cemetery on a hilltop, the gallows below it, the wrecked water-courses where the gold was dredged up, bits of derelict machinery hanging in shreds from the bank. The gold lies there, inert, diffused in the ground on which the rows of houses stand, the light wind brushing between them. All the violence and desperation stilled: in the saloon with bullet-holes in the walls, in the church, in the schoolroom and the courtroom, in the family houses, in the small shacks further back where the bachelors and the whores lived, all the desire, for gain, for consummation, wafted aft.
Likewise deep in snow in the winter. Likewise standing here, the day’s last visitor, thinking that nobody ever sought anything much in this place beyond their own advancement, and would happily destroy anything that stood in its way, such as Indians and bison. Such as each other. There would be a resistance to that in the structure of settlement, wives and children would also claim their places and have their voices, and the right to be free of stray bullets, that the weather was already a hard enough master. If the town were to have any viability it was not going to be a crisis centre or cowboy film. I don’t believe it was. The bench set at an angle of the outer wall, facing the street, small tree hanging over it: this place also had evenings. In which it disengaged itself from its history and from the fermenting energies of buried gold, the angry fear that projected it to this edge. Gun-fire from the saloon, or a baseball hit gone awry? (Yes, there was a baseball team.) The Indians too killed each other and wrecked their own strategies for survival in a difficult terrain (and played something quite like baseball). They had something else, which didn’t counter the harm so much as over-rode it, or over-rode prosperity itself. Deep in the snow in the winter, they spent precious energy in dances aimed at reconciliation with the earth.
All the voices of the town’s history merge together and disappear into the sound of an evening wind down the hill, and the mind dances in the wind in its own space. That faint brushing, erasing, sound is the only ghost. The ‘communities’: Miners, Farmers, Mormons, Indians, Hispan-ics, Blacks, Pueblos, Ranchers... disappear into a common humanity which speaks a language of pre-thought through individuals at rest, through the colouring of their voices against the evening, the change a small sycamore makes to the sound of the wind. Follow that sound.
Follow it along Route 278, fields so vast you think they don’t
have fields around here, containing thousands of Black Angus cattle. And come to a place called Wisdom (Montana).
Not much of a place, Wisdom. A gas station with appendages at a road junction. Two motels, two eating places, some houses somewhere. You don’t have to seek out the special places, you don’t have to seek out the worst places – you don’t have to seek out the extremes. You can be where you happen to land. Ed Dorn drove across Nevada and Idaho looking for victims of power, seeking out the most impoverished Indians in the worst reservations (but missed the ‘miserable’ Goshute) looking for some trace of spirit in a dying eye, some crisis anger on desolate islands. He would never be contented with what was lying around on the surface, he had to mine for it. What he extracted was the broken crystals of his own spirit, shattered reflexive surfaces, frontier development ending in a trance dance. It was a rodeo act at heart, the lustful quest for exhaustion. What does lie around on the surface of the land is what anyone can locate, the virtues that persist in the unexceptional. Such as to be remarkably cheerful in a one horse town, like the one-armed man running the post office or the charming young waitress in the Big Hole Restaurant explaining the texture of Rocky Mountain oysters... There are faceted mirrors in people’s speech and eyes that stir up our hope, and set us forward for the road. Isn’t this spirit an achievement against the odds everyone faces, over-riding the deprivation everyone faces, accelerated decay? We ask her if it’s a good idea to go to the Antlers Saloon along the street. Yea why not, she says, meet the whole town in there.
In the Antlers Saloon five men (there must be more to Wisdom than this) who start talking to you before your foot’s over the threshold. Hi there, who are you, come and sit down here, how you doing? Perhaps this is the longed-for culmination of 150 successive evenings in the Antlers Saloon Wisdom with the same five men and one barmaid and suddenly strangers walk in, and a family and on top of all that, British! No problem, total cool. It’s as if a British family walks in here once or twice most weeks. That’s some kind of achievement too.
People live here as they live anywhere, making the best, worst, or muddle out of it, until forcibly prevented by war or paranoia. The national increasingly seems like some kind of alien presence in these spaces, an intrusion of vacuity demanding to be filled, and minds are drawn into it as if it might be a necessary completion of their being, while really it is nothing to do with them and creates unanswerable gaps in sense which can only be concealed behind false fronts, doors which won’t open and there is nothing behind them. Like the lights of Las Vegas in the desert, while the desert is so much richer and brighter than the lights. And the rich and the powerful, what do they have to do with all this, and anyway, where are they? Everywhere we go they seem not to be around, though their beams are felt. They might be some form of extra-terrestrial. In the UK there’s no avoiding them, and their apes.
We sit in a row of three at the bar with amber ale. Kathy and Beryl get to talk to two men, a rancher and a telephone engineer, the ones who welcomed us in. They are calm and convivial, they seem like people who have given thought. I, as tends to be my fate, get the village drunk, who as drunks go is sympathetic and intermittently coherent. The official fear is upon all of them, but doesn’t always show itself. At present what they are afraid of is Islamic terrorists and this will affect some of their actions, though their chances of coming across one are not great. They are not afraid of the sleeping volcanic caldera fifty miles to the east, with its bubbling mud pools and steam vents and fountains of boiling water, which when it finally erupts will probably destroy the entire North American continent. Should they be?
The drunk describes five kinds of fencing he knows how to construct, talks of blowing into a horse’s nostrils, and then waxes poetical concerning the wide fields of Montana: ‘I have a sky over my head as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I have a wonderful multicoloured carpet under my feet in Spring, a rich brown carpet in Autumn, a thick white carpet in Winter...’ The cool and serious men say Bush makes them feel ashamed to be Republicans. But the main condition is local: people talking to people in a saloon in a small town up in the hills of Montana, enlivening the day’s ending and hopefully learning slowly, us too, to resist the fear as best we can. Clear skies veiled in smoke from distant forest fires. In the morning there is ice on the roof of the car. The place still works. Wisdom works for breakfast, giant egg and bacon rolls and mugs of blended coffee. Wisdom works for petrol. Then forest and mountain without end. What you can’t see is what you don’t need to know.
You need to know about Big Hole Battlefield but you don’t need to see it. And all the other battlefields, where the losers lost their persistant optimism and the big boys grew bitter at their success. You need to drive up valleys and over mountains and through more forest than you ever thought existed on the earth, and arrive at a city.
The journal goes into abeyance for a while now while we shelter in company and professionalism, and the solid things that are possible in a
working town, the operative peace rescuable at the centre of the American whirl. Racoons in the trees, liberal dissemination of knowledge and wonderful 2nd-hand book and CD shops such as Britain decided, apparently, to get rid of for ever. And here where things are spread out, even fat, the smoke of distant forest fires moves over the town, a momentary storm blows pieces of wood down the street and the edges press close in. And here we bought the song about the killing floor. But we take it easy again in the liberal theatre entitled to its own space. Very good Californian pinot by Rodney Strong and a delicious Mexican shrimp soup.
South from Boise, over the Nevada border and due south. ‘The loneliest road in America’ – not this one, but one that crosses it at Great Basin and reaches California, but this is a good second. Highway 93: Twin Falls to Las Vegas, 476 miles, 50 miles or more between most settlements and some of them so small you don’t notice. Nevada, dumping ground for Indian tribes surplus to require-ments and nuclear waste. Jackpot, Contact, Wells, Currie... Semi-desert emptiness, pale stony ground, sagebrush stretching away in all directions, grey bushes and bits of grey grass, always mountains in the far distance. Sometimes some bits of fencing near the road, there used to be a railway, and every now & then a dirt track goes off and disappears towards the far mountains, trailing away out of sight, and ending where? A shack in the edge of the hills with just about enough water and land to support a dedicated loner? A ghost town, derelict mine, hunters’ lodge, hippie camp, or the track just stops somewhere among the scrub, trailing into nothing? ‘Snow Water Lake’ beside the road, two or three miles of salt crust.
We stop at Goshute Station which was a roadside store and bar before it closed, and is now an abandoned retail outlet in the desert with, behind it, a scatter of white huts in which, it is difficult to believe, people must live. I could imagine it as a kind of Taoist retreat, empty mind on vacant ground. An elderly woman comes out of her door to examine the post box, finds nothing and goes back in, surrounded by sky and earth. Having so much land all round you, what difference does that make? If you don’t (and we, being English, don’t) take it for granted, are you not both very small and enormous at all times? As you breathe in and out? Inhaling the scent of Great Basin sagebrush, low grey bushes with yellow flowers, stretching into the distance.
You can see a great deal further than is normal, but the further you see the shorter you see and you can’t see the social or the national at all. The social is elsewhere. The national is absolutely extra-terrestrial and is using your enormous garden as a rubbish tip.
Nuclear waste dumps, military training grounds, bombing and gunnery ranges, prisons, vast fields of silence where aliens picnic. And over there beyond the hills to the east are the Goshute reservations, in one of which the Indians were, last I heard, campaigning to be allowed to have the U.S.A.’s biggest spent rods dump sited on their land, for the sake of the rental, and representing the massive opposition to this from environmental groups and Utah State Council as yet further examples of the white man’s assumption of the right to intervene in Indian affairs. ‘Miserable’ indeed.
And some loon in an unmarked car trails us at 100mph for 50 miles for reasons best known to himself until we gain refuge in Pioche, which is packed out because it’s Labour Day, and there’s nowhere to stay and we sit on the edge of the sidewalk in the dark to watch a procession of floats slowly descending the main street of the town, a display in comparison with which the annual Sunday School Walk in a suburb of Stockport in the early 1950s was a triumph of professionalism. Indeed some of them don’t even manage to have lights and so can hardly be seen at all. It doesn’t mean a thing, the chace, the festival, the dilemma: the desert behind the houses is so much bigger than any of it and means something beyond accidence and risk. Somehow it is next morning, more blended coffee and we are on the road again, nervous but committed.
Stop at Cathedral Gorge Park, walk in the desert, step a few metres off the designated path (though you are asked not to) and look down at the ground. Over-all colour: buff, sand, toned by scatters of grey stones and small tufts of hard grass, occasional blue-grey bushes without leaves. Indian rice-grass, rabbitbrush. The same here before your feet as over the far side of the valley. ‘Bentonite clay’. Temperature 85F. Small low sand humps showing marks of lizard’s and birds’ feet and sometimes the streak of a tail. Delicate engravings on barely compacted ground. A record of millennia of weather and yesterday’s news. Distant memory of a lake bed. Erosion, freezing and thawing, water running over the ground and disappearing, evaporating, dust gravel and sand in patches, different shades of buff. How full the mind becomes.
The mind standing in this emptiness becomes a monument to itself, like the sudden copse of Joshua Trees the other side of Caliente – suddenly something completely different, shocked by its context into concentration, among all that buff and paleness a dark green pillar of sharp fibres, twisting at the top as if searching or commanding the sky. And ‘needs a winter freeze before it will bloom’. Zen-like thoughts of perseverence as we reach the outskirts of Las Vegas. And notice as we approach that display of expendable wealth how very many people there are living in the concrete apertures under the roads.
Las Vegas only really exists from a distance. A cluster of electric fire in the black vacuity. When you get into it it’s just a shoddy fairground with water conservation problems. The new architecture proves fussy and over-decorated, the black pyramid has a vodka advertisement plastered all over one of its faces; perhaps Egypt will successfully claim copyright. The big displays are plastic, fibre-glass, they might even be papier-maché. ‘Venice’ is less than a postcard, it’s stuck onto the first floor of a hotel in odd corners and has no detail. Treasure Island, nobody knows who wrote it. Caesar’s Palace. Hispanics handing out prostitute tickets. This, I suppose, is what they would turn Havana into if they could get their hands on it.
Slot machines. I once drove myself to despair with a slot machine arcade, in Prestatyn in 1952. There was a big wooden hut full of them, they took pennies and were mostly the kind where you flick a ball-bearing up into a vertical curve and it then tumbles down through a mesh of pins to enter or miss slots which pay pennies back. Mine missed. All of them. I used them all up and went to beg for some more. They too missed. I got a third supply and they all missed. I was twelve and close to tears. Since then they have taught slot machines to sing.
All the halls of gambling machines, casinos, hotels, airport lounge, stores, restaurants, are full of a musical chiming, a mingled audible sweetness, sounding very much as if it should ‘give delight and hurt not’. It is because the machines all the time they are being used give out chimes to accompany their actions, and they are all tuned to the same scale. So there is this sweet ringing heterophony, this tintinnabulation, filling the air, which must represent the gambler’s dream, and the dream becomes a presence, you enter it, and perhaps you live the dream fulfilment even as you lose the cash, like the new shopping in general.
The exit from such a country could not possibly be simple. Echoes and concealments lie all over it. Delays, unhelpful (underpaid) staff, tricks of the trade, local corruption, and we find ourselves at a Quality Inn in New Jersey clutching U.S. Airways food vouchers an hour after they stop serving food. Television night. Call out for a pizza. Do we want ‘Buffalo cutlets’ with them? Next morning a black evangelical convention of some kind getting its breakfast, a dark-suited slow-moving satisfaction entirely reminiscent of the Salt Lake Mormons. Mugs of blended coffee again, then a mini-bus trajectory across miles of depot land... Good Morning America, how are ya? Well and ill and overweight and in a dream.
Thomas Moran reappears in Philadelphia as Turneresque, with a Venice scene, architectural details metaphorised into a staining of light, which he then brought to Yellowstone: land forms imprinting the surface of paper, with bleeding edges.
Long time travelling, here below. Motels and diners, a different country with the same chains. Grab it quick before it dies of unsustainability. A day in an unknown city shooting up unaswerable questions. What happened to Quakerism when it crossed the Atlantic? Washington keeping slaves in his household while drafting the rights of man (unsustainability). How are you meant to handle plastic lunch holders? And there was something wrong with those buffalo cutlets with the pizza last night, over and above the fact that it was actually chicken, urgent need for a supply of ‘rest rooms’ as these evidently delicate and bashful people choose to call them... But surrounded all the time by soaring early brick buildings like abstracted peaks, speaking of a permanent sense of hope, a confidence which the nation gave you, or at least some of you, and which illumines the fragmented particulars. A glimpse at the end, and we turn our backs and head home. Under the circumstances it seems best to end with a paragraph struggling to be born.