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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.3 (Summer 2015)
Cultural Instability: The Desert Southwest
How I Spent My Spring Vacation, or A Curmudgeon’s Journey to the Other World
John R. Harris
We were able to get off work by noon, but the drive to Van Horn is still likely to take almost eight hours by the most optimistic estimate. I read and doze, doze and read. Juanita has to drive thanks to her motion sickness. Fine by me. I find driving the most boring thing in the world. The life-or-death necessity of staying attentive to what has been made some of the ugliest real estate in the Southwest, with its razor-straight miles of concrete and asphalt punctuated by car lots, drive-thrus, Royalty Inns and Imperial Suites fallen from blunt cookie cutters, sprawling subdivisions and apartment complexes bricking people out of the rat-run they inhabit daily… it all makes me steam slowly. All for our convenience! The killing of the soul has always been easy, but the automobile has made it a lot easier. Automobile… “self-moving”. In our time, you don’t even have to walk. I doze off….
Driving through Dallas/Fort Worth is a big, deep swallow of modern living. I fight a mild nausea that the mere sight of these formless, minerally reflective miles inspires. I try to doze, but cannot—and the effort makes my headache worse.
I was born and raised in Fort Worth, but that town’s remains are buried under strata of the past far deeper than the rubble that conceals the first city of Troy. At about three hours in, we drive under McCart Avenue. I used to get that far on long walks from our house when I was a teenager. I loved being out among the sleepy suburban blocks in the dry heat of a summer afternoon. There was a bakery on McCart, as I recall. I always had to drive if I was asked to pick something up, so my hikes of many miles had no more pretext than a ghost’s haunting. I dreamed of the big world, of a land of different and altogether better people on the sky’s far side. I grew unwholesomely mystical.
The bakery is bound to be gone now, and anyone who walked my old route today would be run over by cruising punks or detained as a vagrant by cops. Nothing but a reflective silver “McCart Ave.” on an elevated green placard remains. Nothing.
A DEPRESSING STRETCH
I saw a documentary made by the BBC about the Space Shuttle Columbia’s last minutes recently. The craft was described as “breaking up over the desert”. No doubt, all Texas is desert if you’re from England—a kind of reverse provincialism nourished by the city-slicker’s uninquisitive caricatures of provincials. The desert only starts along about here—a little farther westward still. Columbia came down in fragments much closer to my current home in Tyler, where mold and mosquitoes proliferate. I recall hearing that dull roar in the distance for about fifteen seconds just after nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
I keep waiting for something to tip me off to the Edwards Plateau beyond Fort Worth. It’s been so many years since I last drove west that I can’t remember the sequence of geographical changes. Turns out that there’s nothing as dramatic as a wall of mesas on the horizon. The land goes bad and stays bad, but I can’t detect any crescendo of worsening. The concrete urban sprawl of the last fifty miles probably concealed some significant metamorphosis. Once the sprawl ebbs away, you have sprawling wasteland. Scrubby trees and wiry grass painfully littering bony shoulders of terrain that lack enough character to be called hills. Grass too wispy for cattle, except for a few that appear to have grown wispy on its diet; earth too rocky for wheat or orchards, unless orchards of mesquite beans that—they say—drive cattle crazy, or of prickly pear whose leaves the Mexicans buy in the grocery store under a tag that reads “nopalitos”. Good for nothing. Even nopalitos can only be eaten when smothered in garlic and onions.
Who knows if it was always like this? In the days of Rome, Scotland was clothed in forests as thick as anything in Bavaria. Farmers would never have cleared much of this land, so its barrenness can’t be blamed on the plow. But an immense amount of water has been channeled artificially to create lakes around Dallas and Fort Worth. Texas, so I’ve heard, has only one natural lake. If all those little streams and rivulets had been allowed to run unobstructed, people might have lived out here instead of crammed into vistas of apartment complexes that remind me of the Soviet Union’s ant-farm settlements around industrial complexes.
I thought we won the Cold War… so why have we resurrected the most horrid images of the State with numberless nameless citizen-workers? Whose dream was this? For that matter, isn’t a Mexican better off raising his kids on nopalitos and onions than giving them color TV in a land where asphalt replaces grass and Glocks replace rattlesnakes?
If the Columbia had broken up out here, only a jackrabbit would have heard her death-roar. But this is starting to seem a place where bones sewn in the earth look as natural as a mesquite in a dry wash. I almost like this desert. I prefer it, at any rate, to the man-made variety that we have just left behind. Are things more dead here, or more alive? I vaguely recall asking myself similar questions on my long walks as a teenager. Did I really want to get away from my hometown’s emptiness; or, as it came to pass, did I want to live closer to something that my little bit of citification was already obscuring?
AN ARMY OF GIANTS
I must have dozed off again. The nothingness is a little more nothing: the rumpled shoulders of land more distant and mesa-like, the mesquites fewer and more stunted, the grass rarer and more wispy, the soil more sandy. Oddly, though, there are heavy power lines running interminably along either side of the road. Once we pass Abilene and approach Big Spring, they nonsensically indicate the lurking presence of vibrant activity. I remember my boyhood trips to El Paso quite well enough to find these scars of progress new and freakish. Midland and Odessa, an hour beyond Big Spring, have long been a hub of the oil industry—but they are no Las Vegas. Why all the electricity? Who’s using all the bright lights?
My bewilderment results from a flow of thought in reverse of the electricity’s. West Texas hasn’t become the address of a new Sin City: it’s become an electrical mine that exports juice all over the Midwest. The power lines are steadily bucket-brigading away all the energy produced by windmills. If I saw one at first, I must have seen a dozen. Now that I see a dozen, I blink and see a hundred. And behind them are more claws on the horizon… and beside them is another mesa where another hundred or so tri-bladed propellers wait for a fickle gust. Some turn festively like a child’s pinwheel, but more seem halfway or wholly stalled. How many must spin and at what rate for the day’s harvest to be considered a success? Even for engineers who truly understand such questions, I’m sure the correct answer is hotly disputed. We saw these blades being trucked one by one into the Iowa escarpment when we took my son a thousand miles north to college. Each was huge: it consumed the entire span of a flatbed truck. Transporting and assembling thousands of such dinosaur skeletons must have cost a few fortunes.
Nevertheless, somebody—some consortium of public and private money, no doubt—has gone all in. As we drive on, the three-armed giants multiply. Don Quixote wouldn’t know where to begin. There must be thousands upon thousands.
We pull off at Big Spring and find a place to buy a burger. My headache slightly relents, thanks to the dose of endorphins. We see an old church steeple rising into the late western sun as the town’s hilly main street arranges tiers of garages, pawn shops, and drug stores. A big billboard cheers on the local football team—in mid-March. Church, cars, football, and oil… or now electric wind. This is the land of contradiction in which I grew up. Call it Texas, or call it America: the one is only a more honest version of the other. An insatiable appetite for energy to broadcast lurid fantasies upon which are reared generations of kids who hate vigor and free enterprise, all of it blessed by a version of God that finds the ultimate measure of honor in Friday-night pads. I don’t get it, I never really did, and I never really will. Sometimes I think I’ve had this headache all my life.
Oil remains king, at least, in Midland/Odessa. We reach their precincts at dusk. Big rigs are pulling onto and off of the interstate steadily, headed away from or toward a different kind of urban sprawl: a massive steel spread of coils and pipes and shafts and towers that must be oil refineries. The sandy dust follows the eighteen-wheelers in white plumes. Low, early stars sometimes turn out to be distant stacks burning off natural gas. The human part of it all—the Holiday Inn and the Wal-Mart and the Golden Corral Restaurant—almost seems like the plywood façades of some Hollywood film set. It’s clear that their role in the community is secondary.
West and still west. Dusk deepens. I had thought to see the ghostly forms of pure white sand dunes around Monahans, a place I once visited at the age of fourteen when my father took me on a pipe-laying job. I spot the sign announcing the Monahans Sand Hills State Park… but now it’s too dark even to see white sand, the visible remains of an ancient ocean bed. I apply myself to looking out for a surviving body of water: the Pecos River.
Frontier wisdom maintained that there was no law west of the Pecos (and, later, that Judge Roy Bean was that law). Maybe. But making so dramatic a transition doesn’t even seem to merit a sign today. If there was one reading, “Pecos River”, I missed it; and I certainly missed the river itself.
I wish we had missed the city of Pecos… but a stop for gas is necessary. This is the saddest place in the world. Even in the dark (and I have seen it by daylight), it sprawls like Midland/Odessa without having any of that area’s mechanized vitality. Far-flung, dirty, run-down, and quiet, for miles and miles—beginning and ending you know not where, like the wind that bloweth where it listeth. And even the wind just keeps going. The people here say nothing and scarcely move. Some speak Spanish, and some speak English, but none has anything to say. Sprawl, that signature of modern man, no longer implies a hum of activity. All in Pecos is dead.
We change to Mountain Time somewhere just beyond here. I actually see the sign that marks the spot. Our long drive has carved off a little chunk of the planet.
And now I can begin to look in earnest for mountains. They do not disappoint. I only wish that we had enough light to recognize them as more than thicker masses in the pitchy dark, for Juanita has never believed me that Texas, too, has mountain ranges. The smaller, sparser specimens slowly begin to roll our road about on their shoulders. Our ears crack, and the engine labors. We’re climbing. Though Van Horn, our resting place for the night, is still a hundred miles on, nothing populated lies between it and us now. Yet, black as the night has grown, I no longer have that feeling of nausea and despair. I sense, rather, that an inhuman kind of energy—and an energy that humans will never know how to tap for their “needs”—is all around us. I’m excited. The tarred icebergs tighten around us and rise in height. The stars are no longer close: something has reared up to nudge them farther back in the universe.
Van Horn at last. We have survived Day One.
BOLGIA OF THE BRIGANDS
I dreaded the drive through El Paso more than anything as we first began to plan our trip. When I was a boy, my family would visit this fissure in the Franklin Mountain chain at least once a year to see my father’s parents… but that was long, long ago. Now the city competes each year for “U.S. murder capital” honors. Just south of the border in Juarez, mass graves of young women were being regularly discovered a few years ago. One hundred thousand people have been killed or gone missing over the past decade due to cartel violence. Politicians jeer at the danger and promise (surrounded by security guards) that the border is safer than ever; and ostentatiously open-border, open-society types on the internet praise the scenic beauty of I 10.
I really don’t know what to expect. Part of me wants to mock the paranoid impulse and whistle in the graveyard… but I also have a Ruger revolver stored in the trunk with several dozen rounds, just in case of car trouble. The near-desertion of the interstate yesterday evening does not greatly reassure, in retrospect.
We leave Van Horn very early, and are fortunately at El Paso’s squalid, chaotic doorstep before eight on a Saturday morning. A professional trucker would tell me later that those of his trade observe the same routine: they plan their transit so as to hit The Pass bright and early. Truckers, it seems, are not allowed to carry any guns of any description in any nook or cranny of their vehicles. Thugs can waylay them in full confidence of meeting no armed resistance and plunder the candy shop. Funny how none of this ever makes the news….
Yet the first, last, and intermediate impressions that El Paso leaves on me are indeed not of danger, but of blunt, glaring postmodern squalor: just another Dallas, another Houston, another Tulsa. Thumping roads, pylons and detours and road work, half-built overpasses, Motel 6 and Hooters and Denny’s and Auto-Zone and Cavender’s Boots all crowding the highway’s guard rails with their signage… The feeling of nausea that I left behind in Fort Worth returns. We’re back in that same circle of Hell: the contemporary American metropolis.
As we weave through the already moderate traffic, however, I notice something else to the south: another circle, another infernal bolgia. Mexico. Beyond the first line of chain stores and their parking lots, incredibly rusty, ratty, topple-down shanties already compose a backdrop on the gringo side of the invisible Rio Grande—and then one peers into the valley beyond them. Juarez. Mile after mile after mile of oil refineries in the middle of town: the sort of grimy, high-rising, Mephistophelian pipes and shafts that besieged Midland but did not occupy its Main Street. Juarez has taken industrialization to a new level… or a new depth. These smoke stacks belch toxic-looking billows right next to cathedrals. Only as we begin to exit the El Paso/Juarez nightmare do we notice something that might be called a residential section on the Mexican side. A town’s outskirts, apparently, are reserved for the people, down Mexico way. I tell Juanita that the hillsides of unsteady shacks make me think of a huge bag of child’s multi-colored building blocks shaken up and poured out on a rumpled quilt. The colors, beneath their dust, are as bright and uncoordinated as ever paint could make them—lime and orange and amber and violet and pink—as if their residents were groping after whatever stimulation of the senses they could find to shock them out of chronic despair.
Who wouldn’t try to jump a fence, with a place like that to call home? Who wouldn’t prefer the murderers’ bolgia to the sadistic, blaspheming child-murderers’ bolgia? Sure enough, I think I see the infamous Fence, so little of which has actually been built. A brown line in a deep ditch, it leaves one thinking that the neighborhood ran out of bright paint—for it might as well be the humble fencing of a collective back yard.
If nothing else, the painful experience of El Paso makes me realize that our own numerous problems with industrial squalor are virtually universal now, and that places like Juarez are indeed much more deeply mired in those problems than we. On a hot summer Ozone Alert Day in Dallas, you come back from a walk with a nagging cough; on a bad day in Beijing, you come back and crawl into bed to die.
On the road to Las Cuevas, El Paso leaves us a parting gift: mile upon mile of dairy farming. The stench of manure is so foul that we fight a swoon even after shutting the vents tight. Hundreds of thousands of dairy cows wallow in their filth just to the southwest of the interstate. I learn later that such operations account for why ninety percent of antibiotic purchased in our nation is sold to industrial-sized farms. Of course, in those conditions, microbes quickly evolve into forms that resist every antibiotic thrown at them… which is why, in 2015, the infection that attacks your child’s nervous system after a swim in the local lake may just kill him. That’s how we do business now—that’s how we roll.
Meanwhile, selling fresh milk from the udders of a family cow is strictly regulated, and in many places prohibited, by the FDA.
THE ROAD OF THE SUN
When Gilgamesh enters the Underworld, he is said to follow the Road of the Sun. By now, I have begun to grow vaguely aware of how much our trip resembles the mythic katabasis about which I’ve written so much in my professional life. The archetypes have leeched into my brain. The cities we have passed really do remind me of something from Ben Okri or Amos Tutuola, all upside-down and inside-out; and these long, dry stretches really do put me in mind of the Deadworld’s other geography—not its bolge, its Tartaros, its place of torment, but rather its endless empty zones of transit. There is nothing particularly malodorous or loathsome about the terrain beyond Las Cruces, where we head dead west. In fact, it’s a sublime landscape… but wholly sterile. Nothing human could live out here, because this land was not meant for humans. We are trespassers: we can only move on through, if we hurry before our water runs out. The land is not launching an attack upon us. It simply doesn’t belong to us. It lives its own life—its non-life, as we must interpret so dry and mineral an existence—no more aware of our presence than the Martian Valles Marineris would be of a lately landed astronaut’s.
Every horizon to the west or the north is now dominated for twenty or thirty minutes at a time by a single peak or group of peaks. Occasionally, a little town like Lordsburg will cling to the roots of one of these Titans, as insignificant as an ant mound at the base of a dead oak. I try to imagine what it would be like to awaken every morning to such silence, to look out one’s window and see the Titan’s shadow at a certain stage of its daily, immutable progression. A man could die here and not even know it. Could that, by an eccentric definition, be something close to true life?
In southwest New Mexico, you hold one mountain cluster on the horizon for half an hour, like an island chain drifting past a ship.
If I lived here, I would always dream of climbing the mountain in whose shadow I irrigated my garden and checked my mailbox. I would never get the thought out of my head: it would nestle there like a kind of madness. I would know—I could see—that there were no trees for shade any step of the way. I would know—for I would have heard—that rattlers cringe under every other loose rock, that the stone of the escarpment is as brittle as dry clay, and that distances out here seem hundreds of yards when they are really tens of miles. Yet something about the way those dusty pink volutes of granite rise straight up to their crown speaks of God—of a god who doesn’t speak, who looks far into the edge of the universe. It was that speech, perhaps, that I heard as a restless adolescent on my long, senseless walks through flat suburbs whose denizens had all fled inside from the heat. Something in me adores that god. The dry wind thrown off those sheer pink rock faces is a siren song.
There’s a stretch just between New Mexico and Arizona where the roadside signs warn of sudden sandstorms for the next ten miles. We would barely outrun one of these on our way back. For now, I look about, both uneasy and hopeful, as if the warning had been for flying dragons.
Taken on the way back, these photos show a sandstorm breezing up from nowhere near the New Mexico/Arizona border. We barely skirted its veil.
The border patrol, we notice, occasionally siphons traffic off the interstate and through checkpoints. Cameras watch how vehicles respond to the re-routing long before we actually reach a booth where an officer waves us through. I’m sure that some “advocacy” hounds would find the whole set-up redolent of racial profiling—and I know of certain libertarians who insist that the officers have no authority to carve five minutes out of their valuable lives in this fashion. My own feelings are much more indulgent. The strategy seems to me quite ingenious. In a political atmosphere which prohibits effective securing of the border, these checkpoints are a minimally intrusive way of passing every vehicle under a canine’s nose and—through the camera system—spotting any stowaways who suddenly jump ship. There really is no other way to engage in criminal activity out here except by means of car and highway. No biped could carry enough water to survive for more than two or three days in the desert—and two or three days wouldn’t get you across this desert.
I can understand now, too, why some opponents of the border fence insist that its intended deterrent would be pointless along certain stretches. Mexico, the U.S…. it’s all Deathland here. No one gets out alive, to fritter his life away in one of our sprawling cities. How in hell did Cochise do it? What did the Apache live on—nopalitos and rattlesnakes?
In the early afternoon, we make Tucson.
THE ELYSIAN QUARRY
Tucson. My expectations were generated mostly by the view from a window seat 30,000 feet up in the air several years ago. Back then, from that height, all was white—the white of salt, of bones, of an eye whose pupil has rolled up in its socket. I had figured Tucson to be a dusting of artificially sustained domiciles on a flat white tablecloth: a kind of Moon colony. I wasn’t at all prepared for the persistence of mountains. Though they circle most of Arizona’s populated areas without intruding upon them (I think of wolves grown accustomed to rifling human garbage but still wild and nervous), the mountains here seem to lurk on every horizon. Like the British public that supposes all Texas to be a desert, I have always supposed most of this state to be a leveled sandbox with durable cactus prickling hither and yon.
The “cactus” part, in fact, isn’t far mistaken. Lawns here usually consist of gravel, with a few saguaro or Spanish daggers representing the bourgeois mulberry or the boxwood hedge. It’s another of those otherworldly upside-down situations. In one of Ben Okri’s lands, the inhabitants’ feet face backward.
And the fanciful mythic resonances pile on, right from the start. I don’t know when it first occurred to me consciously… but the whole pretext of our grueling trip has something Orphic about it. We are coming to visit our “lost” son. We delivered him to paradise months ago: a place of verdant expanses, huge blue skies, fresh winds, tall silos, old barns, and dairy cows as they were meant to be grazed: Iowa, middle-American land of milk and honey. But my son is a baseball player—that’s why he wanted to go so far away (in Iowa, the location for Field of Dreams, both book and film set, every college has a baseball team); and March in Sioux City is bitterly cold. Teams bus down to places like Tucson, therefore, in order to get in their spring training. A lot of local revenue is raised from this sporting migration to the desert Southwest. Major League teams, or a good half of them, now make a seasonal trek to Phoenix.
We go to the recreational complex from straight off the interstate, not even checking in at the hotel, since it’s early afternoon and our information has Owen’s school playing right now. Finding the spot requires a lot of asking around; the GPS, of course, hasn’t a clue. (Satellites, I suppose, can’t detect the Other World’s geography.) We enter the right area at last, but through the wrong parking lot. I find a Rawlings official baseball reading, Ligua Mexicana de Beisbol, on the Tarmac, and keep it for a souvenir. Mexican national teams obviously come here to play, as well.
Like the blessed spirits in Virgil’s Elysium, young men are competing on green fields under the distant frown of a bare mountain ridge, serious at their “work” yet as happy as they will ever be in this adult life. Heroes and scapegoats reign and sulk for an hour, then trade places in the next game. A dry wind begins to blow. The ring of mountains constantly throws back the hot air rising from the desert floor, as the mineral world plays its own daily game of tossing our oxygen skyward and pitching it into a breakneck plummet. This is decidedly a different kind of place from those I know.
The irrigated playing fields of southern Tucson are among the city’s few green spots.
We stay in Tucson for almost a week. Its strangeness becomes less strange. The ubiquity of walkers takes me back to the days of my childhood, and to my own walking habits. People seem willing to walk everywhere—and people of every demographic, not just the homeless or students or health-nuts or Mexican “visitors”. They might as well. The humidity is negligible, and the driving is (like all driving) insane. In particular, Tucsoners like to turn from the left lane across busy avenues as if they were taking turns on a diving board or a ski jump. The leftward-turner appears to have the right-of-way… yet another upside-down custom.
As for Mexico and her hordes of trespassers, I notice none of the friction or tension that I had feared. The ubiquity of pedestrians on sidewalks is strong evidence that the streets are safe. Spanish-speakers don’t seem as adversarial as back in my neck of the woods. A couple of labradores chattering away over an excavated pipe return our nods with a smile from the edge of our hotel’s parking lot. In Texas, it strikes me that Spanish is an almost palpable wall between its users and you, like those buried lines that electrically shock a pet’s collar when it reaches them. They don’t know you, those speakers, and they don’t want to know you—nor do they care if you know it. The political elite’s ambition of dividing society against itself is therein fulfilled. But here… I even succeed in communicating a few vital facts to the hotel cleaning-woman in my too-proper Castellano. She seems very pleasantly surprised. At home, “they” pretend to understand nothing you say: it’s “they” and “you”, unless you offer a paying job.
Again, which side of hell is more like heaven? When does life become more like death than death itself?
Owen is not happy. After all my efforts to settle him into the perfect spot, I’ve landed him in a dark hole. I mess up again.
He has an odd method of pitching that his coaches don’t understand. They claimed otherwise when they were trying to fill out their roster with warm bodies. The college athletic racket, by my best guess, is fueled by the federal government’s FAFSA racket. Students are gulled into taking out loans for college tuition, and colleges proceed to raise their tuition because the loans are perceived as “free money” by the live-for-today American public. Those institutions that still struggle to stay open offer generous athletic scholarships, since many young people are not ready to give up their favorite sport after high school. The scholarship money really is free, from the student’s perspective; yet the baseline tuition has risen so high that the school in question also isn’t taking much of a hit, and its enrollment may even climb.
We took out no loans at all, yet we entered a very cynical world where kids are encouraged to believe that their athletic talents are valued only to find themselves riding the bench. Owen has become caught up in that swirling Charybdis. The titular pitching coach is actually a volunteer and is always being called away by his day job; meanwhile, the two remaining gurus understand only height, weight, and pitching velocity as measured on the JUGS gun. They are the projection into the locker room of the same robotic enslavement to dull quantification as I see more abundantly every year in the classroom. When given a chance, Owen gets hitters out… but the brain trust sees only his diminutive size and lackluster velocity.
As the week wears on, however, he succeeds in working his own way out of his anguish. The pitchers who were performing most poorly were praised by Abbot and Costello for all of the wrong reasons… and at that point, paradoxically, Owen’s confidence was restored. He understands now that these men are truly incapable of taking his measure, or anyone else’s. It is a rare joy to see him climb out of that hole all by himself.
Should I be doing the same thing? The traveler to the Other World is supposed to acquire vital knowledge from the place where the sun rests at night and where jewels grow like fruits. Am I supposed to bring back some gem of understanding that this young life is not my own to control—that my responsibility for my son’s happiness or unhappiness has now reached the banks of the River Lethe? My life has been so empty since he left home… but why, then, did I ever build my life leaning so heavily on supports that didn’t belong to me?
Owen would have been disappointed if we hadn’t trekked up to Phoenix for a Major League spring-training game during the team’s off-day. Yet the game for which some wealthy parent had bought the boys a block of tickets is now sold out. Against our better judgment, we decide to be good sports and grab a less marketed contest. I should know myself better than that, with my loathing of traffic and noise and crowds. Miserable ordeal. Phoenix traffic appears to crawl like cold molasses at all hours of the day (and night, I’m assured by the natives). I infer from the roadmap that the city is in fact an unplanned fusion of several cities. Sometimes an American metropolis will attempt to rope in its sprawl with a great loop intended to ease traffic (which usually works until ease of circulation invites too much traffic, necessitating a broader loop). Then there are urban disasters like Phoenix, where the major arteries go around nothing and cut right through the heart of everything, courtesy of an utter lack of foresight. But then, what mortal eye could have foreseen the patterns of our population explosion?
Having finally found the stadium and paid an extortionate price of admission, we walk through two checkpoints where Juanita’s bag is scanned and searched—and then the second guard tells us that her fold-up umbrella, passed without comment by the first guard half a mile back, is impermissible. I refuse to return it to the car a mile away, opting to leave it at the gate, instead. My little speech runs something like, “No one would steal this ragged thing, anyway. I’ll buy her a new one. I don’t know why anyone ever comes to this nanny state. I never will again.”
This isn’t behavior characteristic of me, but I wasn’t then and am still not ashamed of it. Maybe I have “shape-shifted”—another risk of otherworldly travel. I have the impression several times in Arizona—but especially in Phoenix—that I am witnessing “Austin Syndrome”: the flight of affluent progressives from those states which their political decisions have made uninhabitable to less hampered states which they proceed to destroy in the same manner, having been taught nothing by experience. This spring-training complex, in particular, tries to be all things to all people—and it succeeds, as long as all people will consent to be only a certain kind of person, a certain Model Citizen. Plenty enough Enforcers (a.k.a. ushers) are circulating throughout the ballpark that anyone opening up an umbrella in such a way as to obstruct another’s view could be politely advised of the prohibition; there’s no need of a massive confiscation at the gates. But the new program is to render people incapable of straying off the path: no politeness or common sense required. Reminds me of certain fundamentalist sects: no intimate faith required, just a public profession of rigid allegiance to the tenets.
We watch three innings of a very boring game, leave in a vain attempt to beat the evening traffic, and retrieve Juanita’s umbrella untouched along the way. I don’t get to see my beloved Gestapo agent as we exit. Significantly, perhaps, the Cerberus was a female; the original guard at Checkpoint One who had waved us on through was male. Another otherworldly inversion? Only if our whole society is included in it. The women now have to show how tough they are by enforcing absurd rules to the letter (several umbrellas had actually been smuggled into the stadium, by the way), while aging males who remember gentler times wink at patently harmless cases as they await retirement. Once they’re gone, the world will have no more manners, and no more common sense. But cajones… yeah, lots of those, with generous toppings of stupidity and vulgarity.
I don’t know why anyone goes to see a Major League game nowadays, honestly. Traffic jams, long walks, long waits, a very distant view of the action, eardrum-popping loudspeakers that blare pop music between innings, personnel that herd and haze one like a cow down a chute of the slaughter-house (or a dairy farm)…
Give me a Single A game any day. There you can still go back in time. This particular torment of Hell is all too like the world I left behind. To hell with it.
The day before we leave, Owen asks if we can invite a couple of his teammates to lunch. Of course, we’re only too happy for the chance to get to know some of the boys in whose gravitational influence he moves. The occasion is no more than hamburgers on the coolly shaded patio of a chain eatery; but the day is broad, blue, and dry, and a rim of mountains lies visible beyond the low-cut buildings of Tucson’s major avenue. I haven’t found that outdoors location yet from which I don’t see a mountain on the horizon and a palm tree or two in the foreground. The latter always strike me as dissonant with the endemic cacti, but they succeed in giving the place a resort-like feel. And when you come right down to it, no terrestrial landscape is more like the seashore than a desert.
One of the boys is tall, broad-shouldered, and talkative. A charmer. He’s just the type that baseball scouts initially warm to, and in fact he claims to have had offers from Division I colleges. (I forget the explanation of why these offers evaporated, but it smacked of an excessive affection for wine, women, and song.) Friend Two is taciturn, by comparison, and maybe a little defensive or competitive. He likes to mumble comments about his style of play, his specific areas of superiority, his rosy prospects for the future. Both young men appear certain that the college in Iowa is but a stepping stone to much higher things for them, and that the next step will be made next fall. We learn later that no such step came—that no fervid offers were pressed upon them by admiring coaches. Somehow, I already know that this will be the story’s last paragraph as I sit listening to them. Owen will be the only boy of the three actually to give his notice and take his chances on finding a place that rewards his hard work. These two, like most people, will end up being content with a bird in hand. It requires so much less work; and, with their superior size, they can talk up a storm in their contrasting scintillant/sullen ways and be believed by a naive audience of their peers.
There’s always something bittersweet about watching the game of baseball bump one boy after another out of its overflowing wagon. Those who fall by the wayside are often, even routinely, big rather than small. The Goliaths have invariably been made much of since Little League and have not learned the drill of hard work. Life teaches them rather early that the parties, the girls, and the money come more readily with a good job than with the grinding servitude involved in approaching a level of professional achievement in any sport. The boy’s dream evaporates in the man’s pleasures, largely unnoticed, scarcely missed unless in the surprise of a chance retrospective. How readily and willingly innocence is traded for the joys of corrupt adulthood!
Maybe I’m naive myself, however, to find pain in an inevitable transition. I seem to have a genius for mining the painful. The next day, I come upon it easily as we take Owen out to one more lunch on one more cool patio—this time just the three of us. He has a game starting soon, for which we cannot stay: the long drive back must be divided in two. I don’t know why I admire him so much for resolving to play a “silly child’s game” a little longer rather than to “do something useful” (i.e., something financially remunerative). Maybe it’s just because I see so clearly—so obsessively, some would say—the ravages that our collective equation of utility with material profit, of all profit with material profit, has wrought upon our soul. I love the useless as I love vast empty spaces and the voice that doesn’t speak. I love refuges of the soul. This boy remains one of those for me. And so every time I leave him, it always feels as though some Aztec priest is ripping open my ribs and offering my heart to the Sun.
We exit from Tucson by a different route. It is bordered for miles and miles by parked military aircraft: as many as the seguaro cactus beyond them, and much closer together; more than the windmills outside of Big Spring, but perhaps much less operational. How many times in a year could anyone visit a given plane to oil its parts and turn its tires? How many times in a decade? Have all of these flying fortresses been poised here in readiness… or put out to pasture here in a kind of embarrassed concealment? Like the catalogue of warriors encountered by Odysseus in Hades, their spears no longer puncture.
We make Las Cruces by sunset, where a hotel awaits us. The white glow of the low sun off the city’s diadem of peaks is almost indistinguishable from the snow of a thin cloudline just above. From certain angles and at certain times, the edge of the earth is hauntingly beautiful.
The peaks surrounding Las Cruces are almost indistinguishable from a thin line of clouds drifting above them in the evening sun.
THE TRAVELER’S RETURN
The Other World Traveler comes back bearing rare new wisdom, having made sacrifice or paid an exit price. In my case, I briefly thought I’d lost the sight of one eye. Within a week of my return, I was seeing flashes of light. All I could think was “detached retina”. The problem turned out to be less terminal and less sinister: a partial collapse of the vitreous membrane, such as is normal in people of my age. I’ve treated the condition (which our science says is untreatable) with homeopathic remedies, and it has eased off lately. Who knows if an ancient Chinese formula or my halving my daily caffeine intake while doubling my water consumption deserves the credit?
What I could offer by way of wisdom—the second sight whose price was my corporeal vision (to be poetically over-dramatic)–would not satisfy very many; but then, it has always been thus with prophets.
I think computer radiation, dating from the nineties when I was a heavy and unprotected user of units with Cathode Ray Tubes, probably initiated some damage to my eye as it did to several other aspects of my health (e.g., regularity of sleep). I think our electron-intensive lifestyle is probably toxic; I don’t think we give a damn collectively, some of us because that lifestyle affords us so much fun, some because it makes us so much money; and I think, finally, that our children will suffer from all kinds of mysterious debilities in later life thanks to our insouciance.
I think our cities are dangerous, ugly monstrosities. They’re unpleasant and potentially lethal to drive through, and yet they keep filling with more and more people. They are surrounded by ever more sparsely settled wastelands, meanwhile. We can find the wherewithal to plant thousands of windmills in the middle of nowhere, but we can’t figure out how to repatriate a modest human community to the wide-open spaces.
Windmills, by the way, are not really much prettier to behold than concrete overpasses and the McDonald’s Golden Arches. Many of them do little or no turning on a given day, yet our government provides whopping grants and tax incentives to energy companies that scar the badlands with them. An ancient obelisk half-buried in the sand is a bare and mystifying thing—yet stamping a sticker on it that brightly reads, “Sponsored by your local Trail Drive Steakhouse,” does nothing to rehabilitate it for human society, in my view. The problem is not our deficiency of energy sources: the problem is our gross overuse of energy.
I don’t understand why Mexicans have to dig up pipes and swish out toilets for a living when they know what part of which cactus to eat and have centuries of living off the land in their blood.
I don’t understand why Americans have to live this way, either: I mean, fighting traffic twice a day, bathing themselves in high doses of radiation five days a week within expensively cooled spaces that require formal dress, gambling and drinking away the sense of futility in Indian-owned casinos, losing their taste for literature, forgetting how to read… were not they happier, too, back on the farm?
I don’t understand why a “dairy farm” of ten thousand cows crowded into their own manure is an improvement over a homestead with one or two grazing milk cows. I don’t understand why the cultivation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria on these farms is a service to the public.
I don’t understand how people can continue to believe, with examples like the FDA before them, that big government protects them from big business. With the cautionary tale of academe’s skyrocketing costs rubbed in their dull faces, I don’t understand why voters believe that a government-underwritten education is a good idea.
I don’t understand why half the things I say are howled down by people styling themselves conservative when the thrust of every inspiration I have is to conserve. I don’t understand why people who, until recently, proudly wrapped themselves in the mantle of liberalism find my defense of basic liberties obnoxious.
I don’t understand why East Ukraine and Yemen are looming drop-zones for our sons and daughters in military service, but places like El Paso are surrendered to drug lords as long as they keep a low profile; and I don’t understand why American citizens who truck for a living cannot provide for themselves the protection that an immensely costly central government arrogantly refuses. For that matter… no offense to my trucking buddies, but I don’t understand why we have to transport items at fifteen times the expenditure of fuel in an energy crisis just because the Teamsters’ Union doesn’t want any competition from trains.
I don’t understand, either, why we do not declare war on drug cartels if we are truly friends of the Mexican people. Why are we playing an idiot’s game of backing Shiite against Sunni on Monday and Sunni against Shiite on Tuesday when people at our own back door are being slaughtered? Why do we tolerate the Democrat plan of inviting Mexicans here to buy their votes with public handouts and the Republican plan of inviting them here to provide penny-ante employment for sweatshops?
Why do we put up with these swaggering, egotistical, bald-faced liars and whited-sepulcher hypocrites whom we call our representatives? Why do not we all—American, Mexican, Indian—return to the land, collect rainwater, find a cow, and forget about following the next episode of The Walking Dead?
Apparently, I have returned from my journey without wisdom. No answers, only questions. My son needs a new school, and he needs to work on his pitching delivery. I need to build up my garden. I find that nopalitos, though vile-tasting by themselves, bring out the savor of almost anything else. They’re extremely nutritious. So far, I have failed to discover and transplant into my back yard a nopal—a prickly pear. But the peanuts have volunteered all over the place from last season’s harvested relics. There’s my protein. I stuck the huge seed of a grocery-store avocado in the ground right after my return. Something green is already poking through the soil.
John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values. His new book, Climbing Backward Out of Caves: A Case for Religious Faith Based on Common Sense, is on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online distributors in both paperback and e-book form.