An up close and personal second look at American culture after a decade abroad. What the fuck have we become?
Sympathy for the Devil in a Hellish Desert
We came to buy some groceries at the Wal-Mart in Globe, Arizona, pulling into the blistering asphalt parking lot with the air conditioner working overtime and the Rolling Stones’ raucous, rhythmic “Sympathy for the Devil” blaring from six speakers. “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name!” Sure, it’s Globe. Population 8,000, Gila County, home of the Tigers (oddly, not the more appropriate Apaches).
Upon an unstudied glance it could have been any Wal-Mart anywhere. The staff were friendly and helpful to a fault (oddly annoying perhaps because I’d become too accustomed to the indifferent customer service common throughout Latin America). The parking lot was serried with motorcycles, motorhomes and American flags, perhaps the only other thing distinguishing it as a distinctly American Wal-Mart. Well, perhaps one more thing. The customers mostly looked sickly, odd, and inappropriately dressed. Either skinny grannies wearing tank tops without bras and cut-off jean shorts exposing spider webs of blue-green veins, or the morbidly obese wearing pajamas and cheap bling with yellow eyes hobbling along the isles stacking their carts with beer, carbonated sugar water, Cheetos and frozen microwave food. I didn’t count, but it seemed that a full quarter of the patrons were riding three-wheeled electric meat wagons, even the healthier-looking ones, some dragging kids behind them, which has apparently become a type of sport, a free form of recreation.
(Future stops at Wal-Marts in other cities and states indubitably confirmed two things: (1) the website peopleofwalmart.com hardly exaggerates, and most probably has a hopeless backlog of photos waiting to be posted, and (2) Americans dress down, or hardly dress at all, when they venture out into public.)
If I could characterize the mood, it seemed to encompass a somber, dystopian indifference. I saw no hope, no laughter, no passion, and no anger. Just lodes of soft drinks and watery beer. People intent on spending their Saturday afternoon enjoying the solacing hum of the swamp cooler’s struggle against the searing heat outside, the comfort of satellite television, driving out of the parking lot towards their trailers and stucco ranch-style cottages in cars and pickups emblazoned with red, white and blue Support our Troops! bumper stickers, secure in the knowledge that America is the most exceptional country on the face of the earth buried somewhere deep within their cerebral cortex amongst the arterial plaque, perhaps not even a conscious thought requiring the flicker of a sickly synapse.
The land of plenty on full display. To the point of diabetes, heart disease and liver failure.
Yes, I’d been away for a while, and still made embarrassing mistakes like speaking Spanish to convenience store clerks with puzzled looks, before re-remembering my English. I fumbled at gas stations, having not pumped my own gas for over a decade. But it seems to take only a couple of days to re-acclimate.
There was something else at work here, though, something more than getting reacquainted with a long lost friend. What has happened in the last decade? Or has it always been like this but I’ve forgotten?
From Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath and Travels with Charlie in 1960, to Kerouac’s On the Road published in 1957, to National Lampoon’s cult classic comedy “Vacation” in 1983, the great American road trip has come to symbolize the only real way one can really get to know America. And perhaps it is.
America is a land of interstate highways, local freeways and county roads, connecting often disparate communities, local cultures, accents and languages, and by doing so, creating the sense of a larger community, something defying easy definition, but nonetheless distinctly American. You won’t find the homogeneity of countries like Japan or Argentina in the US, which is after all, a land of immigrants. This creates a palpable vibrancy and excitement for the traveler. And of course also tension.
Born in the USA
I was born in and grew up in America, served 4 years in the Army, and went to college and law school in California. After meeting my future Mexican wife in Alaska (of all places) in 2002, we moved to Mexico, never looking back, and I never earnestly missed the US. Certain conveniences, sure, but no profound homesickness. I adapted, polished my Spanish, and grew to love the culture, the food, the colonial cities, the UNESCO World Heritage sites, all the while developing an empathy for her people who have had to suffer through a half a millennium of bad governance, endemic corruption and senseless wars. (Most Americans no doubt would feel uncomfortable if they really knew how much alike we are.)
But I digress. This essay is about coming home, not about Mexico.
In between air travel for work or vacation, every couple of years my wife Margarita, I, and our children Samantha and Sebastián scratch the itch to take an epic road trip. Chihuahua to Mazatlán, Cancún to Belize and Guatemala, and all points in between. It almost always involves heat, car trouble, the kids intermittently fighting, playing, sleeping, getting carsick and blaming each other for that unpleasant yet familiar smell that fills the car; police bribes, menacing military checkpoints, frayed nerves, sometimes some fun, and always a lesson.
My mother living in northern California and my father living in southern Oregon are in their late 70s and “not getting any younger” which is of course just a euphemism for dying, as we all are. I hadn’t talked to my sisters in ages. We’re not exactly a closely knit family. We’ve been scattered like so much summer pollen, finding places to settle more through the blustery happenstance of the job market and the asperous terrain of love, gathering, as it were, in the crags and crannies of both the big cities and rural hinterlands of California, Oregon, and in my case, Mexico. And while my kids aged 9 and 7 have US passports and attend a private bilingual school in Chihuahua, their English skills needed some work, they’ve never met their American grandparents, and other than weekend shopping trips to El Paso, they know nothing of the country that they are citizens of. A strange fact, perhaps, but I suppose an increasingly common one in the world of globalization and rising mobility. (Almost a million Americans live in Mexico full-time, larger than any other American expatriate community in the world).
So this year, for the first time in almost 12 years, our road trip target became America, specifically the West and Southwest ─ an ambitious 4,816 mile round trip challenge, but doable, we thought, in 2 weeks. I was allowed to choose the music for the long stretches of western highways on the condition that I drove the whole way. Fair deal. Classic American rock & roll (with some Beatles and Pink Floyd thrown in for good measure), blues, folk, country, and a smattering of classical.
Country Road, Take me Home
So it was this philosophy of travel, this motivation to make a working vacation of it, this perhaps even genetic restlessness (my father was a notorious greener-grass job-hopper, traveler and intermittent hobby enthusiast his whole working life), that we found a room the Super 8 Motel in Cottonwood, Arizona which enjoyed a view of the thunderstorm-soaked cars in the parking lot, all at least 10 years old. The rain was a welcome respite from the dusty pitilessness of the desert. We and our fellow budget travelers were close to uber-chic Sedona, but not close enough to stay in one of her boutique hotels or eat in one of her trendy restaurants. Or shop at the ubiquitous gaggle of art galleries and shops selling various, and mysterious, magic energy crystals, which looked like rocks to my untrained eye.
This is the way we’ve always traveled – we do what we can on the budget we have. It’s also more than that. It’s about learning, about curiosity, about eschewing the comfortable for the real. And you can never get that from the best reservations at the swankiest hotels and a stack of American Express traveler’s checks.
We avoid the sophisticated metropolitan hubs, even most of the state capitals. We take the two-lane highways when possible, visit the local stores, and explore the ethnic neighborhoods and suburbs where the commuters live. Whether in Mexico, America, or Canada (or any other country for that matter), the pickings are rich in knowledge, gilded in the understanding of what a country is really about when stripped bare of its adorning jewels and the disguises of elaborate raiment. Perpigan preferred over Paris, Málaga rather than Madrid, Bremen over Berlin, Mérida superior to Mexico City. Walla Walla better than Washington, D.C.
Countries, in my view, should not be judged by their great cities, their best museums, their most spectacular cultural events, or the rankings of their most prestigious universities, but rather by their lesser ones of each. That is where real life unfolds, develops, and sometimes flowers. Saul Bellow’s Augie March infinitely more interesting than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby; the struggle for survival on Chicago’s cruel and cruddy Depression-era streets meaningful, the false opulence of the Roaring 20’s on the pocket utopia of Long Island not so much. At least for me.
Prisons in Podunk
I am sometimes accused of being a self-hating American, a traitor, which is of course nonsense. I suppose this is because I am often deeply critical of American policy, both foreign and domestic (not especially difficult), and occasionally praise Mexico’s policies, among other countries. But in the eyes and brain stems of jingoists, any criticism of American policy or culture is traitorous, and any praise of a foreign country’s policies is traitorous too. Apparently we’re the shit. End of story. I never knew.
During our three day whirlwind trip through Arizona (the first leg), only one thing stood out as being more plentiful than the natural wonder of her single national park, her ex-mining towns like Jerome turned artisanal tourist centers, and her spas promising rejuvenation and new life to wealthy aging baby boomers, were her prisons.
One can smell the pills in Beverly Hills, the Jambalaya in New Orleans, the sewers in Newark, and the nostalgia when passing the many sun-bleached road signs advertising local travel lodges and kitschy tourist attractions in Arizona, almost all of which evoke either overtly or in form of art Route 66, although it may indeed be hundreds of miles away.
With Credence Clearwater Revival or Billy Holliday booming in high digital fidelity, it was easy to get high on the wistfulness of better days gone by, until I started to pay closer attention to the old farming or mining or ranching towns dotting the backroads. The main industry now seems to be corrections (the oddest euphemism of all as we’re not correcting anyone, we’re enslaving the mostly minority underclass). Almost every town had a prison attached to it. Douglas, Eyman, Florence, Lewis, Perryville, Safford – some 16 in all (some for-profit private prisons) in addition to 5 federal prisons and some 15 county jails, including Sherriff Joe Arpio’s infamous tent city jail, which he himself referred to as a “concentration camp.” (An insufferable braggart and horse’s ass of the The Donald-class. Why he hasn’t thrown his hat into the ring with the other 2016 Republican presidential aspirants is somewhat of a mystery.)
But this is hardly a phenomena unique to the Grand Canyon State; the US incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world; in fact, America accounts for only about 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. And prison labor is good business. You can pay your “employees” 23 cents an hour, and you know where they live, so absenteeism is seldom a problem. Mass incarceration, often for non-violent petty drug possession offenses, is the new slavery, the last in a long line of exploitive labor practices, with companies like Whole Foods making a bundle from legalized slave labor. Forget the argument for raising the minimum wage. When you only have to pay your laborers the equivalent of what it would cost to clean a fart stain on your silk pajamas, well, that’s a profitable business model.
The only prison in Arizona not still in use is apparently the “sliding jail” in Jerome, a victim of a dynamite blast in the 1920’s causing a shifting of the Verde Fault, where the two-cell jail slid 225 feet down Mingus Mountain, deemed to be too unsafe for prisoners (a rather progressive concept for the time).
The Calliope Crashed to the Ground
We spent a wonderful morning at Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park, hiking, taking snapshots, and listening to park rangers talk about its gradual formation for over 6 million years, and how we can see 2 billion years back in time into our planet’s geology (almost half her age). We looked over the South Rim out into the mile deep mind-bending desolation. Pictures of course, as beautiful as they sometimes are, can do this wonder of the world no justice. A recurring thought was, this just can’t be ─ this can’t exist. My 7 year old son apparently was thinking the same thing when he asked me, “Is this real, papi?” Indeed, no human mind could have conjured this beautiful wound in our planet’s crust through imagination alone.
I asked a park ranger what she said to creationists who think the Earth is less than ten thousand years old. She smiled and gestured with a wide sweep of her arm at the void below. Some things are easier, and more convincingly, shown, than said.
But our schedule was tight, and we still had a long drive to see Hoover Dam before diving into Las Vegas ─ the belly of the beast itself.
And I’ve always loved to gamble. Sit me down at a blackjack table and leave me be for 20 hours, or dollar slots, or Texas Hold’em, or Pai Gow Poker. You name it, but if I had to choose only one, it would be blackjack. I thought that this would be the high point of the trip for me. I had been fanaticizing about it for six weeks. Winning my fortune. Showering my friends and family with expensive gifts. Basking in the warmth of the big win. Proudly declaring my hundred thousand dollars in cash winnings at the border complete with the appropriate Treasury Department’s FinCEN Form 105, perhaps giving my basement office back home in Chihuahua a much needed remodeling.
But I never bet a single hand, dropped a single coin, or wagered on a single sports event.
It’s been more than 20 years since I last visited Las Vegas. What struck me as most odd in driving into town from the Arizona side this time was the sheer number of churches – not something I expected in modern-day Gomorrah. Mega churches the size of casinos, Catholic churches, Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches in strip malls, churches on wheels. Can’t these people let sinners alone to sin? Apparently not. But it didn’t bother me much; it came as a novel surprise, but little else.
My favorite church, albeit decidedly secular, is the gambling casino where the focus of worship is money, or so I’ve always thought. But no longer single, no longer with a full head of hair, no longer horny, my impressions were somewhat different. Casinos smell of humanity: body odor, cigarettes, free liquor and stale beer. The people of Wal-Mart have come here, too, not to be denied the American Dream, having thrown off the melancholy shackles of quietly desperate lives, sitting camouflaged amongst the foreign tourists, slumping behind slot machines in a haze of blue smoke, pulling handles, pressing buttons, inserting coins. Here, all of our failures can be forgotten, all of our dreams at long-last fulfilled. All it takes is a little luck. We don’t notice the stink because we’re blinded by the light (thank you Bruce Springsteen for the ready-made metaphor and Earth Band for making this song a No. 1 hit in 1976), the ching-ching rattling bell-and-whistle sounds of winning mesmerize us. And we reach yet again into our buckets once filled with tokens, almost to the bottom.
The Grand Canyon was liken to a glimpse of the miracle of our universe seen through Hubble’s spectacular images of our closest galactic neighbor Andromeda. Las Vegas by way of comparison was a glimpse at the most banal of miracles, a burning bush, pigs possessed by demons running headlong into the endless deep. Las Vegas, like TV preachers and faith healers, exists to empty the pockets of rubes, selling products that don’t even exist: for the religious, the hope of immortality, and for gamblers, endless riches of this world. And people can’t seem to quite get enough of the ether, at almost any price.
So after cruising the Strip and getting some fast Chinese food we headed back to our hotel. The kids were naturally ecstatic and animated, enthralled by the lights and noise and excitement. I was tired from a long day of driving and I bickered with Margarita about something I remember not what, as long-married couples too often do. She took the kids up to the Stratosphere’s tower for a view of the city, and I walked the length of the casino floor to get to the north elevator. Never once tempted to drop a coin, to join a lonely blackjack dealer in a fait acompli of loss. I felt sick, but it wasn’t from the food at Panda Express.
A promising morning had gone sideways, turning into the funky mourning of a useless afternoon.
Back in the room, I poured myself a tequila, filling a paper cup, sat on the toilet, and opened the Stratosphere’s paper The Roxy Reporter, which contained a minor manifesto:
Somewhere along the way, Vegas lost its way. A pool chair became a privilege. A nightclub became fodder for paparazzi. A dinner tab tipped the scales of the National Debt. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! PLEDGE: TO HELP US REDEDICATE VEGAS TO REAL FUN FOR REAL PEOPLE.
The article went on to extol the virtues of the comfort food served in the hotel’s Roxy’s Diner: chicken fried steak smothered in gravy and butter pecan bread pudding for dessert. But ordering to go will cost you an extra dollar per entrée, and an 18 percent gratuity will be added to your bill if you elect the privilege of sitting down to eat. And strangely, the menu also includes Tomato Caprese Benedict with pesto hollandaise and Citrus Herb Roasted Chicken. For casino resort marketing executives, this must be known as having your cake and eating it too: sell the dream or sell the reality; like America, Las Vegas can be whatever you want it to be.
The smooth burn of El Cabrito in my throat was the only thing that felt good. I turned the AC on high and burrowed into the sheets. Tomorrow will come, I told myself. Couldn’t leave Las Vegas soon enough.
This Land is Your Land…
One of my favorite songs as a child was Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which is as much wonderfully patriotic and filled with American imagery, as it is subversive and ironic:
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
A patriotic reaffirmation that this is your and our land, when in point of fact we pushed out the lawful residents, who occasionally summoned the temerity to resist our Manifest Destiny to their peril, resulting in the virtual extinction of a culture, genocide, and of those few who survived European diseases and American bullets, mass incarceration of native peoples to reservations awaited. But the ever-subversive Guthrie didn’t think private property rights should be respected either, an irony not lost on him, as before we came to rule the continent, land ownership by the Native Americans was a concept with no purchase in reality. When we didn’t take the land by force, we bought it with worthless trinkets and beads.
There could be no better family-sing-along song to be playing as we crossed from the hot inland desert of Nevada along a ribbon of highway called Interstate 395 into California between the Sierra Nevada on our left and the White Mountains to our right. A spectacular landscape where snow-patched (formerly snow-capped) peaks rising to over 14,000 feet can be seen, where the highest point in the contiguous US (Mt. Whitney) shares the same geography of the lowest point in the US (Death Valley), separated by barely 80 miles.
…This Land is Dry Land
One need not live in California to be aware of the drought; it’s big news, the worst in the state’s history. Forests are dying, once great reservoirs like lakes Shasta and Oroville and scores of others have been transmogrified into mud puddles. The water table is at an all-time low. Some form of water rationing is in effect in all communities. California has always experienced cycles of drought, as both recent human history and ancient geologic history tell us. The rains will come again, as they always do, but when? When they do come, how much damage will have been done? Well drillers seem to be the only ones who are busy making money digging ever deeper into the aquifer, racing the water table ever lower for desperate commercial customers trying to keep their heads, so to speak, above water.
We stayed overnight in the mountain resort town of Mammoth Lakes, California, high in the Sierra Nevada, and a prettier pine-forested town could hardly be imagined, rivaling perhaps only Flagstaff, Arizona. No observable evidence of drought, until you ask the locals. The patches of soon-to-be gone snow on the high peaks would normally be perineal (the glaciers having long disappeared, and the snow pack is the lowest it’s been in 500 years). Same story as we drove into one of America’s crown jewels of nature, Yosemite National Park, cresting Tioga Pass at almost 10,000 feet above sea level and descending to view, on yet another ribbon of highway, El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. Summertime afternoon thunderstorms bathe the High Sierra in refreshing moisture, but hardly enough to sustain an increasingly thirsty state.
It wasn’t until dropping into America’s breadbasket, or more accurately her fruit and vegetable basket ─ California’s great Central Valley ─ that the severity of the drought became apparent: fifty shades of grey grass rather than green lawns, water drilling trucks manned by tired sunburned men barreling down interstate highways and county roads, the airwaves filled with weather forecasts and news of water rationing quotas community-by-community, highway signs employing residents to conserve water, and people forever glancing up at cloudless skies and down at waterless reservoirs.
Despite California’s advanced water management practices, its complex levy systems, its network of hydroelectric dams providing both electricity and some form of control over water storage and conservation, Californians are like everyone else at the mercy of nature, and are not too-far distant from our ancestors, dancing and sacrificing and praying to the gods so that the rains may finally come.
We could of course follow the scientific studies and listen to people with PhD’s in climatology, who tell us that severe weather patterns and droughts are almost certainly due to global climate change caused by man-made CO2 emissions. But that conclusion is intensely unsatisfying. It would imply that we’ve done something wrong, and that dog just won’t hunt. We’re Americans, after all. It would require us to think very seriously about our economic models, as well as what potentially disruptive alternative energy sources could do to them, or enhance them. We generally don’t like change when it involves potentially impinging on our way of life: if it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it; even if it is broke, don’t fix it either. If what our parents did was good enough for them, it’s good enough for us, and our children.
By default then, many of our politicians have taken the two-steps-back approach to explaining California’s worst drought since records began to be kept. For example, it’s abortion, according to California Assemblywoman Shannon Grove. Yes, god is angry at California for the availability of family planning services, and therefore is punishing the state with drought. (Why drought and not locusts or frogs is somewhat unclear.)
Indigenous cultures in the Americas have always danced, prayed, sacrificed and genoflexed, trying to appease the gods when the rains didn’t come. We’re doing the same, although we should know better. We now have access to the scientific method and powerful meteorological models. Yet we ignore them in favor of simple answers to complex problems.
Over 50 years ago Eleanor Roosevelt said,
The American Dream can no more remain static than can the American nation….We cannot any longer take an old approach to world problems. They aren’t the same problems. It isn’t the same world. We must not adopt the methods of our ancestors; instead we must emulate that pioneer quality in our ancestors that made them attempt new methods for a new world.
I tend to over-quote Hegel, but I’m afraid I must succumb to doing so yet again: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
On a cloudless day in Marysville (where even the stoutest Valley Oaks seemed to wilt like delicate herbs in the afternoon heat) Steve Neal, a good friend of the family and professional water well driller for over four decades, gulping an iced tea on my mom’s porch, and coated with god knows how many geologic layers of sweat and dust, said, tiredly, “I’m supposed to be retired now, but there’s too much work. I hope it starts raining soon.” Perhaps it will. Or won’t.
Born on the Fourth of July
The most American of all American Holidays is arguably Independence Day. We (at least ostensibly) celebrate throwing off the shackles of British imperialism by choosing a different destiny, an American one. But this celebration seems, at best, quaint now. We’re too far removed from the historical events. Thanksgiving is a better American holiday, in my view, where we give thanks for our good fortune in the land of plenty, helped by natives who we later destroyed when they were no longer of any practical use, gorge ourselves into a stupor, fight with our crazy drunk uncles and half-sister whores, and shop on Black Friday until our feet are swollen enough to burst our shoes and the banks freeze our credit. Even so, there seems to be less and less to be thankful for.
We spent the 4th with my sister Kerri’s family in Yuba City, California. Barbeque, swimming pool, family, sun, and cheap, somewhat disappointing fireworks. Some good conversation loosened by beer and some even better gossip. A good time had by all, to be sure, but that was about it. It’s been so long since Independence, the passion is no longer there, the jubilation seems somehow forced, the concept of England as a former enemy, while historically accurate, now seems just, well, weird. So we’ve gradually, almost imperceptibly, supplanted Independence celebrations with celebrations of veterans’ sacrifices sprinkled with odd platitudes about “freedom” and “democracy” and “the global war on terror.” We’re impelled to celebrate victory, at sporting events, barbeques, church pot lucks, parks, and recreation areas, even when fewer and fewer can be found.
Perhaps one day our greatest celebration will be for a victory over victory.
The next day we drove up Interstate 5 and cut across Highway 299 toward coastal Highway 101 north, through the majestic Redwoods National Park, craning our necks at the Lady Bird Johnson Grove at the world’s tallest trees, shrouded in perpetual mist, a grey twilight, the grand giants straining upwards for thousands of years as if to escape the fog that sustains them, before falling from their own weight. Having come from the scorching Central Valley, we shivered without sweaters, yet comfortable in the knowledge that the cold wouldn’t last, as we would again be moving on to warmer climes, completing the loop back into the Valley towards Disneyland and again into the furnace of the Southwest, before gliding onto Mexico’s northern high desert plateau like a paper airplane gentling landing in the sand.
And we came, finally, to my father’s and stepmother’s home in Brookings, Oregon. I hadn’t seen my dad in more than 12 years. As a Marine Corps veteran, he was proud of my own Army service. He had saved my old dress greens and BDUs, as well as lots of old photographs. He was gracious, funny, getting a little long in the tooth, and amiably forgiving of my too-long absence. He retold old stories to raucous laughter. He was also, along with most of my family and their friends, a religious and political conservative along the lines of a Limbaugh-Falwell hybrid. God, guns and unapologetic conservative principles. I braced.
California is, contrary to popular belief, not an entirely liberal state. It is two states, but difficult to define contiguously as such. The great population centers of the Los Angeles basin and the San Francisco Bay area are liberal enclaves, and because they are also the major population centers, they make California a decidedly Blue state, putting her comfortably within the Democrat bank when it comes to electoral college votes in presidential elections, explaining why Republican presidential candidates hardly bother wasting campaign funds getting out the vote here (though fundraising is ubiquitous).
People living in the rest of the state ─ the rural communities far removed from San Francisco sophisticates and Hollywood liberals, in towns like Redding (my birthplace), Arcata, Mt. Shasta, Bakersfield, Modesto, Weed (yes this is really a town), and Sacramento, among many others ─ are as politically and religiously conservative as the Midwest and the Bible Belt. The government is the enemy, which must be guarded against and never trusted. Mexican immigrants are taking over the country, the younger generations are lazy, Obama is a secret Muslim who wants to turn America into a Third World backwater (for reasons, once again, never entirely much less convincingly defined). A patchwork quilt of ideas rooted in epochs past, an entrancing vestige of a comforting egalitarian pioneer spirit, in which the answers are always easy. Back in the 19th Century it was the Chinese railway and laundry workers poisoning us with opium, or communists. Now its illegal immigrants, pot smokers, queers, abortionists and tweakers are to blame for America’s endemic decline. The answer is, for the CCC (my acronym not for the California Conservation Corps but rather Country California Conservatives) not surprisingly, Donald Trump, who is at the time of this writing, leading in all major polls amongst his GOP brethren, with his ostensible scorched-earth strategy of making the easy sell to undereducated rednecks, peddling fatuous sloganeering as plain spoken wisdom. His conservative brethren sell us on solutions to problems that exist only in our minds: global climate change is bullshit, the wealthy among us are job creators and shouldn’t be taxed, any kind of gun control will result in a totalitarian world dictatorship, quite possibly organized and run by the United Nations, and of course (piggybacking on the GOP’s senior polemicist Ann Coulter) illegal immigrants are both figuratively and literally raping us to death.
I grew up among these general ideas, discarded them for the stupidity they represent, but somehow half-convinced myself that things must have changed over the last decade, that the uneasy progressive truths would bubble up to the surface over time. If they have, they’ve been skimmed off as impurities in a chef’s stock of politically pure ideology and relegated to the kitchen sink drain. It was yet another culture shock to discover that the convincing beliefs in failed ideologies and irreconcilable philosophical contradictions were very much alive and well.
During a family lunch these ideas were being spouted about without shame, without critical analysis, and heads were nodding in universal agreement. I listened politely, realizing that a counter-argument would have been useless. When the discussion came to the deindustrialization of America and the shipping of jobs overseas, I saw a possible inroad, a basis for potential agreement, and so I readily and enthusiastically agreed that NAFTA was a bad idea, and we needed to raise the minimum wage, mentioning some of the ideas championed by Bernie Sanders, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, among others (like Ross Perot), a fact apparently lost on my almost-captive audience.
An uncomfortable silence ensued. Some eyes rolled (Sanders is a socialist after all, and Nobel laureates like Krugman are most definitely not to be trusted, just ask Bill O’Reilly). Then the subject bounced around to religion, which is where I took my leave to go to the bathroom and then outside to smoke, where my stepmother cornered me and told me that she loved me but wanted to punch me in the face.
When I returned there was blackberry cobbler and homemade ice cream. And the conversation had turned to cars. I was safe, and was even able to contribute some witticisms such as “there’s no replacement for displacement” to universal approval, but it somehow rang hollow coming from a professor with soft hands and clean fingernails.
In conservative rural California counties, like much of the rest of the country, anecdotal evidence is much more than enough to support one’s conservative views – it’s the only thing listened to. An illegal immigrant who committed a crime equals all immigrants are criminals. The feds financially supported an energy company that went bankrupt equals the government can do nothing right. The list could go on and on. In this other California, like much of the rest of the nation, superstition supplants science, anecdotes spouted by Trump trump real analysis, public policy based on empirical evidence rather than political ideology is anathema. Trump’s autohagiography The Art of the Deal sits on mantels next to family bibles (a slight exaggeration I admit).
One lesson I learned on this road trip from the friendly park ranger was to try to show more, and tell less. Confirmation bias among conservatives is Hercules-strong, and empirical evidence is deeply suspect. I imagine my parents are still scratching their heads that my Mexican wife is not a maid, but rather a world traveler with a Master’s degree and fluent three languages.
The Long and Winding Road
After an awkward breakfast at a local café in Brookings, Oregon (the Eggs Benedict were surprisingly good) we took our leave to stay one more night with my mom in Marysville, California. It was no small miracle that I got my only speeding ticket on the trip from a California Highway Patrolman on State Route 295. He, a monolingual mestizo with the family name of Santos, was somewhat confused by our Mexican license plates and proof of US insurance purchased from BBVA Bancomer weeks before, and seemed apologetic as he wrote me the ticket, fumfering about with stupid questions: “Do you know why I stopped you?” (Of course I know why you stopped me ─ I was driving too fucking fast!)
Mom cried when we left, making me feel like the shit that I surely am.
We headed down California’s interminably boring Interstate 5 with a significant, and necessary (to quash the suicidal ideations), detour into Big Sur: breathless cliffs rising high above the Pacific, hugged by two-lane Highway 1, winding its way in hairpin turns and switchbacks for 90 miles before descending into the rolling hills of San Simeon, with Hearst Castle conspicuously perched above. Was the detour worth it, putting us into Anaheim at midnight after 13 hours on the road? Yes, if only to marvel at the ambition, dedication and ingenuity of the engineers and laborers who carved that road into the mountains and built bridges spanning impossible precipices, dedicating 18 years to the endeavor. Which leaves me wondering: In today’s day and age, would we have the strength, the will, to do it again, to take on a seemingly impossible and dangerous task for nothing other than a view into the wonderment of what is the California coast? Or would we only take the safer, less expensive, and easier eastern route (Highway 101) around the Coast Range, sacrificing beauty for utility?
A Tragic Kingdom
The very last stop on our epic road trip before heading home was the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland. I dreaded it. I am decidedly not what one might call a “Disneyland dad.” I would take a seedy bar to commercialized fantasy any day. But kids don’t seem to like seedy bars much. And it is, after all, about the kids. They squirmed uncomfortably in the heat while waiting in line for up to an hour and a half for a two-minute ride, and seemed to rightfully mind. They marveled at the classic “It’s a Small World” (after all) ride, but didn’t seem to notice the molding, clumsy papier-mâché animatronic dolls, the dusty floors strewn with extension cables and cobwebs. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but notice. Along with peeks from the aging Monorail of maids emptying trash cans, the paint-pealing rooftops crammed with the detritus of air conditioning technicians, hidden alleys with workers smoking cigarettes and delivery drivers waiting for invoices – glimpses of real life in the midst of America’s greatest daydream, fleeting, but not hard to find if you look.
We drink our illusions straight in America. No fancy umbrellas, no mixing, no diluting, no chasers, just the hard stuff. The exits from the rides often lead into restaurants where you can and often do buy a dry $12 chicken sandwich which comes with a teaspoon of coleslaw and thimble full of baked beans (or more accurately baked bean), or a gift shop where kids, adolescents, recently formed adults whose memories of pimples and crushes are still a little too close, or the elderly without the strength to resist or too feeble of mind to even want to, purchase and wear felt Mickey Mouse ears and $20 Disneyland T-shirts. But grown men and women? Oh, the humanity. Perhaps they’re reliving their childhoods, looking again to the past for comfort, blind to the idea that memories and scrapbooks are free, and that the answers to our troubles lie ahead, not behind.
Disneyland is Plato’s famous allegory The Cave writ large, more than the suspension of disbelief. It is the belief that this fantasy, one that we created, is more real than the reality we could experience outside of the cave, and not only that, it is more real than what scientists and scholars tell us is even an effortless step further toward the truth. But few seem especially interested.
Disneyland looked to me like it was in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint, undoubtedly too busy collecting those hundred dollar day passes from millions of visitors to reinvent itself. Perhaps a theme park or a country can only be reinvented so many times before it must be scrapped altogether and a new foundation laid.
With 9 hours under our collective belts, sore feet, and stomachs aching from tasteless churros and stale popcorn, we skipped the parade and fireworks. We went to yet another Wal-Mart (indistinguishable from the one in Globe) to purchase our fix of crusty baguette, Parma ham and caffeinated drinks for our 12 hour drive from Anaheim to El Paso starting in the early morning.
Back through the Desert on a Horse with no Name
I, for one, could hardly wait to get back home, back to work teaching, back to work writing, back to our modest life, my comfortable routine. Margarita and the kids, too, were tired of sitting for endless ours in the car listening to music they didn’t like much, punctuated by only by a few hours of activity outside the shell of sheet metal and rubber. Which meant on this day, Friday July 10, 2015, I got to call the shots, got to be a patriarchal dictator ─ driving straight through, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks, which, according to my rules, could only coincide with refueling stops, requiring some discipline of the bladder. (It reminded somewhat of the single purposefulness of driving in convoy through East Germany to get to West Berlin when I was a young soldier, unable to stop, pissing into coffee cans half-filled with gravel to keep sloshing to a minimum.)
Alas, it was not to be. A scheduled stop at a gas station and rest area along Interstate 10 in New Mexico was closed. Samantha shat her pants. The music ran out, leaving us with boorish religious talk radio or country music. Couldn’t even pick up NPR, the stolid, featureless voices at least saying sensible things. So no radio. Only fatigue, the kind that scares you when you nod-off at 90 miles an hour into an intense wakedness that lasts only a few minutes until nodding-off again. A version of hell, and not a bad one if god had torture in mind.
But when the 16-ounce Red Bull finally kicked in there was ample time to reflect on the trip.
So let me give praise where praise is immediately and legitimately due. America’s national parks and monuments, and many of her state parks, are the most spectacular in the world. The interstate highway system, too, is the most easily-drivable and well-marked on the planet, with ample shoulders and clean, often scenic, rest areas. (What could they be with proper national infrastructure funding? Surely the Utopia of roads, the Mother of all Roads, a man-made wonder to rival all others.)
The other non-utilitarian man-made stuff is not so great from my perspective: from grungy Hollywood Boulevard to the insufferably over-commercialized theme parks, to the growingly ubiquitous Indian casinos. Nature has done a much better job at inspiring awe in us humans and providing real recreation, real solace, and real opportunities for useful contemplation of our human condition.
I’m decidedly not an absolutist, or a conspiracy theorist, or a claimer of access to revealed truth, but I will go out on a limb and claim at least one thing absolutely: if our national parks are ever privatized, making them accessible to only the privileged few, we need to fold our hand, cash in our chips if we still have any, and relegate ourselves to living in the dystopia we willingly, if not enthusiastically, created.
Much is exceptional in America, but surely not everything, perhaps even, to don my cynic’s cap, not most things. We are in, as a point of fact, an unquestionable decline. Once the envy of the world on almost every front, we now rank 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation, 31st in personal safety, and a surprising 24th in internet availability. University graduates are crippled with debt. We’re 1st place in per capita incarceration rates, belief in angels, and adult onset diabetes. The middle class is dissolving like precariat bathtub scum sprayed with oligarchic bleach, and our political process more closely resembles a plutocracy rather than a representative democracy. Wall Street bonuses for a few thousand employees last year amounted to twice the amount of the earnings of all minimum wage workers in America combined. All of which calls for the obvious (I hope) question: Are the finance-degreed so much more valuable to American than the working class? The road builders, the bridge builders, the day laborers keeping our pantries stocked with processed grains and or refrigerators full of fresh fruit and vegetables so much less important that we cannot even provide them with a living wage, a minimally dignified life?
To ebb this decline (reversing it seems so unlikely as to be a pipe dream), what must be done? I don’t know, other than to posit that a paradigm shift of political ideology, indeed, away from ideology, towards pragmatic evidence-based non-dogmatic solutions is the only hope. But that seems unlikely as well. Our public policy is almost wholly ideologically based, rather than what it needs to be based on ─ the fact-based social sciences.
The high tides of the 1950s and 1960s, touching virtually every shore on Earth with American industrialism, idealism and spirit, has been so slowly receding that it is almost unnoticeable. The seabed being reclaimed inch-by-inch stretches further and further with fast food franchises and strip malls, engulfing entire cultures with Hollywood movies and dreams of senseless wealth and fame in lieu of lives well-lived.
America is like the proverbial frog slowly heated in a pot of water, dead before realizing it’s getting uncomfortably warm because too many of us, to evoke that prescient Pink Floyd lyric, have become comfortably numb.
Eyes on the Prize
Perhaps luckily, my wife and children don’t have direct access into my darkest thoughts and musings. We were on, after all, a family vacation. I tried – with varying degrees of success – cheerfulness and excitement, and wrote in the wee hours of the mornings mostly in dimly-lit hotel bathrooms.
But my eyes, after 12 days of relentless travel only occasionally punctuated with rest, were on the prize – Chihuahua via El Paso, Texas. And we made it. With enough time to do some clothes shopping in that iconic West Texas city before collapsing into stinky beds at the Motel 6 at 10 pm (yes the light was left on for us) after a nightcap of warm box wine drunk from paper cups.
With the music on MP3s and CDs gone, used up, listened to too much, we drove in silence toward the port of entry into Mexico at Santa Teresa, New Mexico. I remembered I had some music stored on my computer, but could only find Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which turned out to be a fitting, and haunting, farewell to the US for our last 12 miles to the border. We listened to it twice.
It was still playing as we rolled into the checkpoint on the U.S. side, met by a gaggle of a half-dozen Border Patrol agents wearing ridiculous olive drab uniforms (it seems that the DHS can’t quite decide whether or not the Border Control should look like clerks with guns or elite desert soldiers) not-so-enthusiastically scanning the incoming traffic for possible arms or cash smugglers. Checkpoint Charlie it was not. (Disappointingly, I was in no need of any Treasury Department forms for transporting more than ten thousand dollars in cash as I had hoped.)
My wife handed in her travel permit and the agent asked us where we’d been. I began responding with the litany of destinations, but he cut me off at Las Vegas, and diffidently said, “go ahead” with an expressionless face and a half-hearted sweep of his hand pivoting on a wrist that had undoubtedly made the same gesture a million times. Apparently not happy to be working on a Saturday, in a job that promised excitement but produced only boredom. No drug busts, and few export violations. Just Mexicans returning home from vacations or shopping trips, and brave American tourists ignoring the usual State Department travel warnings.
We got unlucky with a red light at customs on the Mexico side. The random inspection mostly consisted of jovial chitchat and a cursory look at our luggage, which was never opened. Some interest in my military uniform laying on top of it all, more small talk and some double-entendre jokes so famous in Mexico. Smiles. A fat female Mexican border control agent eating a taco, not to be bothered immediately to help with the inspection. I had my receipts readily in-hand from Ross and Marshalls in case there was a question of us importing goods for resale in Mexico, but they weren’t needed. More smiles and a “Bienvenidos,” and we were on our way.
As we drove down the highway we listened to Mexican radio – Rancheras and an occasional ballad by Lila Downs. But we didn’t glide into the desert like a paper plane as I had imagined. The highway was horrible – not as I had remembered it going norther only two weeks earlier. I kept asking my wife, “Are you sure we’re on the toll highway?” Doing 95 MPH on a U.S. interstate highway in a new SUV was a breathless exercise in smooth, but on a Mexican highway a bone-rattling back-breaking insight into slow torture. In only two weeks I had grown accustomed to glass-like asphalt, wide shoulders and rest stops with running potable water and scenic views. How quickly we adapt. And forget.
But we were home, and it felt good.
While we were away the summer rains had begun, and the desert bloomed, turning green, looking more like Scotland than Mexico. The sky was a hard blue porcelain veneer and the air felt like brushed cotton.
We were back in a land of hope, where there has never been a significant middle class, where inflation is at an all-time low and GDP growth is expected to break records in 2016 and beyond, due in large measure to U.S., European and even Asian factories taking up shop, and despite the crippling effect of low oil prices.
Compared to most of the US, Mexico is gritty, for lack of a better word. It is a land, too, of endemic problems, too many to name unless in a book-length work. And yet it is also a land of smiles, and an enduring, endearing, culture. Access to the middle class in Mexico is seen more as an aberration rather than a right. Expectations formed over 500 years of virtual chaos are low, so when a windfall of jobs come from direct foreign investment, one might rightfully expect an uptick in spirit.
The security guard in our gated neighborhood greeted us as old friends.
Neighbors’ kids came to play and see what we brought back from Gringolandia.
I discovered that my tomatoes and zucchini had not only survived, but thrived in the summer rains.
America is more than a country, it is a civilization, and my fears about its fall were confirmed, my nightmares of Los Angeles becoming a post-apocalyptic hell like Belize City or Detroit made more vivid, my opinion that we are only a half-step from realizing The Hunger Games writ large, sadly unchanged.
Our house was dusty, as expected. But it was good to be home. Very good.
© 2015 by Glen Olives Thompson