Continental Rambling: Impressions

The travel bug bit, and there was apartment hunting to be done, so I’ve been on the road again these past few weeks, crossing this impossibly vast continent in as Spartan a way as I can manage (without surrendering my car, a pretty big exception). This meant fast food, cheap hotels or hostels as an occasional luxury, but as the norm, camping for free wherever I could find a pretty and secluded spot.

One impression that stands out over the course of this trek is how weak and ambiguous the gifts of Progress have become over the vast majority of this country. Sure we may chatter of Hyperloops and stem cell panaceas, and there may be smartphones in a hundred million hands, but the reality has not kept up. In nearly every town I passed through, most of the basics of life seemed unchanged, if not worsened, from what I remember as a child. Instead of Hyperloops, I and everyone else makes do with crumbling roads, bridges and interstates, streaked with rust and flaking paint; and over them, there ride not hoverboards, electric or hydrogen cars, but the same old trailers, trucks and station wagons, all slurping fossil fuels and belching up carbon.

The sadness of the towns themselves is hard to miss. I remember St. Joseph, Missouri; Jacksonville, Illinois; Lockport, New York, and many more, all of which give the feeling of having once thrived from the proud if empty architecture of their town centers but now, their original economic (or non-economic) reason for being having dried up, stand eerily empty or are encased in the overgrowth of chains and strip malls. They lose their identity and viability as distinct communities–Kunstler’s  “geography of nowhere”.

It used to be small town blight people talked about. Now even the big cities fall in a hierarchy: in the Great Lakes, Cleveland and Buffalo feature vast downtown stretches where culture and commerce have disappeared, so that one literally cannot find a place to get a bite to eat or a beer even on a Saturday evening. Others, like Chicago, sport shiny, soaring glass skylines that make you think of the spotless technological optimism of Starfleet Academy; but they seem to purchase this futuristic façade at the cost of hundreds of square miles of the same dirty industry and soul-numbing sprawl, whose sheer gravitation makes it an hours-long proposition to escape.

In general, the areas that are identical, thrive. The unique and historic cores, where meaning and sense of place are created, rot away or sit empty. What have we gotten by it? Where are we going? The retreat into the informational–and I think it’s fair to call it a retreat as much as an advance–seems to have left behind the too-unglamorous physicality of where and how the vast majority of us live. It is as though, following the terrors of reality embodied by the World Wars, of the sight of what actual shells and bombs could do, and with the new miracles of computation rapidly rising out of Bell Labs and elsewhere, the postwar era saw us pulling away from the physical like a hand from a hot stove. The material, with its deadly and perishing liabilities, was to be left behind like an old skin, or at best to serve as the carrier for the informational (one thinks of the old buildings in every city transformed into windowless hulks for cell transmitter equipment).

Yet if the informational is a fine ground for games and contemplation–and it is a nice convenience to find 4G reception in even the tiniest and poorest towns–it has not created better landscapes for our towns, or better livelihoods for our citizens. Instead, it seems, the preoccupation with phones and computer screens has given more pretext to leave actual things adrift, or to see them exclusively as “resources” or “infrastructure”–or better yet, as things that should just go away, and be consolidated into the ever-expanding magisterium of the informational. (Incidentally, a fine recent essay in the LA Book Review discusses the dilatory and numbing effects of smartphones and digital amusements.)

There are exceptions of course, places where people have, either out of necessity of having no other civilization in close range, or of unusual eddies in the flow of “market forces” that have left pieces of local industry intact, or simply out of a stubborn conservatism that demands to keep the best parts of local history alive. In Wisconsin I see small farm villages with cozy town centers lovingly maintained, and separated not by sprawl but by miles of rolling fields and forests of an aching greenness. In Montana, I find small, hardscrabble prairie towns built around granaries and railroad links which probably never were picture-postcards but where people nevertheless are out and about on a Friday evening, where they seem to take a careful pride in their houses, even the tiniest neighborhoods, and where town identity is upheld in summer festivals and friendly rivalries. A town’s soul, I have seen, is not a question of size, wealth or beauty necessarily, but of pride, cohesion, and maybe necessity (in Montana, the brutality of these Upper Plains winters, and the distance of anything else human).

Duluth struck me as an example of one of the relatively lucky cities that has continued to thrive because of its geography. Perched at the westernmost point of the Great Lakes, and surrounded by steep hills that inhibit sprawl, the city maintains a historic, sturdy downtown and a thriving port by a lush hillside overlooking Lake Superior. I go for Chinese there and the owner tells me about her parents in Boston who don’t like to visit. Too much winter, not enough to do. She wonders where she would be if she hadn’t left China back in the early ’80s. No matter where you go, there you are. I later read about an ambitious plan to link up nine cities in China’s Pearl River Delta, forming a massive smoggy concrete jungle of 80 million people by 2030. I wonder if this is what my host feels she missed out on. (Is such a place as the Pearl River conurbation a triumph of “progress”, compared to a town that controls its size, maintains itself and its history, is content with knowing what and where it is?)

Even the true “survivor” towns, however, are places where, lip service and 4G reception aside, progress seems to have had little force in determining living conditions since the ’80s. In the smaller towns, there’s a couple local bars, the Dairy Queen and the family restaurants, a bar here or a casino there. People look rough, without illusions or tinsel, but determined. Kids travel aimlessly about on bikes, exploring. Motorcycles are lined up on the street in rows of gleaming chromium. In Plentywood, Montana, I see two special-needs kids in wheelchairs chasing each other across the street in zigzags in front of waiting traffic. I cringe but they make it across and seem overjoyed at this little adventure. Drivers in their stopped cars do not honk but watch the scene bemusedly. I take it such oddities are natural and accepted.

In Buffalo, I met a friend of my mom’s for dinner. We talked about this and that, the town’s changing fortunes. I mentioned the closing of the Erie Canal. He nodded and looked saddened, as if remembering a personal tragedy, even though he works in a field completely unrelated to shipping. This, I think, is how you tell someone has roots. Later, driving in town, I hear author Don Delillo giving an interview on NPR, 6/15: he has a new book out, “Zero K”, whose message he sums up by explaining “the country’s belief in the future is not what it once was”. Orbiting beyond the fabulous landscape of Manhattan or Silicon Valley, those shrines of the informational, feeling the truth of this nearly everywhere, I am gratified to hear that the literary prophets are sensing the same things.

My apartment hunt leads improbably to a guy who runs a tiny used car lot in the west side of Buffalo and rents houses on the side. Business is slow, he says. Because of the huge flood of cheap money and loans, fewer people want to buy used cars anymore. Everyone is taking free money to buy new cars and not bothering whether they can pay it back. I say the same is happening with mortgages–the new mortgages, that giddily advertise one tap on your smartphone to buy a house–and educational debt is skyrocketing too, I add. A young guy nearby washing one of the cars overhears us and there is a hell-yeah moment: educational debt is nuts, he yells. He is about college-aged, probably on the verge of deciding whether to go or not. I say I don’t know how long all this financing out of nowhere can go on, but it doesn’t look good. They laugh, wildly, a mixture of relief and fear.

The ingrained belief in progress hardly is limited to the working people and the hard-by. Also in Buffalo, I meet a guy at the hostel who worked in IT, highly articulate and educated, and an ardent reader of Kunstler (he actually journeyed to hear him speak). Yet when I point out there have been relatively few qualitatively transformational technologies other than the smart phone and computers in the past few decades, that we have been in many ways stagnant, that less has changed between now and 1950 than 1950 and 1885, he seems fascinated and bemused, as though it hadn’t quite been put that way to him before.

This forgotten 99% of the nation’s towns are not paradises of learning nor exemplars of perfect harmony, but simply places where life goes bywithout expectation or appeal. Even happiness or unhappiness seem, somehow, too abstract to convey it. What comes, comes. There are no theories, no arguments, no studies, unless you decide to start a debate about them at the bar, which will mark you as an entertaining outsider. Life here is about things happening to you, how you grit and bear it, ignore it completely, or turn it into an excuse to party and gamble.

On the other hand, in Williston, North Dakota, one sees this form of life bizarrely juxtaposed against one of the most recent claimed success-stories of the narrative of progress: the immense boom in shale oil production from the Bakken formation, a sort of stony underground sponge laced with oil. Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, a deep drilling method where oil-bearing rocks are cracked with high pressure, has made it possible to squeeze this sponge and get a massive payday from it. When oil was $110 a barrel, this made for epic boom times in this once-sleepy town (and state).

You start spotting pumpjacks even 70 miles away. The outskirts are announced by an imperceptibly thickening layer of smog and the jagged shapes of drilling equipment and rigs. Out in the distance you see dozens of flares in the valley, excess natural gas being burned off at frack sites. Nearly all the buildings are corrugated steel rectangles, brand new, emblazoned with the logos of countless energy companies: Sun, Pioneer, GE. Heavy machinery is piled everywhere. In this time of lowered oil prices drilling in the Bakken has slackened, but the main drag is still bustling with cars, new dealerships with sparkling new Corvettes for the newly rich or pretend-rich, new fast food restaurants for miles, and extended stay hotels put up like giant breadboxes. Everything in sight has sprung up since the boom began in ’06 or so.

I can’t help seeing the irony that this poster-child of progress not only creates an exceptionally ugly landscape vulnerable to boom-bust cycles, but is fundamentally about using the same 200 million year-old fuel that our civilization has been addicted to for 150 years. Even in Williston the vanguard of technology, strangely, is focused on bringing us more of the same. Another irony comes as you move further into the center. There the techno-machine extractive landscape gives way to the old town it now encases like a museum curio: small storefronts, quaint country restaurants. A few blocks away, the old neighborhoods: small peaked-roof houses painted brightly, lots of trees, squares of lawn, a strange opposite of the breadbox hotels and the corrugated-steel man-camps and trailers that house the oil workers.

Listening to the radio on my way out of North Dakota, I hear the bombshell: Brexit is here. It’s on the word on the nervous lips of every newscaster and politician. No one knows what it means, but everywhere it carries shades of a hazy doom. Prime ministers plan their resignation, terse words from heads of state on the Continent, aimed at the reprobate nation, all amount to “you betrayed us, get lost”. Questions fly thick on the airwaves: Will this destabilize the great system of global commerce? Does this mark the beginning of the end for the EU, if not a global recession? World markets seize with terror; the pound implodes in value and the Dow sinks 600 points. Some commentators lob accusations of racism and xenophobia at the British people, and I cannot doubt these factors played their part. The post-WWII order is ending, say others–an idea I cannot dismiss either.

Yet something in the Brits’ decision feels like the very mirror of what I’ve seen on the road all over America in this age of Trump. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the notion of progress has been associated with the march towards ever-larger scales of organization–nation-states, trans-oceanic alliances, global trade blocs, corporations ever more immense and intertwined, massive conurbations like the Pearl River, transcontinental road networks (like the very one I am driving on), and ultimately, towards an organization of humanity itself–humanity not just as a dreamy abstraction of “mankind”, but as a hard functional unit, world-engirdling, and bound indissolubly by ties of power, capital, information, and mass culture. Conversely, the small-scale and physical–like the shapes of so many miserable or defiant towns and people I have seen along the way–have been left more and more behind.

The idea of a global market, where commodities and people become fungible tokens almost like currencies, readily whisked across political and cultural boundaries by the winds of economic demand, has been part of the essence of the EU; meanwhile, the immensity of this pseudo-state, comprising 500 million people and a GDP larger than the United States, long stood as one of the utmost achievements of progress-as-gigantism. Now, the decision of its second-largest member economy, along with the refugee crisis and the growth of the right-wing, has dealt the giant a potentially fatal reversal.

It is easy to blame the Brexit outcome on mere short-sightedness or ugly xenophobia, or on the dwindling memory of a world war whose survivors are now mostly gone. But I read it as a sign of bigger trends: first, that super-large scale and hyper-complex organizations are becoming harder to sustain in our increasingly stagnant economic and technological landscape and against the largely unacknowledged headwinds of resource and environmental limits; second, that there is a growing discontent with the dehumanizing and impoverishing reality of such organizations, regardless of their ideals, among a widening proportion of the people who live under them.

There is instead a nostalgia for the smaller community, the tangibility of a nation and creed as a sort of family–something close-knit yet standing apart, charting its destiny. The result in our time is a growing confusion as to what direction even constitutes “forwards” any more: smaller and more hands-on, or larger and more informational? I’m reminded again of Sebastian Junger and his portentous ideas on tribalism–that for all its dangers there is a certain charm to being parochial, whereas the futuristic super-entities that espouse “humanism” offer cold comfort to all except their best-connected elites. Where does xenophobia end and the honest desire to preserve some unique cultural identity, cohesion, and self-determination begin? What countries and peoples, tired of nearly a century of thickening abstraction and anomie, will jump into the slipstream of parochialism next?

As if cued by these thoughts about tribe and belonging, I switch to a local station and out of my speakers like thunder come the tribal chants and dances of the Lakota Sioux, who once lived and fought here with a freedom that makes my own journey seem totally safe and banal. In the smallness of their numbers, following the huge herds of buffalo, this continent opened itself in an immensity and richness which was sustained for thousands of years before the coming of the whites. “The heartbeat of the Spirit Lake nation”, the announcer declares between performances. I feel chills going down my back: the shouts, the singing, the whoops and drumbeats all speak of an ancient passion that is still white-hot. It’s all there, I think to myself. The pride, the fury, the secret knowledge of these prairies. And they will win, I think. Maybe they run casinos, eat fast food and speak English now, but give it two generations with these songs to guide them and it be just like it once was. Impressed as I am, I have the odd feeling of overhearing something that has simply nothing to do with me; for the first time in my life, I realize what a European I really am.

I keep pressing on west long past Montana, till at last I arrive at my final goal: the North Cascades. Here, beneath immense glaciated volcanoes, cradled in the lush silence of giant cedars, devil’s club, and huckleberries, I look back on the dry expanses of my home in the Southwest and it might as well be a foreign country–so remote and so other. Are not countries illusions anyway, or if not illusions then drawn wrongly on the map to fit some powerful man’s convenience? What’s to bind together such disparate places as the Southwest, the Great Lakes, and these Cascades, other than that there’s a continent instead of an ocean in between them? The map is my enemy, I think; I work hard in my mind to erase the borders, these parasitic fictions, from my view of the earth–and every now and then when I succeed, as the dashed-line compartments and measures fade away, I catch a quick realization of the real vastness and sweep of this ancient and suffering earth. Ours is a world in continuity; the rest is man’s need for belonging, distinction, comprehension. Grasping that–in moments like this, standing in this cool mossy rainforest as I look up at the slopes of Mt. Baker–is, more than anything, why I travel.

Shortly after I get home, I head out to a charity I like to volunteer with, one that builds houses for the poor. One of the guys supervising is in a bad mood, walks with me to the house we’re working on with his eyes glued to his phone the whole way. It’s a Pokemon app, he explains. The phone tracks where you’re going and then tells you when you find a Pokemon, which you can then collect. Later, I listen to him telling the others about it as though these entities indicated on the screen are actually part of real space. “I found one back by that house”, he’ll say, pointing. “It’s great exercise. Trying to find them really makes you move around.”

He’s furious, burned out on the job, he tells me. People on-site keep insulting him. This job is sucking the life out of him. When the week is over he’s gonna take a vacation. Where will you go, I ask. Nowhere, he says. “I don’t have any fucking money, man. I can’t go anywhere.” I feel a quick twinge of guilt about my own travels, then my thoughts turn to the app: for more and more people and places these days, virtual victories are the only ones they can know. I can’t drive to Vegas or do anything I want, but I can damn sure find another little Japanese pixel creature. It’s gotta be around here, somewhere.

My thoughts have often turned mystical and existential during my time on the road. The question of eternity beckons, as ever, for all of us; but being on an expanse of asphalt, with nothing around and no obvious destination ahead, brings it out like nothing else. What is man doing with his time on this limited earth, besides chasing the next chance at plunder and expansion, or the newest seductions of information and virtuality? As the distractions of progress falter over much of the land, as the song of the Sioux and the call of the tribe grows stronger again, people must hearken anew to that question, and choose new answers. May those answers be wise, and kindly.

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