Thursday July 24th, 2014, 6:43 am (EDT)

On the Road with Michael and Karen

Part V

We traveled from Williams, Arizona to nearby Flagstaff, where we spent twenty-two days in a Ramada Limited motel, which we rented for the princely sum of $29.99 per night (plus tax). We used Flagstaff as a base to visit ancient Indian ruins and for hikes near Sedona. Sedona has what is perhaps the most beautiful town setting in the country. It sits at the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, which cuts its way through tall and stunning red rock cliffs. The drive down the canyon is itself exciting; from the observation point at the top, five switchbacks can be seen. Sedona is famous not just for its red rock cliffs, great for climbing and hiking and backdrop for scores of western movies, but also for its “vortexes,” supposedly centers of unusual gravitational forces and electrical currents. People claim to have had paranormal experiences at vortex sites, and as a result, Sedona is a haven for New Age crystal gazers. It is also an oasis for the wealthy, who have made sure that the town has not been made into the sprawling set of interconnected strip malls which defines much of the modern-day United States. If only rational democratic planning in an egalitarian society were a reality. Then all towns could be Sedona-like in their integrity and charm.

Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of our travels after we left Flagstaff, let me give a general itinerary and then make some comments about what we saw and learned. From Flagstaff we went to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos, all in New Mexico. The Indian presence is strong in New Mexico. There are still nineteen inhabited pueblos (the name of both the villages and the people) maintaining a rare cohesion and independence, legacies of the successful Pueblo revolt against Spanish colonialists in 1680. The most famous pueblo is that of Taos, though unfortunately the first thing seen on the entry road is a casino. We continued northward from Taos to Colorado, stopping for a day at the startling sand dunes, some more than 500 feet high, formed by winds blowing sand up the long valley to the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We were on our way to Estes Park, entry town to Rocky Mountain National Park. There we hiked for a week on trails of rock, mud, snow, and tundra, amidst creeks, rivers, and waterfalls in forests of pine and aspen. We then backtracked south and west to Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, Colorado, on our way to Utah, the nation’s most scenic state. In Utah we stayed in Moab, Springdale, and Panguitch, hiking in Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Bryce Canyon National Parks. We left Utah via Interstate 15, hugging the Utah-Nevada border, first through desert and then up through long valleys made verdant by Mormon farmers, who gave their towns names like Nephi and Moroni, heroes of the Book of Mormon. [Note: Throughout the West it is common to find the Book of Mormon along with the Gideon Bible next to the beds in motel rooms.] Approaching the bedrock Mormon city of Provo, home of Brigham Young University, billboards advertise stores and websites specializing in gear for Mormon missionaries. To the east at the foot of the Wasatch mountains is the Dream Mine, a mine site where Mormon fundamentalists claim there are vast gold deposits which will be found when Christ comes again. The gold will be used by the Mormons to get them through the “Last Days.” It is remarkable how many prominent Mormons have invested in this mine since the first revelation about the mine was made by the Mormon angel Moroni to John Koyle in 1894. Mormons are apparently extraordinarily gullible when it comes to schemes promoted by the faithful. [See Jon Krakauer’s fine book, Under the Banner of Heaven, for an excellent history of Mormonism, especially its fundamentalist sects, of which there are many, most of which still practice polygamy. I was struck by Krakauer’s argument that an often violent and brutally sexist Mormon fundamentalism has its roots in the very nature of the religion. I think that there might be a lot of truth to this for all religions. Some of the people who take their faith seriously are bound to come to believe that they must return to the first principles of their religion. If we consider the first principles of the great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—these sanction what to the modern secular eye are some pretty horrible kinds of behavior.]

We turned east at Salt Lake City and drove into Wyoming, the nation’s least populated state. About twenty miles into Wyoming on Interstate 80, we turned north along a desolate two-lane highway toward Jackson, the Teton Mountains, and Yellowstone National Park. The road was so straight and empty that we drove our van at nearly ninety miles an hour. Then suddenly the road gave way to construction which reduced it to oil-slicked dirt in both directions, and we were lucky if we could go ten miles per hour. As we got closer to Jackson, the desert-like terrain gave way to pine-covered hills and the Green River. In the nearby town of the same name, in 1869, Captain John Wesley Powell began his famous journey through the Grand Canyon, not imagining that the placid Green would soon become a foaming torrent of deadly rapids. Snow-covered mountains loomed in the distance. There are so many beautiful rivers in the West, flowing down out of the mountains. They rush along, making twists and turns, convoluting into oxbows and other strange shapes, running clear and cold over the rocks, forming formidable rapids and carving out incredible shapes in canyon walls. The Gallatin, the Snake, the Gibbon, the Green, the mighty Colorado—it is impossible to tire of them. Like the stars in the open sky, the rivers of the West inspire sublime thoughts. They make you wish you could drive alongside them forever.

Jackson, Wyoming, despite its incredible physical setting, is not a pleasant place to be. The surrounding Teton County is the richest in the United States in terms of per capita income, and Jackson is chock full of smart shops, upscale restaurants, art galleries, and expensive motels. But the streets are clogged with tourists, many pretending that they are in the upper class but giving themselves away when they take pictures of the cheesy entrances to the town’s park, made entirely of elk antlers. And traffic is unbearable, with motorcycles roaring down the streets at all hours. We had a difficult time finding a room, settling finally on a hotel we had stayed in before. The former owner had been married at the hotel at which we worked in Yellowstone National Park, and she often gave discounts to Park workers. However, after marrying, she sold her motel to the one next door. The new owners, we later discovered, were planning to demolish the old motel and sell the property. But they were still renting the rooms out to suckers who were desperate—like us. We piled our gear into the room and immediately left, not returning until near midnight. We went to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. It contains some great scenes, but its political message is pretty limited. Still Moore deserves credit for making such films and attracting such large audiences. When we returned to the motel, we were repelled by the stench. We spent a restless night, and the next day vociferously complained. Half of the room charge (nearly $100, far and away the highest we paid during our entire trip) was immediately canceled. I complained to American Express and eventually got the rest of it dropped as well.

After our miserable night in Jackson, we went to Yellowstone National Park for five days, hiking, sightseeing, and renewing old acquaintances. From there we drove through Montana, visiting Bozeman, Missoula, and Glacier National Park. In Glacier, we drove up the aptly-named Highway to the Sun, an engineering marvel which affords stunning views of the glaciated mountains. At the summit of the highway, there are some fine trails. On one of them, we had to lean against the mountain while a troop of mountain goats demanded right of way. My limited vocabulary can’t do justice to Glacier, but don’t miss it if you ever have a chance to visit.

From Glacier we drove west through Montana, the silver towns of the Idaho panhandle, and into the desolate wastelands of eastern Washington. Driving south toward Yakima, we were shadowed by what looked like a Blackhawk helicopter, probably on a practice run from the huge Air Force base nearby. This gave us an eerie feeling. I wondered what it must be like for Iraqi civilians seeing these and even more lethal weapons of mass destruction and not just seeing them but suffering constant bombardment. We had two more National Parks to visit, two of our favorites: Mt. Rainier and Olympic, both in Washington. Mount Rainier is one of the many volcanoes in the Cascade Range (Mt. St. Helen’s is nearby), and it is a dazzling sight. We admired the most beautiful wild flowers in the world and on one hike, up the Burroughs trail, we saw Seattle and Tacoma in the distance, sixty or so miles away. Olympic National Park boasts snow-capped mountains, rain forests, and pristine wild beaches where you can lose yourself wandering through tide pools filled with starfish and anemones of many different colors. Along the Hoh River, which cuts through the Hoh Rainforest, we scooped up “glacier flour”(rocks ground up by the force of the nearby glaciers) from the icy water. It would make a great exfoliant. .We ended our grand loop through the West, Southwest, and Nnorthwest in Florence, Oregon, the small town at the northern end of a fifty-mile stretch of isolated sand dunes which have their origin in the long-ago eruption of Crater Lake.

Perhaps I can sum up our journey by saying that the ghosts of Karl Marx and Edward Abbey haunt our nation’s landscape. Marx of course needs no introduction to Monthly Review readers. Edward Abbey was a writer and radical environmentalist who, while born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (thirty miles from my home town of Ford City, Pennsylvania), lived most of his adult life in the desert Southwest. Among his works are the already-cited Desert Solitaire and the novel which inspired many a militant Earth Firster, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Marx analyzed two of capitalism’s signature characteristics: the development of poles of wealth and misery and widespread alienation. In the early twenty-first century, both of these are readily apparent to any traveler in the United States. We noted everywhere an inequality, deeper than it was just eight years ago when we made our first cross-country journey, which is almost palpable. This inequality takes many, though sometimes subtle, observable forms. Gated communities, insulated from their surroundings, are to be found even in small and unpretentious towns like Florence, Oregon and Twentynine Palms, California. Nearly everywhere, there are enormous homes built for the well-to-do, standing in stark contrast to the modest homes and trailer parks of the working class and the hovels of the very poor, often American Indian in the West. Palatial estates with more than 10,000 square feet of living space abound in places like Santa Fe, locked and guarded and as often as not occupied for only a few weeks a year. In Wyoming we saw an entire small town comprised of mobile homes—no rich folks there. The houses and trailers of the poor are often surrounded by junked cars, washing machines, and assorted odds and ends. They are also often close up to smoke- and chemical-spewing factories or right next to the railroad tracks, as we noted in towns like Gallup, New Mexico and Rawlins, Wyoming. At least these people have homes. Many thousands of people do not, and it is impossible to miss the homeless in our towns and cities. One of the most poignant sights we saw was in Miami Beach, the end point of our journey. On the beach in front of the posh, $500-a-night Shore Club Hotel, we saw homeless women bathing themselves in the ocean, washing their hair with a cheap bar of soap.

Everywhere we went, the hotels catering to those at the top of the income distribution were booked solid, charging prices as high as $400 and $500 per night. Moderately-priced motels were seldom full; we routinely got rooms without reservations even in high season near national parks. Budget motels are full of construction workers (mostly nonunion I would guess by the disgustingly shabby—and malodorous—shape of the rooms). These motels also are home to the nomads of the nation, searching for work in a country which no longer needs or cares about them. In the United States today, care extends only insofar as it is profitable. Santa Fe has a program which protects illegal immigrants but makes them available to employers at less than minimum wage.

Poor people drive old cars and pick-up trucks, the latter often loaded with various and sundry items, reminiscent of the makeshift vehicles piled high with possessions by the victims of the dust bowl in the 1930s. Those with more money or a willingness to carry a lot of debt ride around in SUVs, Hummers, souped-up trucks, custom-made motorcycles, and Recreational Vehicles hauling boats, cars, and fancy bicycles. The extraordinarily low gas mileage of these “weapons of road destruction” appears not to matter to the owners. I have already commented on the havoc some of these vehicles cause in our national parks, and I have also noted that the parks are more and more the preserves of the wealthy, and the white wealthy at that.

The poor are abused in other more subtle ways. There is a two-tier arrangement of grocery stores in most places: poorly-stocked and overpriced stores for the poor and upscale organic markets for the more privileged. Here though it must be noted that where there are large number of immigrants, it is sometimes possible to find good food bargains in ethnic markets, though it is seldom that you see a white person in such a store. We bought tasty avocados for ten cents a piece in a Latin market in Taos. It is interesting that such stores often stock cookies and other snacks that contain neither hydrogenated oils nor corn syrup, ubiquitous ingredients in most processed foods. Poor people often must do their laundry in Laundromats, and especially in tourist areas (such as Forks, Washington, near Olympic National Park but home to many poor persons), these are filthy and charge exorbitant prices.

Life in capitalism is fundamentally alienating, and this alienation, deepened by the growing inequality, appears to be getting worse. The rich and those who aspire to be rich have isolated themselves and seldom interact with their less fortunate brethren. [There are a lot of people with considerable money in the United States. In 2003, more than 15,000,000 families had income in excess of $98,000 per year, the basis for both a lot of luxury consumption and reactionary politics.] They seldom say hello on the street, even if you greet them first. It is remarkable how much less normal conversation we had with people this year than we did on our fist trip in 1997. Even on a trail in the wild, hikers will walk right past you without so much as a nod. The major exceptions are foreigners, older couples, and minorities.

Alienation seems to have generated an extreme narcissism. Cell phone chatter, in total disregard for anyone’s privacy, is rampant. It is not uncommon to see a couple walking hand-in-hand or eating in a restaurant, both talking loudly on cell phones. I have seen many people talking on cell phones while wading in the ocean. Obsession with pets is epidemic; very many travelers won’t go on vacation without their dogs. We were in a motel in Utah where one couple kept three enormous dogs in the room with them. Rudeness is what I have come to respect from most people nowadays. We stopped for gas and drove in behind a car occupied by a couple who had just finished dispensing their gas. We were pulling a small UHaul and could not back up. The couple noticed us behind them but got out of their car, went into the convenience store, and stayed there for twenty minutes. When they finally came out, they spent another five minutes studying a map, never acknowledging us. I would have said something, but another feature of life in the contemporary United States and one no doubt fueled by inequality and alienation, is anger. Challenging another person’s bad behavior, especially if that person is a young male, is a sure route to a possibly violent confrontation. So we met such behavior with silence and moved on.

Narcissism is also reflected in an obsession with shopping. Of course, malls are everywhere as are congested strips of shops on nearly every road entering every town. But even in the most beautiful places, vacationers seem to believe that only buying things will fulfill them. The trails in the national parks might be deserted, but the gift shops and food parlors are not. We wondered who bought all the crap in the hundreds of gift shops we saw in towns frequented by travelers. Jackson, Wyoming and Estes Park, Colorado could not have more gorgeous settings, but as you walk their streets, the smell of grease from the restaurants assault your nose while bric-a-brac and fancy clothes from the windows of the gift shops and chain retailers assault your eyes. No one seems happy, just stressed out and harried, and more often than not very much overweight. Seldom do tourists acknowledge the workers who serve them, much less make conversation with them. [It is well-worth it to do so. Workers can often tell you a lot about a place, and most are more than willing to talk about their jobs, even to complain about them, if you press a little.] More than once a customer completed a transaction with a clerk without ever pausing a cell- phone conversation.

People’s disconnectedness from their surroundings is also marked by the inability of most people to give directions or identify places even in their home towns. It became so fruitless to ask anyone for directions that we decided to rely on our own instincts or stop and find a town map. It was funny how often we were asked for directions and were able to point fellow visitors in the right direction.

Standing right next to the ghost of Karl Marx is that of Edward Abbey. Everywhere the beauty and grandeur of the land is being violated by environmental destruction. For the most part, air pollution in the parts of the West we visited is less severe than in the East (we suffered body shock as soon as we got to Chicago on our way back to Pennsylvania. We started gagging and choking from the foul air, and we never did get used to it). However, there is bad air everywhere; even the national parks are polluted. I have already mentioned pollution from Los Angeles in Joshua Tree National Park. In Sequoia National Park, also in California, rangers advise people not to hike during certain parts of the day due to pollution. [In Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, there have been 300 air alert days in the past decade.]

There are three wonderful national parks in Washington (Mt. Rainier, Olympic, and Northern Cascades), but much of the rest of the state is an ecological disaster area due to the clear-cutting of forests for wood products. Right outside Olympic’s rainforests, the land had been denuded of trees and resembles what land looks like after a natural disaster. The bleakness and deadness of the terrain has to be experienced to be believed. And even where the lumber companies have replanted trees, there is nothing resembling a real forest, just acres of uniform pine trees. The desecrated forests have their urban counterparts in the horribly ugly and smelly lumber mill towns. A drive through a town like Aberdeen, Washington is best done with the windows closed and eyes straight ahead. The same can be said for most other towns where lumbering, mining, or corporate agriculture is the main line of work.

Urban/suburban sprawl is the general rule of capitalist development in the United States. We saw many examples of this, with perhaps the worst being Albuquerque, New Mexico. There are now more than 800,000 people in Albuquerque; there were 200,000 in 1950. It now sprawls on and on; there are nineteen exits to the city along Interstates 40 and 25. All around the city center, there are vast tracts of suburban houses on treeless lots, baking in the summer sun. There is no way to navigate the place without getting on and off the interstate, amidst endless lines of cars, giving off fumes, making too much noise (in the small town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, traffic on the main street, which is between the ski resorts of Vail and Aspen, is now so heavy that it is impossible to hold a normal conversation at an outside caféé), and crashing into one another. The desert is incapable of supporting so many people, so water has to be brought in from the dammed-up rivers which feed the West’s thirst for water. The natural ecology of the place is ruined in the process. More people mean more highways, and these mean more people in a never- ending nightmare of congestion and environmental destruction. It has even been suggested that a highway be built through the Petroglyph National Monument, to accommodate the growth of the suburbs northwest of the city. Already the petroglyphs have been savagely defaced. We wondered if perhaps the developers were responsible.

We witnessed many other examples of environmental degradation. Wealthy ski enthusiasts have provided a rich enough market to make the development of ski towns possible. These eyesores abut mountains whose trees have been cut down to build the slopes, and as the towns attract more rich tourists, they themselves begin to sprawl (I call it “ski sprawl”), contaminating more of the environment. I have previously discussed the destructive results of corporate agribusiness. This is fully matched by the corporate meat business. The sight of enormous cattle pens in Wyoming and Nebraska, with the cattle wallowing in filth, their heads in iron nooses for feeding before slaughter, is not one to perk up one’s appetite for beef.

While the ghosts of Marx and Abbey haunt us, they cannot make us act to change things for the better. Inequality, alienation, and environmental degradation do not usually generate the class struggle which alone can end them. In the United States, they have brought forth anger, but it is not an anger directed against the system and its rulers. Instead it has been brought to bear on minorities, immigrants, and women. The widespread feeling that nothing much can be done to change things has driven people further into isolation and self-absorption. Look out for yourself and watch out for everyone else. This feeling also leads people to disassociate themselves from the natural world. The rich believe that they can always escape bad air, traffic congestion, and urban sprawl. If resources are becoming increasingly scarce and costly to exploit, they will simply increase their share of resource use. Their swimming pools will be full and their golf courses green, the rest of us be damned. The poor are forced into circumstances that make it difficult for them to take care of their surroundings, and their anger leads them to act in anti- social and environmentally damaging ways. A poor person is more likely to throw trash from a car window than is a rich person.

A phenomenon obvious to anyone who ventures outside our cosmopolitan and secular cities is religious fundamentalism. People unable to make their way in a society unwilling to provide them with decent jobs, housing, and health care turn to God, encouraged by a flourishing God industry. Jesus implores us from billboards, bumper stickers, radio stations, and churches throughout the small towns of the United States. It is not at all unusual to hear ordinary folks speaking to one another in explicitly religious terms. In the tiny and poor town of Packwood, Washington, I was filling out a form in the post office. A man was talking to the clerk about a local ne-er-do-well who was in prison. After the man went through a litany of the man’s past offences, the woman matter-of-factly said, “But I’ve read some of the letters he has written home. He has gotten so close to Jesus.” The man said that would make all the difference. Urban progressives ignore the power of religion at their peril. Those enraptured by the Lord are cannon fodder for the right.

Epilogue

We are walking south along the beach at Florence. Tall sand dunes flank our left, the Pacific Ocean our right. Low clouds are racing toward us from the north. Soon a fine mist begins to fall, and we are engulfed in fog. The wind pushes us along and compounds the noise made by the waves rolling without end toward the shore. Conversation becomes impossible, and I am drawn inward as we walk along. Thoughts run randomly through my mind. It seems as though I am going to have some great and profound insight. But instead, the ocean and the sand and the tiny plovers scurrying away from the waves when they hit the shore remind me with their grand indifference of the insignificance of any thoughts I might have. As dread threatens to engulf me, I remember a poem by A.E. Housman.

Stars, I have seen them fall,

But when they drop and die,

No star is lost at all

from all the star-strewn sky.

The toil of all that be

helps not the final fault.

It rains into the sea

and still the sea is salt.

Somehow this gives me comfort as we turn around and begin the long walk back up the beach, the wind whipping against us and the rain pelting our faces. It seemed we would never get to the opening in the dunes from which we began our hike. Tomorrow we will begin the journey east.

We returned to Portland the last week in August to collect our belongings, stored at a UHaul facility not far from the city. We rented a small U-Haul trailer and had it attached to the hitch we had put on our van when we began our trip. It took us less than an hour to load it. Our possessions consisted of some twenty-odd boxes (filled mainly with books, clothes, and kitchen equipment), two metal chairs, a small Moroccan inlaid tile table, a wooden and a wicker trunk, a fan, a space heater, an assortment of framed pictures, and the things we had been traveling with.

It took us five days to reach my mother’s home north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We drove east on Interstate 84 through northern Oregon, past a dense, seven-mile by seven-mile, poplar tree farm (the trees are genetically-engineered and grow more than ten feet per year), and into Idaho. The last town in Oregon along the highway is Ontario, and it is the home of the OreIda potato company, named for its location on the Oregon-Idaho border. It smelled strongly of french fries. Interstate 84 turns south in eastern Oregon and continues south through Idaho and into Utah, ending where it connects to Interstate 80 at Echo, just west of Park City and not far from the Wyoming border. We drove across the arid and fantastic landscape of Wyoming into the high plains of Nebraska. Then we hit the cornfields of eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa. The number and immensity of the corn fields, encouraged by a perverse government subsidy program, made us understand clearly why corn syrup is fast becoming a universal ingredient in prepared foods. Calories produced must become calories consumed, no matter the health of the consumers. Iowa gave way to my least favorite states: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Traffic came to a stop south of Chicago, and we noticed for the first time in months that the air was difficult to breathe. We soon were gagging, choking, and coughing up phlegm. The atmosphere was thick with smog and almost too gloomy to bear. It would be another six weeks before we go to a place where the air didn’t stink.

We stayed with my mother for two weeks and with our daughter and twin sons, in Arlington, Virginia, for almost three weeks. The days passed full of events too personal to be of interest to readers. While we were in Arlington, we visited the National Cemetery, which is located close to the Iwo Jima Memorial and is dominated by a colonial house, up on a hill with a wonderful view of Washington, DC. I always comment on two things here. One of the marines who hoisted the famous flag, Michael Strank, was from Johnstown, Pennsylvania where I taught for thirty-two years. His nephew and namesake was a student of mine. Second, it galls me that the house on the hill above the cemetery, once the residence of Robert E. Lee, was ordered by the Supreme Court to be returned to the Lee family after the Civil War. Then Lee’s son sold it to the United States government for $150,000, an enormous sum at the time. This is an outrage to every Union soldier and every former slave. It shows the power of private property in this country as few other events do.

We also visited our capitol city. I have usually enjoyed walking along the Mall or visiting the Library of Congress. I like the monuments and memorials. They always make me think what a good country the United States might have been. This time we wanted to see the new Second World War Memorial. We were disappointed. Not only was the Mall area under repair and full of dust, not only was the air fetid and polluted, not only did everything look dingy and overheated, but the monument itself is a disgraceful piece of state-glorifying propaganda. Unlike the Vietnam Memorial with its endless list of names carved into polished stone and unlike the Korean War Memorial with its lifelike troop of soldiers fearfully on patrol, the Second World War Memorial gives us no sense of what the war meant to the soldiers. A friend of mine said it was more befitting the Third Reich. I might not go that far, but it does fit the “friendly fascism” toward which the Bush administration is lurching.

We said goodbye to our kids at the end of September and drove south on Interstate 95. Again the air was foul nearly the entire trip. We saw a good deal of destruction from the four hurricanes which had recently struck the southeast. It was obvious that, as usual, those with less income had suffered the most. We reached our destination, Miami Beach, on September 30 and the next day took residence in an apartment building right on the ocean. We will stay through the winter, the first time in our lives we won’t be in a cold climate this time of year. I don’t know what we will do after that.

The End…Michael Yates, Associate Editor

Essays in this series…