NOTE: I’m publishing this a few months late because on the day that I wrote this, the Las Vegas massacre occurred when one of the portly white men mentioned below took out his insecurities on concert-goers. Because I didn’t want to appear to be taking pleasure in the murders that occurred that day, I saved my ire. Here it is now, though, uncut and and uncensored.
Jade and I left Los Angeles early in the morning and began our long journey home on I-15, through desert of eastern California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. The heat that hastened our retreat from LA also scorched us along this stretch, and the temperature never dropped below 100 after noon. Even along a major highway, the desolation of the desert was palpable, and we drove countless miles without seeing any fellow travelers and passing abandoned gas stations and homesteads, eerily preserved by the arid climate. Jade had never been to Las Vegas and demanded that we drive down the Strip, a request I ruefully acquiesced.
Vegas is a cartoonish nightmare, a collection of the purest elements of everything bad in the United States. Sunburnt tourists crowd wide streets covered with prostitute business cards in front of gaudy casinos, built by Donald Trump and Saudi Princes, which offer a topless show and steak dinner for $17.99, while failed comedians stave off suicide by telling sexist jokes on the street corners. Desperate used car salesmen and Mens’ Rights Activists push buttons on slot machines for hours, holding out for that one big win that will make them men again in endless gambling halls. In concert venues next door, every musician that had a hit ten years ago performs every Tuesday night, powered by a combination of formaldehyde and off-brand cigarettes. Beyond being a cultural wasteland infected by every disease that watching too much TV can give you, the city is also creating a real-life wasteland all around it, because, built for no reason on a patch of desert, it sucks both water and power from Lake Meade and the Hoover Dam nearby, starving the Colorado River and forcing Mexican farmers hundreds of miles downstream into destitution. Finally, after creeping along behind drunk 16-year-olds taking selfies outside the sunroof of the limosine their parents rented them for about 15 minutes, I cleansed myself by burning my clothes, spraying hand sanitizer into my eyes and vomiting into a trash can, then slammed on the accelerator, hoping the stench of cultural death wouldn’t linger too long on the car seat. After a few more sweaty hours of travel, we made our way to a South Utah national forest, hoping for a bit of respite and lower temperatures. And after we gained a few thousand feet on the desert floor, we were rewarded with sub-80 degree heat and the crisp smell of pine – but we weren’t alone in the forest.
On the turnoff to the forest service road that would be our camp for the night, we were greeted by a portly middle-aged man adorned in camo fatigues and brown and green face paint. Shrugging him off as an oddity, we found a level spot and settled down for the night, but over the course of an hour or two, a few dozen hummers, heavy trucks and ATVs packed with middle aged white men wearing camo and sporting assault rifles sped down the road past us: we had camped in the nest of a survivalist training camp. We slept through a tense night, and though we drove away the next day unharmed, the knowledge that a few miles away, insecure neck-beards in middle management were role-playing the end of the world with military-grade weapons pushed us to unease. They seemed friendly enough – the only one we had made eye contact with waved at us, and they kept to themselves – but did they know that we had just protested their brothers in fragility in the Bay? Could they see that Jade was a POC? National Forests are often remote, and this one was no exception. If the survivalists had wanted to make trouble, I didn’t have any cell service to call the police (Jade would not call the police), and were armed only with pocket knives and bear mace.
We survived through the morning though, and found solace in the deep ravines and incredible towers of Zion National park and took the longest hike we thought wise in the heavy heat. A few hours North, we finally found the land promised us by Pete Seeger: the Big Rock Candy Mountain (yes, a real place). We filled our water bottles in the lake of whiskey and took a few pictures as souvenirs, then moved east again. Bryce Canyon was only a few miles from our campsite, and we took a long driving tour over its ragged peaks and painted rock walls. We made friends with another couple, also traveling by truck camper, and kept pushing east, through the beautiful river gorges of Capitol Reef National Park, and further still through some rough backroads and into Colorado. Jade and I met with her close friend, Olivia, in Ouray, CO, and reminisced and relaxed at the closest thing that mountain resort town had to a dive bar, the Silver Eagles (nicknamed, ‘the dirty bird’ by locals), and pushed east again, over the continental divide for perhaps the 5th time on our trip and into the lower peaks of southeastern Colorado. A lesser-known National Park, the Great Sand Dunes, lies, down there, and we spent a day scorching our bare feet on hot sand and wading into a seasonal stream just below the incredible piles of sand.
Our last tourist stop before pushing through to Jade’s childhood home in Grand Island, Nebraska, was the memorial at Ludlow, far in SE corner of Colorado. From 1913-14, the miners at a number of coal mines in the area went on strike and set up tent camps near the now-defunct town of Ludlow. On April 20, 1914, after escalating tensions between the company thugs, national guardsmen (brought into pacify strikers), and the striking miners, company guards set up heavy machine guns at the edge of the camp and fired thousands of rounds into the tents, where the strikers and their families were sleeping. The miners shot back and were able to retreat into the mountains after several hours, but after the smoke cleared, 26 people, mostly women and children (including a 3-month old infant), lay dead. The United Mine Workers since erected a monument to those massacred, a solemn reminder of the fact that ‘class war’, not so long ago, was not whatsoever a metaphor.
It is interesting to juxtapose the struggle of the miners at Ludlow with the stupid confrontations of people like the survivalists we saw in Utah (note that the militia-types that took over an Oregon wildlife sanctuary office in winter 2015-16 were just found not guilty). Until the legalization and regulation of labor struggles in the LaGuardia and National Labor Relations Acts of the 1930s, the struggle of the American working class, especially when isolated in company towns near mines or logging camps, quite often had an armed component: strikes were routinely met with bullets and bombs from company thugs, which strikers had no choice to defend themselves against in a like manner. Now though, the image of armed people standing off against Federal forces conjures images of Waco, Texas, or survivalists at Bundy Ranch. The latter are universally middle-class men threatened by the political advances of ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities, and identify the cities and the interloping federal government of the enemy. The old Maoist strategy of the peasantry cutting off the cities has been lampooned in America: now the rural elites form into paunch-bellied militias and play soldier out in the mountains, while the Left has all but abandoned any concept of rural struggle.
After some pondering of these contradictions and a long drive across the all-too-familiar cornfields, we arrived in time for supper with Jade’s parents in Grand Island. We had survived 3 months and 10,000 miles on the road – we were home.
Capitol Reef National Park, a little less known than others.
Bryce Canyon. Nothing else like it in the US.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Patrick is drinking straight from the whiskey lake.
Las Vegas. Though not shown in this photo, the streets are filled with a level of garbage and moral compulsion that would have broken Jade’s camera.