The West began at the pay phone at the gas station at Lee Vining, the little town next to Mono Lake on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, too remote for cell phones. I was standing around in the harsh golden light at eight thousand feet waiting to make a call when I realised that the man on the line was trying to patch up his marriage, and the task wasn’t going to be quick or easy. ‘You just aren’t going to let us get back together, are you?’ he said in a tone at once supplicating and truculent. I thought that maybe she had her reasons and wondered how far away she was on the other end of the line.
At Lee Vining, named after a miner and Indian killer, the rain shadow begins: the Sierra, which are just a hair shorter than the Alps, scrape off the Pacific clouds and keep everything east of it arid. There are few real boundaries in nature, and this is one of the most astounding: from the west, you can hike up a green mountain slope and come to the divide, where you look over at the beginning of a thousand miles or more of desert, stand in patches of deep snow from the winter before and look at a terrain that receives only a few inches of moisture a year. In most of California, all water flows west to the Pacific, including that of the western slope of the Sierra, but on the Sierra’s other side it goes east, into salty lakes like Mono and the Great Salt Lake, into sinks and subterranean spaces, into thin air. The Great Basin, so called because its scanty water doesn’t drain to any sea, is mostly a terrain of north-south-running ranges, sharp-edged raw geology, separated by flat expanses of sagebrush.
In the desert, plants grow further apart to accommodate the huge root systems they need to collect enough water to live, and so do communities and ranches. Few but the desert’s original inhabitants found it beautiful before cars. The extremes of heat and cold, the vast scale and the scarcity of water must have been terrifying to anyone crossing it by beast or on foot. On a hot day, water is sucked straight out of your skin, and you can feel how fast dying of thirst could be, but the aridity is what makes the air so clear, what opens up those fifty-mile views. Now with air conditioning and interstates and the option of going several hundred miles a day with ease, desert austerity is a welcome respite from the overdeveloped world. The aridity and the altitude – the lowlands are mostly more than four thousand feet high – make the light strong, clear and powerful; and the sky in these wide places seems to start at your ankles.
Because wildlife, too, is spread far apart and often operates at night, because the colours and changes of the plant life can be subtle, it often seems as though the real drama is in the sky; not exactly life, but life-giving, the light and the rain. Summer thunderstorms in the arid lands are an operatic drama, particularly in New Mexico, where the plot normally unfolds pretty much the same way every day during the summer monsoon season: clear morning skies are gradually overtaken by cumulus clouds as scattered and innocuous as a herd of grazing sheep, until they gather and turn dark, then the afternoon storm breaks, with lightning, thunder and crashing rain that can turn a dusty road into a necklace of puddles reflecting the turbulent sky. But New Mexico is besieged now by a multi-year drought, and watching the clouds gather every afternoon as if for this dionysian release that never came, I thought of the Salt Lake City scholar Paul Shepard’s claim that Yahweh was originally a Semitic storm god. I also felt for the first time something of the beseeching powerlessness of those who prayed to an angry, unpredictable God, and felt how easy it would be to identify that God with the glorious, fickle, implacable desert sky.
Every summer I go live in the sky, I drive into this enormous space whose luminousness and emptiness, whose violence, seem to give this country its identity, even though few of us live there. It’s hard to convey the scale of the empty quarter. The Nevada Test Site, where the US and UK have detonated more than a thousand nuclear bombs over the past half century, is inside a virtually unpopulated airbase the size of Wales. Nevada is about the size of Italy and has a population of a million and a half, which wouldn’t sound so stark if it weren’t that more than a million of them live in Las Vegas and most of the rest in the Reno area, leaving the remainder of the state remarkably unpopulated. At one point the state decided to capitalise on this and named Highway 50, which traverses the centre of Nevada, ‘the loneliest highway in America’.
From Mono Lake, I drove about forty miles on 120, crossing from California to Nevada at some point along the way, then a stretch along the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, Route 6, over to the small town of Basalt, another hundred or so miles up to 50. At first the country was high enough that it was green, beautiful and stark and treeless, until the altitude climbed a little into piñon-pine and juniper country, then dropped down into the drabness of most of the Great Basin, the colour of sagebrush and the dirt in between. A grove of trees is a sure sign of a ranch house and irrigation, though there are entire valleys – and a valley means a place five or ten miles wide and several times as long – in which there is no house to be seen. Highway 50 traverses a dozen of these valleys and passes; driven in a day they succeed one another like musical variations, with their subtle differences of colour and form. One range looked like mountains, another more like cliffs, with tilted strata clearly visible, one valley was full of dust devils, those knots of swirling wind that pick up dust and debris and move them across the land.
Most of California is west of the Sierra, where a dramatic change of scale takes place and the infolding, the lushness, the variety of the terrain, seems to invite the social density and complexity of California, with its thirty-something million residents from all over the world. The two coasts of the United States often strike me as rather like a pair of parentheses enclosing the inchoate outback, a part of the country coloured red for Republican on the voting map for the last Presidential election, when the coasts were Democratic blue.
The red lands are a steppe, a Siberia, far removed from the cosmopolitanism of the coasts. When I come out here, it seems hard to believe in cities, let alone in nations, in anything but the sublimity of this emptiness. The Great Basin is wide open topographically but introspective in spirit, turned in on itself, and news from outside seems like mythology, rumour, entertainment, anything but part of what goes on here, or doesn’t, out here where the sparse population is interspersed between sites for the rehearsing of America’s wars. A lot of people have been preoccupied with Area 51, an off-limits part of the eastern periphery of the Nevada Test Site where aliens are supposed to have landed, or been captured, or had their flying saucers tested, and the logic behind these beliefs seems to be equal parts creative interpretation of military secrecy and a sense that everything from outside is alien.
On another road trip a few years ago, my friend Grace and I had joined Interstate 50 further west and driven through the part of the highway that is also the Bravo 17 bombing range, past the electronic warfare installations, past the fake town they bomb for practice, to the turnoff to Dixie Valley, a ranching community whose population was forced out by sonic-boom testing in the 1980s. Fallon Naval Air Station – a naval base in this driest of the 50 states – was testing the military uses of sonic booms on livestock, school buses, and homes. The animals stampeded and aborted, the windows shattered, cars went off the roads. The Navy solved the problem by eliminating the population in this oasis, where clear spring water breaks the surface of its own accord.
The few dozen houses had been burned to the ground and tanks used for aerial target practice were scattered between them. As we looked at the ruins of one ranch house, a noise erupted behind us so powerful it seemed more physical than sound. I turned just in time to see a supersonic jet disappear again, after buzzing us from 200 feet. It came from nowhere and went back there almost immediately, as though it had ripped a hole in the sky. The wars fought in the Middle East have been fought here first, in ways that one might imagine made them more real but instead make them more removed.
Once, driving a back road in Nevada, I was stopped for half an hour by a road construction crew. The woman in the hard hat who’d flagged me down spoke wistfully of San Francisco when I told her where I was from. She’d visited once in high school and spoke as though the seven-hour drive was an impassable distance, and for her perhaps it was. Her town was called Lovelock, and it had a few casinos but no movie theatre or bookstore. When I think of how Americans could fail to judge the carnage caused by hundreds of bombs in Baghdad in terms of that caused by two hijacked airplanes in New York, I think of her.
And I think of the wars fought for our cheap gasoline, the wars that make viable not just my summer jaunts but year-round homes sixty or seventy miles from the grocery store (to say nothing of military flights measured not in miles per gallon but gallons per mile). On a freeway clotted with roadside businesses south of Salt Lake City, a car dealer flashed a signboard: ‘Our Troops. God Bless Them.’ And maybe all the talk about freedom means freedom to drive around for ever on $1.67-a-gallon petroleum, out here in a terrain just a little less harsh than Afghanistan. Thomas Jefferson was afraid of the red lands, afraid that where the arable soil ended so would his arcadian yeoman ideal, and that Europeans would revert to nomadism. There’s something roving and ferocious about the Euroamerican West that suggests he’s right; the US is really more like the lands it’s been bombing lately than like Europe.
Red stands for a kind of cowboy ethos that society is optional and every man should fend for himself. This vast space was where people stepped out of society when their domestic lives failed or the law was after them. The ethos ignores the huge federal subsidies that support cattle-growing, logging and mining, just as Republican tax-cutters overlook the fact that the military they wish to expand consumes a grotesque proportion of tax revenue. Western and action movies concoct countless situations in which belligerence is justified and admirable, in which such autonomy is necessary, and the current President, like Ronald Reagan before him, portrays himself as a representative of these places and their cosmology, an act of self-invention as bold as that of any renamed outlaw. Reagan went from the Midwest to Hollywood; Bush is a product of East Coast privilege, even if he did go to flat, dry Midlands, Texas, to cultivate his insularity and a failed oil business.
For more than a decade I’ve been making compilation tapes to listen to on these drives, mostly of country music, which seems to suit the road best. For long stretches there is nothing on the radio, but around a big city – Salt Lake, for example – there’s a kind of aural density, with hip-hop and classical as well as pop, rock, country and right-wing talk shows; the latter two seem to last furthest into the remoteness, and then they fade, and it’s silence or tape. On my way to Highway 50, it was still cool when I ran over a huge snake sunning itself on the asphalt – chipmunks and squirrels you can dodge, but not something three or four feet long and writhing – as Hank Williams was singing ‘Lost Highway’.
Never mind contemporary country music, with its upbeat insipidity, which is to the genre at its best as a giant shopping complex is to the wild terrain eradicated to build it. Tragedy is about being cast out from the community; comedy ends in marriage; over the past couple of decades tragedy has been turned into humourless country-and-western comedy affirming the virtues of the status quo. The original stuff is rancorous, melancholy, as often about couples falling apart as coming together, and it’s about this kind of space.
Love between human beings is always failing in these songs – he leaves her; she cheats on him; somebody dies; everybody drinks; it wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels; even the bottle let him down. The old Scots and Irish ballads were as gory and gloomy, but they are generally heirlooms now, and country and western is their immigrant bastard grandchild, something that came into its own only half a century ago and hasn’t died out yet. In these songs the lovers, the plaintiffs, the protagonists are mostly anonymous; it’s their geography that is named and listed and described with passionate fondness. When people fail, places remain; you can always have recourse to the landscape, and it will never leave you, though you may leave it. Leaving home and returning are the main narratives. Rivers and roads, the long-distance elements of the landscape, are the geographical refrains of the genre. Williams’s lost highway is a metaphysical condition more than a place, a sort of Dantean circuit for damned souls, though real highways provide refuge for those who’ve cut themselves off, as his protagonist did. The name of the beloved is Texas, is Tehachapi, is Tennessee, is the murmured names of rivers, bridges, roads, small towns, radiant in the late-afternoon light of regret and backward glances.
For me, country’s definitive song might be ‘Long Black Veil’, whose way with time is straight out of the Brontës. A dead man sings ten years after his hanging for a crime he didn’t commit, but his only alibi is unutterable: ‘I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife,’ who when he died ‘stood in the crowd and said not a word’. Now she wanders the hills in a long black veil and, well, visits his grave where the night winds wail. Hills and the night winds are still there, are reliable, are what you have in the end. ‘Wanted Man’, which Bob Dylan wrote in 1969, is a boastful list of all the places a criminal is wanted, a recitation that includes Albuquerque and Tallahassee and Baton Rouge and Buffalo, ‘but there’s one place I’m not wanted/Lord, it’s the place that I call home.’ Nothing ever made it clearer that geography is compensation for society, and the song raises the question of what, when you love these places, do they give you back? The answers sound American, too: freedom, solitude, communion with creatures and the inorganic creation, space to think.
Not that it’s all so overwrought. A couple of days later, in Utah, I was still driving east, through canyon country so stark nobody seems to live anywhere but along the cottonwood-shaded oases of rivers, but I could pick up a great classic country station. Around where I saw the sign warning ‘Eagles on Road’, it broadcast a song by David Frizzell, a barfly’s monologue repeating his wife’s extensive home remodelling proposal that begins: ‘I’m going to hire a wino/To decorate our home/So you’ll feel more at ease here/And you won’t need to roam.’ It’s scathingly funny, but it’s still about discord, abandonment and restlessness.
I’ve been trying to get at the heart of this geographical passion for years, through the compilation tapes: an early one was called Geography Lessons, Mostly Tragic; one about drinking and rivers The Entirely Liquid Mr North (after an alcoholic composer in Tender Is the Night); and the most recent, from a line in one of Johnny Cash’s final recordings, ‘Hurt’, is My Empire of Dirt. I love the place names, too; before I left, a friend – who’d also lived in New Mexico – and I induced a nostalgic haze in each other sheerly through place names, places we’d been, places to go, and there’s a passion for place in this music that’s also my passion.
Maybe the seductive whisper of these empty places says that you don’t have to work things out, don’t have to come home, don’t have to be reasonable; you can always move on, start over, step outside the social. To think of a figure in this vast western space of the Great Basin is to see a solitary on an empty stage, and the space seems to be about the most literal definition of freedom: space in which nothing impedes will and action. The Bonneville Salt Flats – a dry lake-bed in northern Utah – where some world land speed records have been set, and Nevada’s Black Rock Desert dry lake-bed, where the bacchanalian Burning Man festival takes place every September, seem to have realised this definition in the most obvious ways: speeding cars, naked hallucinating tattooed love freaks partying down. And, of course, US military training for foreign adventures. (In the first Gulf War, the commanders referred to the unconquered portions of Iraq as Indian Territory.)
Easy though all this is to deplore on moral grounds, the place is seductive; there’s a sense for me that all this is home, that every hour, every mile, is coming home, that this isolated condition of driving on an empty highway from one range to another is home, is some kind of true and essential condition of self, because I am myself an American, and something of a westerner.
A year ago I was at a dinner in Amsterdam when the question came up of whether each of us loved his or her country. The German shuddered, the Dutch were equivocal, the Tory said he was ‘comfortable’ with Britain, the expatriate American said No. But I said Yes. Driving across the arid lands, the red lands, I wondered what it was I loved. The places, the sagebrush basins, the rivers digging themselves deep canyons through arid lands, the incomparable cloud formations of summer monsoons in New Mexico, the way the underside of clouds turns the same blue as the underside of a great blue heron’s wings when the storm is about to break.
Beyond that anything you can say about the US you can also say the opposite of; we’re rootless except that we’re also the Hopi who haven’t moved in several centuries; we’re violent except that we’re also the Franciscans nonviolently resisting nuclear weapons; we’re consumers except that this West is studded with visionary environmentalists, and on and on. The evils in this country tend to generate their opposites. And the landscape of the West seems like the stage on which such dramas are played: a space without boundaries, in which anything can be realised; a moral ground, out here where your shadow can stretch hundreds of feet just before sunset, where you loom large, and lonely.