Published: November 19th 2007November 19th 2007
Red sandstone stalwarts rise sheer from Zion’s dappled valley floor. A play of afternoon light draws over the autumnal colors, the likely catalyst to a fleeting thought so loaded my mind reeled at its enormity, detaching me from the corporeal. Flashbacks from the previous two weeks were checked and counter-checked with sentiments and impressions from my years of travel, evaluating and filtering for the confirmation and clarity to quash this treacherous theory. The proposition left me mortified, like discovering I’m George W. Bush’s love child. Is-America-the-most-beautiful-country-in-the-world?
I’d always had this romantic notion of travelling the entire world before setting foot in America. I’d then spend months whimsically hitchhiking around in search of the definitive answer to exactly what makes the most powerful nation in the world tick. But here I was in the flesh, woefully premature of that target, bursting with media-fueled preconceptions and misguided stereotypes.
From Jennifer’s home in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the entire country seemed to fan out from her doorstep on the upper reaches of the Mississippi. Cutting a path from north to south, the formidable river was once the border between the established settlements of the east and the unchartered frontier of the west. The
legendary association with adventure, discovery, and the open road precluded any debate about which direction we would head on our trip. Due west were the glaciers of Montana, the badlands of South Dakota, and the granddaddy of all national parks, Yellowstone. However, the early onset of snow was closing roads and campsites, forcing us to surrender contemporary notions of conquering nature to the time-honored wisdom of communing with it.
You can’t get around in America without your own set of wheels, so to see the wide open spaces of the west in any detail, renting a car was the only way to travel. We pointed the car south and began our drive through hours upon hours of flat farmland, until on our second day we made our first notable stop in Dodge City, Kansas.
The most numerous single species of large wild mammal in the world, the American Bison, once encircled Dodge City. But in a genocidal campaign of mass slaughter the huge herds were destroyed in an effort to deny the Native Americans of their primary food source, and to leave them no option but to starve or move on west. From its beginnings as a staging
post in the Indian Wars, Dodge City grew infamously into the archetypal Wild West town, portrayed in many a western movie for its legacy of lawlessness and gun-slinging during the constant battle with those pesky Indians. Manifest destiny saw to it that the good guys always won of course, and the humbly defeated Indian chiefs rode off into a sunset, their feathered bonnets silhouetted as a poignant symbol of their peoples’ fade into history.
As the sun set on our second day, we crossed the border into New Mexico, stopping at the Rabbit Ear Café. And as I slid into a vinyl booth I began to experience déjà visité; so much so, that when the waitress burst out through the swing door dressed in an apron, she was smiling and chewing her gum exactly how I anticipated she would be. I was taken aback by this, until I realized I had been here before, and doubtless you have, too. The subliminal messages emanating from TVs tens of thousands of miles away have their homes here in the diners, studios and minds of this powerful agenda-setting nation, regardless of whether we’ve ever been here or not.
It seemed we
were the only campers in Clayton Lake State Park braving the chill that night, but as we cooked our burritos on the stove in the darkness, our solitude was invaded by the US Military’s latest billion dollar fighter jet, which was no doubt testing its thrust vectoring super cruise stealth technology at 1200mph, 500ft above our tent. Or maybe, in hindsight, it was looking for speeders.
The next morning after exploring prehistoric dinosaur tracks around the lake, we hit an open freeway sparsely populated by cars who had their cruise controls set precisely to the speed limit, abiding by menacing signs that warned, ‘Your speed may be monitored by aircraft’, or, that in work zones fines are doubled. The frustration of pottering along on virtually deserted roads fuelled a philosophical debate between Jennifer and me about behavior modification, Big Brother and motivation by material self-interest. However, as we hit the southern Rocky Mountain foothills after three days on the monotonous plains, the car in front, the speed we travelled and the Orwellian road signs all faded into insignificance as their priorities were reassigned by the sheer beauty of nature in fall.
It’s no wonder New Mexico has flourished
over the years as a home for artists drawing on its natural inspiration. With its Anglo minority, old Spanish adobe mission churches, and rich Native American cultural heritage, New Mexico felt like ‘Olde Mexico’ overrun by Yankee tourists and their permanent holiday homes.
One hundred fifty years ago this was Mexican territory before it was subjugated in a war in which the elites of America stole land from the elites of Mexico. They roused and exploited their own populations to slay the other’s for their own private benefit, regardless of the fact that the land they fought and killed over belonged to neither the Mexican colonialists nor the American colonialists.
Before coming here I never knew Native American communities such as those in Taos were so culturally rich, and furthermore, that they still exist to this day. Or that their diversity extends to 296 recognized indigenous languages north of the Mexican border and twice as many tribes. I knew nothing of a genuinely democratic cultural heritage stretching back thousands of years. Or that they weren’t wiped out by the White Settler’s accomplice, Mother Nature, who conveniently cleansed the land of the Red men via the common cold, as
I had been taught, but rather, were part of the biggest genocidal act ever committed in the history of mankind. And alas, neither was I prepared for the fact that their descendants now eke out a living at Wal-Mart and Taco Bell, or live in ‘reserves’ into which they were herded, when white European settlers began forcibly stealing the land on which they had lived for 15,000 years.
After touring the north of New Mexico we travelled across the state border into Colorado, where we traced more Native American cultural heritage at the spectacular millennia-old cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. Seasonal campsite closures forced us to camp wherever we found a suitable spot, and rise at the crack of dawn for fear of being punished for trespassing by the new inheritors of this land. We then headed up into the Rockies, to follow the scenic San Juan skyway loop, when our journey of cultural exploration began to morph into a form of rampant nature consumerism.
Leaving the desert behind and ascending into the snowy mountains, Mother Nature’s sensory manifestations enchanted, seducing our senses and feeding our compulsion until we were totally smitten. A hypnotic fanaticism gripped us; in
pursuit of the next high, we hypocritically gas-guzzled our way from one natural wonder to the next, in an obsessive drive to see as many highlights as possible.
With the camping season drawn to a close for all but the hardy, we again camped alone. Waking to a sun-thawed morning, mist rose all around as we packed away our tent in the shadow of snowy peaks. By lunchtime we were basking in the warmth of a beautiful sagebrush desert scene. And by sunset we were charging through The Valley of the Gods as her red tones deepened in the last rays of light, camping overnight in Monument Valley to witness a sunrise spectacle, in arguably the most awe-inspiring desert scenery in the world.
And this is how it went, racing from one natural wonder to the next. Rising to catch the dulcet tones of dawn and chasing the sun until it dipped in all its glory on the western horizon. That evening it was the Grand Canyon, then in subsequent order: Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, and Rocky Mountain National Parks… from Arizona, across Utah, and up into northern Colorado…
The sheer sense of space and timeless beauty left
me as euphoric as if this were my first foray abroad, yet markedly different from the sensation experienced in exotic lands, where the myriad cultural differences bombard your senses and make your nerves tingle with delight. Here, my mind had already processed and accepted the fact that these places existed, after seeing them in pictures or on the silver screen, thus preempting any feelings of culture shock. This experience was akin to spirituality, as if somehow a dreamlike prophecy had been fulfilled.
Driving a car through such picture postcard scenery with the power to decide on direction, speed, and destination gave an enormous sense of freedom. Racing along in modern-day steed, no matter how far or fast we went, our own insignificance in nature was accentuated in those vast landscapes, and with that came an indescribable feeling of humbleness, and upon surrender, liberation.
Inevitably a culture of sorts broke the spell, as we travelled past towns that announced themselves, not with the church spires of Europe, but the towering masts of billboards which hovered over centre-less towns, luring traffic to stop with invigorating promises of fuel, fast food, and 64-ounce coffees. During these pit stops the people encountered
were almost disconcertingly friendly for your average Brit. Whether it was waitress, gas pump attendant or Joe truck driver, they exhibited the ability to instigate a jovial conversation over next to nothing, and in the most unlikely of situations.
About halfway through our trip, just as I began to lose my mind in a Utopian stupor, and our Greatest Hits compilation CDs started wearing a little thin, I began flicking through the radio and stumbled into Rush Limbaugh. I was literally hauled back into reality…or was it fantasy?
You may not have heard of Rush Limbaugh if you aren’t from the States. He’s an American conservative radio talk show host - the highest paid, in fact - winning the radio personality of the year 4 times. And he is quite frankly, in my opinion, an angry, hate-filled, bile-spewing bigot. Worryingly, compared to some of the other hosts we listened to on talk radio, Rush Limbaugh seemed like a moderate. And I was totally hooked!
After hearing of him via the late stand-up comedian Bill Hicks, I was compelled to listen in and gauge what all the fuss was about. Limbaugh’s shock jock infamy lived up to my
wildest expectations, giving me the kind of morbid fascination which makes people slow down to view car wrecks or visit haunted houses. It was quite surreal that people seemed to be so friendly when you actually met them in the ‘real world’ out on the road, and yet as we rolled through this massive land, the radio preached hatred and fear. Not just for those Iraqis and Mexicans, but also for those damned Democrats! It was fear and division, divide and rule, at its very essence. The only thing that seemed to bridge the huge rift between the Republicrat parties and bring them back from the verge of civil war was the threat of imminent attack by those Qaeda!
Maybe because Man’s message of intolerance and hatred clashed so starkly with Mother Nature’s beauty and stimulation of wellbeing - or likely because I don’t live here - I felt so far removed, and was able to act out the role of Niebuhr’s cool observer. It all seemed absolutely ridiculous, and dare I say it, entertaining. Jennifer was not impressed, and began limiting my consumption, until ultimately a total ban ensued ;-)
“Rationality belongs to the cool observer. But because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith. And this naive faith requires necessary illusion, and emotionally potent oversimplifications, which are provided by the myth-maker to keep the ordinary person on course. It’s not the case, as the naive might think, that indoctrination is inconsistent with democracy. Rather, it is the essence of democracy."
In a totalitarian
state there is no consideration of debate and public opinion; you just go to war. In a democracy people have to be persuaded that war is the necessary and right thing to do; heralding a concerted effort to convince the people by hyping, exciting and frightening them, with all the pictures, actors, heroes and villains that go with it. Independent journalism should be at its height before a war and yet the opposite happens. At the hour of its greatest need in any debate, the corporate media merges into the political system creating a mediaocracy.
“Naturally the common people don’t want war. But after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”
Hermann Goering, at the Nuremberg Trials.
With potentially billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money to be spent, there can be no doubt that War is a very profitable product for a select few. And if you need a product sold there is no better marketer than the American media.
Freedom of speech and of the press is a double-edged sword which allows corporations to dominate the media and say virtually whatever they want. They have the power to shape, define and control public opinion often by excluding and marginalizing dissent. They are driven by the pursuit of profit like every
other business, and therefore serve their own political and corporate interests, and those of their financial backers.
The belief that the media is informing the public is a falsehood. The belief that we should trust a mainstream media in its efforts to pacify and numb the public into acquiescing in the decisions made by them and other elites, is frankly frightening.
Our increasingly Faustian motivations trample almost everyone and everything underfoot, and it is the corporate media who goad us on with the fallacy that this is the path to salvation.
The slice of America I saw in those three weeks blew me away. By pointing the camera at nature’s aesthetic beauty, I felt I could reach out and become an evanescent part of it for 1/125th of a second. Stirring in me a primordial connection with the land with which we were once so intimately entwined and dependent upon for our very existence. This connection is increasingly an abstraction for those of us who now live in cities or civilizations, those wastelands of nature and anathemas of modernity that expel nature and devour resources in their blind headlong pursuit of economic growth, higher incomes, accumulation of
capital, bigger apartments, GDP’s, PPP’s and infinitely higher standards of living.
But whose standards, by which definition of living, and at what cost?
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