April 16, 2016

States of the Union: A Small Core Sample of America


The Ferris Wheel, lit in long stripes of searing red and blue and green neon like some whirling sketch of an earth-bound star, pirouettes into the night sky above the slate waters of the Pacific at the end of the Santa Monica pier. Below it, the old seafood restaurant now serves Mexican food where gang-bangers herd their Saturday night dates around the bar, and the loud murmur of Angelino-accented Spanish rises above the waves that lap the pilings driven deep through the slow Pacific swell and into the sands below.

In a dark hollow somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, the first winds of winter hiss around an old dance hall where hundreds of white people and one black man stomp the boards in a contra dance. Dressed as vampires, wolf men, fairies, cowboys, and a host of other laughing fantasies, the dancers welcome the day of the dead to fiddles, guitars, pianos and drums as the caller makes the long lines of whirling people into stars and boxes, and a new girl is spun into your arms, flirting and bobbing, with every change in the ancient pattern of the dance, only to roll away with a half-sashay.

Outside the lights from the hall catch the flying drifts of gold and red leaves the wind is tearing from the trees, pushing them across the stars, and rolling them up in long drifts of crisp shadows against the wheels of Willys jeeps, old bangers, and brand new SUVs of every make and model. After the dance, Waffle Houses along Route 26 will fill up with costumed, exhausted dancers, their endorphins convincing them that, for this night at least, they are probably immortal.

The long wave laved beaches of the Isle of Palms outside of Charleston reinforce the new rule that no poor -- or even middle class -- people are now allowed to live by the ocean in America. The lots on which the endlessly elaborate houses that look out on the sea stand now cost between three and four million dollars each. If you bought one and immediately burned down the four to six bedroom three-story house, the cost of the lot would still be three to four million dollars. The house is, in essence, free.

Offshore, even on a dank day with large winds pushing in from the Atlantic, the bright scoops of kite surfers soar and pull their riders up off the crest of the waves high into air before gliding down to slide on the surface of the long breaking waves, and into the sands where the plastic pails of the nation's fortunate children are abandoned just above the reach of the waters.

In the Detroit airport, visitors to the United States stand in line to check into the country via a networked series of touch-screen computers. Above them, those too weak, too obese, or too lazy to walk a block or so can ride the glossy red new monorail from gate to gate, or rather from food court to food court.

Las Vegas, "What? Can't hear you!," Las Vegas is still not finished. After all, it still has a vast waste of desert all around it in which to ooze, even if it is bumping up against the Red Rock on one side. Road rubble and fenced off tracks of hard pack frame the Eiffel and other towers of pure fantasy blotching the night with a collection of illuminated signs that form their own Louvre of lighting.

Inside the outside-of-time casinos, the lights and the beeping clang of the slots still form their own eternal sound tracks as the glamorous and the ugly, the meth-skinny and the morbidly obese all take their turns on the wheel of misfortune. The only sound missing in the Hard Rock Casino these days is the clatter of coins dropping from the slots. Instead, there's the faint staccato as the machine prints your ticket when you "cash out." The barely clad money girl is only too happy to turn your winnings into money and see you on your way with the now standard secular blessing of the United States, "Have a nice day," at the stroke of midnight.

The Strip is like New York's Fifth Avenue at Christmas. There are so many people shuffling between fantasies that you can't walk down the wide sidewalks without getting stuck behind pedlock and fleets of electric Rascals moving those who have been far too long at the $5.00 Buffet. A nice new touch is that, should you require one, you can rent your Rascal at the airport, and all the big buffets have portable defibrillators.

After the casual and lightly populated Carolinas where everyone is slow and polite and easy, there are far too many people happening in the Happy World of Las Vegas. So you rent a car that rides like taking your sofa out for a drive and comes complete with 300 radio stations, and move out to where there will be, surely, not very many people at all, ever: Death Valley.

In the midst of an arid nothing on which 95 North is drawn like some temporary hash-mark on the land, your own personal communicator beeps. It's a friend calling from somewhere far away over the mountains and the vast land sea of the plains. He's driving at high speeds through savannahs. You're driving at high speeds over the desert where not even Joshua Trees make the effort to live. His voice is as crisp as if he was sitting beside you on this mobile sofa: "Death Valley? I went there once. It isn't really there. Not as a destination. It's not a place, it's a region. Gas up and keep going once you get there. You want to see nobody, that's the place to be."

Hours later I swoop down the long descending road to the spot on the map that is the lowest part of the country. Hundreds of feet below the level of the sea, which was once here, and, in time, will be again. At the cross roads at Furnace Creek, cars are being blocked by a Highway Patrol SUV and over the road come hundreds of people on horseback out of the desert to mill around in the parking lot by Furnace Creek Inn. After this mob of cowboys and cowgirls clears the road I drive on about a half a mile to where several thousand people have set out lawn chairs, umbrellas, and coolers by the side of the road waiting, it turns out, for the parade.

It's 49ers weekend in Death Valley and the RV culture has shown up in their multitudes. Across the road and on up the slope of the rise, thousands of RVs bake in the sun as their occupants – mostly all older and "retired but not tired" make for the parade and the barbeque and the beer. In the main it looks a lot like the streets of the Las Vegas strip, but without the neon and Elton John. In the store at Stovepipe Wells, the hottest place in America, I get my choice of popsicles and Dove Bars and at least twenty different kinds of beer, all, of course, ice-cold. This is, after all, America and nothing, but nothing, is going to roil our very Happy World.

Until further notice.

A clear, calm dawn in Bishop, California at the top of the vast Owens valley. The Sierras rise to the West with Mt. Whitney white at the top beyond the brindle hills. There's gold and rose in the meadows and trees here just as there were in the trees around the barn dance in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yesterday, at a fishing retreat at around 10,000 feet in the bright sun small snowflakes blew into my face for a minute or so, spun down from the mountains high above as fly fishermen cast off into impossibly clear and bone-biting cold streams. It's been a long autumn and now winter is falling down from the mountains towards this town.

Later today, I'll drive south through the Mojave and into the wedged and irritated environs of Los Angeles. I'll probably take a room somewhere near the beach in Santa Monica. Tonight I'll go for another ride on the star-lit Ferris Wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. I once lived, briefly, above the Merry-Go-Round at the end of that pier and made moonlight love on the damp sand beneath the boardwalk. But that was in another time and in another world with a girl whose name has faded into the smoke of the world.

Ferris Wheels and Merry-Go-Rounds. Lots of circles in life. It clears the mind to ride our metaphors in the real world from time to time. It lets us see where we stand and where we've been and where we might be going. Even if it is only to "arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

For some weeks now, and mostly without meaning to, I've been taking a core sample of the United States. Over the decades I've done this from time to time. The first time was a college trip in the early Sixties when some friends and I went 9,000 miles in 9 days in a Volkswagen. The last time before this was when I fled New York and went west with marriage on my mind. This time was less intentioned and worked out better. This time there wasn't a plan or a destination, only a route that emerged as I went.

It's a commonplace to say that the states of our nation are now so diverse that we are a deeply divided country. I've come to see that that old saw is a dull old saw, useful for pundits and prognosticators, but much more false than true. It's the view that arises when people are pent up in the cities far too long, and fall far too much in love with their own voice and views; their own set and setting; their own media-mirrored visage.

What all our media mouthpieces assert is happening in America, is happening -- it turns out -- almost completely within in their sealed and secular Happy World. It is not what's happening in the core of our states where the whirr and the buzz and the blather of the coasts come through only faintly, like screams heard through walls and quickly fading.

Out here, there's a different drum sounded and different dances danced. And, if you could, as I did yesterday, look out over the Owens valley and coast down into the small town of Bishop and watch the men come out at dusk to furl the American flags that line the sidewalks by the hundreds, you'd know, beyond a shred of a doubt, that the states of our union are still strong, and will survive, no matter what happens in the Happy World of our coastal cities, our capitols of culture and corruption, into which, in the course of the decades, everything cheap and corrupt and loose has rolled and congealed.

What happens in those cities may matter in the news of the day, but out here it is the news of the decade that matters. Here is where what we were and are and will become is finally and irrevocably decided. Everyone who thinks they know what the country is and where it is going needs to take some time out every so often and take their own personal core sample. This, for now, was mine.

[First published 2006-11-12]

Posted by Vanderleun at April 16, 2016 1:39 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Ours is an extraordinary country, great and good, exalted and plebeian, devout and corrupt all at once.

Tear down our cities, a wise man said once, and they will spring up anew from the prairies. Destroy our farms, and grass will grow in the streets of every city in America.

Is there life enough in the old America to revive the new? ¿Quién sabe?

* * * *

You lived above the Merry-Go-Round? And still have your hearing? Lucky man.

Posted by: Grumpy Old Man at November 12, 2006 9:09 AM

Glad you're back.

Posted by: dan l at November 12, 2006 11:27 AM

Thanks, Gerard...this was worth waiting for.

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at November 12, 2006 6:55 PM

Well granted there is a Monorail at the Detroit Airport, but it is a mile long. Kind of a long way to hoof it if you are running late.

Posted by: Maddux Sports Blog at November 12, 2006 7:30 PM

Missed you these last few weeks

Posted by: RZ at November 13, 2006 7:52 AM

I was going to enter a comment with here a SMUG and SUPERIOR attitude about these reports! But I forgot what I was going to say. Still,remember, no matter what you encounter or how the political tide of the country turns, I KNOW BETTER than the rest of you!

Posted by: Nigel at November 13, 2006 12:39 PM

Yes, yes, can't wait for your reports on all of us living in the hinterlands of the country. But what I really want to know is: How's Lois? You fellows haven't taken her boa away yet, have you? If so, tell her to call me...


Posted by: Webutante at November 18, 2006 7:35 AM


This is one I missed - what a beauty.

As most people who don't live on the coasts realize, the primary difference between people who live in cities and the rest of the country is that people who live in cities don't think there's any difference. In the intervening three years since you wrote this, this disconnect has grown truly toxic.

God, I love this country. Thanks.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at November 18, 2009 6:55 AM

The love you have for your country is as intense as the one I have for mine. And rarely a day goes by when I don't check the laughs, loves and patterns of this England and know that what the papers, politicians and blogging talking heads keep trying to say represents only a fraction of the intensity of every day life and rarely dents the beauty, non vox pop people and history I see all around me. When you wake up and hear church bells ringing strongly in the heart of a section of liberal London (Islington) you know life is still grand. God I love my country. And I had the pleasure of enjoying a roadtrip around yours, the very areas you describe only earlier this year. It was wonderful. Thanks for putting things in perspective, oddly not just on your side of the globe.

Beautifully written.

Posted by: alison at November 18, 2009 7:25 AM

Beautiful. For so many reasons.

Loved this:
"After the dance, Waffle Houses along Route 26 will fill up with costumed, exhausted dancers, their endorphins convincing them that, for this night at least, they are probably immortal."

Haven't been there in a very long time.

Posted by: Cathy at November 18, 2009 8:21 AM

Ah yes, only the wealthy can enjoy our coastlines year-round now. I commented to a similar post of yours on that issue that my grandparents were probably of the last generation of working/middle class folks who could live by the sea. I was always glad for the Jersey shore in October and November.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at November 18, 2009 12:09 PM

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., one of many that make America great, eponymously invented that wheel.

Posted by: Fred at November 18, 2009 12:14 PM

I hadn't read this one before, Gerard. I believe you may have written a classic American piece that will still hold true for many years to come.

I do love it when you write like this, you paint pictures with words that I can see and feel.

Posted by: Daphne at November 18, 2009 2:08 PM

You can't help but love this crazy imperfect country if you get off of your butt and out of your comfort zone and really see it, meet all the loons that call it home.

Posted by: westsoundmodern at November 18, 2009 6:02 PM

This is one of the best travelogues I have read in a long time. It inspires hope. Turning off all those coastal city voices helps a lot, too.

Posted by: Jewel at April 6, 2011 8:40 PM

Beautiful and moving essay Gerard. It rekindles my faith in this country. Stuck as I am in the big city, it's easy to forget how big the rest of it is. Thanks.

Posted by: The Count at April 6, 2011 10:22 PM

Yes, only the wealthy may now live by the sea. But let Japan be a reminder that at any time the sea may rise up to smite those who live on her shores. In most cases it is not chance, but an inevitability. Come storm or tsunami, the sea does not forgive.

Posted by: Stuart at April 7, 2011 9:08 AM

It is an odd memory, but I remember corn dogs at the Santa Monica Pier. There was a guy with a cart or booth, as best as I can recall. He would make the corn dogs right there, starting with putting a hot dog on the stick.

Posted by: Clinton Nichols at April 16, 2016 4:55 PM

Speaking of Ferris wheels and boardwalks...a couple decades ago I was on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, CA. I saw some guy trying to get close to some of the sea lions that were hanging around and waiting for tourists to feed them chunks of corns dogs, funnel cakes,etc. The guy got halfway close to that sea lion and it puked on him.

Posted by: Snakepit Kansas at April 17, 2016 8:08 AM

I remember that guy with the corn dogs too.

Posted by: Van der Leun at April 17, 2016 8:30 AM

This must have been written a VERY LONG TIME AGO...as the buffets in Las Vegas haven't been
$5.00 for at least a couple of decades.

Posted by: Dan at April 18, 2016 1:44 AM