Trying to escape one time from The Most Beautiful City, where we lived like some 21st century equivalent of lotus-eaters, we traveled around until we thought we’d found another place. We drove up a slow straight gravel road from the little seaside town, past open fields and fences and ranks of tall dark firs that all said, “Welcome Home.” The sunlight danced on hedgerows of berry bramble and plots of tassled corn. The sea had the sheen of tarnished silver under a big gray sky swept with darker clouds. On all sides the sea glinted through the trees, two lines of snowcapped peaks towered across the narrow straits, east and west. Our home was an island. We had never been there before.
When we arrived, the people said, “Welcome!” Then we discovered there were many others coming in before and behind us, all following the same road: fields, firs, mountains, water, sky. Yet it was a different road for each. And the place they arrived at was different for each. When they started to speak of it, we looked around: we did not see what they saw, hear what they heard, feel what they felt.
Some began chanting, “Home, my home!” The chant grew louder and louder, till the word was nothing but a moan, a kind of anguish – home was dying in their grasp as they clutched it more tightly, pieces of it crumbling through their fingers – toppling the groves, covering the denuded earth with hardscape. They began to tear what was left out of one another’s hands. The people who had lived there for generations stood quietly looking on, or turned away in despair.
Traveling on and away back south in the Northwestern spring, we drove through torrents of rain and slashing winds to find a place to spend the night. Someone told us you could camp for free at the Indian Casino. When we got there, we found it was true: there was a special parking lot where you were allowed to stay in your vehicle overnight, no charge. On the oily cement under the arc lights, with the enormous neon-lit palace looming over us and the air heavy with mist that made its brilliant, pulsing colors soft and dreamlike, we camped.
We went up to the casino to eat. Inside the glazed doors, we were absorbed into a total environment that stormed the senses. Dark caverns filled with noise and three hundred scintillating shrines, each with a single acolyte. A seamless, mazelike Temple of Luck and Pleasure. No defined edges: all the corridors sinuous and circular, leading you back to the omphalos: the slots, the gaming tables, the Keno screens.
There was nothing living visible in there but people. There were some representations of wild animals – along with superheroes, sea monsters, zombies and other totemic beings. Over the bar, there was a fiber optic display that looked like a waterfall.
It was Saturday. It was very crowded. It was hard not to remember Hunter S. Thompson saying that Las Vegas was how the whole country would spend Saturday night, if the Nazis had won the war. The perhaps uniquely post-modern aspect was the atmosphere of Family-Friendly Vice: big tables in the restaurants loaded with kids, who, forbidden from gambling, drinking or smoking, can still eat, play video games, and buy.
The Native owners were not in evidence. White working class people served the drinks, and white working class people bought them. The eyes of each were equally masked with fatigue.
Yet what we had entered was actually another utopia, of personal desire infinitely unleashed. The Cornucopia: The Promise of Something for Everyone.
Outside, the imperfect mountains rose behind, clutching the mist. The shredded wild still clung to them in some distant place, but we could not see or touch it.
The Utopia of Oil
A song from the 1970s is on the car stereo, with extended guitar solos, a melody that appears and disappears in wild, driving riffs, the musicians locked into their instruments, dueling with one another to take the song to a farther, deeper, wilder place, and we are driving south along the California coast now with the blue sea a brilliant promise and it builds and builds as the sunshine explodes till everything is sunshine and we are back in the days when we first heard the song and in our adolescent imaginations roads opened up, endless roads, and we were whirled along them and there was joy in the feel of the wind and the scenery sweeping by like a banner unfurling and the possibility that the journey was endless the moment was endless and the song rises up and up until everything is perfectly balanced, flowing – guitars, hills, road, wheels, wind, sky – and as long as it keeps on rising and building toward some ultimate ecstasy, we can almost forget what we’ve learned in all the downward-drifting decades since: that all roads eventually end or circle back on themselves and our journey had no destination anyway so really we were going nowhere at all.