November in the American Earth: A Postcard from the Road

“…October has come again, has come again…everyone goes home in old October…”

–Thomas Wolfe, in “Of Time and the River”  (1935)

October is already gone ­– time flies when you`re not watching – but those who’ve read Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac or even sci-fi master Ray Bradbury, who left us last June at age 91, will know. There’s something magical about the month of October all over America.

Summer’s heat and haze are gone. The air is clearer and the world is in sharper focus in a golden light that can sometimes be luminous in late afternoon.  If you have the time, it’s a great time to savor some of America.  Not the America of lookalike subdivisions where even the residents all look the same, but an older and more authentic America that still exists off the interstate highways.  Not too hard to find if you look, and notwithstanding gasoline prices rigged by manipulators, you still don’t need tons of money. Just a car, time and imagination.

Water is critical to the American West and although a 1922 Colorado River agreement allocated most of that water to agriculture, the metro areas of Phoenix, Arizona, and Los Angeles have sucked enough water from that river to leave it dry by the time it reaches the Gulf of California.

Phoenix just passed Philadelphia as the fifth-largest U.S. metro area, according to U.S. Census figures, while L.A. – hub of the American fantasy machine – holds steady at number two; trailing only metro New York.

I visited both Phoenix and L.A. early in October and drove through some of the most incredible landscapes in America – Europeans seem to appreciate the West’s park lands and canyons more than many Americans – without even going into our grand national parks.

Along with red and buff sandstone cliffs and ridges in New Mexico, you find ancient lava flows, Indian pueblos and the town of Gallup on fabled old Route 66 as the unofficial commercial hub of the Navajo nation.

In New Mexico and Arizona, I drove some of the surviving stretches of old U.S. 66.  Dating to 1926 and before being superseded by interstate highways in the 1960s, old two-lane 66 ran more than 2,000 miles from Chicago to the Pacific at Santa Monica. After World War II, Americans were urged to “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” by a popular song and some of the route’s unique-design/neon sign motels and eateries are still in business where the road still exists, as along Central Avenue in Albuquerque.

In the Depression 1930s, 66 offered few kicks to “Okies” fleeing Dust Bowls and chronicled in John Steinbeck’s 1939 “Grapes of Wrath” novel. In beat-up jalopies, displaced Okie families drove 66 to the promised land of California for a dream that often proved false.

Steinbeck shared the life of Okies traveling 66 to California; along with the lives of migrant crop-pickers. So did legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie. And driving long stretches of mountain and desert roads, I found myself humming the words to Woody Guthrie’s 1930s “Pastures of Plenty” tune:

“It’s a mighty hard row my poor hands have hoed/My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road/Out of your Dust Bowl and westward we roll/Your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold…

“…Arizona, California, I work all your crops/Then it’s up north to Oregon to gather your hops/On the edge of the city you see me and then/I come with dust and I go with the wind…”

Not in a broken-down Okie Model A Ford, but a 2012 Subaru Outback, I still thought of Steinbeck’s Okies, Guthrie’s songs and today’s efforts to bar “illegals” – who ELSE is going to pick the crops? – I wondered how much attitudes have really changed since Woody Guthrie’s day. Recalling Republican 2012 campaign rhetoric added doubt.

For its Right Wing politics, anti-immigration and anti-Hispanic legal stances and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio – who would have been perfect in Hitler’s Third Reich – Arizona gets a bad rap. Still, the state oozes grandeur. From the Salt River and Grand Canyons in the north to cactus-studded deserts to tall rows of palm trees starkly silhouetted against crimson-sky dusks in Phoenix, there’s beauty everywhere and only people –as elsewhere – can make things ugly.

I started L.A. with a stay at the Art Deco-ish Cadillac hotel on the beach at Venice.  Though I’ve lived more than 38 years in Denver, 1,200 miles from salt water, beaches remain important. Like a good ski run in fresh powder, a walk on a real beach with gulls sharing the shore and surfers catching waves helps clear psychic sludge from the soul.

Venice, California, was the dream of entrepreneur Abbot Kinney who, in 1905, turned marshland into a community built around Venetian-styled canals in hopes of an American Venice. Fires in the 1920s severely dented Abbot’s dream and Venice later became home to 1950s “Beats” and late-‘60s hippies. The canals fell into disrepair and were nearly filled in until recent-years gentrification rescued them along with a revived and repaired neighborhood. But homeless street people and drug dealers near the Cadillac showed that Venice – despite skyrocketing real estate prices – hasn’t completely succumbed to gentrification.

The Pacific Coast Highway, from Malibu to Santa Barbara 100 miles up the coast, is also good for the soul with wide bays, cliffs and headlands and a silver sun-shimmer on the blue Pacific. Listening to a Beach Boys track, while fitting, can dilute the reverie. The Beach Boys’ early tunes celebrate – true or not – the youthful freedom of an earlier California of the early ‘60s that today only survives in far more expensive versions. And today’s L.A. version of the California Dream isn’t so much Paradise Lost as a paradise seriously diluted – again, as in Arizona, by people, money and greed.

Santa Barbara has my favorite beach in all of California – called Arroyo Burro or Ledbetter – just north of town. Not many shells, but the rocks fascinate me and you can spend hours walking that beach. I did, before leaving downtown’s State Street to turn a corner toward home – by way of another stop in Phoenix – in what would be a trip of 3,543 miles in two weeks.  An off-the-interstate stretch of scenic byway – New Mexico highway 14 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe – rewarded with wide vistas of puffy clouds over red cliffs right out of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

Obviously, the journey is more the point than the destination.  And the journey improves if you can leave the interstates, whose interchanges hold the same McDonalds and Holiday Inns from New England to California, in favor of the two-lane blacktops that can lead to serendipity surprises and what Thomas Wolfe called “the dried, caked colors of America.”  You don’t need the twin lodestars of overpriced tourist disappointment: Vegas and Disneyland. With such a wealth of the real in the American West, there’s no need for the fake. And if you keep the eyes of your mind open, the landscape can get you high with no need for drugs, either.

 

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J. Sebastian Sinisi

Opinion

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