Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Badlandia

This is Eastern Oregon, and had I never seen it my life would not be the same. I now know why I love the variegated, green flatlands of Florida.The road from Bend, Oregon to Fort Smith Arkansas looks like some variant of the photograph above. It was something close to 108 American degrees outside and the dryness in the atmosphere sucked the life out of skin, nails and hair. To call the Malheur River Valley appropriately named would be...appropriate. I imagine some French explorer or trapper or somebody came up the desert valley and suffered some indignity or misfortune and felt compelled to call the stream the "Unfortunate River" in his native tongue.In an effort to somehow reduce Oregon's ruinous unemployment numbers the state Fire Marshall has dedicated his career to preventing otherwise capable motorists from filling their own tanks. Remember Oregon is the state where you can organize your own assisted suicide quite legally but you can't organize your own refueling stop. When I pointed out this anomaly to the young lady pictured above she looked startled for a moment and then said uncertainly: "You're funny," and we left it at that. For a normal American these brief encounters are filled with awkwardness. It feels like a form of servitude, like having the butler wipe your ass, to have an Oregonian drop everything to do something as simple as stick a nozzle in your aperture. With one such gainfully employed resident of the Beaver State I got into a conversation about Florida.
"My brother in law lives in Tampa and says I should move there."
"You should," I replied looking around at the yellow mountains, feeling my lips curl from lack of moisture. Then he asked why. I hate giving advice, usually it is ignored making it a waste of time, and when it is followed the victim ends up badly and blames the advice giver. Giving advice is a no win proposition so I avoid it. In this case his question opened a floodgate and I started down the road of lower temperatures, equally bright sunshine year round, no snow, pleasant winters, the quality of sunlight on shiny palm trees and the sun's glitter on the emerald waters and in so doing I made myself home sick.
"I hear there's no dust in Florida?" the father pumping my gas said hopefully, glancing at the arid dustbowl surrounding us. No indeed. And better possibilities for his kids than growing up in an agricultural town on the far end of nowhere. Make sure you have work waiting for you was my final admonition. A vastly useful piece of advice I feel sure he will ignore. Florida has terrible unemployment and no need of experienced gas jockeys. But, heaven's above, unemployment in Tampa would be better than pumping gas here:
In a land of 300 million people there are bound to be a handful of lunatics everywhere you go. I thought this guy was doing yoga. My wife said he was applying sunscreen. Either way I hope he enjoyed the ride up the Unfortunate River Canyon.They either breed these spandex people around here or this is a popular form of vacation diversion. I never saw so many cyclists riding flat out into the jaws of Hell.Shadows were lengthening by the time we escaped the canyon and arrived in Nyssa ("nicer"?) Oregon and crossed the mighty Snake River into the land of potatoes and wild eyed survivalist militia men and their pioneer families. There is no need to display more photos of the identical countryside through the continuing plains of Southern Idaho. The scenery varied not one jot as we skirted Boise and pressed on south as the sun set in a spectacular ball of red fire behind us. My wife's iPhone found us a dog friendly La Quinta in Twin Falls (how the other twin stayed erect was not passed down through history) Idaho where we spent the night. I struggled out of bed the next morning to meet a wet nose and a madly wagging tail. It was time for the ever patient Cheyenne's morning constitutional. Some dog owners think walking their dog in a short semi circle on a piece of lawn is an adequate morning stroll. In my family we are made of sterner stuff especially while traveling on the road when she and I walked an hour at least every morning so the dog didn't go nuts on the back seat of the Fusion during the other eleven hours of the driving day. Twin Falls I renamed Sprinkler City. This suburban Utopia was a couple of blocks behind the Motel which was, unfortunately located in a giant strip mall as all modern motels have to be. It looked fairly new this subdivision busy pushing back the productive agricultural land all around it. Productive that is if you arch precious water into the air and drop it down on the ground hoping some of it irrigates the crops in the desert underneath.This place brought to mind the modern truism that every calorie of modern food requires ten calories of carbon energy to bring it to our tables across America. I found myself walking in a landscape J H Kunstler spends all together too much time warning us about. I don't think this rates as sustainable living. It put me in mind of the Florida Keys, people doing what it takes to create a suburban landscape where one was never intended by Nature. With the credit crunch and the theft of adult dialogue at all levels how do we get out of our burdensome, overly complex lifestyles? Is the only way out by waiting for the bailiff?
This fence and sidewalk looked no better for the dousing they had got from the water spread around so lavishly. Spend enough energy credits and you can create life where very little existed before.
Had I attempted to engage a resident here in a discussion about the value of this desert suburb in relation to the Macondo oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico, I wonder how the conversation might have gone. I doubt many people here relate their suburban extravagance to the need for deep sea oil drilling that can and will go so horribly wrong from time to time. Yet without that precious oil drilled at such risk this desert Eden would be, will be, impossible to maintain.
Construction going up or coming down? At the end of my own street a new manufactured home has appeared on stilts while I was away on vacation. An empty lot next to my house sold for $136,000. In this economy? And here I am wondering how to justify to myself the extraordinary energy extravagance of living in a non productive island environment that costs huge amounts of energy to sustain. We continue to live merrily beyuond our energy means. Thank heavens for road trips!
I see no easy answers, but I can't stop the questions from working their way out through the top of my head. This delightful scene is the ugly rear of the strip mall viewed as I walked my panting dog back to the embrace of roadside civilization. In my gloomy mood it looked like a prison.
Onward and upward! We burned a gallon of dead dinosaurs every 28 miles at a rate of 80 miles per hour along the freeway in our desperate Happy Motoring Tour of the badlands of the West. Until we met our Stimulus dollars hard at work improving our network of oil dependent freeways getting a face lift. This sort of stuff was going on all over America this summer. Shovel ready Works Progress Administration for the 21st century depression.The heat of the non climate change induced extra hot summer continued unabated. Cheyenne popped out like a prairie dog and popped back to her air conditioned bed.I am no great fan of Mormonism, or Latter Day Sainthood as they like to be known. It is a religion with too much in common with my childhood torture chamber in the Catholic Church, but give them credit: they have the pink Croc thing down very effectively. One of the weird things about this secretive belief system is that you can't get to heaven unless you wear church made underwear. I have seen pictures of it and if you imagine Mormons walking around in saintly lace you are not on the right path. It is some sort of nightdress arrangement with symbols and planets stitched on it. I didn't want to hear from anyone in Ogden,our lunch stop, about how weird my pink Crocs are. Nor did anyone even seem to notice them.
On the other hand they didn't actually get much of an opportunity to admire my footwear. My wife's iPhone found us a restaurant in the middle of absolutely bloody nowhere in back of a Wal Mart (Communist China's friend) and because they sell Budweiser with lunch the place had no windows.
Up until this past Spring sometime Utah required establishments selling the demon liquor to offer the stuff only to club members. Our server at Andy's Lounge told us, with an embarrassed grin, that the requirement no longer stands, but our lunch appeared very decadent in a windowless room reminiscent of a speakeasy from the bad old days of Al Capone.
The lamb the pita the salad were excellent and our starter of Greek salad with real olives and crumbly feta went down a treat with our diet cokes. I desperately wanted to drink evil beer as a sign of my own determined impurity but alcohol at noon would have passed me out. We ate like pigs instead. It was delicious.
Cheyenne was asleep in the back of the car, the engine running the air conditioning blasting so Princess could live more comfortably than 90 percent of the humans on the planet and we resumed our madcap dash East were we met more people striving to get close to Nature. That they looked odd to me as they burned no fuel except their own, is a measure of how far we have to come before I accept our reduced energy future.We arrived in Wyoming, a state that put me in a quandary as I no longer was sure what to call my dog. We took a walk along a river while my wife played electronic scrabble in the car on her blessed iPhone and I tried calling her "State Capital" and "Largest City in Wyoming" but she responded to neither term of endearment, did Cheyenne. The cold waters of the Bear River in Evanston, Wyoming refreshed my feet and even the dog named for the state capital stood chest deep in it for a while such was the heat.This woman leading her offspring down river like a mother duck called the waters warm, which was when I realized that come people really do think an ocean at 90 degrees is too warm.
I can say with absolute certainty there is no Cuban con leche in this part of the world, sold commercially but unhappily there wasn't Starbucks either and much as people like to criticize the Seattle chain it provides a service, at a high carbon cost to traveling wastrels such as ourselves. MacDonald's offered a worthy substitute. This is not the land of pansy ass scooters for alternative transportation.
My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? It is unbelievable how much of this stuff there is out there. "I never knew there were so many empty spaces," my wife said in awe when a lack of a cell phone signal forced her to interrupt her scrabble games and look up surfacing like a mole into sunlight.Set the cruise control at 80mph and try not to fall asleep.
Living in a trailer in the steppes of Wyoming sounds like bloody hell to me. Perhaps this is my fate after I die?For that night in Rock Springs we paused in a giant Albertsons supermarket and bought a delightful picnic for home consumption. Our home was a clean comfortable room with nonsense on the television. State Capital had had enough for one day.The next morning neither of us could face a suburban walk before dawn. She got remarkably excited by the dog walk area and I stood in my Crocs and contemplated the universe overhead.More roads ahead, more dead dinosaurs to burn.