Journey to America

Originally posted July 10, 2005.

With the music of Sixteen Horsepower blasting from the speakers of Michael's black Chrysler LeBaron, Michael Totten and your present writer took off early Friday morning to escape the comfy enclave of Portland, Oregon. Soon the firs changed to pines and we were out of Ecotopia and heading straight for the heart of the Empty Quarter. It was Michael's idea. Michael is a native of Oregon and a travel addict, and there are few places in the Northwest he hasn't seen; for this trip, he wanted to visit Pyramid Lake and The Playa in Nevada. I agreed to go along, not having a terribly clear idea of where these places were, but fairly sure that a trip out of town would be fun, and might do me some good. It was, and it did.

Cross the Cascades, and the land is drier, the climate harsher, the life unforgiving. But already I'm lapsing into cliches. I want to describe the land as "barren", but it's not entirely true, and anyway I don't think you can really understand the idea of "barrenness" unless you have actually worked on a farm, which I have not. So instead I will say that the land is bare. In lush areas like the Willamette Valley, you don't spend much time thinking about the land (again, unless you work the land yourself) because you never really see the land. What you see is the stuff that grows on the land - grass, trees, utility poles, roads, houses, office buildings. Out there, though, you see the land itself. You see dirt. You look down at the ground and there's dirt, sand, rock, or salt, with a smattering of low scrubby plants or spindly pine trees, and the occasional stretch of road, a few telephone poles, and maybe a couple of buildings here and there. Then you look up, and there's the Western sky, which is famously "not cloudy all day" - it's just sky and nothing but sky, not blanketed by couds or smog or trees or buildings. And sandwiched ridiculously in between, there's you.

We drove through south-central Oregon, one of the most sparsely populated regions of the lower 48. We passed through Lakeview, with its big wecome sign depicting a genial cowboy waving to newcomers. We passed a big body of water, Goose Lake, on our right. We cut through a conrner of California and passed into Nevada. You can tell immediately where the California highway ends and the Nevada road (using the term somewhat loosely) begins. And from there on it was nothing but sand and mountains until we got to Pyramid Lake.

I took a camera but somehow didn't feel moved to take many photographs. Michael did, and I'm sure he'll post these on his blog before long. I'm looking forward to seeing them myself. (Update: they're here.) We made Pyramid Lake by late afternoon. The lake is big, and lies entirely within a Paiute reservation - as Michael said, on of the few good pieces of land the Indians got. We hit the lodge at about 5pm, after ten or eleven hours driving, and went down to get a good look at the lake.

Pyramid Lake is said to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the Western Hemisphere, and baby, they ain't kidding. It's a magnificent turquoise blue, and surrounded by sand and mountains. There are no high-rise hotels or any of that crap. The lodge we stayed at adjoined a general store / saloon / casino, which serves as the area's cultural center. Over a can of Miller beer (to my chagrin, I'd made the mistake of asking the barmaid what they had "on tap"), Michael and I unwound after the trip. I ordered dinner, which consisted of a basket of onion rings.

Now I have to say a word or two about food in the West. Quite simply, there isn't any. That is, if you're spoiled on the kinds of food you can get in Portland or San Francisco or Seattle, there is no food in the West. Period. What you can get is deep fried everything, and hot dogs. That's it. Oh, and omelettes, if you're lucky. My entire diet for the whole trip was two cheese omelettes. (I counted myself fortunate because the second one - eaten in Gerlach, home of the Burning Man festival - actually contained vegetables.) The concept of a salad just does not exist.

But that's part of leaving Ecotopia. The food - or whatever they call that stuff - quite literally goes with the territory. As Michael explained it, people in the West don't see Nature as benign because it is not. It is something to be wrestled with, mastered when possible and accommodated when it cannot be mastered. Michael pointed to an area that some of the early settlers had attempted to irrigate in the hopes of growing crops. Not only had it not worked, he explained, the attempt had actually made the soil even worse, resulting in whole expanses of lifeless sand, devoid of even the local vegetation. Nowadays people take the more pragmatic approach of importing truckoads of canned and frozen foods from elsewhere. This is why you're gonna have a tough time finding that organic vegetarian burrito you're hankering for (or even a celery stick), and it's why you don't have to spend a whole lot of time looking for a recycling bin to dump that plastic pop bottle in when you're done with it. Why, after all, should man respect nature? Does nature respect man?

We sat for a while in the saloon as evening came on. Local men and women - heavyset, somehow cheerful and melancholy at the same time - laughed and gossiped and shot pool. I bought a few items at the store; the girl behind the counter, who was pretty and simply cheerful, wished me a pleasant evening. Someone turned on the jukebox and we endured a godawful song about "the drinkin' bone's connected to the party bone"; after that we heard a surprisingly compelling number, "Holy Water" by Big and Rich. I turned in at about 9:30; Michael stayed up a little later to work on a piece for Lebanon's Daily Star.

I was talking about the land. The mountains are stony, rugged, and refreshingly solid-looking (not like the ones around here, which will occasionally blow up on you). We drove by a number of lakes - a few, like Goose and Pyramid, actually had water in them. Most did not. There is a curious custom of charitably naming a dry lakebed "Lake So-and-so" when the "lake" has been a flat expanse of dirt for countless years. They're even labeled that way on the map: "Coleman Lake (dry)", "Alkali Lake (dry)". And when I said dirt, I really meant dirt and salt; in some places the ground is literally white. It's the most amazing, humbling thing to see.

And this brings us to the Playa. We left the lodge at Pyramid Lake early to get there. I thought Michael was crazy for wanting to go at all, but I'm glad we did. Playa means beach in Spanish, and a beach implies sand, which the Playa certainly has. A conventional definition of "beach" generally involves the presence of an ocean as well, and thus implies water; this element, once again, is absent from the Playa. But it wasn't always so: in prehistoric times, that whole region used to be underwater, a huge inland sea; so the name (like the names of the waterless "lakes") is not entirely a misnomer.

The Playa is a huge expanse of dry sand and mud. In the hot summer months, it's dangerous to drive across because the temperature can get to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In the cool winter months, it's dangerous to drive across because the sand is wet an your car can get stuck. We were lucky: we got there when the temperature was mild and the ground was mostly dry. Still, we didn't venture out too far; I had vivid memories of my armored vehicle getting stuck in Saudi sabkhas "back in the day", and Michael's LeBaron didn't have a winch cable or recovery vehicle handy.

So there we were: the geographical center of nowhere. There is something therapeutic about just going out into the wasteland for a while. We got out of the car, and, without a word, wandered slowly away in separate directions, and simply stayed there for about an hour - standing, sitting, just letting the noise and chatter drain away. I did a quiet breath meditation for about 20 minutes. We took turns looking through the binoculars, noticing how the mountains seemed to float above their mirror image on the horizon.

This was a trip to the part of America we rarely get to see from where we live. It was a chance to purge some of the accumulated mental chatter and garbage, and to remind ourselves just how small we are and how big the world is. Standing on the caked clay of the Playa, surrounded by the mountains and the invisible coastline of what had once been a sea, we were probably as close to standing on Mars as either one of us will get. Eventually some clouds did start moving in from the west. Over the peak of one of the mountains, one of those strange, flying-saucer-shaped clouds hovered and then dissipated. It is at moments like these that you truly feel like an alien on your own planet.

Yet little more than a hundred years ago, that trip itself would have been science fiction. To drive a horseless motorcar, traveling a mile a minute, into the middle of a desert that even the Indians dreaded? And to do it as easily as we listen to recorded music out of a box, or write for a newspaper on the other side of the globe. And then there's Nevada itself: the land where our own Government tested atomic weapons, turning whole stretches of the desert into glass.

I've written elsewhere about the role of the wilderness in American spirituality. It is one thing to read about these things in books, and quite another to experience them for yourself. Michael's choice of Sixteen Horsepower for the ride was a good one, because their lonely and unforgiving sound perfectly captures the spirit of the landscape. Outside of the car, though, the only music is silence.

Why should man respect nature, if nature does not respect man? Because we have no choice. Nature is big, the wilderness is big, the world is big, and we are small. In such a world, it is very difficult to believe in a Sunday-school deity, some guy named "God" with a long white beard and a bag of gifts for good girls and boys. G-d is not a man, and if we expect human qualities from the Spirit we will only be disappointed.

On a hot July day more than 250 years ago, a Connecticut preacher used these memorable words:
"There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God's mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment. ...

Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.

The very fabric of our world is held together by forces hanging in the most minute balance. The strong nuclear force is, to within a miniscule fraction, exactly enough to keep the protons in the nucleus of an atom from flying apart, repelled by their neighbors' electric charge. Were this balance to falter for even an instant, we would be annihilated in a flash. Humankind, having discovered the secret to upsetting this balance, now possesses this frightening power. With each generation, the consequences of our successes and our failures, our virtues and our sins, become greater. And the wilderness is still there, no less hostile. It gives us room to wander, room to get lost, and abundant room to die. So we are tempted to treat the wilderness as harshly as it treats us.

But if, as Jonathan Edwards believed, we are all in imminent danger of destruction, then our exile in the wilderness also gives us the liberty to find the spiritual materials of our own salvation. We must do this for ourselves; it will not be handed to us. Every one of us, from the moment we're thrust screaming into this world until the moment we're taken from it, faces this same exile. And every one of us faces the same task.

Why should man respect nature, if nature will not respect man? Ask instead how humankind may best show respect for the Power that lies beyond nature, and that lies inside each of us as well. Ask how to act in the face of the undisguised Nothingness, from which everything emerges and to which everything will one day be driven home. Nature makes no choices and asks no questions. Nature cares nothing for man because it is only the veil before the Void. Humans alone have the power to seek the presence of that nameless Source, to walk in its ways, and to honor it.

We got home at about 11:30 last night. I'm not gonna lie to you, it was good to be back in the land of fresh salads, micro-brews, Starbucks, and Powell's Books. Back in the rich and civilized climate of Portland, it feels like another world altogether. We can get the best clothes, the best books, the best food, and the best coffee. We have safe streets, comfortable weather, a pleasant city park, and a respectable college. We have all of the best things in life.

And we're living on top of a volcano.