The light and dark of road trips

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It’s vultures that circle the skies, from Colorado down through to Arizona. The hawks and eagles are in remission this year, and maybe the one before. The carrion feeders are on display, and at times it’s a little unnerving. Like when you’re low on fuel fifty miles from your destination, on desert flanked roads.

Over the past ten days I’ve travelled South West, across a dry, over-stretched lands. More than ever it has become apparent how this country was born of her passageways, first her railways, then her roads. The combined powers of the oil and transport industries have conspired with politicians to produce the cheapest gas prices I’ve experienced. The result is a nation scattered across a continent, with hundreds of miles between real destinations. And the hulks that travel the black top, churning through fossil fuels that this country seems so loathe to give up, they’re evidence of ignorance limited global resources. Huge RV’s tow four-wheel drives, which in turn are loaded with Harley’s. Madness.

Restaurants and gas stations are centred on nothing more substantial than the road. A million miles of anchor points for the chain takeaway empires fencing their wares. It’s not just the V8’s that tear through crude fuels on voyages between the States, their drivers need high fructose corn syrup to hammer that accelerator. Amongst the repeated signposts though, are the struggling entrepreneurs, the Moms and Pops trying to make a living from the fast travelling millions. So road trips are long stretches of gradually shifting scenery, punctuated by handmade signposts beckoning towards vaguely promising distractions. We pull over for cheap root beer floats, fields of coloured dinosaurs or UFO watch towers. Anything to  break up the journey, and allow engagement with what we hope will be true American characters, aching to leak unlikely stories and sketchy explanations for their way of life.

At least these people are fighting to make a living, no doubt balancing a number of revenue streams, and employing friends and family where possible. It’s the reservation lands though, that speak to my heart. Intermittent, unkempt “Travel centres” are advertised as being run by tribes, names that I have always associated with pride. Navajo, Ute, Lakota. But these rundown halls offer only broken coffee machines, two litre slushies and an unvarying array of “hand crafted” trinkets. They’re usually overseen by despondent, overweight women.

Worse than these though, are the faded advertising boards which count you down to casino turn offs. Each time the promised centres of “hot gaming” are horrid windowless buildings squatting in a fenced off portion of wilderness. There are always a few dozen cars littering the mid day mid-week car parks. How can these fetid holes be a temptation? One proudly advertises all you can eat crab legs for twenty bucks. It hardly seems a steal, and I can imagine the stench as the patrons hiccup and belch at the pokie machines, greasy yellow stains dappling their frontage. Yellowed teeth are no doubt bared as they stab at the buttons, their shambling motions dislodging crustacean shards onto shiny surfaces, then to be picked out by rhythmic pulsing lights. Shudder.

It seems that there is a canyon separating these tribal people from the rest of the nation, and that continued ignorance is widening the gap. On a reservation campsite we get a talk from a young half Navajo ranger, and he mentions how nice it is to get the chance to talk to others about the ways of his people. He talks of past achievements of his ancestors with fondness, but the litter covered grounds of his peoples National Park seem to speak of giving up. In my country we’ve had our problems, our difficulties between those who came before, and those who arrived after. Some of the Maori tribes in New Zealand are creating positive changes through engaging with their cultural heritage, I can only hope that the same is happening here in the United States. And that these examples will eventually be a beacon for those who seem to have abandoned hope.

After almost two months of engaging with this country, I’m starting to see the cracks. I love the landscapes and the critters. I love the ideas behind what America was meant to be. I love the chocolate cream pie. The coffee…not so much. It honestly seems that for a long time now this really has been a land of opportunity for many people. But things seem to be coming undone. A new nation is a little like a newly founded religion. This country was set up, much like a fresh faith, with so much positivity, with such positive ideals, and with such trustworthy ambition. But the world’s religions begin to lose their way when they place intermediaries between the believers and their belief. Translators of god’s word. Keepers of the faith. And it is especially dangerous when these intermediaries are given powers and knowledge beyond the rest of us mortals. The US government is now keeping secrets from its people, implementing hidden laws to “protect” the flock. Secret spying, offshore prisons where people are held indefinitely without trial, stealing people away in the night from both within and outside of her borders. America is slowly sacrificing those most important things it stood for.

Maybe this shift will be undone. Protests exist, and in Boulder I’ve talked to a lot of frustrated, intelligent people who see the issues. But it seems that in general there’s a tendency towards national complacency, complacency encouraged by the media. A media which often encourages rage in all the wrong directions. I have seen so much to love about this country, and met a range of positive, self motivated people. I hope that people like these will be able to shake the others out of their sugar-fuelled drudgery, in time to halt the backwards slide. Because I want to return here and see a lot more. But I wonder quietly, if someone somewhere will be reading this blog, and putting a wee cross next to my name.

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