“therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (hebrews 121&2)
this race is so much harder and longer than i ever knew it could be.
it’s a good thing i love to run.
so much for picturefull “this is life” posts. mostly the kind of pictures i have been taking these days are the kind you hold in your head and not your hands. and writing has been pretty low on the priority list. you have to live life before you can write about it, i’m finding, and right now, living is taking all the resources i’ve got. so mostly the kind of writing i have been doing lately is the kind you only do when your professors require it of you. which is what i’m going to share now. not because it’s spectacular or well-written or on a favorite subject, but because long and boring school assignments? those are life now, too. so here goes. an “essay of place,” about nevada, in the style of w. g. sebald. an assignment which took me far too long and cost me a small fortune in pulled-out hair. i hope you enjoy! =)
My family has driven through Nevada at least three times, once just through the southernmost tip on our way to Texas, and twice more on a Midwest road trip that we took a few summers ago. It was not until I sat down to write an account of those trips that I realized how varied my few Nevadan experiences have been. When I try to imagine the state I see a hot, desert flatland caged by the mountains which gave the state its name but which in my imprecise memory constitute only the borders of an infinite bare valley. They alternately recede into the distance and loom in the foreground, as though some colossal camera lens keeps twisting, changing the depth of field with every moment. It was not like that the first time we drove through. I was only ten or eleven then, with vivid memories of a History Channel documentary on the building of the Hoover Dam. My parents allowed me to watch very little television when I was young except for educational purposes or special occasions. Perhaps this is why, when I did see something on television, it grew in my imagination until it took on a disproportionate sense of importance. I don’t remember all of the details from the show, but I do recall black and white images of baggy-trousered men – some of them former circus acrobats, as I later learned – suspended above the concrete abyss. I remember accounts of the deaths involved in the process of construction and especially tales of how the workers used protect themselves, manufacturing crude hard hats by pouring coal tar over the soft fedoras common in the Great Depression era. After the first few men reported good success with this method of protection, the Hoover Dam project became the first to make hard hats mandatory for every one of the workers at the construction site. Even with this and other precautions, the building of the Hoover Dam took many lives. It seems uncertain exactly how many men died – the official number stands at ninety-six, but unofficial numbers I have seen cited as high as one hundred and twelve. I remember that the figure seemed astronomical to me at the time that I watched the show, enthralled by the legends of bodies buried in the pristine concrete wall. All reputable sources I found rejected those stories as myths, and the precision required to create a structure able to withstand a river’s force seems to confirm their status as such. Even so, it seems to me that in a less tangible and more actual way, the legend holds true. Each of those men who died and each of the ones who lived was, in a sense, poured into the very cement of the dam where they still impart a portion of the strength that now holds back the Colorado River. If their decaying bodies do not form a part of the dam they gave their lives to make, their legacy lives on, deep within the artificial rock. Of course none of this occurred to me at the time, or not in so many words. I simply knew that this feat of 1930s architecture represented a part of the history of my country – perhaps a smaller part than I imagined, but a part nonetheless – which I was eager to see. We rounded the final curves preceding the dam, where the road cut scallops into the red spongy hills which cut scallops in the sky. Maybe some small part of me expected to see the scenes I remembered from the documentary, an intricate grayscale lacework of men and machines, because it was almost disappointing to see color, clean and intense from the surreal cast of a dying sun: red dirt, blue water, bright sky, yellow tractors preparing to build the bypass bridge that has long since been completed. It was growing dim by the time we dropped down to the dam, but the masses of concrete had gathered and concentrated the sun’s heat so that even as the world cooled with the setting sun, the dam radiated a heat more intense than the day had ever given. We parked on the far side of the river and walked back over the shimmering heat waves to the middle of the dam. I remember checking my shoes periodically, concerned that the scorching pavement might melt the rubber soles. The thick partitions between the top of the dam and the plummeting canyon were too hot to touch or even lean against, so that I had to balance myself precariously to peer over the edge of the bowed expanse of concrete, with the July heat rolling up into my face in vast, burning billows. It was as if the temperature locked me in a stifling prison, just as the dam itself locks up the river, or as the mountains lock up the entire state in my imagination. This impression probably remains so strongly embedded in my mind because the last two times that I visited the state it did give a sense of bars, of imprisonment.
It was already June when we began driving east through Nevada the second time, but the weather was more like March: overcast, damp, expectant. The gray hung low in the sky, almost too low, with patches of cloud torn out like the patches of torn concrete on the ceiling of a parking garage. Strangely, though, it gave no sense of cramped space or of darkness. It was as though the clouds that pressed down on the land merely pressed it down enough to give it dimension. Beneath an infinite sky no mind could fully comprehend the vastness of that place, but the context of the low and brimming clouds whittled it down to a thing one’s imagination could almost grasp – and, in so doing, showed it in its full proportions. The mountains, over which we had driven and which we could see in the distance, seemed to grow closer the further from them we drove, and when we were stopped along with hundreds of other cars at a temporary traffic light which had been placed in the middle of nowhere to allow for road repairs, the snowy heights were there behind us, as large as they had been when we descended from them. We waited there in a stationary stream of brake lights for a quarter of an hour before we decided to turn off our engine and walk a little ways out into the shallow gray brush which mirrored the shallow gray sky. I could almost imagine that all I knew had turned upside down and that we walked in sandy, windblown clouds while the earth swept above us in slow-moving currents, or that perhaps two parallel worlds had interlocked somehow and that if I could only pierce the depths of the fog above, I might find another desert road reflected there. We turned back after we had stretched our legs and before the line of cars began to crawl forward once more in that vast and empty dreamland. There are pictures, motion-blurred and weirdly lit, of my sister coming through the bushes, laughing as she pushes her curls from her face. There are pictures of my parents, my dad carrying my mom in his arms so that her shoes will stay clean, and both of them laughing like children. The metaphors nest within each other like a set of matryoshka dolls from Russia: the mountainous boundary, the open land within, the cars trapped on the far-flung roadway, the freedom of laughter, the capture, and hence the freezing of that laughter once the camera flashed. It caused a curious sensation of being both imprisoned and free at once, in the same way that the cloud cover made the view both smaller and larger at once. As we continued to drive, I began jotting down thoughts in a little travel booklet given to me by a friend. I wrote halting descriptions of the landscape, documented the wording of the road signs we saw. When at last we passed the place where the road crew had set up the temporary traffic light which had caused the half-hour delays, we also read the sign posted in front: “Please stop when red.” Many miles later, after the traffic diffused, we saw a distant concrete complex skirted with chain-link fencing and laced with loops of barbed wire. The words were printed black onto the white signs scattered periodically along the lonely road: “Prison area. Hitchhiking prohibited.” We spent that night at a dingy, graveled RV park, where the office reeked of cigarette smoke. Layers of fumes had built up over the years, concentrating and staling in the paint on the walls, in the pores of the carpet, in the furniture and the frames of the windows. Three or four slot machines stood in the corner of the office, just as they did in every convenience store and gas station at which we stopped. We saw signs on every block, on nearly every building, advertising slot machines, arcades, small casinos and large. Nevada legalized gambling during the Great Depression, in an ironic attempt to help the state recover economically, and in the years following it has become known for its lenient laws on gambling as well as prostitution, smoking, drinking, marriage, divorce, and many other controversial issues. We drove past Las Vegas, the city to which people flock from other states and nations to gamble or dine, on the first of our trips, and I watched it from a distance, thinking how strange it was that a city known for its voluptuous liberty should be so physically caged. When I try to remember what exactly caused those thoughts, I remember an image of a square patch of tiny ant-like buildings bounded by a little garden wall which kept the city from seeping into the spreading desert. Since that time I have driven past and through many other cities. I have seen how they form, with fluid edges and shifting boundaries. I have even seen overhead images of Las Vegas. I know that that this idea that exists in my head cannot be true, but I also know that the idea could not exist if something about the scene had not suggested the image to my mind.
In a way I felt the same sense of tension, of dizzying open space contrasted with hemmed secrets, as we travelled home again on the same trip. We drove under a blazing sun and a sky that was so blue as to look almost fantastical, over a road which furrowed a straight line through sandy, scoured hills. The landscape, which had a cathedral splendor under the gray light, grew harsh and brassy in clear weather, almost eerie in its cruelly cropped outlines. The heat glared from the glassy sky, the searing hills, causing our vehicle to begin revving, like the sound of a caged lion’s breath. We began to shift in our seats that had grown hard long ago, to look up from books, to become claustrophobic from the building pressure which made it hard to hear and hard to know whether anything was real. We drove past sand dunes that looked like other sand dunes and when we passed a lonely warehouse with a giant steel statue of an alien in front, we laughed and took a photograph because a little while before we had been exchanging sarcastic jokes about Area 51, a highly classified military base rumored to be located in Nevada. Clouds of conspiracy theories and suspicion surround the base, with unsubstantiated stories of alien abductions, UFOs, and government cover-ups. Apparently the locals discount the conspiracy theories, saying that the military uses the property for experimental aircraft and weapons testing, that drama of the highway’s nickname, Extraterrestrial Highway, and the steel alien statue in front of what we later learned was the Alien Research Center, exist mostly for the sake of curious tourists. We were not tourists – we were only passing through. We had been driving for too many hours, though, and the mirage effect was in full force. So when my dad pointed to something atop a hill in the distance, a few hours after we passed the warehouse with its alien guard, we became skeptically curious. When he took a picture of the hilltop and turned the camera around so that we could see the shiny, elongated face on the digital screen, we gasped and looked again. Reality and fiction blurred for a moment, just long enough to cause confusion, hesitant questions, nervous laughter. It took a few seconds for it to register that he had scrolled back through the stored photos and showed us the one we took of the statue in front of the Alien Research Center. We joke about it now, but the incident reminds me of stories I have heard of the panic sparked by a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’s novel, The War of the Worlds. In the fall of 1938, Orson Welles adapted the other Wells’s story about a Martian invasion of Earth for radio, airing it as an episode of the radio drama anthology series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The drama’s innovative news-bulletin format led many of its listeners to believe that the fictional events were actually happening as reported, causing confusion and wide-spread fear which bordered on panic. At the time, America was hovering on the point of war with Germany, and national uneasiness, even fear, has been cited as a possible reason why listeners were so quick to credit the simulated reports as fact. Many of those who tuned in to the program late assumed that the attacks being described were German attacks on American soil, which, considering the political climate of the day, was an understandable mistake. Later studies have shown that the reports of panic and dismay may have been greatly inflated by the yellow journalism – exaggerated, sensational reporting which may or may not be based in fact – prevalent at the time. Yellow journalism seems to have played a large role on Welles’s career. After the media sensation over his radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, Welles was given unprecedented freedom as an untried movie director with the film Citizen Kane, in which he both directed and played the part of a yellow journalist whose character had partial roots in Welles’s own. Character, fiction, biography, photographs of statues of beings we have never seen and may not exist…how does one determine what is real? Each element slides into the next, melting together like the sky and the land on an overcast day. When the clouds closed in over that empty land, I felt free, alone in an unbounded landscape. When they lifted I felt claustrophobic, shut in by the weight of the empty heavens and the space around me. Which was the true freedom? The men who dammed the Colorado River unleashed the energy contained in it by halting the water’s path. Which was the true freedom? I picked up my book again and read the same sentence over and over again until at last I gave up and watched the sand outside my window as the motion blurred it into one liquid brown mass beneath the liquid blue sky.