Extract from Mondial 001

Rapha Mondial: Plains, Trains and Automobiles

In a long read from the Mondial Archives, Richard Grant delves into the restless spirit of Americana and the answers that the road can offer up to travellers.

14 June 2018

If you’re driving across America, with the dawn rising in your rear-view mirror and the sunset ahead, you enter a zone of transition on the third or fourth day. The trees thin out. The land turns from green to brown. The sky yawns open and the horizons stretch out. Towns and villages grow farther apart and seem dwarfed by the vast, empty, unpunctuated space that surrounds them.

In the Texas Panhandle, or the High Plains of Wyoming, or the Sandhills of Nebraska, the scenery looks more like Outer Mongolia than New Jersey or Florida. Parts of Arizona and New Mexico look like the Serengeti with a different cast of birds and animals. And anywhere in the world you see these long horizons and big austere landscapes you will usually find a history of wandering and nomadism.

It has everything to do with aridity. In lush, fertile, well-watered regions there is no reason for people or animals to move unless overpopulation, disease or tyranny takes hold. But where rain is scarce and seasonal, falling in some places and not others, grazing animals have to migrate to find water and grass, and so do the people who hunt or herd them.

If you trace the lure of the open road back through Tom Waits songs, Jack Kerouac novels and Walt Whitman poems, back through thousands of commercials for cars and jeans, films like Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise, and all those celluloid cowboys riding off into Technicolor sunsets, you reach a kind of genesis on the Great Plains in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A cultural revolution was taking place among the Plains Indians and it was driven by a wondrous new creature they named “holy dog”. Horses had evolved on the Great Plains of North America but they had departed 40,000 years previously, trotting across the Bering land bridge into Asia. It was the Spanish conquistadors who brought horses back into the Americas, and as the soldiers and settlers pushed north into Texas and New Mexico some of their horses escaped and multiplied, thriving on their ancestral ground.

At first the tribes hunted them for meat, like elk or deer. Then, copying the Spaniards, they learned to ride horses, and that’s when everything changed. Before horses, most of the Plains tribes lived in Stone Age riverbank farming villages and grubbed around for roots and spiders to eat. When the migratory herds of buffalo came within range they attempted to hunt them by surrounding them with fire or by running them over the edge of a cliff, techniques which required too much luck to be dependable. But with a fast pony between his knees, a man could gallop alongside a running buffalo and shoot an arrow just behind its ribs – a far more effective technique once you had mastered it, and an adrenaline thrill to boot.

Horses revolutionised the tribes’ concepts of space, distance and velocity. Instead of standing there on foot watching the buffalo disappear into the vastness of the plains it was now possible to follow the herds and shrink that vastness. Seated on the back of a horse the rider commanded a wider stretch of land, and this alone gave a feeling of lordly confidence. One by one the Plains tribes gave up farming, abandoned their villages, threw away their grubbing sticks and embraced a nomadic life on horseback. They developed a powerful conviction that this was the best of all ways to live and what the Great Spirit had always intended for them.

“The life of my people is a life of freedom,” said the Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull as he realised it was coming to an end. “I have seen nothing that the white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in open country and live in our fashion."

The Comanche chief Ten Bears, facing the prospect of living in a house on a reservation, said: “I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls.” This nomadic creed of freedom does not exist in the European political tradition, which evolved under monarchies and sedentary civilisation, but it still persists in America. Lurking like a low-grade fever in the national psyche is the idea that liberty is impossible within the confines of society and the only true freedom is the freedom to roam over the land, beholden to no one. “From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,” wrote Walt Whitman in his poem Song of the Open Road. “Going where I list, my own master total and absolute… I inhale great draughts of space.”

It’s the flipside of the American Dream, calling out to the restless and disaffected, and anyone else who feels trapped by their mortgages and white picket fences. “I’ve had one dream all my life,” said the American writer Charles Bowden. “Burn down the house and saddle up the horse.”

When Britons emigrated to North America they uprooted themselves from their ancestral ties and social orders, escaped the confines of a small, rigidly controlled island; this contributed to the restless spirit of the new society forming in the colonies. The colonial authorities, for the usual reasons of taxation and control, wanted everyone to stay put, work hard, be responsible, and follow the draconian rules or suffer the draconian punishments. But there were rebels, adventure-seekers and a steady stream of what the Puritan overlords called “disgraced women” who found an alternative way to live.

“Many crept out through a broken wall,” wrote John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts colony. They went off into the forest and established themselves as independent hunters, trappers, traders, wives and mothers. Some of them lived with the tribes and went partially native. Either way, they lived with a level of personal freedom that was unimaginable in a European context, and their example was a constant destabilising influence on social control in early America.

In the 18th century came a more powerful vector of American restlessness, a great horde of unruly immigrants who Benjamin Franklin described as “white savages”. The men were tall and rawboned, with a bristling pride that was quick to violence. The women were often described as “slatternly”. One of their pastimes was “rough-and-tumble” wrestling in which the object was to gouge out the opponent’s eyeball. They were lowland Protestant Scots who King James 1 had sent to Northern Ireland in the early 1600s. In America they became known as the Scotch-Irish.

Centuries of mistreatment in the Scottish borderlands and Northern Ireland had left them with a deep distrust of government, and they had been pushed around and harried so much that they had no real concept of home ground. In northern England, before they went to Ireland, they were known as “crackers” (uncouth braggarts) and “rednecks” (fiery Protestants who got hot under the collar). These terms crossed the Atlantic and are still used today to describe their descendants.

The colonial authorities, who knew trouble when they saw it, encouraged them to go to the Appalachian frontiers, where land was almost free if you didn’t mind fighting Indians from time to time. That suited the Scotch-Irish just fine. It was far from government control and they were fierce fighters. They hacked out a rough existence in the forest, lived in simple log cabins and did not build them to last. The frontier kept moving west and it was the restless Scotch-Irish, more than any other group, who kept it moving.

Many of them became expert hunters and trappers and, like the Appalachian tribesmen, they wore moccasins and breechclouts – a form of loincloth – greased their long hair with bear fat and scalped their enemies. Like the tribesmen, they lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, going on long hunting expeditions and returning to their cabins and cornfields.

In the early 19th century some of these frontiersmen struck out west and never returned. It happened when they reached that zone of transition. Emerging from the forests that blanketed the eastern half of the continent they saw the Great Plains and the big skies for the first time. They encountered nomadic horse tribes who lived in tepees and followed the buffalo, and had no need of villages or cornfields. The two main tributaries of American wanderlust, the nomadic Plains Indian and the restless Scotch-Irish, began to converge.

Frontiersmen like Kit Carson, Joe Walker and Hugh Glass, the last-named the subject of The Revenant, the latest Leonardo DiCaprio film, trapped beavers for a living, and while searching for them they explored the unmapped American West all the way to California and the Pacific. They were known as mountain men because their richest trapping grounds were in the Rocky Mountains, and one of their defining traits was an inability to stay put. Many of them married into the nomadic tribes, which was a way to have a wife and family without settling down, but those marriages tended not to last.

When they had trapped out the beaver from the western half of the continent, a monumental undertaking driven by the demand for beaver-felt hats among fashionable urbanites, they turned themselves into scouts, hunters, horse traders, livestock drovers – anything to stay in the saddle and keep moving. They captured the imagination of the American West when they were alive and were romanticised by journalists, hack novelists and literary novelists such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.

The mountain men established an American male archetype – tough, independent, untamed, nomadic – that has been reincarnated many times. Truckers, loggers, hobos, bikers and rodeo cowboys all bear more than a trace of the original. The fringed buckskin jacket worn by Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider was a direct copy of a mountain-man fashion, and his character’s desire to live free on the road, rather than participate in normal society, would have made sense to any Rocky Mountain fur trapper. One reason the mountain men travelled so much was that civilisation kept catching up to them.

After the Civil War in the 1860s a new breed of tough, nomadic characters came riding through the American West. They wore wide-brimmed beaver-felt hats, fancy shirts, leather chaps and often an old Confederate coat that served as a blanket. While the men were off fighting the Yankees, feral cattle had multiplied exponentially in Texas and half a million Longhorns (the horns on a full-grown bull can span nine feet) were roaming the thorny brush country down by the Rio Grande. At the same time war-ravaged America was undergoing a food shortage and there was a huge market for beef in the northern cities.

So men started gathering herds of wild cattle and driving them north to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska, then riding all the way back down to south Texas to do it all over again. Cowboys and Indians, positioned as natural enemies by Hollywood, skirmished only occasionally; many cowboys thought of themselves as white Indians and enjoyed spending time with the tribes. They shared a similar philosophy of land use, based on freedom of movement across the open plains.

It was European diseases, against which they had no immunity, that decimated the Western tribes, and they were finished off by the US Army and the buffalo hunters, who wiped out the great herds in less than 30 years. The invention of barbed wire was the key event in the demise of the cowboys. The open range was fenced off and bought up by private landowners, making the free movement of horsemen and cattle impossible. Cowboys fought against this violently and bitterly but succumbed in the end, and most of them ended up herding cattle on private ranches instead.

The nomadic heyday of the Plains cowboy lasted only about 20 years, and there were perhaps 32,000 or so of them in total. So why has the cowboy furnished so much heroic American mythology? Nomads and the sedentary have a long and complicated antagonism. Sedentary society, with its laws, walls, hierarchies and mechanisms of control, has never appealed to nomads, even though it offers an easier, more comfortable life. And the sedentary view nomads with a mixture of disapproval, fear, envy and attraction. You can use the image of a tough guy riding a motorbike to sell jeans, Coke and even life insurance, but most of us don’t want bikers camped on our front lawns.

Once cowboys were tamed and confined on ranches, and Indians were no longer taking scalps, both groups underwent a process of cultural rehabilitation and became romantic American archetypes, imbued with nobility and the simple virtue that comes from living close to nature. They came to symbolise a time of unfettered freedom that had now passed into history. Progress marches on, but not without a certain regret.

With my foot upon the gas,
between the future and the past,
I am here –
here where the desire to vanish
is stronger that the desire to appear.

– Tony Hoagland, ‘Perpetual Motion.’

Once people roamed this landscape looking for grazing, water and animals to kill. Now they roam for more personal reasons. They’re seeking adventure, or escape. They want to find themselves, or lose themselves in motion and velocity. A compromised facsimile of freedom is still available and you take what you can get.

The big, arid landscapes still attract wanderers and invite mobility. Out in the desert, whether you’re driving or walking, it always feels slightly uncomfortable when you stop moving and look around. No shade, no water, nothing but space and light and wind. Being stationary for too long here is a death sentence.

Modern civilisation has a thin hold on this ancient crust of earth, and it is easy to imagine a time when it’s all gone. The desert cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque and El Paso are all running out of water. Los Angeles and San Diego are starting to desalinate the ocean to quench their thirst. The economy of the Sun Belt is founded on boom-and-bust real estate speculation and its towns and cities have a flimsy, temporary look.

Truman Capote was struck by it 50 years ago, “this whole extraordinary culture – in Texas and the Southwest, all the way to California – of aimless wandering, this mobile, uprooted life: the seven-mile-long trailer parks, the motorcycles, the campers, the people who have no addresses or even last names”.

Strip malls and housing developments are put up quickly and cheaply, and designed to last 20 years. In the last boom developers got drunk on cheap credit and built far too many houses and apartment complexes in the freshly bulldozed desert on the edge of the cities. Then came the recession and credit crunch. Many units were never sold or inhabited. Coyotes and owls and desert foxes are living there now. Tumbleweeds blow through the abandoned streets.

In western Arizona is a small town called Quartzsite. It straggles on for a mile alongside the interstate highway and then gives out into a stony desert studded with tall, armed saguaro cacti. In summertime, temperatures rise to over 40 degrees but, in January and February, the weather is mild and sunny most of the time and tens of thousands of people converge on Quartzsite in motorhomes and camper vans. Their encampments spread out for miles into the surrounding desert.

The gathering started out many years ago as a festival for rock and mineral collectors but it has now turned into something much larger and more extraordinary, a kind of rendezvous for the nomadic tribes of modern America. There are travelling vendors who live in their vans, going from festival to flea market, Rainbow Family hippies, drifters, bikers and a travelling preacher named Joe Ferguson who sets up a revival tent every year and roars out the gospel.

The dominant tribe, however, are the snowbirds. Retired senior citizens with white hair, they live in motorhomes and migrate south in winter. They like to circle their motorhomes like covered wagons preparing for Indian attack, but the atmosphere at their campfires is more like a chatty, suburban cocktail party. They come straight out of Middle America, but they are engaged in a radical breakaway from what society has traditionally expected from its grandparents.

Instead of settling down into their armchairs and routines, and doting on their grandchildren, they have chosen to abandon their families and communities. Some still have a house and use it as a home base. Others have sold their houses, used the money to buy their motorhomes and now live full-time on the road, going north in the summer and south in the winter. Perhaps better than anybody they illustrate the enduring call of the American road.

Camped under the Quartzsite bridge you find nomads of a very different tribe. Young, tattooed and pierced, with a studied scruffiness and proudly self-destructive drinking habits, these gutter punks ride around America on the freight trains. There is a widespread perception that people stopped riding freight trains after the Great Depression, but that is not the case. In the 1990s, if you hung around freight yards and missions, you could still meet old hobos who had been riding the trains all their lives, usually to get from one seasonal job to another. They were outnumbered by alcoholic Vietnam vets who rode freights because they wanted to live outside society and they liked being mobile.

Now there’s a whole new generation on the freights. Along with the gutter punks you find eco-warriors and other radical activists, young folk musicians hoping to be the next incarnation of Bob Dylan, anarchist theatre groups riding side by side with ex-cons, ex-military and far-right gun freaks preparing for Armageddon – an entire American underground staying on the move to slip through the cracks.

The main reason why people are prone to wander here is because they can. There is room to move outside the grid of civilisation. The possibility still exists, and it calls out. “It is geography at bottom, a hell of a wide land from the beginning… no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man,” wrote Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael. Asked to define America in a sentence, Gertrude Stein said: “Conceive a space filled with moving.”

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