Before we take off, a friend provides us with water bottles and a detailed road map. The wilderness is not something she takes lightly. She doesn’t trust it.
And, furthermore, you never get to be on your own out there; the more depopulated the place is, the more commercial shootings for new car models.
The mosquitos are the only creatures disturbing the good spirits in the trailer camp. We open our mouths wide for burgers, sip at drinks, and watch the insects swarm around the lanterns beneath the plastic roof. At a distance the Mexicans stand smoking; glowing red spots in the approaching twilight.
Mister F sits in a folding chair with a soda. He is taking medication and has a bullet-like hole in his temple after an operation that just brought him back to life. While he drove us here in a van patterned with scratches from roadside cacti, he uninterruptedly spoke in Spanish over his CB radio. Around us, it was all Texas: pin-head grass, yucca, sun-bleached mesquite, and traces of slithering reptiles, and diving hawks. His land, his territory.
He inherited the ranch from his father, a beef and game empire on whose land nocturnal smuggling caravans sneak their northbound way with their headlights turned off. Occasionally, beggars bang on the windows of the main building at awkward hours. Anyone persisting in this rattlesnake-laiden dust bowl must hold control over his finances and brains and trust the brittle species of grass to really hold their ground.
Mister F rules without ever raising his voice. He is way past the age of retirement. To his own great disappointment, he has fathered five daughters and no son. All of his Mexican laborers have swum or waded across the border and somewhere on the other side of those impressive blue mountains, those massive waves waiting to break, they have families and children who grow up much too fast.
This dust; dirt being kicked up, filtering through the very existence and finding the remotest spot. Years with not a sign of rain have driven new species into the greener parts of the high sierra; tiny, alert-eyed monkeys, wild boar with rounded cheeks.
A bag of ice is the same price as a gallon of gas. You depend equally on both when you seek out the rocky landscape with tires covered in red dirt and speakers filled to the brim with vulnerable singer-songwriters and trembling corridos. It’s a heat record out here, way past 100 degrees as we touched down; a dry heat sweeping the sweat away.
The sight is breathtaking in its perfection: 114 painted horses – white, grey, chestnut, black, spotted, speckled or striped, galloping down the slopes, first right at us and then down through a ravine and off towards the rising sun. They move in unison, thundering across the mute, still sleepy, landscape. In the cloud of dust torn up by their hooves, they pant, snort, stretch and almost disappear before making a U-turn.
It was Indians from the Nez Perce tribe who bred them and named them Appaloosa. As a boy, rancher Ken Kelsey would listen with fascination to his father’s stories about how Chief Joseph and his people ran off to Canada and fought the cavalry from there.
“The Indians needed small horses with stamina,” he explains. “The cavalry had big thoroughbreds and they could never outride the Indians. White people hated the Appaloosa because of this and tried to eliminate them. The West would have looked different had the Indians won a few more battles. The whites fought over gold, the Indians over horses. They had another view on life.”
You are traveling on scorched, oil-stained rainbow asphalt with the electric sounds of the West in your radio ears: the pain and distress are seldom more than an inch away, they resonate in these songs, lurking beneath the thin surface of weather-beaten tableland. On the roadside, a tiny woman stands waiting, leaning somewhat forward in her sun-dried skin, a piece of cloth tied around her hair. She gets a lift. She sits in the back pointing at a distant spot. You speak English, then try a few words of Spanish, but she will not respond. You hold out a pack of cigarettes, she shakes her head. Her face in the rear mirror is dogged, her eyes on the lookout.
After a few miles you feel uneasiness creeping up from behind. Your clammy hands stick to the wheel, your shoes seem too big, your car too ostentatious. Your curiosity is about to become diluted. What are you doing here? Your friendly manners are a shitty excuse, a puny installment on a debt for which you, of course, are not responsible.
She then lifts a finger and steps out in a small village, nodding ever so silently. You drive your rental car westward, past painted horse herds, desert plateaux, silent Indian communities. You do not brake until you arrive in another galaxy: Las Vegas, Nevada, with free pink champagne in plastic cups for all gas station customers.
The motel room is sultry and on tv people kill each other and burn the corpses in a movie with a title you will not try to memorize. With the window wide open you listen to the last black crows fussing themselves to sleep in the crowns of the highway trees, and before daybreak, dreams have carried you far away, and you will have the wind in your hair and racing stripes on your cheeks.
This is a small valley town with four central blocks steeped in melancholy. Breakfast is being served next door to the local hotel, with drowsy trumpets playing on the kitchen radio. The atmospherical beauty, once poignant, is now inevitably fading.
Later you drive past flat fields with leather-tanned farmworkers. A tractor pulls a harvesting machine through the rows of cauliflower. At least thirty men and women are clinging to the monster-sized machine, while others in the field cut the tops off with broad, quick sweeps of the knife that never hesitate.
FOG OF THE BAY
Like thin smoke the mist rises from the reddish blond cedar woods, with truckloads of timber grumbling by on muddy uphill slopes. The people tend to wear the stigma of isolation. The lumber jackets have become a second skin, the conversations are phrase fragments swishing about in smoking-hot coffee while the rain keeps thudding on the ground.
You don’t get any further to the West than this: Cape Flattery on the Olympic peninsula, engulfed by a leaden grey ocean and a steel-grey sky. The first indigenous encounter with American settlers in 1853 resulted in a smallpox epidemic, which wiped out more than half of the aboriginal Makah tribe and made the songs of the Pacific whales echo against the shoreline cliffs with a new kind of gloom. In 1913 the very last whale hunt took place, using canoes carved from the cedar.
But walking out on the breakwater, the enormity of the mist and greyness blurs your sense of time and borders. Closing your eyes in this nothingness you may hear the call of the hunter, and from the knotty jumble of the forest fog continues to drift across the bay like greetings from countless damp campfires.
Hollow-eyed locals from the reservation try to sell tacos to the caravan passing through the nondescript one-horse town of Nixon on its way toward the white desert peculiarly named Black Rock. A fading sun has painted the mesquite mountains pink and purple, and in one of the remote valleys Pyramid Lake displays a liquid mirror so intensely blue that it appears to be computer manipulated.
Another hour’s drive to the north, the annual, temporary Burning Man village is beginning to make its mark. Many of the burners on the road surely think of this as ”hiking” in another dimension. The cult that turned into a festival, attracting not only hedonistic castaways and alternative life-stylers, but also corporate entities engaged in profit-enhancing team building, started when a heartbroken guy, incensed by his unhappiness, set fire to a wooden doll on the shore of the Pacific. The voodoo element grew as more desperate and jealous people showed up the next summer. Eventually, they were forced off OF the beach. area. Now that tens of thousands gather each year in the Black Rock desert to burn a giant scarecrow, the symbolism is for everyone to figure out. A deceitful ex-lover? A musician who has sold out? A despicable politician? The whole damn system?
Watching the burners and their vehicles as they one week later return to their ordinary lives one week later, covered in white desert powder, you cannot help but think how much they resemble a captured herd of wild horses being lead to the stables after a feverish attempt at escape.