A few weeks ago, lured by past visits, and the promise of a certain seasonal quietude and benign weather probabilities, I went from the San Francisco area out to Death Valley. I passed through the Mojave desert, by derelict towns and Air Force bases, old mining camps and their debris, then through the valley, passing famed Zabriski Point, and on to a town I’d visited before, Tecopa Hot Springs, there to bathe a bit trying to chase the flu or cold I’d picked up in the City. And to scout and think, as it was my intention to shoot another landscape film in the Valley – envisioned in my mind a wide, vast and brooding image of this foreboding area. I spent a few days soaking in the hot springs, surrounded mostly with Asians – Koreans mostly. Nosed around the area taking photos, and then, drove north into Death Valley, taking the Badwater route. As it happens the Badwater basin is the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level. Approaching from the south the density of traffic grew, from the occasional 4 wheeler or snazzy van headed south, to a near traffic jam. Badwater was filled with tourists, folks who came to take selfies or take a walk down into the saline bowl to experience America’s lowest.
My casual observation was that most these tourists were Asian – Korean, Japanese, Chinese. Most meaning perhaps two-thirds or more. I assume they were lured by travel agents, pointing out that Death Valley was indeed a spectacular place, and winter was the time to visit to avoid being broiled. And the world being as it is today, they have the money to be tourists, and America is certainly a prime location for spectacular selfie backgrounds.
Seeing this herd of tourists out in the midst of the aptly named Death Valley also underlined the profound change which we humans have brought to “nature.” Once a lethally forbidding landscape, this remote and harsh desert has in the last 30 years, along with much else in our world, been converted into a play-ground, a part of the vast Disneyland into which the globe has been transformed: today we zip through the European Alps on highways which simply flatten them – tunnels or elevated bridges letting us literally fly through them, making them mere spectacle. No zig-zag tortuous hairpin curve up-down required any more. And the same is true of almost everywhere. Great and modest suspension bridges leap over chasms, four-wheel drive ORV machines churn up desert sands or swampy marshes; para-gliders swoop over mountain ranges or ocean up-rises; base-jumpers leap from cliffs and buttes and natural arches (as well as man-made towers); skiers are hoisted to the tops of mountains only to zip down once treacherous slopes as entertainment. Cheap airlines jam the air with tourists who traipse en masse through once near sacred sites – the Parthenon, Machu Picchu, Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal, and any other remarkable piece of architecture or symbolic totem of societies past. All the world’s a playground, a kind of game.
The Pacific, off Cape Flattery on the Makah Reservation
It had happened by accident, but looking out over Badwater, it made sense. A month earlier I’d been to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, on the north western tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State. It is the furthest western point on mainland USA. As it happens Neah Bay is an Indian Reservation, the Makah Tribe. Like most reservations it is a place of drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, trash and trashed housing – a lamentable if understandable response of a culture which has been simply squashed and destroyed by another culture. A sad place. And in a literal and geographic sense, The End of America. I went to shoot for a film, Plain Songs, thinking I’d begin it with a shot of the Pacific, from there, The End of America, in the metaphoric sense – a desolate community destroyed by America’s ugly history.
Neah Bay, on the res
I found it oddly ironic that I’d accidentally come to Badwater, the lowest point in America, to watch tourists gather and gawk, at the same time my country had fallen into the morass of the Trump administration and metaphorically, at least for many of my fellow countrymen, we’re enmeshed in another “lowest point.” I took another shot for the perhaps swan-song film on America, and wandered on, taking many still photos of the valley. While the imagined landscape film escaped me, instead another idea came to mind, which, though far more work, might be a nice change of pace.
Wandering from Death Valley I went to Beatty, Nevada, a small town scrapping to stay alive on the coat-tails of tourism, just outside the National Park. Still chasing my cold, I hunkered down in a few motels, trying to think and perhaps write. Neither came at the time, rather more diffuse thoughts meandered in mind. At the same time clangorous “news” rattled the nation’s nerves – Trump Trump Trump, 24/7. The rush of daily traumas ran into a smear – North Korea, Bannon, bigger buttons, vulgar statements – a non-stop litany of Trump’s obscenity, and his magical revelation of the utter corruption of America’s political and social institutions which appeared powerless in front of this pathetic man, thus showing their own decadence. Beatty, a dead-end town of desert desolation provided a suitable setting to sour still more my contemplation of America.
A VFW outfit offered a decent amber beer for $3, and an assortment, depending on the night, of grizzled camo decked vets, or other nights, a swarm of Asian tourists, sent there by the nearby motel – not that there were many options as where to go. One wondered just what person would willfully choose to settle down in this town, or thousands of others I have traversed in my travels in America in the past decade or two. The grim signs of failure littered the townscape in ramshackle housing, trailer homes, junked cars, abandoned stores, and the transparent poverty written on the faces and bodies of the people who live there. The same is replicated with regional touches almost anywhere one goes in the United States. Behind the hip gentrified facades of liberal America, or the closed gated communities of the well-off, or the distant penthouses or estate mansions of the very rich, there is a pervasive cancer gnawing away at our social accords. It is a disease fraught with contradictions and confusions, one which breeds a mutual stew of contempt and hatred, and has long since embittered our national “unity.” I think this largely accounts for our most American habit of flying the flag in the front yard – a kind of desperate wish for union which masks an awareness of our deep disunion.
James Benning’s replica of Ted Kaczynski’s cabin
James Benning’s 22 star flag for Alabama
With such thoughts I continued my journey, passing derelict towns, juxtaposed to vast tracts of shopping malls flanking the sides of our cities, endless miles of Big Box stores, corporate logos dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see, and the goading shrieks of our media – television, radio, giant bill-boards – all urging us to buy buy buy and run up our credit card bills into the trillions.
I await the imminent burst of this bubble as the stock market zooms past Dow Jones 26,000, and the homeless camp beneath freeway overpasses, and the fractured psyche of the nation intensifies its internecine squabble with itself, with precious few any more honest or self-aware than Donald J. Trump, our titular head of State.
The United States of America represents about 5% of the world’s population. It consumes 25% of the globe’s resources. There is an explanation for how this occurs, and it is not owing to our supposed brilliance, inventiveness, our “can do” attitude. It is owing to other things. Things which America at large is unwilling to acknowledge or address in any meaningful manner except to demand still more funding for our military.
Trailing the dry cough of the flu I and millions of others picked up this winter, I moved along. Some suggested this disease was metaphorical for the winter’s political and social discontent, and not merely a passing bug. My own thoughts persisted, like the cough, to meander through the debris of now decades of seeing my own country through the eyes of a harsh critic, and seeing nothing has changed, really, for the better. Rather it all appears to be coming to a bitter fruition as we collectively fulfill comments made long ago by a French visitor, or by some of our own sages. In this case, being “right” in my own views, bears no consolation whatsoever.
Salton City, California
“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H. L. Mencken
“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”.“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
And the bitter truth is that America has never been good.