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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.

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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.

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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.

DSC04761crpsmThe 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.

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DSC04768crp.jpgNeah 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.

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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.

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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.

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25394780_10156088431644917_3377314356651848815_o.jpgJames 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.

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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.

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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.

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DSC06325SM.jpgSalton 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.”
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“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.

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Remiss in posting here, verging on a year – more or less on the road all the time, Marcella and I.   For that time the numbing cacophony of American politics has rumbled as a background noise throughout the culture, interwoven with the other threads of our communal quilt: football, baseball, basketball, the now-customary gun massacre in a shopping mall or school, or even church.  The economy wheezes, sneezes, and we are assured is on a painfully slow recovery from the banker’s bust of 2008.  While the naked eye can read these things in the homeless encampments in any city or town, and the forlorn downcast faces of placard holding “losers,” academics scan statistics to inform us that the cohort of middle-aged white American males holds the distinction of having an ever diminishing life expectancy, with high suicide rates, and deaths from drugs and alcohol.  Pundits scurry to analyze this data, to ponder just why this should be so here in the world’s richest nation. Statistics demonstrate the grotesque disparities in the distribution of American wealth; demonstrators echo the mantra of Occupy, of the 1% and the 99%, and these are belatedly mouthed by our current presidential candidates.

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Meanwhile in distant lands Predator drones, and C-130 armed planes, drift high over the landscape delivering American policy, in the sudden rush of a Hellfire missile or cannon blast from 40,000 feet.  The “target objective” is (perhaps) vaporized, along with the tangential collateral damage.  Our serious columnists and pundits sift the think-tank data and opinion and then theorize on why some elements of the world’s population are angry with us.  There is no denial so successful as self-denial, and the American elite, rapacious and vicious, believes (at least some of them do) that our nation is out “doing good” in the big bad world out there.  Building democracy (backing right-wing dictators), bringing freedom (to be vaporized if you differ in what is best for your own),  developing free markets (where corporations dictate the rules).  What’s not to like?

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Moving down the coast through a bedraggled and fracked Pennsylvania, we passed through Gettysburg, the grim cauldron of American nationhood, where the Union was – ever so American – enforced at gunpoint and vast bloodshed.   It became a national instinct, which these days finds its expression in the gun lobby, and rural America’s love of guns which it seems to correlate with “freedom.”  About 300 Americans are killed by guns everyday.  Among the casualties are veterans of America’s endless wars, who take their own lives at a clip of about 22 per day, mostly with guns.  More collateral damage.  The monuments to these men are the VFW halls which litter the rural world, one in almost every small town and city, where hardly anyone notes the curiousness of what they mean: Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Of which we have plenty.

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Meandering further southward, we passed into the Deep South, where the sense of poverty deepened, and indeed the statisticians who crunch numbers confirm, if necessary, what the eye already reveals.  Though it takes a bit more than surface evidence to understand that these deep fried souls of the south, the white ones, the ones whose lifespans are contracting, are indeed the same who vote hard Republican Right, for those who would strip them of health care, of, in due time, Social Security and any other “safety net.”  All in the name of less “guvmint” and more Bible.  And in the name of not giving a crumb to Those People – the black ones, the Hispanic ones  – the any other than one’s own cracker good old boys.  Down South the purpose of a university is to host a money-making football team, and education comes far down the totem pole.   The rewards are a prideful ignorance and stupidity, worn as a badge of honor.  Fuck them libruls, and them pointy-headed college kids.  Go NASCAR.

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Sprouting from this fertile ground, the current crop of Republican Presidential wanna-be’s assemble on television for their “debates” and revel in a political vulgarity that in another time would have seen them promptly booted from the stage.  Instead, in this benighted time, their inanities are taken as if serious, and even the New York Times kow-tows to their absurdities: the world is 6,000 years old (because the Bible tells me so); global warming is a hoax (because the oil industry tells me so.)   Too much idiocy to redundantly list here, though these idiocies are taken in some perverse PC-warp as acceptable by our media.   Science is a “belief” on an equal setting with, say, “Christianity.”   Thundering from the podium, we are sold pie-in-the-sky as snake oil –  old as the nation is our addiction to delusion.

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“No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”     H.L. Mencken

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Through the Southwest of res towns and spectacular landscapes, we veered north to the dilapidated once-city of Butte, one of my American touch-stones.  The vast spaces are punctuated with pockets of mocking wealth and faux Westernism – places like Santa Fe, Taos, Cody, Jackson Hole – sparkling next to the myriad run-down abandoned places strung along disused rail tracks.  The res towns seem frozen in amber, desolate and hopeless, suffocated by the bowl of sky above and the empty landscapes around them.   Once thriving towns lie in ruins, roofs collapsing, stores boarded up and empty.  Desolation is transparent and real.

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They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Robert Zimmerman

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Landing in the self-conscious civility of Portland, where the invisible hand of the market masks racism, and the weird politeness of well-off hipsters hides its class-roots (those thousands of dollars of tattoos and piercings that “keep Portland weird” don’t fall from the sky), I felt exhausted, not of the thousands of miles on the road, but of the meanderings of my mind.  Road hum for me is something that loosens my thoughts, allows a vast free-flow of observations, perceptions, and experiences to intermingle, and opens up “thinking,”  which in its turn allows one to really “look.”

Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.”  Goethe

Of America – boisterous, crazed, beautiful, ugly – I have seen enough to ponder the balance of my years.  Enough to guess its fractures now run so deep that it will, following in the wake of the USSR, stumble and collapse, and modestly soon – the next 30 to 50 years?  Enough to sense I have nothing more to add to the tumult of sounds which riven it, the avalanche of images and noises, which now run amok, out of all control, driving it towards ruin.   In all honesty I think nothing – certainly no political party, certainly no technical wizardry, certainly no “religious revival” (a recurrent American fall-back) – can thwart this spiral into dissolution.  Nor, really, should one try:  it is natural that things are born, grow, live, and then die.  As much for human constructs like nations and cultures, as for any living thing.

The pure products of America
go crazy–
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure–

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum–
which they cannot express–

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
agent–
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs–

some doctor’s family, some Elsie
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us–
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

Wm Carlos Williams

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