Sunday, September 16, 2007

Like the Twang of A Pedal-Steel Guitar…

….we shot out through Boulder City, over the dam, and down through the wide, carved bowl of a valley on the way back from Sin City. To the west, the jagged, craggy boulders that gave the dam its original name – Boulder Dam; Boulder Dam, dammit, before that 3rd-to-the-worst President got his mitts on it and re-christened it Hoover, after himself. He’d probably be proud to look out over this valley, strewn with settlement-camp looking trailers and small truck-stop cafes, modern-day Hoovervilles offering what help they can to passerby.

To the east, more mountainous upthrusts of a different geology, whiter, more chalky looking, but still hemming a fragile, blacktop thread down the western edge of the high Arizona desert.

Small burgs – Dolan Springs, Cyclopic, Chloride, Grasshopper Springs, Santa Claus – cain’t hardly even call them towns, they zip by so quickly at 80-plus miles per hour under a searing blue shield of sky dotted with puffy clouds. I, and hundreds of other weary travelers wind our way home. There is a slight hump in the road at Golden Springs, where to the west you can spin off onto state route 68 and head once again for some riches if you still have some cash.

Otherwise, it’s a pretty smooth ride, with a water bottle snugged in beside you and a hot desert sun shining above. There’s nothing on the AM/FM dial except Mexican mariachi music, which is good enough to hum along with, but you lose the cadence when you can’t sing along because you don’t know the words, let alone the language. Luckily out here you can’t get the ubiquitous Jeebus-preacher stations common to middle-of-nowhere America; probably because this high desert is hell already, so why would those Men of God waste their time trying to radio the damned that live out here? So you stab at the SEEK button, and what to your surprised ears do you stumble across, but KNPR, the Vegas National Public Radio outlet.

A-and, while you wend your way down this two-lane, then four-lane tar-line, you hear the Studio360 program du jour, which is a celebration? discussion? what have you? concerning the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” a particularly good talk-fest for a long, lonely highway such as this.

Apparently, you learn, this is the silver annum of this now treasured American classic, which brought a be-bop, beatnik enthusiasm to the rich American travel experience, building on J.F. Cooper’s Gleanings, Twain’s Huck Finn, and updating Steinbeck’s angry grapes for the hipper generation. Doc Thompson covered it too, in his wild escapades across the desert to our American Cibola in the West; and there are probably many more epic trip stories that aren’t even reminders in your brain while you speed along, listening and learning.

After all, isn’t there a famous quote that says to understand America, you must imagine a vast space moving? Isn’t that what America is all about? The hustle, the bustle, the to-and-fro, the give-and-take, the dog-eat-dog of it?

Kerouac’s prose hints at some of that, but also puts it on the path to individual discovery. In this case, as so many others, through the American road. The journey. The path. That’s right, the road trip. Spiritual descendent of the pioneers in their covered wagons, only now we’re not blazing an original trail, we’re following a pre-determined one, laid down by highway engineers who based their original surveys on long-traveled dirt trails and Conestoga buggy paths. So, what Kerouac understood, was with the path already in place, that henceforth with each road trip, the trail-blazing, the pioneering had to take place in the mind of the individual, and furthermore, that the individual had to simultaneously both understand and to deny that; to understand that they were on their own individual trip, as well as following an arc or ribbon on society’s trip.

Wow. Heavy. And, given that you never even read the book until you were thirty, and thought it only so-so, it’s just the kind of meanderings you might expect from a four-hour jaunt across a harsh, unforgiving landscape, in society’s current chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, air-conditioned, stepping-out-over-the-line vehicle – the American automobile.

And further, you’ve just ridden this conveyance to the epitome of American extravagance and waste, Las Vegas. The city of the Strip, but where moving sidewalks, escalators and bridges (both above and below ground) have so transformed the walkability of the casino area that it is virtually possible to navigate the entire area without setting foot into the fresh air if you desire. Where the mob took a cue from Disney Imagineers and have remade the city into one giant façade of realism, from the faux-cobblestone streets of the Paris casino to the sparkling fountains of Caesar’s and the Bellagio, to the giant aquarium-in-the-walkways of the Mandalay Bay casino or the re-done tower that would have Gustav Eiffel quaking at the knees.

Granted, everyone knows that Vegas is a complete fantasy. We (meaning everyone who visits) accept, and even encourage that. Walking the Strip this morning, amongst the current edifices are dozens of construction cranes and towers, hurling up even more thousands of rooms into the area, making the Vegas downtown look like Shanghai or Dubai. Hell, between those three cities alone, I bet much of the worlds construction talent is earning paychecks to pour more cement and build more monuments for the masses than the pharaohs ever dreamt of harnessing.

Like I said, a fantasy. And all roads, even Dean Moriarty’s, lead to Vegas, or some other Eldorado on the hill.

But I’m a simple guy, and out here in non-fantasy-land, we’ve got some, ummmm, bumps in the road. Some potholes, if you will, in the Kerouac Zen dream of Americana.

First, let’s talk about energy.

Last week, OPEC, said that they will probably increase output by 500,000 barrels of oil per day. Now for most people, OPEC is synonymous with Saudi Arabia, but that’s not true. There are 12 current member states, and they don’t all send every damn bit of oil to the U.S. of A. So, we’re not going to get all of that 500 K barrels of black gold. But, let’s suppose we did get all of that. How much is that worth? Not monetarily, but in what we can do with it.

Now 500,000 bbl/day divided by 20.8 million bbl/day current use in the US comes to 2.4% of our energy needs per day. In other words, even if the U.S. got all that extra oil, that extra oil would power the country for about 35 minutes, give or take. Oh yeah. We aren’t going to get all that oil; that oil is to be sold worldwide. Maybe we’ll get 25% of it, so it’ll power us for about 8 and a half minutes or so. All that blather and conferencing from the OPEC members will give us (realistically) enough juice to run our society for about as long as it takes me to cook an omelet.

Now, given that OPEC controls much of what’s known to be left in the ground oil-wise, and given that stated U.S. policy going back to Carter (hell, back to FDR) has been the unobstructed, inevitable dynamo of growth in America – which relies almost exclusively on oil – doncha maybe kinda think, just for a minute, that WE, as a matter of national policy, were ah, I don’t know, a teensy-eensy bit short-sighted by placing all our eggs in that basket? That maybe we shouldn’t have built our entire worldview (driving everywhere, easy-to-grow food, new-and-amazing medicines and medical discoveries, the heat for our damn houses) on something that’s halfway around the world?

Oh, that’s right. We weren’t placing all our eggs in that basket, because up until 1973 or so, the good ‘ol U.S. was the worlds largest supplier of oil. We had barrels, tens of barrels, millions and billions of barrels or that black, goopy shit. We supplied the world! We could encourage economic growth, of our country and others, based upon the supply to the world, of all of that greasy stuff. And, because we had that supply, which powered us through WWII and gave us victory there, and built us into the worlds’ economic powerhouse, we were like that cat that didn’t eat just the canary, but the whole damn aviary.

Until, one day, we weren’t. We’ll discuss that in the next post, and maybe touch a little bit more on the future of the Kerouac dream of the open road.

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