Oct/Nov 2000 Salon

Out There

by Stanley Jenkins


I stubbed my toe and sat down, you know. Didn’t think much about it. I was just sitting there. Before I knew it there was blood soaking into the carpet. And a trail of drops coming back from the kitchen. Sort of surprised me. Alarmed me. Beneath absurdly thin layers of skin lies unclotted and dangerous life. It interrupted my TV viewing.

For this year’s vacation we gassed up the family station wagon and drove from New York City to Seattle and back. The width of an entire continent. I suppose there was something in it of that old time Jack-Kerouac-in-search-of-America thing. And a little Jimmie-Rodgers-Singing-Brakeman-Promised-Land-or-bust thing as well. Mostly though it was a need to see the land. A need to touch something old and perhaps shudder.

See, the land has disappeared in New York City. It has been effaced. What remains is just us. All us human beings in our newly natural nature-free state. On these islands we have managed to complete what Gauguin in Tahiti only hungered for. We have returned to a state of innocence--or rather, what amounts to the same, created an alternative Nature of concrete and climate controlled habitats in which the morality and all the make-or-break factors of the old Nature no longer apply.

Nature, as we used to know it, is simply beside the point. If it does not rain in the city there are no crops to fail and no one weeps and there are no flagellants clogging the public road. In these first world technological days of the global market, there are no food shortages. At least for those with the digital do-re-me. But if the stock market crashes entire nations go with it. Men gnash their teeth. And women slash at their breasts with ritual knives. Nature used to be so much more concrete. We bleed for images these days.

In any case, after being in the city so long we wanted to go “out there”. That’s the way it’s always seemed to me: “out there”. The place between coasts where our conquering of the land is not yet complete (though not for not trying)--the place where that original Jehovah-faced curse has not yet fully taken effect. My old-timey ancestors were perhaps talking about the same place when they talked about being GTT (“gone to Texas”) or “lighting out for the territories”. Or even when ole Huck set out with Jim on his raft down the mighty Mississip or Ishmael put out to sea. It’s not so much a confluence of coordinates on a map--as the yearning of a traitor’s heart, an innate American need to expose the Emperor’s new clothes. Jesse James knew that traitor’s need. And Charlie Starkweather. And maybe even Elvis. It is not so much a place as an American stubbing of the toe. And a blood-soaking of the carpet. And in the cold of a newly savage moon, the recognition that it feels so damn good to bleed and soil the carpet.

Now, just to set things straight, we both know, of course, that this “place” isn’t really there. Never has been. What’s most striking about actually being “out there” is just how indifferent the land is to our names for it--our dreams--our needs. It is what it is quite without reference to us.

Nonetheless, as with any relationship, we know the land in Truth only by way of fantasy. Romance is necessary for the kind of love that is knowledge. Who knows, perhaps the land makes up stories about us? In fact, I’m not wholly convinced that we aren’t merely the dreams of this sleeping land. She might wake up one day. And we might cease to be. Who’s to say? The point is, however, intimacy with an other--whether that other be sentient or not--requires longing--and longing requires imagination. Love, like religious faith, is for the creative.

For me, at least, the courtship began in earnest only once we had crossed the Missouri in what white men and other immigrants like me call South Dakota. The land in between the city and the Missouri is played out. It has been taken. Half-way across the length of South Dakota, however, lies the Missouri river. And it’s here that the real boundary between “here” and “out there” lies.

To the east is duty, responsibility, elbow grease, the Rotary club and old capital. To the west is the land. Simply the land, until you cross the Rockies and bottom out at Puget Sound, around which the newly wealthy congregate and cut each other off in traffic in brand new BMWs with Microsoft parking stickers on their windshields and other toys calculated to alert the locals that they’ve got theirs. (“I’ve got mine”....rumor has it that Washington State is considering embossing it on their license plates. I felt lucky to get out of there alive.)

That’s neither here nor there though. West of the Missouri the land comes into it’s own. The Great Plains. The Great American Desert. The Prairie. Apparently a vast inland sea once covered it. When the wind blows, the ghosts of waves can be seen in the golden grass. Ophelia’s hair floating in the stream....it is at last alive.

Which is to say, east of the Missouri we live our lives out primarily with reference to other human beings--or in the great urban centers of Chicago and New York, with reference to what these human beings have wrought. West of the Missouri the land itself is the primary referent. It is a presence, not a stage against which we live our movie-lives so much as the absolute movie, itself. It is actor and audience. “Out there” the land gives shape to our dreams while sleeping and colors our perspective when awake--it determines the script. We are extras.

Crossing the Dakota badlands it was 106 degrees and there was no shade. The heat hurt. In the old days in the winter, homesteaders would tie lines between the barn and the sodhouse because during not-uncommon blizzards one could not see a foot in front of one and many froze to death two feet from their cabin door for want of a rope home. The land is serious out here. There are tales of lone travelers dropping from vertigo in the midst of such senseless openness, sky-swallowed, lost at sea. Prairie fires, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and tumbleweed--human beings are neither necessary nor particularly wanted out here, they are at best tolerated.

Except for perhaps the Indians. I imagine the land loved the Indians. And the buffalo. From Interior, a small town in the midst of Badlands National Park, we drove down to the Pine Ridge Reservation. There in a tiny little village called Wounded Knee we surveyed what the American Army called a battlefield. In 1890 over two hundred Lakota Ghost Dancers and starving remnants of Chief Blackfoot’s band, men women and children, who had, with broken spirits, finally and irrevocably “come in” to the reservation, were hunted down and butchered like buffalo as they ran panicked from the mounted artillery and roving soldiers. They were left where they fell, the bleeding and broken froze to death in the blizzard that ensued. The army dead, most killed by “friendly fire”, were given solemn military funerals. Much was made of their service to their country. The Indians were eventually shoveled into a common grave.

I imagine such a land shaking itself from its somnolent torpor and receiving them, embracing them, justifying them. They sleep in Grandmother’s arms. They nurture the prairie grass. The land remembers.

It perhaps remembers the buffalo too--and in particular the particularly human glee with which they were gunned down and left to rot literally by the millions by big-wig railroad magnates and even common workers and passengers as the Transcontinental railroad made America possible. In Mitchell, South Dakota, home of the fabulous Corn Palace, we asked a waitress about the buffalo burger listed on the menu. She advised against it. It was dry and a little gamy she said. We ate cow. In Scenic, a small town outside the reservation, they sell authentic Sioux Indian jewelry made in China and Taiwan.

And perhaps the land remembers our American greed. Our impatience with land we could find no use for and the obscenity of our rapacity when we did discover a use. Perhaps she remembers the uranium strip mining that continues today, the oil and coal sucking, the wasteful water gobbling and even the test bombs we dropped on her back in the badlands during the Second World War. She must remember her scars.

But mostly she sleeps. The land “out there” is in hibernation, waiting perhaps for something worth the effort to wake up. And that is what is most maddening about the land “out there”: it does not need us. She is not impressed. She wants to be alone.

But, you know, this too is part of the romance. She has lured every gold rush seeking, Oregon trail crossing, cattle range roving, gun toting, horse rustling, romantic American throughout our history. She enchants the fools and dreamers--the get-rich-quick schemers and land speculators. Those who hitch their wagons on stars.

More often than not we have chosen to see her indifference as emptiness, calling her a wasteland or a desert. We feign a disdain and indifference of our own. But it is her freedom from us that we truly love, we American dreamers. We envy her independence from our dreams, our dramas, our scenes, our self-glorification and almost maniacal need to succeed.

Indeed, it is in her indifference that her true charms consist. She is a limit to our American dreaming. That which cannot be either adequately imagined in our American story or conquered. She will not be possessed. She is finally an end. And for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, she is permission to go back to our civilized worlds--our cities and our towns and our suburbs, our homes where our loved ones see us in our underwear and do not mock or judge; she is permission to go back to where we belong, to return to the places where Americans really live and must temper their dreams with hard realities and must forget the past if they would have a present--to go back to where we are needed.

That was enough for me.

So we came home. We went back to New York. And I stubbed my toe. And here’s the thing: it was only in that fleeting and broken moment of shock and perhaps even fear when I first noticed the blood pooling and soiling the carpet, that I felt the land “out there” stir and murmur in her sleep. Drip, drip, drip. She interrupted my TV viewing. She was smiling.


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