I have a theory — not a very good one — that the reason Google is so hot to develop self-driving cars is that time behind the wheel is the last significant part of our waking lives in which it’s inconvenient to use the internet. But that’s exactly why I prize long road trips, especially lately, in this era of gruesome political news and ceaseless social-media conflict: ambitious drives are a good excuse for being disconnected. Though it’s funny that “disconnected” is the word we use, since paying attention to what’s in front of you in the here and now used to be thought of as enlightening.
A few weeks back it fell to me to deliver a carful of books and household items to my wife, who was teaching in Las Vegas. From our home in western Montana, it’s a journey of almost nine hundred miles, most of them on I-15, a thinly populated north–south route that passes through only one major urban area, Salt Lake City. I’ve done the drive at least a dozen times, usually with my satellite radio playing and my phone turned on, but this time I decided to banish all distractions. “Read not the Times, Read the Eternities,” wrote Thoreau. Look around, I think he meant.
I set out on a Saturday morning. Blue sky, dark pines, snow on the hills, and two lonely mules silhouetted in a hayfield. They have a peculiar posture, mules. Their hips are higher than their shoulders, their eyes stare down their long noses at the ground, and they always look embarrassed, in disgrace. Cows, on the other hand, appear merely inert, as if bred for a hopeless, soulless fugue state. Passing a vast herd, I wonder if eating beef transmits their boredom to people. How could it not? Farther on, I see some sheep. They don’t look quite so dispirited as cattle, just grumpy and annoyed; perhaps the ancient contract they struck with humans — we let you shear us, you keep away the wolves — feels one-sided to them now. The wolves are gone.
I drive into Bozeman, Montana’s new boomtown, which is flush with the wealth of transplants from congested California. Surrounding its center, hemming in the old farms, are big-box stores the size of airplane hangars and malls built to look like Platonic small-town Main Streets, with irregular rooflines and old-timey facades and sidewalks on which no one ever strolls. Nearby are subdivisions with noodle-shaped roads and the sort of new houses inhabited by people who move to the area to build new houses. I’m amazed by all the huge banks that have sprung up. Who financed them — other banks? Then comes a zone of mattress franchises, tire shops, self-storage units, and half-finished steel-frame structures on concrete slabs, which might become churches or auto dealers, it’s hard to tell. Such fly-by-night architecture gives me vertigo, and I think I know why: no basements. The buildings just float.
Back in the country, a mountain range of sail-shaped peaks seems to keep receding, maintaining its picturesque distance from me. On my left is a ranch of many thousands of acres. It belongs to the billionaire Ted Turner, who raises bison on the land. I visited his house once, invited by the novelist Amy Tan, who was celebrating her birthday there along with several guests from out of state. The two-lane highway tops a rise and runs for a stretch along the Madison River, swerving around a blind curve where, several years ago, I came upon a logging truck that had crashed and overturned, its tires still spinning. The driver was trapped in the cab, and there was blood. I freed him by prying the windshield from its frame using an iron bar lashed to the truck. He couldn’t walk, so he sat down on the asphalt while my passenger drove to a spot where cell phones worked and summoned an ambulance. I never found out what happened to the man.
In the 1970s, when I was a kid, truck drivers enjoyed a curious vogue. The last American cowboys, with rebel hearts. Their outlaw-flavored CB radio slang (“We have bears in the air, Rubber Ducky — do you copy?”) was celebrated in movies and hit songs, including the chart-topping “Convoy,” by C. W. McCall, a name that sounds like it belongs to a crusty loner but actually refers to a duo of former jingle writers, one of whom was responsible for Mannheim Steamroller, the act behind those bombastic electronic-instrumental Christmas albums. That Reagan would soon be elected president should have been obvious. Truckers kicked major ass.
Entering Idaho, I reflect on the suggestive power of political boundaries. State borders are nothing but arbitrary lines, yet my perceptions change when I know I’ve crossed one. In keeping with its reputation as a haven for white separatists and other crackpot isolationists, Idaho has always felt meaner and harsher than Montana. The mountains seem steeper, the valleys narrower, the air somehow depleted of wholesome ions. North of Idaho Falls I spot a rusty Subaru with a black-and-white bumper sticker: i stand with scott walker. On what? Nothing dates faster than last year’s zealotry. I pull into Rexburg, a big small town with a dusty business district. There’s a Family Crisis Center with a thrift shop, a martial-arts academy, and an outfit where you can sell your plasma. transform your debt, shouts a billboard for a bank. Even in tumbledown places hammered by Amazon and Walmart, there are so many new banks.
I’m hungry. I don’t want junk food from a chain but something homemade, prepared from scratch, which in the rural West tends to mean Mexican. At Ramirez, a chilly restaurant with plastic tables bolted to the walls, I order three tacos from a man whom I profile as a possible immigrant — though “profile” may not be the word, since that would suggest a systematic procedure rather than a barely conscious reflex. I have trouble looking him in the eye, and though I’m cramped and stiff from driving, I take my meal to go.
The last news I heard before I hit the road was about an executive order on immigration. I try not to think of it as I eat and steer. Up ahead is a sign for a museum show in Idaho Falls. rome: military genius and mighty machines. Strange, but that’s not how I think of Rome. I reach for the radio dial out of habit, then stop myself, remembering my pledge. Shreds of wet taco meat spill onto my lap.
A few miles later I turn off to visit Army Surplus Warehouse, “Idaho’s largest surplus store.” There’s an astonishing range of goods inside, everything you might need to face the apocalypse: a bin of parachutes, the fabric slippery; a glass case of Ka-Bar knives; a selection of ghillie suits, of the type that snipers wear, white for winter, green for summer. From the rafters of the barnlike building hang an assortment of militaristic flags. A Vietnam-themed banner reads our cause was just. Others feature stars-and-bars motifs. Families pushing carts are roaming the overflowing aisles, kids with their parents out to kill a Saturday comparing deals on ammo boxes and weighted diving boots.
Shoppers comport themselves in the same way no matter what they’re shopping for, I notice, flat-footed, their chins tucked into their necks. I adopt the same stance as I scan a shelf of books whose inside covers bear the stamp of an Air Force base library in New Mexico. I pick one out: Cults of Unreason, published in the early 1970s. Its subject, I gather from the jacket copy, is the appeal of primitive belief systems in times of bewildering technological change. That our Air Force offered pilots such an edgy treatise at the height of the Cold War surprises me a little and stirs my pride. Our fighters weren’t just indoctrinated robots, unlike the Russian troops, as I imagine them.
In a gas station near the Utah border, I glimpse a local paper whose headlines describe mounting anxiety in Ogden’s immigrant community and opposition to a planned Verizon cell tower that will be disguised as a pine tree, complete with artificial boughs. I saw one of these fake trees a few hours back. It presented an improvement over that War of the Worlds look of normal towers, but I doubt it would fool a bird.
The streets are unusually wide in Salt Lake City, their imperial dimensions decreed long ago by Brigham Young, who fancied himself an enlightened urban planner and ruled like a king over his Mormon flock. He had his own secret police force, historians tell us, and, for his wives, a few cavernous houses. I walk out to see one on Sunday morning, passing the temple with its golden angel trumpeting from a granite spire. In Utah, the Sabbath is a big deal, and the streets are so empty I cross against the red lights.
I was a Mormon myself for a few years during my teens; my family answered the door to two missionaries. At the top of the Church’s hierarchy was the owlish, bespectacled Spencer W. Kimball, “prophet, seer, and revelator.” One day he made a big doctrinal announcement, opening what was called “the priesthood” to black men. They’d been shut out before. Shamefully, I took all this in stride — the ban and then its lifting. Obedience came easily to me then, which I try to remember, in case it ever should again.
When I get back on the road, the built-up corridor south of Salt Lake City is crazily dense and exploding with new growth, driven in part by tech conglomerates. To the west, the NSA’s huge new Data Center reveals itself, a complex of blind-looking bunkers on a ridge. We’re all inside its servers, quite probably, like chained-up digital ghosts. The locals are so patriotic they might approve of this. Along the freeway, American flags of mythic size fly from great masts in car lots and other enterprises. Undermining their glory somewhat are the giant billboards, one after the other, proclaiming concern for the opioid epidemic that seems to be ravaging the region. Similarly titanic signs allude to other ills, from high blood pressure to diabetes. Then there are the personal-injury lawyers, cocky and ghoulish, promising big payouts to the afflicted and aggrieved. I’m still four hundred miles from Las Vegas, but I can feel its greedy force field. Love thy neighbor if you can, otherwise sue him.
Ferocious semis hurtle past as the dry Utah landscape, big and biblical, swallows up my car. I feel bad for truckers who work for fleets that slap how am i driving? stickers on their rigs and give a number to call if there’s a problem. By-the-book types and busybodies irk me. For me, the code of the West is “live and let live.” When my daughter came home to Montana for Christmas from her proper New England college, we talked geography and culture as a way of digesting the election, whose results appalled and scared her. I had similar feelings, but I hid them. When a child has a nightmare, I thought, a father should remind her that dreams aren’t real — even if he, too, just woke up screaming. The problem was that Trump’s win was not a dream, so I couldn’t dismiss my daughter’s fears as groundless. I had to move us to new ground. Higher ground. I burbled out American Studies truisms about rural–urban differences and the off-my-back mind-set of the interior. I described Trump as a classic populist in a line that included Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Andrew Jackson. I was trying to sound wise but I heard in my presentation twangy notes from bad Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson movies about running roadblocks at ninety per. I’d made similar comments on Twitter late one night, and I was scourged for them, even called a nihilist. My daughter was kinder. She just yawned.
In Beaver, Utah, I take a booth in a sunny old linoleum diner and sample what a highway sign claims is America’s #1 water. It’s no great shakes but it lured me into town. I eat enough of my humdrum patty melt to mollify the hovering waitress, who then suggests the house dessert: Grape Nuts pudding. It’s supermarket vanilla custard clogged with soggy cereal, a quintessentially Caucasian dish that combines two packaged foods in a way that leaches flavor from both. Forget the consolidation of agriculture, the weakening of organized religion, and the decline of manufacturing — the reason our nation’s small towns can’t hold their young is glop like this.
An hour from Las Vegas, near St. George, Utah, I realize I’ve crossed into the desert. It’s not the thorny plant life or reddish sand that signals the change, it’s the garbage everywhere. Disposable diapers. Soda jugs. Men’s briefs. The desert and civic-mindedness don’t seem to mix, and while the fear of God may grow sharper out here, the fear of society, of one’s fellow man, wanes drastically. This may be why I was briefly jailed here once, the only incarceration of my life. When a cop pulled me over for speeding, a warrant surfaced involving an unpaid ticket from years before. I shared my cell in the marvelously named Purgatory Correctional Facility with a pain-pill addict in withdrawal, who told me how drug bundles weighted with small stones were lofted into the jail yard from the outside and stashed in a certain trash can.
Some things you can only learn in person. Two days with no news and no devices has reminded me of this truth. I drive past some banks and another plasma center (they’re everywhere) and stop at a McDonald’s to use the bathroom. To reach it, however, I must pass the counter and a Latina cashier who looks to be seventy. Working people rarely retire now. I order a black coffee and she asks me, “Large or medium?” This makes me smirk. In many American chain restaurants, I’ve noticed, a medium is the smallest drink size there is. Even funnier is when it’s the smaller size of two, because you need three items, minimum, for one to be a medium.
“A medium,” I say.
She asks me whether I want cream or sugar and I say neither, but she adds both. No worries. No worries for me, that is. Her, I don’t know. In my car, I break my pledge and turn on my phone and read the headlines. My resistance to the pressure of current events on my little bubble of watchfulness suddenly seems wrongheaded, even perverse. The stories mostly relate to the immigration restrictions. Good luck to all. I think of the bleeding trucker I helped that day and how the E.M.T.’s lifted him into the ambulance and drove off and reality branched and that was it. Divergence. Departure. Disconnection. That is the fate of all networks, let’s not be fooled. All roads lead away from Rome and fade to paths and, ultimately, to lines of lonesome footprints.
I crest a hill an hour after sundown and there it is, luminous Las Vegas, strobing and sizzling from miles away. And high on its skyline of great hotels, in stern gold capital letters suitable for a temple or a tomb, is the presidential name. How much stranger it looks since I last saw it. How historic, both post- and pre-. And how odd that I’d forgotten it was there.
In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau argued that withdrawal and retreat should be a way of life. “I would not run round a corner to see the world blow up,” he wrote — the very same thinker who authored the treatise “Civil Disobedience.” Which is it? Disengage or disobey? Both, I believe. It’s why mules look so absent when standing still; they’re quietly filling up on life force before going back to work. In a supposedly post-factual time, deep attention to the passing scene is a radical act, reviving one’s sense that the world is real, worth fighting for, and that politics is a material phenomenon, its consequences embedded in things seen.