I’m a New Yorker. I grew up Upstate — the small-town part, farms, woods, far from NYC.
So it’s funny, while I was going to college in Asia, whenever someone brought up “America,” the first image in my mind wasn’t New York, but the deserts of the Southwest.
Getting ready to study abroad in Hong Kong, I had decided to see more of my own country first. And so I went “Out West.”
The American West has long captured the hearts and imaginations of many. The romantic image of it, anyway. The Rocky Mountains, vast cornfields, prairies, cowboys, fancy boots, ten-gallon hats, sixguns, cattle drives, herds of bison, the endless expanses of range and desert, where sky and ground meet for mile upon mile.
Traveling around the West was an extraordinary experience – in many ways, it was exactly like visiting a foreign nation. You feel a connection to the people there — one minute, incredibly different from the ones I grew up with, and the next, exactly the same. The English have certain characteristics that allow you to differentiate instantly between an American and a Brit, or a Londoner from a Geordie for that matter. But these Westerners, it was harder to put your finger on it – they were a different sort of American, and slippery to define.
Almost like an alternative universe. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I comprehend more clearly, what an intractable mess a President has to preside over. He’s ruling over an area that flies the same flag as the East, and yet doesn’t live by the same rules, the same attitudes, or the same culture.In the East, where we’re familiar with the networks of money and tradition that hold the key to power and happiness, we aren’t clear how things work in the West.
Rougher. Decadent in some way. Spanish. Less talkative. Less emotional. Unlike us.
And some truth there. They aren’t like us. The people I met in the West seemed odd, in unpredictable ways. Flagstaff has cowboys who vote left. People in Santa Fe have no sense of time. Grizzled, bearded old guys in Colorado, looking tough as hell, were really friendly.
I think that is part of the allure of the West, it is rapidly changing and yet it feels timeless. In the east there is a heart attack-inducing, blood pressure-raising frenetic energy, as millions of people clog roadways, crowd walkways, jam cities, swarm suburbs, flood villages. Everyone in the East is in a hurry, industrious and hard-working. And yet, most of this nation’s businesses are moving west. Their cities have sprawl, pollution, traffic as bad or worse than ours, and they mostly lack the public transportation we have in the East Coast.
But as a Rule, they also Take It Down a Notch – you don’t feel harried, you don’t feel stressed out. There’s a calmness that pervades everything.
I’m sure they live longer out there because of that, in fact I’m certain that’s the key. Perhaps it’s the Spanish heritage, because I got a similar feeling in Spain. But how much does that explain? British origins aren’t to blame for the East Coast’s behavior — look at the chilled-out behavior of Australians or Canadians.
But I see the appeal of the West, and why so many people from overseas view it as the true America. The character and virtues we’re known for still ride the range there – a world less superficial, and without the East’s stagnation. A spirit of freedom and independence pervades.
This was the first time I really felt like the U.S. is a nation of nations. Sometimes Americans criticize China and Russia as being too multicultural – meaning they’re unhappy, dissonant empires – and would be better off broken into a bunch of smaller states.
But maybe this is true of the U.S., too? I don’t think a Yankee from Massachusetts identifies with a person from Tupelo or Santa Fe. Yes, there’s that American Identity throughout the USA, but spend one day, and you know that each region interprets “American” way differently. The politic strife of this century shows that each state is still almost a separate nation, legally, but it is the regional differences that play a bigger role in many regards.
A Marylander seems no different than a Virginian, other than than cuisine. But a person from California is just not the same as a person from Connecticut. Our regions still dominate our mindsets. We’re a transient society, and yet that hasn’t seemed to have much of an effect on the bits of culture that are distinctly regional.
I found Westerners to be better in some ways. They don’t conform to the same systems as we do in the East, systems that are familiar but limiting. There is a sense of freedom that you cannot feel in the East, a sense of optimism, open and unbridled ambition, and a down-to-earth sensibility that makes you realize, for example, these cowboy Navajo strangers know what they are doing and how to do it.
And then I found an even deeper divide, literally and figuratively. The biggest culture shock came from visiting the “fourth world” in the Grand Canyon.
The Fourth World is not a clear concept to most Americans, because it’s something we try hard to ignore, talk around, excuse, or keep hushed up. Like pretending not to notice an ulcer or cyst on a person’s body. It is our undeclared gulag system.
Basically, it is a third world nation within the confines of a first world nation.
Some reservations are nice. Really nice, in fact. The Indians who were fortunate enough to be exiled where natural gas or oil was discovered, or who built a successful casino, live pretty well. The houses belonging to the Navajo in Northern Arizona show they aren’t hurting for money.
But go into the heart of the Grand Canyon, to see the Havasupi tribe’s last outpost. Sorry I don’t have a more clever metaphor – you just keep going downhill, literally a mile down into the earth, and hit something close to rock bottom economically. The tribe’s Supai village, a few hundred residents, is on the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s pummeled by oppressive heat and sand storms. There’s no road that goes there, and therefore there aren’t any cars.
Well that’s not entirely true, I saw one pickup truck, but I honestly don’t know how it got down there. To get to the village, you walk eight miles down the canyon, or take a burro, or a helicopter. I spent one night there with some classmates. The Havasupi have been there over 800 years.
The town was like something you’d see in a cowboy movie, a low-budget, black-and-white spaghetti western. Shacks, with tin roofs. Dirt streets, tamped down by bare feet. Horses and dogs roaming around. I’ve never seen dogs that looked so skinny, sick, and diseased. There was a post office, a “hospital,” general store, a tiny church or two. And a restaurant, because the village is a bit of a destination for European tourists.
The store was mostly empty, and what they did stock was all bad for you. Little wonder that 90% of Havasupi have diabetes. Shirtless kids roamed the streets, and old men and women, with faces wrinkled by time and sun, sat outside – just sitting, and staring. They look at their young people, many of them losing their cultural identity. Many of the old ones had already lost their own identity for that matter, in their day, forced into government schools to be “Americanized”.
This squalor is in an absolutely beautiful spot. It’s an odd contrast, this decrepit village next to the turquoise waters of the Supai falls. Cool natural rock pools, with water from the stream offering a respite from the sun.
Until we realized the water was fouled by horses and whatever else was living upstream.
The entire time I was there, I felt uneasy. I didn’t know what it was at the time.
It was partially heat- and diet-related, I’m sure of that, but I also think it was, in retrospect, the realization that this sort of poverty should not exist, anywhere. And especially not in the United States. It felt like a movie set, except that the people were not actors. We were outsiders, often met with hostile glares. I understand this resentment of course – to them, all of us Anglos [white people] were the reason that for many years, this sweltering, fly- infested valley was all they had left of their ancestral lands.
A century ago, the National Park Service, and the Navajos, the Havasupai’s much-bigger rivals, finagled and seized the canyon, leaving only a few hundred acres and this tiny Supai village as a token of their “good will”. So it was a nation inside a nation inside a nation. And it wasn’t doing too well. It reminded me of a UNICEF advertisement, except it didn’t even have a famous actress involved, telling us to donate. They finally prevailed in court, and regained their territory, but it doesn’t seem to have brought them much joy.
I left that part feeling very confused, a combination of exhaustion, anger, curiosity and maybe even fear. I guess sometime, most people have, at least for a second or too, looked at a textbook picture of some medical condition, a disgusting abssess or horrible wound, before slamming the book shut, yuck.
Let’s be honest, I also felt moments of excitement, because in a weird way it was exciting to see. And also, I knew I was going to helicopter the hell out of there. We flew out, and the little village faded into nothing as soon as we rose above the chasm’s edge.
The only places “officially” classified as 4th World in the US are the reservations for the native peoples. Now that I’m living in Milwaukee, it’s too obvious that the inner cities of some cities qualify. I’ve realized you don’t have to hide the 4th World in the bottom of the deepest canyon. You don’t need “Indian Treaties,” fences, or walls. It can be a few blocks away and remain invisible to most people.