The Fragmenting Line JOHN r. CAMPBELL
Cruising the huge, postindustrial West involves a new predestination. Manifest Destiny, for me, has been transformed into Manifest Motion as a redundancy, wherein motion becomes the exclusive means of manifesting my existence. The destination, long abandoned as corrupted or quaint, is dead. Now only movement sustains me. So I’m not only reluctant to pause in my relentless thrust--I’m terrified that such a pause will expose me to the essential hollowness of the West, of the nation-state, of capitalism, of my life. No wonder, then, that I should seek respite in a false nostalgia, or maybe the only true sort of nostalgia after all: a nostalgia for what I never had.
First I focus on pristine wilderness as somehow Edenic, the mosquitoes and harsh summit winds notwithstanding. But then, as wilderness shrinks, becomes crowded, commodified, and merely politically delineated, I’m forced to scurry, on interstate highways and gravel roads, to new refuges, each of which is also emblazoned with obvious cultural markers. Soon the transit between these wild expanses is akin to the passage through those very canyons, those beaches, those strips of old-growth forest, those high and narrow crags, and those riparian halls that once sustained me. The road, in other words, is not unlike the wildlife corridors that progressive environmentalists, out of empathy and desperation, are working to establish. The road is a means to a wild survival.
This emphasis--on conduits through the developed landscape leading to wider, hidden destinations--is surgical: extractive, traumatic, and yet necessary for life. Such an emphasis requires, first, an opening emblematic of the whole operation, an extremely fine line. It requires a peculiar exactness on the part of the surgeon, a specialization of the mind. It requires an academic coldness, a narrow deftness in accordance with the incision it imposes.
But must precision constitute narrowness? What does the roadway slash really access, and what does it really evidence? In seeking answers on the open road, I’m led down into another nostalgia. This time I yearn, strangely enough, for the old industrial landscapes. I yearn to see them in ruin, to witness nature taking them back. I long for an innocent sleep, for willows striating concrete walls, for acacias shading steel. This new arcadia is as much a fantasy as any previous version, but the road has lulled me into acceptance, has exhausted my eyes with its relentless precision. I need to see the linear erode. The wild is yet at some distance, and so the feral entices.
From I-84 in the afternoon sun, I glimpse the pale cement plant emerging from the lime-encrusted hills. I instinctively take the nearest exit and trace my way back to the ruin. Its hollows are cell-like, the mountainside remnant reminiscent somewhat of ancient pueblos. Large pits dot the site, some of them sheltered by decrepit sheds. But there are Greek elements as well: big fluted columnar stacks, some toppled, dominate the wreckage.
As I walk among the array of sluices, gears, torn-off corrugated rooftops, and broken window panes, a whitish soil crumbles softly underfoot. The scent of lime mingled with sagebrush is calming and dry. The stillness is embroidered with the fluttering of pigeons, the muted freeway rustle, the sporadic flapping of tin sheets in the wind. Crows are roosting in the upright stacks. From the base of the cliff below comes the low rumble of a Union Pacific freight.
Above, the ruin is all light and decay as it ascends the mountain against a blue-gray sky. Spindly power-poles climb the hills into the distance, leading the eye once again along a fabricated line. And yet each old power-pole, cross-shaped, is falling at its own angle and degree, slowly dispersing its linear energy into the ground. I can’t help but think of return. I’m reminded of the telegraph poles I’ve noticed still standing in Utah, how they appear more every year like the tree trunks they always were. And then I remember, going back a bit further, that here I’m straddling the Oregon Trail, itself an avenue of dispersal, a line that frayed and scattered its followers to points American West.
The fragmenting line, then, not only divides the landscape: it fragments itself, splitting into numerous trails. The historical road leading back, when closely observed, also leads us outward. It leads us outward toward the land, through ancient nomadic wanderings, through settlement patterns and strip-mall corridors, through designated wilderness trails that soon dissolve to traces in the brush. And outward is also forward, or a variety of forwards: an omnidirectional forward, if you will.
You think there are no centers remaining? That power is no longer concentrated in a West ever dissolving? Just east of Lime is the small town of Huntington, on the meandering Snake River. Huntington proudly claims the status of “catfish capital of the world.” Driving through, along the steep river banks, and then deeper into the hills, I’m finally overcome by darkness. Turning the car around, cautious on the narrow gravel, I’ve lost all sense of direction. If it weren’t for this simple road, I think, how would I know what “return” even means? And then, in mid-turn, I’m subtly aware of a portable center: my mobile body’s ability to convey the phenomenal world.