From Baltimore to Babylon:

Driving the Southwest Passage

Craig Chalquist


Patriotism is balderdash. Our side, our state, our town is boyish enough. But it is true that every foot of soil has its proper quality, that the grape on either side of the same fence has its own flavor, and on every acre on the globe, every group of people, every point of climate has its own moral meaning whereof it is the symbol. For such patriotism let us stand.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was a 25' Penske truck with two big axles and a gutless V-8 engine, and I had been hired to drive it from an emptied ranchhouse in Monkton, near the East Coast city of Baltimore, to Los Angeles 2,600 miles away at land's end in the west. Estimated time of arrival: four days. I slept a night on the floor of a bare bedroom. An angel painted on one wall spread beneficent white wings over my backpack.

When pious Englishmen sailed the Ark and the Dove to Baltimore in 1634, they found a natural harbor on Chesapeake Bay and were accordingly delighted. By 1729, at the behest of flour mill owners and tobacco farmers, the site named after the Lords Baltimore of the Calvert family officially became a port town, one whose privateers inflicted heavy losses on British ships ordered to impose a Revolutionary blockade. The British returned in 1814 after burning the capitol at Washington D.C. but were repulsed at Fort McHenry, an action rendered musical by Francis Scott Key. From the Civil War onward, financial falls have given way to rises with the coming of trains, planes, and automobiles, that last a fitting oddity given that the state flag looks like a cross between a coat of arms and the famous checkered signal to "Start Your Engines!"

Before starting my own I had dreamed about roaring black bears, only to be told by those helping me manhandle a housefull of furniture into the truck that black bears were indeed on the rampage lately. Gazing at patches of ice in the shadows of bare trees, listening to the geese arrow overhead, I wondered what the place was saying through bears both literal and dreamed. Maybe what San Diego had said in the creative imagination of La Jolla resident Dr. Seuss: "Leave Something Green!" Much of Maryland is still green today, at least in the spring, but as a Californian I knew how quickly verdancy could vanish under asphalt, and with it the formerly abundant fauna. My state is the only one in the Union with an extinct animal on its flag: the California grizzly. Its official year of demise is 1922, but by one account the last was shot in 1911, the very year the animal was translated, constellationlike, into an aerial emblem.

Penske charges far less than U-Haul for cleaner equipment and more efficient service. I also liked the local operator who gave me the keys. "It's insured, so drive it off a cliff if you really want to," she said while pecking numbers into a computer. "Don't tailgate, don't use Mom and Pop Gas unless you want to tear off the canopy on a low overhang, and be extra nice to the people at checkpoints and weigh stations who are watching out for terrorists." Reserving judgment on that last, I signed away, received a pleasantly rugged smile, and walked out into crisp morning air. The turn of a key brought the motor to rumbling life.

From Monkton I dropped south onto the beltway and caught Interstate 70 West on the fringe of Baltimore. The clock said 11:30 a.m. EST on a Tuesday; I was due at the Pacific Coast Highway on Saturday morning. May Hermes favor the foolish. I patted my bananas and bottled water and stamped on the gas pedal.

Nothing happened.

I already told you why: the V-8 with its eight soggy cylinders. As I struggled up a hill, the red needle on the speedometer trembled down the opposite incline: 65....60....55...50....45....35.... I shifted down into third gear and accomplished a shuddering lurch and a screech of an engine winding out against its metal will. 30....25....flashers on to warn the unfortunates caught behind me. When I passed the summit I saw another hill and floored the accelerator to build up speed: 65....70...and then: nothing again. The needle sagged. Damn! A governor had cut in. A checkered safety flag had emerged from the pits, a herald of things to come. I transitioned to I-68 and took the 40 up into Pennsylvania.

"WATCH FOR DUIs" said the sign along the state's oldest thoroughfare. Another just like it popped up a few miles later, followed by convenient roadside liquor stores, an ad for a number to phone in case of a collision, a cemetery, and, last of all, a carver of gravestones. I could only marvel at this perfect closed system of mutually reinforcing interactions. It reminded me of I-99 in California's central valley, where anti-abortion messages alternate with domestic violence hotline billboards. I passed onward and upward into Ohio (from the Iroquois "beautiful water"), exited I-70, and shuffled into a Red Roof Inn just outside a town named after the world's most famous slaver. The hand that had signed the Admiral's orders had propelled the Jews from Spain, yet here we were, on the other side of the Atlantic, raising monuments to the ruddy sailor Columbus whose eyes, unlike his heart, bled almost continually.

In pre-Polk times gone by, when a citizen could enjoy a patriotic fervor unmixed with pangs of shame, Ulysses Grant had been born in this state near the Ohio River. An interesting man, not brilliant but as dogged as a famished wolf. Two stories about him went through my mind. Lincoln had been warned by an abstemious Congress against hiring a drinker to head an army, but after General "The Slows" McClellan and his plodding and incompetent replacements the President was ready to try anyone decisive. In reply to the moralizing criticisms he stated himself ready to supply whiskey to anyone who could fight like Grant. The other story concerned Grant's response to being asked if he liked music. He said he knew only two songs: "One of them is Yankee Doodle, and the other one is not."

The state's next-door neighbor is Indiana. The origin of the name is obvious, but that of "Hoosier" is not. "Hoosier? Indians." Ancestors of the Algonquins had hunted mammoth and bison and built huge burial mounds packed with skeletons; then the white people came and built Indianapolis. Between these events, French trappers and traders threw up forts and trading posts and used the Indians as pawns in skirmishes with English trappers and traders drifting in over the Appalachians. The French and Indian War of 1775-1763 put an end to that in favor of the English, but American settlers put an end to that, and the territory of Indiana joined the Union as its nineteenth state. Through unleafed branches (odd to a viewer from a state lush even in winter) I saw bits of blue pearled with cirrus. The radio said the high that day was 41 degrees. Stubby pines with brown-orange needles began to dot the passing slopes.

By contrast, entering Illinois was like entering a vast automobile junkyard with empty fields between the lots. The Prairie State's name is a Frenchification of the Illini Confederation of Indians. The warrior Pontiac had died trying to recruit them after losing ground to the English in Detroit.

It was around here, I believe, that I saw the first "Jesus" sign. That was all it said, just the word. When I spotted another, I realized it wasn't just a curse at the traffic. No. Apparently the poster figured that plastering his savior's name all over the countryside would somehow result in more conversions. Little did he realize that a Jesus returned for a second round would not remain at liberty ten minutes in the fundamentalist presence. How could he? He had roundly denounced everything they stood for.

Leaving these unamusing thoughts behind me (had the place itself somehow prompted them?) in the land of auto shops and fallen Pontiacs, I continued down the 70 past the 650-foot-high Gateway Arch of stainless steel guarding the river city of St. Louis. Lewis and Clark had spotted trade boats here and been heartened to continue westward. Their philosophy about the Indians, Sacajawea notwithstanding, was historically typical of the colonizer toward the colonized:

We gave them a Cannister of Powder and a Bottle of whiskey and delivered a few presents to the whole after giveing a Br. Cth. [breech cloth] Some Paint guartering & a Meadell to those we made Chiefs. After Capt Lewis's Shooting the air gun a feiw Shots (which astonished those nativs) we Set out and proceeded on five miles…& Camped.

-- William Clark

They were scouting for the nonexistent Northwest Passage linking the Pacific with the Atlantic. But the land of their departure flowed with streams and rivers in abundance; one of them, the Missouri, gave the state its name (from an Indian term meaning "the town of the large canoes"). Congressman William Vandiver bestowed another Missourism, a worthy one, in 1899: "....Frothy eloquence neither neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me." Daniel Boone apparently felt the same way when he arrived in 1796 in search of a less populated place than Kentucky. He had lost his land grant and did not know he would lose another one day.

When Daniel Boone first entered into the forests and prairies of “the dark and bloody ground,” he reduced to his possession the pure essence of “outdoor America.” He didn’t call it that, but what he found is the thing we now seek, and we here deal with things, not names.

-- Aldo Leopold

By 1860, when more than a hundred thousand slaves toiled here, only one county, Douglas, did without them. Men of the state fought on both sides of the Civil War. In St. Louis, I caught a milder version of double trouble when I rounded a corner and found myself staring at a startled construction crew staked out in the middle lane. Which I occupied. So that was what that electric sign with two opposing arrows had meant!: GET OUT OF THE CENTER LANE--NOW! A haul on the wheel sent me hurtling by on the right at 70 mph as helmeted men paid far too little for this kind of stress instinctively leaped backwards. By some miracle I immediately turned onto the 44 and drove it southward to Joplin, where I bought a capuccino (had I reentered California by mistake?), spilled it on my jacket, and smelled like Irish Cream for the rest of my southwest passage.

From the 44 past Tulsa to the 40 at Oklahoma City, and straight through the middle of the panhandle state, reached prairies, prairies, and yellow and tan grasses waving in a brisk breeze that strengthened in force to 40 mph gusts out of the north. Much of central and western Oklahoma is quite flat, with nothing to slow or stop that relentless wind. Overhead the jet stream smoothed a band of white and gray into a wide roadway stretching beyond the horizon. So this, I thought, was where one of my Cherokee ancestors had been photographed in a concentration camp: a huge, scowling woman in a dirty skirt and bare feet. The Trail of Tears led here from the Tsalagi heartland in Georgia: ironic, as "Oklahoma" comes from a Choctaw word for "red man." Maybe Andrew Jackson figured one more group of them here wouldn't hurt. Eager settlers who dashed to the territory in 1889 to claim (steal) land from the astonished Indians earned the nickname Sooners.

The state flag features an Osagi battle shield. Red, white, and blue bumper stickers patriotically promoted the general warfare. What would safely dead writers now earmarked as patriots have thought of them? "Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority," Clemens had written in 1904, "it is time to pause and reflect." Thoreau went to jail to avoid paying for a war. Emerson had been specific in his outrage:

See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!

All through these midwestern states, billboards for adult video stores succeeded praises of that mythical state known as teen abstinence. On the radio a talk show host encouraged citizens to write to Congress to "protect the family" against gay marriage. The conservative preoccupation with reproduction is perhaps our closest equivalent to the dynastic obsession with sanguinary purity. And why not? Given their lack of leadership qualifications, what else do kings, generals, chiefs, potentates, and pontiffs have to fall back on but control of human bloodlines? Such "leaders" (do adults even need leaders?) are the degenerated political descendents of mature elders, the wise women and men who guided--not led--prehistoric societies.

And where do we find this maturity today? Certainly not in the playground shouting about "evildoers" and "crusades" and "causes." It makes a strange kind of sense that the very people striving to get "evolution" and "natural selection" censored out of the textbooks are most in danger of becoming socially and culturally irrelevant. As unwilling to face the facts of the postmodern world as they were to face the modern one, they can hardly be blamed for clinging with all available might to the merciless evolutionary merry-go-round that threatens with each spin to throw them into oblivion.

To reach Miami, Oklahoma, the driver must negotiate a toll booth even before entering the town. Upon leaving: another toll booth, and another several miles up the road; and another, and another....I chuckled. California police had set up "bum blockades" to keep the Okies and Arkies out of the Depression-worn state during the thirties, and here I was having to run a token gauntlet while trying to traverse their home ground. In the hotel restaurant my request for lemonade with dinner was met by a quaint suggestion: "We don't have any, but I could bring you a lemon to squeeze into some ice." I declined with thanks.

In northern Texas I found myself detoured without explanation off I-40 near Amarillo and stuck in a long line of traffic halted by the distant arc of a crawling freight train. Vehicles rocked and swayed in the dusty wind. The sky is vast in Texas, perhaps because nothing stands up from the ground to limit it. My Californian eye blinked in amazement at the arid absence of hills, valleys, mountains. I was tempted to get out of line and head for the Alamo to see the old mission where men fighting for the right to own slaves had fallen in battle. "Remember the Alamo!"--indeed, and remember as well that the step from the missionary to Davy Crockett, from the frock to the battlefield and the Cross to the Sword, is a very short goosestep indeed, as a glance at the history of the other red-star state amply demonstrates.

In the Land of Enchantment--padres and conquistadors and Coronado had sought Cibola and the Grand Quivira here, those theoretical earthly paradises of gold and precious gems--I made a fatigue-prompted mistake by overfilling the engine crank case with oil. This bothered me from Albuquerque, called after a Spanish duke of that name, to Gallup. The auto shops I visited were not helpful. I walked out of one when the manager pretended to misunderstand my request and tried to sell me ten quarts of 5-30 plus a filter. When I asked the woman running a Speedco if her mechanics could let some fluid out of the engine, she said, "We don't do that here" and cited safety concerns about heated oil. I'd have been concerned too had I run a lube and oil-change business without having heard of insulated gloves.

Searched for gold, crossed by trains, New Mexico remains one of the Union's poorest states. PhDs wait tables for money in Santa Fe, and a psychotherapist I know counsels Chicanos in Taos for next to nothing in fees. It was in Los Alamos, a trifle north of Santa Fe, that the atheistic Oppenheimer drove the Trail of Death to the site he so religiously named Trinity. (He had named his sailboat Trimethyl.) The bomb he test-detonated there brought sight to the blind miles away on the very day the first mission was founded in California. Through Dinetah, the Navajo homeland, I drove just south of Window Rock as Arizona stood up before me in austere hues of red, yellow, burnt orange, and brown. Not far to the north, even the notorious Kit Carson could not raid and murder up into the Chinle wash: he had to starve the Dine into submission. In California he told an amusing story, over and over, of scalping an Indian in front of his mother. His traveling companion John Fremont was the first presidential candidate chosen by the new Republican Party.

That engine couldn't wait. I stopped at a lube shop in a woeful strip of town called Holbrook. A very short and very bald man emerged, listened for a moment, smiled, and said, "Pull 'er in," and in five minutes my worries had drained into a pan parked neatly under the oil plug. He shook his head twice at my offer to pay him, but I insisted, so he finally accepted a double sawbuck. For a Good Samaritan give me a midget with a tattoo on any day of the Christian week.

When we think of Arizona (from the Spanish "arizonac," a small tree), Tombstone, the Grand Canyon, and Geronimo might come to mind, and maybe cacti and copper. Between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago, however, a meteor came whistling down at 40,000 mph and blasted a 500-foot-deep hole in a circle of desert almost two miles in circumference. Tour guides operating out of a gas station shaped like a golf ball awaiting a celestial putter take visitors out to see the remains. Supposedly Roswell back in New Mexico hosts the extraterrestrials, although to date it has produced nothing more demonstrably eerie than John Denver. But this stretch of I-40 between Winslow and Flagstaff feels implanted from another world, and probably did even before the golf ball and the growling dinosaur statues that line the freeway for miles. The layered piles of round red rocks, the isolation, the dark volcanic outcroppings, the stubby pockets of desert foliage....there is something uncanny hovering over it all, yet inexplicable in terms of what tolerates a ready identification.

Up and over Flagstaff, and down and around into Phoenix, a former hay town that survived a terrible drought, but only to mutate into a pastel jumble of stripmalls housed in Mission Revival architecture. Here I traded the 40 for the 10 that would lead me arrow-straight westward. It rained just as I reached the state border, and when I passed a series of forebodingly blinking INSPECTION signs only to be waived forward by a bored official, I knew I had reached California at last. I entered Blythe to the croon of, "I got drunk in San Francisco...." and ducked into the nearest Best Western at twice the price I had paid in Oklahoma.

Out in the desert scrub and transplanted palms beyond Indio sits a memorial park dedicated to the Californian General Patton. The commander bearing a riding crop and pearl-handled six-guns had warmed up his tank crews out here before piling into Rommel in North Africa. There is also a prison--pardon me, a correctional facility--and a sign warning passersby: DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS. Probably as wise an idea as the DO NOT TOUCH FALLEN POWER LINES warnings I had seen in Tornado Alley. I thought of Darwin again and dropped by slow turns into the Coachella Valley as delicately formed clouds draped the peaks and shoulders of the otherwise rugged Chocolate Mountains. To my left and somewhat south of the freeway, an effort to reroute Colorado River water through Mexico by George Chaffey and other oligarchs eager to imperialize the Imperial Valley--they already enjoyed a 400% profit on water they got for free--opened a breach in 1905 that flooded the desert floor for two unstoppable years. Chaffey went under, as all tyrants must, but the Salton Sea remained and is today one of the few wetlands remaining in overdeveloped California.

Past wind farms in Palm Springs I drove, eager to finish; past San Bernardino, a place so desolate even the resourceful Mormons hadn't wanted it; past the Disneyland of Death known as Forest Lawn, where the Reagans had married and Disney was buried, and on by West Covina, Baldwin Park, La Puente, and Monterey Park into Babylonian Los Angeles, its City Hall topped by a ziggurat. Hard to imagine that sprawling Los Angeles had once been a crossroads town named after a small parcel of land. Past Culver City (I could almost hear Jackson Browne: "You Culver me, and I'll Culver you"), past Santa Monica, quick right turn, and the Pacific Coast Highway snaked northward before me, the Pacific gray and foaming to my left, cliffs to my right that softened into Malibu terraces owned by movie stars wealthy enough to rebuild year after year when the chaparral burned and the spring rains pushed the denuded hillsides downslope toward the sea.

Helen Hunt Jackson, unwitting creator of the heavily pageanted Ramona legend, had called this place "an island on the land," and D. H. Lawrence "crazy-sensible." Montalvo Garcia had called it the Isle of California long before--in 1510, in fact: his chivalric novel The Exploits of Espandian mentioned a pagan paradise ruled by black-skinned women armed and armored in gold. Oprah was not even a dream, let alone a resident of Santa Barbara.

Katherine Tingley, "The Purple Mother of Lomaland," had called it "the land of the sundown sea," and Carey McWilliams, the most perceptive of all our literary immigrants, had decided it was "the land of upside down."

My homeland.

I got down from the cab, sat on the ground, and patted it affectionately, not really surprised by the sudden tears that came into my eyes.

My border-patrolled and guarded homeland, alas; there were two security gates to pass through before I could park the truck one last time and board a train, my long drive at an end. I handed over the keys and was driven gratefully north past Point Mugu, where most of Ventura County's revenue is generated by the missile-testing military, and, having navigated unerringly across the entire width of North America, promptly got lost in Oxnard. The man I asked for directions did not speak English but gave me accurate ones in Spanish, and within an hour Amtrak was surflining my backpack and its tired capuccino-scented owner homeward up the rainswept coast. I closed my eyes with a sigh of relief and listened to the rain on the windows.

Since the turn of the millennium, growing numbers of people around the world have gazed into picture tubes globalized together by maquiladora helots in Tijuana and been led to associate "America" with Britney Spears and Super Bowls and sanctimonious flag-waving; with the Microsoft frame and the Exxon tiger; with precision-guided bunker busters and smirking theocrats encased in red neckties, bullies who wield Orwellian justifications with which to numb the fossil-fooled stuporpower. But even a quick trip across the states reveals more, even in glimpses, of the American essence. It too is evoked in images, but humbler ones that anyone can grasp: cracks in a farmer's earthy hands; sparkles in bends of the Rio Grande; swarms of stars winking over Joshua Tree; a Texan mother's admonition to her giggling children: "I'm fixin' to go, so y'all better get on up here"; the heart-shaped face of a Navajo woman patiently giving directions. Snowpacks and hatbands, mustangs and campfires; brooks, alders, and bud-speckled orchards; blustery fields of slowly ripening wheat easy to think of as endless.

To run your fingertips over a centuries-old hearth in Maryland where slaves had chatted while stirring boiling pots; to breathe the frosty air that once passed through young Lincoln's lungs, or cast your line over a pier in Goleta: these are actual, tangible, imperishable realities forever untouched by the creeds and statistics, fads and fanaticisms they will surely long outlast. Let the reckless governments rise and fall, and the bullies bleat and pound their pulpits: beloved American places will endure, just as they always have since before the written word.

Nature says to the American, I understand mensuration & numbers. I have measured out to you by weight & tally the powers you need. I give you the land & sea, the forest & the mine; the elemental forces; nervous energy, & a good brain. See to it that you hold & administer the continent for Mankind.

-- Emerson


© 2004 by Craig Chalquist.