19. August 2006 · Comments Off on The Empty Lands · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Pajama Game

Being that I am writing away on the book every moment that I can, this means a lot of computer time, building intricate castles of conversations and descriptions. Or leafing through my own books, or googling for bits of authentic and corroborative detail to lend convincing detail to the narrative: like, what would have been used in a makeshift humidifier in the early 1800s, or what would a teamster done to have treated an ox with sore feet? What would Ft. Laramie of 1844 been constructed of (adobe and timber, actually, there are paintings of it, too), what were all the names of the children and the wives in the Stephens-Townsend party? That and a thousand other questions send me back to the books constantly, since I really need to write about them with authority, and dislike the thought of being nibbled to death by the ducks of absolute authenticity.

It all does remind me though, of what most Europeans tend to forget or don’t realize in the first place… that the continental US is really, really huge, and terribly empty, and not much like most of Western Europe, although I think maybe the Russian “outback” might come close. There are bits of Scotland, that if you squint and pay no mind to the stone walls, can look sort of, kind of a bit like Appalachia. No wonder the Scots-Irish got off the boat and headed for the hills and hardly ever came down out of them again.

That part of Southern Spain called the Extremadura can pass as a small scrap of the Southwest all dry scrub and red dirt, if you can ignore the occasional fortified hill-town, so the hard-fighting poor noblemen from Trujillo took to Mexico and the southwest like ducks to water, if they were ducks and there were water, of course. This vast emptiness must have come as a horrible shock otherwise, to those who came as immigrants, from the 17th century on, especially once over the coastal mountains, and once out of the cities along the coastline fringe: Boston, and Charleston, and Savannah… which at a squint could look like the newer parts of a European city.

As any baffled American on their first trip to Europe will tell you… gee, everything is pretty dinky over here, isn’t it? Ceilings are low, the old houses have teensy tiny rooms, the streets are narrow, and everything is really, really close together. (Unless you’re staying in a palace or a stately home, someplace, where the dining room is a good quarter mile from the kitchen.) I have always been convinced that Copenhagen, a charming and welcoming city to me as a teen-aged Girl Scout, was entirely built at 3/4th scale, somewhat like Disneyland. The Lake District to me looked like a twee and dainty pocket wilderness, carefully manicured and groomed to look like a wilderness without actually being one. And driving across Europe fifteen years later, the next town was always three or five, or at most, ten miles on. It never seemed that gas stations were more than a couple of mile apart along the major roads. As Bill Cosby pointed out, in half an hour you’re in a whole ‘nother language! No, I can very well imagine that in the middle of the 1800s the most common reaction of someone straight off the boat from Hamburg, or Bergen or Liverpool to being plunked down in the Platte River valley, or the Great Basin of the Rockies would have been to assume the fetal position underneath the nearest piece of heavy furniture.

It was big and empty then, empty of all people but a scattering of nomadic Indian tribes; no established roads, other than printed on the land by iron-wheeled wagons, and what fortresses and settlements which did exist, with the exception of a scattering of adobe towns in what is now New Mexico and California, were new and raw. No terraces of grapevines or sheep-folds, no crumbing Roman or medieval ruins poking up from the grass, like bones of the land. No castles or cathedrals, with a thousand years worth of architectural accretions, or towns with a similarly aged collection of traditions, rituals and feuds. No, none of that, just the sky and the wind, and the land beneath it all, empty to the farthest horizon. It would have taken a particular sort of daring to venture out into that vast, indifferent wilderness, stepping away from the security of the known and knowable, and going… well, somewhere.

And it’s still pretty empty… there was a stretch along I-15 in Utah where it was fifty miles to the next gas station, and there’s another out on I-40, out east of Kingman: a hundred miles to the next one, and not a damned thing constructed by man that you can see except for the road itself, and the power-lines along side.

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