Published by Financial Times, 20 September 2008
To begin to understand how tenuous modern America’s grip is, physically, on the West once won, you only need to drive east from Los Angeles.
You go from the sprawling city, all asphalt and lawn sprinklers, through outlying areas dustier and more ramshackle by the mile, and before long the desolation of genuine desert. In under 90 minutes, you pass from a metropolis into a wilderness where nature’s inhospitality seems to militate against human habitation.
We left without a plan, just an outline: seven days in the desert and a rented Chrysler, our toddlers buckled into the back.
The American frontier is mythic, but it is no myth. It has been updated over the past century – horses traded for cars, gaslight for electricity, wooden planks for corrugated metal sheeting – and made more habitable by air conditioning. But it endures, not far from where people have forgotten it.
We first reached the frontier in a little roadside town just a couple of hours from Los Angeles, near the spectacular Joshua Tree National Park. Next door to the jail, a shop advertised “Bail Bonds, Open 24 Hours”. And not much else.
Such settlements look terribly precarious, as if a big wind could blow them away, and the New World would be virgin again, unknown to humankind. Yet the further we drove into the desert, eventually covering 2,500 miles in seven days, the more we discovered this impression was wrong.
The ancient, huge, weatherworn landscapes surrounded us, preaching continuity from the primeval to the present day. But vacant, unpeopled continuity this was not: 400 miles from Joshua Tree, we visited Saguaro National Park to see the iconic cacti. Striking as the cacti were, far better were the petroglyphs we found atop a rattlesnake-infested pile of boulders. Rock drawings, they were made by the Hohokam people, an agriculturally adept civilisation that flourished here 1,200 years before Columbus “discovered” America.
A sign suggested we look down from that boulder pile, to survey the giant valley below and imagine a patchwork of Hohokam farmers’ fields. If the sign is correct, humankind is less populous in the valley today than it was a millennium ago. This was the first of many startling reminders that the Old West of popular myth was never genuinely old. It was just early modern.
Frontier myths crowd the landscape, with white gunslingers and prospectors winning the hearts of some, and native nations attracting the sympathy of others, while forgotten ancients such as the Hohokam ask us to consider different narratives.
Contradictory myths do not mix neatly. We got a taste of this at Saguaro National Park’s splendid visitors’ centre. The film that welcomes visitors to the park suddenly launches into a telling of local O’odham spiritual traditions. Native religion gets spliced into a script that otherwise belongs wholly to modern America. The jarring edit, an attempt at balance, only reminds us who won the West and who lost it.
Less nuanced takes on the southwest, on whomever’s side, come off more successfully. In the old ghost town of Tombstone, for example, we found the unadulterated gunslinger myth in full commercial bloom. Tombstone tips its 10-gallon (hat) almost crassly to just one version of a deeply complex history, yet it was irresistibly fun.
South of Tucson, we came across the amazing 17th-century mission of San Xavier del Bac – a place unknown even to most devotees of the south-west.
In the joyously colourful mission church, one sees how the Tohono O’odham followers of Father Kino, a Tyrolean missionary who went to Bac in 1692, embraced the iconographic traditions of Rome as folk art. The church is crammed with visions simultaneously profound and naïve – a Baroque masterpiece in adobe and wood, set on the Arizona sand.
The church has meant much to the Tohono O’odham over the years, yet the scene around it felt strained. Next to the parking lot sat 20 or so members of the tribe. Slow-moving, speechless and bundled in blankets, they sold soft drinks and “Indian tacos”. We bought lunch and moved away, fleeing the wasps swarming around the stoves but also, frankly, the vendors who silenced us with a blank aversion to conversation.
We reached Chiricahua National Monument, deep in the wilderness, in the late afternoon. This astounding park of echoing canyons, bizarre rock formations and 60-mile vistas was the ancient home of the Chiricahua Apache nation, the people of Geronimo, whose long, bitter war against US federal troops, ending in 1886, was one of the last gasps of native American resistance. We had reached the heart of ancient Apache territory, a maze of hiding places, the guerrilla warriors’ base from which Geronimo and the Chiricahua, once defeated, were exiled.
We hiked to a lookout. Across a canyon, on a craggy ridge, we saw a natural formation resembling the profile of Cochise, a warrior chief who came before Geronimo. Our two-year-old son yelled out into the canyon. His shrieks echoed back like avian chatter.
There was no evidence of another soul in the immense park, yet I felt more exposed than alone. Dusk closed in on us. The silhouetted rocks appeared like human figures, marching purposefully out of the canyon.
Bound for some New Mexican motel, we drove into a black desert landscape devoid of man-made light. Turning out of the park, our headlights flashed over a herd of pronghorn antelope.
When we crossed a cattle grid at speed the car shuddered violently and somehow this caused the electrics to fail. The windows danced madly up and down. Cold night air blasted into the car. Alarmed, I braked sharply and turned off the engine, now spooked myself.
For a moment I felt desperately far from civilisation. I felt the size of the land, the unplumbed depth of its past and my vulnerability within it.