I. “Pie in the Sky”
We leave Austin at six in the evening, heading west on I-10 toward Big Bend National Park. Having filled the back of the car with our packs and groceries — neon-orange mac and cheese, Mountain House freeze-dried dinners of Beef Stroganoff and Chicken à la King, double fudge Clif Bars, a fifth and a pint of Evan Williams whiskey — we set out for the desert.
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On our way out of town, we stop to pick up barbecue. Up north, I told my Jewish friends that I was going to eat pork in Texas. I have been kosher for most of my life, and some of them were suitably shocked. I explained that I do not want to ghettoize myself. It is important to me to prove that my dietary restrictions are choices and not neuroses.
But entering Rudy’s BBQ, I am no longer so sure. By the door hangs a sign saying, “Clean up for yourself! Your mother’s not here to do it for you.” That’s true; my mother is in Brooklyn. She does not buy meat from men named Rudy. Waiting to order, I watch a television above the counter that shows your meat being cut in the kitchen. With clean strokes, a knife and gloved hand cut a plump sausage in half the long way, then laterally into eighths. The blade shaves thin slices of brisket, pausing to wipe a little liquid on a nearby towel. I have never seen so much cooked meat in my life. There are heaping plates of brisket, steam rising in thick pungent waves from their juices. There are sausages, thick and nearly bursting, red like bricks but infinitely softer, speckled with bits of fat. There are thin steaks, charred on the outside but just pink inside, and ribs so large they might be from elephants. But none of it is kosher, and there are few meatless alternatives. I see only potato salad in Styrofoam cups, banana cream pudding, and beans. The beans, I discover, contain pork.
Be a man, I tell myself, do not be a Jewish child. You don’t believe in the Hebraic God. You do not share his cockamamie prejudices against pork. Austin is not Brooklyn. There are no tenements here, no laundry lines strung between buildings, no pickled herring, no lukewarm chicken soup. Here, people eat what they please: hearty portions of steer and swine. Doesn’t the pork smell like smoke and pepper, like John Wayne and campfires, like the West and America? I order the Styrofoam cup of potato salad.
Rob Kerth is riding shotgun, more than six feet of him sprawled across the front seat. With a voice like a drill, incessant and sharp, he says, “They do not tell you that to drive across Texas in this car requires the Shell corporation to kill Nigerians. You’re the beneficiary of that system; you are responsible for change.” I accept the contention; it is what I say I believe.
“Alright, but where does that leave me? Should I go work for SEIU or Unite Here, give them forty years of my life knocking on doors and organizing workers, living in motels and never seeing the mountains? Why can’t I just say ‘fuck this’ and head out to California, teach Freshman Composition and grow heirloom tomatoes?”
“Because this Robinson Jeffers escapism is a myth,” Rob replies. “You only get your Californian farm because of what was taken from others. You are living on stolen time.”
I say, “I hate politics.”
Lisa says, “Why don’t you become a professor and in your spare time you can work on politics? Why throw away your potential on something you don’t want to do?”
“I have an English professor,” I say, “a real leftie. On his office door he has news clips about sweatshops in Bangladesh. But that’s not good enough. He writes his scholarly articles, and meanwhile you have that poor Nigerian who just wanted a cut of Shell’s oil money. What do I say to that?”
“I really believe,” Lisa says, “that you should do what will make you happy. Happiness includes being able to sleep nights; it’s not just short-term pleasure. But it does not mean wholesale self-sacrifice. If you’re not fulfilled, what’s the point?”
“And I see that,” Rob says, “as profoundly self-indulgent.”
When we stop at a gas station to fill up the tank, I get out of the minivan. We have been driving for three hours; it is nine at night. In my stomach, potato salad churns with Wheat Thins and Monterey Jack. There is nothing out there, I think, just long straight road and miles of ranchland.
“How long will it be until Rob finds out that what he really loves is all that?” I ask, gesturing to the hills in the distance. As I finish speaking, I realize I have misjudged Rob. Rob has told me many times about E. P. Thompson and the British working class, Gramscian hegemony and Eco-Marxism. He discovered these ideas himself. Rob is as at home in revolution as in the desert.
I have stories of organizing workers at Yale and in New Haven, but they feature my father. My dad took classes on John Brown and Henry Wallace; I take classes on Robert Browning and Henry James. He spent his summers working on political campaigns; I backpack. My politics are inherited. Like handed-down clothes, they do not exactly fit.
“That’s not how I’d put it,” Lisa says. “I wonder how many years it’ll take of crappy leftist politics before he gives up.” Are we talking about Rob or me? All I really love are those hills. How many years until I give up on politics?
Lisa looks up, staring into the night, and so do I. We can see easily the amoebic stain that is the Milky Way. Otherwise all is a deep blue-black.
We arrive at the park’s boundary around two a.m. It is very dark; clouds have moved in quickly and blocked the stars. I-10 had been straight, but this road twists often, and each turn jumps out suddenly at us like a mountain lion surprising its prey. I am exhausted, my level of consciousness rising and falling in slow sweeps. Through my side window I see the dim shapes of unknown terrain features. Sometimes we seem to be driving along the edge of a cliff, other times through an artificial cut in the rock. Often the bright front lights illuminate nothing but desert vegetation. Animals gather by the side of the road, perhaps for the heat it emits on a cool night. We run over two desert cottontails and nearly miss a deer by swerving violently. Frances has cautioned Rob not to swerve for rabbits, as the minivan flips easily and the rabbit’s life is not worth the risk. We are in Big Bend.
II. “This Land is Your Land”
Our first day, we take a day hike to Devil’s Den, a canyon in the east of the park. In the sun, we can see clearly; what were indistinct shapes last night are now sharply defined mountains, plateaus, and mesas. The land lacks trees, except for the occasional Dagger Yucca, which looks like a pineapple, swollen to mammoth proportions and standing upright. Straight ahead lies Dog Canyon, a clean break in the ridgeline. The weather is warm and dry, threatening to become hot.
About three miles in, we turn into a creek bed, veering away from Dog Canyon and toward Devil’s Den. The walking gets trickier as we go through patches of brush. Soon after we start moving again, we turn into another streambed. On either side of us, the banks of the gully start to rise.
The brush and cactus give way to bare rock as we walk up the streambed. We find a fine lunch spot, a sort of grotto carved by flowing water, with a picturesque arch and shade for eating. From my daypack I remove a liter and a half of water, twenty-four small tortillas, a block of cheddar cheese, and salami. The salami is not kosher, though someone, probably Rob, has jokingly scrawled a big K on its wrapper.
“Everyone goes down a level in dietary strictness in the desert,” Rob explains. “Vegans can eat eggs, vegetarians can eat meat, and I can eat babies.” For myself I cut thin slices of softened cheddar. I peel the generic plastic wrapper from each slab. After folding the cheese into the tortillas, I eat the uncooked quesadilla quickly. I do not mind this fast food, eaten in a couple of minutes and loaded with salts, fats, and other toxins. I also do not mind that the knife I use is slick with salami-fat.
We continue on our way, now really entering the canyon, whose walls rise on either side until they block the sun. I scramble across stone, worn smooth by eons of water. We come to rock shelves five or six feet high, and it takes several tries to climb each one. The walls of the canyon must now be more than a hundred feet high, sheer and imposing, giving the impression that they might close up and crush us at any moment. I feel as if the rock were unmoving sheets of water, as if I were an Israelite crossing the Red Sea.
And then all of a sudden, the Promised Land. The walls, so tall just a hundred meters back, end abruptly in buttresses. In front of us spread the rough folds of the desert, pimpled with Dagger Yucca, covered with thick cactus stubble and an occasional whisker of tall spindly Ocotillo. The harsh land spreads far to a backdrop of pastel mountains, and nowhere is there the mark of man. The sun is high and alone in the sky. Cheese, bread, and perhaps meat fill our bellies; here and now is the best thing in the world.
III. “Which Side are You On?”
I’m on a cramped commuter flight between Austin and Atlanta. This is the worst kind of plane, narrow enough that you can see it turn by the tilting of the bulkheads. I can hear the engines get louder and softer. When they buzz loudly, the window rattles a little and I cannot read or sleep. Every time the sound dies, I expect to drop out of the sky.
I am thinking about a union song I sang with Rob several times this week:
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side am I on? My father sang these union songs over my cradle, sermonized about radical politics at dinner, asked about campus unionization on college tours. Rationally, I agree with my father and Rob. But those politics aren’t mine. From the mountains of Big Bend I get a great shiver of recognition, from thorns and cactusm a warm and loving embrace, from the Texas highway a sense of self. The wilderness, I have been told, is just a luxury, a pastoral dream supported only by the exploitation of the surrounding cities. Ah, but these are not your ethics, says Devil’s Den canyon, just the misguided ways that you were taught as a child. Potatoes or pork? Which side am I on?
I have been thinking a while, for the plane is already flying low over Atlanta’s parked cars and streetlights. The city is not as bad as I have imagined it; there is beauty in the edges of roofs and in the white lines of tennis courts. The plane descends tentatively, the engines firing and then idling, the wing-slats opening and closing, the body rocking back and forth as if in prayer. We are less than ten feet above the tarmac. If I fall, I will be all right.