Chapter OneNotes from an all-night truck stop on the outskirts of Albuquerque. Drinking coffee in a red vinyl booth, gazing out of the window at the gas pumps, I watch the nomads come and go in the night, making their desert crossings: a gang of bikers en route to the rendezvous in Sturgis, South Dakota; six migrant workers in a rattletrap jalopy, following the ripening harvest from Texas to Montana; a vanload of tie-dyed teenagers, headed for the next Phish concert or Rainbow Gathering; truck drivers, traveling salesmen, rambling flea-market vendors; an itinerant preacher in a camper rig nailed together from planks of wood and scrap metal: "Rev. Dale Billings-Traveling Revival-Sinners Welcome."
From the shadowed canyons between the parked Kenworths and Peterbilts (where they drink malt liquor and denounce their enemies), bearded, furrow-faced road tramps and drifters emerge into the sodium glare, shambling across the forecourt to bum cigarettes and spare change.
Across the interstate, parked in neat, orderly rows at an electrified campground, are forty or fifty RVs, Recreational Vehicles, the huge, luxurious motor homes favored by the peripatetic retirees of the Southwest. RV brand names: Wanderer, Sundowner, Sunchaser, Airstream, Nomad.
Through a Western truck-stop window in the early hours of the morning, it seems like half of America is perpetually on the move: picking up and making a fresh start somewhere else, traveling for a pay cheque, or just traveling to be traveling, moving for the sake of motion. Wanderlust, restlessness, itchy feet, antsy pants, white-line fever. There is more of it here than in Europe, or anywhere else in the industrialized world: the nagging conviction that a better life lies somewhere down the road, or on the road itself. Does it begin on the inside, or filter in from the outside? Is it nature, nurture or disease?
Here's what the sedentary doctors have to say. Dromomania: an abnormal, obsessive desire to roam. Drapetomania: an uncontrollable desire to wander away from home. A nomad, of course, would produce vigorous arguments to the contrary: that being sedentary is a forced, unnatural and oppressive condition for human beings. That the desire to travel is an innate human urge-a genetic legacy perhaps, from the million years we spent as wandering hunter-gatherers. This was Bruce Chatwin's big idea, that humans have similar migratory instincts to certain birds and animals. Why is a human baby calmed by the motion of rocking and swaying? he asked. Because, for 99.9 percent of our evolutionary span, this is what human babies experienced as the natural rhythm of life, strapped to their mothers' bodies in slings or cradleboards, "rocked into contentment by the gentle swaying walk".
The sedentary doctor smiles a patronizing smile: a dromomaniac can always produce a good reason to roam, just as an alcoholic can always find a good reason to take another drink. And, like alcoholism, it is a disease that afflicts a disproportionate number of men. But what does a sedentary doctor know? Has he ever experienced the pure rush of freedom that comes from leaving it all behind-the debts, the ties, the possessions and responsibilities-and launching out into the wild blue yonder? Has he ever been secretly tempted?
"Truck driving is the ultimate fulfillment of the American dream." This is the bold claim of Mike Hatfield, twenty-four, from Reno, Nevada, hauling a load of mattresses across the country, taking time out for a cup of coffee and a bowl of chilli. Slim, bespectacled, well read, cheerful-you would never pick him for a trucker.
"Forget the little house on the prairie," he says. "Forget the white picket fence, the house in the suburbs, the monthly mortgage payment, the two-car garage and the rest of that crap. Americans dream about the road. We dream about burning down the house and saddling up the horse, and it's been that way ever since the plains were knee-deep in buffalo shit."
Mike turns out to be a Western history enthusiast, an amateur scholar of sorts. The cab of his Peterbilt and the sleeper compartment behind are full of books, ranging from pulp gunfighter fiction to the learned, historical tomes of Bernard De Voto and Walter Prescott Webb. The books are well thumbed, dog-eared and coffee-stained, with scrawled comments spidering up the margins and key passages underlined in pencil. The marked passages all address the same theme. "After the Indians came the cowboys and prospectors and railroad men, and they were just about as loose-footed and freedom-loving and prone to rambling. I'm a quarter Cheyenne Indian, and three-quarters Scotch-Irish cowboy. The way I look at it, I was born to roam."
He gives me a ride east into Texas, eating little white pills, chain-smoking Marlboros and talking a blue streak through the night. We are out on the vast tableland emptiness of the Staked Plains, the Llano Estacado, the windswept heartland of the old Comanche country, when the first gray light appears in the east. Mike pulls over to the side of the road and brews up some coffee on a camp stove. He is an aficionado of the dawn and will often stop to watch it rise.
The first rim of sun crests the horizon and a pale apricot light spreads across the blue-gray plain, with the moon still visible in the west, and the coyotes yammering and howling, celebrating the night's hunting perhaps, or the simple fact of being a coyote. Our shadows take form behind us, elongated like figures in a funhouse mirror.
There is a line of telephone poles along the side of the road. The wires hang in loose stitches across the sky. There is a barbed-wire fence clogged with tumbleweeds, and beyond the fence the eye leaps out to the horizon across forty or fifty miles of smooth, pure space.
"Look at this country," Mike says. "It wasn't made for settling down in. It's too big and dry and wide open. The Lord intended man and beast to move about in a country like this. The Comanches knew it, the cowboys knew it, the buffalo knew it. Man, can you imagine? All this covered with buffalo, just black with buffalo all the way to the horizon. That's how big the herds got, as far as you could see."
No one knows how many bison used to roam the Great Plains. The estimates vary between 50 million and 125 million. Whatever the number, it is safe to say that no large wild animal ever grew so numerous, anywhere on Earth, and the key to their success in this environment was mobility. The herds grazed into the wind, which blows almost constantly on the plains. The species evolved with the wind, developing huge shaggy heads and shoulders, for facing down the howling winter blizzards, and small, lean, short-furred, curiously pert hindquarters. In the course of a normal year, the winds on the Great Plains shifted counterclockwise through all four quarters of the compass, so the herd migrations formed a rough circle or ellipse, three or four hundred miles across, passing through cooler locations in summer and warmer ones in winter, always moving toward fresh grazing and water.
Occasionally, the wind blew too long from the southwest and buffalo in their thousands trailed off into the deserts and died of starvation and thirst. The Montana herds sometimes ended up in the far, frozen north of Canada, lured to their deaths by a soft, persistent, northerly breeze in the early part of winter. But these were rare and inconsequential events. Maybe you can grasp the figure of 60 million or 125 million. Mike and I have tried and failed.
It took less than thirty years to bring the herds to the brink of extinction, and most of the killing was done in a single decade, the 1870s. By 1883, only two or three hundred buffalo were left, kept for nostalgia's sake on private ranches. White hide-hunters did most of the killing, working with the approval of the white authorities, and most of the white population, who saw the slaughter of the buffalo as the final solution to the Indian problem. The problem, as always, was how to dispossess the Indians of their land. There was an element of imperialist conspiracy at work, but it was capitalist economics, the emergence of a booming market for buffalo leather in the East and Europe, which accounted for the speed and rapacity of the slaughter, and sent five thousand freelance hide-hunters out onto the plains. Killing and skinning buffalo was exhausting, filthy, dangerous work-up to your shoulders in gore most of the time, and constantly watching for Indians-but for a while the market paid enough to make it worth the risk. Enough, that is, for whiskey and a whore and a gambling spree, when you got back to town and sold your hides.
The meat was left to rot on the prairie, fouling the air for hundreds of miles around. It was a fine, fat, lazy time to be a wolf, or a vulture, or any scavenger of carrion, and a terrible, hungry, world-wrenching time to be an Indian. Not that Indians hadn't contributed to the slaughter. As subsistence hunters, they had barely dented the herds, but by the 1870s they too were entangled in the market economy. They needed more hides than they used to, to trade for guns, ammunition, iron cooking pots, steel knives, needles, awls, cloth, mirrors, coffee, sugar, whiskey and other products of white civilization on which they had become dependent. And contrary to popular belief, Indians did not always use every part of the buffalo. If, for example, an Indian was being pursued, or traveling alone, or needing trade goods in a hurry, or craving whiskey, he might take the hide and the tongue, leave the carcass to rot, and think little of it.
Nevertheless, Indians were horrified by the way the hide-men laid waste to the herds, killing relentlessly and methodically until no animals were left, and then moving on to the next herd, wasting unimaginable quantities of meat. Surely this was a sign of sickness or insanity. Indian hunting practices were not always as tidy and thorough as they are remembered, but the plains tribes did feel a deep, religious reverence for the buffalo, which gave up its life in a sacred transaction so that Indians could live. The great herds had seemed as timeless and elemental as the grass or the wind, and when they disappeared Indians refused to believe it at first, saying the buffalo had gone up to Canada or taken refuge underground. Even the white hide-hunters were astonished that they had killed themselves out of a living in so short a time.
Later, a new market arose, and a rabble army of bone-pickers went out onto the plains. The bones were stacked in immense ricks by the railroad, sixty or seventy feet high, waiting to be shipped east and ground into fertilizer, turned into buttons, combs and glue. Men posed in front of the bone-ricks for photographers, with shabby hats and bristling mustaches, looking like mean, proud, haunted, belligerent dwarfs. If all the bones had been loaded at once, calculated the Topeka Mail and Breeze, they would have filled a freight train 7575 miles long, more than twice the distance from San Francisco to New York.
By the end of the great slaughter, in 1883, all the nomadic plains tribes had been corralled into reservations, to be forcibly instructed in the arts of Christian piety, private property ownership and sedentary farming. By 1886 the footloose trail cowboy was gone from the plains too, working on ranches now and sleeping in bunkhouses, fenced off the open range by the settlers he despised. His heyday had lasted only twenty years, and represented the last gasp of mounted nomadism in North America. There were still a few wandering outlaws, recalcitrant Indians and horse thieves left out in the back country and the canyons, but in short order they were hunted down and brought in, and the West was pronounced conquered, tamed and settled.
Traveling around the region today, it doesn't always feel that way. Settlement, and the feeling of settlement, does not occupy the land in the same way that it does back East, or in Europe. It is not just the vast, empty spaces, or all the drifters on the highway, or the ghost towns, being seeded back into prairie by the wind, or the dying family farms, defeated by the harshness of the climate and the machinations of corporate agriculture. The restless, rootless, migratory history of the West is also evident in its cities.
In Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas, urban populations are growing faster than anywhere else in the country, yet these booming, sprawling, modern cities have a flimsy, impermanent presence, at least to an eye trained in Europe. You drive through miles of trailer parks and mobile-home encampments, through brave new suburbs and utopian retirement communities-frame and Sheetrock dream homes, built on a vanishing water supply, designed to make a fast buck for the development company and fall apart in twenty or thirty years: "disposable homes," to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine who builds them for a living. In Phoenix, the most transitory of Western cities, 40 percent of the population have lived there for less than five years, and 50 percent say they plan to leave as soon as they get the chance.
Maybe it's just a matter of time. Maybe in another hundred years the wide open spaces will be gone, or reduced to islands in a sea of concrete, and the inhabitants will come to feel rooted in place. Given time, perhaps, the settlement of the West will be completed, but there remains a formidable obstacle that never existed in the East or in Europe.
Except for a small, soggy corner in the Pacific Northwest, aridity is the dominant characteristic of the American West, the organizing principle of its geography and biology, and the ultimate limit on its ambition of never-ending growth. The underground aquifers, which took millions of years to form, by slow accretion of scant rainfall, are plummeting dramatically. The major river of the Southwest, the Colorado, is already so tapped for irrigation that it no longer reaches the sea. Aridity explains why the grass on this prairie grows in separate bunches, rather than close-packed turf, why there are no trees rooted in the soil, why the rivers and the towns are so far apart. A buffalo seeking water and a truck driver seeking breakfast must travel the same approximate distance to find what they need to move on.
Aridity literally creates space. Where there is no moisture to mist up the
air, and no trees to block the view, the human field of vision expands
dramatically. From the ramparts of Bryce Canyon in Utah you can see for
180 miles on a clear day-London to Manchester-and still wonder what lies
over the horizon. Unless some kind of technological rain dance is devised,
it seems likely that the West will remain dominated by big empty spaces,
and a certain type of human being will feel compelled to wander across
them. First rule of nomadism: open space invites mobility.