Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Sublime

Southern California

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

We recently had an opportunity to visit Zion National Park in southern Utah. Beautiful red rock formations and mountains abound. The journey to there from greater LA was a bit like going from the sublime to the ridiculous and back out the other side to the sublime again. That's if you're not a gambler.

Interstate 15 is the artery that carries the eastbound traveler out of the suburban congestion of the metropolitan area and into the desert north of Barstow. There the brown hills and salt flats of the Mojave are a reminder that this whole place was pretty much desolate and scrubby a century ago, when San Francisco was the Golden State's center of wealth and finance and culture (such as it ever was). Back when someone could put this line into a clever song:

She hates California, it's cold and it's damp,
That's why the lady is a tramp.

I puzzled on that for a while when I first heard it until I remembered that the center of gravity, as it were, of this state didn't really begin to move south down the Pacific coast until the 1920s, when the movie industry hit its stride. So when Lorenz Hart wrote those words in the 30s, it was a holdover from the days when eastern women of quality would go only to the northern part of the state if they came out here at all. And some remnants of that dichotomy exist to the present day. Money is certainly to be made hand over fist in the southern part of the state, but it's still to a great extent considered the fruits of ostentation and poor taste, comparatively speaking. In northern California (which, like northern Michigan, comprises a good two-thirds of the land mass of the state) the money has always seemed to smell a little better, as if scraping it raw from the ground made it cleaner: gold, silver, and silicon, as opposed to Goldwyn, the silver screen, and silicone.

Well, back to the trip. Out across the windy flat desert heading northeast to Nevada, mountains pushed back miles from the roadway, the towns become little oases, few and far between. In fact, the city of Baker is about it, amid signs with happy-go-lucky names promising death and damnation, visions of dried bleached bones dancing in the shimmering distance. Baker boasts the Mad Greek Restaurant and the Bun Boy Motel on its strip, reminiscent of the lonesome ports along I-10 in the New Mexico and Arizona desert, like Lordsburg and Quartzsite. Then, just when the arid desolation is becoming beautiful in its own right, Joshua trees and cacti and sagebrush thickening the gray-brown earth, the Nevada state line comes into view, and it's as if someone slapped up a third-rate theme park in the middle of absolutely nowhere. This town, bearing the unlikely name of Primm, has exactly one thing going for it. It welcomes you to a state where gambling is legal everywhere. To celebrate this crossing of the invisible line from massive San Bernardino County--where the powers that be unreasonably refuse to let you flush your money down an assortment of thousands of twinkling tinkling shitholes leading to the coffers of the Mafia--into Clark County, Nevada, they put up a few places for folks who can't wait another half hour to get to Las Vegas. I imagine that back before Indian casinos this spot on the state line was a Big Deal, being the first legal gambling venue the poor casino-starved Californians saw, and some of them stopped to dump their money right at the state line. Why wait?

Why wait indeed, unless of course you came to see Las Vegas. Lenny Bruce said that Miami is where neon goes to die. If so, then Las Vegas is where it goes when the boatman has taken it across the River Styx--the entertainment capital of the afterlife. Englebert Humperdinck, Wayne Newton, the Blue Men, Penn and Teller, Siegfried and ...ooops. And the New Mr. Vegas, comedian George Wallace. The good stuff. And if you can hold on to your wallet, it's a fast freeway drive on up the 15 from the state line. But if you're not interested in seeing a city where the streets are paved with Elvis impersonators and little Latin American conscripts handing out ads for call girls--if it's pure, unadulterated odds-stacked-against-you gambling you crave, then you might as well stop at Primm, or for that matter at any 7-Eleven along the highway throughout the great state of Nevada.

One of the little delights awaiting the traveler, after the long urban expanse of greater Las Vegas and an hour of desert on the other side, is the 25-mile chunk of I-15 that cuts through northwest Arizona on the way up to Utah, winding through the steep Virgin Mountains. This is excellent preparation for the beauties that lie ahead, because Utah is a beautiful state. I confess that my prejudices against the Mormons have kept me largely ignorant of the Beehive State until relatively recently. Contempt prior to investigation is never a good thing. So what if Brigham Young and his band of merry pranksters got here first? And small wonder that they liked what they saw. For mountain majesty there's no place like Utah, as far as your humble narrator can tell. Colorado is great, but east of Denver it tapers off so quickly into rolling prairie nothingness that you have to keep looking over your shoulder to make sure you didn't imagine what you were marveling at just hours earlier. Utah, on the other hand, is pretty much all mountains.

I'll let the photos speak for themselves, and for me, since when it comes to gigantic natural phenomena I'm generally left speechless. So far I haven't become bored with mountains of any sort, whether made of bare red sandstone or whatever it is, or covered with trees and shrubs. So much time as a comparative flatlander has made me easily impressed with these geological dimples. I can only imagine what I'd think of Katmandu.

One of the things that helps make the pristine beauty of the steep rocks and canyons in a place like Zion appear even greater by comparison is the cramming together of people from all over the country and the world who have come to gape. Japanese with their maniacal photographing of everything. Germans with their inveterate hearty love of hiking. Serious families of east Indians, the men walking ahead, the women young and old showing bits of brown back and midriff beneath drapes of cotton print material. And of course the rest of us, dressed as if we were getting ready to clean the garage or work on the car, wearing ball caps indoors and out, even while we dine, like the utter boors we've all become. Mixtures of man alive, as Captain Beefheart said, packed into buses chugging through gorges and canyons cut over millions of years by a nature vastly superior and utterly indifferent to the sights and smells and silliness of all its puny transient species, especially to this swarm of beings that glorifies itself to the point where it imagines it can make more than a brief miniscule difference to anything at all on this planet.

The sublime, the ridiculous, the sublime.

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