The Loneliest Road

by Alexander Cockburn

AUSTIN, Nevada: Late in the evening in back-road America you tend to pick the motels with a few cars marked in front of the rooms. There’s nothing less appealing than an empty courtyard, with maybe Jeffrey Dahmer or Norman Bates waiting to greet you in the Reception office. The all-night clerk at the Lincoln motel (three cars out front) in Austin, Nevada, who checked me at around 11.30 pm a few nights ago told me she was 81, and putting in two part-time jobs, the other at the library, to help her pay her heating bills since she couldn’t make it on her Social Security.

She imparted this info without self-pity as she took my $29.50, saying that business in Austin last fall had been brisk and that the 57 motel beds available in the old mining town had been filled with crews laying fiber-optic cable, along the side of the road, which in the case of Austin meant putting it twenty feet under the graveyard which skirts the road just west of town.

Earlier that day, driving from Utah through the Great Basin along US-50, billed as “the loneliest road”. I’d seen these cables, blue and green and maybe two inches in diameter sticking out of the ground on the outskirts of Ely, as if despairing at the prospect of the Great Salt Lake desert stretching ahead, through league after league of sagebrush.

So we can run fiber optic cable through the western deserts but not put enough money in the hands of 81-year olds so they don’t have to pull all-night shifts clerking in motels. What else is new? At least the lady in Austin was spry and interested in life, refreshed by her intermittent naps on the couch in the sitting room off the reception office, dipping into her book, with the motel cat to keep her company, across the road from the International café which serves good breakfasts and decent drinks from a magnificent wooden bar that came round the Horn from Europe back in Austin’s mining heyday in the 1870s.

People who drive or lecture their way through the American interior usually notice the same thing, which is that you can have rational conversations with people about the Middle East, about George W. Bush and other topics certain to arouse unreasoning passion among sophisticates on either coast. Robert Fisk describes exactly this experience in a recent piece for The Independent, for which he works as a renowned reporter and commentator on mostly Middle Eastern affairs.

Fisk claims on the basis of a sympathetic hearing for his analysis ­ unsparing of Sharon’s current rampages ­ on campuses in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest that things are changing in Middle America. After twenty-five years of zig-zagging my way across the states I can’t say I agree. It’s always been like that, and even though polls purport to establish that 90 per cent of all Middle Americans claim to have had personal exchanges with Jesus and reckon George W. to be the reincarnation of Abe Lincoln, the reality is otherwise. Twenty years ago Fisk would have met with lucid views in Iowa on the Palestinian question, plus objective assessments of the man billed at that time as Lincoln’s reincarnation, Ronald Reagan.

Some attitudes do change. White people are more afraid of cops than they used to be. A good old boy in South Carolina I’ve bought classic cars from for quarter of a century was a proud special constable back in the early Eighties. These days if a police cruiser passes him on the highway, he’ll turn off at the next intersection and take another road. Reason: a few years ago a couple of state cops had stopped him late at night, frisked him, accused him of being drunk. This profoundly religious Baptist told them truthfully he’d never consumed alcohol in his life. Then they said he must be a drug-dealer. He reckons the only reason they didn’t plant some cocaine in his car was that he told them to check him out with the local police chief, an old friend.

I know from the stats that a lot of Americans are poor, so how come I’m often the only fellow on the road, or in town, in an old car aside from some of the Mexican field workers in California for whom such cars are home?. Most everyone seems to be in a late-model pick-up, an SUV, or at least a nice new Honda Civic. I know, I know. The poor are out there, lots of them, but the whole place just doesn’t seem to feel as poor as it often did in the early Eighties, in the Bush recession. Then day after day you could drive through towns that felt like graveyards, with no prospect of fiber optic cable running under them.

Take Grants on 1-40 in New Mexico, west of Albuquerque, which became the nation’s self-proclaimed “uranium capital” in the Fifties after Paddy Martinez heard descriptions of what uranium ore looked like and led the mining prospectors to the yellow rocks he’d been looking at down the years. The mines closed and I recall from the early 1980s Grants looking looked sadly becalmed, with its Uranium Café and souvenir motels from the great days of Route 66. The audio in the Mining Museum still speaks plaintively about radiation’s bad rep, despite the fact that in modest amounts it’s good for you and there was much more of it around when the world was young.

Well, 66 Nostalgia is still strong in Grants, to the advantage of Bob and Mei Rasmussen, out of the Bay Area, who run the Sands Motel and who recently hosted a Route 66 concert in their parking lot (all profits to the local food bank), in which Bob hopes one day to park a Buick Electra 1963 convertible, if anyone wants to sell him one at a reasonable price. (Nonetheless I had the strong impression that Mrs Rasmussen was eager to return to San Francisco, where more of her Chinese compatriots reside.) But aside from the Lee Ranch coal mine the juice in Grants’s economy now comes in large part from three prisons, one fed, one state and one private.

No wonder people are nervous of cops. There are so many prisons the cops can send you to. So many roads where a sign suddenly comes into view, advertising Correctional Facility and warning against hitchhikers. I was driving through Lake Valley in eastern Nevada along highway 93, with Mount Wheeler looming to the east. Listening to the radio and Powell’s grotesque meanderings I was thinking, Why not just relocate the whole West Bank to this bit of Nevada where the Palestinians could have their state at last, financed by a modest tax on the gambling industry. The spaces are so vast you wouldn’t even need a fence. Then reality returned in the form of the usual sign heralding a prison round the next bend.

West along US-50 from Austin I came to Grimes’ Point, site of fine petroglyphs. A sign informed me that “The act of making a petroglyph was a ritual performed by a group leader. Evidence suggests that there existed a powerful taboo against doodling.” What evidence? A shaman’s club embedded in the skull of a mere scratcher? The graffiti problem. Some things never change. On the other hand, some do. Many thousands of years ago those northern Paiute or cognate inquilines chiselling the rocks were on beachfront property, the edge of a vast sea. The nearby Naval Air Station at Fallon was underwater. The world was warmer then, and we’re heading that way once more, from natural causes.


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