At the beginning of August I drove from the Oregon Coast to the middle of New York State mostly on U. S. Highways and state and county roads. I spent the second night of the trip in Idaho Falls at a cheap motel with a view of the Mormon Temple just across the roaring Snake River. This was Mormon country—irrigation, rural-urban sprawl, golden angels gleaming against mountain backdrop, large families on vacation come to visit the shrine—but on request, the motel front desk supplied a corkscrew. Back in my room with bottle opened and plastic cup full of red wine, I took in the scene. The riparian setting and big church strutting its stuff in the glowing twilight made me think of Florence and its Duomo—the neon signs and parking lots full of minivans notwithstanding.
One of nine children, my grandfather was born just north of Idaho Falls in 1905 in the Mormon settlement of Menan. He fled the church and the state after a year at the University of Idaho to sell tractors out on the Great Plains in the Dakotas and Saskatchewan, but on occasion he would recall for the benefit of his increasingly amoral descendants that he had been baptized in a creek in Menan. In the town of some 700 the next morning I couldn’t tell whether that holy water might have flowed through Spring Creek—a trickle in late summer—or the misleadingly named Dry Bed, so called because it once was a ghost of a river that paralleled the South Fork of the Snake, but was converted by the settlers into an irrigation (and fishing) canal that feeds the surrounding fields and, now, the local golf course.
By mid-morning I was back on U.S. 26 following the Snake up through the Swan Valley—alfalfa and potatoes and amber waves of grain given life by giant sprinkler assemblies, the veins of white water echoed in slow motion by contrails in the cloudless blue sky above.
The road up towards the Rockies follows a free-flowing stretch of the Snake that ends at the Palisades Dam. Just over the Idaho-Wyoming line I stopped for a hitchhiker at Alpine, no longer a town, but a booming enclave of condos, guest ranches, brew pubs, and kindred blights of the New West. I’d been sailing along at 60 miles-an hour, and it took this large man a while to trot to the car. He arrived gasping and red in the face.
I said I assumed he was headed to Jackson. He nodded and we headed north at the junction of Highway 89. After he gathered his breath he said that he wished he were out on the Palisades Reservoir in a boat. Wasn’t it beautiful? he asked. My younger self would have nodded or left the rhetorical question politely unanswered. Instead, I admitted that dams and reservoirs were sad sights for me.
I soon found out that he was hitchhiking because his third Jeep in two years had met up with an elk on the road to Jackson, where he worked. He lived an hour away in Alpine because the rents there were less than half of the going rate in the trendy mountain “community” to the north. He’d been commuting an hour each way for the last few months, trying to get the payments together for his next used Jeep. He’d given up his job working for the State of Nevada as an undercover inspector of the gaming tables in Las Vegas for the idyllic, “country” pace of the mountains. Yet he now complained that he was right back in the rat race. “Here’s hoping you at least do better in the elk race with the next Jeep,” I added.
We drove by the used Jeep dealer’s lot, and he pointed out the rig—a black one—that he had his eye on.
My passenger worked at the reception desk of the Hyatt Regency in Jackson and, in spite of his long commute, loved the “vibe” and all the celebrities that came through the hotel. “Who have you seen?” I asked. “Kanye West and Kim Kardashian,” he beamed. My passenger had to get new shoe laces (all that walking-while-hitchhiking, I supposed) so I dropped him off at the Kmart and then I slogged through the SUV-clogged town and out along the flats to the north, a steady stream of jets passing in front of the Tetons for their landing at the Jackson Hole airport.
Maybe the West-Kardashian pair was returning on one of those planes. As I found out later, West was indeed at that time shopping for real estate in the area.
In September he bought the 4,000-acre Monster Lake Ranch in Cody, Wyoming, a hundred miles from increasingly crowded Jackson, where the spreads were too small for West’s territorial ambitions and where prices have shot up faster than Old Faithful, still steadily at its tourist-attracting work two hours to the north in Yellowstone Park.
Less than a month ago the rapper snapped up a 7,000-acre ranch, just fifty miles to the east of Cody in Greybull, Wyoming. The pair of ranches set him back to the tune of just under $15 million each.
The acquisition of these High Plains principalities came while West pursued his even more outsized musical initiatives: the release of his born-again gospel album, Jesus is King (which had been recorded in Jackson Hole) in September; his thirty-minute-long IMAX movie of the same name now in select theaters; his on-going series of three-hour-long Sunday Services (one from a month-ago held at Houston’s Lakewood Mega-Church, filled to its 16,000-person capacity and with its liturgy led by choruses and clerics clad in somber ashen vestments, can be sampled on YouTub; his recent “opera” Nebuchadnezzar, in which West knocks off the biblical tale of the Babylonian Captivity in a scant fifty-six minutes, premiered with a cast of hundreds a few weeks ago at the Hollywood Bowl. Another oratorio is planned. A tenth album, following close on the holy heels of Jesus is King, is, like the Savior’s arrival two millennia ago, scheduled for a Christmas release. The date befits the title: Jesus is Born. No holy man of the present is more adept than West at marketing the Messiah.
In a recent interview with New Zealand DJ and t.v. host Zane Lowe, West recounts how he was in search of “multi-thousand-acre properties” but couldn’t find anything larger than 500 in Jackson. Out onto the Plains he drifted. “I was expecting something really green [author’s note: as in the color of money], ‘cause that’s what you’re used to,” says West, leaning back at his editing station in front of a window looking out onto the brown grassland, the pole frame of a Native American lodge set in the middle in the view.
West did not care for the arid landscape at first, but by the time he left the ranch after his first sojourn, he “actually liked it.” By then it had occurred to him that “Wow, these are actually the Yeezy [West’s nickname] tones right here … It actually is the palette … It made me want to put on the other jacket”—not Joseph’s Coat of Many Color but an overpriced piece of Yeezy-wear in faded brown and grey. “It’s the Jesus-is-King palette!” chimes in interviewer Lowe. Asked about his plans for his Yeezy campus in Wyoming, West refers to his “visions.” These include farms—“because of the climate,” he says portentously— with “hydroponic cotton, wheat, hemp.” Self-sufficiency beckons, from “seed-to-sew, farm-to-table.” Verbal offerings are piously laid at the altar of Sustainability.
West’s current fortune is built not on his musical products but on his Yeezy clothing brand and his lucrative deal with Adidas that has cashiered sales upwards of a billion in 2019. Just three years ago West claimed to be $50 million in debt. He then lofted a prayer via Twitter to Mark Zuckerberg (supposedlyu a one-time Karaoke pal) asking him to be his angel and invest a billion in his “ideas.” Kanye’s apparel designs—and the power of his brand as projected through his music—has given him the means to buy ranches.
Before West takes up residence in the gated community in the sky, his dominions in the arid plateau proffer Promised Land that will survive the Dark Ages ahead. Whether clad in dark raiment or rapturous white, whether intoning religious rap or riding swells of gospel affirmations, West’s evangelism is mass movement. At its head is a charismatic and unstable prophet.
This Yeezy (a name so close to Jesus) is a prophet of colossal ambition and unpredictability. He had an assault charge recently expunged from his record. An early lyric from 1999 offers a vision not of love but of violence:
Yo I’m the reason metal detectors go off the meter
‘Cause I’ll run through the airport with the heater
Gets the fag at his plane, and if I miss him
Put two in his brain at the baggage claim
Give him… heavy sluggage, tryna get his luggage
Send him to the crossroads, we way too thuggish
Shit, we at odds ’til we even up
‘Til you leave on a stretcher or I leave in cuffs …
Niggas seen Kanye, red dotted them
Hurry up, stash the guns, the cops gon’ come
And we gon’ say we don’t know who shot at ’em
Since then, West has been praised for his body of lyrics that turns away from drugs and guns. But he has openly admitted that his mental health is sometimes fragile, prone to manic episodes, hyper-paranoia. When pitched into such a frame of mind, “Everything’s a conspiracy,” he told David Letterman earlier this year on his Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. “You feel the government is putting chips in your head. You feel you’re being recorded.”
As West’s Christian mission gathers force, followers and Lebensraum, let’s remind ourselves about the prophet himself. West is a pro-Trump loony who has described slavery as “a choice”—later making apologies for the vicious, stupid claim. West’s solipsistic observations on his expanding Western lands only serve to unsettle rational viewers further.
With this mad millenarian colonizing his own private Promised Land, as the Morons and other tribes of Manifest Destiny did before him, and with the FBI in revolt against the White house, you can bet that Kanye is already on the post-Waco watchlist. If the Democrats dislodge Trump come November, West’s Greybull and Cody Compounds will be even more steadily under the feds’ surveilling eye.
“Watch out for the vipers, don’t let them indoctrinate,” West intones on “Closed on Sunday” of Jesus is King. He knows that the Deep State doesn’t rest on the Sabbath.