Silence and Las Vegas
We’ve moved a lot in the past couple of weeks, from southeast Utah, to Nevada, to California. Some nights are windy, and others are full of nocturnal life. Sometimes we hear the rumbling of an airplane, or cars driving by on distant and not so distant highways. But in the deserted lands of the west several nights are dead silent. No birds, or coyotes, or trees shaking with a breeze. Just overwhelming silence, surrounding us like water.
Public campgrounds are never silent. The worst thing about them, of course, is the occasional sound of a generator. It’s not only loud and annoying, it’s also the idea of it. It is the confirmation of our impossibility to escape into silence. It’s like the ghost of fossil fuel coming to torment us. “Booo, unleaded gasoline fumeeees.”
When we reach Death Valley and spend a night in the middle of the desert, where everything seems to stand still, I realize that if God is real he must dislike me. Because now, even when we’re alone, surrounded only in darkness and silence, I hear the rumble of a generator. Aut says I’m crazy, and it seems like I am. The sound appears to me to be coming clearly from the outside world, a distant generator laughing at me. I heard it first elsewhere, several nights ago. The fact that it’s still here means it’s inside me. My brain has been filling the silence with motor farts.
Before Death Valley, we pass through Las Vegas and spend two nights at a friend’s house. Aut and I have been here before, almost 8 years ago, when we reluctantly stopped for 20 minutes just to get married in the cheapest place we could find. (I wrote about it here, if you’re interested!). I hate this place. The visual and aural pollution of this city represents everything that’s wrong with Capitalism. In principle, the idea that few can be rewarded by the loss of a majority would seem unfair. “But what if YOU could be one of the few?” says Capitalism, smiling like a TV show host. Las Vegas has taken that model and added a Pavlovian strategy of lights and sounds and country singers to guide us straight into it, like rats in a gold maze, pushing levers for food. The city has been founded on the idea of waste, boasting flashing lights and water fountains on top of a land that’s supposed to be a desert, and it’s supposed to be dark and waterless. Las Vegas stands here like a middle finger to common sense, a city that is the equivalent of a fat, voracious bully stomping on nature just for fun. We’re wasting resources to the detriment of the landscape and future generations, but you can be one of the few who can enjoy it now!
Back into Arches
Some days ago we visited Arches National Park. It’s also not the first time we’ve been there. Seven years ago we took a trip down Route 66, and on our way back we stopped here. Time seems to stand still in this deserted area, where the dry remains of dead pinyon pines lie under arches. These rocks are suspended in the air, and look so fragile, so ready to fall, but have not changed in decades.
Last time we came we took a self-timer picture of ourselves jumping, or trying to jump, in a sandy opening among the red rocks. You will never lay eyes on this picture as long as Aut and I live. It’s a disaster, but it’s our sacred disaster, just for us. Autumn’s face is pained from the effort of jumping one inch, her neck muscles extending, her eyes mostly closed, her arms awkwardly suspended. My feet have not left the ground. One of them reaches in the attempt, the other one has refused to even pretend: the hand hasn’t even left my pocket. My face is contracted, my lips open in a painful O, my teeth clenched. Once in a while, every year or so, one of us finds it in our hidden, password-protected double-encrypted file folder, and we cry from laughter.
As we walk in the park we think of that picture and try to remember exactly where we took it. So every hike through the park is also a hunt for the place. In our last stop, exhausted from a day of hiking, we finally find it. The moment comes back to us and we feel accomplishment, and we cry laughing. “Let’s try it again,” Aut says, and we do. I won’t describe the result of our second attempt, but let’s just say things in Arches do not change. Time is suspended here.
Names on the Rock
There’s a popular hike in Canyonlands National Park that ends in a beautiful arch that frames the landscape below. We’re enjoying the views when I see a woman carving her name onto a giant stone next to the arch. “You’re not supposed to do that,” I tell her. I don’t like confrontation and just saying these words already feel like an act of infinite courage. My heart is pounding.
She’s immediately embarrassed. “Oh, it will come off,” She says. “No, it won’t,” I respond, saddened more than aggressive. “And now you’ve destroyed something that belongs to all of us.” “I’m sorry,” she replies. “It’s a good reminder. Thank you,” says her mother. There’s more I would like to tell her but we leave. As we walk back my mind plays hundreds of scenarios of things I could’ve said, but no fantasy or conclusion is good because the rock has been defaced forever.
What is it about us humans and our need to leave a mark? When I confronted her, this woman suddenly realized what she had been doing, like a sleepwalker who awakes to find herself in the living room with her hands covered in blood. More than an act of evil vandalism, it seemed an instinctive need to be remembered. Useless breadcrumbs left for no one, for no reason. I don’t think I would ever do what she did, but I do recognize the impulse in myself, in this letter, for example. The need to proclaim “I’m here,” even when you have nothing else to say, even when your name means nothing.
Throughout this whole region we’ve seen petroglyphs of the Fremont, the Paiutes, the Puebloans, and other inhabitants of the land. We’ve also seen signatures of pioneers and explorers, or early 20th Century visitors. What is, deep down, the difference between this woman’s carving and the historical ones? Of course, the immediate answer is the logical one: hers has no significant cultural reference, and it’s not a good testimony of the historical and cultural process of these lands. But then again, it very well may be: in the future, anthropologists may be able to gather signs of an era where natives roamed and hunted these lands, where pioneers came to settle with their cattle, and then the time when industrial tourism and very large crowds of people eroded and destroyed a large part of the land. “This part of history,” a ranger would say, “was notorious for incredible amounts of waste, a visual obsession with social media identities, and the absurd need to carve names on rocks even if you were here only for the weekend. Here, as you can see, a vapid creature with no power of analysis or self-awareness, started writing her name, as a testimony of how irresponsible these people were, and how obsessed they were with the idea of being remembered. This name, however, is incomplete. Anthropologists believe this is due to her being interrupted by Esteban Touma, as the name and place matches the description he made in his incredibly popular and wonderfully written newsletters, which are now required readings in high school, and have secured Mr. Touma a place in immortality, as you all know. His name will always be remembered here, in Touma National Park.”
Esteban Writes from the DesertEsteban Writes from Somewhere
Silence and Las Vegas