Hurricane Katrina and the breached levees left folks who lived below sea level with nothing. Now accidental voyageurs, many didn’t find out where they were going until mid-flight. In a moment, their clustered world of old neighborhoods, bayous, moss-laden trees, year-round rains and constant humidity, crawfish, hip-hop, jazz, and zydeco, where just about everybody was black, or at least brown Creole, was replaced with high-elevation landscapes of soaring vistas, blue skies, dry thin air, few if any trees, and people who look, act, think, and talk nothing like them. Most will never return to N’awlins. Years ago I met folks in Louisiana who knew all their ancestors nearly 200 years, back into slavery, none of whom had ever left a 50-mile radius.
The open road, the new beginning on a stark, arid landscape, is the enduring mythology of the American West. But that road has flattened many who did not expect the West’s loneliness, culture clashes, and environmental exploitation.
In Albuquerque, The New York Times found an evacuee, grandmother Desiree Thompson. “This place is really strange to me,” she said. “The air is different. My nose feels all dry.”
In a Utah National Guard camp on a sagebrush plateau south of Salt Lake City, another evacuee wondered, “Am I the only guy around here with dreadlocks?” Hurricane victims at local Fort Worth shelters where friends and I have been working feel culturally a little closer to home, through similar “Dirty South” hip-hop music and culture. But still, I’ve heard some of them express dismay at our hot yellow burning sun. “I thought New Orleans was hot,” whistled one guy as he placed a white cotton towel over his sweating head, as if trying to duck from such a big bright sky. To me, the saturated blue light and puffy white prairie clouds looked soothing. I mean, it was only 96 degrees, not the anvil sky of the Further West.
For myself, I know I’ve tried to call home both my normal ghetto life and the outback West, and that West still beckons, even while it promises as much frustration, anger, potential violence, and isolation as it promises 60-mile views, grassland canyons, riverbeds, sandstone rocks to climb, and sudden moments of pole-axing silence that might suddenly bring you closer to God. “There’s no place like home,” fabled Dorothy of western Kansas once said. But the West may never be “home” in the conventional sense because it’s an aching place, an unsettled-stomach kind of place, too close still to the recent history of racial conquest and suppression of the wild, and too perpetually wrought up in social conflict. It is no mistake that barbed wire has become the emblematic icon, or should I say irony, of the promise of freedom in our American West.
Maybe contradictions are the true essence of the West: freedom and claustrophobia, hopes and dashed dreams, beauty and devastation, welcome arms and disemboweling intolerance, an open road that sometimes becomes the end of the road. Each New Orleans evacuee will have her or his new story. For better or worse, most will stay, set up new lives.
Terry Tempest Williams, author of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, is a sixth-generation Mormon who lives in Salt Lake and loves her West fiercely, yet still hasn’t come to terms with its dark underlining. She said, “How do we find refuge in change? … Having lived in Utah all of my life, I can tell you that in many ways I know of no place more lonely, no place more unfamiliar. When I talk about how it is both a blessing and a burden to have those kinds of roots, it can be terribly isolating, because when you are so familiar, you know the shadow. … But I still love it. And that is the richness, the texture.”
I’ve been thousands of miles into the West. As I read the recent accounts of the New Westerners, this son-of-an-immigrant mixed-race porch monkey feels himself simultaneously longing for and dreading the Further West. Close in, or further out, our West’s problems and promises are something I’ve not yet been able to reconcile.
The Times closed its article with a photo of a young boy on the Utah Guard base alone in a large swimming pool. His arms are pushed forward in the clean water, as if about to swim. It is near twilight; the last of the evening’s sunlight glows on his coppery face. The pool is an aquamarine blue matching the thin, arid evening sky, and miles away the Wasatch Mountains rise, glowing also. You can feel the dry air, the night chill approaching. The wispy summer desert clouds are high up and a little see-through, and match the white pearl circles of his fingernails.
Jarid Manos is executive director of Great Plains Restoration Council. His memoir, Ghetto Plainsman, will be published early next year by Temba House Press.