Hammering Down I-25 | The Nation


Hammering Down I-25

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Let the revisionists and denigrators say what they will. This is a great country and it's an enormous privilege to live inside its borders. The egalitarian meritocracy that Jefferson envisioned will probably become a reality in this century. In the meantime we'll continue to hear the shrill voices of those who despise the idea of a pluralistic society. Their message is vitriolic and filled with fear and hatred because they know they're on the wrong side of history. But they make handy point men for those who would grind up our forests, leach gold out of the rocks with cyanide in the Blackfoot drainage and drill for natural gas on the edge of Glacier National Park.

About the Author

James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke is a novelist who lives in Louisiana and Montana.

I hope the day comes when the degenerates and cowards who planned and paid for the attacks on the Trade Towers and the Pentagon are rounded up and given what they deserve, perhaps life terms chain-ganging on the hard road under the oversight of a few tobacco-chewing Mississippi gun bulls. I also hope the day will come when our national leaders will not lionize a collection of bedbugs and use the suffering of others to reinstitute a return to both cold war rhetoric and military spending.

But whatever happens, I will always feel a great pride in having been a participant in my country's national experience. The American story is an epic one, and all you need to do in order to see all its historical manifestations is to let imagination have its way for a moment or two and walk or drive through the older parts of our cities or across the countryside in the early morning hours when the fog hides the present and reveals the past.

In the late fall my wife and I drive south on I-25, through the Big Horn Valley, on through Denver and Pueblo, and past the site of the Ludlow Massacre, where striking miners and their families were attacked by state militia and unionbusters who worked for John D. Rockefeller's mineral interests. A tent city sheltering strikers and their families was set afire and machine-gunned. Thirteen women and children took refuge in a cellar under the flames. They died there, and today, between Trinidad and Pueblo, you can turn off I-25 onto a side road that leads you out on the hardpan toward the mountains, which are dotted with pinyon trees and turn a dark purple in the fall.

The storm cellar's still there.

When you lift the door and descend the stairs, I would swear you can hear the voices of the dead in the plaster walls.

Farther on, when you drive down Raton Pass south of Trinidad, you will see the ruins of a stucco mission tucked back in the hills to the west. It was built by Rockefeller, supposedly to rehabilitate his image after the killings at Ludlow.

What does it all mean? For me, the answer is simple. The potential in human beings for either good or evil seems limitless. When I return to our home in Louisiana, on Bayou Teche, a tidal stream on which members of my family have lived since 1836, I look at the red sun beyond the live oaks on the bayou, the smoke from stubble fires drifting off the fields, the hammered gold-and-purple light on the sugarcane, and in the gloaming of the day I want to see the moment caught forever inside a photographer's lens, before the land developers and the builders of strip malls and discount stores have their way with what I think are the gifts of both Heaven and Earth.

A character in Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls says, "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for." St. Paul talked about fighting the good fight. I think both men understood the ongoing nature of the struggle and the fact that the contest is never over, the field never quite ours. To be a participant, though, in whatever small capacity, is nonetheless a grand and ennobling experience. Sometimes on I-25 I think I hear Woody Guthrie's voice on the wind. It's a wonderful feeling to belong to both the past and the future and to be linked in spirit and vision to those who perhaps represent everything that is good and brave and decent in the human family.

At least it has been for me.

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