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Hammering Down I-25 | The Nation

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Hammering Down I-25

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In the 1920s The Nation published a series of articles by prominent writers about their home states, later assembled into a book titled These United States. We have commissioned a number of contemporary writers to write new portraits--a sort of "These United States Revisited." This is the second to appear in our pages. --The Editors

About the Author

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

Most of my literary effort has been spent writing about the South and the American West. Geographically, I have always felt at home in either region. But the historical era with which people my age identify is less easily defined.

Americans of my generation, those born in the Great Depression, are transitional people, and as a consequence we tend to look at the historical calendar in the same way the two-faced Roman god Janus looked back at the preceding year and forward at the one to come. Because of the privation of the times we were born into, we throw away nothing, consider the wasting of food a theological offense and consider most financial institutions suspect. In some ways we feel we are sojourners in the present, with invalid passports, a bit suspect ourselves for the attitudes we hold.

George Orwell once described England as a protean creature, stretching ceaselessly into the past, forever changing, forever the same. I think the same could be said of the United States. The changes I've witnessed in my lifetime are enormous. But the strength, resilience, courage and compassion that are inherent in every aspect of the American value system remain unchanged. Unfortunately, our greatest weakness and vulnerability is still with us too--namely, our willingness to place our faith in charlatans, flag-waving demagogues and upscale hucksters who would turn the Grand Canyon into a gravel pit.

When I was a child, southern Louisiana was a misplaced piece of Caribbean culture where more people spoke French than English, almost all the dirt roads and state highways were canopied with live oaks, and each morning came to you like a gift, filled with birdsong, smelling of chicory coffee, ponded water, spearmint growing in a brick courtyard, night-blooming flowers, lichen crusted on stone, moldy pecan husks and fish spawning in the bayou. Time was static, and the salmon-colored vault of heaven over our heads was simply an extension of the idyllic natural world into which we had been born.

In his autobiographical book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller wrote of his visit to New Iberia during the Second World War and of the innocent way of life that characterized New Iberia's Acadian people, whose cypress cabins and houseboats and pirogues along Bayou Teche were shrouded in mist in the predawn hours, and the only sounds were fish flopping in the lily ponds.

Of course, the old injustices were here, too: massive illiteracy, rule by the plantation oligarchy, the denial of equality to people of color, wage exploitation of the poor, the great discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots.

The irony is that in many ways the deleterious aspects of early Louisiana society have found greater permanence in the present than the Edenic world described by Miller. For the most part, the plantation oligarchy is gone, but it has been replaced in economic and political influence by the petrochemical industry.

This essay isn't meant to be an attack upon the oil business. My father worked for a pipeline company most of his adult life. I was a landman for Sinclair Oil Company and a surveyor on the pipeline and briefly a laborer in what is called the oil patch. Oil people are like Roman legionnaires. They're the cutting edge of an empire. The grunts who actually produce the oil and natural gas out of the ground are the hardest-working, most stoic and fearless people I've ever known.

But petroleum corporations are totally pragmatic, if not amoral, and they do business with baseball bats. In the Hollywood film The Formula, Marlon Brando plays the role of a morally insane Texas oilman. One of his colleagues says something to the effect of, "These damn A-rabs is sure causing us a mess of grief, ain't they?"

As I recall, Brando replies, "Son, haven't you figured it out yet? We are the A-rabs."

The petrochemical industry in Louisiana is Louisiana. What that translates into is the second-worst environmental record in the United States. The governor of the state threatens, on television, to investigate volunteer attorneys who take on the cases of poor blacks whose communities have been used as open-pit dumping grounds for waste haulers throughout the South. For years our waterways have been considered among the most polluted in America.

This is the new world of Wal-Mart and the ubiquitous strip mall. The state roads and the parking lots of discount stores are literally layered with trash, thrown there by the cavalier, whose self-congratulatory hedonism is a form of anti-confiteor. Drive-by daiquiri windows are not only legal but under Louisiana law the owner cannot be punished for selling to minors as long as the infraction is committed by his employee.

I think the old plantation oligarchy would doff their hats in tribute to the public servants who have helped create a disparity in the quality of life here that has no peer outside the Third World.

My first trip into the real West was at age 15, when my father bought me a dollar watch and put me on a Southern Pacific sleeping car bound for a summer of trout fishing in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I woke in the Pullman berth around 4:30 the next morning near Raton Pass. That particular dawn was marked by the most beautiful sunrise I have ever witnessed. The mesas were enormous and pink against a night-black sky, the hillsides a velvet green that seemed soaked in blood. When the train stopped before the long pull up Raton Pass, I stepped down from the vestibule into the coolness of the dawn and the good smell of the creosote in the railway ties and woodsmoke rising from the stucco houses in the valley. In the hiss of steam from the locomotive, the rattle of the ice and mail wagons across the train platform, I felt I had stepped through a hole in the dimension, back into the world of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp when they pursued the Clanton-McLaury gang into Colorado after the shootout at the OK Corral.

Up the grade lay the old mining town of Trinidad, the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, its cobbled streets specked with frost, its nineteenth-century buildings softly lit in the morning light. The past was right at the end of my fingertips.

My wife and I have made that trip, over and over, for exactly forty years now, except today we continue on up Interstate 25, through Colorado and Wyoming, and then into western Montana, where we live half the year. But the two-lane road that followed the South Platte River north from Denver through meadowland and cottonwoods is now a highway swarming with cars that drive close to eighty miles an hour, many of them SUVs burning gasoline as though there were no tomorrow.

My wife was in a hospital in Missoula, Montana, undergoing tests the morning of September 11, 2001, and I was in the waiting room, watching the news on CNN, when suddenly the cameras cut to the attacks on the Twin Towers. I will never forget the images that came through the television screen that morning, and like all Americans who were alive the day President Kennedy was murdered or the Sunday the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I will always remember what I was doing at that particular moment. I felt my chest contract and my eyes water, and even though I was 64 years old, I felt the same sense of shock and fear and, ultimately, horror that I had felt as a 5-year-old child when, at 1:05 Central Standard Time, in a small cafe run by an elderly man from St. Martinville named Mr. Goula, a small, brown, wood-cased radio with a tiny yellow station indicator announced that the Second World War had just begun.

During the six weeks following the September 11 attacks I think I slept two nights. I could not rid myself of the images of the people who held hands and leapt to their deaths to avoid burning in the flames. Or of the firemen and police officers who went up the stairwells of both buildings, knowing in all probability they would be crushed to death or buried alive. How loving and how brave do human beings get? The answer, I think, is in the images of those desperate souls who held hands in their last moments and those courageous men who plunged upward into darkness and flame in order to save lives at the cost of their own.

Before his death, Adlai Stevenson made a statement about the level of humanity that characterized the foreign policy of the United States immediately after World War II. We were the only nation on earth that possessed atomic bombs. We could have turned the planet into a slave camp of watchtowers and concertina wire if we had chosen. Instead, through the Marshall Plan, we rebuilt the countries of our enemies. As Stevenson pointed out, no nation on earth ever acted with as much humanity.

But today, as I fly-fish the almost mythic Blackfoot River of western Montana, I realize I am perhaps seeing the last of the wilderness areas that for most of us geographically define the historical United States. Extractive industries wait like a starving man at a banquet table, knife and fork at the ready, to rip into virgin lands. Every justification is offered: jobs, tax revenues and, most perversely, national defense and what has come to be known as the war on terrorism, which seems to have replaced the old slogan "the war on communism."

I believe every individual has a special place in his or her heart that he or she creates out of the aggregate of that individual's experience. I liken it to a stained-glass cathedral visited by the people who are emblematic of our lives, the virtues and qualities we hold dear, even the weaknesses and the frailty of moral vision that give us our humanity. The special place where I live is full of Americans who to me are heroic: Dorothy Day, the Maryknolls who were martyred in El Salvador, Molly Brown, Joe Hill, Thomas Jefferson, Woody Guthrie, the women and children who died in the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, Audie Murphy and Flannery O'Connor. And once again, the great irony is that the bravest people I've ever known are people who are so humble and nondescript you cannot remember what they look like ten minutes after they leave a room. But in the final say each of them is a descendant of Natty Bumppo.

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.

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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