Trans America Part I -- The West

Please Click on the thumbnails to view pictures.

This is the Pacific coast, viewed from the Big Sur.

This is the Atlantic coast, viewed from Tybee Island, Savannah, GA.

In the summer of 2016, I blasted through 7,822.3 miles and 20 states, alone, in a transcontinental round trip to have a good look at this great country I called home for over half of my life. Another item on my bucket list checked.

I’ve been cultivating the idea ever since reading travelogues like On the Road and The Lost Continent.

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac depicted a strangely confused and innocent America of the late 1940s, where an ivy college beatnik could hitchhike all the way from New York to Los Angeles, living like a tramp. In a backdrop of fluid jazz music, he mingled with people from all walks of life on the road, getting drunk and getting high; he made out and broke up with a dazzling variety of girls in a frenzy; he drove with a group of beatniks butt naked across the scorching Texas desert, much to the astonishment of passing truck drivers; he laid under the southern sky, feeling the soft air, looking at the fine stars, and contemplating life. It was an entrancing romance and a manifesto of the post-war counterculture movement. “Life is road,” he said, “live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.” Kind of make you itch to grab your rucksack and run, doesn’t it?

Bill Bryson, on the other hand, provided a more light-hearted account of traveling across The Lost Continent in search of the ideal American small town in the late 1980s. A perennial cynic and sarcastic whiner, Bryson spread grievances, complaints, and caustic remarks all along the 13,978-mile journey across 38 states. He mocked the Midwesterners for their naiveté, the Westerners their rudeness, the Southerners their fatuity, the Northerners their snobbishness, the big city folks their coldness, the small town people their narrow-mindedness, and the country farmers their obtuseness – it gets a bit tiresome pretty soon. But the book does have the virtue of being witty and hilarious, which were the main things I wanted from a casual read. To its credit, the book does occasionally provide keen observations about this vast and lost continent, which was alledgedly occupied mostly by dump-witted, short-sighted fat people.

I decided that someday, I must see it for myself. Then this year the wife announced that she’ll take the kids to China for 3 weeks in August; I quickly realized that this was a rare opportunity for me to make that trip. A crude estimation suggested that the 3 weeks is sufficient for me to make a hasty trip to reach the other end of the continent, to see what’s out there.

The timing couldn’t be better. As I was planning, Donald Trump just stunned the world by snatching the GOP nomination, and was gathering steam in the presidential race. I would have never even dreamt of it – a Groucho Marx-like clown (as in Duck Soup, 1933) was about to take over the free world. It was beyond my comprehension that half of this great country was going to vote for a narcissistic and arrogant buffoon. What just happened outside of our complacent little liberal cocoon known as California, which we totally missed? The country has never been so divided since the Civil War. To paraphrase Colin Quinn, the whole country was like a group of half-drunks in a very dark and noisy bar, all talking but nobody was listening. Suddenly, someone turned on the light (the election); everyone took a good look at each other and was stupefied: was that schmuck / snob / lunatic / liar / crook who I was just talking to?

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It was time to set things right. I shall go deep into the bulk of this vastly diverse continent, across the reddest of the Trump states, to take a look at the other half of the nation for myself. I shall examine their habitat and take a peek at the lives of these reportedly God-fearing, gun-loving, simple-minded, under-educated, deplorable beings. That pretty much set the undertone for the trip.

In addition, of the 59 national parks in the country, 34 of them still awaited my expedition. Many of them were in the red states – natural beauty usually has a reverse correlation with economic prosperity, unfortunately.

The planning wasn’t too difficult. As I was travelling alone, I could make the plan as flexible as possible, mapping out routes and booking hotels daily. I made a list of the main destinations I wanted to go through, but the route, the pace, and the dwell time would all depend on the weather, road conditions, my energy level, and how much I liked the place. I was immensely grateful for the aid of modern magic – GPS (a proper Garmin, not an app, as many areas I went through lack cellphone coverage), extended weather forecast, Priceline, Expedia, Yelp, and a smart phone containing about 3 weeks’ worth of none-stop music and audio books. They made my trip a relative breeze compared to Kerouac’s or Bryson’s punishing trudges (especially that of Bryson, who was terrible at finding directions).

So I dropped the wife and kids to the airport, and piloted my rugged Subaru Outback into the vastness of the Nevada desert along Route 50. I was completely absorbed in the kind of excitement and exultation that overcomes me in the beginning of every big trip, despite of the long drive across the desert was about as dull as Mr. Trump’s vocabulary. The only stimulation I had in the entire stretch was a few quick showers and a tunnel through the Carlin Canyon. My first destination would be Great Basin National Park, but I knew I wouldn’t make it in just half a day, so I stopped at Ely, NV for the night.

 

 

Great Basin National Park was named after the Great Basin, a large span of desert between California’s Sierra Nevada and Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. The name “Great Basin” is a bit misleading, as the area consists of some 90 small basins and valleys. What they have in common is that they’re all endorheic, meaning none of their water sources has an oceanic outlet. They all drain within, ending up underground or in inland reservoirs such as the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

 

Great Basin National Park is located at the eastern edge of Nevada, near the border to Utah, in the middle of nowhere. It’s a relative obscure national park, with no other point of interests within hundreds of miles in any direction. It attracts a meager 90,000 visitors annually – less than 1% of the Great Smokey or 2% of the Grand Canyon. I wouldn’t have thought of visiting here except that it lies conveniently close to my path to Salt Lake City.

 

But I was glad that I did. The park featured a surprising diversity of landscapes, ranging from an ancient underground marble cave, to dense groves of some of the oldest trees in the world, to glacial mountaintops, and to top them all a breathtaking panoramic view of the great basin.

Lehman Cave. In the middle of such a barren desert, the last thing you would expect is an underground marble cave heavily decorated with limestone formations, which required millions of years of aqueous sculpting. But the great basin was not always a desert. About 600 million years ago, it was a shallow, warm inland sea, with layers of sediment (mostly from the remains of sea creatures) turning into limestone and marble. Earth crust movement buckled and fractured the layers, which created mountain above and caverns below. Erosion from weakly acidic water (from carbonic acid) further expanded the space. After the water table dropped and the caves drained, water seeping from atop the snowy mountain have continued to slowly dissolve and deposit, chisel and polish, like an immensely patient stone mason creating delicate limestone formations.

 

The result was a two-mile-long gallery of fancy stonework. Parts of gallery were enlarged into great halls, which were given appropriate names like “Gothic Palace” and “Grand Palace.”  The cave was still growing, said a park ranger tour guide, and probably would be for the millennia to come.

 

Among the exquisite work of nature, the most memorable feature of Lehman cave was its shield formations. These are thin sheets of limestone form on the two sides of a crack. When water seep out of the crack, it deposits calcite on both sides and eventually grow into a plate. Some of the shield were decorated with popcorns and helictites.

 

Before leaving the cave, I was surprised to spot sign of life in such a stagnant and infertile environment. A tiny pale Inyo Cave Cricket (Ceuthophilus inyo) was moving about, quite oblivious of our flashlights. However, its extensive antennae could detect our movements as we approached, and it quickly vanished. The ranger told us that there was a small-scale eco system in the cave. The food source come from organic matters shed from animals that live in the cave: rats, mice, chipmunks, and bats, as well as nutrients washed down by rain. Living on those are bacteria, crickets, spiders, pseudoscorpions and the like, which may spend their full life cycle in the cave.

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Outside the cave was a totally different world. Just below the tree line on the hillside were green groves of Bristlecone Pines, the Ubermensch of the plant kingdom. They’re strong, resilient, and long-lived. They thrived on the poor soil on the hillside; they could withstand the harshest of weathers over the millenia; and they could live well over 4,000 years. There was specimen measured to be 5,066 years old, arguably the oldest living thing in the world.

 

Above the tree line stood the 13,065-ft Wheeler Peak. Even at late summer, the peak was graced with a glacial cirque, the southernmost glacier in North America. Melted snow fused into creeks and ponds (often overstated as “lakes”), creating rather pleasant sceneries along the hiking trails.

 

On my way down, I was captivated by a magnificent panoramic view of the basin below, like an enormous tablecloth stretch right in front of me. There were creases and wrinkles, as the setting sun gently casted warm shadows on barren rolling hills. There were flatlands, where highways straight as a ramrod stretched afar. I was amazed to see that on such an arid desert, people managed to cultivated farmlands, which decorated the expansive yellow background with green circular patches. I sat for a long time, until it was getting dark.

 

The closest town to the park was Baker, population 68, right at the foot of the hill. I’ve considered staying there for the night. But after driving through its desolate 800-ft long main street, refueling in a tatter two-pump station, I decided that it’s too depressing a place to dwell on. So, I pressed on into the twilight, cool wind in my hair and brilliant afterglow on the hood. It was pitch dark when I finally reached Ely, NV, which was a decent size town with reasonable choices of accommodations.

 

 

The next morning, I crossed the state line into Utah – I’ve officially entered the Trump country. I’ve already sensed that since the day before: the further inland I went, the less rock music stations I could find, and the more Christian radio sermons I bumped into. Any station that was not praising the lord would be a talk radio, with one guy angrily yapping for hours on how miserable the US economy was, or how chaotic and dangerous Obama has made this country become. To top them all, one host invited a priest who claimed himself a close friend of the Clintons, to give a vivid testimony on how corrupted and greedy the Clintons were. That was all fine, but what amazed me was that there were absolutely no different voices, no skepticism on all their claims or any fact checking. Their political stance was as monotonic as the uniforms in a totalitarian state (Orwell’s 1984 came into mind). Occasionally when they took a break from politics, the local news reported were strangely delirious: a woman robbed the county bank and waited on-site for arrestment just to get back to jail; a man who sped recklessly told the cops that he was bored. This was a completely different world. I couldn’t help but thought, was that what everyone listen to in their pickup trucks and tractors all day?

 

Once a while, I would pass one of these listless one-street small towns, where the most prominent feature was the white spiral of the local chapel. The inhabitants here, I was glad to found, were not a bunch of angry mobs as I had imagined. On the contrary, from my personal experience, the locals appeared to earnest, plain, trusting, and warm-hearted, in other words, exemplar American citizens. For one thing, they were always ready to give a lone out-of-state traveler in destress (my fan belt snapped) their helping hands, their brawny capable hands. They towed my car, diagnosed, and fixed my car within hours, even though it was in the middle of nowhere.

 

I wasn’t bold enough to initiate a political discussion with them – it was unwise to provoke someone who was repairing my car. I just chattered about the weather and other nonsense. However, by simply observing and eavesdropping I was under the impression that an entire network of propaganda – local media, religious indoctrination, and political rallies – had effectively infected (if not taken control of) their political views. Little did I realized at the time that I was witnessing the incubation of one of the more dramatic political upset of my lifetime. Back in July, when Michael Moore predicted that Trump would win the election, I dismissed his pessimism. I wouldn’t say this trip completely changed my opinion, but after crossing the entire continent without hearing one single approving remark on Hillary Clinton from any local station, I began to have my doubts. Now with the benefit of hindsight, despite his liberal views, Moore knew these Trump voters well. In fact, they were his people, “the beaten down, forgotten, nameless stiff,” whose rights he has spent his career fighting for.

Quietly, these forgotten and nameless stiffs lurked in an underworld of hidden turbulence beneath the calm and glossy surface of the pro-Clinton opinion polls in “mainstream” media. Silently, they were drifting in a completely different direction, and becoming ever more volatile (if only we had paid enough attention to the religious fervor in those trump rallies…). When their time came, they emerged in the most climactic fashion, waved their middle fingers to the world, and turned this country upside down.

I pitied them, privately, as I knew they wouldn’t appreciate such sentiment. They were hit the hardest by the Great Recession of 2008, but enjoyed very little benefits of the gradual recovery and the eventual prosperity, which was driven largely by the tech segment (a foreigner-infested tech segment at that). I understood their discontents and frustration. All they wanted was just a decent job with reasonable wage, like what those foreigners allegedly had in distant big cities. So, when a new face popped up and barked clamorously against globalization and immigration law, they thought they finally found their voice. With religious zeal, they bet their future on this political outsider, this businessman (never mind he’s also a blowhard and a clown), hoping that he would arm wrestle with “the invisible hand” of capitalism, bring back all those old-time manufacturing jobs and reverse their fortune. Well, they may have won the election, but I am not sure if they’ll ever get what they want. I think we all should be inculcated with the rudiments of economics, probably starting from the works of Adam Smith. But even that has become a luxury we can’t afford any more: Trump has recently slashed the federal funding for PBS and NPR.

 

Anyway, gloomy as the prospect was, I refused to let it spoil my trip. I was approaching the eastern edge of the Great Basin now. The pale salt flats on the two sides of the highway reminded me that I must be close to the Great Salt Lake.

 

The Great Salt Lake is the largest drainage of the Great Basin and the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere. If we rewind to the ice age, say some 15,000 years ago, it was bigger still, covering the entire state of Utah and part of Nevada and Idaho (known as Lake Bonneville). Over the years it dried up and left a few smaller lakes and the extensive Bonneville salt flat, a drag race heaven where all sort of land speed records were set. As the Great Salt Lake lies on a flat plain, its water is quite shallow and its size varies significantly with the water level (from 950 to 3,300 square miles). It was apparently low season when I drove toward the Antelope Island, as the island was almost a peninsula.

 

What impressed me about the Great Salt Lake was not the size but its quietude. When facing such an immense body of water, I was surprised at how strangely serene it was. It just lied there right in front of me, smooth without a ripple (because of the shallowness). The air was still and the time was frozen. The only sound was a slight hiss of water evaporating into the air.

 

And there was a peculiar salty stench that was not quite like that of the ocean. It contained additional layers of unpleasant rotten egg odors. I found out later that the smell owes much to the low oxygen level of the lake. Because of that, the organic wastes (the lake has been the sewage outlet for nearby communities) and dead algae have to be decomposed anaerobically (without oxygen), which emits hydrogen sulfide, a key ingredient of human flatulence.

 

In the visitor center, I was told that the stench could have been much worse without the help from a large population of brine shrimps and brine flies, which consume much of the odorous anaerobic bacteria and algae. There was an aquarium in the visitor center displaying a group of brine shrimps. Known scientifically as Artemia franciscana, these were inconspicuous creatures: barely half an inch long, semi-transparent, and somersaulting all over the tank. But they can withstand salinities up to 33%, almost ten times that of the ocean, so they thrive in the Great Salt Lake (up to 27% salinity, too harsh for any fish).

 

Large flocks of Brine flies, on the other hand, were a loathsome sight along the shore. Millions and millions of these hideous little creatures clustered right at the waterfront, forming a dark hue along the shoreline. As I walked by, they would be startled and swirl into a sizable black tornado, swoosh away and land again onto somewhere distant. They didn’t pester me; it was just this creepy feeling when a million flies droning in front of me. I probably should have been more forgiving, as brine flies were such a key component of the salt lake’s ecosystem. Besides cleaning up the smelly algae and bacteria, they provided ample food source for some 7.5 million birds, many of them passing-by migrants.

 

In addition, there were some 700 bison (Bison bison), countless number of Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana), and mule deers (Odocoileus hemionus) roaming the island.

 

The water was indeed very shallow at the shore. You could walk some 60 feet into the lake without wetting your knee. The average depth of the lake is only about 16 feet, and the max depth about 33 feet (for reference Lake Michigan averages about 279 feet and can reach up to 792 feet) – it was more like a giant puddle. A few brave souls seemed to enjoy swimming around. Apparently it was quite easy to float on the lake as the water was so salty and dense. But I believe they’ll need a very thorough flush afterwards to rid themselves of the stench, salt, algae, and brine shrimps.

 

 

Some 50 miles Southwest of the Antelope Island was Salt Lake City, the nation’s most religious metropolis – sounds dispiriting, doesn’t it? A 2012 poll showed that 73% of its 1.2 million residents were affiliated with a religious group, and most of them were of course Mormons. I first learnt about Mormonism as a kid by reading Sherlock Holmes’ A Study in Scarlet, in which the Church of Later-day Saints was depicted as a mafia-like cult. The church controlled its mass through murder, kidnap, and enslavement – hardly the kind of publicity you want in popular culture for a relatively young religion (not quite 200 years old today). The unflattering coverages on the Mormons’ polygamy practice, racism, and homophobia from time to time didn’t help either.

 

So, with circumspection, I drove right into the heart of the holy city, and parked near the Temple Square. The Mormon Temple was in no doubt the most majestic edifice in the entire city and the center of the Mormon universe. A pale gothic structure reportedly intended to revoke the Temple of Solomon, it was the sacred ground for the LDS church. It was off-limit to tourists; even the Mormons needed special permissions to enter. Fortunately, there’s an exquisite dissected model in the visitor’s center for us to peek at its interior.

 

Most other buildings in the temple square, such as the Tabernacle and the Assembly Hall, however, were open to the public.

 

The square was full of monuments and artifacts that commemorate the founding of Mormonism, Mormon Exodus, and the founding of Salt Lake City. In 1846, led by Brigham Young, the long-marginalized and prosecuted Mormons started a long and arduous westward migration from the mid-west, searching for their new Zion. Some 70,000 people, many of them couldn’t afford an ox-wagon, trudged 1,350 miles on foot to the Great Salt Lake valley, carrying their younglings and belongings on these wooden handcarts. It was a harsh journey, especially for those who had to brave through the brutal winter. 250 perished on the road. From such a humble beginning to a well-established institution with 15-million members nowadays, the LDS church has gone a long way in the last 170 years.

 

Part of the success must be attributed to its masterful dissemination. The exhibits in the visitor centers were highly detailed and well-presented. The paintings were lucid and engaging, like illustrations in textbooks or National Geographic magazines. The image of Jesus Christ, I couldn’t help but noticed, seemed more Caucasian than Jewish, presumably tailored to the tastes of the audience. I have also happened to lay eyes upon a Chinese pamphlet depicting Jesus as a bearded Chinese, posted in a namaste gesture when being baptized. Whatever works I guess.

 

What impressed me more in the temple square was a large troop of comely young ladies from all around the world, earnestly greeting the visitors and asking everyone if they have any questions. Always keen on learning about spiritual matters from a group of pleasant young ladies, I chatted away with a few of them. I noticed that a large fraction of these ladies came from Catholic countries: Philippine, Argentina, Mexico, Korea, even Hong Kong (former Britain colony, but Catholic-dominant due to influence from mainland China). I supposed that reflected which markets the LDS church was targeting for growth. Another interesting fact I learnt was that many of these ladies, youthful as they looked, have already mothered some 3 to 7 children. I found out later that Mormon parents had an average of 3.4 children, well above the national average of 2.1 children.  With such impressive birth rate, the church would never need to worry about membership and voters to secure their tight grip on state politics, I thought. Heck, if they keep up the momentum the Mormons may take over the whole country someday.

On the southeast corner of the square was the office and residence of Brigham Young, two connected structures called the Lion House and the Beehive House. They didn’t look like much, but for over two decades (1852-77), they were the very heart of the LDS church and Utah. Brigham Young was one of the more charismatic and colorful figures of the 19th century. He played a crucial role in the development of American West, founded Salt Lake City, the State of Utah, as well as some 350 towns of the Southwest. However, his anecdotal 55 wives and 56 children were probably a far more enticing subject in popular mind. In addition, his autocratic leadership style, racism, and involvement in the mass slaughters of non-Mormon emigrant party earned him much criticism, and likely inspired Conan Doyle’s negative depiction of the Mormon Church. The houses of such a fascinating figure was certainly worth a good look.

 

Two sweet girls, one from New Zealand and the other Cambodia, greeted me enthusiastically and showed me around the houses. The interior of the houses was much larger than they looked from outside, large enough for 55 wives apparently. The living room, study, and office were well-furnished, but never sumptuous. Oddly enough, during his years as governor of Utah, Young chose to sleep in a street-facing bedroom with large windows, reportedly to make himself more assessable to the ordinary folks, even in the middle of night. But I privately suspected that he was escaping from his wrangling troop of wives – imagine 55 women competing for the affection of one busy man, it must have been a war zone. I didn’t spell that out of course, but instead asked polite questions on Young’s achievements, Mormonism, and life in the state. I must have appeared to be more interested than I intended to, because the ladies rewarded me with a pocket-sized copy of The Book of Mormon at the end of the tour.

 

Across the Temple Street was the LDS conference center, an auditorium that sites 21,000, reportedly the largest theater-style auditorium in the world. On the top was an elaborate rooftop garden with reflection pool, waterfall and all, from where one could have a great view of the temple.

 

I gazed at the majestic cathedral, not sure how to feel about Mormonism. From what I’ve seen and heard, they’re certainly not (or no longer) the murderous syndicate in my childhood story. In fact, they’re probably the most amiable and congenial religious group I’ve ever met. As I acquainted myself with Mormonism a bit better, however, I found their teaching a bit too populistic and fluid to be taken seriously. Take their peculiar cosmic view for an example: Mormons believe there is no clear boundary between mortals and gods; God used to be a mortal, but now rule over the universe from the distant planet of Kolob; God created planet Earth as a testing ground for the mortals; dedicated Mormons can achieve “godhood” and be rewarded their own planet to rule over in afterlife… Sounds like a far better deal than all the old religions, wouldn’t you say? That explains the impressive growth of Mormonism in the last century. However, I personally think such generous hereafter offers actually degrade the credibility of the church. Think about it, how could the Mormons undercuts the old-school Judaism, Catholicism, Christianity in price while outmatch them in quality and after-sale service? What's the catch? Aggressive pricing harms brand perception; excessively cheap redemption blemishes the doctrine’s respectability. What’s more, I think there’s a perception problem: to me a flimsy alien God living in Planet Kolob simply doesn’t have the appeal, the gravity and the dignity of the original badass Jehovah.

 

So, I decided that Mormonism was not my cup of tea, and rushed on to the State Capitol building, before it gets dark. In a glance, the capitol was not unlike any other states capitols, a stately neo-classical revival structure high up in the Capitol Hill overlooking the city. But it was not. Consider the fact that the capitol building was completed over two decades (constructed 1912-1916) after the dedication of the Mormon Temple (constructed 1853-1893) and took only one tenth of the time to finish, you’ll have a sense of priority. There’ve long been murmurs that the state capitol was but an empty shell; the real state political center was the Church Administration Building down at the bottom of the Capitol Hill.

 

If any US state government reminds you of a theocracy (however remotely), it must be Utah. With most residence being Mormon and the LDS church controlling all levels of public offices, it’s almost impossible to separate the church from the state. In consequence, the state government and legislature handle any important issue through “divine guidance.” They established all kinds of taboos in handling alcohol; they passed the toughest DUI law in the nation; they even banned pornography and declared it a “public health crisis.” Not that I planned to get drunk or acquire any pornographic materials during my brief stay here, but I think such abstinence could tell you a lot about the social climate and lifestyle of the town.

 

Well, to be fair, regardless their political view or lifestyle, people I encountered in Salt Lake City – waitresses, cashiers, hotel clerks, the guy who ran the gas station, were the most polite, gentle, and cordial folks I have ever met. While I probably wouldn’t consider moving here, I must say it’s not a bad place at all for tourists, given that you’re not looking for excessive nocturnal indulgence. Yes, it was a bit uptight, but at least you wouldn’t have to watch your back and worry about pick-pockets and muggers when walking on the wide and tidy streets of Salt Lake City. For that I would give it a passing grade.

 

Next stop, the Rocky Mountains and the Central.

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