Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Apologies to the Jains

Summer officially began at a Thai restaurant in Davis, California, 90 minutes from the San Francisco fog, eating Pad Thai outdoors. Off comes the fleece vest, out come the shorts, Tivas replace shoes. Then the climb into the Sierras, expecting snow on the side of the road, but it was only on the distant peaks. Down the other side toward the bright lights of Reno. (A recent Prairie Home Companion radio show was in a city that consciously shut off lights at night so stars were visible. Can’t remember the term, but like “slow food,” seems like it could be a trend— Reno/Las Vegas, take note.)

In the senior equivalent of “living on the edge,” we had set off without hotel reservations and found a place at the Sunrise Motel in Sparks. I guess it is still possible to just show up and find something that isn’t a chain. We awoke to the roar of the nearby freeway and the smell of the owner’s Indian cooking, took off further down the road to Lovelock and lo and behold, breakfast at another non-chain in Lovelock, La Casita. A quaint place and a waitress impressed that I could pronounce Chilaquiles. A nearby booth was filled with three grey-haired ladies and that part of the brain that instantly classifies people—gender, age, race, weight, attractiveness (which comes first?)—thought “three old ladies.” And then another part of the brain snickered, “Hey! They’re probably your age. Or younger.”

Before breakfast was over, the waitress came out singing Happy Birthday to the folks at a nearby table (pretty good singing, patrons of La Casita restaurant!) and a candle embedded in an ice cream taco. Seemed a bit early in the morning for my taste and I should have asked more about the ice cream taco, but the matron of the small group started telling us how her niece was 15 and her nephew over there also 15 and the other fellow 22 and then got into the family history. I thought about my friend in Germany who was astounded in her visit to the Midwest by conversations like this, strangers telling you their life story after a one-minute acquaintance. At first, she was amazed—such instant revelation not a common practice in Germany— and later, critical, “It seems like Americans can appear to get very close very fast, but it never goes any deeper.”

And then off across the vast expanses of Nevada. Whenever I worry about overpopulation, a drive through Nevada is re-assuring. It really seems about the same as it was some 40 years ago when I first came through. All those little towns—Winnemucca, Ely, Battle Mountain, Elko—didn’t seem much bigger now than they were then. Though I could be wrong about that. I regretted I didn’t have my camera up front in the car, amused by some of the signs:

• Hitchhiking Prohibited: Prison Area
• Beverly Hills (this at a turn-off to nowhere)
• Bullets Leave Holes (with photos of kids)

Well, this last was not quite so amusing, perhaps a sober reminder to kids used to video games to understand the difference.

On past the mirage-like salt flats of Utah, zipping by downtown Salt Lake City and remembering Joseph Campbell’s profound analysis of the symbols of cultural shifts. The church used to be the tallest building (as it was in Europe through the Renaissance), then trumped by the State Capitol building as the political power of the State grew stronger than the church. Finally, the high-rises of business in the 20th century signaled the corporate economic power that trumped the political power—which is where we are today. (And why Donald Trump running for President makes it more above-aboard and official as to who’s really running the show.) In Salt Lake City, you can see the whole story within a few blocks.

On we pressed into the more lush green of Utah, fueled by the crunch of corn-nuts to keep us awake and ignoring Michael Pollan’s advice to not buy gas and food at the same place. Pulled into Pocatello, but with a rodeo the next day, there was no room at the Inn—Days, Ramada, Best Western, that is. So on to Idaho Falls and the surprise of actual waterfalls and a lush park by a thriving river. Big blue skies, crisp, fresh air and ready for a morning walk to “listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees.” (Most people think that “Don’t Fence Me In” was an old cowboy song, but in fact was written by urban esthete Cole Porter.)

From here, back in our rented Hyundai to view more of the landscape from our bug-splattered windshield. And so the title. The Jains are a sect in India who take the philosophy of Ahimsa—“do no harm”—to the extreme degree of wearing masks to avoid inhaling and thus, killing, microbes. They would be horrified driving the freeways of the West. Our car is the Genghis Khan of the bug kingdom, decimating them with our windshield and front grill in genocidal proportions. Sorry about that, little creatures. My advice: stay away from freeways. 

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