I write from Helena, Montana, in a very brief return to civilization from days of camping and hiking in our nation’s most beautiful places, all of which are in the West, because let’s face it, everything in the eastern half of the nation is pretty lame, including what passes for the nice parts where people travel. Yes, I love being stuck in endless traffic to sit on mediocre Cape Cod or Outer Banks beaches with bazillions of other people, most of whom have annoying New England accents. At least there are lobster rolls in the former and BBQ in the latter. Anyway, I hope everyone in the nation’s humid zones is sweating accordingly; dry heat is a real thing.
A few days ago, I drove from Badlands National Park to Buffalo, Wyoming. What I saw on this day summed up much about this country.
Let’s start with the Badlands. This is an amazing place within an amazing system of national parks that helps define what is best about the United States. Enough said.
Or is it? Because the second place on the day’s adventures was a site just south of Badlands–Wounded Knee. Site of probably the most remembered of the hundreds of horrifying incidents in the genocidal campaign by the United States to exterminate Native Americans, Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, itself a symbol of the long-lasting consequences of this genocide, there is a tremendous, shocking, and incredibly depressing power to this place. It’s even more depressing to me as a college professor who is trained the study of the U.S. West. That’s true because, first, college students will rush to take a Holocaust course but will avoid courses on Native American history or the history of the slavery like the plague. That’s especially true of politically conservative students, who can see the Holocaust as a per evil that the U.S. had only a positive effect on eventually ameliorating through defeating the Nazis and supporting Israel while studying Native Americans and slaves is PC history. Second, it’s depressing because even among many historians, race and its impact in this nation primarily means African-Americans and whites, often leaving stories about Native Americans, Asians, and Latinos to the backburner. Such is also the public discussion of race in the United States, with the conquest of Native Americans a historical inevitably that we shrug our shoulders at, all while also shrugging our shoulders at the suicide rates and unemployment on reservations.
Then I headed to the mother of American bizarreness–Mount Rushmore. What the hell is up with that place? Why did we need to blast the faces of our presidents into perfectly beautiful mountains? And why does this attract people today? Everyone loves it–liberals and conservatives. You know who really loves Mt. Rushmore? Bikers going to the Sturgis Rally with patches on their jackets reading things like “This is America. Speak English or Get the Fuck Out,” which I saw many of that day. That Mt. Rushmore is right smack dab in the middle of the land stolen from the Lakota after gold was discovered in the Black Hills made it extra special after visiting Wounded Knee.
After Mt. Rushmore, it was off through the wastelands of eastern Wyoming. There is one thing out there: fossil fuels. By total chance, we drove past the Thunder Basin coal mine, i.e., the largest strip mining operation in the United States. Let me tell you, it is large. I liked the road signs saying that if you see an orange cloud in front of you after an explosion, you should avoid it. Seems likely while driving down the highway.
Next, I took a detour to the site of Teapot Dome. The classic case of government oil corruption that sums up the terribleness of the Harding administration seemed particularly perfect for the Trump era.
Finally, I was at a really cool old bar in Buffalo, Wyoming, festooned with the dead animals of the American West. And a cheetah, an animal that will probably be extinct in the wild in 20 years. At least there was tasty beer and a surprisingly excellent singer.
All in all, it was a pretty perfect day for understanding the American experience: incredible beauty and the public ownership of that, genocide, grandiosity and ridiculousness, overt displays of exclusionary nationalism, climate change, ecological disaster, and corruption. Yay America!