THIS IS HOW I CAME to be standing inside a sodbuster’s hut at the edge of the Badlands, breathing 1876 air and hearing Spanish in my mind . . .
Maybe it was Jim Morrison’s fault. Maybe it was Okie Bob’s. I have always had a mystical urge toward the biggest, emptiest, western landscapes — they promise mysteries and verities, room to spit and walk about. I spent barrio boyhood Sunday mornings with Okie Bob’s corral of cowboy movies and old western music in vivid black and white on channel six. But my nights? They belonged to The Lizard King. “The West . . . is the best,” he intoned. “Get here and we’ll do the rest.” Psychedelic cowboy tunes on the edge of the continental shelf.
I was as west as one could get in the lower 48; westering beyond San Diego would drop you right in the water. All that fascinating frontier stuff was actually east of my west. Unless it was south.
In Spanish, “frontier” is frontera. All the Tijuana license plates had FRONT on them, which I thought meant Tijuana was at the head of some great charge. Turns out, it was. Frontera does not only mean “frontier” in Spanish. It also means “border.” Pioneers and buckaroos, settlers and desperados was headin’ for me from two different directions. Here came The Virginian . . . and The Sinaloan.
IT IS TELLING THAT, although we allegedly live in Chicago now, my family lives thirty-five miles west of the city. The West remains the best in my mind, and I drag the fam on epic drives almost every year. I feel relief when I cross the Mississippi, and shivers of delight crossing the Missouri. When the land turns red and black and craggy, I feel echoes in my bones. I hear America singing, as Walt Whitman said, though my kids hear The Killers and Nine Inch Nails, their earbuds going sst-sst-sst-sst.
We head to South Dakota, toward my Lakota brothers at Pine Ridge. I always hanker to see my Oglala homeboys, Duane and Horses. Horses tells me stories about how Sioux boys used to be migrant farmworkers beside the Kerouac-era Messkins. “Why do you think guys at Pine Ridge are named Pedro?” he asks. Though there they say Pee-dro.
I remember Duane visiting me once in Colorado, and a local yelling from a passing truck, “Go back where you came from!” And Duane, shooting back, “Where to, South Dakota?”
And Horses once, on the phone, three beers down: “You think the Indian wars are over? The cavalry’s still chasing indigenous guys around the territories.”
Cornfields. Pecan logs. Plastic buffalo beside I-90. Jackalopes. The West is the best. I rush out into the empty horizon, and go deeper in.
MY MOM’S PEOPLE availed themselves of traditional Manifest Destiny — rolling west from their English roots. But my dad’s people were the Original Illegal Immigrants, Spanish conquistadores. The Urrea brothers came and took South America, then headed north. Their ancient roots seem to be in the Visigoth invaders of Iberia. We are migratin’ fools.
Once into Mexico, el destino manifiesto sent them north again. Toward the frontier that was later retranslated by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo into the present border. Thus, my inevitable entry: Mom’s migration met Dad’s and we washed up on the farthest beach.
This may seem like old history to you, but Newt is on CNN right now calling Spanish a ghetto language, and Mitt was on last night telling us to self-deport, and all candidates seem to get real traction on the backs of the “invading hordes,” on beaner border-jumpers, though the evidence shows that we are at zero net immigration.
I remember when Slow Turtle, elder of the Wampanoag, came to my college and said, “You boat people keep overcrowding my continent.” On my endless speaking tour, people like to counter my comments with the inevitable, “Yeah, my family was immigrants, too, but we came here legally.” And I ask, “Who stamped their visas, Crazy Horse or Geronimo?”
I FEEL UNWORTHY of the Black Hills, of the vast Badlands. Is it weird to want to embrace a bison? (Well, I’ll be the first to admit it is kind of foolish.) I’m a liberal patriot: don’t tread on me, cabrones!
There is a rainbow arching from the emerald prairies to the glowing whiteness of the Badlands — the dark violet sky behind makes the hoodoos and monuments seem to be glowing from within. It’s a scene that would be too archetypal and rich for the postmodernists with whom I teach. It’s so unironic. But, as David Quammen once wrote: God gets carried away, to his credit.
There are the signs along the road: SEE! ORIGINAL SODBUSTER HUTS! And: FEED! PRAIRIE DOGS! Well now, our next detour is decided upon — Maw and Paw want to see real sodbuster huts, and the kids can toss peanuts to the ‘dogs.
I USED TO WORK with a relief organization on the south side of the frontera. We worked among beggars, orphans, prostitutes, drug addicts, street gangs, killers, and prisoners. We fed widows and killed lice. It was some rough country — it was Deadwood, in Spanish. The detritus and ruin of a contested frontier.
What was interesting to me always was the debased grandeur of hope. The beauty of scraping together castoff wood and paper and somehow building a shelter against the wind and the beasts and your roving enemies. The stink of these shacks, the endemic gray-black color that seeped in. The newspapers on the walls to keep out the cold. The vermin that fell out of the roofs. The wobbly handcrafted tables these small families gathered at by candlelight to pick over their plates of beans.
These huts were scattered across a dirt landscape devoid of grass or flowers. The city of Tijuana piled dead animals at the edge of their settlement and set fire to the carcasses. Run-over dogs, poisoned goats, dead cows and horses burned in great bony pyres. And the wind never stopped.
MY WIFE AND I STORM up the path toward the sodbuster homes while the kids, giddy with the whistling little wag-tail dogs, spend all our loose change on peanuts.
We bend to get in the door of the first hut, sunk into a slight hillock. Still musty with the phantom odors of sleepers and cooking fires and sweat and hope, the little hut is redolent in a ghosty way. The table is off plumb and has clearly been hammered together from wagon parts. And the floor is hard-swept dirt. It feels like church; we start to whisper.
And the dust is gray-black. The newspapers are still on the walls. And beetles fall out of the ceiling. And for a moment I lose my bearings. I know it. I know that smell. I know that dust. I have met those beetles. I have sat on that crooked and dirty old bed.
We hurry out and rush to the next hut. And the haunted feelings intensify. The soft shock. That small still voice of revelation comes upon me there on the bare fields of the sodbuster settlement. This is the same story. The depraved and filthy huts of the Tijuana garbage-pickers, poised on the edge of their frontera, are exactly the same constructions as these noble and brave huts poised on the edge of their frontier. The garbage-picker is simply part of the wrong story — those settlers are heading north, which is the wrong direction. These good people were heading west. It is our national story. Our drama. Our heritage. And it is beautiful.
Of course, nobody checked their footnotes with Duane or Horses.
Continuing on our westward journey, we take a detour into Custer State Park. It is overrun by bikers, all of them heading for Sturgis. We come to a crossroad with hills on one side, prairies behind us, and shadowy forest ahead. All around our van, a run of Hells Angels, flying their colors, rumble on their Harleys. We all pause at the stop sign and become aware of a deeper rumbling than the bike engines. Suddenly, a real-life stampede of buffalo breaks out of the trees and charges between and around us in a tidal crashing of hooves. Angels yelling, “Oh my God!” The van shaking and rolling. The kids flying from window to window, shouting. America’s shaggy heart has burst open around us.
We are all laughing.
But why do I have tears running down my cheeks?
Why can I not breathe?
Once the bison are gone, we drive on, into the West again.