Well, here are my preliminary thoughts. My rig is the smallest, most pitiful in the whole KOA complex. I’ve walked around once—several more to come as the night lights up here at Weedpatch Camp! Some of the RVs are so luxurious and massive that the pickup-like vehicle that pulls them is more like the cab of an 18-wheeler than a pickup. It looks as if it could haul a dozen RVs in a train. The KOA campsite is all asphalt, gravel, and concrete. When I made my reservation this morning, the woman, who immediately figured out that I was a damn rookie, told me “OF COURSE” every pad is fully concrete, and that there was no option of a no-hookups campsite. Two rigs down from me there is a giant RV the length of a touring coach. As I carried my garbage down to the tip (there are very stern rules), I heard an electronic sound. When I turned to see what it was I discovered two women, one a child, in lawn chairs on a slab of concrete on a windswept place that could be anywhere on earth for all they cared watching American Idol on a large-screen television monitor that deploys (I kid you not) from within a bay on the side of the RV. It is a larger television than any American had until 2010 and now it is an outside option on high-end RVs. So there they were, watching TV in the mountains of Colorado, bored waiting for the others, who are probably in Central City gambling. There is a big casino here. I’ve noticed too that people do not speak in low tones here. They do in the national forests. There is a reverence for nature in nature, at least in national parks, forests, and monuments. Here people talk as if they lived in a typical suburban neighborhood. This place resembles an airport parking lot if all the vehicles were giant RVs. It certainly isn’t worth the $78 I had to pay for this bit of a “different” experience in RV culture. But it is interesting. Think of this. About half of these rigs have cost the owners more than houses that most Americans only dream of possessing. And these are merely the recreational homes of these folks, most of them for a couple of weekends per year. On the other hand, the bathrooms and shower stalls here at KOA were spotless, and you can buy Jiffy Pop in the KOA Store. They offered me an escort to my pad, after showing me a four-color map of the RV park that no seeing being could get lost with. An escort. And they had escorted the two rigs that came in before me. The glossy brochure gives precise directions for aligning your satellite dish. It uses words like Azimuth. People are serious about their television.
How do I begin to sum up this journey? It was pretty mild and industrial, I’ll grant you that. I was not walking the Little Missouri River with nothing but a backpack. But it’s the kind of camper truck I would get for myself had I the means. Modest to the point of being tiny. Simplify, simplify, Thoreau says. I felt more like Hemingway than like John Wesley Powell or Meriwether Lewis. Alone around a fire in a pine forest, “thinking great thoughts,” as my father used to employ his irony. I’m well on my way to breaking habits and seeking a new path in my life. As an abbot I greatly admired said, at 78, “I thought I would be farther along.” A week is not very long, but it’s a great start. I’ve fallen in love with America over and over again. The sheer beauty of country we have not yet “improved.” I usually say if there were only one state it would have to be Montana, but it is equally true of Utah and Colorado, too. I’ve been staggered by the beauty of the land. The rivers are running full, some to bursting. To be able to wander about the source waters of the Colorado River and the Arkansas River has been pure delight. I love rivers, live for one of them (The Little Missouri), and love to sit on their banks trying to figure them out. They are like living beings to me. The National Forest rangers have been uniformly generous and polite, more so than some of the National Park people I meet. I suppose that is in part from how weary and overstimulated National Park people must feel in places like Yosemite or Rocky Mountain National Park. They have their good will wrung out of them by people asking, at Yellowstone, “Anything to see here?” “How long does it take to see Old Faithful and get to Cody?”
I don’t think I could like camping on the Fourth of July at Yellowstone, even if I had the foresight to reserve a space. What’s worse than Americans in National Parks? Americans using beer as their lens of national independence day in national parks, with cheese-infused brats in the cooler and $400 of fireworks, a third of it illegal, ready to go. “Who cares what the National Park rules say? How they gonna find us in a campground with 200 units?” There’s the spirit. Yum, who does not want that campground? The Smore the Smerrier.
I think starting on Labor Day would be nice, and then moving south as winter approaches, staying one two or three nights in underused state parks or national forests, winding up in New Mexico or Texas for a month, and then slowly moving back north with the sun. I love the delicious melancholy of a fall morning when it was just above freezing at dawn, but now is on its way to 75 degrees by three p.m. That’s a form of paradise on earth. I could wander this continent long without losing interest. In fact, my true deep patriotism rises every time I get out and see the true American heartland. As far as I am concerned, if there were a Garden of Eden, it looked a lot like the pine country of Montana, or the grasslands of western Kansas. And so much of it is still out there. All you have to do is cut the umbilical. My neighbors are hooked up to KOA—the justification for the price—with cable TV, water, sewer, and electricity. They have cell service and internet. Most Americans stay on pavement. Most Americans want Nature Lite. They go to Yellowstone and rent bicycles. They ride jet skis at Lake Powell. This is nature to them, but nature seen through the exhaust of an internal combustion engine, without access to which, they actually move into a kind of panic. And yet we have the Garden of Eden right here.
If I had to take away one thought (not, God bless, about myself) from this journey it is this. America is unique in the world in some very important ways. The quantity of undeveloped country we can still go breathe in is one of the greatest facts of American life. We can thank Theodore Roosevelt for much of this. In fact, I think it is fair to say that we might not have national monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and national game preserves without the leadership of Roosevelt, and if we had some of these things, their philosophy of access and presentation would be quite different. How did he do it? He did it because he had actually lived it. You cannot imagine Taft or Wilson living it. He also did it because he had a theory of America. He wasn’t a reactive politician, but a kind of patriotic visionary, and he believed to his core that we must keep alive something of the frontier that had made us who we are. He did it also because he had a child’s soul—dreamy, big, unashamed, a bit comic, determined, full of wonder (the glory of work and the joy of living). He did it because he studied how the political system worked and then mastered it as few American presidents ever have. He did it because he meant it, in 1900, in Medora on a campaign swing, he said, “It is here that the Romance of my life began.”
We owe Roosevelt so deep a debt of gratitude and respect. I can imagine America without the things of Hamilton in it. But I cannot imagine America without the things of Roosevelt in it. He was as likable a man as we have produced. Big-hearted, and with a very strong mind. We need every alpha male’s love of TR to continue, because that means they have to take his conservation message seriously. They would not take is seriously from Obama or Gerald Ford. But Roosevelt lived the strenuous life, behaved recklessly, threw himself into Life, by godfreyed this and byjoved that, said yes every single time he could and regretted when he had to say no. TR is so compelling that even those who disdain his actual value system love him, and that helps to make the conservation message more palatable. Nobody can sneer at Theodore Roosevelt. If you do, he just might punch you in the snout. Then make friends.
I’m afraid we are going to have to do battle to keep America wild. The threats are many: rich people’s attempts to create private and walled-off paradises for themselves; new mining and extraction technologies, some little short of miraculous; a right-wing obsession with federal tyranny that finds a willing ear in anyone who has been conditioned to hate government. We all thought that the disposition of our public lands was settled, but it wasn’t and isn’t. There are forces at work that would compromise our parks and forests, or privatize them, or turn them over to states. As it is, whenever a republican administration takes power—this is literally true—they let the mining and timber folks help write the regulations. I saw a great poster in Aspen the other day that said recreational tourism brings in $47.7 billion per year in Colorado alone, maybe we had better think about that before we pursue some of these one-time scarring extractions.
It is getting chilly. So I walked down to the office to buy a bundle of wood. The bundles are geezer bundles, enough for a 45-60 minute fire, nothing more. I bought a bundle the other day at a grocery store that is twice as big for less money. At the KOA desk, a couple was checking in to one of the cabins. A cabin at a KOA. Think about that. Oh, Mr. Thoreau is in cabin six. Many arcane rules. When I said I needed a bundle of wood the desk clerk, a woman in her 70s, said, “You want that delivered to your pad?” She used professional jargon. I said, “Hell yes I do.” So they delivered it in an official golf cart, the same one used to escort you to your pad. There are two indoor hot tubs in the least attractive space at this, the Rocky Flats KOA. They are both occupied.
I’m alone on pad 1 waiting for liftoff. This is the dullest place I have ever been. The only people I see are those walking their dogs. Maybe they have dogs in part because it makes them take an evening walk. I think everyone here is down gambling in town. Is it possible that people congregate here for that purpose: two birds with one stone, natural camping (on concrete with hookups), pizza delivery to your pad, and gambling nearby. You would think you would have to have a detachable rig to pull this off, but I did see a sign offering free courtesy trips to the casino. I thought by coming here I would see a kind of 21st century Weedpatch: that there would be a boy playing a harmonica, a couple playing cribbage, a bunch of people around a fire arguing about what was Obama’s greatest offense to civilization. I hoped there would be strollers. I hoped to see fires at the KOA approved fire pits. I wanted this time of night, getting on sunset, to be like Richie Haven at Woodstock: hey, folks, this ain’t as good as it’s going to get, but it is a fitting prelude for what’s to come. Remember, it ain’t just a rock concert.
Ah, well. Should have ordered a pizza, I guess. They deliver ten wings also, as a bonus, and you can have any toppings (and as many as) you want on your pizza, delivered to your (tin) door, $17.95. Not a bad deal. Delivered. But I want Good Time Girls to turn up dancing in pin curls, and inviting me to the secret hootenanny at pad 19. Password: carpe diem. I want a couple of Kerouacian young men to stop by asking me if I can spare them some food, and I give it to them, because I can see they need it. I want a dogfight at the laundry and a lay preacher coming by to ask me if I have a minute because he’s traveling this country and he wants to know if I’m saved.
But no. Everyone is either somewhere else, or so dull that it breaks my heart. Give me a rumble at pad 14, over a dark-haired young woman who flashed her eyes.
I’m reading in The Heart of the Humanities again and Edmundson has just been talking about the work of Jack Kerouac. He talks about how the cultural elite ridiculed Kerouac and even hounded him. That someone said of On the Road that “it’s not writing, it’s just typing.” And then Edmundson says this: “Tell that to a generation of kids, me included, that the book shook out of dull sleep.” [page 224] I ache for the road every time I read On the Road, even every time I even think of On the Road. Give me those Nebraska blond brothers, balling the jack under a gazillion stars, hauling a dozen bums around western Nebraska, Kerouac included, each of them pissing off the back of the rig at 70 mph. If there is anything more truly American than that, I’d like to know. Give me that primordial Mexico. Give me someone who burns like a roman candle.
It rains every half hour tonight, just enough to make me wonder if I should move inside. Then passes. It is sunset now. I have lit a fire. Weedpatch never woke up. But I have had another good day, and finished the book on Powell’s adventure, and have been reading more in the Heart of the Humanities. That book is so full of allusion that it makes me want to do nothing for the next year but read the books Edmundson says I should have read but haven’t. He mentioned Coleridge so (thanks to the internet, sacred invention) I pulled him up. It took twice. KOA is apparently not yet perfect in creating a little internet cloud over its guests. So I read Kubla Kahn, which I probably have not read in its entirety for fifteen years, at least ten. And in it I remembered being at the University of Minnesota and discovering the romantic poets, an impressionable boy from the prairies just nineteen. I had never heard of them in western North Dakota. And there was Coleridge, in some respects a failure but so much finer than Wordsworth, who churned out poetry long after his Muse has left him. Kubla Khan is one of the world’s great incantations.
America America America—the greatest Idea ever. If only we would even try to live up to it, but the populist politicians of our time, and Trump is not first among them, have convinced us that there is no dream worth striving for except turning open the spigots of money-making. That, for them, is the American dream and the rest is just crap. We have to take the country back. We owe it to the pine forests of Colorado.