You might want to take a trip this summer; and you might want in doing so to visit the lost places in our own lands. So you grab the old road atlas that your dad left up in the attic from the days when he used to plan your childhood trips, and open the map to the southwest. The east is becoming claustrophobic, a little bit maybe, and the chill of winter has demanded a thorough drying out. So you think maybe New Mexico: Taos with its storied hotels and its ancient Indian condos. Or maybe San Antonio, to check out the Alamo. Not Vegas, of course. That place is only the anonymous debauchery of the cities transported to a safe-haven in the sun; a place we forgive but – for those of us who live in the west (at least sometimes) – we never go. You skip over California, that is not southwest. The open skies and the freedom of diverse backgrounds and opinions about love of God and country has long been absent from that shaking land.
Arizona; yes, the beating heart of the southwest. Cowboys and canyons; rattlers and bears; forests and lakes and deserts. You flip over the pages, from the multi-state map to focus in on Arizona; but you want a lost place. Phoenix is big and powerful; not interesting for you. Flagstaff, but you’re looking for heat and sun not forests. You follow the dark blue line of the interstate south through Tucson and on south; yes, there it is. You will go south, towards Mexico. To those lands bleached by the sun; skeletons of men who lost their way, like Tuareg traders in that other great desert, and paid the ultimate price. Tombstone, our own Timbuktu – we hear of it in movies and we know it was great before it fell away; and now though lost in time, everybody has heard of Tombstone. You follow State Route 80 south; and there you have it – further still, deeper into the the legends of the southwest.
Bisbee; that’s where you will go. You pack up your kids, and rush to O’Hare or maybe JFK or Dulles and take the flight. You get out in Sky Harbor, and you pick up your rental van – make sure the air conditioning is working well!!! Check the water in the radiator; stop in the convenience store to buy water bottles. For the story of Arizona is also one of water; man’s control of nature in that profound and primal sense. You drive, and drive, and keep driving. Through barren deserts and beside Picacho Peak – where the furthest western battle of the civil war was fought; beside Tucson with its air bases and great universities and onward through Benson. A tiny monastery in St. David – Benedictine. Pecans and peacocks and the profound peace of the southwest; where these men have found God in an adobe chapel dedicated to the virgin. You go into the bookstore and buy a talisman; or tour the church, but it is now noon and the monks are at prayer and you are anxious to go on. You continue onward – Timbuktu. That town which refused to die, kept alive today by tourism, its local high school, its local government institutions. I wonder when will come the day that people drive to Timbuktu from Bamako, the capital of Mali? When will those people who wonder about the days when the Sahara was wild and reckless and full of jihadis – which it is now – finally be able to tour the ancient sandy storied streets of that fabled land? Another lost place, which will remain so.
In Timbuktu you stop to eat at the Crystal Palace – from the movie. You tour the Bird Cage to think about the longest poker game in American history: eight years without stop and with $10,000,000 (in 1900 dollars) changing hands. Cowboys and miners; and you snap some pictures – but you keep going. The place you are headed is even more lost. Bisbee, that olden mining town. Copper; the average American will consume 1750 pounds of copper in our lives. It’s in our phones, our coffee makers, our cars, our houses and our computers. Almost everything really. A mine more than 70 years extracting more than 8,000,000,000 pounds of copper. It is nestled deep in a crevice in the hills between the Tombstone valley and the Mexican border. Houses perched precariously upon the hillsides, hotels and schools and churches nestled in the escarpment beside a road that winds down and out beside the colossal pit mine which goes down almost 1000 feet representing decades of strip mining after the cave mines were emptied by the miners. Miners from everywhere – Serbia and Ireland and Netherlands and Mexico; people in search of a better life for their families forming themselves into committees and groups, marching for equal rights and greater pay, fearing Mexican invasions when it was thought Germany would push Mexico against us into the First World War. Terrible Brewery Street, saloons and houses of ill repute; juxtaposed against the north of town with its churches and community centers, its go-carting competitions and baseball games.
A quick comment on greatness. Those who now live in the cities – perhaps even you who have taken my advice and have left the comfortable shoebox where you live in Manhattan to experience some of the glory and stories of the west – have a misunderstanding about America. About greatness, and where it comes from; about hard work and sweat. You might see the mines as a dirty vestige of our past, taking your copper-laced cellphone out to snap and post an image along with a comment sufficiently wise about “how much we’ve changed” or about “the days when people did not understand progress”. You might consider the mining town backward and racist as you walk beside the little buildings made by Irish and Mexican and Montenegrin immigrants who came with their families to sweat away in the mines; their opportunity of a better life. You may even feel that prosperity is generated in the great amoral cities of our nation; and that the lost places are a relic which we still deign to keep open as a memory of when times were rough, and we were rougher, and how far we have advanced. But you, who might just visit Bisbee, will see that is not true. That we have filled our land, from Bangor to Bisbee, with people who had beliefs firmly set in family and in faith; who sought a hard day’s work and a good sleep and a Sunday off with family. Who knew that it was greatness, against which you might cringe, but which is the reason they made the long voyages and the tremendous sacrifices – because they knew that building for themselves and their adoptive or ancestral country was intimately interlinked, one and the same in fact – that they were not expendable people sacrificed upon the altar of progress but were of course the central characters in their own story which has become the story of America.
In Bisbee you will learn all of this; and you will do so as you buy some copper jewelry and drink a craft beer in an ancient saloon under the wide open skies of the southwest and when you go to sleep in the narrow rooms of the bed-and-breakfast and listen only to the silence, you might even give a silent prayer for those who fought for our great land in a place which you had never heard of and so long ago – but also through today; as a legacy not only of what we were and where we came from but where too we are going, because history is not a great arc ending in our built utopias, but more of a circle. And if you stand long enough in one place, she will come back around to meet you; again and again – and yet again.