Sunday, October 14, 2007

Language and Reality: The Case of Nevada

Fall Break. Road Trip. Lyn, Blue and I in the Subaru.

For purely historical reasons (she's a Ph.D. Historian, for god's sake), Lyn has always wanted to drive Nevada's ET Highway. For the sake of Nevada's system of breathtaking ranges and basins (I'm a completely rational literary critic), I went along. For food and companionship, Blue (who is a yellow dog), came too.

At the east end of the Highway, we encountered a sign offering a grammatically curious product. Do they mean fresh alien? Fresh like an alien?

Is it cannibalism to eat alien jerky? Felt like it to me, and suddenly the honey and pickles didn't seem like such good ideas either.

Headed west, after sorting out the woman/man signals for "might we please stop here for a photo" and "of course, sweetie," which served us better than "I can't read your @#$%&* mind" and "you stupid patriarch," we played with thoughts of aliens and felt the secret presence of of Area 51 to the south while noting that it was not at all present on our Nevada State Map.

U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" on the CD player, followed by Bill Frisell's "The Willies."

Once conspiratorial vibes get going, it doesn't take much to look through the spiny arms of a Joshua tree to the dirt road down in the basin leading from the ET Highway southwest to a "Wild Mustang Management Area" butted up against what you know is the super-secret government installation (even the word "installation" raises hair on the back of my neck) and to think you had better hide your camera after taking the photo because the Bushies probably had Cannon Camera Company put a GPS device in the camera and don't need a FISA warrant to commence waterboarding.

But as a purely rational literary critic (emphasis on German literature from Goethe to Handke), I'm not about to give in to conspiracies. I swear to enjoy the desert. I chuckle at the popular culture of aliens grown up in the cold-war Fifties. Lyn and her colleague Kat Brown have been teaching their History of the Cold War class this semester, and I've been subjected to a lot of bad movies featuring giant ants and spiders mutated by atomic testing and/or the Reds. It's all so predictable.

And in fact, the tarantula that stilted across the highway was no bigger than my hand, perfectly natural.

People have a good time with all this, and Lyn has read up on the phenomenon (for purely historical reasons, of course). So when we pass "the" mailbox, I have to turn around and get a photo of Blue in front of the alien's PO Box.

The road winds through a range, twists back and forth to accommodate the geology on display, requiring a sign that warns drivers to slow to 55 MPH. Beneath the warning, a sign pasted on the sign tells passersby to


Winding road through the ranges. Straight road across the basins. Counter-cultural drivers weaving on the straights and cutting across the curves. I'd love to see this from the air.

And then we arrive at Rachel: ground zero for the alien jerky crowd, home for the Area 51
theorists, sales outlet for alien paraphenalia. I walk Blue across the desert floor while Lyn piles mugs and bumper stickers and green inflatable aliens and posters and buttons and who know what else next to the cash register (gathering data for the cultural study she's engaged in -- no question about it).

Feeling more than a little disturbed by the swarm of yellowing bumper stickers pasted to the bar inside (Blue had pooped twice and more than deserved the porkdoggysausage I left him with in the car), every one of them devoted either to gun rights a la "triggers don't kill people, fingers do" or to an utter and evidently universal distaste for Bill Clinton -- the most tasteful of which were "I miss Ronnie and Nancy. Hell, I even miss Jimmy and Rosalynn" and "Impeach Clinton, and her husband too," we fled Rachel for the open road.

Look at the hawk, Lyn said, pointing up through the windshield.

I located a large bird hanging in the sky. But it was more compact than a bird, probably a much larger object at more of a distance. And it just hung there, not moving. My heart beat faster. I stared intently at the object, gathering all the sensory data I had access to. It made no sense, hanging there, not moving, black and compact. It's an alien craft! I told Lyn, just as it swerved sharply to the left.

Quickly joined by another jet fighter, the plane swept low over the desert floor, quickly disappearing behind the next range of mountains.

And I, the rational literary critic, was left with a heart that gradually slowed.

Do the stories we tell affect what we see? Even the inflatable green stories?

Who are the real aliens here? Lyn asked.

1 comment:

slickrock/aka Jan said...

My favorite part is the tarantula . . . and the word "stilted."