Covenant with the Dry Country
Biblical exile, a lost Swede, and understanding the West as a place where the only way to survive is to wander aimlessly
In the Book of Genesis, an enslaved Egyptian woman named Hagar twice finds herself wandering the wilderness: once fleeing Sarai, once after Abraham casts her out. Whereas the arid wilderness is often a crucible for many characters of the Bible, one where they eventually find freedom or salvation, there is nothing uplifting about Hagar's story. Her suffering is unjustified. There are no lessons to be learned.
Somewhere in chapter 3 of Blood Meridian:
The kid looked at the man sitting next to him. He looked down at himself and he looked at the captain again. I was fell on by robbers, he said.
Robbers, said the captain.
Took everything I had. Took my watch and everything.
Have you got a rifle?
Not no more I aint.
Where was it you were robbed.
I dont know. They wasnt no name to it. It was just a wilderness.
Recently I found Hernan Diaz's In the Distance at a bookstore in Manhattan. The cover depicts a bare, rocky wasteland, the kind that calls to mind Cormac McCarthy's description of a landscape "whose true geology was not stone but fear." From the bleak cover alone I knew it would have to do with California and I knew I would love it.
In the Distance is a novel about the life of Håkan, a young Swede in the 1800s who accidentally finds himself in California and tries to make his way to New York City. A true neo-Western, it is the story of wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, of senseless violence and suffering, of restlessness and longing. The landscape itself is a major character and deeply affects Håkan: at one point he comically, hopelessly, wonders how many deserts America can possibly have. (It’s up for debate but let’s settle on four.)
Though Håkan is constantly seeking a direct path forward, he only encounters disorienting, circular rhythms of life. When briefly traveling with some Native Americans, he listens to them singing a meandering lullaby that is so long that he realizes he wouldn't be able to tell if it had looped around. Traveling through the West without a map, there are many times when he's paralyzed by the fear that he has in fact ended up where he started. At one point, time itself warps for him, and an entire chapter is comprised of a disarmingly long passage that repeats a few times, forcing the reader to experience that same confused aimlessness as him. "Didn't I just read that?" you ask yourself.
Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible carefully analyzes Hagar's story in Texts of Terror, concluding that "...[Hagar] experiences exodus without liberation, revelation without salvation, wilderness without covenant, wanderings without land, promise without fulfillment, and unmerited exile without return."
"Two lessons all western travelers had to learn: mobility and sparseness," declares Wallace Stegner in The American West as Living Space. Later he continues:
Trying to capture America in a sentence, Gertrude Stein said, "Conceive a space that is filled with moving." If she had been reared in Boston she might not have seen it so plainly; but she was reared in Oakland. She knew that few Westerners die where they were born, that most live out their lives as a series of uprootings.
I was sitting in a cafe when I finished In the Distance and I had to restrain myself from crying too conspicuously. Living in New York, I've noticed how often people talk about feeling "stuck" here, but how they also accept it. The only people I know who seem truly stifled by the city are those from the West. Reading In the Distance was the first time I've seen our Western restlessness and rootlessness depicted so clearly as both something lonely and also paradoxically, strangely, nonsensically: comforting.
Stegner also observes that adaptation "is the covenant that all successful organisms sign with the dry country." It's impossible to rest in such an unforgiving landscape, and the animals move just as much as we do.
Hagar's story is a tragic one, but it's worth remembering that she does encounter God in the wilderness, and she is the only person in the entire Bible who gives Him a new name.
So uprooted and restless are Westerners that the 400 miles between the Bay Area and Los Angeles is an unremarkable distance to drive (in New England, you'd be crossing several states); even the 800 mile one from the Bay Area to Seattle is considered by many to be doable and reasonable. We move so much that growing up, I only knew one kid whose family had been in our hometown for a whopping two whole generations, and now everyone I grew up with has already left (including that kid). And no matter where you are in the West, you are never far from that empty, hostile wilderness. At most it takes about two or three hours to drive to it. Most of the time it takes a lot less. Maybe a few minutes.
I miss that wilderness. The fossilized urban density of the East Coast has its charms for an extrovert who loves walking and historic architecture, but it also feels confining. Where is the emptiness for me to wander in? What do you mean you’ve been here your whole life and your entire family is still nearby? Why, for the love of God, does it take so long just to escape New York City?
It wasn't until I read In the Distance that I had the words to express this discomfort I feel with my rooted life in New York. I constantly want to leave, just for a day or two, drive around, wander. I have a good life here, a good apartment, a good little routine, and yet like Håkan I keep wanting to march forward. I am so used to movement that it's hard for me to adjust to stillness, and I don't even know that I want to.
And this begs the larger question: march forward to what, exactly? If the West has always been defined by mobility as Stegner argues, it's even more true now as people get priced out of their hometowns or need to flee the eternal wildfires. What is "home", for many of us? For any of us? I would argue home is no physical place, but that mobility itself. That wandering through the wilderness. More than any other myths and fantasies about the West, this is what defines us. And though it's exhausting and uncertain and lonesome, we've adapted remarkably to it. This is our covenant with our wilderness, and our one strange comfort.
See you out there.
Somewhere in chapter 13 of Blood Meridian:
They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond towards the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.
this made me so homesick I want to cry! in the best of ways—thank you for this
Do you mean home is the mobility itself as a culture of Americans or that of humans as a whole? I agree for me, I'd rather always be moving, but I hate cars, planes, and their violent nature in our world. In that sense, isn't home as you describe it a process of self-destruction?