June/July/Aug 2013

Let's Get Lost

A novelist and inveterate traveler seeks life off the grid

William T. Vollmann


Going off the grid has always been an American aspiration. From the Quakers who fled English persecution, to David Koresh, who vainly hoped to build his own world in Waco, Texas, to that earlier generation of Texans who with the help of the US Army tore themselves away from the feeble Mexican grid, bringing half of Mexico with them, our people have set their faces hard away from the order and authority of others. What could express this ideal more faithfully than the pulps? James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales retail the now quaintly preposterous exploits of a self-sufficient woodsman who, with his loyal Chingachgook, adventures deep into near-virgin forest, where he does unto noble and fiendish redskins as they deserve, and then, after mostly triumphing in this American endeavor, heads for the delectably unknown West, so as to die in sight of the Pacific. Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage brings its hero and heroine into a beautiful valley whose entrance they seal off forever to save themselves from the murderous lechery of Mormon elders. How convenient; how easy! Once we have escaped the grid, won't it be dreamlike? "Deerslayer determined to leave all to the drift, until he believed himself beyond the reach of bullets."

Americans love to believe in happy endings; they will settle for happy interludes. One indication that Gulliver's Travels was not written by an American is that the fairy-tale lands discovered by its narrator are parodies of, and commentaries on, his own society. How un-American! Irony only weighs us down. This fact imparts to our best nature a kind of nobly hopeful ambition; it likewise enables the "ugly American" side of us to be arrogant and cruel in its self-righteous claims. Emerson did remark, in tune with Gulliver, that "travelling is a fool's paradise," but he still believed that "the bountiful continent," much of which then (1844) remained very much off the American grid, "is ours, state on state, and territory on territory, to the waves of the Pacific sea." The ours is significant. When Americans go off the grid, they often like to take possession. Hence Emerson's invitation. Instead of haggling with the eldest son for a share of some shabby old farm shadowed by finitude's despotism, Americans could survey and plat their own grids, break their own soil, reinvent themselves, and get rich. One stellar reason to get off the original grid is that we ourselves don't control it, which must be why we're poor. In new lands, how could new lives not come to be?

This faith comes easier and thrives in happier single-mindedness as it withholds itself from grimy contact with differing consciousnesses. Our American project never failed to be tainted by prior indigenous occupancy. First we bartered with the Indians for land; then we warred with them and removed them to the West; then, when we wanted the West as well, we confined them on reservations mostly not of their choosing—and so ran the best case. In my years of studying European-Indian encounters for my series of novels Seven Dreams, I've often found myself thinking, "Well, if only the soldiers had done this and not that, or if the Indians had simply done such and such, then maybe this tribe could have kept more of its culture longer"—because I, like my fellow Americans, long for happy endings. And then I would learn that in this other case, precisely such and such had been done, with the same grisly outcome. So long as the frontier still existed ungridded by memory, commerce, necessity, and atrocity, one could imagine that Cooper's Leatherstocking, good old Natty Bumppo, could go on doing as he pleased, and likewise Chingachgook and other "good" Indians removed out of sight, out of mind. No more; we'd all run up against "the waves of the Pacific sea."

Still, the fact that the prizes available to pioneers were finite, illusory, or more costly than they hoped (see O. E. Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth), and in any case were usually obtained at the expense of other people, cannot invalidate entirely and for all time the American credo that "the pursuit of happiness" should be open to all, and that we each deserve to seek a better life in our own way. To the extent that this is so, I can remain proud to be an American, even in these days of assassination and indefinite detention. Even though Montana is no longer a territory (never mind that the Unabomber stayed off the grid there for some years) and most of California has long since been annexed by our gridmasters, other frontiers continue to be invented and discovered, as energies flower in new, unbeholden, and hence ungridded directions. Psychedelic drugs, utopian communes, concrete poetry, militant survivalism, consensual sadomasochistic alliances—these all constitute travel to unregulated countries. Transgender people now give a new mode of public expression to the fine American notion of making oneself along one's own lines.

Were there such an animal as national character, then I might define an American as follows: longing for and half-expecting perfect freedom and happiness; disappointed by the authoritarian constraints of present necessity (which we'll call "the grid"); unnerved by the conflict between aspiration and reality; uncertain whether to blame oneself or others for imperfection; ready to "reinvent" oneself to achieve self-sufficiency, profit, or peace.

This opposition may well be the great theme of American literature. If the Deerslayer novels, in spite of their sanguinary and moralistic gloom, embody the longing for freedom and happiness (at times so one-sidedly that they seem infantile), Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales lean on the other pan of the scales. Yes, the longing is still there, but the pathos in Hawthorne derives from the implied assertion that escape from the grid is impossible. The gentle hedonists of "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" "sought refuge, as all the persecuted did, in the fresh woods of the West." And like so many others, they learn that "disappearing is hard," for in that sad tale their paradise gets violently annexed by the Puritan grid, "a land of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm forever." All too often, and sometimes even for good reason, the grid requires its inhabitants to assert that the West's fresh woods are actually nightmare country. In Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," the hero discovers that his wife's and neighbors' secret acts of what we might now call individuation merely enslave them to the devil's grid. There is no "off the grid," not really. There is only the sinister antigrid. "'There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,' said Goodman Brown to himself." Needless to say, in this story the penalty for seeking private dreams is damnation.

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Ever more often in the last two centuries, American literature has flowed between these two banks: Cooper and Hawthorne, hope and history. Hope cannot flower without history; nor is history endurable without hope. "'There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,' said Goodman Brown to himself," and history (broken treaties and murder) has made the Indians and Puritans so. Neither side has hope. Where is a modern-day Goodman Brown to go? Perhaps Antarctica might be free from devilishness, but Antarctica, unfortunately, is melting. As for the pure hope of Natty Bumppo's infinite West, that's fatuous, because we know the history. And the river winds gently down. "Deerslayer determined to leave all to the drift."

This naturally puts me in mind of Tom Sawyer, and the wide-open Mississippi, and Huck Finn's grimy grandeur and squalid father, and Nigger Jim, but I remember that their wanderings do come to an end. Since ungridded hope is far less susceptible to description than the chains of experience, our skiff more often than not fetches up on Hawthorne's bank. Consider The Grapes of Wrath, with the Joads' desperate hopes of a better life in California, land of farms and sunshine. What do they find but another grid, patrolled by agribusiness's armed deputies? How hauntingly that novel ends! We cannot say that the Joads have failed or will fail; we know only that they have arrived at a very hard place, but still possess what for a lack of a better term we call their humanity; Rose of Sharon does a kindness for another outlaw, nourishing him with her own breast milk. The denouement is beautiful, the moment a sad sort of triumph.

Where is the Last Good Country anyway? A morbid answer frequently insinuates itself, as in Raymond Chandler's masterpiece The Big Sleep. Only the missing who will stay missing forever are secure in the Last Good Country, and then only when the private detective, he who knows America cold, turns away his pitying, weary gaze from their hiding place. "What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that."

So is there no Last Good Place for the living? Nowadays, when cell phones track their owners' whereabouts, while drones stalk people even in rugged hinterlands in order to kill them for secret reasons, the idea of getting away from it all and building someplace happier, such as Merry Mount, seems more far-fetched than ever. What's an American to do?

BEING A BIT OF A TRAVELER, I have been asked to share with you my own discoveries, such as they are, of ungriddedness. I wish I had better news to tell. On the other hand, the complacency with which Americans have relinquished their privacy, both to the government and to corporations, might render my various defeats nearly irrelevant.

It always used to be my practice to ask myself: Could I become a different person here? Could I start over again, so that no one would find me? Perhaps my best opportunity came in Yemen, when I happened to be observing the informal festivities on the first anniversary of September 11. A man said he knew two beautiful young sisters who would be pleased to marry me. I could become a Muslim, change my name, sever all ties with the American grid, and dwell happily and dreamily to the end. From our parapet my prospective spouses and I could have entertained ourselves with the comings and goings of camouflaged soldiers in the narrow alleys where bananas and oranges hung high. I could have chewed khat with the men sitting on the shaded side of the stone sidewalks, becoming their friend, slowly chatting with every neighbor while cats ran in the sun. Perhaps I was already too old by then; anyhow, I never would have left my American child, not to mention my fond hopes for the American Constitution. Besides, Yemen was too withered and ancient for me.

I might have preferred Lindisfarne's sweet golden wildflowers and purple toadflax, which grew in old walls, underlining the gray ruins of the old priory, which had sky in their arches. And there were other English places equally alluring to me; since we Americans remain English just as land mammals remain sea creatures, I felt in a certain way at home. But it certainly appeared impossible to hide. Nor could I adapt, being too obviously not from here, and Lindisfarne, like Yemen, certainly expressed its own grid. What world of my own could I hope to inhabit?

A better choice might therefore have been the Thai jungle, whose lotus head resembled a green mushroom-top composed of cactus flesh; I could have lived there for almost nothing, writing poems and subsisting on tea and opium, or simply vanished into it, like Natty Bumppo—but the Thais, like the Americans, were chopping down their trees pretty fast, so what would I do when they were all logged? Beyond the border I felt more safely remote. In Burma, for instance, I remember a mosque with silver minarets, the crowns of the two small ones shaped almost like robed figures, then an immense sort of wickerwork dentist drill cast in gold. The entryway was a square arch crowned with three filigreed pagodas. On each side was a white-faced figure, garbed in yellow tongues and aprons, who wore a pointed yellow cap like one of the towers' spires. Who was she? One hand was raised above her head. Her elbow pointed straight out at the kneeling elephant beyond her. Perhaps here (for I was much younger then, without a child) I could have started over, for American Homeland Security had not even fingerprinted me in those days, but in the very shadow of this temple I met the seventy-year-old deacon of a certain Christian church who showed me a photograph scissored into a tiny wedge. It was a picture of a young woman. She was the deacon's sister-in-law, and her daughter was an activist in New York City. Because of the daughter, the deacon's house had been searched. His relatives were afraid to visit him. He had had to cut his niece out of the photograph. Even nowadays I prefer Homeland Security.

In Albania I was still young enough to be eligible for something. When the plane from Budapest descended there, it was like entering one of the elaborate dioramas they used to have in my elementary school, the ground an impossibly vivid green, trees like models of trees, the houses perfect. We landed at an airport without any fence, just pastures around, cowherds and red-scarfed women going about their lives. I couldn't help smiling for pleasure, because I had entered a picture book, one whose stories were so brightly alien that even those great polyglots, the taxi drivers and money changers, could not interpret for me; as in Greece, a nod meant no, a shake of the head yes, and I felt off the grid. But once I had found an interpreter, an old man told me: "My family in Kosovo has stayed for two thousand years. So the Illyrians were first." Pounding the table, he cried, "For five hundred years the Turks had been there, for three hundred years the Austrians and also the Serbians, and the former Yugoslavia for thirty years, and then Tito with his party for fifty-five years, and I have never moved from Kosovo. And now, the Serbians tell the world that Kosovo is theirs." "I want Grand Albania," said Francesca dreamily; she was my new friend. "And most of my friends want. We want to get back our past."

But their past was not mine. It weighed them all down, whereas I, being an American, whose memories were therefore featherlight, possessed no past, or at least no past to which I confessed. So where could an American go? It needed to be to a gridless place, and by some measurements there never had been any. Perhaps that is why I may stay an American until I die, even if Homeland Security gets positively monstrous.

There never was anyplace to go, except for transients or for conquerors who extended the grids they came from. If we see the other, then we must see his past, which now rules him. So careful, my fellow Americans! Fall into his orbit, and his obligations may become yours. Again, what's an American to do?

One of the wisest and most beautiful answers I know comes from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. To be sure, these poems occasionally make tragic heroes out of Indian removers. Never mind; it is not for his theorizing or his politics that we remember Whitman, who leans and loafs at his ease, observing a spear of summer grass. "You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself." Leaves of Grass invites us to shrug off the grid wherever we are, declining either to abase ourselves or to lord it over others. Let us seek out our private happinesses together. "I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven."

William T. Vollmann's books include the nonfiction work Poor People (Ecco, 2007) and the novel Europe Central (Viking, 2005), which won the National Book Award.

bertemke

August 25, 2013
11:19 am

What a wonderful essay!

M Celani

September 16, 2013
11:40 am

We were gifted w/ a Garden Paradise and it was perfect for all of our needs but we said "um Lord, its nice and all but this guy over here is talking about long, cool gin & tonics and disco Saturday nights. I think I'm going to check that out for a while"

And the Lord, being infinitely wise said "Sure, don't let the screen door hit you in the ass."

Each of us has made that decision and each of us can return whenever we want. Most of us choose not to because there's nothing like a G&T and booming bass on a hot Saturday night.

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October 28, 2013
3:54 am

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