WEST OF ST. LOUIS
Your first impression when you look at a map of the United States is that the country is divided in two by an invisible and inexplicable boundary. On one side is the East – i.e. the Atlantic seaboard – full of roads, cities, rivers, lakes, streams and so on. On the other, everything is sparser, with deserts and forests that encroach on cities and towns, set far apart and separated by boundless canyons.
After their seemingly endless Atlantic crossing, the first European colonists – still shaken by the rolling of the ship, interminable days of fear of the unknown and perennial seasickness – supposedly collapsed on the shore the minute they arrived, exhausted and without the strength or the will to go any further. This explains why history decided to stay on the shores of the Atlantic (or thereabouts) to fight over the Declaration of Independence and die among the abolitionists of the North and the slave states of the South, going only as far as Texas and the walls of the Alamo, futilely defended against the degüello call of the Mexican general Santana.
But the true discovery of America – or rather, the other America – is the merit of all the anonymous people who died alone as they attempted to reach the great Pacific Ocean, heedless of the merciless Colorado sun, the Nebraskan flies, the cold of Idaho, the illnesses they had prudently brought from home and the Indians who were essentially everywhere.
It would take years and years for literature and cinema to remember these men and women, the countless “Mr. and Mrs. Nobodies” who came from a far-off time burdened by fatigue, dust, sand and … Indian arrows.
As a result, we found out that the creaking wagons of Bend of the River pushed ahead “to the other side” to reach the American dream on the shores of California and the fertile lands of Oregon well before the Great Depression, when the wrecked machines of The Grapes of Wrath full Of Mice and Men left Tobacco Road behind them and headed towards a better future and oranges to pick for a changeable penny a bushel.
As a result, thanks in part to Hollywood and Los Angeles, in part to the heart that Tony Bennett and then Frank Sinatra left in San Francisco, and in part to the computers from Bill Gates and Seattle, the world has come to realize that America also lies west of St. Louis.
But there you don’t have the warm beaches of Miami or New York’s eternally illuminated department stores, where it is Christmas 365 days a year and the purchase of the latest model of anything (from cell phones to jeans) is a consumeristic testimonial saying I was there. People only go west of St. Louis to stop for less time than necessary. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because there’s a plane heading back home or because what they’ve seen in the East is enough to make them think that they’ve understood a country where the only things that can withstand the changes of a hurried lifestyle are apple pie, fireworks on the Fourth of July, Halloween candy and Thanksgiving turkey.
But I will go there, or rather I’ll return there. I will go to the territories of the great Indian nation. I will waywardly explore the Oregon Trail, hoping to get lost – slowly and peacefully – in places where even history rushed through, stopping just long enough for a beer and often forgetting to pay the tab. I hope to encounter people who will entrust me with their letters, filled with the memories of yesteryear, and ask me to deliver them to the fascinating life of today. I hope that, somewhere, I will run into History and Chronicles, and invite them to sit with me along the Missouri River, west of St. Louis, to listen to their incessant chatter and eternal but down-to-earth squabbles. Naturally, pictures will accompany my writings, as I have recently realized that I am no longer able to tell a story unaccompanied by the photograph of a sunset, a dawn or even just a dog howling at a dark moon.
Time? If he wants, he can wait for me at the airport along with Haste. But if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t count on my punctuality. In fact, they can go ahead without me, for I have other things to do