Dispatches from the Empire

When I'm free of the constraints of every day life, when I no longer work in regular intervals (or when traveling, work at all), the emotions come in fast and loose.

I find myself in a small mountain resort town, one I last visited when I was six or seven on a family vacation. Walking my dog downtown, I'm struck by how bland, how uninteresting, how similar this place is to other resort towns: Steamboat, Hood River, Jackson, Bend. Boutiques that cater to rich white women, "local artist" co-ops selling overpriced art, seven dollar lattes. Wealthy, attractive people walking around town, browsing the shops in their Patagonia and North Face, talking of the latest run on the mountain or their investment accounts. There's a palpable insulation here — news of the larger world rarely makes waves in towns like this, unless said news affects the stock markets.

At the end of a long day, I'm in a dirty motel room, bathed in sickening white LED light from the nightstand lamp, reading a book about a remote Colorado valley, where people live on five-acre tracts of barren land in trailers and shacks and sheds, just thankful to be left alone. On the balcony above my room, a woman hangs over the edge, ashing her cigarette onto the hood of my car. She must live here. A few nights ago, at a motel in a middling city in the center of the country, I rented a $35 room for the night and was put in the middle of several families, all living out of their rooms. Late at night, the noise of an argument down the mezzanine woke me up. A few hours later, the muffled pops of gunshots in the distance, several blocks from where I slept. I woke up to the sound of a kid learning to ride his bike in the hallway.

When I'm out America-ing, I often think back to my hometown, to the people I knew as a child. I wonder what they'd think of this place. I wonder how I'd describe it to them, to someone that hasn't left Indiana. There American West doesn't translate well to someone from the heartland, and I think I prefer it that way. Some days, I feel as though I accomplished something just by making a life out here, as if it imbued me with some sort of unique understanding of human nature. I think of people back in the corn and soy fields of the Midwest, no mountains or public land in sight, and wonder about their lives.

And I look around at mine. What, exactly, am I trying to find out here? 

An answer? To what question?