Splendor in the grass

I do not know if many would agree with me, but I am sincerely convinced that the drive from northern New Mexico to south-central Kansas is one of the best to find in the Lower 48 – on the condition that you stay off the freeways and just as carefully select your route as in the past William Least Heat-Moon did when he traveled to write his famous opus, ‘Blue Highways’. Anyway, whether you agree with me or not, you do have to admit that my opinion must not be taken lightly. Not only have we completed this journey more than a mere couple of times, Ans and I spent altogether five years –roughly one-sixth of our adult life– on the road in America, traveling in all states west of the Mississippi, a total of 18 months between the years 1980 and 1992 and more than three consecutive years from 1994 to 1997 until we settled in Abiquiu, New Mexico. We can compare, we can judge. We have been on all by-roads, and on many, many dirt roads. We’ve been to places where no “Average American” family would dare to go, to places where no God-fearing American would want to be seen dead or alive. Those, by the way, were the best.

Contemporary maps do not color Highway #64 in New Mexico and the highways #56 and #50 in Kansas in blue any more. Nonetheless, they are as narrow and almost as devoid of traffic as they were in the “blue highways days.” I promise you, it is sheer pleasure to point your vehicle east and unhurriedly progress from mountainous high desert via the high plains of New Mexico to the flat corn fields and ultimately the hilly grasslands of Kansas. But only if you keep your eyes open for, and your mind appreciative of, discoveries that, although they do not make the New York Times List of The 10 Most Attractive Places, are revealing, surprising, or just plain beautiful.

From the moment I leave the Sangre de Cristo mountain range east of Taos, New Mexico behind me and reach Cimmaron, the road ahead of me is, for roughly 10 hours, an almost perfect straight line. I do not want to hurry along, therefore plan to spend two days. Three days maximum. No longer. I mean, the trip is sensational, with many a sight along the road to stop and linger, but I should not overstate its beauty. I do not know what I would experience if I stretched the trip out over six, seven days.

The wide views everywhere on this route and the long distances between things happening in the landscape allow for plenty of time to disappear into deep thought. About “intimations of immorality,” for instance, always a great subject if I have an hour to spare. William Wordsworth wrote an Ode on them. The poem surfaces in the 1961 movie ‘Splendor in the Grass’, probably the first movie I watched, in my own last high-school days in the Netherlands, with Kansas for location (as you may recall I oh so regretfully missed out on Oz).

High-school belle Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) and, what’s in a name, quarterback Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty, in his big-screen debut) find their awakening sexuality at odds with their own moral standards and those of their late 1920s rural Kansas community. Trying to resist their carnal urges leads to mutual heartbreak and ultimately to what was, then, thought to be madness for the fragile Deanie. Director Elia Kazan’s profile of the repercussions of pent-up pubescent lust netted an Oscar for Best Screenplay. It is a Classic Drama, a Romantic Drama, a Romance Classic. Internet film sites teach me that the screenplay was written by William Inge, “a deliberately enigmatic, homosexual man who lived in this era of sexual repression and who played out the consequences through the heterosexual characters he created for the stage and for film.” All of these found the “Average American” lonely, uncertain, and sexually strangled. Sexual arousal is not a thing nice girls experience — and when Deanie is aroused by Bud, she is emotionally ripped apart by what she perceives as the division between “good girls” that men marry and “bad girls” that men play with. Ultimately there is no real happy ending, only recovery, deeper understanding, and a letting go of a relationship that was not meant to be. Inge wrote a truly stinging background statement on social hypocrisy. “In an era that favored bedroom farces in comedy and cautious innuendo in drama, the movie was a shocker indeed, condemned by one moral group after another for its portrait of sexuality among 1920s teens caught between double standards — standards that were still commonplace when the film was released in 1961,” and not only in America.

Especially in the western part of Kansas double (and triple, quadruple) standards have not disappeared. The anti-abortion signs on the farms along the highway cannot be overlooked, the number of young, single, overweight, sloppy mothers with not even a glimpse of a glorious future in sight that I encounter in restaurants, with one or two toddlers in tow who apparently most of the day are in the care of the accompanying pro-lifer grandparents, is substantial. But the good part is, I see them in Mexican restaurants. The Mexicans nowadays, unlike in the 1920s, the 1960s, unlike even in the 1990s, are all over the place, in each town, each crumbling settlement. Their food is cheap but good, their smile is warm, their beer is Corona and Negro Modelo and not the lame Light you’d expect to drink in this remote part of the Midwest.

Thinking of bad girls makes the miles fly by. The first part of the trip cannot be but beautiful in anyone’s eye, dominated as it is by the low mesas of the borderlands where desert meets prairie. It is New Mexico’s cattle country with enormous distances between the ranches. Occupying what in the Netherlands are provinces, they are of a size that never, not even after living many years in America, fails to astound me. When entering the Oklahoma Panhandle, the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, you like I still have a fair chance of meeting a dust storm in your path. It is a suffocating experience — I see the sky turn yellow when the storm approaches, then the horizon is gone, then anything of shape in the distance disappears, then suddenly there is no road ahead of me, just a yellow-gray nothingness my vehicle drives into, its chauffeur blinded. I have sense enough to close the truck’s windows in time, yet the sands penetrate and leave traces on the dashboard, on my lips and around my eyes.

Along the route, in the Oklahoma Panhandle and near Dodge City, several wind farms dominate the scenery that is not a landscape but a flat nothingness of earth. Without these contemporary additions the land would be desperate, the dullest of grayish dull. With the scores of towering white windmills in sight, the earth surprisingly becomes a new and fresh-looking landscape. I have seen wind farms in California with their presence destroy the original, beautiful scenery. Here, with no competition from the landscape itself, they create a sight that takes your breath away.

Dodge City. Cowboy country par excellence. You can even smell it. Scores of feedlots. Each one filled to the brim with cows ready for the slaughter. Hundreds of thousands of beef cattle crawling all over each other, wallowing in their collective shit. It is a sight to see and shiver, and it confirms I made the right decision when I vowed to never, never buy a burger at any fast food place in the country, in the world, again. These are not the splendid, healthy, free-roaming, grass-fed cows I know from the Flint Hills. These are just pumped-up beef for the mass slaughter. Nowadays, it’s Mexicans who work the feedlots. Mexicans are all over town. Most signs I see are in Spanish. Their women are the ones who serve me in restaurants.

The famous marshal of Dodge, what’s his name, Matt Dillon, is gone, Doc Holliday is gone. Amazingly, Miss Kitty is still around. When I have breakfast someplace on Boot Hill, she, a bland blond and painted beauty fading as fast as the lands suffering under dust storms, walks in — Miss Kitty, no doubt about it.

By the way, I recently Netflixed ‘Splendor in the Grass’ (coincidently, three days later I read in Patti Smith’s autobiography ‘Just Kids’ that this was artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s favorite movie). I now believe the story is set in El Dorado, a good half hour south-west of my own Matfield Green, in old oil boom country. I watched the film for the second time after almost 50 years. It withstood the times. The screenwriter, the director, and also the actors deserve an accolade. We, the people, do not. The late Sixties, the Eighties and Nineties, and the rise of electronic toys notwithstanding, all that progress of half a century did not contribute to much “real” improvement (as watching any reality show on TV and other detritus of consumer culture confirms) but created rather a negative change of mankind’s mores and ethics.

In the movie, Bud’s father (superbly played by actor Pat Hinkle) like so many other investors and bankers jumps from a high-rise after the Crash of 1929 takes away his wealth. In a sense this is an honorable escape from shame, a solution that many early 21st century bankers and investors could have, should have, learned from. Instead, the contemporary gambling and cheating Wall Streeters let the taxpayer bail them out royally, then they have the temerity to scorn him for it and snigger practically into his face. Isn’t, in its second decade, this already called the century –the Golden Age– of corporate corrupters, thieves and robbers? Of pretentious dumbhead politicians and ditto economists who play along with these cheaters?

One of the speakers at the founding conference of the Cambridge (UK) Institute for New Economic Thinking was Dr. Yaga Reddy, the former Bank of India Governor. India had no financial crisis, economic growth continued unabated. Why? Because Reddy, as reported in The Observer, over the objections of Western bankers, the IMF, and local banking pressures, simply did not allow the Indian banking system to engage in Wall Street-style speculation. “We are a poor developing nation,” Reddy said humbly, puckishly. “We don’t really understand these ‘securities’, so we don’t permit our banks to use them. We leave them to you more advanced nations.” Reddy, condemned by Indian bankers for more than ten years, now is praised as a prophet. No one in Washington or London was or is seeking his council. Of course not.

East of Dodge City the Kansas landscape becomes friendlier. At the same time it appears to lose its endlessness. This is because for the first time trees –oak, sycamore, cottonwood, spruce– and brush in abundance create “compartments” in the land. The land becomes lovelier, sweeter, even lush. The scenery with its low rolling hills reminds me of Le Berry in central France –although it has been a while since I visited there– and the numerous giant, white grain silos just off the road or in the distance make me think of the Medieval castles of the French countryside. You say I am just romanticizing?

In central Kansas the ranches and farms, houses and businesses along the road are better cared for and, often, look inviting. The clapboards make place for well-painted sidings. The grass is clearly mowed with utter devotion. This is Picture Perfect Rural America I am looking at, and the views undoubtedly charm me. The only disturbances are to be seen in the areas where tornados have struck down miles of trees. Tree tops are cut, entwined branches have formed huge and complex globes of the kind that would set no few contemporary sculptors singing and dancing of joy. Yet most often, what remains is just a damaged jungle in which new branches push through the rubble and new green leaves add color to the confusion.

Many miles and many reflections later, the Flint Hills and the tallgrass prairie silence me, as always, when not only the land but also the sky opens up and their unparalleled, astonishing vastness easily drives all remaining thought of bad girls out. Who again said Nature is a healing force?

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, April 2010