Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Outback

I woke up this morning in Phoenix, and I'll go to bed shortly in Fort Stockton, Texas. The drive on I-10 between the two is probably the most sparsely populated stretch of road in North America south of Canada. The last third of the drive, east of El Paso, is particularly blank, yielding mileage signs like "Sierra Blanca 20, San Antonio 534." Between El Paso and Fredericksburg there's not much except a few towns of a few thousand people. Van Horn, Fort Stockton, Ozona, Junction slip by like little oases of civilization swallowed up by the ocean of desert. This place is truly outback, like the Australian interior or the Mongolian Gobi.

The history of the place is writ large in the mountains and canyons and yucca bushes and wind turbines that roll on to the horizon. First, it was ocean, waves crashing ashore while the trilobites and ammonites scuttled around, piece by piece dropping their limestone skeletons to the seabed. When the oceans receded, the limestone mostly washed away, leaving the brutishly beautiful pinnacles behind in the mountains. Though the place was dry always and either hot or cold usually, the yuccas and the cacti flourished, dotting the valleys with a greenish film of life. Finally the people come, and the wind turbines sprouted, leaving some people a bit uneasy, but generally keeping people happy with the power they tease from the wind.

Growing up in Arizona, it was never too hard to get away from urban scenery when my family wanted to. Drive north on I-17 from my parents' house and in twenty minutes' time you could never tell that the fifth largest American city is just to the south. In central Texas, though, you can't ever get away from the presence of humans, not unless you want to drive a long way west. Drive out of College Station on highway 6 north or south and the city tails off quickly, but never dims away completely, pockets of houses and stores flaring up with names like Navasota, Hearne, and Conroe all the way to Waco one way and Houston the other. If I wasn't so busy with school most of the time, it would feel downright claustrophobic.

I wonder about the future of wild places like west Texas and the American southwest sometimes. People are getting better about using resources more efficiently all the time, but there are more people with each passing day. I wonder if in ten thousand years, doubling the age of civilization, there will be no more wilderness except for national parks and zones that have been kept wild through careful planning. The majority of the Earth will be cultivated, farms and mines and big algae tanks growing the food and energy civilization needs to keep humming away. I suppose there's nothing shameful in that, since very few people ever actually see wilderness the way it exists south of New Mexico, but it seems a little eerie. I like the fact that outback still exists, still shows how vast and awesome the universe is right here on Earth, and it would be like the loss of childhood innocence to lose that. For now at least, the desert spans on.

This morning I noticed a bumper sticker while I was waiting to turn left on my way out of Phoenix. "Catholic Radio AM 1310," it read. Figuring I had nothing to lose and I'd be leaving the broadcast range of the South Moutain towers soon anyway, I plugged the numbers in. Listening to the announcers talk their way through the rosary, I couldn't help but feel a sense of camaraderie for some reason. Though I don't share a creed and usually feel like a not-entirely-invited interloper at mass, something intuitively feels right about this reaching, a grasping for communion with that feeling of awe in creation. I crossed myself as they finished, and thought a little prayer for Gabby Giffords while I rambled through Tucson. Frankly, I don't know why I'm doing this, but it feels right.

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