CLAY JENKINSON: In Search Of America — I Fell In Love With America All Over Again

ASPEN, Colo — Last night, I camped about a dozen miles from Aspen, but you would not have known that billions, even hundreds of billions, of dollars were spending themselves nearby.

This morning, I drove in to check my email and post this report, but I will leave soon. I wanted a Starbucks because I knew there would be free WiFi. But, of course, it is Aspen, so everything commercial is disguised as something else. As I sit here, at the window, three dogs leashed outside (some come in), and a steady stream of women have passed by with their yoga mats. The level of pure confidence here is gigantic. Twelve miles away, a fire pit, a chemical toilet, peace.

Last night, I fell in love with America all over again. I was in my little campsite, one of about 20 there. I did a lot of walking. It’s fun to inspect other people’s camping arrangements. I come from the minimalist school, but others bring bicycles, tons of chairs, a tent for eating, plus sleeping tents or RVs, ball equipment, their own grills, carpets, coolers, and some — the minute they get to camp — deploy an expensive all-weather stereo system so that they can cut the aloneness with music. I heard one camp play Grateful Dead all evening, another hard country music. But the night before, at another camp altogether, I heard a lone man, ca. 35 or 40 years old, play a ukulele for a couple of hours, just plucking out rhythms and bits of song.

I read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Crossing” for most of yesterday. I had pledged to finish it this week, so I did. It is at times a difficult book, and I feel at times he is straining to be profound, when being understood is the nobler goal, perhaps. But it gives you that longing for Mexico, Old Mexico, the Mexico of Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the Mexico of the world’s fellahin.

The Maroon Bells Wilderness Area south of Aspen is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I spent a week up there once, with my friend Douglas. We were young, fresh back from a British interlude, and we wanted to drink in America at its most pure. We soaked in remote hot springs with genuine off-the-grid hippies. We were young and very strong of leg and back, and we felt like characters who had just emerged from the Nick Adams stories of Hemingway. We had some of the best conversations of our lives together at 11,000 feet and we learned why Electric Pass is so-named!

The mountains in this part of central Colorado are magnificent, and the foliage. No wonder the rich have locked it up for themselves. If you have a daily budget of $2,000, you can have a great deal of fun in Aspen. And high prices keep the regular Americans out, and the workers who do all that it takes to wait on the rich and privileged cannot possibly live here, of course. They have to bunk somewhere down the road.

In the past week, I have driven from Bismarck, through the greenest days of the Great Plains grasslands and then into Colorado, which is as different from North Dakota as an Aspen tree is from a creeping juniper.

There is so much space in America where nothing is (thank you Gertrude Stein). All you have to do is go find it — and it is everywhere, especially west of the Mississippi River —and you can see the continent in something like its primordial wildness. If you were pensioned and you decided to go to all the national parks and spend a week in each, it would take you several years, especially if you hole up for the winter. If you decided to hike every great National Forest Service trail in America, you would never finish, but your calves would be like steel cables, and you would “conquer time,” as the yoga masters say. I don’t have a particular urge to climb all of Colorado’s fourteeners, but there are 53 of them, and that would take you a couple of years. I once saw a television documentary about two young men who traveled the whole world looking for the perfect wave. They were surfers. If you decided to search North America for the perfect camp site, in trees, along a mountain trout stream, with hiking trails at hand, you could spend the rest of your life in joyful exploration.

I just sat in my yellow camp chair and gazed at the mountains, still topped with pure white snow. And at the quaking aspen leaves at my camp. I could hear the muted roar of the creek that flows through the camp. Most campers spoke in hushed tones. I tried to imagine the American West in the Age of Jefferson. We don’t do a very good job of this. We tend either to forget the continent was filled with steady-state Native American cultures or we idealize their cultures as if they lived in a golden age.

A small RV, a truck camper like mine, teaches you order and minimalism. It’s a bit of a cheat, nowadays, because my iPad has 100 books on it, and my laptop requires no typing paper. Everything you can reasonably be said to need fits neatly in a small RV refrigerator. I have used only one pan. It turns out that it does most of what one might need.

The self-abnegating Starbucks is now full of beautiful people, ordering drinks so complicated, with so many particularities of health, personality, theory, whim, “rage for distinction,” that I am feeling decidedly grungy.

So off I go. Two more nights. One of them must be at a KOA Campground. You have not been a true geezer until you level the rig at a KOA.

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