Updated: Nov 21, 2018
September: Most notable for the Green Day song that encourages an month-long nap. For other reasons, it's become one of my favorite months. As I write, I'm sitting shotgun, my car winding through the hazy mountains of western Montana. We've been exceeding the speed limit for nearly five hours and the smoke remains our constant traveling companion; a carcinogenic fog filling the landscape, the perfect metaphor of our historical moment.
I love September because it's when the temperature drops and if we're lucky snow comes to rescue us from the oxygen-deprived neo-normality of Montana's August. Squinting at the distant mountains somewhere near the Idaho border, missing the smokey trees for the forest, I feel the latent, gut-clenching realization that it's just going to be this way. Every summer from now until forever the smoke will come earlier. The droughts will worsen. Fingers will point and it will clearly be both a Republican and a Democrat problem with solutions just around the corner, just one election cycle away from the long awaited respite. Meanwhile, the smoke thickens.
As we cross the make-believe line that demarcates "Montana" from "Idaho," Interstate 90 opens up at the top of a mountain to reveal a wide valley. It's all grey. The jagged brown silhouette of what I trust are pine trees lingers beyond the veil, offering my imagination a teaser of how I always imagined the apocalypse. My girlfriend sneezes. We both marvel at our ability to see clouds directly above us, shimmering accents piercing the smoke and reminding us of the wide open sky that silently holds the drama of a dying culture.
The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalypsis which literally means to uncover or to unveil. In that sense, we're squarely situated not in the apocalypse, but in one of many apocalypses that have unfolded in the course of human history. We're living in an ending. And finally, we can't pretend otherwise.
Well into the Idaho panhandle now, the haze feels thicker and more ubiquitous. I keep waiting to pop out on the other side, like out of an enchanting winter fog, but the smoke is edgeless. We're driving to a lesbian wedding in Seattle and I wonder, as the political burning currently underway consumes the humanitarian progress of the past half-century, how long their marriage will be legal. For now, their love is governmentally sanctioned. Like an ambivalent father of the fifties, the United States teeters on a precipice, tentatively granting love a disapproving permission, threatening to take it back with a single heartless signature.
As the world burns and the fallacy of capitalistic morality becomes transparent to all but the most obstinate, it's not surprising that our culture seems to be in retrograde. We humans do crazy shit when we're scared. Our brains revert to the reptilian echoes of our evolutionary past and we forget that love is the only meaning of our temporary existences. Bewitched by the technological fires of the twenty-first century, our eyes become ever more clouded by the smoke of our trivial society.
I'm in Coeur d'Alene now. Somewhere to my left, a lake flashes by at 85 mph. Last time I drove this stretch, mountains rose on either side. Today, I'm held in an acrid yellow-grey blanket, jockeying for position between the white and yellow lines, overheated and grimacing like everyone else in their moving metal bubbles, heading west into the featureless horizon. People glare when they catch me staring, perhaps a defensive response to being witnessed, caught red-handed in the seemingly private moment of honest misery that long-distance driving offers.
As we enter the metropolitan outskirts of Spokane, we pass a massive compound of trailers. "Camping World" looms on the right side of the interstate offering insulated wilderness-conquering vehicles. Names like "Viking," "Powerlite," "Lance," and "Brave" decorate the sides of the trailers; a holographic microcosm of the cultural whole, revealing our obsession with defeating the wild planet that gives us life. Pushing deeper into the smoke, we whiz past downtown. Bank names gaze vacantly down onto the pavement from the tops of the tallest buildings; financial gods stoically celebrated from the boardrooms of phallic temples.
Clearing the city, we plunge back into the vastness of rural America. On either side of the road, the great open space celebrated in songs and stories is crossed with fences, divided and private. Squirrels jump from branch to branch, more free than I to wander as they please. As afternoon gives way to evening, I think of our destination in the distance. Seattle awaits. A celebration of love made possible by the sacrifices of millions. For all the gloom of the endings witnessed from the passenger seat, we're rolling toward a beginning. There will be laughter and tears and dancing. For this is the strange paradox of our humanity - we can love so much that we grieve and grieve so deeply that we love. Somehow, we are capable of standing up anew in the midst of collapsing despair.
We will keep driving - through the flatlands of Eastern Washington where we are now, forcing our way through the smokey barriers of burned forest and human ignorance, and though we can't know for sure, we'll probably arrive in Seattle. Maybe we'll be through the smoke, or perhaps it lingers even there, in the metropolitan center of the American Northwest. But there is hope even beyond Seattle. Further west is the coast, the end of this conflicted landmass, an ocean where even the omniscient authority of the United States government must give way to the bigger picture. And if the smoke has wandered out to sea, even if that infinite blue horizon is hidden behind the grey wall that has defined this westward journey, somewhere it must end. Somewhere, way out there in the unquenchable vastness of our home, the smoke will clear and we will see again the destination we never departed.