Ever West: A Journey Into The Sunset
Nicolas D. Sampson
‘Heaven. Never offered. Always claimed.’
Every journey starts with an opening of the eyes and a stretch of the muscles. We fidget our toes and activate our necks, preparing our body for the strain that awaits it. Our autonomic nervous system revs up as we get out of bed, our organs fed with water and glucose and decisions, the choice between this and that, between what we know and what we’re bound to discover or die trying.
Part 1: Down The Road
Explorers are visionaries. Eager to break boundaries, they leave behind the familiar in search of a dream we can all share, making the world accessible to the rest of us. Consumed by the spirit of exploration, they seek out unknown places, meditating on the distance that greets them, physical and interior, and the effort it takes to traverse it.
Some explorers are intent on making it back to share their stories and inspire others to go on their own journeys.
Others are obsessed with taking that extra step. For them, a return home is a bonus. What matters is to make progress. Cut across field and prairie, pasture and sand, march across blacktops and dirt roads, plains and craggy streams that lead to sublime locations, fairytale landscapes, vales and downs and meadows covered in honeysuckle, cedar and pine woods followed by wetlands where birds gambol from horizon to horizon, the sky reflected pristine on the glossy surface. Beyond the water lies a land of mist, on the other side of which looms a snow-peaked mountain range, its foothills carved with gorges wainscoted with trees. The streams and rivers nourish golden green valleys, seas of wheat and corn followed by sand dunes and lakeside, palm trees and olive groves along a stormy coastline.
The explorers follow the trail, recording their experiences in their journals. They rest at night and move by day, except when the day is too hot and unwelcoming, in which case they make their move after dark. They march in the small hours, avoiding the eyes of those who would do them harm, battling the elements round the clock–humidity, frost, gusts of wind, rainfall, sleet, avalanche–dodging wild animals and the jaws of the earth, which has no qualms about swallowing them up. They venture forth, weather-beaten and proud, pushing their limits. Their bodies hurt and their heads spin, but they endure, unwilling to give in. Exhaustion is their companion, proof that they’re doing it right. Nothing of consequence was ever done in the sphere of comfort. Disoriented and hungry, they wouldn’t be anywhere else. It’s part of the challenge of putting themselves out there.
An owl hoots. A good omen for the night. Darkness falls rapidly and the world shrinks. The trees turn into a black veil. The mind jumps at every sound. Flames flicker in the distance, beacons of hope in the dark, shards of light, log cabins and campsites, an opportunity to rest. Or an element of danger. No way to tell.
Best to keep moving, find comfort later on. Brave the moonlit metallic world, take strength from its mystical nuance.
In the embrace of starlight everything changes form. The explorer merges with the night, looking out for signs of the dawn.
The moment arrives and the sun rises. Everything comes alight, all depth and color. It’s hot, but the daylight nourishes the soul, giving the explorer fuel for the coming march after dark.
The process is cyclical, self-propelling. Visions from the dawn of time suffuse the mind, when life was borne out of Earth’s raw material, the land dominated by fire and ice, wind and rain – storm flood hail magma tide ash oxygen – animation growing inside the womb of ruin, giving form to a world of drama.
Deep in the countryside the adventurer encounters preternatural time, a glimpse into life before history. Far from the cities and farming communities that litter the land, Eden unfolds timbered and glorious. The terrain is tricky. Care is of utmost importance. Surrender to its bliss but steer clear of the forbidden fruit. Relish but beware: what seems too good to be true usually is. Life is vicious and fragile, an ever-changing dynamic that demands adjustment. It’s hard to stay on top, afloat, ahead of the curve, but the reward is great. The raw sky with its Milky Way patch highlights the depth of the heavens, the terrible beauty of the cosmos, inside which one loses perspective, gaining more of it in the process. How small we are, our universe wondrous, awe and terror combined. The song of birds and the alert of darkness pluck at the soul’s strings. We’re the descendants of druids and star people, parts of them still alive in us, stoking our instinct, resonating with nature.
Into the lands of pre-apocalyptic nature this adventure leads, down the road that stretches ever west.
Part 2: The Land Churns
Behold the barbecue basins that collar the peaks of the West where, time and again, the trail ended for countless adventurers and visionaries.
This is rough country, a frontier that tests anyone who dares cross it. Land of excruciating nature, a crucible and graveyard for those who make their way through, an odyssey of horseman apocalypse in a sea of rock, dust, gunpowder, and sweat.
Apparitions of fortune hunters roam the desert. The specters of war and genocide linger like a bad smell. A West both won and relinquished, wild with righteousness and lust, greed, questionable morals. Out of the gothic blood band they march, and we march with them, seeing what they see, experiencing the world through their senses. We march through the outer dark of the Appalachian backwoods and the dust-white mantle of the cowboy plains into the land of bones and predators, the backyard of ranchers, bounty hunters and pilgrims, vagabonds and missionaries. A world of souls who seek redemption and deliverance. Out of the dark we emerge, from orchard and plantation, cutting across the plains and their bone-dry cities and all the wilderness that surrounds them, this country unfit for the infirm, beyond the backwoods and its periphery, into the baked yellow expanse on our way to the sunset.
The backyard of humanity greets us with its crusty smile.
Enter the desolation. The sunstorm scours the land, sucking it dry. The ground is cracked. A backbone of rock looms ahead. We climb it, taking in the jackhammered view. Vast skies, desolate like the terrain. A gauntlet has been laid out, guarding what lies beyond. A new world is out there, a personal heaven that awaits discovery, its foundation arranged in preternatural wisdom, old as the ages, heaven on Earth. Eden lies obscured, hidden in our midst. With life comes ruin, and with ruin more hope, followed by life. Cities, commerce, enterprise, exploitation, reform, renewed faith. Out of the ashes a new dream, a journey into the wild for those who’ve had enough. Risk life to perpetuate life, die so that others may live. Push the boundaries, venture forth, gamble everything for a moment outside the grid, beyond convention.
This is where the world is upturned. Bands of mercenaries and fortune seekers driven by the stars of providence in search of deliverance and resurrection march alongside us. Their routes of defiance shape this world. The roads we take for granted were deathtraps once, yet someone cleaved them. Rutted earth, mapped terrain. Our legacy comes from having come this far, willing to die along the way. Many did, gifting us today’s world, setting the stage for tomorrow.
The trail beckons. We march in pursuit of a vision, the dream of a world circumnavigated but not grasped. The terrain tests us, slowing us down, eager to swallow us whole and spit out our bones when the diggers come scavenging, ages from now. We question ourselves, wondering how to reconcile the world we left behind with the one we seek.
Uncertain what brought us here, we wonder if it matters.
The land churns. The palimpsest of heat and perspiration, light and shadow pulsate. Everything shrivels to mineral and ion. The constitution of our soul is tempered in this dominion. We seek treasures immortalized in old songs, miracles that lie expectant at the edge of the world. The green vales call our names, the breeze is rich with their scent, a whiff of life from beyond the furnace. Our imagination runs wild.
Behold the cliffs ahead. They guard the plateaus and everything beyond.
Legend has it that on the other side awaits paradise. Storm these cliffs and we’re halfway there, staking our claim for our progeny, those crazy enough to follow in our footsteps.
The process is slow. We bide our time. Secure the perimeter. Start a fire. Pitch tent, a pitstop for the weary, boomtowns for the speculators, oases for the disillusioned. Our bodies rest but the heart beats restless, our sights ahead. All it takes is a breeze and the tickle of one’s curiosity to pick things up and storm the cliffs.
Into the jaws of revelation our mission leads, carving out a path ever west, rolling swelling incandescing frothing smashing like a rush of curiosity on the mighty backrock only to fall back into the desert, caught between the dry sky and hard land. Our limbs shake and our nerves fray, but nothing can stop us. We build momentum and crash into the spine of the West again and again, until we spill over onto the Great Basin and the Sierras, and from there we march until the blue ocean fills our vision.
Some of us think ahead.
This, we realize, isn’t the end of the road. We’re turning south, making our way beneath the blood meridian.
But not before taking pause.
Part 3: Respite
Oases are havens on earth. We find them in times of need, between the wilderness and civilization.
Oases are a gift, the world’s way of giving us another chance.
They’re the trees that shade the traveler after an endless stretch of rock.
They’re the water-well at the end of a long march and the canteen where we sip a cool iced tea after a day in traffic.
Oases are the sigh we breathe after three weeks of cramming for exams.
They’re a passing cool breeze in the summer. Our quiet home on a September morning when the kids are at school. The sound of their voices when they come running through the door after class or sports. Family time in front of the TV on Sunday night. A bedtime story.
And the grotto we stumble across on the windswept plains, and the smell of freshly cut grass on our way to work and back.
Oases are the small table in the crowded square where the sun gilds us for a moment, our very own sun-kissed cocoon in the midst of towering infrastructure. And the cozy restaurants on the side street where we enjoy a steaming hot dish after a rainy day at the construction site.
In the temperate and tropical climates, oases are everything we imagined as children, or experienced, if lucky. The secret bay cove, private and serene and rare; the beach bar with the ice-cold beers and cocktails; the rave by the water where the revelers lose their minds and the terms ‘festive’ and ‘party’ take on their true meaning.
In the slums and shantytowns, plenty of miracles there, too: the immediacy of a good deed, the kindness of people willing to share with friends or strangers what little food they have. An oasis of kind moments in the midst of pain.
An oasis is a comforting embrace. A well-timed silence.
Sometimes it’s the smile from a friend or a stranger, the way their approval and words of support warm us up when the day is cold and there’s no money to buy firewood for the stove, and no electricity for the lamps, and no hot water. Receiving a compliment is like having our internal fireplace kindled and our faith in life restored.
On sleepless nights an oasis is a favorite book or a phone call from a loved one.
In our delicate youth it’s a word of praise from our parents; in old age, a visit from our children or grandchildren.
In the hospital it’s the sight of a caring doctor, a piece of good news. Brief respite from pain. A few hours of uninterrupted sleep with good dreams.
During a sports game an oasis is a moment in the zone, however brief, combined with the cheer of the crowd. It’s a moment in the limelight or a nod from our rivals, a sign of respect. It’s the acknowledgement and uplift we get in competitions, a momentary triumph, which, combined with the love for the game, is transformative.
And the friendly poker session where we killed it on the river, and it felt good; the table recognizes a good move, and their recognition makes all the difference.
At work, where we’re usually taken for granted, it feels astonishing to receive praise for a job well done.
And a five-minute break to wind down and recharge–smooth like balm.
The positive childhood memory that gets us through the day, or a well-timed word of support, especially when the world conspires against us–smooth and energizing.
And in the midst of chaos there’s that moment of silence when we let go and breathe, the opportunity to idle down and come to. A release in tension, a spell of peace, like the empty stretch of road during a midnight drive in the city–all of it part of that precious oasis. The bonfire by the lake in the company of friends–that precious oasis. The songs we sing to each other and the sleep we get in each other’s arms and the passionate love we make, firing up our souls to wake up afresh, ready for what’s next. Oases abound, locations and moments that arrest the onslaught of routine, offering respite, a shift in perspective, new beginnings, a platform. Our chance to replenish and head out, recharged and electric.
Sometimes our oases are hard to find, scarce and elusive, so we craft them out of thin air, making the best of any given situation, giving form to what we need, to the space that carries us through to the next moment.
All over the world, in the most unlikely places, oases cater to people of all ages. Fleeting, apparitional, rare, magical, they tend to the human spirit. They’re the reason we get up every day, eager to put one foot in front of the other–despite the previous day’s suffering–one thought following the next so that we may venture forth into the wild.
Part 4: Beware The Lights
Our journey into the wild is a soliloquy, an expression of restlessness and curiosity that drives us forward. The isolation one feels not only in the countryside, away from the crowds, but in the cities, in the company of millions, is the classic human story. Our journey into the unknown involves the highlights and pitfalls of a life dedicated to the pursuit of something not yet realized, capturing the spirit of adventure and the curse of vagrancy, all in one.
We’re back in the throngs again, in the big city, pushing our way through the masses of angels.
The slog doesn’t faze us. We know how to negotiate hostile terrain by now.
It’s a challenge all the same. Negotiating the city crowd is an arduous affair, as grueling as the march through the wilderness. The dense setting feeds our claustrophobia and isolation, especially here in Los Angeles. (Oasis or gauntlet?) Its visitors are the ultimate vagrants, lost between love and vice, spirit and circumstance. No one really belongs here, not even the residents. Like Charles Bukowski, they–and we alongside them–cover a vast, wild terrain in search of something we can’t identify, moving from moment to moment in search of the next best thing, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, trying to fit everything inside a more elaborate belief system.
Some of us seek respite and a blessing. Others mercy–from their surroundings, from themselves.
Some of us don’t know what we want.
The city leaves us lacking.
All we know is that we must abandon what doesn’t work and try something new. This is how it works, we know this by now. The wilderness of Los Angeles and its endless suburbs took form in an orgy of plaster and glass where people were made hard not by the nature of the wild, but by the allergies of consciousness lost in choice, a wasteland of artificial light and promises–that’s what we battle, day and night. The city preys on our hopes and goodwill. Soulless construction digs into our psyche to suck us dry. Poor urban planning turns toxic. The City of Angels and all such cities are gauntlets, their streets a carnivorous flower of infrastructure. Buildings are funhouses packed with accidents waiting to happen. The ocean froths with pollutants. The land is scarred with heavy equipment and flammable development. Tarmac, layer upon layer, blacktops thirsty for pileups drenched in blood and dreams. The sky crackles with sunburst, dripping with subterfuge. Overkill. Fumes. Liability. The explorers and poets despair, which gives them hope. They embrace the madness, eager to discover something rare about the human condition. They engage civilization, looking for company in the midst of chaos, but the only company that awaits them brandishes whip and lawsuit, clock and chain. Stars fade in the city’s glare. Prospects dwindle. This is the land of angels without wings or protective instincts or interest in anything other than stories promoted on the wire by agents on commission, all those hands-for-hire on retainer, their teeth locked around the spirit of innocence, pincer-tight, making cadavers of the compromised and survivors of the rest.
The desert of humanity grows.
There’s a saying among the well-traveled: beware the lights. When all is dark and desolate, a light is either an oasis or a deathtrap.
Beware the lights, fellow travelers.
Part 5: Paradise and Beyond
Into the wild we venture, our minds curious, itching for discovery. Out of the cities and into the desert and dry heat, the cold night, the empty space, the beautiful purgatory of the American continent we wade in search of transcendence, not roadside attractions.
Oases are not ends in themselves. We know this well. Better collapse on the road than stay put to grow fat, shrivel, or go mad.
We venture forth, across a landscape as immaculate as the first dawn. Hunting grounds, fishing grounds, working fields, playgrounds, and burial grounds for those who search for paradise on earth. An element of insecurity is tantamount to the human experience. The need to lose oneself and engage with the land in ways forgotten or frowned upon in this day and age. An adventurer feels obliged to push the limits, keeping the tradition of exploration alive. Davy Crocket, Jack London, Daniel Boone, Nellie Bly, Henry David Thoreau, even the arch-bum Bukowski – a company of restless souls who inspire us to make a life out of nothing in the middle of nowhere. We traverse the Earth with the aim to defeat it, be respected by it, become part of it like the rest of the planet’s organisms. This is our home, and we’re dying to rekindle the times of genesis when living creatures roamed unbound by edict or sin, mandate or quotas.
In search of the Garden, eager to immerse ourselves and replenish our existence, we push forth. Molded in badlands, both savage and urbane, we march and wander, seeking out what was lost over the millennia in the millstone of time, a crush we aim to survive. No longer interested in the artificial, the silicon-based or metal-driven, we seek out oxygen, chlorophyll, climate cycles, something to connect us to the network of life at large, to the artwork of preternatural harmony. Deep in the trails of uncharted and uninhabited lands (forget civilization, embrace nature) we tread at the risk of losing everything.
There’s no turning back. Fueled by the undying wish to stumble upon the original thought and make it our own, we march.
We’re headed for the dawn of music. That’s where we want to be. The first sound beckons, echoed by the first thoughts. We march south across scree deserts, salt lakes, broiling flats of sand, dust and audible drought that squelch the chlorophyll and mitochondrion. The spavined travelers ahead, on the rim of the horizon, hum the songs that draw us in, far, down seas of radiant rock and even farther into the planes of vapor fumes and hamlets lost in heat that reflects the sky. Where Kerouac drove himself to create the mysterious Dean Moriarty and his curious shadow, Sal Paradise, and all the other cats and bums and spinning godheads that crossed the land in search of a starry blanket they called their own, a night sky painted only for them, and for every traveler besides. Into the lost realms, through utopia and beyond, down the long isthmus below the belt.
On the other hand, for those of us who feel like flipping the needle and pushing ever west, there’s also the other way round, via the north route, into the final frontier.
Confused, we can’t decide what course to take. Stick to our course or turn around?
It doesn’t matter. When on the road it’s important to love the home we carry on our backs more than the one we hope to arrive at.
Part 6: Into The Wild
We’re headed north. Having left behind the cities of neon, glass and fallen angels, no more plaster and lawsuits and stars whose beam never penetrates the haze, and no more subtropical bands to wrestle with (let Moriarty keep Paradise) we march toward the cold, up through Washington State, past Desolation Peak, into the green crownlands of Canada and beyond. Our limbs are refreshed, hungry for punishment, our nerves warmed up and eager to fire, and before long we find ourselves deep inside a nature less encountered, if at all.
This is the land of long chilly days and biting winds, old growth forests perched on the land’s brow. America beyond America, the Alaskan frontier, home of the immutable and unspoiled territory. Where west becomes east and America meets Asia.
We no longer have a sense of position. Boundaries clash, distinctions melt into each other in a slate of paradox, the cardinal points jumbled up, reversed, a crucible of geography that dissolves time and space into its elemental constituents.
This is where the continents meet not just geographically, but also spiritually.
The fray of nature absorbs us.
Odysseus on the march, far from Ithaca, lost inside the preternatural, yet still at home, having tied together the strings of the two hemispheres with bare hands, the adventurer and every adventurer since, all of us, trace out the world’s continuity. We were carried here by the spirit of disquietude, in the name of which we push forth. Along these forgotten routes our world is redrawn, expanded, reconnected. Our blue sphere floats in a black ocean of space, flirting with a cosmic ball of fire, and we, kept at the right distance, at an appropriate temperature and angle, gilded in the rays of destiny, accustom ourselves with our home planet. Our souls are content. Arcadia is no longer the transient apparition of hymns and legends. We’re inside it, in a land whose contours we’re mapping, whose ridges and crenellations we’ve overcome.
The border has yielded. We’ve crossed over, looking ahead. Our bodies will soon perish but our hearts will go on, beating inside the minds of those who follow in our footsteps, shining like stars. We guide them forth to reward them for their endurance and faith.
Epilogue: Full Circle
We’ve reached the end. It’s everything we’d hoped for, mystical, fleeting, transcendental, and we’re grateful. It was worth it. We forewent what was precious–our sanctuaries, our relations, our frames of reference, our comfort–to receive something in turn, in kind. A glimpse of life across time, unbound by the conventions of the day.
Losing sight of our point of departure kept us going. We gained insight along the way, adjusting to the changes. Spending time away from everything familiar made us understand who we are.
It was a grueling task. The way ahead was tricky–always is, no matter how many people have gone ahead. To travel means to reach a dead end and double-back. Or, if lucky, to come full circle and keep going. The world is a sphere. Travel too long and you’re back where you started, only not quite. There’s a twist. The locations one returns to are not the same, and neither are we. Time touches everything. The universe is in perpetual shift. New worlds await us at every destination.
In other words, though we’re bound to a sphere, our lives are boundless. We go round, not in circles, but in knowledge and wisdom, acquiring a fresh understanding of boundaries, forging new bonds between humanity and nature, person and location. We’re circumnavigators in motion. Past and future come together like East and West, our vision morphing into accomplishment, a journey round a world we’re only just discovering, shedding light on the paradise hidden inside us, to each our own.
There it lies, our very own paradise, within us, right next to our own private hell, if not inside it, the lengths and depths of which we traverse day in, day out, on our way through.
The road, it seems, is forever, the journey synonymous with consciousness. Life is motion, and death is how we make sense of it, signaling those yet to arrive how important it is to advance while they still can.
Nicolas D. Sampson is Books Editor at Panorama.