Here are three things I couldn’t photograph on U.S. 50. (And three things I could, for decoration.)
I’m pretty sure those are mustangs in the scrub, scattered under the thunderheads. There’s no one out here to be grazing so many horses on nothing, on purpose. The herd has raised a cloud of dust that throws the light.
Do you remember book-order catalogs in grade school, from Scholastic? The thin, crinkly paper? I got any dollar paperback with a pony on the cover. Breeds of horse were the first and last subject of which I could ever claim a thorough study. I’d never be that kind of hungry again.
I suppose the mustang’s the whole country’s symbol of a former, better self. So then it makes sense we round them up to make room for cows.
It’s very, very dark out here; the mountains barely cut an outline on the night. You see them best where they’re on fire, faint in the glow of a silent crimson blaze creeping lava-like across the void.
We’re Californians; we’re dubious. Is that a very big fire, we wonder, or does it just seem big with nothing around it? Are we meant to report it somewhere? If we had reception? It’s very obvious; surely they know. Who is they, though, and where even are we? Does anybody look after this place?
In a parking lot in Fallon, Nevada, I walk past a van with its sliding door open to a white-haired man sitting at a card table. It’s under a checkered vinyl tablecloth. On it, one mantlepiece clock, two overturned wine glasses, and three small brass figurines; I’m not sure of what. A double-burner to the side, a beaded curtain to the rear. On the floor: towers of canned corn and Heinz beans, a potted pepper plant, a radio, paperbacks, canteens.
It’s out of character for me to do more than notice, but today I can’t leave this alone. The man doesn’t hear well—it’s a few “Excuse me, sirs” before he turns to me—and then its with rheumy eyes sunk deep in his face. He says he moved into the van eight years ago, when Bakersfield got too bad. He left his last spot due to the fires, will chose the next based on the snow. His friend’s a meteorologist, thinks it’s going to be a long, hard winter. There’s solar panels, $200 cash, and two years’ food in the van; that’s all he has and all he needs. “I’m completely self-sufficient,” he says. He says it a couple times. “Have to be. I don’t like the way the country’s going.”
“Well, that makes two of us,” I say. I figure we needn’t get into why.
I’ve rarely wanted to take a picture so badly. Someone else might at least ask, but I can’t do it, fear it would be an unconscionable request of a man living in a windowless vehicle covered in camouflage paint. I’m making an assumption, I know, that he doesn’t want to be found or followed, doesn’t need to be liked or shared. I’d just like to think such a person still exists, maybe even in myself—that they’re out there living that #vanlife.