No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

#24: Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads -- Richard Grant

To be sitting in a New York bar and fall prey to a sudden urge to go to Texas, Montana or Mexico, and be able to leave in the morning without a care -- this was my idea of freedom, my definition of success in life.(p.90)

Ghost Riders is an exploration of various forms of nomadism in modern America -- retirees in motorhomes, cowboys, tramps, rail-riders, reenactors, hippies -- and the history of wanderlust from the earliest Spanish explorations to the author's own desire to flee commitment and his sedentary lifestyle. Like many of the best travel books, it interweaves history, anecdote, biography and reflection.

And like many of the non-fiction books I read, it's taken me a while, dipping in for a page or reading several chapters in a day. I started reading this on the plane to California last November ...

"In London I would not have reacted to a relationship breakup by walking out to the highway and raising my thumb," confesses the author in the first few pages. "These restless, roaming urges [were] something that happened to me in America, something that happened to a persistent minority of all Europeans who crossed the Atlantic. ... If you dig down to the roots of American wanderlust, it is a process of going native, of Europeans being conquered by America -- by the immensity of its geography and the nomadic cultures they found here."

The urge has been there for centuries. Cabeza de Vaca, author of Adventures in the Unknown Interior, experienced an 'odyssey of transformation' in the early 16th century.
Its themes -- the epic, searching journey towards the sunset, spiritual transformation in the wilderness, the hope of building a new and better world -- seem characteristically American because, in a way, Cabeza de Vaca had become an American by the time he wrote it. He had been through an odyssey that was not possible in Europe. (p.44)


American nomadism has different parameters, different roots, to anything in Eurasian experience. It's not about leaving and coming back. It's not even about travel, for as Grant points out, "When travel becomes constant, it alters its meaning, at least in sedentary languages. It is no longer a trip away from somewhere. In a sense nomads never leave." He examines the American nomad, the lone horseman, in literature -- both fiction and (auto)biography -- and finds a key difference.
Unlike Odysseus, or all those medieval knights-errant, Leatherstocking [the hero of novels by James Fenimore Cooper] did not return and reunite with his family and community after his long, questing journey. At the end of the story -- an old man now, still unmarried and quite possibly a virgin -- Leatherstocking rides off again 'to seek a final refuge against society in the broad and tenantless plains of the west'.(p.166)


The tenantless plains are an integral part of the myth. Grant refers to 'riding out for the biggest blank spaces left on the map', and talks to men who, returning from one directionless trek on horseback, are already planning the next. "America is basically going down the toilet as far as I'm concerned," [one cowboy] says. "But in the West, at least, you can still make a trip like that, if you carry a pair of fence-cutters and take a few chances with the game laws. Where else in the world could you do it? Most countries won't even let you carry a gun." (p.171)

The mythology of America crops up in unexpected places. Here's Grant, being shown an earth intaglio of a horse which might date from a Spanish expedition of 1540. The intaglio's origins are expounded by a government archaeologist who happens to be a Mormon:
Mormonism is a fundamentalist faith, and its sacred text, the Book of Mormon, states that America at the time of Christ was populated by two lost tribes of Israel, who possessed horses, sheep, goats, pigs, oxen, elephants, wheeled chariots and metal swords -- none of which have turned up in the archaeological record. .. Mormonism is perhaps the most awkward of all the world's religions for an archaeologist to believe in. (p76-7)


"Americans tell me," says Grant, "that it's a European tendency to look for the broad historical perspective behind a contemporary phenomenon." Which is what he's trying to do throughout: put things in a historical context, identify trends and tribes and types. (There's an intriguing thread of impalement legends, from a Spanish horseman impaled on his own lance to a stretch of I95 in Florida where three drivers, in three separate incidents, were pinned to their cars by unsecured metal rods flying free from other vehicles.)

I found the chapters on the interaction of Indians and Europeans -- from the earliest contact to the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, Indians versus Argonauts in a war of few battles that halved the population of the Cheyenne and Comanche nations -- especially fascinating, as they resonate with some other recent reading (The Tenderness of Wolves; The Last Witchfinder; The Unredeemed Captive).
On the Muskingum River in 1764 a captive exchange took place ... The Indian prisoners ran back to their tribe with signs of great joy. The white captives had to be bound hand and foot, kicking and screaming, and forcibly dragged back to the emissaries of civilisation. Later, many of them escaped from their rescuers and went back to live with the Indians. (p.125)


A lot of the nomads Grant meets, from cowboys to mountain men, claim Indian heritage (as an excuse or explanation?) Apparently the number of Americans claiming Cherokee blood is demographically impossible. And those nomads who are Indian, or part-Indian, reject 'civilised' sedentary life for pragmatic reasons:
"Indians become alcoholics for the same reason they become diabetics: we're not physiologically equipped to deal with booze or junk food. .. It was the same with all those other diseases the Europeans brought us ... How long does it take you to get over a cold? Two weeks max, right? For us it's thirty to sixty days, and the purer the blood, the longer it takes." (p.185)


Then there's the modern Americans trying to recreate a splendid myth of peaceful nomadism. Grant (despite covert hippie tendencies revealed by his desire to die in the desert and "get picked clean by ants, and then to enter the bodies of ant-eating lizards and lizard-eating birds and coyotes, while my bones crumble into the soil and nourish a cactus or a juniper tree .. [that's] enough immortality for me") has little sympathy for the Rainbow Nation:
"I'm losing patience with hippies. I'm tired of being welcomed home a hundred times a day, tired of uninvited aura readings, tired of fakelore and the idea that vibes alone can change the world, and love is all you need. In my Babylon mind I'm more impressed by the practical workings of the Rainbow Gathering... They have succeeded in creating a functioning anarchist utopia." (p.228)


At least their form of anarchism works. Grant talks to hobos on mile-long freight trains and draws his own conclusions about the FTRA, or Freight Train Riders Association. The FTRA get a bad press for having been infiltrated by white supremacists, gangs and serial killers, but from Grant's investigations (and those of SF author Lucius Shepard, who rode the rails for a while and drew on his experiences to write Two Trains Running) the problems stem from a 'general breakdown in hobo society, the kind of anarchy that gives anarchy a bad name'.

There's a certain mournful emptiness to my mental images of American railways, but apparently there was a 'hot new craze' in the Nineties: "riding the rails with cellphones, GPS finders, down parkas, three-hundred-dollar tents, four-hundred-dollar sleeping-bags, and uploading your latest adventures to the yuppie hobo websites from laptop computers." (p.275)

When Grant confides to a much-travelled German lapis dealer -- encountered in a bar at Quartzite, Arizona (host to an annual event that's the largest American gathering of nomads) -- that he's going to write about snowbirds and RVs, he is mocked: "'These are not the true nomads! Take away their social security and the RV rolls to a halt. They are not truly free.'"

Grant's counter-arguments: "They have no fixed abode. They move with the seasons, there are probably a million of them, maybe three million. .. .. he and I are better described as travellers. True nomads exist within tightly knit groups. They are not necessarily looking for adventure. They follow a reliable, predictable migration pattern, which best ensures survival and does not cross oceans in search of new experiences." (p.297)

"The standard explanation of American restlessness," writes Grant, "is all about the prospect of getting rich ... The horizontal, geographical mobility of Americans, I have read in half a dozen books starting with Alexis de Tocqueville, is motivated by the hope of rising vertically in terms of wealth and social status." The RV community (predominantly female, simply because of the difference in life expectancy for men and women) is almost entirely made up of people who've spent their working life paying off the mortgage, raising a family and accumulating consumer goods -- but who then sell the house, buy a classier version of a VW camper van with the proceeds, and set off to where the weather's better (or at least different).

I found the sociology of the RV community fascinating: it's the sort of nomadism I can most easily imagine myself embracing in later life, travelling around in my own motorised 'home' with plenty of comforts. (Though perhaps not in the company of some of the people Grant meets.) Not least because, from Grant's account, it's one of the safest options for a woman alone and happy -- determined -- to stay that way.

The book finishes on an unexpected and wryly humorous note:
At this point in the narrative I am supposed to wander off into the sunset ... instead, I find myself pulled in the opposite direction, east towards Tucson, the comforts of home and the woman I love, which have also become necessary to my happiness.
In closing, I would like to thank the federal government and the hard-working agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Fear of deportation overcame deeper fears and prejudices and led to a wedding that should have taken place years ago." (p.308)


Richard Grant is clear-eyed and unromantic about nomadism, whether his own or that of the wanderers whose tales he hears. His prose is evocative without being overly poetic: despite the lack of a colour photo insert, I feel as though I've seen these places. And it's been a long strange trip.

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