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In search of a US beyond coronavirus

Driving through some of the most desolate reaches of the continental US, our writer hoped to find places untouched by Covid-19. What he saw instead was the true reach of the American government.

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There are two main routes from Los Angeles to the Canadian border, a distance of more than 1,000 miles up the US West Coast. Interstate 5, the fastest route, runs through broad agricultural valleys for much of its length. Route 101, the seaboard path, trundles scenically through wetter, foggier land, past California beaches and Oregon sea stacks to the perpetual twilight of the Washington coast.

There is a third way. Few inhabitants of the large coastal cities know anything about Route 395, the “Three Flags Highway”, named for its original span from Canada to Mexico. It crosses the interior west through 1,300 miles of sagebrush wastes, traversing between Reno, Nevada, and Spokane, Washington, some of the most desolate reaches of the continental United States. My two friends and I had always wanted to drive it. This year seemed as good a time as any. What better way to comply with social distancing rules than by camping in a vast wilderness?

We had a question to answer too. Were there really places in the hinterland where coronavirus and the regulations intended to combat it had not taken root? The national papers constantly featured reports about heartland Americans flouting the restrictions that coast-dwellers were more diligent in following.

For masked-up New Yorkers and Angelenos, the steepness of the virus’s death toll in the US was the fault of unmasked Donald Trump voters, if not of Trump himself. We had all read the stories in the LA Times about rural Modoc County, for example, an area the size of Connecticut in the far north-east corner of California, with a population of ten thousand. Modoc, these dispatches said, was alone among California counties in rejecting the statewide lockdown from 19 March, prompting a showdown with Governor Gavin Newsom. It was the only county in the state that had not registered a single case of Covid-19. The locals liked to say they had been social distancing since before it was mandatory.

Our journey began in the high desert north of LA, heading northwards into the Owens Valley. In 1913, the agricultural potential of this long, high-altitude valley was abruptly curtailed by a burgeoning Los Angeles, in the most infamous episode of California water politics, when city leaders connived to have water diverted from the valley to slake a growing Angeleno thirst.

Now it was mostly uncultivated, flanked by the sheer rock slabs of the Sierra Nevada to the west and the pale, dry pelt of the water-shadowed White Mountains to the east. In the Sierra Nevada grow the tallest trees on Earth, tremendous shaggy-barked sequoias 2,000 years old. But in the White Mountains grow the oldest trees on Earth, the gnarled antediluvian bristlecone pines. These 4,000-year-old trees are nobler in their modesty, their hard resinous equanimity in the dolomite soil.

North of Lake Tahoe, just before crossing the Modoc County line, we passed the town of Loyalton where, two weeks later, on 15 August, a fire tornado would strike as part of a devastating set of wildfires. This was the real north-east California, the half-mythical land beyond the mountains: enormous and empty valleys, good only for pastureland. Alturas, the Modoc county seat, looked like a ghost town. Empty streets as wide as five cars, worn houses spaced far apart. Walking too far in any direction, the town gave way to an enormous expanse of pasturage. We asked a passing, masked local where we might find some food. “Well, we were virus-free, but you might have heard we finally got two cases yesterday, so the town has mostly closed down again.”

“Again”? What about the recalcitrant rednecks who had ignored Newsom’s restrictions? Not so: we learned that Modoc had long since lost its battle with the governor. Every theatre in town had been shuttered for months; half the restaurants were closed too. Every church was holding services with masks and distancing or else online. The county public health office was right on the high street, and its electric sign announced in large letters the importance of wearing a mask. Somehow none of that had made it into the national papers.

We had gone to Modoc in search of an America beyond the virus, an America that this merciless year had overlooked, somewhere neither the illness itself nor the protocols to prevent it had penetrated. Instead we found a demonstration of the power of the American state – in all its sound and fury – to frame, project and enforce new patterns of behaviour across a vast hinterland. And, of course, we found a testament to the relentless work of coronavirus, able to spread even here among these dispersed denizens of the sagebrush steppe.

That isn’t to say we did not find instances in which people downplayed the severity of Covid-19, and who took a cavalier attitude towards virus prevention, in the city as well as the country. It was more that we started to find the sceptics more similar to their critics than either would like to admit.

Both reflected the deep strain of individualism in the national culture. Some, after all, received the stay-at-home mandates not just with a sense of civic duty but almost with secret relief. Instinctively wary of the outside world, a part of them had always wanted an excuse to stay locked inside indefinitely. Even when the restrictions lifted, they preferred to stay home. They were protecting others, they told themselves, but the fear of others was their true motive.

Like the virus sceptics – the “you can’t make me wear a mask, I do what I want” types, such as the South Dakota bikers excoriated in the pages of the New York Times – they placed their own individual inclinations above and against the community.

****

We left Modoc County for Oregon and the most desolate stretch of the entire 395. For 100 miles from Lakeview to Burns, there was no petrol station, not so much as a collection of houses – just alien buttes rising above the desert, sagebrush, birds circling above the blue surface of alkali lakes at dusk. This was the Great Basin, an arid swath of the interior west where not a single drop of water that fell from the sky reached the sea. It all collected in ever-saltier pools and dried up.

The land became gentler near the Washington state line, and we took another detour through the rolling grain hills of the Palouse, the US’s Tuscany. A few pine trees and Trump signs lay tucked in the crevices between even slopes of grain ready for the threshing in mid-September. In Spokane the great falls ran down the hydro-dam with incomprehensible, inhuman force. We drove as near to the Canadian border as we could go – it was closed to non-essential travel – and then turned west towards the coast and Seattle. We had ridden out the road as far as it went.

It was hard not to see Seattle as of a piece with the tiny frontier towns we had been passing through for days. Much larger, sure, but it still looked recently hewn out of the primeval forest, an enterprise whose success was unlikely, its roots perilously shallow.

This “bourgeois” city, as the literary critic Roger Sale pronounced it in his classic history, Seattle: Past to Present (1976), had recently experienced a fit of revolution. The self-declared Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone had attracted national news during its occupation in June, following the death of George Floyd the month before. This “block party” atmosphere of principled protest, an occupied zone of about six city blocks and a park, praised in the news pages of the New York Times, lapsed into brutal violence as two African-American teenagers were shot, one of them fatally, by other civilians. On 1 July, the police forcibly cleared the area.

In Cal Anderson Park, the erstwhile heart of the autonomous zone, residents spurned the feeble “park closed” signs to play basketball. A few rough sleepers’ tents flapped in the breeze near the abandoned autonomous zone garden, where neglected tomatoes grew on vines and water tanks used to quench protesters’ thirst lay dilapidated. Discarded protest signs mouldered in the grass. “Kill all cops,” read a fading piece of graffiti on a bus stop at the park corner, across the street from the police department’s East Precinct – still boarded up, but surrounded by a perimeter of shiny navy patrol cars. The most recent protests advertised on the telephone poles around the neighbourhood had taken place three weeks earlier. Order had returned to Capitol Hill, and Seattle to its bourgeois slumber.

Yet a sense of unease lingered. Across the city, the homeless encampments in the parks were twice as large as they had been the previous summer. But many businesses were open again. Seattle was the New York of the west: hit hard and early, now enjoying low rates of virus incidence. The new glass and steel towers for the burgeoning tech industry continued to sprout from the lakeshore. Seattle’s growth was not in danger. Still, it was hard to shake a new sense of the shallowness and the cruelty of civilisation in the American west. There was prosperity here, but it felt precarious and hollow.

The city’s good bourgeois were sorry for it. “Black Lives Matter,” “End Homelessness Now,” and “Defund Seattle Police” signs hung in nearly every window on many streets – sometimes right behind the metal signs attached to the telephone poles, which had been there for years and had not been touched in the past months. It was these signs that presented perhaps a more genuinely felt sentiment: “This is a Neighbourhood Watch Area: We Immediately Report All Suspicious Activity to Our Police.” 

For more from Nick Burns on this subject and others, listen in to this September edition of the New Statesman's World Review podcast.

Nick Burns is a Fulbright scholar at Queen Mary, University of London, where he studies intellectual history. He writes for publications including the New Republic, the American Interest, Foreign Affairs, and the Los Angeles Review of Books

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid