The bittersweet smack of week 6 will linger long in the memory. It was a hot one – like seven inches from the midday sun – and Finbar and I were now suffused with summer’s sweet languor. But so too did week 6 bring the realisation that half the trip was already behind us.
Wallowing in this trying emotional state, we sought fervently to grasp with both hands our God-given opportunity for westward expansion, just like the original pioneers. Week 6, we knew, would bear witness to our passage into the Golden State of California – something we’d long been looking forward to.
But this not before a brief stop at Lake Powell, Arizona. We’d journeyed here in search of respite from the heat, and found it in the shape of an internet-famous swimming hole. Hot-footing it down the metal pier to the lake, watched over by blue sky and burning orb, I couldn’t help but consider the absurdity of my being there. Here was a landscape that dispelled human habitation with every breath, but had been made habitable for the express purpose of sating thrill seekers’ lavish desires.
The lake is daily dissected by jet skis, party boats, and buxom yachts – all of which require the surrounding land to be carved up and concreted over for purposes of access and maintenance. While golf buggies carry punters to the marina from their trucks, a steady stream of fumes from a nearby power plant paints a vivid picture of what’s at stake.
My cynical desert discomfort reached new heights upon arrival in Phoenix. Here, humans’ determination to exist in 21st century comfort seemed entirely at odds with nature’s wishes. In the suburbs, Romanesque villas quench sprawling lawns with water from a Colorado River in unending drought. While in the city, black tarmac and brick are heated by a desert sun to make pedestrian travel nothing less than a sweaty affair.
The question of why people have striven to inhabit these difficult corners of the world was in part answered by our subsequent visit to Joshua Tree National Park, where abandoned 19th-century gold mills litter the landscape. Here, crude structures and rusted machinery attest to the lives these men and women eked out in search of untold riches.
It is their madness – a kind of self-serving, dogged perseverance – that has determined much of contemporary American culture. And it is in cities like Phoenix that these age-old ideals of westward expansion and a people’s ‘manifest destiny’ live on, bolstering a status quo that feels utterly unsustainable.
So there you have it. How my pitiful concerns play out in the sun and sand of California will be the subject of next week’s instalment.