Sunday, November 9, 2014


After a year and a half, a trip to he US was in order. I guess after being immersed in my original, European roots for this extended time, an increase in alienation with my US side of the fence was to be expected – but I didn’t think it would hit me this strongly.

Due to a last minute change in travel arrangements beyond my control, my first stop was Phoenix, AZ, a place I have always been uncomfortable in. Why is it even there? The city is a cancerous growth in the middle of the desert, wasting water on its golf courses that everyone drives to from their suburbs with their SUVs. I got to Phoenix after 20 hours on the ‘road’ jetlagged and tired, and spent another couple of hours finding the car and the hotel. There could not have been a more alienating arrival for me. There could be no stronger contrast between the organically grown, lively, messy city I live in, and the artificial, cleanly futuristic out-of-this-world ugliness of Phoenix. It was like landing on another planet.

The next day, arriving in Silver City, the first visual impression that hit me, and stayed with me through two weeks, was one of decline. Crumbling dusty streets, boarded up stores added to the sense of stagnation I got – had nothing changed? A few things did, though: The two new businesses first visible to me were the second Sonic and the second national chain drugstore, both things the need for which is not immediately apparent in a town of 9000. Much better, on second sight: the new local brew pub and music venue in the beautiful Isaac’s location and the new local community radio station, GMCR. Looks like the WNMU pool is finally getting repaired, Light Hall is a movie theater, and there will be air service to Albuquerque again. Too bad that Masa y Mas had to close, the old Javalina’s was no more, and the Wellness Coalition has lost most of its funding, including AmeriCorps.

Despite some of this good news, I felt sad and estranged, and so the next day, Benny and I headed for West Texas. I wanted to show him the beautiful Davis Mountains and the Big Bend, the area that made me first fall in love with the southwest deserts in the late 80ies. I had not been there in over 15 years. I was re-stunned by the natural beauty and peace of the area, and how being there soothes my heart and soul. Benny loved Balmorhea with its spring-fed pool and oasis-like park. We swam with the fish and the turtles and had excellent burgers at the only place open in town, a little shack called Maria’s.

The next day, after the long drive passing Fort Davis, Alpine and then south on Highway 118, we arrived in Terlingua. This little former ghost town (pop. 58) has seen quite a bit of development in recent years, both in housing and tourism, with people now making decent incomes from renting their places to visitors. Of course the old timers now complain about having visible and sometimes even audible neighbours. If this place gets crowded (ok, this would be a very subjective, desert rat interpretation of crowded), where does one go? South Brewster County, I think, is still the least populated frontier area of the US. But rural infrastructure has its perks too, not having to drive 2 hours to Alpine for everything. There is a good coffee shop, a new grocery store in Study Butte, and even a social service agency, doubling as library, clothing & food pantry and victims of violence support provider.

Speaking of violence and trauma, it has made its mark on this little community as well. The legendary ‘La Kiva’ bar and restaurant was closed after its owner was brutally murdered in early 2013, found with his head bashed in, on La Kiva’s parking lot. A local river guide is facing murder charges. The restaurant now has been purchased by a couple from up North. They are doing extensive reconstruction of the crumbling, iconic site, and will reopen later this year.

I got to spend some sweet time with a few of my old friends, hang out on the famous front porch, and we were lucky to see Butch Hancock play at the Starlight Theatre that first night. I knew most of the songs still. 

The next day, we drove into the park, down to Boquillas Canyon, and hiked into it as far as we could, past donation jars for the Mexican Singing Jesus, little bead and wired art made by kids from Boquillas and the big, raging, latte-colored waters of the Rio Grande. 

It rained on and off, and Benny got covered in fine silt mud. 

I felt much better when we headed back towards Silver City after a few days. Somehow the old familiar combination of living in Berlin and visiting the Big Bend had put things back in order for me.

My time in Silver City continued to be bitter sweet, more for personal reasons than having to do with the place – though the town has suffered. Many people there have gone through a tough year, emotionally and physically. Everyone seemed exhausted. The community is very traumatized by the loss of the three young people killed in a plane crash in May. It’s a hard place to be. But there are those who are staying, to live and grow with and beyond this tragedy, to support each other and try to turn the pain into something creative and positive. Saving the Gila River from the grasp of 1950ies policies pushed by greedy and corrupt decision-makers already has become the central fight of this decade, and I hope that the good people of Silver City are not too exhausted to continue this fight in the spirit of Ella Jazz Kirk, and for the sake of their own future.

Most of all, I learned that I have a group of strong, dear, loyal, wonderful friends there, and I need to do a better job of staying in touch with them.

My last week in the US I spent in San Francisco, back at work with my Wikimedia colleagues. We stayed at a small hotel a few blocks from Union Square. Every day, walking to work, and back, I passed hundreds of homeless people, many of them in terrible states of hunger, mental illness and physical sickness. There is a reason for the extreme homelessness here, and it’s not, as some people claim, that the city does so much for the homeless, that it is an easy ride to be one here. Just look at these people’s festering skin, smelly clothes and piles of dirt they sleep in. It’s not easy at all. They are NOT taken care of. No, the reason is: Extreme poverty is the other side of the medallion of extreme wealth. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area now are the place in the country where income inequality is the highest, and has become most visible – to a point of being in-your face with almost unbearable intensity. The average rent in SF is now $3600/month. Given my income, I would be living on the streets there. My colleagues got a tour of the facebook campus, which looks like a gigantic playground – for white rich males, who are allowed to not grow up and yet make the top wages in the country. The fact that their bosses donate a lot of money to local charities does not begin to alleviate the suffering in the streets. These impressions taken together, SF left me with a sense of an economic system out of control and a society that has become completely insane as a result. It can’t last.

The mid-term elections, while politically inconsequential, didn’t help to alleviate the picture of an America that has lost its mind and soul, and abandoned any notion of taking care of each other, or of advancing the country beyond individual enrichment.

So, for now I will return to the messy city, with its unkind inhabitants, grey skies and its cheap grocery stores. I will wear a winter coat, pay taxes, make a decent income, and be safe economically. My kids will get a free, solid education. I will continue to miss my dear friends, my Silver City family and the beautiful rivers and deserts of the southwest. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll buy a little miner’s cabin in Terlingua, contribute to the overpopulation there and spend my last days as a desert rat….

1 comment:

Kate Brown said...

Glad I got a glimpse of you Nikki. You nailed it here with your assessment of the state of things. And yes, saving the Gila is the fight of the decade. May we have the strength and vision to prevail.