Today I crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis in a crowd of traffic. Between the dirty sides of tractor trailers and over the troubled stares of the daily commuters rose a giant arch. St. Louis. The gateway to the West. What a place this must have been once, with the steam ships plying the waters of the big muddy and crowds of people arriving daily with obtuse dreams of a verdant west waiting for them. The bustle of industry and optimism. The last stop for supplies and information. Now reduced to a serpent’s twist of highways looping around and over each other, each choked with the carapaces of us… the motorists. Smoke spewing out of tailpipes, tension in the air.
But that arch reminds us that this is the place where the west opens up before us. As it did once and still does. I’ve been in this same place several times. If you’re coming from the northeast, you pass through St. Louis on your way west, no matter your final destination. As I did 16 years ago as a young man going west for the first time. Then, I didn’t see a historical locus of this repeated journey, but rather as a fascinating sculpture visible from the highway. But what I lacked in appreciation I made up for in anticipation and excitement. I was away from home, really away from home, and headed into the unknown. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I remember filling the gas tank every time it drooped below half full.
Now I don’t even have a gas gauge that works, and the excitement and terror is gone. This is familiar ground, this heading into the unknown. I have become comfortable in not knowing, while confident that whatever will come will come and things will work out just fine. And most of the journey that brought me to this confidence started on a June day in 1995, driving by that arch in St. Louis for the first time.
Early this morning in Cleveland, I looked across several lines of traffic just in time to see a feathered body, brown and white, get bounced high into the air. A red-tailed hawk had made a fatal misjudgement at the approach of a high-fronted garbage truck. The body flailed and spun high into the air, and didn’t even touch the pavement before the hood of another car bounced it up again. As the bird touched pavement the first of many tires crushed it down. And it disappeared. Forever.
It was shocking and fast and violent and heartbreaking. A beautiful beating heart snuffed out so quickly and without notice. I had noticed other hawks dead along the highway in Ohio… I suppose the winter brings an influx of first-year birds south and they have to deal with cars and roads for the first time. Maybe they even get outcompeted for the spaces away from the roads. They learn quickly or they die. But it made me pay attention for the day to the carnage of the highway. The blood stains and crumpled bodies pushed to the shoulder and rotting. Deer. Porcupines. Coyotes. Raccoons. Hawks. Owls. Dead among the discarded beer cans and shopping bags and coffee cups. Edward Abbey famously defended his (alleged) habit of flinging beer cans out the truck window by saying that it wasn’t the beer cans along the highways that are ugly, but rather that the highway itself is ugly. Maybe he was right.