Here are the cities of the Western United States. Places that I’ve lived, for various amounts of time in the style of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
In Los Angeles, oil pumps under the earth – the quiet heartbeat of a hustling city. Rigs pull out the rich liquid to fuel the vehicles that connected the city – pulled the edges closer than any other place in the world.
The unrelenting rig’s arm matches the rhythm of the helicopter’s blades above, the crashing of a wave, the beat of a song the dancers prance to.
The desert ends its long journey West just before it can reach the water for rest, forever held back by the coastal mountains that shelter the gardens, imported palm trees, and fountains within the city’s edges. Paradise on brink of death.
Each citizen is connected to each other by highways buzzing with traffic. Roads bump up against high walls, hedges, and barbed wire fences that read “No Trespassing,” security cameras resting their still eyes on seldom-walked streets. A shiny, long car with tinted windows slowly rolls up to the entrance; the gate’s engine dutifully springs into action, silently opening up to its owner’s request. The inhabitants are merely miles away, but can be hours or eternities apart, depending on traffic and their tastes for interaction. Fortunes lay close to broken dreams on street corners and highway bypasses.
The world lives in Los Angeles. Mexicans from the South, Europeans from the North, Koreans & Chinese from the East, Africans & Persians from the West. Those with heritages that share little in common talk with each other through their meals. A pig, chicken, and cow are seen differently by their eternal grandmothers. Steamed, deep fried, shredded, stewed, roasted. These are the teachings of their ancestors, who are just meeting for the first time, now, in this city of the world.
A city of cities. Lazy beach towns lay on their backs next to well-manicured ritz. Brick warehouses with exposed wood beams next to roadside fruit stands. Redwoods and craft spread among strip malls and chains.
One can grasp the city by letting its sand slip between outstretched fingers. In constant movement, only then can you can see what it is – something yet come.
Water is the currency in Seattle. Flushing in with the people, produce, and goods from abroad. Flushing out in low tide – clams spitting. Gulls scavenging for what was previously not there – the opportunities of the town. Seals muddling along the tide pools. Orcas watching every move.
The Wild is not far, though many reject it. “This is an American city like any other.” The market swims with the wild fish and flowers brought in. The Natives of this land on the region’s edge living wild, tough life as they have always done. Snow capped mountains and a brewing volcano looming – standing where they have been. Wild has not left. This is not a plain city.
Soak into this land with the rain water departing from the ever grey skies. Fall down into it like the cedars and firs that have let go so long ago. Bleed barefoot on a beach of shells. A bald eagle rips a young gull apart. The otters gang up on salmon. There’s more life when death is so close. The flow faster – harder.
The glass of the city begins to reflect the surrounds, and suddenly, the emerald city becomes a city of water and sky. The blue Puget Sound and the blue Pacific sky written in the city structure for a second, then sinks in to grey.
In San Francisco, there is a secret no one discusses. I heard it early on a foggy morning. The hollow horn from beyond Alcatraz, an island of ghost prisoners. Or was it from a lonely resident, looking down at the black waters from the Golden Gate Bridge.
I overheard it on an overly excited phone conversation from the back of a commuter train. Rather, it may have been from the mumbles of the sprawled out man on the street, foot protruding from a gap in his shoe. Beard: oily and mangled.
I asked the colorful Victorian row house where to find an answer. She pointed her worn face and large eyes across the street where her friends used to sit. Probably lost.
The entrance to the West is found at the end of a gradual climb across the grassy lands of the Great Plains. From hundreds of miles out, the lonely traveler sees the Rocky Mountains peak above the horizon, beckoning those into its deep ravines and stone walls. The trail ends – or rather begins – at a weaving split in the mountains across the Platte River, here lies Denver.
The mountains lure beyond, promising industry of its riches in mines and explorers in light snow piled high – chilled by the thin air. The gravity of these promises so strong that most citizens live West of the central city, slipping into its great vastness when not working.
While the air is dry, the ground rushes with cold, clear water draining from the high peaks. The water gathers at lakes nestled at the base of the mountains and they whisper to each other through meandering streams and creeks – a secret exchange revealed only to the birds and bicyclist along the banks.