Henry Rollins: How, and at What Cost, Do People Live in Yuma?
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By Henry Rollins
Since the first time I saw photos of desert-dwelling people in National Geographic as a boy, I have been fascinated by people who choose to live in hot-as- or cold-as-hell locations. Watching Lawrence of Arabia at some point in my youth only made me more interested. All that sand - it didn't look real. Same thing when watching footage of people in the middle of some subzero oblivion: It seemed like an adventure tinged with death.
Jack London's short story To Build a Fire depicts an unnamed man who dies of exposure to the cold, his demise witnessed only by a dog, who eventually leaves the body and heads back to camp. It made a great impact on me. Still, it wasn't as interesting to me as hot environments. It could very well be that I thought Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif looked so badass.
Growing up in the stewpot summers of Washington, D.C., was not at all inspiring. It was something you survived. The public summer camps I went to as a kid were great for watching my peers send arcing jets of white bread/bologna/mayonnaise/milk vomit through the air and then face-planting in the grass.
As I grew older, summer nights took on quite a bit of poignancy. The temperature would cool and the humid night air was imbued with the scent of trees. It would provide endless amounts of solitary reverie as I walked the streets for hours.
I don't think I saw real desert until I took a Greyhound bus across America with Ian MacKaye, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in the mid-1970s. I thought it was beautiful and deadly. I wanted to walk out into it to see what would happen. Being a city person, I am a semi-civilized creature, as weakened and desensitized by convenience and comfort as anyone else. Existing in extreme climates, even just for short periods, has held great interest for me for many years.
This interest also has made me think quite a bit about the audacity of humans - our general chutzpah, which sends us into merciless climates to call home. We are the only species I know of that willfully does this. We build on flood plains and cry when our houses sail away. We occupy the coastline and are shocked when the Earth zigs instead of zags, sending millions of gallons of water where it has never been before (although most of the time, it has), and call it a disaster. We chalk it up to God's anger about the whole gay thing.
All other creatures caught up in the chaos do what they have been doing for millions of years - they either survive or die. They don't sue, they don't complain. They either hack, or pack. That seems kinda stoic and ruggedly bitchin' to me, though not nearly as much as hiding from ducks in order to kill them, of course. No offense to any moron reading this.
Nothing is out of reach of human exceptionalism. We can do anything we set our minds to, it seems, except - if we are to believe a few bought-and-paid-for scientists and some very angry pundits - affect the planet's climate. That's squishy, elitist, liberal crazy talk, but everything else, like forcing species into extinction (they weren't man enough to survive!) - just watch us kick that ass.
Humankind's ambition has cost the Earth plenty. Of course, the planet has much to lose, but it does have all the time in the world to wait us out (literally). I believe we will check that last box and eventually snuff out all human life. The last person standing - probably a lawyer, or Madonna - will have no choice but to laugh.
A few days ago, I stood on the shores of one of humankind's greatest wereallyImeanREALLYfuckedthatup examples, the Salton Sea. Wow, the stench coming off this man-made puddle of fetid sadness was dizzying. Of course, there were houses. Hey, it's beachfront property - come for the pelicans, stay for the dead fish.
This was the warm-up, if you will, for the two days I spent in Yuma, Arizona. Every single person I met there, and I met quite a few, was friendly and sturdy. I don't think I have seen that much ruined human skin in my life. The place is a damn frying pan! In the afternoon, the streets were almost empty, and hardly anything seemed to move. It made me wonder how much of the Earth would be inhabitable by humans if they were not armed with air conditioning.
As punishing as it was, I was happy, coated in multiple layers of sunscreen, just to get a different perspective on my existence and its awesome fragility. I was reminded of the extreme heat of Iraq and Mali that I had experienced in the past. The seemingly endless amounts of water I consumed made it clear that, without well-considered shelter and supplies, this weather would kill me quick.
It occurred to me how utterly ridiculous we are. A lot of human life is such a torture fest. Many of us wreck our bodies and the environment with each passing day. Don't get me wrong, I am quite a fan of Homo sapiens and have the John Coltrane records to prove it, but damn, we are the crudest, most obnoxious critters in the food chain. Blotchy, stunted, melanoma magnets with the balls to redirect rivers and fracture the Earth, still believing there would not be a price to be paid.
If you took all the land that humans could live on as naturally as a wolf or a bear, it would hold a few hundred people and even then, existence would be tenuous at best. Of course, we're in freakin' Yuma!
By the second afternoon of outdoor location shooting, I noticed that I was having difficulty forming sentences. 116 Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit! What the fuck was I doing out here? The same thing I do anywhere else - existing at great expense.
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