Mike Davis on an unfinished project and the American West

This is a part of my interview with Mike Davis for the L.A. Times that didn’t make the final cut. I still found it interesting. You can read the published interview here.

Mike Davis: There’s no reason why anybody in their right mind would want to, but if you really want to understand exactly how my mind works, it’s more obvious in the projects that I never finished than the ones I’ve written.

Sam Dean: What unfinished project are you thinking about?

MD: When my daughter Roisin, who is now 40, was eight, I took her on this adventure. She didn’t exactly appreciate it, she always wanted to stay in hotels and get room service. But we went on this camping trip and I drove across the Pony Express trail to the Oregon trail, and then up through the Northern Rockies and back, and the Oregon trail crossed Western Utah, and through some of the least known, most beautiful parts of the West. You see wild horses everywhere. It’s startling how many wild horses there are.

We were approaching Salt Lake, and Dugway proving ground was just a couple miles to the north. Dugway proving ground is of course where America tested biological and chemical weapons. I later was able to convince the army to let me tour the place, but Dugway is off limits, and more than that the Department of Defense’s greatest fear is to close down Dugway, because of the amount remediation. There’s a mountain out there, Granite Peak, where they tested anthrax. It’s basically off limits for 20,000 years. nobody wants to clean it up.

So right where you would turn north toward the real entrance to Dugway, there is a long valley called Skull Valley, with the Great Salt Desert on the west and the Tooele mountains, which are quite beautiful wooded mountains, to the east. We’re about to turn on the intersection of the Skull Valley road, and there’s this dead mustang.

SD: A horse?

MD: Right. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an animal been torn apart by coyotes. The carcass of the horse had been torn apart, but the unusual thing is the head was missing.

Fast forward, couple of years, I’m sitting on the Utah and Nevada border at the base of something called Snake Valley, another wonderful, totally unknown place. And I’m drinking beer with a couple of Jack Mormon cowboys, and I said, I’m just a city slicker, but this story has haunted me. And I told them about the trip and the skullless horse. One of ’em leads back and says to the other, it’s that damn woman in New Mexico, don’t you think? He said, yeah, probably another cowboy on welfare.

I said, what do you mean? He said, well, you know, there’s a lot of unemployed people in Western Utah, but there’s this crazy woman who’ll pay $500 for a horse skull. And of course it wasn’t actually a crazy woman. It was entrepreneurs in New Mexico who were peddling Georgia O’Keeffe stuff. The horse had been shot by a cowboy who reduced the head down to a skull and sold it off to a trader. And according to them, lots of people were doing this and blaming Georgia O’Keeffe.

But that was an encounter with this place Skull Valley, which is, you know, it’s Dugway, it’s the Goshute Indian reservation, which tried to become the national depository for high level nuclear waste, there was a Hawaiian ghost town called Iosepa.

SD: A Hawaiian ghost town?

MD: Mormons converted a number of people in Hawaii, and these native Hawaiians came to Utah, but racial laws in Salt Lake City meant they couldn’t live in town. So they’re marooned out there in this colony called Iosepa — the cemetery’s the most haunting place I’ve ever seen, these beautiful Hawaiian names on gravestones in this desolate valley.  

And that’s only the beginning of the story. I could go on endlessly.

SD: So what happened to this idea?

MD: I came to realize what this was: when I was a kid I’d read about derelict ships, and derelict ships tend to be moved by Atlantic currents and end up in the Falkland islands. So you have this whole landscape of ancient ships, ships that capsized, ships that were mysteriously abandoned. But they all ended up in this place, and it seemed to me that the whole history of the 19th and 20th century was a kind of detritus or shipwreck in this one strange place in Skull Valley, Utah.

The storytelling was wonderful stuff, but the problem is I could never figure out how to…to interpret this.

SD: Right. <laugh> I know what you mean.

MD: Because it’s obviously the kind of thing that’s supposed to lead you to some interpretation or set of profound questions. And I could never quite figure out what it was. I very, very reluctantly threw in the towel.

But you see how much my life is kind of driven by the twin imperatives of trying to do something that’s politically useful, particularly for younger activists, but at the same time is driven by my love of good stories. When I write, I’m fastidious. I never rely on memory. People ask me, why don’t you write a memoir? I don’t remember anything. I’m sometimes startled to find out that some tall tales I told are actually true. But when it comes to writing in history, everything must be documented, and make no semifictional leaps or connection. And it turns out with the Skull Valley project, for instance, there’s a tremendous amount of documentation.

SD: But I do see why it’s hard to wrap that into something that feels politically urgent.

MD: It wasn’t so much political meaning but this deep historical meaning. I’ve come to see it in my hometown, in the El Cajon valley, which when I was growing up there, I mean, everybody were essentially dustbowl refugees. My girlfriend was from Amarillo, a couple of my best friends were Oklahomans, everybody else was Texan.

Now it is the second biggest Iraqi community in the United States. It has a Chaldean convent and cathedral, and main street in El Cajon is now like little Baghdad. So you ask yourself, what are these absolutely unpredictable contingencies that would turn a kind of Southern California cow town into a nostalgic recreation of Baghdad? How did that happen?

In writing about the West I was writing about precarity of the west. Wests come and go — there’s gold, there’s silver, there’s a railroad, there’s nothing stable, everything vanishes and reappears, the biggest towns in the state become ghost towns. And now of course, throughout the great basin and you know, the biggest industry are prisons. And this is part of this new catastrophist understanding of history that I’ve been trying to grapple with for decades.