THIS ALL STARTED as a kind of private craziness.
A small band of newspaper people who spent their time on the road across America, reporting on it for the Washington Post, started getting used to a certain question from me, their desk-bound editor. What, I wanted to know, was it like wherever- they found themselves?
They knew that I'd get a big kick out of hearing that if you got a Big Mac attack in Langdon, North Dakota, you'd have to race 114 miles to the nearest McDonald's. Or that the view from Ken Castner's outhouse in Homer, Alaska, is the finest vista of its kind in North America. But, apart from the trivia, they knew that I was asking the question in order to help me - and them -- see patterns in the news.
After a while, a sort of shorthand began to evolve. Three of the reporters, for example, started trying to explain the American Southwest to me as "MexAmerica." A "nation within a nation," they called it.
It's a place, they said, that appears on no map. It's where the gumbo of Dixie gives way to the refried beans of Mexico. The, land looks like northern Mexico. And the sound of Spanish in the supermarkets and on the airwaves is impossible to ignore. The news stories it produces point up the trouble Anglo institutions have in dealing with enormous cultural strain. It's a place where cops sometimes shoot third-generation Americans of Mexican descent for very controversial reasons, a region faced with the question of whether the American Dream applies to innocent kids born of people who have crossed the border illegally. It's hot and dry. It has more big dreams per capita than any other place you'll ever know. Its capital is Los Angeles, but it stretches all the way to Houston. The politicians have difficulties comprehending it, because it ignores political boundaries. But it's there, it's there.
Then other reporters began to offer alternative visions that made their own regions easier to understand.
Ecotopia, about which you'll find a chapter in this book, was one reporter's way of grasping the Pacific Northwest. A third view saw the Intermountain West as a land called the Empty Quarter. Somebody else observed that Miami is on the way to becoming the capital of an offshore Latin American realm. And so on.
Sometimes we saw this business of viewing areas of the continent as semiautonomous nations as a serious and useful way of describing the source of events. At others, it was no more than our own strange private joke. Then Outlook, the Sunday "think" section of the Post, started casting around for controversial, iconoclastic views of the world and on March 4, 1979, it carried an article that I wrote, expanding on over two years' worth of these musings.
"Whatever the political maps may say," the headline led off, our continent is not divided into 50 states and three countries. What we really are is: The Nine Nations of North America."
I had written this article as provocatively as I could, with the idea that if this new vision was going to raise a few hackles, it might as well raise a lot of them.
And in a few days, the letters to the editor did begin to arrive. In torrents. But, lo, to my surprise, they were letters from people who agreed with me. Not only were they agreeing, but they were offering refinements and improvements on the strange theory. "You should have put more of Saskatchewan in the Breadbasket," wrote one fellow. "The nation of the Islands," suggested another, "extends to Daytona."
Then came the reprints. The Minneapolis Star and the St. Petersburg Times ran it on their front pages. In England, the Guardian serialized it. At least one major newspaper in every "nation" of the nine - including Quebec - published the piece. It began to dawn on me that I had hit some kind of nerve with this idea. The subsequent flow of letters from politicians, businessmen, and ordinary readers began to suggest that I might be on to something important. "I read your article," an Oregon woman wrote, "and something snapped. I could only nod my head and agree and feel excited and read it to my friends and watch them nod and agree." One thing led to another. Soon I'd been talked into writing this book. And I found myself abandoning desk and telephone and suddenly out on the road, wondering what I'd done.
I relate this tale in order to try to explain how now that the book has seemed to acquire a life of its own everything began. I hereby testify that this book is nonfiction. After almost one hundred thousand miles of travel and hundreds of interviews, I'm more confident than ever that these Nine Nations are really in being. But that doesn't mean that I haven't spent some dark days wondering exactly where their borders came from, these lines first traced on the backs of cocktail napkins.
Especially in the early days of the formal research for this book, it was unnerving to discover how few primary data existed to "prove" many of my points. For example, MexAmerica is obvious to the eye and the ear. But wherever you look, there is no good answer to basic questions like "How many Hispanics are there?" The Census Bureau admits that in 1970 it blew its count of United States citizens of Hispanic origin. Estimates of the number of illegals vary by a thousand percent, like a replay of those absurdist Vietnam War briefings. Academic studies that simply ask the number of those apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol, and where in Mexico they come from, are considered pioneering work.
Similarly, the United States Geological Survey National Atlas map called "Total Interstate Energy Movement," from which, in 1979, I wanted to draw conclusions about the Empty Quarter, showed nothing coming out of Alaska's North Slope. It was drawn in 1976 and had 1974 numbers. Statistical cartographers faced with a complaint about this look pained. That's good, fresh material by the standards of their profession.
Nor does this address the problem of collecting data in a way that ignores state and national boundaries. Never mind that East Texas is a different place from West Texas, or north Alaska different from south Alaska. Never mind that these are regional distinctions recognized by everyone who's ever lived there. You want numbers? You get them mixed together for all of Texas or all of Alaska. If you want a more serious analysis, you are directed to county-by-county computer tapes. For which, of course, you need a computer. And even that, while hideously expensive, is possible. Matching up most transnational numbers is beyond the scope of nations, much less a single author. No matter how much Montana looks and acts like Alberta, or New Mexico like Chihuahua - no matter how their problems, opportunities, and people intertwine-the twain of their bureaucracies will only, with extreme difficulty, meet.
It was similarly unhelpful to dwell on what might be termed "hard theory." Thinkers with impressive credentials in regionalism have produced monographs that are endlessly fascinating but don't produce much in the way of coherent patterns. Cultural geographers have mapped, for example, the physical location of vodka drinkers, Muslims, Notre Dame football fans, long-distance-telephone users, bluegrass-music enthusiasts, stock-car racers, high-rolling gamblers . . . anything you can imagine. And the scholars who have done this mapping have come up with many thoughtful ways of explaining why people are distributed the way they are.
But if you took these maps and their attendant explanations, imagined them as transparent plastic overlays, and tried to sort through them to find out what combination would yield my Nine Nations, you would fail. Or at least I failed. These overlays, those spider webs, are so complex and ambiguous that they yield little save microregions. In fact, the lesson offered is that, John Donne notwithstanding, every man is an island. Given enough time with these maps, I guarantee you can find the only vodka-drinking, Muslim, Notre Dame football-loving, long-distance-phone-using, bluegrass-music-playing, stock-car-racing, high-rolling gambler in the world. You might even find an enclave of them. But I don't know what that would prove.
And these fastidious concerns reflect only the problems of describing the then and there. My researcher, Nancy Balz, soon discovered that getting around statistical time lags even by going to the most specialized and exotic sources didn't always help. My map, she was startled to find, sometimes seemed to be of the near future.
Of course, on mature reflection, that figures. The Nine Nations process began among people who were trying to "get on top of" events. It was designed, by newsmen, for their private use, to help them judge, region by region, what was going to happen next and how important that event would be. "We've got to stop chasing fires" was their phrase. That meant a desire to stop reacting constantly to events, and start understanding them and anticipating them.
Take Houston, for example. Houston as a town that's building is not news to anyone. Houston as a town that's mortgaged may well be.
Civic boosters still like to recall that the first word spoken from the surface of the moon was not the business about the Eagle having landed. The very first word was "Houston?"
But Houston in the eighties, like everything else, will be defined by far more down-to-earth considerations. During the good years in Houston, no one wanted to brake growth by taxation - not for highways, schools, police departments, welfare structures, sewers, or water. No one in the capital of oil and gas wanted to face the implications of building a city even more air conditioner and automobile-dependent than Los Angeles. Houston's greatest pride was in its dedication to a complete lack of zoning - a robust wad spit in the eye of pointy-headed urban planners. The advocates of press-on-regardless growth pointed to the vast wealth accruing to Houston as proof that cities like New York were overserviced, overtaxed, and overrated.
Well, the news in the 1980s coming from Houston is going to be about whether these theories are valid. Houston has run up what residents of other - especially eastern - cities view as huge social debts. The lack of new freeways is slowly beginning to result in all day rush hours. The lack of new water mains is producing breaks in overtaxed lines on an almost daily basis. The police force is spread so thin that some businesses and some of the wealthy are now relying on private police forces ("site-specific enforcement") to protect valuable property.
The significance of this is in the time sense with which you look at a city like Houston. Houston is no longer "a city of the future," as it has been referred to. Houston, instead, is a city of now that is getting jerked around hard by the choices of the past, the results of which are clearly catching up.
This time sense, of course, clearly could affect the map, and it did. When I asked Nancy to collect the murder statistics for Houston, I did so with the clear image that the figures would be astronomical, as would befit a town that has undergone so much rapid social change.
She came back slightly bewildered. The actual slaughter was only beginning to occur as we spoke. The best she could do was to cite fresh news stories talking about the 40 percent murder-rate increase so far that summer. The numbers from the FBI, confirming the jump in murder rate, for example, won't be available until after this book goes to press. Similarly, the Empty Quarter's identity is inexorably bound up in energy resources, and that's how I think of it. But that vision is largely anticipatory. The tall buildings in Denver and Calgary belonging to the likes of Amerada Hess and Amoco are going up. The exploration rigs are drilling in Wyoming's Overthrust Belt. The 100-car unit trains to haul coal are being built.
But statistically, the Empty Quarter is still far more a land of reserves, as I write this, than a land of production. The first quarts of crude are only beginning to be cracked commercially from tar sands. Technically, oil shale is still viewed as experimental. The continent's increase in coal burning is insignificant. Of course, all this will change, just as sure as there's an Exxon, but again, that's, strictly speaking, a future reality.
New England's turn toward the burning of wood for heat, for that matter, may speak volumes about that region's drive for self-sufficiency, but its implications lie in the future. You would never guess from the current U.S. Commerce Department map entitled "Primary Home Heating Fuel by Counties of the United States" that tens of thousands of wood-burning stoves have been installed in New England in the last few winters. The data simply have not had enough time to catch up with reality. But more important, the answers about what all this wood burning will do to the air, the forests, and people's attitudes toward electric companies are to come.
If news, as has been observed elsewhere, is the first rough draft of history, and this book, at least partially, anticipates the news, then perhaps I'm in the disconcerting position of writing a book that will be more true when you read it than when I wrote it.
What, then, is to be made of this Nine Nations business? Ultimately, I think a good way to judge it is on a sheerly utilitarian basis. Does it work for you? Do things begin to click into place? Has some nagging fact or observation about this continent - something that had been there, like a piece of corn stuck in your teeth - finally work itself loose, as it did for me, a handful of reporters, and some newspaper readers?
But another way of viewing this volume is to discover whether the process that went into it is useful. I found the United States impossible to understand when it was presented to me as one great place, three thousand miles long, fifteen hundred miles deep, 3,615,122 square miles in area, ending mysteriously at some lines on the other side of which were voids called Canada and Mexico. It didn't help me much to turn to subdivisions I had been taught, like the "Midwest." To this day I can't figure out why people would want to lump Ohio and Nebraska in the same region. I do not find Cleveland much like Omaha. Neither do I find the tomato fields of western Ohio much like the multithousand-acre grain operations along the 100th meridian.
But if you don't like my map, draw your own. I don't feel particularly protective about the boundaries I've drawn (he lied, in order to make a point).
I do find that dividing the continent into more comprehensible chunks helps put imponderables like energy, inflation, unemployment, and water policy into perspective. This is a time when issues seem so overwhelmingly complex that ordinary people have come to try tO ignore them. An open-minded person trying to peer into the future to decide for whom to vote or what to think can easily find himself or herself frustrated by a maze of considerations seemingly designed to provoke paralysis and prevent good, hard decisions. These problems can seem more manageable when confronted in a geographical size a person can feel comfortable with.
The object is to find a useful way of looking at the world, to define entities that are much more than parishes and provinces and are therefore large enough to be meaningful. But these: entities must be limited to a understandable concept for each one - a concept that relies on a certain intuitive, subjective sense of the loyalties that unify it. It is very important that your region, as bounded and defined, feels right to you.
For there's a certain subconscious, subliminal level to the line-drawing process that responds to truths that you sometimes can't name. As you get into this book, for example, you'll find I've drawn a boundary through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana that divides the Empty Quarter from the Breadbasket. When I originally drew it, I felt sure that there must be some factual ridge there. In important ways, events occurred differently west of this line from the way they did east of it, and the difference was something I could describe. It's the explanation for the behavior that took a while to catch up. It wasn't until seven months later that I noted that my boundary happened to describe the very place where federal control of western land in the form of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, public land, and Indian reservations becomes overwhelming, and private ownership peters out.
The region "feeling" right can work on a personal level, too. In a continent with a population as mobile as ours, it is no sur-prise that the second most commonly asked question in casual conversation after "What's your name?" is "Where are you from?"
For better or worse, in North America, the answer to the ques-tion "Where are you from?" transmits a great deal of information, not all of it accurate. "Where you're from" is taken as a good indicator of "where you're coming from." You can hear that in the way folk modify their answers. A person not proud of coming from Oklahoma, for instance, might add, hurriedly, "But from right down near the Texas border." A Texan might add, "But I went to school back east." An administrative assistant in Washington, D.C., might hasten to stress his ties to California. But in California you'll find people who make a point of looking you right in the eye and stressing that their people came from Oklahoma. In the Depression. ("Want to make something of it?")
Even if you don't completely understand the subtle webs of pride and shame in each of these exchanges, undoubtedly you've heard ones like them that apply to your home. Your identity is shaped by your origins. Thus, to come away with a new under-standing of regionalism is to come away with a better understanding of yourself.
The final point to be made about thinking in regional terms is that, more often than not, it offers a reassuring view of the future. I do not think that North America is flying apart, or that it should.
But I've spent some time talking to a University of Texas professor, a folklorist and regionalist, who does. For what it's worth, I'll pass on what he likes about Nine Nations.
He thinks it shows that if Washington, D.C., were to slide into the Potomac tomorrow under the weight of its many burdens and crises, the result would be okay. The future would not be chaos; it would be a shift. North America would not suddenly look around to discover a strange and alien world. It would see a collection of healthy, powerful constituent parts that we've known all our lives - like Dixie. He sees Nine Nations as a resilient response of a tough people reaffirming their self-reliance. It's not that social contracts are dissolving; it's just that the new ones are being born.
What he's saying, essentially, is that our values are separable from our regimes. We can preserve what is important to us, no matter what violence is done to the federal system, and the sooner we recognize that, the more confident of our future we'll be. This confidence, he adds, ironically may serve to bolster that very federal system.
I don't know. In some ways I think he's crazy. But this whole thing started as a kind of private craziness.