In a grindhouse-grainy cinematic version of my life, I have both the money and know-how to restore muscle cars. I picture myself hopping in a cherry-red Charger, Firebird, or Camaro and sending it rocketing through suburban streets as Heart’s “Barracuda” plays on the stereo. Heedless of the expense or environmental impact of driving such a gas guzzler, I head for the desert, leaving lawns and inflatable pools behind — along with my responsibilities and notions of taste and decency. Among the sagebrush and spiny creatures the lusty wails of Ann Wilson give way to the great sun-glare and silence of desolate nature. I contemplate its vastness, feel it perch me teeteringly on the tip of some existential fulcrum.
I wonder if Michel Foucault felt a similar impulse in the spring of 1975, when during a visit to California he agreed to drive out to Death Valley for one life-changing evening. There he would be “suspended among the forms hoping for nothing but the wind,” his American host promised. Initially skeptical, Foucault eventually came around to the idea. He perhaps wished also to pirouette upon that fulcrum, in the desolate and unendingly beautiful “Valley of Death,” as he, in his franglais, called it. His phrasing it in the genitive somehow captures the essence of the place: Death oversees the valley, is so clearly master.
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