There is Smoke in the Distance

October 6 2021

Rachel Howard

I had been living in the Western desert town for two months—the beginning of what would be 18 months of ethnographic research for my dissertation—before COVID-19 became something to panic about. My studio apartment was in off-campus housing for a small college that had recently lost its accreditation: most of my neighbors were students with terriers and pickup trucks. One morning in March 2020, when the news was dire and directives from my University were tilting towards a total research stoppage, I packed up my belongings and drove away to wait things out in the city in which I grew up.

I had lived in _____ before: over the previous few years, for a few weeks at a time, I would rent a room and arrange meetings, interviews, and volunteer with local groups to get familiar with the place and build a community. After three years of visits, my research questions were focused on the intersections of race, history, and climate change, taking place primarily with recent migrants who imagined this town as a kind of utopia. This place was one among many Western desert towns that developed, at the turn of the 20th century, still-powerful booster narratives that enticed white Americans to move there. How, I wanted to know, do we justify living in a place that was built on inequality and displacement and does not have the resources in place to support its own future? How do we justify breathing in smoke when the fire is all around us?

And then, after months of anxiety and stagnant research, and shortly after one of my advisors died, I decided to return—just for a week. With respect to my own concerns and University policy around COVID, I would not conduct interviews or join my interlocutors for visits or meals. But I found myself pulled back: I was not immune to the fantasy of this town that had built it up. Plus, my grief required movement. So on one hot day in September, I packed up my car again and watched as the city where I lived receded in the rearview mirror, eventually giving way to periodic billboards advertising casinos and hot spring oases. I stopped to go to the bathroom at a rest stop three hours into the drive, wearing a face shield and a face mask, feeling other people’s eyes on me, feeling like an alien. Drops of sweat glistened on the naked upper lip of a stranger wearing a pink tank top as she washed her hands in the sink beside mine.

This place was one among many Western desert towns that developed, at the turn of the 20th century, still-powerful booster narratives that enticed white Americans to move there. How, I wanted to know, do we justify living in a place that was built on inequality and displacement and does not have the resources in place to support its own future? How do we justify breathing in smoke when the fire is all around us?

A few hours later, the car engine whined as it ascended the slope of a desert mountain pass. In the far distance, I saw metal hydroelectric equipment glinting in the sun. The first time I had ever driven this route, I was entranced and slightly frightened by those pipes coming out of the mountain and descending to the desert floor. They looked like something out of an early Bond movie. I watched it for miles before reaching its longitude on the highway. The top of the pipes thrusted out from the top of the mountain, and slid down its side, its bottom seemingly swallowed by the desert floor. What is it? I thought. Is that for water? I looked it up later: yes, the pipes had been built in the 1980s along with a series of other infrastructure that transports water across the entire western part of the United States, over hundreds of miles, in order to supply drinking water to the hundreds of thousands of people who migrated from all over the world to live there.

“In the far distance, I saw metal hydroelectric equipment glinting in the sun.” Photo by author.

The Airbnb I had booked was advertised as a one-room casita attached to a stucco’ed two-story main house, with plastic box trees on either side of the front door and blackout curtains over every window. It was a suburb of a suburb and all the houses were different shades of beige. When I arrived, the Airbnb owner who greeted me at the front door was maskless, but stayed 10 feet away as she told me the house rules.

Inside, there was LED light and a big bed facing a row of windows with wooden shutters. I placed my camera, my notebook and pens, and the book I was reading, The Grapes of Wrath, on a tiny, creaky desk in a corner of the room. For a moment, I pretended I had never left: that I was standing in the doorway of my studio apartment, back from a long day, and I would write some notes and make some dinner and then bathe behind the plastic curtain patterned with cactuses, the one I bought on the very first day I was in town.

Later that evening, after I heated up some food from home in the microwave, I heard, echoing through the AC vent, the Airbnb owner’s exasperation as she tried to entice two young voices to turn off the TV.

Day 1

I planned to spend the day driving around downtown, photographing buildings that belonged to the city and had been constructed over historically significant Black locations and businesses, memories built into concrete. The addresses of these locations had been compiled on an interactive website created by historians at the local University.

I started the day at a museum devoted to the honor of a famous Black scientist whose work on agriculture in the 19th century was integral to this state’s economy. I parked down the street and walked to face the museum, a large pinkish building, entry gates padlocked shut, with a statue of the scientist facing the street. I peered through the knotted links of the gate: the statue didn’t look like the scientist, his face was different, less defined, and although perched on a marble plinth, he seemed too short.

I walked away from the iron bars of the gate and towards a colorful mural on a building down the block. It was the famous scientist’s face, artfully and realistically rendered, facing the viewer, next to a steam engine train hurtling towards the viewer, itself next to the profile of a ______ woman, identifiable by her outfit. As I took a photo of the mural, I noticed in my peripheral vision a white pickup truck, driven by an older white man wearing a baseball cap. It moved slowly down the street towards me and stopped behind where I stood. I glanced around and the man in the truck raised his phone; maybe he took a photo too. I suddenly became aware of the thin cotton dress I had put on that morning, the pale skin of my chest above the neckline. I turned to look at the man. He was staring. The sidewalks were empty and there were no cars driving on the street. It was mid-afternoon, and very hot—the kind of heat that immobilizes you, that could stop your heart. The truck crept towards me as I walked to my car, becoming level as I slammed the door shut and clicked the locks. It slowly rolled past where I parked before turning and stopping, daring me to move first.

After that I noticed many white trucks as I drove around. They seemed to haunt me. There was one parked at the makeshift Trump/Pence merchandise tent that was set up at the intersection of two rural highways. There was one driving behind me almost the entire way to the Airbnb after I had dinner with a friend. There was one that tailgated me and, in a rush, drove around to pass me, with the driver making a movement with his hands, a movement that was either a middle finger or a wanking, as he sped by. Once I saw one parked in the driveway of the house next door to the Airbnb, and I stepped in front of it. It was huge—much taller than me, and the GMC logo reflected off the sun and, painfully, into my eyes.

Day 2

Hunched in the black plastic IKEA desk chair at the Airbnb, I half-read The Grapes of Wrath and half-watched a virtual City Council meeting on my laptop. I began to pay closer attention to the meeting when a member of the sheriff’s department logged in to discuss the tent encampments that were, according to the deputy, spreading across the downtown area. The encampments had grown in recent months, and the deputy reported that business owners in the area had been complaining about “having to arm themselves for protection” and “opening their doors and stepping in human shit”. The deputy sheriff’s face was close to the camera, his light blue eyes wide in the screen as he described how members of his department had recently visited nearby homeowner’s associations and neighborhood councils to remind residents not to interact with or try to help the unhoused people who lived in the tents.

We tell ‘em, don’t go around and talk to them, don’t give them bottles of water. It just empowers them.

When I am here, I spend a lot of time in my car. Just like in The Grapes of Wrath, the car is a kind of shelter. But in that book, vehicles are also mortuaries. The Joad family drives through the desert towards California, fleeing not the bank that has repossessed their land in Oklahoma, but the heat of the desert in which they find themselves—the same desert I sat in, watching the pores on a deputy’s nose fill up the computer screen. The book details the tent encampments that were filled with people—poor, hungry, ignored—looking for work in the West during the Dust Bowl. It is an indictment against the agrarian capitalism that forced migration towards the west, an indictment against the American Dream. I imagine that when this book is taught in high schools, teachers inform students that they are supposed to empathize with the family’s struggles. What if it were us?

During a confrontation with a police officer at the first tent encampment the Joad family stays in California, the deputy pokes his head in the tent and confronts Ma. “If you’re here tomorra this time I’ll run you in. We don’t want none of you settlin’ down here”, he says. During a confrontation with a police officer at the second tent encampment the Joad family stays in California, the deputy looks around at the men, who have learned to keep their eyes averted from his hard shiny nightstick, and says, “I don’t want none of you here by tomorra morning.”

At the City Council meeting, the sheriff deputy cleared his throat. I told ‘em not to give them snacks. I told them that the guys in the tents are laying booby-traps. The deputy had told the neighborhood meeting that it had taken four of his men to subdue one guy who, according to him, was probably high on drugs. I wondered if the deputy realized how old this lie was, how thinly veiled its excuse to forcibly remove people from where they lived.

Day 3

As I drove back to the Airbnb after a meeting with the manager of a nonprofit that provides groceries to poor seniors I had once volunteered with, I thought of all of the things that were different: the sidewalks looked as if they had never been walked on, litter-less, cleansed by the heat and the respiratory illness that had forced everyone inside. The multi-lane highway that day was empty, even of white trucks.

When I moved full-time to this desert town, months before, I had been told by friends to always keep a package of plastic water bottles in the car. “It’s too hot, and the desert is so unpredictable,” they warned. Temperatures could rise above 120 degrees Fahrenheit; the car could break down, and what then? The car was not protective: in that kind of heat, the air from the AC can’t cool, the engine can sputter, the oil can drop.

“Temperatures could rise above 120 degrees Fahrenheit; the car could break down, and what then?” Photo by author.

I exited the freeway and noticed a white man in jeans and a t-shirt standing at the corner wearing a face mask under his nose and holding a sign that said, “Please Help.” I rolled down the window and handed him a plastic bottle of water from a pile rolling around on the floor of the car.

It’s hot, sorry about that.

God bless, he said.

I had read an op-ed piece a few months earlier that described growing up in the city as a Black person. The writer “didn’t dare” go north of certain roads when he was growing up. “We didn’t know roads like _______ even existed. Because the minute we traveled out of [our neighborhood] we were going to get pulled over by the police or harassed by the police.” I had realized that my research took place entirely north of the road the writer described. In fact, I had never been to what the writer knew as the safe neighborhood: the segregation that was built into this desert town was also built into my research.

The Airbnb, when I returned, was dark and cool: the fan whirred overhead, and the shutters were closed against the afternoon sun. If I had to write about this week, I would write about the man’s outstretched hand, dirt under his fingernails, when I gave him the water bottle; of the Department of Transportation building that is on the lot where a Black church used to stand; of the water from a river two states away, gushing out of manmade pipes into 114 degree heat; of the members of the Joad family, dead and separated from each other, their confidence in the strength of their bodies replaced by the barest of needs. These anecdotes were not enough to write a dissertation or answer my research questions: they were impressions created by ignorance, a partial story that could never be a full account. And even if they were, what kind of argument would they lead to?

The Grapes of Wrath has been called an epic, but I read it like an ethnography. In order to write it, John Steinbeck completed research with migrant farmworkers in California. Even so, during the revision process, he was given notes taken by Sanora Babb, a researcher with the Farm Workers Association working on her own novel about the Dust Bowl, which was shelved after the commercial success of Grapes. Her book, Whose Names Are Unknown, which was finally published in 2004, reads differently from Grapes; for one thing, it does not reproduce the migrant dialect that Steinbeck reproduces and that creates distance between contemporary readers and the Joad family. I read Whose Names Are Unknown as asking readers to see themselves in the pages. It is not asking: “what if?” but: “what now?”

Day 4

I spent the morning in the far north western corner of the city, driving around and taking photographs of a housing development mid-construction. Wooden skeletons of homes rose up in the shimmering desert heat, surrounded by the corpses of cactuses that were piled up to be hauled away. For some reason that day, construction was paused. Bulldozers were parked haphazardly on dirt foundations, their metal bodies glinting in the sun. After, I headed to a reservoir, which was dammed to supply water to this town, but is also a place for recreation—boating, but fishing too.

As I drove down the winding road that led to the edge of the reservoir, I noticed a pair of hawks swimming high above in an air current. Cactuses and mesquite trees lined the two-lane road. A few cars passed in the opposite direction, heading to the main highway. The road eventually became gravel and descended towards the bank of the lake. A few other cars and a camper were parked close to the shore; when I parked, I saw two people fishing and one floating on a rainbow-colored blow-up raft close to the shore. 112 degrees Fahrenheit was a kind of heat unimaginable before I felt it: it made everything feel slow. The fishers were motionless in wait, the raft barely moved in the dry air.

I set up a towel on the edge of the shore, angled in a descent towards the water. Everything led downwards. Probably because at one time this shore edge was underwater. Where does the water in reservoirs go? In part, the lake was evaporating. And this year, there was no rainy season.

“I set up a towel on the edge of the shore, angled in a descent towards the water. Everything led downwards.” Photo by author.

I had scoffed, months before, when a friend told me about the rainy season. Here? How can that be? But then one night, I sat on the bed against the wall in my studio apartment during a thunderstorm and listened as gallons of water pounded into the ceiling above me so hard I was convinced that the flat roof of the building would cave in.

At the lakeshore, I looked across the water to the forest beyond and then leaned back on the blanket and closed my eyes, the sun’s warmth in my face, disappointed by the loneliness of the morning, wondering what I was doing there at all. I imagined the hawks flying above me, their shadows on my body, their freedom and pleasure drifting to the bank. After some time, I heard boots crunching on the rocks and I sat up quickly. One of the guys who was fishing stood in front of me, his rubber shoes glistening in the heat. He was not wearing a face mask, and he was looking down at me, blocking out the sun with wide shoulders. I touched my face mask to make sure it was properly secured.

Do you have water? He wore sunglasses that were bright blue and reflective. He had long gray hair pulled into a ponytail under a wide-brimmed camouflage hat and his face was ruddy from sunburn.

Sorry, what?

Do you have water? He raised his hand and shook a half-empty plastic bottle, the kind from Costco. It’s hot out here and you’re going to get dehydrated if you don’t have water.

Oh. Yeah, thanks, I do in my car. I pointed behind me.

You should go get some, you know, your face is pretty red. He saluted me and walked away.

I touched the back of my hand to my cheek and collected my belongings. In my car, the water bottle I had brought, metal reusable, burned my hand when I lifted it to take a sip.

Day 5

I sat with a white couple I had known when I was a child at a table outside of a coffee shop. They were bored. They had lived here for five years, and in summer, they usually went on art walks and vacations and out to the movies and on hikes. But because of COVID…Well, you know. The organization that does the art walks had sent out a newsletter detailing the locations of all of the public art they could see on their own, and so they knew about the mural down the street from the museum in honor of the famous Black scientist that I had visited earlier in the week.

Oh yes, we know that one, it’s beautiful, the woman said to me. We went to see that a few months ago. She showed me pictures of the mural she had taken months before, identical to the ones on my phone.

How did you find your way out there? The man asked.

I told them about the museum, and about the mapping project that tracks where historically Black-owned buildings are located. They had never heard of the project, hadn’t realized the museum was there. In fact, the woman said, they didn’t know anything about Black history in this city. She shook her head. It is so different, she said, from where we used to live.

I did not know how to respond because—was it, actually? I grimaced and said nothing. Later that day, I saw on Twitter that the museum named for the famous Black scientist was the night before vandalized with swastikas and slurs, painted in black ink on the pink stones.

I grimaced and said nothing. Later that day, I saw on Twitter that the museum named for the famous Black scientist was the night before vandalized with swastikas and slurs, painted in black ink on the pink stones.

Day 6

I decided to leave a day earlier than planned. I stuffed my clothes in my suitcase, fished the bookmark I had been using from under the bed, and placed my things in a tote bag. I stripped the flowery sheets from the bed and hauled the towels I had used into a pile on the bathroom floor. I closed the wooden shutters over the row of windows and piled 35 empty plastic water bottles—triangulating them as neatly as I could—into a small blue recycling bin that I had found in a cupboard. The water bottles lifted up out of the bin, creeping along the wall like a toxic vine.

On my way out of town, I thought about the almost-heatstroke I came down with one day, after an hour sitting outside at the farmer’s market with my friend, both of us in face masks. I wondered why I, or anyone, wants to live in this town. We don’t know what came before in the histories of the places we live. We act as if we don’t care what will come after.

At the farmer’s market, my friend told me that her potted plants were dying, her garden was scorched, and I heard on the radio that people had to install cooling devices into their pools if they wanted to swim in the afternoons. People were living in tents on the sidewalks. People were living without easily accessible water. The nights were hot and car accidents were surrounded by onlookers and all of the giant cactuses that grew along the roads had leaves broken off, their hearts rotting in the sun. I didn’t take any photos of the dead and dying cactuses. They hurt to look at.

In The Grapes of Wrath, each family member dies or disappears, one by one, until you realize that the hero of this story is not the one with whom it starts — Tom, the errant son whose search for work keeps the family on the road—but the one with whom it ends, Rose of Sharon, the daughter whose pregnant body reflects the hopefulness of the journey, and, once the child is born dead, grief at all that has happened. Throughout the book, grief is held in and turned inside out: the bodies of grandparents are buried in unmarked graves somewhere on the side of the road; whole towns are empty of people driven out by dust; rains inundate makeshift shelters until even the cars cannot be salvaged.

The last image of The Grapes of Wrath, the one I cannot get out of my head, is Rose of Sharon, whose husband walked away, whose baby was born dead, feeding, with her body, a man dying of starvation in a cold and empty barn. Perhaps this is the point: that American capitalism in the West, in these desert towns, leads to diseased umbilical cords but full breasts, a fantasy of strength that sustains us—and our research. And I only arrived at this thought by reading, in 2020, a book written in 1939 using fieldnotes John Steinbeck took from Sanora Babb.

Only an hour away from home, I saw smoke clouds from the ________ Fire from the road. It hadn’t yet been named: it had just started that day. I called my mom.

You wouldn’t believe the smoke I’m looking at, I said.

“‘You wouldn’t believe the smoke I’m looking at’, I said.” Video by author.

I heard the sounds of typing from her keyboard. It’s the ________ Trees. Over a million burned and only 200,000 out of danger. I held a moment of silence for the ________ Trees. Oh wait, this article is from 2017, she said. The next day, there was ash in my backyard.  


Rachel Howard is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her work is situated between linguistic anthropology and science and technology studies, with a special focus on race, capital, and the environment in the American West.

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