In partnership with University of Iowa Press, The Iowa Review is honored to present this excerpt from Barret Baumgart's China Lake, winner of the 2016 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, out in May 2017. For additional reading, Guernica published another excerpt of Baumgart's book.
“A unique, alarming portrayal of the American military-industrial complex, the crisis of climate change, and the nature of truth and despair. Baumgart's dreamlike, nonlinear narrative is composed of dizzying juxtapositions, illuminating the parallels and paradoxes of modernity and antiquity, devastation and healing, science and the supernatural. Resisting simple answers and constantly challenging assumptions, the author explores collective and personal anxieties surrounding human-nature relationships and the planet's current peril, interwoven with childhood nostalgia and reflections on family, loss, and time. Nearly indescribable and utterly engrossing, this book is an urgent and terrifying cultural reflection, a startling look in the mirror.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
All this without sleep.
“God, we’re pussies,” Kyle said.
We climbed out of the car, stood in the dirt, and stared east along CA 190, shading our eyes and inhaling the idling engine fumes until we both suddenly shrieked, crouched down, and covered our ears. A bullet-shaped F-16 fighter jet ripped out from the south, exploding the sky behind us before it tore north for another mile in the span of two breaths. We watched as the runners stopped in the middle of the road and started jumping and cheering, waving good-bye to the warplane as it dipped a wing, cut east, and disappeared over Death Valley. When all was quiet, the runners continued plodding west.
“Yet another special treat out here in the desert,” recalls Arthur Webb, a Badwater veteran. “It must have cost the race director a bundle to put this display on.”
The Badwater Ultramarathon calls itself the world’s toughest footrace. It is very likely “the most physically taxing competitive event in the world.” Beyond such trite and true taglines, the extreme endurance race is also known for its extraordinary hallucinations, not the least of which being the fact that an obscure and brutal contest offering no prize money beyond a belt buckle can afford to pay the military to cheer on its suicidal contenders* or that such frequent flybys should constitute anything beyond the routine rehearsal of foreign war over the world’s largest and most isolated naval base. Nonetheless, as we stood below Centennial Canyon that day, the runners’ enthusiasm felt contagious, convincing. The power, speed, and levity of that plane, for all its violent cacophony and dormant murder, seemed to fly in the face of that mute and inhuman desert — a cheerful sovereign noise, no matter how long it lasted.
“Kill ’em all!” Kyle yelled after the runners.
Badwater finisher Dave Bursler’s official race report captures how much competitors depend on those military planes. “As we walked, I told Dori how disappointed I was that I hadn’t seen the F-16 fighter jets that David Bliss told me we might see.” But then suddenly, “As if God above was answering my prayers an F-16 came out of nowhere and did a fly by. A few seconds later a second F-16 flew by us. It was an unbelievable experience that gave me an emotional rush. Seems I was going to experience everything Badwater had to offer.”
Bursler says that it’s at Badwater where he found the strength to open up his heart. “This is where I learned that things don’t have to be seen to be true.”
Kyle and I had both been disappointed the night before when we didn’t see anything at the perimeter of the base. Walking the upper flats, headlamps lit, we’d half-expected some contingent of military guards armed with machine guns climbing out of camo Humvees to scan our licenses, credit cards, and cell phones; inspect our packs, notebooks, and pupils; and confine us in some underground detention center for past sexual treasons, future unpaid parking tickets, or at least our present public drunkenness. But there was nothing out there. Not even a single obscure flashing light to entertain our fear or encourage a guess about what exactly they might be studying, building, or testing in the dark. Nothing but ink-black night, a dusty deserted road, and a long sagging rope of rusted barbed wire insufficient to keep out even the least curious passing burro. Several shotgunned signs reflected the spray of our headlamps: Warning — Restricted Area. No Trespassing.
“Yeah,” Kyle agreed.
I watched him walk around to the back of the car, lift the tailgate, and grab a water bottle from his pack. He tossed me one and started coughing, then smiled as he closed his eyes, covered his mouth with a fist, and tried to point a finger over my shoulder.
This time I didn’t flinch.
“We should give them a ride. They look like they’re waving for help,” I said.
The runners stopped in the road as a second plane roared past us.
Kyle took a deep breath and shut the trunk.
“They’re just happy,” he said.
If the road of excess still leads to the palace of wisdom, then for those runners crossing the earth’s hottest desert in the world’s hardest footrace, the amazing superfluity of those planes must have seemed a near-providential sign, the most auspicious omen; it was as though Gaia herself had screamed “Eureka!” and sent not one but two eagles, a certainty twice spoken: these brave runners would conquer the titanic forces working against them. The promised land lay near, they seemed to say. Anything can be accomplished, as long as the will remains strong.
Yet if it’s true, as Dave Bursler’s memoir suggests, that things don’t have to be seen to be believed, then shouldn’t the opposite adage also hold true? Don’t believe everything you see.
I never ran the Badwater Ultramarathon and I don’t ever intend to, but I suppose I’ve always been drawn — for better or worse — to the human extreme, that border between light and dark, terror and ecstasy, faith and absurdity. Albert Camus called it a “waterless desert where thought reaches its confines.” The point he believed was to stay there, “insofar as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions.” But you can’t stay there for long. The things you see will either destroy you, rouse you from a dream, or send you running as fast and as far as your feet will carry you. “To say that that climate is deadly,” Camus wrote, “scarcely amounts to playing on words.” It took me years to realize what I had actually seen in those upper flats besides piled scabrock, junipers, and Joshua trees — a disturbing vision hidden in the cliffs just beyond the dry wash of Centennial Spring and its threshold of rusted barbed wire.
The runners of the Badwater Ultramarathon speak openly of their visions, the trance-like hallucinations that occur often during the second night of their journey. They see ghosts and demons, decaying corpses on the roadside, mutant mice monsters crawling in the darkness, and extraterrestrials in the distance. One runner, Jack Denness, reports that he saw a spaceship that had smashed into a mountainside: “Smoke was still rising from the crash. Around the spaceship were these tiny aliens. I saw this from a distance of seven miles.” Runners have been stalked by women rollerblading in silver bikinis, low-flying passenger planes, and Satan himself. “He was all red, had horns, fork-tail, and carried a three-pronged tripod. . . . Every time I turned around to look for him, he would dodge behind a tree or rock, just showing his face.” Others in their altered states have calmly jogged across a transplanted Golden Gate Bridge, over the improbable excrescence of computer microchips, and into dreams of drifting ocean vessels, covered-wagon trains, and lost gold miners. “It was still 114 degrees at 2 AM . . . I started to hallucinate, seeing this grizzled old 49er holding his gold pan. I thought it was filled with water. I went to get some. I woke up when I heard the water from my own bottle sizzling on the pavement.”
Sheep may be the ultramarathon runners’ most common hallucination. They fly among the stars, wander the highway in thin herds, and scale the basalt outcrops above the highway guardrails. Ian Parker, a veteran of nine Badwaters and a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine, recalls once accepting the spirit guidance of a desert bighorn. “I noticed a figure walking slowly up the trail a few hundred yards ahead of me which, looking more closely, resolved into a bighorn sheep. This was exciting, because bighorn sheep are normally very timid . . . suddenly it stopped and turned to look at me. Fixing me with a baleful stare (‘Come on slowcoach!’), it waited until I had caught up. At that point I wondered if I ought to be worried — bighorn sheep weigh more than 200 pounds, the males charge each other at speeds over 25 mph, and the narrow trail ran above a high cliff — but this one looked to be a juvenile female who was just curious about this intruder into her rocky lair. She let me approach within a few feet, then started upward again at a pace that looked languid but still left me trailing behind. Again, though, she paused to let me catch up, all the while fixing me with her intent stare, and again set off upwards when I was almost close enough to touch. This little game carried on for around 10 minutes before she tired of it and bounded effortlessly away up a steep talus slope. The memory of our brief encounter stayed with me throughout the cold, hard slog through the darkness up to the rim and, like all good pacers, my bighorn sheep provided a psychological boost at the toughest time during a run.”
Ian Parker apparently did not understand the point of the game.
He should have killed that sheep.