I’ve heard it said that you truly begin to feel old when one day you realize that the world you were raised to live in doesn’t really exist anymore. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that you start feeling it the first time you tell a younger person about a world that you remember clearly, but that they have never seen for themselves. I felt that recently when I found this, hidden in an obscure corner of YouTube.
It perhaps doesn’t seem like anything very special at first glance; just someone driving through the night and listening to the radio in an era that the programming – some of Art Bell’s old Coast to Coast AM show – pegs as having been sometime in the mid-to-late 90s. But for those who were there, it is often in the small things that one finds a link back to a time that simultaneously feels as though it were only yesterday, and that it’s hard to believe ever existed. Some of its aspects have been gone many years; some not so very long at all. One way or another, they are a slice of an old America that we have left behind us, but the memories of which should be shared with those who have either forgotten it, or are too young ever to have seen it themselves.
The first, which still more or less existed right up to the anno horribilis of 2020, was the astonishing freedom of travel that was found out on the endless open road. Back in the before times, I did many long drives through the night like the one in that video. St. Louis to Washington DC nonstop along I-64 once, on another occasion Norfolk to Tampa down I-95, New Orleans to Roswell across the vast breadth of Texas, Denver to Reno past mountain and desert, and more than a few runs between San Francisco and Las Vegas over the Sierras and through the Mojave, among others. No masks. No lockdowns. No “vaccination passports”. No mandatory quarantines upon arrival in this or that state. No digital license plate readers or facial recognition software. No reason to fear the police unless you were obviously drunk or conspicuously speeding. Before a decade or so ago, there were no surveillance cameras or smartphones tracking your every move. That ability to disappear down the highway and into the night was a uniquely American* freedom, one just as meaningful as, and far more tangible than, any written down on some 18th century piece of paper, and one that is eroding away before our eyes. Few of our old liberties will be taken away outright by government fiat – most will, either by design or merely as a consequence of our late-imperial decline, simply become more expensive and burdensome to exercise until few bother with them. Whether intentionally or not, in the increasingly paranoid and economically run-down post-COVID, post-Trump security state, travel will be ever-more difficult, while Zoom (which is easily monitored, and from which you can be “canceled” at any time) will remain easy.
But back in those long-gone days, you could throw a bag in the trunk, turn the key, and it was only you and the road, the hum of the engine, the smell of coffee, and all the wonders of the universe on overnight radio.
There’s a theory that stories of the paranormal (as opposed to traditional religion, which is another matter) surge during placid, prosperous eras, and certainly that would explain why the 90s were truly the age of hidden mysteries lurking in the darkness. They were unquestionably good times. The early days of the internet boom buoyed the entire economy. Optimism was high after our victory over Soviet Communism. Our reserves of social capital were still strong; we were less diverse and less politically polarized and less split across every fault line. People trusted authority and each other more. We did not consider ourselves naive; in fact, many of the myths that pulsed through the night air in those days centered on the idea that the government and other powerful people were keeping secrets from us. But even these deceptions were of a far different nature than those we speak of today.
In those days, we believed that a hypercompetent government was keeping wondrous secrets from us for what they genuinely thought to be our own sake; today we see that an increasingly bungling and corrupt government is doing a clownishly bad job at keeping banal secrets from us for the sake of nothing more than holding onto their own power and privilege. Now it seems obvious that what we believed back then was the product of its age; that unique historical moment right after the end of the Cold War and between the two Iraq Wars – the one that we thought we’d won and the one that we can’t deny having lost. And while it was frustrating in those days to think of what was being hidden from us, it was also comforting to think that people capable of doing it were essentially still on our side, and would be there to help keep us safe if we ever needed it. One can barely even be sure what’s been more disillusioning: finding out that people and institutions that we thought were operating from good intentions are really venal and crooked, or that ones we thought were clever and capable are actually careless, inept, and oafish. On The X-Files, Mulder and Scully fought from within the FBI to find truths kept hidden in the shadows by smart, powerful, dangerous men. In our age, we are treated to a real-life FBI manned by smirking fools like Peter Sztrok, who got caught because he was stupid enough to text the secret plan to his girlfriend on a work phone. This much is certain: it’s a long way down from advanced extraterrestrial technology being hidden in a hangar at Area 51 in the name of national security to an obviously-fake dossier full of ridiculous, lurid stories about Russian prostitutes peeing on a hotel bed, fabricated as part of a ham-fisted attempt at a political coup. What a letdown.
Modernity promised us that it would banish superstition, light all of the dark corners of the world, make people rational, and via rationality, make them peaceful. As always, nothing of their plan bore its promised fruit. Beyond making the world a more dreary place for all, the banishment of wonders has just led us to the age of the “rational” bad-faith partisan political conspiracy theory, to be used as a weapon against one’s enemies. But for a short historical moment, we had the happy luxury of ignorance; the ability to believe that what was hidden just out of view was fantastic, otherworldly, and supernatural. That monsters and demigods and the stuff that legends are made of were lurking in the corners of the night. That the aliens we had to worry about invading us were crossing the galaxy in faster-than-light starships, rather than crossing the southern border in the back of a beat-up old box truck.
The topics that Bell’s show touched on were sometimes ridiculous, but were often honestly smart and fascinating. There was real worth in listening to Michio Kaku talk about the possibilities in physics, Malachi Martin relate his personal experiences fighting demonic possession, or Richard Hoagland speculate on what it would take to successfully colonize Mars. At worst, like Ed Dames’s nonsense claims about psychic remote viewing, it was harmless fun. But like so much else in public discourse, even the realm of conspiracy and the esoteric has gotten simultaneously stupider and more high stakes. There’s nothing harmless or fun about watching millions of gullible fools follow a 4chan troll off a political cliff. That isn’t merely a speculative step into a world of hidden wonders. It’s a tragedy; one with real consequences.
And of course, now we know for sure that none of the hidden wonders that Bell introduced us to were ever real, otherwise he would have been deplatformed from everything just like Alex Jones, Julian Assange, and James O’Keefe have been. The fact that Coast to Coast AM has stayed on the air all these years and has survived the modern crackdown on “disinformation” shows that the topics it discusses aren’t taken the least bit seriously by anyone in power. If they let you talk about it in the open, then it isn’t a threat to them.
But on the open roads of the endless night in that not-so-distant past, the ancient and the modern merged, as the overnight radio revived the tribal storyteller’s tales of what lay in the darkness beyond the edge of the village. It was a better time – one that I miss terribly – and we shall not see one like it return soon.
(*After being forcibly deported from the USSR and ending up in the USA, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn borrowed a car and drove across the country from his new home in Vermont. In the Nevada desert, he pulled to the side of the road and marveled at the fact that nobody knew or cared where he was, nor could they find out unless he wanted them to. It was a freedom that had been unknown to him, that he didn’t take for granted as we have, and that somehow crept away from us.)