What you have to realize is that the world is a viciously empty place…
On the Westgate River Ranch, the embodiment of a nowhere that can only be expressed in Florida, there is a walk-in chapel for vacationers hoping to momentarily exit the three-star resort/dude ranch/glamping site and make peace with the Holy Ghost. The chapel, undoubtedly constructed within the last 20 years, has nevertheless been designed to look like an old Western church building, with a faux steeple surrounded by acres and acres of other ersatz constructions of an Old West inspired by the imaginations of a few Italian film directors. It’s a dude ranch, the largest ranch east of the Mississippi at that.
Westgate Resorts owns the chapel, just as it owns all of the land and the very real longhorns that graze pensively alongside a traditional white fence. The chapel serves the temporary parishioners for free, possibly the only free service provided on the 1,700 acres of land. Apparently services are quite popular. In an example of a vacation trend termed as “glamping”, you can shoot shotguns, stay in a “Luxe Teepee”, rock climb and spend lots of money.
But it’s not really a dude ranch, because a dude ranch east of the Mississippi is completely oxymoronic. My dad says it’s a “pseudo dude ranch”, and that’s the best explanation. Of course, it’s not all-inclusive (that’s for the really rich people), and it appears that the Ranch caters toward the American middle to upper middle class. The cheapest rooms are about $55 a night, as the company expects residents to spend more on amenities. You can also park your RV or pitch your own tent, so it’s not exactly the Ritz. However, I imagine that with the right itinerary and the right people, the pseudo dude ranch could be quite fun.
The site is not one of Westgate’s most glamorous properties, that honor would probably go to CEO David Siegel’s private residence, a 90,000 square-foot house built as a replica of the Palace of Versailles. But the River Ranch exists. The Kissimmee River exists. America exists. The “Luxe Teepee” exists, even though this land was never occupied by the Lakota and the cultural appropriation seems particularly out of place. The endless paradoxes of the 21st century are the only subjects that fill my mind in the emptiness of central Florida.
At once in this suddenly deeply political age, the mind wanders. In November 2016, it’s inescapable, even while I’m on an airboat searching for alligators in the emptiness of the Kissimmee. The wife of Westgate’s CEO, Jackie Siegel (the prime mover in the construction of the American Versailles), once dated Donald Trump. The place reeks of American resort mogul-ism, a uniquely narcissistic consciousness that now (figure)heads the largest military and economic force on the planet, and a Twitter account. You can guess what candidate the employees of Westgate were asked to vote for, especially in a swing state that could be influenced by a few thousand employees of a resort company. I am not here to pass judgment. I am only here to watch the alligators.
I’m sitting on this airboat because my grandparents insisted that I should experience this experience. My grandmother, a Korean immigrant who arrived in the United States in the earl 1980s, has a post-retirement obsession with what I term “experiences”. In the past year alone, she has left Florida to travel across Europe, much of the Southwest, and to the Northeast and Midwest. She is joined in these rather remarkable endeavors by my grandfather, (step-grandfather), who leads/follows her across the globe. They are, by estimation, quite happy, and I’m rather jealous that they’ve gotten to see much more of the world, from Alaska to Hong Kong to Istanbul, in the past three years than I have.
In the aftermath of their latest trip to the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival, they’re hosting us for Thanksgiving. But because of their incredibly voyeuristic nature, they want us to go to the Westgate River Ranch, which is 50 minutes away from their residence. The plan is to take an airboat trip before heading to the Saturday night rodeos that the River Ranch hosts every week. Compared to Rome, the River Ranch is a drop in the proverbial bucket, but there was nothing better to do in the sleepy area around their retirement home, so off to the River Ranch we went.
From outside observation, my grandparents are in a nearly apolitical mood these days. In what may come as a cruel reality to you, there were precisely zero political conversations during the entirety of Thanksgiving Day. They fill their lives with experience, not talk, and although they talk quite a lot, the backdrop of the real always grounds them. Just before we leave the retirement community, my grandmother demands we stop the car to give sandwiches to my mother and father in the car behind us. She runs out and argues with her daughter, forces her to take the food, and then we depart.
Now, back on the airboat, the deafening noise of the engine makes conversation impossible. All the members of the boat are left to their own thoughts, insulated by headphones, punctuated by the occasional sighting of an alligator that has just been rudely awakened from an afternoon siesta. None of us are really having too much fun; the noise from the propeller has deafened my dad and my mom is irritated because the headphones do not fit her. The boat is silent and noisy at the same damn time.
I first think about my Korean-American grandmother, who sits behind me and tells me to get off my phone as we travel through a nondescript channel of water. She then tells me to keep my back straight. I realize that after 70+ years of surviving civil war, having three children, working as a single mother while my grandfather tried to find work in America, then watching her children go to Ivy League schools and create respectable lives for themselves, she has finally gotten a chance to experience the American Dream for herself.
Until today, she has never retreated to a “pseudo dude ranch” in her enjoyment of the American Dream. She has used the fruits of the American Dream (although, as I am contractually obligated to mention as a member of the liberal college-educated elite, she attained much of this “American Dream” through marrying a white male) to travel anywhere other than central Florida for half the year, and now, with everything central Florida has to offer, I don’t really know what she’s thinking about.
I next think about how this is all a metaphor for how many conservatives treat the environment. The boat disturbs everything in sight. Magnificent birds fly away in panic. We drive through patches of river plants and disturb all sorts of natural habitats. The noise is deafening. The airboat, sitting just on the water, isn’t as mutually destructive as a motorboat, but the fact of its existence bothers me. I start to doubt myself for even getting on this boat. I start to question my own environmental legacy. I start to think all these liberal-ish thoughts that get printed in Daily Northwestern op-eds and populate the comment sections of NPR feeds.
Then we stop to see a baby alligator. She or he moves away, not yet ready to fight anything and rather scared of this afternoon interruption. The boat operator, an older man who speaks with a thick southern drawl, gives everyone some useful information about alligators. He doesn’t say much, but he quickly steers us away. It seems he wants to get through this disturbance of the natural order as quickly as possible. The 1 hour tour ends after just 40 minutes. We see three alligators the whole time, for about 3 minutes total. I think about atoning for my sins at the a la carte church, but I think God would be fine with staying outside.
Most things, and by extension most people and most societies, are more complicated than they appear…
The boat ride ends and we are deposited on the shore to spend a few hours before the rodeo. My dad, who despises boats on principle and can no longer hear properly, staggers around and decides we should go skeet shooting. My grandfather immediately notes that this is a terrible idea and probably impossible due to the fact we do not have a shotgun, 20 cartridges, or a reservation. He’s right, but we head over anyway.
The shotgun range is everything you’d expect it to be. There’s a old white dude with a cowboy hat directing things, and a boatload of people with their firearms shooting at clay targets. Every few seconds, a shotgun shell goes off, but you eventually get used to it. My dad convinces my sister, a pretty good markswoman herself, to attempt to get onto the range. I don’t go because:
1. I’m a terrible shot.
2. I don’t have contact lenses or glasses with me because I am very forgetful.
The fancy trucks in the parking lot complete the range, of course. As I sit at the makeshift archery range for the kids, there is a black 2014 Chevy Silverado. My sister walks by, having been denied from the shotgun range due to a lack of a shotgun, cartridges and insistence, and immediately points out the “Liar, liar, pantsuit on fire” bumper sticker on the Chevy. Then she points out the Trump 2016 sticker. Then she points out the numerous pro-gun slogans and Confederate flag emblazoned on the back and sides of the truck. Pretty typical fare.
Then she points out the Pokémon Go logo that sits right at the center of the truck. It’s the logo of the red team (of course), Team Valor, with a Moltres logo surrounded by fire. I am very, very confused. Why is a logo of my all-time favorite Pokémon sitting on the back of this car? Am I really supposed to believe that this Confederacy-loving, gun-supporting, Clinton-imprisoning person from Florida also happens to be a rabid Pokémon Go player? Perhaps this person is a big fan of Pokémon 2000? These questions are all unanswered. Later that day, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, my sister sees another Team Valor logo on the back of an SUV. My best explanation is that the denizens of Polk County co-opted a Pokémon logo as a symbol of the Republican Party. America!
“Damelos!” I hear in the distance. The family who is sharing the makeshift archery range with us is having a bit of an argument. Apparently, the makeshift archery range is actually a real archery range, with real bows and real, metal-tipped arrows. A crowd of unsupervised children, including my 11-year-old younger sister, play peacefully with the archery set. One of the children, predictably, had pointed a loaded bow at his brother, prompting the dad nearby to grab the bow and speak some commands in Spanish.
Of course, the whole family is solely speaking Spanish. In fact, as you may be surprised to hear, there was plenty of Spanish being spoken at the dude ranch, although I’d have to estimate it’s still a 80/20 split in favor of English.. There were plenty of bilingual staff and bilingual guests. It’s Florida, after all. It’s America, after all. You really thought everything could be simple? One of the kids is wearing a “Frank Underwood 2016” shirt. The family leaves and we have the archery range to ourselves before another Spanish-speaking family that walks by to take their shot, because visiting a dude ranch in central Florida does not necessarily mean you are a caricature. Maybe the person with the Trump/Pokémon Go bumper stickers is a proud caricature, but just one person cannot signify the complexities of a single county, let alone a society.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing overpriced tourist attractions, racism or pseudo dude ranches, or the fact that a caricature has in fact been given a significant part of my society’s governing apparatus. I’m just trying to wrap my head around that, outside of the Northwestern bubble, the world is a vastly complicated place. People of all political stripes live alongside one another. There is a rampant tendency by our wondrous news media to simplify America into a divided nation. Urban vs. rural. Working white vs. city minorities. The truth is, there are very real divisions, but these divisions have no borders. Just because 55 percent of Polk County, FL voted for Donald Trump doesn’t mean the 45 percent doesn’t exist. There are 15,294 minority-owned firms in Polk County, Florida as of 2012.
Hell, even I live in one of those paradoxical divisions. My home county of Orange County, NY voted 50-44 for Trump. My county also re-elected Democratic senator Chuck Schumer 59-38. Chuck Schumer will be the primary Senate minority leader for the Democratic Party. Schumer got 9,000 more votes for his re-election than Trump received for the presidency. In what world does this make any sense? And yet, in a two-party system with no readily available answers for the environment, education, race relations, foreign relations, war or justice, these paradoxes must be expected, even if the people who participate in the creation of these paradoxes scarcely understand the complexities that they construct. That includes me.
Meanwhile, my family, irritated by repetitive shotgun blasts and bored by the dude ranch, decides to go to the general store. There’s really nothing special about this particular general store. It’s clearly a pastiche of the Wild West and sells overpriced goods. My sister and I (the older, 18-year-old one), wanting to cause some pointless trouble, leave the general store with some souvenirs and unchanged bank balances. The general store sells Starbucks coffee.
No one wants to go to the rodeo anymore. I fall asleep on the 50-minute drive home.
We head home and eat at a terrible Japanese restaurant. There are no East Asians operating this establishment, and all the food is straight trash. The tap water, in particular, tastes awful. Throughout the entire meal, nobody takes more than two sips from her or his giant glasses.
As I try to fall asleep, I slowly start to formulate a vision of America. It’s a vision that will please some people, and dishearten others. A nation that looks like a pseudo dude ranch, with commodified existences, light control and lazy corporate attractions. A nation that feeds its predominantly white clientele papier-mache and more than slightly racist constructions of a past America that has faded. A nation of selfishness, a nation of cheap greed. This softly despotic hypothesis, by the way, definitely works for some people. I can see that now, while I recall the events of the day. It could be, like the Westgate River Ranch, an American Dream re-founded by a rich billionaire real estate mogul. But in my estimation, it’s paradoxical, appropriative, and a pretty crappy iteration.
I think of my grandmother, whose American Dream is to experience as much of the world as possible, to avoid the rigmarole of daily life and set herself free across the cities and farmlands of the world. I hope I get there someday. I drift off to sleep in her RV and wait for the flight home.