In the Desert, You Can't Remember Your Name

Where the Streets Have No Name, Yet
Photo by Rob Horning

Las Vegas displays itself in a very calculated and contrived manner: to mark the point where over-the-top hits rock bottom; where perfect naiveté becomes indistinguishable from perfect cynicism. Every gleaming hotel tower, every simulacrum of an ancient wonder, was built not through some noble human aspiration for splendor or permanence, but for carefully harvesting the stupidity and cupidity of others.

Casino Crawl

If you've been to an American discount store — Macfrugal's, Factory 2-U, Dee & Dee, any of the thousands of 99-cent stores — then you've already experienced many of the dubious thrills of being a Las Vegas tourist. The garish, chintzy products, ranging from the theoretically practical (melon-ballers, liquid-soap dispensers) to the inexplicable (garlic shampoo, hair mayonnaise), and the overt rip-offs of familiar brands (why buy Sony when you can have Coby?) that you find at discount stores are analogous to the ersatz reconstructions of ritzier tourist destinations (Paris, Venice, New York, New Orleans), and the thin veneer of glitz over everything the Las Vegas Strip has to offer. And the gamble you take when you buy a package of "Blooper" T-shirts, hoping they're not too irregular to wear, is not so different than taking a spin at the nickel slots.

The gaudy, overlit Strip is a monument to second-rate simulation and faux glamour. The displays are calculated and contrived to mark the point where over-the-top hits rock bottom; where perfect naiveté becomes indistinguishable from perfect cynicism. Both 99-cent stores and tourist Las Vegas make no effort to disguise their exuberant tawdriness; it seems to bespeak of a humble wish to please through sheer quantity and brute pandering. In the face of such generous profusion of stimuli, a critical attitude can seem like fussy, uptight caviling.

The downscale, vaguely disreputable shoppers one sees in the narrow, overstocked aisles at the discount store, are much like the people I find in the heart of tourist Las Vegas. One night, as I jostle my way up and across a pedestrian overpass at the intersection of the Strip and Flamingo Road (the latter named for the Flamingo casino, of course), thronged to capacity, buzzing with electricity and the flickering of enormous video screens, I pass the drifters — the desert rats, as they're known out west, with their leathery tans and deeply etched squints from too much desert sun. Even at night they slit their eyes as if to protect them from the flashing lights. Desert Rats manage to hustle jobs distributing pornographic pamphlets printed with phone numbers of "dancers" and "massage artists". I squeeze past the overweight women bulging out of their undersized clothes and the men in their customary "eveningwear" of Bermuda shorts and auto racing T-shirts, sipping fruity booze drinks through a straw from giant plastic vessels shaped like the Eiffel Tower or a pyramid or the Empire State Building, depending on where it was purchased.

Amid the tourists, I feel a press of momentum toward no particular destination, despite the superfluity of alleged attractions: the dancing fountains at the Bellagio, the erupting volcano at the Mirage, the pirate-ship battle at Treasure Island, the talking statues inside Caesars Palace. On the street, the cars barely move. And the pedestrians, when they're not forced off of street level on to overpasses, clot the intersections, hardly trying to pick out traffic signals from the sea of flashing color. They stand in the road, oblivious, taking pictures while horns blare. But most of the drivers are in no hurry. Their glass-packs rumble, the bass booms. Periodically someone yells something incoherently celebratory out of the window, as if driving through the heart of these crowds and the glare of the casino lights makes them feel as though a TV camera has been pointed at them. Sometimes you see a bunch of people drinking on the back of a pickup truck, usually with California plates and tinted windows, and they'll all start yelling, too, as soon as they feel they are being looked at.

Inside the casinos, which are surprisingly hard to tell apart considering their disparate themes — perhaps proving that as far as American tourists are concerned, there are no essential differences between, say, Ancient Egypt and contemporary New York — there are lines: lines for the buffets, lines for the steakhouses, where the prime rib could be had for under $10; lines for the casino cage and the change window where paper and plastic money is changed to coins and chips; and lines for the ATM ("the only thing paying out", as one cheerful tourist from Massachusetts tells me). The only place where there is no line is at the slot machines, many featuring tie-ins to television shows. The faces of TV stars rotate on the simulated slot reels while the TV theme songs intermittently play, the music competing with the machine next to it.

With a cacophony of beeps and bells going off all around me, I wander confusedly through the aisles. Much as I do on my sojourns to Macfrugals, I try to reassure myself that I'm not like "them". I'm not one of those credulous rubes being taken in by phony bargains and bad risks. Rather, I have some ironic reason for being there. Maybe, I think, that self-consciousness exempts me: If I know I'm being taken, I can't still be a fool, right?

Both the 99-cent store and tourist Las Vegas are microcosms of American consumer capitalism at its most dubious. These are places where the unscrupulous rush to find the maximum profit margin among the desperate, the gullible, and the easily beguiled, and they make no effort to conceal it. What both offer is the chance, no matter how parodic or benighted, to participate in the luxurious joys of the abundance American society never tires of prescribing, the opulent lifestyle portrayed in entertainment and advertisements alike. When you're selling hope to the hopeless, you can use the cheapest, most vulgar means to evoke their dreams and counterfeit their fulfillment. To go to Vegas is to immerse yourself in that vulgarity and the exploitation it trumpets. Every gleaming hotel tower, every simulacrum of an ancient wonder, was built not through some noble human aspiration for splendor or permanence, but for carefully harvesting the stupidity and cupidity of others. For no other reason than it exists: a fertile field of pure profit that never need lay fallow.

Every effort has been made to streamline the profit-making potential of people's ignorance. Living here, you can enjoy the prosperity brought on by that harvest, but only in the form it necessarily takes, as quantity over quality, as lures and traps you know enough to selectively avoid. It's easy to see why some choose to move here. There's no income tax, there's a superfluity of well-paid, low-skill jobs in the construction and service industries, and there's an abundance of cheap, cheap houses — half the price for something twice the size of what one could get in nearby California. You have construction workers who move here to build houses for the other construction workers who have come to build the new hotels or work on the roads that are replacing the twenty-year-old roads. The roads are as methodically torn down as if their obsolescence had been as carefully planned as a make of automobile, soon to go out of style.

As a place where the most resonant tradition is an overwhelming rejection of moralistic meddling, Las Vegas seems to represent a chance at pure freedom. It's a place that seems to refuse to make judgments and won't ask questions of you when you suddenly arrive, no matter the hour. Everyone's invited. And virtually no one's been rooted in this land long enough to be snobbish about latecomers. The fervent wish of many Americans that maybe are stuck in bad jobs or are married to bad spouses or have perhaps done a few bad things, to "start clean", forget their past, invent new and better selves for themselves, matches the valley's own perpetual reconstruction and permanent growth, with no apparent compass to steer it and with no legislation to slow it down. People come to town to take advantage: of the weather, of the libertarian climate, of the affordability, of each other.

Because when you come to live in Las Vegas — lest you become one of the exploited — you're likely to link arms with the exploiters and gleefully find opportunity in the weakness of others, expressed through their gambling or their insatiable appetite for junk. But all the while that corrosive attitude slowly corrupts your own tastes as it sharpens your sense of advantage. It bedazzles away your ability to see others as humans instead of marks. It erodes away an ethic of compassion. Before you know it, you have the self-serving ethics of a con man. An article in The New York Times on Las Vegas's growth ("A Life as a Live! Nude! Girl! Has a Few Strings Attached," 2 June 2004), offers a perfect example of the instrumental rationality the city encourages, through the story of Trixie, a stripper who "is generous about sharing with other dancers . . . the cold science of milking the customers for everything they've got. "It's just like predators, just like in the rest of human nature. . . ," she says, "You condition them like Pavlov's dogs." In other words, you can enjoy the tax-free life and home-owning ease that Las Vegas offers (a new house is built every 20 minutes on average, and even that can't keep pace with demand), but you must also have no qualms about holding the leash of the slobbering tourists, or about having your own chain pulled.

Getting In On the Action

Gambling is as good a place as any to turn when you've lost faith in the idea that your society rewards merit, and one can only muster a belief in the lucky chance. At the craps table, impotence strangely transforms into omnipotence. As I wait for the shooter to throw the dice, listening to the stickman repeat his mantra of proposition bets — "Your C and E's, your any seven, the horn, the hard ways" — I start to think the outcome will be affected by how rigidly I adhere to my ritual: first sipping my complimentary gin and tonic, then taking a drag of my cigarette and returning it to the ashtray but without letting it settle in a notch, then touching my glasses, and then waiting, taking care never to look the shooter in the face and never to look at the dice when they land.

Anyone who gets seriously involved with gambling knows that for the gambler, it's not about money or even the feeling of winning. It's about the "action", which is the ability to make bets and keep them perpetually unresolved. The more bets you can keep open-ended, the more action you're seeing. Action reduces the world to a sublimely manageable scale: the next card, the next roll, the next spin of the wheel. Action means things are in motion, but they're not going anywhere in particular, and that's just fine. When you have action, you can't think of the past or the future, only the present moment matters, intensely. As long as you have action, things matter and apathy is impossible.

Beside me a shriveled man, breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank on wheels, writes down every number thrown in a little spiral notebook; he is "clocking the dice", searching for patterns. Mathematically, this is insane, but at the table, it seems reasonable enough; it's proactive, he's just looking for an edge. "Six, corner six, no field six, comes go to six." I'm off-and-on my come bet for $34 with $30 more still working. Suddenly my most meaningless actions have great portent. Suddenly I am shaping reality with the power of my superstitious thought. Ordinarily, I'm burdened with a sense that nothing I can do matters, that in an increasingly complex world where any individual's contribution toward solving a problem won't even register, even if it's not making the problem inadvertently worse. This creeping nihilism calls the very notion of belief into question, and without belief, one is paralyzed.

At the craps table, however, I forget all that, the same way those thousands who've always come to Las Vegas to try to forget their dead-end situations of no options and no future to invest any belief in. For a few escapist hours, I have important options (Bet the Pass or the Don't Pass? Place the numbers or play the Field?) and I can act decisively, and my decisions contribute directly to how much longer I can stay in the action, and for those hours, action is all there is in the world. When you have limited options, be it from a lack of education or ambition, or the absence of a support system, familial or communal, and you are trained most of your life to be a passive, obedient sponge, whether at the workplace, where you're expected to do no more than follow procedures, or at leisure, watching television shows that cue you when to laugh and cry, the idea of taking action, of being able to do something, anything, that's meaningful can take on mythic proportion.

But action is not activity, it's always something you have and never something you do. You can't generate it yourself, and it can't be sustained. Action allows you to feel what it's like to be active rather than passive. It offers the fantasy of significance without ever really being significant. Except to the casinos, which don't care at all about action but care very much about money. The gaming industry knows precisely, with verifiable certainty, how many pennies it is going to make for every dollar wagered, and there's nothing romantic or whimsical about these calculations. Its profits could be measured with the relentless exactitude of a pendulum clock. Despite the celebrity of certain casino builders — Bugsy Siegal, Donald Trump, Steve Wynn — the casino business is not a business for dreamers or visionaries. In reality, gaming is the most zero-sum of industries; there is no win-win, there is no fair trade. The laws of probability are simply leveraged ruthlessly against those too ignorant or ornery or desperate to abide them. With mathematical certainty I should know deep down that the house wins, and I lose; if I can believe in nothing else, I should try to believe in that.

Where the Streets Have No Name

Out in the valley's foothills, in Henderson, Nevada, the rapidly expanding suburb to the southeast of Las Vegas, it feels like I could be anywhere, or nowhere — like an airport, minus the liminality. There are no historical markers, no monuments, no indigenous plants or trees, nothing that you haven't seen somewhere else but with more contingencies. Without the shopping centers, the apartment complexes, the tract housing, the casinos, there's literally nothing; no history out here, just a "now" that never ends.

The ersatz glamour and pandering gaudiness of the Strip seem far away, even though you can still see the row of tall hotel towers from the newly built Interstate 215, nearing completion after several years of construction. At the most recently finished exits of that road, at Windmill Lane and Eastern Avenue, housing developments and retail strips have sprung up as fast as they could be built, and the few vacant lots have enormous signs driven deep into their rocky, inhospitable soil, advertising the coming construction. On this apparent blank slate it seems as if humankind can write its dreams, unhampered by anything but the limits of its own imagination and technology. Perhaps this has been the goal of American history all along, to achieve the tabula rasa promised to colonists by the idea of a "New World". But surveying the rows of identical houses, replicating with viral efficiency, I wonder how such a dream could have amounted to this.

Before the highway was built, before corporations began taking advantage of what the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce Web site calls a "pro-business environment in which companies do not pay corporate income, franchise, inventory, or unitary taxes", the idea that anyone would live out in these hills was unthinkable. Located in the hottest desert in North America, this land constitutes a vast emptiness, devoid of all but the most rugged vegetation — low-growing shrubs, cacti and yuccas — as one finds in Death Valley, the shimmering desert just north of town. But now, as the Chamber of Commerce Web site points out, "Every hour, another two acres of Las Vegas land are developed for commercial or residential use", and "developers of master-planned communities . . . are running out of new street names".

It takes the full breadth of humankind's scientific powers to make living out here even conceivable, and perhaps this is a justification in and of itself for doing it, the same way Mount Everest needs to be climbed simply because it's there. Also, it's a perfect place for people who regard weather and nature as obstacles to overcome and eliminate, rather than a phenomena to experience. Seasons? Who needs them. Weather does have the unfortunate habit of upsetting plans, just as the natural world has the tendency to intrude upon us at inopportune moments. One of the achievements of modernity is to make nature something we can experience on a tourist basis, on our terms, when we feel up to the aesthetic appreciation we've come to feel it deserves. We'll go to Vail when interested in experiencing winter, we'll go hiking when we want to think about how pleasant trees can be. Otherwise, we'll live in Henderson, Nevada, Phoenix, Arizona, or San Jose, California, or any of the other similar sprawl towns that have emerged from the desert in the past few decades.

This kind of landscape constitutes a conservative's dream. It's a perfect, airtight marketplace where nothing intrudes with the merciless operation of the market: no local traditions, no environmental concerns, no inclement weather, no government restrictions, no sense of community solidarity. It's a perfect capitalist laboratory. With such rapid growth, no political constituency has ever had a chance to stabilize; people are overwhelmed or diluted into incoherence before they come to know themselves, let alone identify their own potential power. With little threat of community action, businessmen and politicians can act with impunity, and cooperate with one another in schemes with nothing but the bottom line to answer to. Out here, in the featureless, anonymous desert, inside any of its casinos, all identically beguiling, uniformed employees make the soft count, dumping ten-gallon buckets full of quarters into enormous counting machines while others push wheeled steel cages, full of drab metal boxes stuffed full of money, while still others present to men wearing suits the carbon copies of the receipts that account for it all. Similar people in similar uniforms serve the food in the franchise restaurants, work the registers in the chain clothing stores, stock the shelves of the twenty-four hour convenience stores, wash the SUVs, and sell them. Here, the people all wear name tags but the names are meaningless; behind every uniform there is only the unnamed and faceless profit making of corporate enfranchisement.

In suburbs like Henderson it's easy to see what results when the ruthless rationality of the marketplace goes unchecked. The tract housing multiplies, chain stores rush in to rival other chain stores, and the dreams expressed through small businesses or individual entrepreneurship are quietly snuffed. Without anything to restrain it, the psychological compulsion to be always new, the very motor of consumer capitalism with its cycles of fashion and planned obsolescence, is accelerated to the point of absurdity.

Out here where the tourists don't come, you might expect to find a completely different set of priorities embodied in a wholly different architecture, and a rhythm to life directly opposed to the bustling impatience and endless exhortations to be excited that you see on the Strip. The Strip suggests a squalid decadence, waste for its own sake. And at first glance, the bland homogeneity of Henderson seems to express a kind of streamlined pragmatism. With the tidy concision of a geometric proof, the mixture of new homes and new chain restaurants and grocery stores and enormous parking lots and twenty-four-hour drug stores seem to express the American wish for a quiet life, padded everywhere by unceasing convenience and unsullied cleanliness; the kind of life where you don't have to talk to anyone outside your family unless that someone is serving you. You can float above the fray, cocoon yourself away from the dog-eat-dog world that Trixie the stripper talks about. The entire desert community is without reference to anything that's not man-made, and all the nature you see, the tiny, carefully landscaped lawns (which must be watered twice daily to survive) and artfully positioned trees (usually to maximize shade for automobiles) is man-made, engineered, designed, and entirely liberated from the desert's ecology, with something of the same tactfulness that Target lavishes on a soap dish.

Every few weeks, whenever a new shopping center opens, one more interstate exit stretches further out into the pristine suburb, I feel obliged to go, even though the stores are all basically the same — there might be a Macaroni Grill instead of an Olive Garden, or an Albertsons instead of a Smith's supermarket, a Borders instead of a Barnes and Noble. But the stores themselves aren't important; it is more the feeling of having virgin territory to explore that matters. The parking lots are half finished, and if you aren't careful you could drive right off the edge of the concrete into the desert. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single piece of chewed gum stuck to the pavement anywhere. Even the dumpsters around back emanate a halo of freshness. The rows of SUVs, in parking spots — actually designed to accommodate them — gleam in the sun; I catch blinding reflections off the tinted windows as I scurry for the air-conditioning inside. By comparison, the shopping centers closer to town feel moribund, antiquated, once they've become merely functional and are no longer brand new. My fellow residents of Henderson seem to agree. They seem to flock with me to the new centers simply because they are new, the same way we all check out the new casinos when they are built, even though we all agree they are all basically the same.

Though they aspire to a kind of contempt of the tourists who underwrite much of the valley's growth, the permanent residents of Henderson actually mirror them in mentality, as they are tourists in their everyday lives, seeking the same blend of arbitrary novelty and comfortable familiarity, the same diverse shopping opportunities. Both are blithely untroubled by the lack of a meaningful or authentic context for their actions, both are happily without anything in their environment to attach them to concrete, determined reality, to a sense of necessity — both float in simulacra, technologically separated from nature, whether it's through elaborately executed reconstructions of fantasy landscapes or through the simple efficacy of air-conditioning. If there is a difference, it's that Hendersonites seem to side with the House instead of searching for action. They prefer the dreary certainties of a convenient life to a life of dreams and surprises.

The citizens suit themselves perfectly to the chain-store universe: no obstacles impel them to be creative or to seek solace in a community. Nothing leads them beyond themselves, and they are all too happy to fend for themselves. After all, cooperation means inevitable compromise, and that just isn't all that comfortable.

Las Vegas grows and continues to grow — a giant, thirsty weed reaching farther into the desert — because it can, because our economy fetishizes growth for its own sake. But out in the foothills you can see where the building must stop, you see that the growth must end, and then you wonder what will all those home-owning construction workers do then? Where will they go to next? Or will they just tear it all down and start over? Whatever they do, no one is likely to stop them.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

69. Arcade Fire - "Creature Comfort"

This is a big, bold statement of intent from Arcade Fire. There is a clear and admirable desire for the band not to spend too long in the same space and to mine their DNA to reinvigorate themselves. The big synths and angular new wave of early '80s the Cure sound fresh and like nothing the band has done before. Despite the retro stylings, the subject matter is refreshingly current as the group deal with the quest for personal validation from family, friends, and strangers, the anxieties of negative body image and the relentless pursuit of fame at the expense of everything else. The band cleverly offer a metaphorical panacea for all of these ills in the form of "Creature Comfort". Something to numb the pain. This is a song that leaves you anything but anesthetized. - Paul Carr

68. Alt-J - "In Cold Blood"

As far as songs about murders at pool parties go, "In Cold Blood" is actually pretty heady. In true alt-J fashion, it's hard to tell what's a red herring and what's actually relevant to the song, but as with the best songs, it doesn't particularly matter when it's this catchy. The random snippets of binary code, the allusion to C.S. Lewis' Caspian, the extended coda of "La la la"s, these are diversions from the subject at hand, perhaps because the gravity of the matter would make for too heavy a song, perhaps because alt-J delights in being obtuse. Still, with imagery as vivid as "Hair the way the sun really wants it to be" and "Lifeless back slaps the surface of the pool", it is still appropriately shocking, and yet morbidly catchy, particularly once the horns kick in. It makes you feel guilty for enjoying it, which is probably just perfect as far as alt-J is concerned. - Mike Schiller

67. The Mynabirds - "Golden Age"

The transition from 2016 to 2017 needed an elegy, an understated anthem of disillusionment and sorrow, and this is it. With its staid piano melody and Laura Burhenn's velvet vocals, the song taps into the sucker-punch trauma of feeling like social progress's trajectory was a bait-and-switch that made the eventual collapse that more crushing. The lyrics read as a litany of topical grief — the deaths of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, worsening climate change, rampant police brutality, the severing of family ties amid political lines, and, presciently considering when it was written, the emboldening of American Nazism by Donald Trump's presidential election. Dour stuff, to be sure, yet Burhenn isn't ready to seal the mausoleum. Rather, "Golden Age" is the sound of an ideal beaten but unbroken, its swollen eye still focused on the future. It's a rail against complacency and surrender and offers needed comfort and warmth, while still being goosebumps-inducing in its call to arms. It might be a lofty comparison, but "Golden Age" is a spiritual successor to Lennon's "Imagine" in the current climate. - Cole Waterman

66. Sir Sly - "High"

The premise isn't too groundbreaking: a group of young indie poppers with hip haircuts singing about getting high. What sets Sir Sly's take on getting high apart from many others is how current it is. Sir Sly's "High" nails the mindset of many a millennial as the group sings about "wondering what peace would be like" - drugs as a means of escape from this very specific wave of global turmoil. On top of that, the chorus is mind-blowingly catchy, the beats enticing. This is a social statement you can dance to, an escapist earworm and a party anthem for our times. - Adriane Pontecorvo

65. Taylor Swift - "...Ready For It?"

The essence of pop music is saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. This is how life works too. We settle into routines and measure our lives by the degree to which those routines shift or are disrupted over time. Most of Taylor Swift's songs are about what happens when you think about romance the way songs and movies tell us to, but she never seems to run out of new ways to frame that experience.

Usually, it's a matter of melodies or words, but sometimes, it's also a matter of sound, of putting her compositions in an environment that's a little unstable. She does this on "...Ready for It?," which is the most sonically mischievous and audacious song she's released. Over a harsh, sneering rhythm track, Swift covers familiar ground--the rush of new love, the relationship between reality and fantasy--but it doesn't feel that way because the song has a few clever ideas it gets just right: a trio of distorted bass notes that begin and repeat throughout the song; and low-pitched, synthetic brass notes that hit during the pre-chorus. Both signal that something is different, that no matter how many times we fall in love, it will always feel new. - Mark Matousek

64. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Cut to the Feeling"

Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015's triumphant Emotion, "Cut to the Feeling" continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza's production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song's feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It's the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face. - Adrien Begrand

63. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - "Continental Breakfast"

At one point in "Continental Breakfast", Courtney holds up a video of "Kurt and Courtney", the chronicling of the relationship of lead singers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two of rock's greatest misfits. The synergy between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is less fraught; it's downright amicable. It's not difficult to fall in love with both songwriters as they bounce around their domestic lives, interacting with babies, children, and elders alike, with smiles the whole way through. If you don't find this video endearing, you probably don't have a soul. - Tristan Kneschke

62. Animal Collective - "Kinda Bonkers"

Animal Collective follow up last year's Painting With album with more of the same on new EP The Painters. Like much of their best work, "Kinda Bonkers" is bursting with ideas. Built on tabla percussion, see-saw keyboards and parallel vocals that bounce, ping and collide, the band throw everything they can in to see what cooks. All of these different ingredients are whipped up into a customary, trippy, psychedelic sponge. The whole thing is as irrepressible and energetic as you would expect, but it somehow feels more rounded. More straightforward and undemanding, never feeling like it might collapse under the weight of the hooks and melodies the band has crammed on every tier. - Paul Carr

61. ANOHNI - "Paradise"

ANOHNI's inimitable vocals are like a fixed quantity in her music, ensuring that most anything she sings retains an element of pained, graceful beauty no matter how harrowing or grisly the topic. "Paradise", another collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never following last year's HOPELESSNESS, pushes this principle to its limit. The track is a tortured dirge barely disguised as bass-heavy synthpop, a veil disintegrating at the seams. ANOHNI sings as one caught between global concerns and her own personal, particular pain, lamenting the solipsistic confines of being but a single "point of consciousness". Perhaps the paradise she evokes, a "world without end", is one where the boundaries of the self are dissolved altogether, opening the way for empathy. And yet any clear vision of that utopia is clouded amid the wailing electronics, making it clear that we'll have to contend with our own kaleidoscopes of pain for some time to come. - Andrew Dorsett

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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