A Scouting Life: Terror Suspects

July 29, 2009 | Sam Hutchins
Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam

As much as I loved Vegas, leaving it always left me feeling empty. Going there is a conscious choice to avoid reality; departing is a forced reconciliation with it. This time was different, however, as we had forged such a bond the night before. We arrived as three individuals and left as a group. A much nicer departure than before.

Driving east from Vegas, you have two choices: northeast or southeast. Utah or Arizona, not great options either way. I have no love for either state, nor did I see great potential for the type of people and places Kar Wai needed in either place. We headed towards Phoenix simply as it would keep us in the southern latitudes and wasn’t Utah. The road takes you past Lake Powell and the Hoover Dam, both of which are at least interesting for a student of American history.

Not much to report on this leg as even the two-lane back road we took was crowded with RV’s and pickup trucks towing boats. Nothing more banal than that. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the surroundings and newly formed bonds of friendship. So much so that I allowed myself to make a mistake at the Hoover Dam.

Approaching the dam there are signs everywhere stating what you cannot do. No parking, no pulling over, no videotaping here, no photography there. It was the work of a control freak gone wild. Even though it was recently enough post 9/11 that security concerns were still reasonable, this was a bit much. As I was processing all this, Darius suddenly grabbed my shoulder.

“Here, here, pull over.” I knew better but I did so anyway. We eased into a little turnoff right at the edge of the dam. Electrical transformers and towers loomed over us, silently harnessing the might of Mother Nature. We parked directly under a sign that forbade cars from stopping.
“I’m not sure this is a good place for us to stop.”

“Pfft. You Americans are so uptight. Let Darius get some shots,” chimed in Stephane. I acquiesced. Admittedly, I started snapping away as well. The sky was a stunning shade of blue and we were amidst the majesty of man and nature both. It was quite seductive. Even so, I should have seen the Fed coming.

“Freeze! Put the cameras down and keep your hands where I can see them!”

He wasn’t kidding. Son of a bitch hadn’t actually drawn his gun, but his hand was on it and he was ready to. I immediately set my Leica on the pavement and grabbed some sky. Stephane lowered his camera and looked at the National Park Policeman with a nasty sneer. Darius kept rolling tape of the dam in that amazingly oblivious way of his, not reacting in the slightest.

“Hey, I’m serious!” he started towards my cameraman. I could only see this ending with Darius being maced and beaten. Stephane spoke sharply to him in French, which was both good and bad. Good as it caught Darius attention and caused him to lower his camera; bad as it immediately fixed us as dangerous foreign terrorists in the eyes of this officious little prick of a cop.

Mind you, I am a friend of law enforcement. Enough so that I dislike the bad ones all that much more, and we had found one. I carry a badge myself and can usually flash it and walk away from situations like this one with no hassle. Not this time, my friend. All my police connections were trumped by my companion’s foreign passports and accents, particularly Darius’ recent visa stamp from his trip to Iran.

As proud as I can be of my country, this was a shameful episode. I suppose it is a function of living in New York City, but it is easy to forget how unsophisticated the better part of this nation can be. It boggles the mind that in the twenty-first century the act of being a Frenchman taking pictures is cause for suspicion and detainment. Hasn’t this guy heard of the Louisiana Purchase? General Lafayette? The Statue of frigging Liberty? We spent a few hours being checked out, questioned and suspected. After a great deal of explaining on my part we were set free.

The encounter gave the three of us a great deal to talk about. We debated the American character, the balance between obeying rules and taking risks in the attempt to get great pictures, and the prevalence of guns in our country. My French friends were horrified by them. It wasn’t even lunch and we had already had an adventure. As the conversation flowed, so did the road. Past the dam we encountered wide-open landscapes and soon met even more gun-toting Americans.

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