Prefab Freedom

ATV use has soared since the pandemic started. But this new off-roading trend also rehearses familiar myths about the American west and American freedom.

Background watercolor: Joseph Mallord William Turner, A Wreck, Possibly Related to “Longships Lighthouse, Land’s End,” c.1834

Five vehicles idled in a huddle. The pitch of their 1000cc engines thwarted my attempts to eavesdrop. But the flexible poles jutting from their cargo holds—called whips in ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) accessory language—raised the semaphores of May 2020: Confederate, US, Thin Blue Line, and Trump 2020 flags. I had been tracking the notable uptick of motorized traffic, especially off-roading rigs (known variously ATVs, OHVs, UTVs, or side-by-sides), dirt bikes, and lifted trucks, down the forest road adjacent to my northern Arizona home since March, when spring break marked the suspension of in-person teaching, when bars and restaurants closed and flights halted. I taught from home in Flagstaff—a university town, a tourist town, a railroad town, a logging town, and a reservation border town, where college students and tourists rotate in and out, second-home owners stream in at ever-increasing rates, and living, working, seeking medical care, buying groceries and supplies, and walking in public are precarious acts for Navajos, Hopis, and other Native peoples on whose lands the rest of us accumulate and recreate.

I live about three miles from the storied but deteriorating Route 66, on a forest road in what is now called the Coconino National Forest, which surrounds Flagstaff and contains the largest stand of ponderosa pine trees in the world. That summer of 2020, after the semester had finally ended, stay-at-home orders were lifted, and indoor mask mandates eventually (and unevenly) took hold, I cataloged traffic on the forest road: the number of ATVs that passed by in a minute; the number of trucks; the number of ATVs and trucks with Trump and/or Confederate flags; how long it took for the dust to clear enough for me not to taste it. I took photos of scattered ammunition casings and shattered glass, of the slow oozing resin that gathers and stalls in the bullet holes in trees. I researched decibel monitors and recorded shaky videos of ATVs ripping through meadows of fresh grama grasses. While Arizona welcomed tourists from states with stringent mitigation policies, while the death count grew by thousands each day, while direct actions unfolded after George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s murders, while Trump landed for a fireworks show and rally at Mount Rushmore in the state I still (haltingly) call home, and while Lakotas and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous people were pepper-sprayed, detained, and arrested after attempting to block the rallygoers’ passage to the desecrated mountain, I counted and archived alone.

In South Dakota, I grew up among ATVs, not in my family per se, but as accessories of rural life, where they functioned as transportation, as a method to get cattle moving or inspect fence lines, and as reckless recreation. These were the vehicles we called “four-wheelers” and “three-wheelers,” with room enough only for one passenger who could sit directly behind the driver, like an inflated motorcycle with one or two extra wheels. They were a child’s dangerous toy scaled up for adults. Someone was always driving too fast, tipping over, and dying or killing someone else as a result. ATVs and snowmobiles provided all-season off-road options to create a ruckus in spaces where drivers paradoxically sought solitude, quiet, and wildlife.

Polaris introduced the first snowmobile in 1955, and, since then, has worked to innovate motorsports vehicles that “help people experience the outdoors to the fullest.” In 2007, it introduced the Ranger RZR, the first consumer side-by-side ATV (where driver and passenger sit side-by-side), with fast acceleration (0-35 mph in 4 seconds), a narrow and lightweight body and cage to take on the trails, and a tow capacity of 1500 lbs. In other words, Polaris managed to create a vehicle with a range of recreational utility: fast, loud, maneuverable, rugged; light, but strong enough to pack out a deer or elk carcass. The company’s hyperbole on the occasion of the Ranger RZR release––“Starting today, the game has changed”––now reads as a promise fulfilled. Ten years later, Polaris manufactured its one-millionth Ranger, and annual sales have exceeded $5 billion.

As with countless commodities now consumed by the general public, ATVs in the style of the Ranger RZR were developed for military use. RZRs have become the most desirable tactical vehicle for U.S. Army and Marine special operations forces because, as a safety instructor at the Marine training ground at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina puts it, “by using these assets,” the Marine Corps has “fresher boots on the ground.” RZRs can be easily transported, dropped from helicopters, and “if things get really bad, they [troops] can turn around, drop a grenade on it and walk away.” Polaris also manufactures an electric Ranger for the government and defense industry, and in 2022, began marketing the Ranger EV as the first all-electric utility side-by-side for mass production. It’s “[q]uiet for the hunt and clean for the land.”

With its founding manufacturing facility in Roseau, Minnesota, just a few miles from the Canadian border, U.S. defense contracts, a manufacturing plant in Poland, and a recent foray into disputes over tariff exemptions for parts and manufactured ATVs from China, Polaris has amassed billion-dollar profit margins alongside a rural, woodsy, small-town identity. Its global reach and portfolio are indeed well-served by residual white settler fantasies about rural spaces, farming practices, and untouched land. I draw residual from Raymond Williams’ 1977 collection Marxism and Literature, where he theorizes the “internal dynamic relations” among dominant, residual, and emergent cultures.

1. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977; 122.
The residual, Williams writes, “has been effectively formed in the past, but is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present.”1 He illustrates the residual with the idea and projections of rural spaces. A rural community “is predominantly residual.” Though in some cases the rural can represent alternatives or oppositions to urban industrial capitalism, it is for the most part “incorporated, as idealization or fantasy, or as an exotic—residential or escape—leisure function of the dominant order itself.” ATVs accessorized with LED whips and Trump, Confederate, and Thin Blue Line flags; the dust clouds and destruction of fragile ecosystems; the Jeep with a “Make Rock Crawling Great Again” bumper sticker; and an ATV-hauling truck emblazoned with the company name Freedom Fabrication constitute a dominant and residual dialectic in time-lapse. That is, in a matter of months, ATV use accelerated to unprecedented levels, while calling up and mobilizing the narrative systems and lexicons of white supremacy and settler colonialism active and surging well outside the boundaries of a ponderosa pine forest.

2. Brady also co-founded Expedition Portal and has popularized overlanding in North America. He has traveled to all seven continents and circumnavigated the globe three times.
ATVs and off-roading belong to a genealogy of overlanding, a residual cultural formation first practiced in settler nations such as Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. to move livestock, prospect for gold, and speculate land. Scott Brady, co-founder of Overland Journal and Expedition Portal, insists on distinguishing the present-day use of overlanding from off-roading and other forms of land-based recreation like camping, road-tripping, or #vanlife.2 His working definition maintains remarkable fidelity to its colonial origins: vehicle-supported travel to remote regions (support services or aid can be days away), where travelers experience a culture not their own, and (ideally) cross countries and continents. There should also be something of an expedition quality, something to discover and/or knowledge to contribute in some official capacity. An expedition may also be, according to Brady, something “terrifying and unfamiliar.” When he took his first trip through Copper Canyon (in present-day Chihuahua, Mexico) “and there were no GPS tracks […] it felt like I was conquering the world when in a way I was really just conquering my own fears, and that doesn’t make it an expedition but it sure felt like it to me at the time.”

As I have come to learn, overlanding is made for narrative. One who overlands tells the stories of when the weather turned, a ferry was missed, a mountain pass threatened to close. They tell stories of propinquity—the almost impassible road conquered by their vehicle built for the nearly impossible. Stories are made from dangerous and lonely prospects, where narrators maintain the point-of-view of explorers bound for the unseen, and those who inhabit these lands, who know them intimately, are rarely acknowledged unless they are needed to serve as arbiters of local knowledge or as translators. Historically and in present-day practice, overlanding is white recreation, where lands are simply open and available, ready to be conquered and thus, known. Put another way, OHV recreation, off-roading, and overlanding are the fantasy echoes of originary settler-colonial discourse, like terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery, where the quest is to arrive on “no one’s land” and produce forms of erasure, to discover, create a story, to claim and reclaim the narrative again and again.

I, too, am telling a story here, trying to express an escalating phenomenon that presents itself as provincial and insular—isolated to lands set aside for public use, to sandstone and cinder-cone recreation in what is predominantly known as “the American West”—but that is residual in form and indexical in practice. While I think this is a story worth telling, and I have a unique perspective, embedded as I am in the field, any narrator has their own investments in the story. I have come to suspect that my escalating obsession with forest traffic, and the consequent ATV and off-roading rage, were grounded in my own desires and unconscious beliefs in the theater of untouched land. The more traffic that screamed down the road, the more entitled I felt to the lands onto which I, too, trespass. Even when nonbinary gender sends me into the grasses to hide while white men in ATVs and on dirt bikes pass by, my whiteness is an asset.

Dense and complex histories and the ongoing presence of tribal nations in this region refuse the simplicity of a land acknowledgment, or a catalog of dates rendered in the passive voice—when a treaty was drawn, homelands were made into reservations, white towns were established, forest roads were cut, and sacred mountains were carved into ski resorts. Colonialism runs on narrative simplicity and wild fabrication. “The West” comprises an elusive and somehow still knowable and identifiable landscape and style that manages to hold the white settler imagination, to suspend it in icons of the unreal—where a train robbery or deadly poker game in a saloon get memorialized in historical markers and reverb merchandise, but genocide and ongoing land theft go unremarked. The federal government now claims to own more than 50% of the West’s surface area, which is generally defined as the lands west of the 100th meridian—an imaginary line created by colonial expedition leader and director of the U.S. Geological Survey (1881-1894) John Wesley Powell.

The West is a kind of fashion, and ATVs that crawl and roar over its surfaces are extensions of white recreational illusions: what it means to break the pristine, to reach a spot and see something no one else has. The root of recreation or recreate is “re-create” as in a returning to stage again. ATVs and other off-roading rigs provide access, not just spatial or temporal but psychic, to land as asset—even if the land itself is deemed “public” and thus unable to become fungible, or that the ATVs are themselves depreciating assets. In other words, it’s not the vehicle as asset, but instead a calculus of assets that inhere in land and whiteness, or what Cheryl Harris calls whiteness as property.3

3. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review Volume 106 no 8 (June 1993): 1707-1791. Harris builds on the work of lawyer and activist Derrick Bell, a founding scholar of critical race theory. It’s no coincidence that while ATVs roar down forest roads, state legislatures including South Dakota are devising laws to ban “critical race theory” from public schools.

As Harris argues, because only white possession and occupation of land could form the basis for property rights, whiteness is itself a form of property, a compounding asset. She writes:

In ways so embedded that it is rarely apparent, the set of assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the status of being white have become a valuable asset that whites sought to protect and that those who passed sought to attain—by fraud if necessary. Whites have come to expect and rely on these benefits, and over time these expectations have been affirmed, legitimated, and protected by the law. Even though the law is neither uniform nor explicit in all instances, in protecting settled expectations based on white privilege, American law has recognized a property interest in whiteness that, although unacknowledged, now forms the background against which legal disputes are framed, argued, and adjudicated. (1713-14)

Whiteness assures its subjects control over “critical aspects” of their lives, “rather than being the object of others’ domination.” Because whiteness is nevertheless a highly volatile and unstable form of property, it must be proven, guarded, and asserted. OHVs and their narrative projections function as fetish, the substitute thing or property form of whiteness, for that which is increasingly susceptible to theft. As whites perceive their power diminishing or somehow compromised, overdetermined assertions and acts of violence ensue.

The woods have historically functioned as spaces for exacting incalculable violence on non-white bodies, as spaces for the exercise of white domination. There is always something being done in the woods. There is always something being done to the woods. The woods are full of signifiers. All in one walk, I may spot animal tracks, ATV tracks, trash, the markers of party spots, bullet casings, shot-up trees, and my favorite to register every time, the sign that indicates a person driving a vehicle should turn around, should think twice, should understand they don’t belong: Locked Gate Ahead.

4. A reference to Schutzstaffel or Hitler’s personal bodyguards who transformed into a large and organized group with more than 250,000 members by WWII. The SS conducted intelligence operations and oversaw the concentration camps.
Like most metal signs posted in the woods by federal and state governments, the “Locked Gate Ahead” sign I pass by frequently on a decommissioned forest-road has been shot up—the surface reveals tiny, hairline cracks that appear delicate and fragile as they lead to the holes. On one side of the sign, sinkholes with smooth and rounded rims; on the other, volcanos of metal, rims made sharp by the exit wound. Several months ago, someone filled a bullet hole with a bundle of grass and a downy feather. One kind of signifying act replaced another. But weeks later, new etchings appeared on the sign’s surface: an arrow pointing to the bullet hole and “U.” Next to it, a stick figure with a sad face rendered inside crude crosshairs. Underneath that, “SS.”4

As I watched the white mob storm the Capitol on January 6, unfolding during a faculty meeting on Zoom, I wondered what would take place in the woods, how the violence would erupt here too. But everything stayed pretty much the same as it had been since the summer—loud and dusty. That May, I traveled home to the Black Hills for the first time, more than a year after the pandemic began. On a familiar hike, I found attached to a trail sign a sticker that could have been made with an at-home laser printer. It featured a swastika framed by we are everywhere. I ripped it off, ripped it up, and stuck it into my pocket, only to then spot another one blowing down the trail, the sticky backing full of dirt and pine needles. I picked that up too, and spent the rest of my time looking for more to remove—a desperate attempt to change the narrative, to disappear a remarkable truth. This moment has nothing to do with an ATV or with off-roading. All around me were fellow hikers and runners engaging in non-motorized white recreation. It could have been any one of them who placed the stickers. And there we were all together, drawing from assets and fabricating freedom.