In order to explain the significance of this sign I need to go down a meandering and seemingly unrelated path. I need to address how insignificant you are. Not just you -- you, me, and everyone.
I’ve been confronted with my own insignificance in/by three different places. The last one, where the sign above was shot, is the combination 76 station/ Dairy Queen in Ludlow, California. The first one is the Terrestrial North Pole.
I’m refusing to use just the term “North Pole” here because that conjures cheery and hospitable images from Santa Clause lore and the Terrestrial North Pole (TNP) is just the opposite. I realized this at age nineteen when I awoke in the middle of a red-eye flight at the exact moment that we crossed from the pitch-purple tarpaulin of the Arctic Ocean to the glacial cliffs of the TNP. Most oceans and continents, I recognize, are larger, but somehow this single, solid, uniformly colored thing that filled up the entire horizon made me feel smaller than any of that ever had. High schoolers hate feeling small. So in my sleepy stupor I attempted to coax it into admitting my relevance. My conversation with the TNP went something like this:
(Open on Alex gazing down at TNP in the dark)
What are YOU?!?!
I’m the Terrestrial North Pole.
I don’t care.
Of course you do! I’m important! I’m 19!
I’m like 3 billion years old.
You’ve been here my WHOLE life!?
What was your favorite part of my life so far?
I was never paying attention and I never will.
Can I tell you something?
Technically, yes, but I’m your personification of sea-ice so I’m not actua-
Sometimes I worry people don’t care about me.
Sometimes I don’t care about you and other times I still don’t care about you.
But wouldn’t you care about me if I came down there and explained to you EXACTLY what happened at prom?
No, if you came down here I would immediately freeze you to death and whip your carcass around in sub-zero winds until Arctic foxes ate you down to your vertebrae.
And thus the TNP taught me my first lesson about significance: I don’t have any. But surely humanity as a whole did, I thought. Then the next year my incredible astronomy professor showed me the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) and I realized that everyone is pointless.
If you have not seen photos of the HUDF, please look now. I think it’s the most important thing a human can do. The Hubble Telescope spent ten days staring at what most people had believed was just an incredibly small point of empty space. At the end of the exposure we saw this.
Every speck you see there is its own galaxy, or cluster of galaxies, or a cluster of clusters of galaxies. Each galaxy is filled with hundreds of billions of stars that could each have their own planets. You are looking at A LOT. But still, everything pictured here is an indescribably small fraction of the Universe we can see, which is just a fraction of the Universe as a whole. We can’t see the rest of the Universe because it is ballooning away from us faster than light can travel back to us. Even if we could see those parts, we still wouldn’t see most of it because we can’t see (or comprehend, really) the dark matter and dark energy that make up most of everything ever. Humans are nothing relative to the size or mass of the Universe.
Humans are also nothing relative to the age of the Universe. We’ve been around 4.5 million years if you count the knuckle-dragging eras. The light captured in this photo had been traveling to us for the last several billion years. The Universe itself is 13.7 billion years old and whatever may have caused it to exist has been around longer. Keep in mind that the Universe is still a baby. No one knows exactly what will happen in the end -- it may collapse into nothingness, it may dissipate into nothingness, it might start all over -- but we can be fairly sure that in the end there will be no trace of us. We don’t matter to the Universe now and we definitely won’t matter to the Universe in the end.
The Universe itself may (and only may) be insignificant to a Multiverse. If (and only if) the Multiverse exists, it might also be insignificant to whatever contains it, which would be insignificant to whatever contains it...etc.
“WAIT,” you say, “but isn’t it significant that life miraculously formed on earth in the first place?” I asked the same thing. And it turns out: No.
It’s true that the odds of life forming in the desolate vacuum of space are like one in infinity, but the Universe and the stuff outside of it pretty much is infinity, and infinity÷infinity= 100% probability. Ish. So life was bound to happen somewhere. Hell, it might have happened on the planet next door to us, so it could happen multiple times around similar suns throughout the Universe. Humanity is insignificant.
My understanding of significance up to this point went like this:
Alex: I matter.
Terrestrial North Pole: Nope.
Alex: But people matter.
Hubble Ultra Deep Field: Nope.
So once again I struggled to reconcile the fact that nothing mattered with the fact that I still wanted to, like, exist. Most species insist on doing that (though 99% of them have failed) but what sets humans apart is that we keep trying to improve ourselves socially. We have this need to not only protect our kids but to make stuff for them -- tools, medicines, laws, Snuggies, whatever. Maybe, I thought, that’s what makes humans significant; That despite the inconsequential and futile nature of our lives, we still spend our relative nanosecond of time trying to help each other; That generation-by-generation we will become a society, albeit temporary, that is the best we can be.
LIfe had meaning. Until I went to the 76 station/ Dairy Queen in Ludlow, California.
I want to make clear that the people of Ludlow are great. I know because I’ve called several of them in the last year that I’ve obsessed over this one gas station. The only terrible people at the 76/DQ are you, me, and the normally-good-hearted tourists who are transformed into monsters when they get there.
If you are traveling between Needles, CA and Barstow, CA, you will probably need Ludlow. Those two cities are 2.5 hours apart, separated by a crumbling strip of 1-40/Rt.66 through the Mojave Desert, which is a 100-degree geological skillet that God made to
a) house most of the animals that will rise up during the Apocalypse
b) kill off those pioneer families RIGHT before they made it to gold country.
I’m sure you could find human bones in there. This is one of the things you contemplate when you realize, an hour into your trip, that you haven’t seen a town, gas station or even another car, in a long time. Some time after my gas light came on I started thinking about what in my luggage I could use as defense from drifters and nocturnal predators if I broke down without cell reception.
Finally Ludlow shimmered up from the horizon and I tore from the off-ramp into....
...chaos. I hadn’t seen more than seven people in an hour and suddenly there were at least fifty swarming around a 76 station/DairyQueen. I drove the other way to find another gas station.
Ludlow has two gas stations and one diner. On this day one gas station and one diner were closed. I idled my car in a loop around this downtown you could fit in two football fields, asking gaunt-faced families where I could get gas. None of them were locals, they explained. Some of them were trying to fix their cars in abandoned lots. All of them pointed back to the 76/DQ. This one store, this monopoly, was everyone's hope for getting home and getting fed. We were in a modern oasis.
This was the first point at which it occurred to me that there might not be any rules in Ludlow. I started looking for police cars and found none. We were all civilized people, but how long could that keep up if we all needed the same things from one store and we all needed it before the sun set? I idled back to the 76/DQ. I didn’t have a choice.
If you’ve seen footage of too-many zebras fighting for a spot around a too-small watering hole, you can imagine the scene at the gas pumps. Coils of cars lurched around the working pumps while 18-Wheelers lumbered through and sent us smaller creatures (I drove a VW Golf) scattering. There was some semblance of first-come-first-served, but it was also clear the drivers with the largest cars and most predatory instincts were the alphas. I decided to get food first so I parked in the gravel lot across the street.
The DQ half of the 76/DQ was like the old trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange -- a room full of screaming, shoving, glaring, sweating bodies moshing around the terrified employees with all the goods. The poor souls behind this desk were handing out burgers, not stocks, and the angry throngs were dressed in flip-flops and howling-wolf t-shirts rather than suits, but the panicked hatred was the same. The whole room hummed with crying children, gum-smacking teens, and fully-grown adults shouting, “OREO BLIZZARD! I WANT AN OREO BLIZZARD!” We shoved forward in this heart-beat shuffle through the capillaries of Pringle-laden aisles while huffing and grunting and Dorito-snatching and angrily spinning the sunglasses carousel.
The scariest thing, looking back, is that I became part of it. I started eyeing other people’s children to make sure they didn’t cut in front of me because I needed to WIN. I NEEDED MY GODDAMN CHILI BURGER. But I didn’t. I didn’t need any of this but being in that room made me feel like I needed ALL OF IT. I left. I’d just get gas.
I wouldn’t get gas. The lines had grown. Crepuscular things were swarming around to remind us all that night was coming. I looked at the road signs and estimated my odds of making it to Barstow with the gas I had left and walked back to the gravel lot. I had lost. I couldn’t survive here.
The gravel lot of the 76/DQ reminds me of that inevitable mass-exodus scene in every apocalypse movie when entire blocks of families are frantically packing their car to escape the asteroid, lava, zombies, whatever. Families were throwing crying toddlers into Chrysler Pacificas, double-fisting Chili Cheese Dogs and Dilly Bars, then roaring off while shouting at strangers going the other way. I shouldn’t have just stood there because I was clearly making it worse, but I couldn’t stop watching these people, who were probably decent anywhere but here, be horrible.
Let me assure you that I was not completely naive about the horrors that normal non-dictator, non-sociopathic humans are capable of. I understood that good people with too much power can lose all moral grounding. I understood that good people in desperate situations can commit atrocities to get by. I also understood that the people who exist between those two extremes (average civilians who are doing just fine) are capable of horrible things. I’ve seen the mall at Christmas. I’ve seen frat parties. I’ve seen Manhattan. In comparison, the tourists of Ludlow weren’t really monsters, they were just rude. I’d seen rude before.
What I hadn’t seen was the desolation of the social realm with a thin line drawn, literally in the sand, between it and the desolation of the natural realm. On the Mojave side was the the anarchy of nature that humans had worked for eons to survive. On the 76/DQ side was the society we’d made to survive it. And what was the difference?
I’d been justifying my sense of significance because I thought that ultimately humans would have a truly great legacy, albeit shortlived. But now that I was looking at a visible example of how far we’d come since our days in the desert, we didn’t seem like much. Humans can say we’ve cured diseases and ended genocides and given lives for the next generation and traveled off our planet. It would be inhuman to downplay those sacrifices and accomplishments. But most of the Universe is inhuman. From the Universe’s perspective, what have we done in the relative nanosecond we’ve been alive? On a physical level, you can see from space that we’ve bulldozed a lot of it and covered it in neon lights. On a social level we’ve progressed from the Stone Age of killing and raping each other to the Technological Age of killing and raping each other a little bit less.
Standing in that parking lot it was easy to extrapolate from humanity’s progress so far...and the future looked like the 76/DQ. We tend to refer to industrialized nations as “advanced”, meaning we think they are closest to the apex of humanity. Industrialized nations, though, are a lot like the people in that parking lot -- we’re doing well enough that we don’t need to be a dick to everyone, and yet somehow we’re dicks to everyone. It is unquestionably important to ensure that all humans have the human rights that most industrialized nations take for granted. But when we get there, when humanity becomes a global democracy and meritocracy of healthy and educated people, which of these seems more likely: That we’ll create a harmonious utopia, or that we’ll create a world of paved/nuked/trash-covered deadzones, perforated by off-ramp societies of too-many people wanting too-few resources and swirling around each other in Chrysler Pacificas while double-fisting Dilly Bars and screaming at their spouse? What if the 76/DQ in Ludlow, California is the future?
I’d thought humans were significant because generation-by-generation we might become a society, though temporary, that is the best it can be... but now it seemed much more likely that we’d all just become middle-income assholes.
I soaked in the melancholy of the gravel lot while truckers with brand new gas-station sunglasses, men in Greg Norman hats, and children with their own iPhones made every possible angry sound in my direction. I was baptizing myself into my newfound religion of hopelessness.
And then I saw this sign. This bold yet simple, sans-serif, grammatically incorrect, sand-weathered, warped and beautiful sign. It was completely unnecessary for this sign maker to make something so appealing or courteous for the tourist masses. Ludlow has a monopoly on all life-giving resources for an hour in either direction - we were going to do whatever the staff wanted us to do. They could have just ripped off the hood of the last 18 wheeler to break down there, nailed it to a palm tree and tagged “biG thinGs pArk OVER THERE!!"
But they didn’t.
Despite the fact that the natural world doesn’t care about the sign-maker, despite the fact that the Universe doesn’t care about anyone, and despite the fact that humans are, in the aggregate, terrible, this sign-maker made art. In that moment this sign wasn’t about parking, it was a sign that people are significant because they give a damn in spite of it all.
So that’s where I settle with significance. I’m not significant, we’re not significant, our efforts to be a decent society probably won’t be realized, but we keep trying anyway.