Traders and Priests

Where is the Northwest Passage? Why has it remained hidden for centuries? How will it ultimately be discovered? What kinds of ships will be needed to cross it? And when will it finally lead us to the fabulous wealth of the Orient?

For hundreds of years after Marco Polo’s famous journey east, that’s about all European adventurers wanted to know about America. And even for the settlers of today, it’s not necessarily that different.



Take the founding fathers of Chicago history: Marquette and Joliet, a couple of dudes with canoes — a priest and a fur trader. In 1673 they set out from Québec to save souls and find a floating road to China. After a month-long paddle across Lake Michigan, up the Fox and down the Wisconsin, they finally ended up on the Mississippi River. All they had done was travel southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. So they turned back, took a welcome short cut on native advice, and “discovered” the Chicago Portage in the bargain. It’s not the Northwest Passage, but Chicago’s official history begins on that day. And everyone who came before has been forgotten – even those who actually showed the pathway.

Take Arthur Stillwell, the Midwest tycoon who tried to launch the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway in the early years of the twentieth century. He aimed to build that golden road to China. The plan was to turn southwest, and run Midwestern locomotives to a lonely dock on the Pacific Ocean. But Stillwell’s boom went bust with Poncho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. The rails of the Mexico and Orient line must still be rusting out in the Sierra Madre.

Today the same old pathway continues, down the recently assembled Kansas City Southern de México line to the port of Lázaro Cárdenas on the Pacific coast. There a flood of Asian goods comes ashore through a state-of-the-art container terminal built by a Hong Kong corporation from a long-gone colonial era. But what’s so long gone about it anyway? Maybe ancient desires never die? Maybe the fabulous riches have finally arrived? Maybe Marquette and Joliet are action figures on Wal-Mart shelves? Maybe that’s where narco-liberalism really discovered itself? And maybe plastic dreams lie at the foundation of the brand-new bicontinent of Chimerica?

An Atlas of Pollution


We’re not going to discover anything in this project, not even the Continental Divide. The Southwest Corridor is nothing more than the rivers, the canals, the railroad tracks, the truck routes, and the intermodal terminals on the way out of Chicago, on a roll toward the Pacific Ocean. When it comes to the wealth of the Orient, places like Mexico and Panama have always been “in the way.” Let’s engage with the forces of enterprise that make concrete changes in peoples’ lives, starting right here in the Midwest.

As for the “Northwest Passage,” it’s still tantalizingly out of reach – maybe opening up right now with the icemelt at the Arctic Circle. No one foresaw the environmental catastrophe that the quest for Asian riches would ultimately produce. But you can be sure that plenty of adventurers still dream of their own private Orient.

Traders + priests = the cosmology of capital.

Isn’t there some better way to tell this story?