A road trip is a daunting thing, so here are some guidelines I’ve been thinking about:
- Plan nothing, prepare everything.
— It’s important to have the things you need in order to survive, but not set yourself into strict rules that will end up making you complete a list. I’m trying to get a bit lost, not fit a schedule or checklist.
It’s 32 degrees, 31.7 miles per gallon and I’m winding down the Taconic parkway. Nobody else seems to be on the road, and i’m just hungover enough to welcome the dreamy, whistling moans of the wind around the car. Walking from the house, compost bucket in one hand, garbage in the other, I think to myself that I really must be from here. Vermont is part of me in a way that makes me real. I’ve quit my job, I’m taking naps, I’m living like I’ve told myself is real. But is it all just a big, safe dream? I’m just an imposter, explaining myself to the kids I grew up shooting compound bows with. We shot a bird once. But I never spent a full year here. The locals know when I walk by. Halfway in, halfway city. The car is warm, silent and still smells like the previous owner - menthols and air freshener. All green. I burned some incense I found in the kitchen, but it can’t erase this stink of a completely different person. Broken glass, dog hair, a green army man, and a business card from a tattoo parlor in maryland are the only clues they left behind to figure out this car.
The day before I really got in it. Arms in the engine bay up to my elbows, pulling apart everything I could identify. Cleaning the air filter felt like a first date: just testing things out, shooting the shit : All the connections are meant to come off: snaps, rubber grommets, clips. It looks like a black plastic embryo, hoses and wires running along it’s surface. It’s ugly. Not meant to be seen. A sinus for metal container that’s been on the road for 200,000 miles.
It’s filthy, and so I clean it. That much is always true.
I think I’ve bonded with this thing in some way, but I’m just another parasite in it’s forward momentum. An enabler. No matter how many of these bits of metal and black plastic I take apart, it won’t be mine. Even the tender parts: seals, gaskets, spring loaded sensors and rubber belts that keep it all in time. They don’t respond to anything but each other, air, gasoline, electricity. The miraculous thing is that all of these dead elements can be re-assembled to spark movement. It captures me. I am not the designer here.
But I’m determined to get to know it. This box will be my home for months and I’ve got to figure it out. Can a trip into the wilderness be a confining experience? Is my dependance on an escape inherently flawed, some sort of geographic denial? To leave is certainly worse than to go, and I’ve been thinking about movements towards something and not away from anything. The issue with it all is subjectivity. It’s impossible to judge.
I need an objective source, an impassive viewer that can play back what it is I’ve missed in myself. A perfect mimic to pull apart my caricatures and show them to me with unblinking intensity. A machine. 31.9 MPG, it’s 50 degrees by the time I’m on the Henry Hudson, 9A South. I haven’t eaten all day.
I get back in the city and the first words I hear are from a woman “you can’t stay here.” A meter maid. I’m a sucker for omens.
And then a neighbor “Do you know that’s not a parking space?!”
She’s obviously been living here too long, Park Slope has gotten to her, just look at those dogs. Just smile, she’s not talking sense.
“You can’t park here! FUCK YOU with that asinine grin, this is a private driveway and sometimes we have to go to the doctors!” No matter how many times I remind her that I’m just passing through, only picking up my stuff, she can’t hear me. I still haven’t eaten anything, it’s mid-day, everything seems meaningful. It’s the city telling me to go, saying I can’t be here. I belong to myself more than these brownstones, particularly 600A. It has my childhood things inside but not my tools, and I can’t get in because I’ve lost my keys.
I have a lot of thinking to do about my mode of transport. It’s inherently problematic for a lot of reasons. It’s a big heavy metal container, it uses gasoline, it’s very complicated and it’s not something that I know super well. I’ll spend ~ $1600 on gas alone, if my estimation is right. It will be like paying rent, but instead of giving my money to an elderly Polish man, it’ll be to big oil companies, and the price will be at the whim of speculators.
But it offers a lot of advantages: It allows me to cover a ton of miles with little effort, is big enough for me to sleep in, and the degree of freedom is hard to beat. I had considered doing this trip by train, and the romantic/urbanist in me wanted to do so, but it seemed too much like a predetermined result, like filling in a checklist. My trip would have been over before it began. It would also have been too focused on the travel part of it. I want to have time to relax and find new places, be stationary in a myriad of locations and let myself wander when I want to. Also, it’s a passport into the VW world, and even the stance scene, which I’m excited to see first hand.
So a car. A cheap, used one. in three months, I’ll be driving as many miles as the average american drives in a year. So it should give me a good taste of what it means to drive in America, and hopefully inform any future designs I propose. Most people use cars, it’s important to understand what that’s like. I’m not trying to go Morgan Spurlock on this, but it should be informative.
Just a few days until I’m gone, and it’s surreal. Being enmeshed in the city makes it hard to say goodbye. People to see and hang out with and connect to and have parties with. It’s strange that I’ll be alone for such a long time. But I do need time to think and to absorb. New york is like a brain, it makes you into a neuron, lit up with connections to all the others. But you do not control its movements or desires, you’re subject to them. This way of being is fantastic, and I’d like to live in a city, but to gather up my connections, detach all the weight and dependance and create my own sphere of being into a physical form (car, tent, tools, bike, etc.) is exciting and I hope will be rewarding. Who knows. But I do know that I’ll be more in control of my direction. Or maybe that’s just a nice little myth.
But this departure has done a lot of good things for me already: It’s made me prioritize my physical belongings and get rid of those things that don’t serve me well. I refuse to leave NYC and leave behind a big storage unit of stuff. I’ve gotten rid of 3/4 of my clothes, a bike, a trumpet, two cameras, shoes, coats, tools, all kins of things. I’m excited to have my space instead of my stuff.
I just need a little stove and some other things and I’ll be set. It makes me reconsider why I need a big bed, or a big desk. Don’t I just want a lot of space to move and think and make? YES.
I’ve bought a camera that records video, so I’ll be covering my trip for people to see, if they’re interested. I’ll update this page and my main blog when I have the wifi/time/interest
My first day in earnest. Out of the apartment, gave my keys to Sukey and left new york without a feeling of going back. It’s a soft opening, staying in Philly with Spencer and Mark, Kara is coming down and we’re going to have a day visiting the George Nakashima house and workshop on saturday. So it’s still very comfortable by many standards. I’m glad for it. Being pushed off to sea gently by a host of wonderful friends and allies. My road library is intense. I fear I have too many books, if that’s possible. I’d have a hard time reading this many under normal circumstances, so we’ll see how many I can get to.
I’ve learned some things already. Don’t eat while driving is the first. I have no reason to. If I’m hungry, I should pull over and find some food or snack comfortably. Why multi-task when I can do one thing fully? Also, freeways and turnpikes are only for people who are in a rush. They are nothing but mind-numbing and efficient. Unless they’re completely backed up and you can’t go very quickly on them.
Took a quick little bike ride around Fishtown when I got in, and I felt much more at home. Can’t wait to have days to explore and chill out, in equal measure. Spencer and I are working on a set for a show here at NoSpace tomorrow, and looking forward to that and the party which will probably follow. Had a first pang of homesickness, like I used to get when I was 12, and it made me see how nervous I really am about this. Everyone keeps saying that it’s a big country. I don’t know the half of it yet.
Philadelphia is a very distinctly small scale. It fits a human form. Cars look large. This, I think, is a very good thing. They should be seen at their real mass. But in any case, it’s a relief from the supersized reality of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Listening to Steve Reich with Mark’s boyfriend Brian, talking about usefulness of art and whether listening to Steve Reich while working on a paper is somehow dirty or common. I think that art should have usefulness to it. Why not use art of productivity if it gives you speed? Use it to relax or get high or make other art or anything else? Why have a gorgeous, handmade chair if you never sit in it? Just saw the Walter Esherick House in Malvern PA and saw so many useful bits of art. Chairs and tables and desk and stairs and windows that all give and give and give. Hand made everything, he was an profoundly incredible carpenter. More later.
My camera broke the other day, and then I broke it further trying to fix it myself. Was sure that I had ruined the thing, it would take hundreds of dollars and weeks to fix. Nervously brought it to a camera repair shop and they fixed it in half an hour. This tiny anecdote is important only because I am usually very patient with machines. But there was something in me that made me want to rush and fix it really quickly. A giant pressure, as though I had a deadline. I’m learning it’s hard to escape that kind of thought process.
It gets to the documentation of this trip. This camera is both the means and metaphor of this obsessive desire for collecting momentos. And I’m starting to question whether I should be documenting all of this for myself or for other people. I’m already keeping two journals.
Sweating and sunburned, I’m sitting in Mary Lauran’s living room. It’s Friday. Just biked from Arlington, VA back up to 14th and Arkansas NW. Decidedly still old and high-mileage, my car has continued to provide some trouble. Check engine light followed by low oil pressure. The car is insistent too. Both codes were accompanied by warnings of STOP! and EMISSIONS WORKSHOP!
Too excitable. Parked on 16th and U the other night I stole internet from a nearby neighbor and busted out my code reader. A completely different way to interact with this machine, like a star trek phaser that beeps just as instantly as the sickly car. P0302! I look it up in a table in the instruction manual and think about the mechanic’s pocket trigonometry book of my grandfather’s I have in my backpack. Back then, you had to work to figure out log and sin of the part you were machining. I’m just translating, not thinking. Misfire, cylinder 2. I look on a VW forum and find out that this is usually caused by bad spark plugs and/or coil packs. The car is old, so it’s most likely both. It’s now 11pm on a Thursday.
I decided to head to DC on a whim, and so didn’t give anyone heads up that I would be coming. I’m without a place to stay for this one night, though I’m sure I’ll have some friend offer me a place the next night. I walk into the bar nearest that has the best music. At seeing my Vermont license, the bartender says he lived in Burlington for a while. I find it hard to believe, but I believe him. Everyone is from everywhere here, like New York. I watch the Celtics beat the Magic, watch the first hour of TV I’ve experienced in over a year, watch the beer drain down. Order another. It’s good to sit and watch and not think for a while.
Back in my car I create a little sleeping tent inside, check the parking rules, blow up my sleeping pad for the first time. The beer helps me fall asleep in a car I realize isn’t as long as I had previously thought. I dream about killing a large collection of rats in a small room.
I wake up at 7 am to beat the meter maid. It’s foggy, and the local yuppies stare at me as I literally tumble onto the street and then quickly jump in the front to pretend I’m like them. I know how to seem professional and overworked. That tousled, moneyed look.
I limp the car to garage downtown, check prices for plugs and coils, look up a mechanic. It’s all too methodical. Money-draining. I keep telling myself I bought into the car’s price, not bought a complete car. $1,500 for the car, $700 on wheels and tires, $2,000 in service and now it’s even more in the ditch. Whatever. Still cheap by a lot of standards. Money is something that I’d been saving as payment for lack of freedom and now I’m paying money to be care-free? Makes sense in a stupid way.
Two days go by. I see everything I can, and prepare notes:
“Just spent two days in Washington DC. Ate at Ben’s Chili Bowl, biked all around the capitol and the northwest section of the city. It’s a similar scale as Philadelphia in some areas, but with this massive landscaping project in the core. What struck me immediately about the city is how easy it is to navigate. In a matter of hours, I could locate myself in relation to major avenues and their relation to the monuments.
Saw the Freemason Archive and Library on 16th street and Riggs and was blown away. Filled with history of the Scottish Rite Freemasons, the exhibitions are full of mason-info and artifacts. A library (the first public library in DC) is filled to the brim with mason literature, documenting the widespread reach of the society. 50 of the 52 signers of the constitution were masons. The plan of DC is reputedly in a mason triangle pattern, with the Washington Monument at the “G”. The building is full of little details that reveal how the mason ideology has propagated to the American Dream. The elitism, physically ornate and gorgeous buildings, massive displays of opulence (the bathroom is 15 ft. ceilings, made in all marble), and the hierarchical ladder of Mason levels. I could go on and on. Took many pictures.
Also, got through the Hagakure for the first time, which gives me a bouncing board for the materialism I’m finding everywhere here. I’m staying with Mary Lauran, and she summed it up pretty well: “There are a lot of great museums here that are free, and in return they tell you their vision of what America means”. And it’s true, there’s expansive ideology being pushed upon you at every turn. But also, a ton of people with optimism and clarity of purpose here. For example, DC is an incredible biking city. They just started a city-wide bike share program, there are bike lanes everywhere, and because it’s a relatively flat city, the program is expanding exponentially. While NY has far more bikers, it seems that there are more professionals commuting here than I’ve seen in NYC. Bikers in slacks EVERYWHERE.”
But all of these thoughts are notes, not the real experience of the trip. As I’m leaving the mechanic’s shop in Arlginton, VA, the metro station won’t let me on with a bike at rush hour. So I bike past the pentagon on a bright yellow BMX with a huge backpack on. I’ve never seen so many signs saying no photography or more security cameras. Nobody stops me. As I’m leaving the parking lot to join back up with the bike trail that will lead me past the monuments and up the 4 miles back to Mary Lauran’s house, I see a fire truck and police car ushering people move on, stay calm. A team of serious men are searching under a car.
“My god” I think “it’s a bomb, and I’m going to die by the pentagon on a bike.”
as I round the car and see what the big deal is, I see a man passed out on the ground, an EMS worker rushing to the scene with defibrillator. How selfish of me.
4/25/12 - 1,000 miles
A lot has happened. I woke up this morning in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s shady, cool, and has a burgeoning artist community. I’m writing from downtown, looking for a place to stay via couchsurfing and generally trying to take it as slow as possible. Two days ago, I was hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains and sleeping in a tent. After leaving DC, my nose leads me off the highway to Luray, Virginia on a tip from a friend to see the caverns there. My tour guide happens to be the most awkward man I’ve ever met, and it makes the experience a hilarious one. Being underground for an hour seems strangely normal to me, but it takes a few days to realize my longing for the subway is the culprit.
It hailed today for a few minutes. The sky turned green and we all starting jumping with joy as the pinging ricochets of the ice flew onto our shoulders. We spent the rest of the storm sipping moonshine on the front porch. A city of 70,000 people behind me, a hailstorm around me, and the Appalachians beyond. It’s a particular kind of physical location that I hadn’t experienced before, either in New York or Vermont.
The miles sometimes go quickie, sometimes slowly. The humming, whistling road is full of interest to me. Most of all, the truckers. Big 18 wheelers. I’ve heard they have particular habits. They travel in small packs, shifting the leader from hour to hour, partly to break the air for the following trucks like a linear “V” of geese (called drafting), partly to evade speeding tickets. Each displaces a huge amount of space - and therefore air - so their presence on the road cast an invisible wake around them, offering shelter and danger depending on where you are in relation to them. And while thousands of cars and trucks on the road might be moving at 65 miles per hour, it’s all constant velocity, making it a kind of floating stasis, the real speed being relative between drivers. The flow slows down when you shift your focus to the largest masses out there, and the trucks have a certain gravity to them. Like giant, steel whales, they dominate the Virginia highways, gorgeously maintained blacktops through the countryside, vineyards and farmland surrounding them.
On my way down, I focused my attention on one truck, an understated, early nineties Peterbuilt hauling an unnamed trailer that had its share of rust and mismatched mud flaps. For hours we slowly traded places, overtaking each other in some circular game of steady, mechanical rotation. Soon another passenger car was in our circle and we’d all rotate, sometimes twenty car lengths between us three, playing follow the leader. I have no idea if either of them was conscious of it. It’s a particular kind of loneliness, really. Using a car to communicate your intentions and actions, completely unable to connect to anything beyond “Trailblazer” or “DuraPlate”. But maybe there’s an understanding to be gained through petroleum, steel, rubber and air.
But now stationary for a while, it’s wonderful to communicate with new people and in a completely comfortable way. Jojo, Chynna, Bullet, Hannah, Kate, Aidan, Dave, Nick. These fine people have made my time here fantastic. Bluegrass, contradancing, unbelievable bacon and home-made everything, local otherwise. Asheville is full of a love for all things organic, sustainable, and free. Jojo hitchhiked from Alaska to get here. My perception of cities has changed completely as well: it used to be New York and the rest of the world, and now I see how ignorant that was. There are fantastic places to live everywhere, with opportunities that can be made impossible by a huge metropolitan area. Luray, Virginia was fantastic. They even have a small post-industrial greenway running along the river that once powered the local economy. Now it’s fishing spot stocked periodically with trout, ringed by a small running path. Asheville feels like a big neighborhood more than a city. It’s easy to get around and on a wednesday night the bars and clubs are hopping. Everyone knows everyone else without it being stifling or competitive. It’s a place I can’t recommend enough.
It’s all happened so spontaneously. I decided in the moment to go to DC, where I ended up meeting person named Liza Burkin, who’s been on a road trip like this for the past 10 months. She’s currently on mile 22,000. She recommended Asheville to begin with. Luray was a spur of the moment thing, as was driving the Blue Ridge Parkway 115 miles toward Roanoke, and then pushing on through to North Carolina. It’s all rolling along almost under its own power at this point. I’m excited to see how it continues to develop.
4/28/12 - 1,300 miles
Leaving Asheville was the hardest part of this trip so far. I absolutely fell in love with the place. Fantastic music and food and incredible weather and the greatest people. It’s a great mixture. And then to pack and leave! Almost heartbreaking. And added to that, it was physically difficult to assemble my moving home with my raging hangover from the final night of music and dancing. It brings the reality of this trip to the forefront of my mind. To find an incredible thing and then leave to go somewhere else in the hopes of having a similarly fantastic experience is at once blissful and a strangely perverse torture. In the pursuit of a broad experience, depth comes at a price. But then again, one can return to these favorite places. New connections become old friends when you treat them this way. It is simply shocking how quickly that town embedded itself in my head.
It makes me think about Newton’s laws.
First law: The velocity of a body remains constant unless the body is acted upon by an external force.
Second law: The acceleration a of a body is parallel and directly proportional to the net force F and inversely proportional to the mass m, i.e., F = ma.
Third law: The mutual forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal, opposite and collinear.
Constant velocity is exactly the same experience as being at rest. And so, these days, when I get into my car I feel as though I am at home. Even with all of the trouble it’s been giving me, I’m most comfortable when I’ve got all my things gathered up and I’m behind the wheel. It’s a strange kind of stasis (v). Acceleration causes all kinds of new sensations. You can intrinsically feel the pulling, pushing shove (a) of an increasing velocity (v), and my departure from Asheville was a hefty one, partly because I picked up so many personal connections (m).
But I don’t mean to be redundant. In Roswell Georgia now, and the air smells like honeysuckle and peaches. It’s 88 degrees, which feels lightyears away from the frigid 39 I experienced 5 days ago. New Orleans is on the horizon, and I can’t wait.
I’m still in Georgia. When I first arrived, I would have thought this would be some kind of layover, but as I sit right now, I’m happy for it. Perennially waylaid, my trip has been as much about staying in one place as moving on. It’s now almost midnight and I’ve had a long day. Dropped my car off this morning at 9 am to a local mechanic that by all accounts seems masterful. A gravel parking lot filled with old volkswagens in various states of repair. Some rusted hulks ripped apart to use as donors for gleaming examples of love and dedication. These men love their german cars here in Marietta, Georgia. I walk out of the shop and wander into the old downtown, find an antiques store that has some camera equipment and see if I can find a wide angle lens for my camera but they don’t have any that will fit.
I’ve noticed myself responding to people’s dialects in kind. I have this kind of auto-tune going on, my voice wants to fit in even if I don’t look like the stereotypical southerner. “Like ‘at” instead of “like that” and “innit” for “isn’t it”. Little things. But to catch myself doing it subconsciously is somehow more shocking than trying overtly to fit in. It’s impossible to say that there’s one kind of person who lives in one place. My bartender last night was from Boston, the coffee shop girl is french. Everyone travels. And I’ve been seeing more and more that being a traveler isn’t about being the other, it’s about being more like everyone else. People are excited to trade war stories about their roadtrips from back in the day, their personal experience is now a touchstone to meet a new friend. I’m not breaking any molds here. And it’s more exciting because of that.
But I did do one thing that was unconventional today. “Only one? Oh my god, tell me more!” But truly. After getting off the phone with the mechanic (a mode of conversation I have now become far too comfortable with) I decide that screw it, I’m walking back to Roswell. The only way is by taking the parkway, which has one sidewalk along it for most of the trip. Why not? Well, it’s a 14 mile trek that ends up taking me 3 hours to complete. The roads smell like sour rubber and it’s hot. Really hot. But this is what I’ve signed myself up for, so I’m not going to complain. I have water, a camera and my young feet to keep me going. I find some weird things.
The highway landscape, when you really have the chance to pore over it, is insane. It’s horrible to experience long expanses of asphalt with no shade, and tons of cars roaring by, spewing exhaust at you. This is an experience that I hadn’t been subjected to. 14 miles of it really gets you thinking about how horrible this reality is. There are 46,876 miles of interstate in the US, with a combined cost (as of 2003) of ~ $425 Billion. It is the largest public work ever. When you count the smaller regional highways, (officially the “U.S. Numbered Highways”) you add another 157,724 miles. State and county highways are not included here, and those mileages have not been estimated to my quick research. But I can bet that most of those highways, like Georgia 120/ Marietta Parkway are not very enjoyable to be in. They make up a sort of necessary landscape connected to utilitarian passage from one happy place to another.
As my feet beignet o hurt and my back sweats against by bag, I relent and stick my thumb out. it takes a lot of courage to do so, more than I thought it would. Partly admitting defeat, partly fearing the person who would dare pick up a hitchhiker these days, I realize that the real fear is that nobody will even notice at all. Hundreds of people drive by, most of them one to a car. One to a car, one to a car. Shiny new luxury cars, old volvos, new beetles with flower power stickers. All of them too chicken to pick up a young white male in the middle of the day with a sign marking a destination that is now 6 miles away.
Passing a local park, a 60 year old woman in a toyota land cruiser beeps her horn and invites me in. I don’t know what to do, really. Her dog is in the back seat and she informs me that she used to hitch a lot when she was younger, ran a business when she was older, and recently sold it all. Presently, she’s giving me sage advice on my life and how to take the best opportunities to make myself and the world a better place. Marta. She’s a gem. The final uphill would have been a battle, but in this air conditioned SUV I feel disconnected from the earthworm reality of the highway. It’s meant to be seen at speed. The rhythm of the guardrails humming by, the thunk-kathunk of expansion joints and the irrevocable power of stop lights are all so comforting from the passenger seat.
it makes me thankful to have wheels at all. To have a way to get from state to state going a mile a minute. It’s a great luxury.
5/7/12 - 2,000 miles
Three bloody marys into a hot humid night and Ive stumbled onto an incredible brass band on the street. Doors open on all sides, a new club is trying to lure customers on a street where every other bar has a double digit cover. It’s working. New Orleans is proving to be very complex. I’ve relaxed, either due to the body hugging heat or the overflowing drinks or the great food or my sunburn - surely it’s this trio working together - and I’m finding a pace at which to see the city. Katherine and I dance on the street, a group forms at the doorway, they dance and crane their necks. Most of them are tourists, but who cares.
When I first arrive, the city seems very sparse. I’m riding my bike to the industrial waterfront in the east of the city to get to Elizabeth’s restaurant and it’s hot. Too hot to do the short trip in one go. I stop in to a number of places and have a drink, read a chapter of Moby Dick. This happens at least four times. Once the sweat dries from my back, I’m ready to go again. The food alone makes me want to stay. It’s unreal how much flavor can be packed into a sandwich that seems to consist of only meat and bread. Whenever I ask, there’s always a lot of time involved. 12 hour roast, 18 hour smoke, 6 hour braise. I remind myself not to stay out in the sun that long, but quickly forget after digging in.
Now I’m at Jazz Fest, sitting down in a huge tent waiting for Sharon Jones to come on, and the tent is strung with misters to cool off the crowd. It fills the giant structure with a wet haze, more like a mechanical sweat than a cooling machine, everyone inside has rivulets dripping from their necks, a tired smile on their face, squinted eyes and expectant glances. An older couple beside me keeps asking unseated people in front of them to move - they can’t see the soundcheck. I keep telling myself that Jazz Fest is not representative of what the city is like. Masses of people screaming lyrics back at the Foo Fighters, for example. But there’s a looseness to the whole event that makes sense. Every food vendor is a local business, their hand written signs display what they have to offer, not their names. Almost like different clans are staking their claim that THIS is the definitive Boudin Ball, Crawfish Sausage po’ boy, Mango Freeze. There’s such a rich cultural language that is a default, but each one of these ventures tries to redefine the word. Everyone speaks it. And to an outsider, literacy comes with jumping head first into these experiences.
It’s been a few days now and the city has filled my brain with it’s map. I can get around without too much trouble, and the crowds that came for Jazz fest are starting to peter out. But there are some things that are still haunting me a bit. So much of this place is empty. The storm can’t be seen in the rich parts of town, but the lower ninth is still halfway missing. I decide not to take my camera, not to take part in the sniping of the place, but I’m aching to capture some of these landscapes. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Rural plans with city blocks mapped out on them? A town that’s become overgrown in 6 years time? A place that the New York Times can convince people is now a jungle, with wild packs of dogs and privateer grass cutting crews. People live here. A sign on a telephone pole says: “WHITE PEOPLE - Stop looking and do something”. I feel guilty driving slowly through this place, with the intent of looking, mouth agape. But would it make sense to stay away? Deny the impulse to sympathize? I do want to do something. Taking pictures might not accomplish it.
“A size 27 wearing size 34 pants” - Katherine says her friend came up with the analogy. It’s pretty apropos. The infrastructure of this city is fascinating. It all seems too tenuous to work. All the asphalt in the city is lumpy, pockmarked and literally sinking, the houses are on stilts, you can’t see the horizon because it’s ABOVE you - it all takes a while to imprint itself in your head. There’s so much to digest here, I’ll be thinking about this place for a long time.
This week has been about living in a city that is a million different things. Today has been about farming. The heat has become an accepted fact, and I’ve wrapped up a week of New Orleans. So much food, so much drink, so much music. There’s a lot of pain in the city, but a lot of good people there doing their part to make it better and keep it vibrant. Tonight I’m in a more rural part of the state, 3 hours west in Jennings, LA. I had my first Crawfish (pounds of it), first fried Catfish and fried bread, saw some real Cajun music and also had Mint Juleps on a veranda. I’m pinching myself. But what I thought would be a break from social and economic issues that are so prevalent in NOLA has instead been an intensification of my senses to the interconnected nature of all things agricultural.
First off, my friend Nathaniel is working in the lower ninth ward on a farm. It’s exploding in size, growing a ton of tomatoes, micro-greens, cabbage, squash, figs, arugula, everything. But it’s all done with compost, by hand and on a small scale for every crop. They run an after school program where local kids grow and harvest their own veggies, and if the farm sells any of them, all the money goes right back to the kids. They’re beginning an aquaponics setup that filters/fertilizes between a small tank of fish and some greens. They have bees and chickens. It is what every community needs, and they’re doing it with a ton of neighbor involvement. It’s fantastic.
Will, a co-worker of mine from Louisiana, grew up on a rice farm, working in production agriculture - namely large quantities and for sale around the globe. As in 8,000 pounds of rice per acre. Will’s mom Mary works as a liaison between locals and their state representatives, as an assistant to senators, congressional reps and legislators. But the truth of the matter is that she’s the only one who has continuity of tenure, so she’s more in the know than the people who are elected, and therefore acts as a connector where there would otherwise be a huge stall at every election cycle. His father Bert showed me around the farm. They plant, harvest, and dry rice on the farm and employ a number of farmers, though their 140 acres of workable farmland require very few laborers to get it all done, as most of the work is done via GPS enabled tractors that drill and seed almost automatically. They have 15 acres plots of land that are laser leveled to within 1”, allowing the rice crop to be flooded at a very shallow depth without low or high spots. This conserves water, and yields a better product. All told, their are allowed to farm 140 of their 400 acres at one time, and it’s a complex system of channels and water sheets that takes care of itself when set up correctly.
But what’s most fascinating is the global politics that interact with this production. Commercial farming came about when farmers began producing more than they could sell, which meant that they needed to begin exporting to break even and make profits. For the better part of the early 1900s, Cuba was the biggest purchaser of Louisiana rice. But when the trade embargo happened, they lost that market. But then Vietnam had a lot of issues, culminating with the Vietnam war, and all of a sudden Louisiana rice was being sent across the world to southeast Asia to cope with a market that had lost its main producer. But the fighting cooled off and American rice lost that market. But Iran, pockets full of oil money, had a penchant for high quality long grain rice, and Louisiana had found a new market. But once again, a war halfway across the globe disrupted that trade agreement. Iraq borrowed the taste for sweet southern grain, but you know where that goes. At the moment, there is an incredibly complex system of subsidies, caps, trade deals, etc. that act on the price of rice sold from this region. Currently, Mexico is the largest purchaser. They’ve learned in the past 20 years to cook and eat white rice, and NAFTA has made it possible to run trains directly across the border (the other issues with NAFTA and the general problems with immigration and Mexico’s drug wars are another issue, of which I am not educated enough to talk about here).
Soybeans are a burgeoning crop in south Louisiana too, but it doesn’t grow to super high quality. But since China has such a high demand for soybeans, roughly 80% of all soy grown in Louisiana goes to China. EVERYTHING IS GLOBAL. There are a hundred other bits of info that bring what could be (and my opinion should be) a local-to-local model of agriculture and turn it into a complex, international issue of legal and economic connotations. Monsaanthas patented a strain of GMO soybeans that grow incredibly quickly and with very little susceptibility to herbicides and pests. But that patent means that you can only buy from them. Every year. No keeping seeds from season to season. They can come to a farm and test seeds to see if they have the proprietary gene present. If so, it’s illegal to hold them privately. What’s worse is that their soybeans will send their seed everywhere, mixing with generic soybean crops. So if your neighbor has these super soybeans and their pollen wafts over to yours and the seeds produced from your crops have a TRACE of the gene present and you happen to keep them to seed next year and Monsanto testers come to your farm, you’ve got a big legal issue on your hands, which have now been completely tied by a major conglomerate.
It is incredibly complex. I have only one night here and will be getting to Austin, TX tomorrow. I don’t know what will be in store there, but I know it will involve a lot of music and a ton of good friend. But my short time in Jennings has made me wish to come back, and I know that I will.
There’s an almost universal experience when you fly from one part of the world to another. You feel disoriented, dazed, maybe your sleep rhythms are off. They say that a clock when flown continuously at high speeds for long amounts of time will in fact be slower than it’s twin, tick-tocking on the ground, by 1/1,000,000,000,000 of a second or something of the sort. And so any amount of travel must be, in some small way, disturbing to your natural sense of time. Austin, Texas is the place where I have first become aware of this fuzziness or float in my travel. I’m ready to get off the plane. Not so much the trip, but it’s linear definitions. A surface reading of many different places can lead to a hollow time, no matter how happy or relaxed you might be. I’m ready to stop flitting around - this has become a search for where I want to live and do the most good.
This a great city. A ton of talented, beautiful, healthy people working on cool projects but also relaxing as much as they can. There isn’t a permeating cloud of hyperactivity hanging over the city like there is in New York or DC. And don’t get me wrong, I love that cloud. It gets you out into the world, polishing your character - or at least professionalism. It hones either elegance or ruggedness, often creating both. But you can’t go swimming by a waterfall in a creek and eat veggies grown 20 miles away on a wednesday afternoon in those two cities like you can here. It’s so easy. There’s a golden hum to it all. Perhaps that’s partly because I haven’t experienced the “psychedelic” heat or the droughts that often plague the area. Last year there was under 2” of rain. It’s verdant this season and college just got let out. It’s a strange feeling to be on a road trip I meant to go on right after school, now 2 years ago. Putting it off had its benefits, but the concurrence with this year’s graduation has made me feel very strange, somehow slow.
This fuzziness continues until almost all thought gets redirected to opportunism. Chances arise for things and the only answer is yes, no matter what they are. And because of that, I’ve been living like a freegan, but would rather be growing my chances for myself. I’ve been taking the scraps of the system - freeloading on people’s couches, detached from responsibility and any restriction but it’s not exactly what i’d call sustainable or even desirable. I want the fresh stuff. Creation, collaboration, critiquing, hard labor, innovation. A road trip does not necessarily enrich these qualities.
Perhaps this all started with my visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. My car had some issue and I pulled into a gas station to check it out. I look up, and there’s a volkswagen mechanic across the street. I pull in and they diagnose and fix the problem in 4 hours time, which is about as much time as I had allotted to check out the Menil and surrounding sculptures. For some reason, I had forgotten (or never bothered to pay attention to) where the Rothko Chapel actually was and so all of a sudden there it stood before me, in some miracle of obtuse, brick architecture, surrounded by oaks and bamboo. The profound silence and reverence inside is heavy. The paintings are immense in size and presence. They almost sing with a deep resonant tone. They are not OF anything, they have qualities like living things. In fact, you begin to pay attention to qualities more than substances in that space. It was a kind of isolation chamber as I sank deeper and deeper into one of the dark rectangles, horizons forming and heaving towards me. But the clouds passed away from overhead and the sun reflected on the skylight and brightened the space as gently as it was warm. And the remembrance of being connected to the air, the sun, the clouds and the ability to experience them all together was made so sweet because of it.
Not to be too sugary. But it was a moving experience and I am in awe of it. Rothko never saw it completed. He fought with Philip Johnson over the design, switched architects and committed suicide (whether related or not) one year before it was successfully completed. I only mention this because it seems like one of those things that imbues relevance to something. But mostly I was bowled over by the living, active program of the space, which keeps it hovering between museum and chapel.
Anyway, I’m hoping to find more depth and less surface everywhere I go from here on out. Perhaps it comes from an unsettling place, but it’s a good discovery.
The air is dry here, it smells like smoke. A mountain is burning 30 miles away and the sky last night was orange-red, like the earth had been sucked up there somehow. It feels like ages. Nothing could be so distinct as the Texas sun except, perhaps, the profundity of the New Mexico landscape. It seems to boggle the mind with intensity and far-reaching power. I’ve been in Marfa and now find myself in Silver City, New Mexico. I’m sunburned. In a way I hadn’t ever experienced before. Like I’m soaking up Iron ore, directly into my skin. Yesterday at daybreak i drove up to the Gila Cliff Dwellings of the Mogollon and 10,000 years of travelers before them. It’s a place that I feel a great awe and reverence for. It exists between architecture and landscape. The village inhabits an active geological formation, made initially by volcanic eruption and then chiseled away by water to form undulating, concave eddy pools of “Gila Conglomerate” rock. The Mogollon created enclosed dwellings inside these formations, and their village in the rock is one of the great works of architecture I have yet seen.
It is all about of sequencing and context. The perilous drive through the Gila National Park runs up onto the ridges and curls along the tiny pieces of flat land to reach a final elevation of 7900 ft. Then you hike for a mile, approaching the caves from below. All the while, you’re looking at all of the mountain formations for any sign of dwellings. It makes you into a kind of location scout. “That would make a great outpost!” But when you finally reach them, it’s hard to imagine them being anywhere else. The series of six caves are accessible by a vertiginous trail - no guardrails to spoil the experience - just wide enough for one person to pass. I was met by an 83 year old volunteer guide who had worked at the caves for many years and stressed the geologic time, 10,000 years of use before the Mogollon, and warned about the mostly white archeological perspective that’s been placed on the site. But the caves. They are a complex, layered cluster of hand-stacked stone. And they use the cave walls perfectly as a kind of airplane hanger of environmental protection. It’s a very “contemporary” idea manifested 700 years ago. There are other sites like this in the country, like Mesa Grande, but this being my one experience with the cave-dwelling type I’m all agape.
Just a few days before I was walking through the Chinati foundation grounds in Marfa, Texas. Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Ingólfur Arnarsson, John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Roni Horn, Ilya Kabakov, Richard Long, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. All of those ring like brands. You may not touch the art, you may not photograph. The thought, I guess, is that it keeps the value of the imagery and respects the artists, but it also keeps you from experiencing the art in a dynamic way. Judd’s “100 works in Milled Aluminum” are breathtaking though, slowly shifting and changing interior volume with each iteration, while keeping the same exterior dimensions. It begins to induce deja vu (or perhaps I’m just prone to it) with each passing glance you swear you’ve seen that one before. The 100 seems vast enough to be encyclopedic, I had to remind myself that the work was finite. Flavin’s light installations are similarly disorienting, spreading across 6 decommissioned army barracks. To step into the natural light and then be plunged into the next U shaped, green and pink and yellowed tinged space begins to feel like a condition. But one I was glad to have, for a bit. Chamberlain’s pieces are by far my favorites. Energetic, materially honest and thorough, incredibly well balanced colors and a playfulness that isn’t found in the other minimalist artists at the foundation. But anyway. The incredible artifice and expression in the vast, flat plains of southwest texas are infinitely different than the cliff dwellings. The two are from different universes.
I’m just beginning to understand the size of this country. I’ve gone roughly 4,000 miles so far and have just begun. The land really expands out here, and it’s hard to figure out how people traversed it with no maps or conception of it’s landscape. Awed, tired, excited, extended, open-eyed. Arizona and California are on the horizon.
6/5/12 - Los Angeles
ON STRAIGHT LINES
There is little to say about a straight lines.
At best, a straight line is a facsimile of an arc.
At worst, a straight line cannot physically exist.
Nobody. Nothing. Car, hands, wheels, sky, sun. A lot of the desert seems like this. Interminable expanses of dust and rock. Fascinating geologically and socially quiet. You try not to get too self-obsessed but there’s nobody else to talk to, so it ends up bringing out your demons. It’s very hard to look at yourself on the road. The camera, our constant companion is always there, ready to corroborate your experiences, the only one who can tell your stories to friends and acquaintances. He’s mostly silent though. All of your photos begin to look suspiciously empty, devoid of people. Strangers become welcome additions to your morning routine. It’s difficult to put your finger on it, but the gut response to boredom becomes flying down the freeway away from lazy thoughts. And again, you head out into the world on your own. Maybe you’ve met someone, a new friend, a minute lover, a specimen of America that you’ve triumphantly found. Did you take a core sample? No time, didn’t want to spoil the context.
The stasis of 65 mph opens up, spreads out. My belonging fly with me, they’re on this trip too. The mass of a moving object increases with speed, and i’ve been shedding weight to gain agility, but it’s all a bit theoretical. But that’s the crux of it. Everything you think while alone seems theoretical. It’s all tied up in a vision of self that you cannot actually see without the help of doing. The reality of making, the truth of concrete action.
How do you critically look at something that you see every day? How do you objectify what is intrinsic to your environment? Petroleum enables the cross-country journey, perhaps even encourages it. It is highly probable that oil lobbyists invoke the cross country trip as a symbol of Americanism like some magic spell. It’s all dependent on these cuts through the geologic history of the continent, blasted through to follow “straight lines” from one economy to the other, for one military movement this way, a freightliner that way. The thinking goes that the wider they are, the faster they are and the thinner they are, the more authentic. I am very dubious of both of these ideas.
ON GEOGRAPHIC DENIAL
I’m chasing a long distance joke, trying to catch up to the punchline before it’s been told three times and isn’t funny anymore. But the connection between distance traveled and goal reached is less linear than one would assume or desire. It’s finding the right distance from the nearest social antennae. Each city center has it’s own frequency, but navigating them is not geographical. No, it’s some other kind of dance. A three step box tilt or a smooth steady lift, I don’t know, but while my movement has been lateral I’ve just realized the real direction is up. How knows how to find new places in a country that is completely over-run with people looking? Pictures of everything, well-traveled routes and favorite places, ranked in order of popular opinion. Where is the new? It isn’t found in places.
I heard a story somewhere along my trip. I don’t remember who told me.
Two people are driving along at night somewhere in the forest. They’re old hippies and their beaten up car isn’t very fast. A deer jumbos out in front of them and they try to avoid hitting it, but it’s too late. The scene is horrible. They’ve managed to keep from killing the deer, but it’s badly hurt and bleeding everywhere. They decide that the humane thing to do would be to kill the deer and put it out of its misery. So they grab the nearest heavy object and start beating on it, trying to put it out, but it’s just hurting the thing more, and they’re bereft, try to cut its throat with a little knife and they’re crying, covered in blood, the deer is still alive, hurting and freaking out.
A truck pulls up, bales of hay in the back. They hold quiet, a farmer gets out and looks at them quizzically. He goes back to the truck. Returns with a gun, shoots the deer, looks at them both and gets back in the truck and drives off.
The northwest has been wooing me very intensely these days. Far too many beautiful places and incredible weather and wonderful people. For the past few weeks, I’ve been in Oakland/the Bay area and have gotten deeper in my travels than anywhere else. A house of intelligent, informed people with a penchant for imaginative reality have challenged my views on a lot of things, and furthered my thinking in many ways. I went hiking, recorded music, drew a ton, made good food and spent hours reading reading reading. The length of this trip has gotten almost comical now, with a google estimate of near 5,000 miles, but I think it’s closer to 6,500 with diversions from the mapped route. Those diversions are, in fact, the real trip. And as I’ve gotten more involved with the reality of living on the road, writing it all down has become more difficult. After camping at a nudist hot spring in Sonoma, internet and cel phone service have become luxuries. And clothes? They seem to cover up the real nature of a person, more often than not. I’m writing from Portland now, and the weather here is a salve for what i understand is a harbinger of horrible global warming happening around the country. We’re talking about how to live, where all the environmental refugees will be going, whether we can support ourselves on 7 acres of land, 10 acres? What will happen if we all need a place to live but don’t have enough space? Would the government seize land? It’s 75 degrees here, and 104 in St. Louis or something equally unbelievable.
The Higgs Boson particle most likely has been found, and I’m trying to understand what that means, but for sure we’ve gotten a step closer to the next time we realize we don’t know much of anything. Writing has been difficult. There’s too much in the moment to stop and think, reflect. There are too many people here to interact with and meet. In four days, I’ve lit fireworks in the street, partied in every way possible, including on a decommissioned fishing boat/floating art gallery, and made countless new acquaintances and friends. It’s a small, ecstatic city full of smart, welcoming people.
It’s been almost exactly 3 months since I started off from New York, and a lot has coalesced. The way I see traveling might be augmented by some quotes from the Hagakure, way of the Samurai:
“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.”
* * * * * *
“In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil. ” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly.” When your mind is going hither and thither, discrimination will never be brought to a conclusion. With an intense, fresh and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.”
This, I think is the perfect way to look at traveling. Be resolved to take every invitation offered to you. The point with EVERY moment is to be on your instantaneous energy drive, looking to find more and more connection, see strange places, keep breathing. And, if you delve into these truisms more, seven breaths should be all the time you need to rally your energy, spirits and resolve. To live with fewer weights, more launchpads. The parallels with performing Improv are countless, even though I’m reticent to mention that as a touchstone. Name choices and physicality can create entire universes either funny or strange or serious and always all of the above. To be able to enter into an empty stage - an unknown space - and be ready to get wet from a wild rainstorm. Creating a concrete reality (with no concrete or any other building material) and then imparting it to others while it’s happening is the goal. Have been talking to Nick P. And gaining much insight into this, he’s a prime specimen for wanderlust if there ever was one. Still breathing, still making, doing things without filters before or behind.
Marcus Aurelius has something to say:
“Like a vine which has produced grapes, and seeks nothing more after it has once produced its proper fruit. As a horse when he has run, a dog when he has tracked his game, a bee when he has made the honey, so a person when they have done a good act, does not call for others to come and see, but they go on to another act, as the vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season. Must a human be one of these, who in a manner act thus without observing it? Yes.”
Enough skills, time for intentions.