click to enlarge
trip to the
middle of nowhere...
the recent changing of the western clock from the 20th to the 21st century
(and semi-beginning of a new millennium), I had been planning for the last
several years to get as far away as possible from my home of New York City
and spend the symbolic changing of the guard in as a remote location as
possible, preferably somewhere flat, land-locked and as removed from the
modern world as humanly possible. I have this theory that New York City
has this amazing energy, but in order to maintain that energy it has to
slowly, secretly suck that energy out of
it's inhabitants. So in order to enjoy it fully I think you have to get
away regularly. Now, I have lived in downtown NYC for nine years, and while
the center of the known universe has been very, very good to me for the
majority of that time, there was no way in Hell I was gonna give it New
Year's 1999 - tourist's nirvana.
So come November of 1999, some friends and I put together an forward-into-the-unknown
hiking/camping/driving excursion to the most remote regions of the Southwest
United States, with Las Vegas as a home base (oh no another city! ...oh
well). When it came time to put the money down and actually commit to the
adventure, only my friend Michael and I had the guts to actually go through
with it (rot in limbo you spine-less rat bastards!!!). Michael is a professional
photographer (he took most of these photos) and he had a cable access show
here in NY. Here's a
picture of Michael.
I'm Just kidding, here's a better picture of
Michael. Isn't he photogenic? OK, maybe not - but you'll see him again
later. Our good friend Gregory was supposed to go too but he decided he
couldn't because he had to stay home to take care of his cats (Pfffft!
Oh suuuuuuure!!!). Here's a lovely picture of
Gregory. Ha! Ha! Ha! Just kidding, here's a better
picture of Greg. Isn't he handsome? He's a model. Too bad I don't have
any handsome pictures of Michael, oh well.
So I left the confines of my super-exciting NYC Lower East Side apartment for the wily unknown. I guess my new roommate Domenic would have to be in charge. Here's a picture of Domenic without my glasses on. I would post a bad picture of Domenic but I'm afraid he would poison me in my sleep to get revenge - but that's a whole other story.
So, anyway... back to THE TRIP. It turned out to be mostly "road trip with lot's of hiking and weird motels and surreal diners" rather than camping. What we actually ended up doing was circling, in a zig-zag manner, all the way around the Grand Canyon (counter clockwise) without actually visiting the canyon itself. I had hiked down inside the canyon ten years earlier (Havasupi Village), but I had never fully explored the surrounding landscape, which seemed to become our collective goal as we became one with the barren, rolling expanse.
Immediately after landing in stunning/stupifying Las Vegas, we had a power meal at Denny's - mmmmmmmm (complete with an ex-alcoholic, lesbian waitress who looked AND sounded like Jack Palance) We rented our car and set off immediately to Flagstaff, AZ, driving over the shockingly small Hoover Dam along the way (it's minuscule!). Finally hitting Flagstaff, we roamed around it's youth spirited snow boarding and rock climbing community village, enjoying the Austin/Durango/Ann Arbor-like ambiance. While stopping to eat at a fantastic historic hotel/bar/restaurant hybrid, we sat next to a really corn-fed looking guy who we thought was a cowboy red-neck in full Western gear (and, it turns out, indeed drove a pick-up truck with a confederate flag license plate). I pined and woo-ed for my home state of Texas as I tried to inconspicuously point out and explain the details of his flashy (and very authentic) cowboy garb to Michael. I didn't want to draw to much attention to ourselves because, well... unlike myself, Michael is a real flamer and I didn't want us to stir the ire of this obvious redneck or we might end up like you-know-who! But after returning from the bathroom, I was dumbfounded to find Michael and the cowboy dishing it out like two food stylists on the set of the Martha Stewart show! I'm always being reminded in life that I am not a good judge of people. Turns out our new friend, also named Michael, was an interior designer from West Hollywood who was going on a "cowboy fantasy" trip, complete with all props and trimmings, across the western plains because it was something he had "always wanted to do". I guess Ralph Lauren's advertising really does work! He was really excited to run into Michael and I. He couldn't wait to "party" with us and "hang out" with us both later. Gggrrroooaaannn... this is exactly the type of scenario I was trying to get away from! It was like I was back in New York all over again.
Nevertheless, while cleverly side-stepping his advances politely as could be, we joined him on a trek to an authentic country western dance hall that evening for some more gawking at red-necks and another opportunity to get beat-up. Turns out Wednesdays were "Hip Hop Night" at the normally country-ish Museum Club (right along Route 66!), a night when all the outlying locals stay away and all the adolescent from the rough "hood" of Flagstaff come to body-pop to old Biggie Smalls remixes. Watching kids in JCPennys hip-hop gear have breakdancing battles to "Baby Got Back" in a log cabin club complete with taxidermy, fire places, wood floors and wagon wheel chandeliers in the middle of the Arizona desert was truly surreal (there was only one black kid in the entire packed club). The thing is that these kids were really good at breakdancing!!! Me and the two Michaels got a little jealous and almost started a vogue-ing battle just to upstage them, but on second thought didn't think it would be a good idea.
Leaving all that behind us, early the next morning we decided to visit Berringer Crater, the largest meteorite crater of it's kind in the United States (not including that volcanic one in Hawaii). Turns out the terrain and culture surrounding the crater (alien heads and extraterrestrial propaganda everywhere!) were far more entertaining than the crater itself. While looking down into the enormous gap in the earth, I kept turning around to see the fantastic expanse of the Arizona desert behind me, watching dust devils violently swishing back and forth hundreds of miles away. Could you imagine wearing a John Deer gimmie cap, $1.99 shades from 7-11, a denim jacket, never-heard-of-it-before-label jeans (complete with gigantic belt buckle) and a mullet haircut everyday for the rest of your life? Simply changing from your Adidas into snakeskin boots when your required to dress formal? The world of fashion has zero influence on these regions of the midwest United States and it's fucking bliss.
I also love this part of the country because there are 7-11's everywhere, one of the greatest inventions of the modern age!!! Fact: did you know the first 7-11 ever was in Dallas, Texas?
Using directions we had gotten from a waitress in Flagstaff, we decided to work our way South after that and soon found ourselves grinding our teeth as we delicately crawled our sure-footed-as-a-mountian-goat Geo along the Wilson Mountain Switchbacks, a dizzying, mobius strip of a road that precariously zig-zags back and forth as it slowly works it's way up each mountain, then back down again, then up, then down, ad nauseam. It was when we stopped at one of the unbelievably breathtaking (and treacherous) views along the road that we found out Michael's video camera wasn't working. We both later decided that we liked it that way.
We later had lunch in the STUNNING town of Sedona, NM. This beautiful town is placed deep in a valley which is surrounded by humungus rocky cliff formations that turn all different shades of red, orange and yellow depending on where the sun is. It's truly a suburban paradise; clusters of new housing developments snaking off into the distance, nestled amongst heavily fertilized bright green lawns and then the monstrous orange cliffs towering over the whole thing, set against the blazing sunset sky. Remember Magic Rocks? It was like living inside a bowl of those without the water. There we had a REAL Tex-Mex meal (Mexican food in New York is for losers - I finally had real tortilla soup!) as we sat on a large balcony overlooking the whole valley. A visiting group of Tibetan monks was making one of those sand paintings on the floor of an outdoor gallery a few levels below us. We had a clear view of them as they gobbled delivered Pizza Hut pizza during their lunch break - then it was back to building the mandala! Spiritual!
After that we headed back through the Switchbacks (faster this time because I was driving) and then I put our super-powered Geo in high gear and we sped like lightening up Route 89 straight for the Navajo Indian Reservation, where we planned to spend the night. While trying to make record time, I nearly slammed on the brakes as we suddenly passed an amazing section of the Painted Desert that was made up of thousands of wind and water eroded sand mounds that tumbled off as far as you could see like zillions of scoops of ice cream. The timing was so perfect - it was right before sunset. It looked like we had discovered the surface of Jupiter or something! You had to drive to the edge of this cliff to get to where you could actually walk onto it, which we did in record time. Barely leaving the car locked behind us (who's gonna steal it out here?), we charged off straight into the thick of it, screaming like our very lives depended on it. We were running full speed into the giant bubbles of sherbet landscape that laid before us as far as the eye could see and it was fucking orgasmic! We were the only two people around!! The closer we got we realized the "mounds" were quite larger than we expected, they were more like small mountains, and we proceeded to act like two kids let loose on Disneyland as we charged and dotted up one whipped cream mountain and down another. The now setting sun made everything around us tangerine orange, flouresent yellow and blood red - it was the most surreal environment I've ever witnessed in my whole life! Just before sundown, we were able to "race" the sun to the top of the biggest mound we could see (quite a distance at a full speed climb, I was only able to make it all the way because of sheer momentum - when I finally reached the top I almost puked!) as the very last sharp ray of glowing red sunlight disappeared from it's tip. In this kind of terrain you can literally watch the sun disappear over the horizon like the second hand of a clock. And as soon as it did everything around us zapped from brilliant reds and yellows to glowing blues, neon purples and slate gray. Then we noticed something interesting - we could hear the sounds of the blood pulsing against our skulls. Living in New York City for so long had conditioned our eardrums to constant bombardments of noise. Out here in TOTAL SILENCE (not even animals or insects!) we could literally hear our brains pulsating! It was really great.
After the sun set we realized that we had let that incredible moment slip by without taking one photograph. But who's thinking logically during moments of exctasy? We both agreed later that we actually liked it this way, a white-hot and brilliantly brief, once-in-a-lifetime, gooey explosion of supernova WOW that only our heads will be able to remember and no one else will be able to share ever. How's that for poetic justification? Here's twopictures I found on the web of the exact location we were in.
That night we found ourselves in the very odd town of Tuba City. Situated smack in the middle of the Navajo Indian Reservation, it's a unique mix of track-housing, American Indian heritage, friendly people, and fast food joints. After much confusion and strange street names ("...go straight down WEE-PO-UT-KEE road past the Dairy Queen, then left on ONOTETTEUK Avenue." huh?) we found ourselves lodging at the Grey Hills Inn, a converted High School that doubles as a hotel during off hours. Yes you heard right. It turns out this would be the first of several empty, cavernous high school adventures that would haunt the peripherals of our trip.
A good night's sleep in a converted classroom (complete with traditional American Indian decor) and we headed straight for the spectacular Monument Valley early the next morning. Down the road a while we noticed these three busloads of Japanese tourists that we kept running into everywhere, it's like they had a homing device on us or something. There was one 50-ish one with a rabbit fur coat, a mullet hair cut (must've stopped somewhere in town for a trim) and big sunglasses that I dubbed "the dragon lady". She was obviously their leader. Everytime we would stop somewhere, they would pull in right behind us, or vice-versa. It was starting to get creepy.
In case you're not familiar with it, Monument Valley is this huge area in the NE corner of Arizona that has all those really wild rock formations that are used in photographs and movies and car commercials all the time. I think they filmed all those Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons there. Here's that road used in "My Own Private Idaho" where River Phoenix held his hands up to his eyes and said "...it makes a face... a fucked-up face." We discovered that there are many layers to Monument Valley, and the deeper you get into it, the more alien-like the terrain becomes. It's fucking enormous!
After some maneuvering around some side roads we discovered this part of the Valley where you could pay a few dollars and then ride your car through this unspoiled (except for the dirt path) section of the Valley. Pretty soon it became obvious that this "section" covered a zillion miles. It was a two hour(!) ride over treacherous rocks and gravel - but I'm sure our super-powered, 4-wheel-drive Geo could handle it! We eeked our itty-bitty selves (compared to the giant rocks) in our little car up to the Valley and felt like two amoebas visiting the Sears Tower. These rocks were REALLY big and REALLY far apart. It was awesome. Then the whole thing was ruined when we got closer and realized they were all just little models. No, Just kidding. To see how big they were, look at this great photo Michael took. See me standing at the base of the rock? I'm near the bottom of the photo to the right? Squint your eyes. Here's a magnification. Now see me? They were really big. Here's me standing in front of the "Three Sisters" rock formation. Here's Michael in front of this HUGE cliff. I swear the face of this cliff was the size of Manhattan! Here's me in front of "The Thumb". Here's me hiding from Michael's more annoying qualities. Here's Michael trying to imitate the rock formations. Here's me doing the same. Can you find Michael in this photograph?
At one point, both of us high on the poetic "ultragorgeosity" (Michael's word) of the whole experience, we creeped our car around a gigantic cliff, ready for another jaw-dropping, stunning view... only to see THOSE DAMN JAPANESE TOURISTS AGAIN!!! Oh my God they were stalking us I swear! "Floor it!!!" I screamed at Michael, "Let's get to that beautiful rock before they get out of their little trams!!!" But it was too late. Can you imagine fighting for parking space in such a gigantic setting where there was hundreds of miles of empty space in every beautiful direction? Hey - it's human nature. By the time we reached them they had quickly scurried out of their little trams and had formed a circle and started doing a fucking rain dance with this giant drum they had brought! I SWEAR TO GOD!! First Tibetan monks eating Pizza Hut, now Japanese tourist doing a rain dance in the middle of Monument Valley. America is so hilarious. Here's a picture of me trying to blend in with them (note the Dragon Lady in her rabbit fur coat - to the left of photo).
At some point after they left we found this really, really, cool cave. This is also the time that I noticed that everything in Arizona looks so much better when you wear sunglasses with a light yellow filter. See the difference? I wore these glasses for the rest of the trip.
After exiting the "unspoiled" region, we stopped at these little booths where they were selling everything imaginable. Here we saw a "Sacred Monument" you could charge on your Mastercard or Visa. Sweet! They had these really brilliant indian pictures that were blasphemously platered over the American flag, and the flag was backwards! But I couldn't get anyone to sell me any. There were Indians selling handmade silver and turquoise jewelry and all that stuff everywhere - a lot of it was really cool. I was about to buy this great necklace with a silver arrow head when I realized that MY WALLET WAS GONE!!! Left somewhere on the floor of Monument Valley (gulp)? Dropped at the Burger King on the way to the Valley? Pick-pocketed by Japanese tourists? American Indian revenge curse?
After some major Nancy Drew-like deductive reasoning by Michael and some major freaking-out by me, we both decided that I had SOMEHOW left it at the Grey Hills Inn in Tuba City. Since they weren't reachable by phone we high-tailed it back the way we came and hoped and prayed that my wallet had been left in our room somehow (fingers crossed) and that some kind soul (finger's double-crossed) had turned it in to the hotel staff. We reached Tuba City in a flash and zoomed up to the inn - only to find it had closed a few hours earlier since it was now December 31st! Oh my God it was New Year's Eve already!? We still hadn't found a "camping" spot to spend the turn of the new millennium under. Amongst all the surreal beauty of the last few days we had lost track of time and I was starting to get really bummed because I thought my wallet was gone forever and even if it was inside the Inn, they wouldn't be open for another day and a half. What a fucking New Year's. We didn't see anyone around at all and the whole town seemed to be shutting down. We drove a few blocks to what appeared to be Grey Hills High's rival high school, and since we saw cars parked out front and there appeared to be people inside, we drove up in hopes that someone inside could help us get inside Grey Hills Inn/High School. My prediction was that in a town like this one, everyone is bound to know absolutely everybody else and that simply asking one person would start a chain of events that would lead me back to my wallet (a hunch that turned out to be true).
Michael waited in the car while I bolted in through the open doors of the gigantic high school (narrowly avoiding a small pack of white wolves that seemed to be guarding the entrance - I swear to God!) and shouted "Hellooooo!!!" into the empty, echo-y hallways. No one was around! I literally ran from classroom to classroom, up and down stairs, past endless rows of lockers sealed up for Christmas vacation, past swinging doors into gigantic gymnasiums and huge cafeterias, shouting "Hellooooo!!!" the whole time. There wasn't anybody in the whole school and every door was open! It was really cool, I was starting to feel like I was in a horror movie! I love late 70's/early 80's teen slasher films and this was my ultimate fantasy - I felt like Jamie Lee Curtis in "Prom Night". I started to hear weird noises down every corridor and imagined Michael Myers lurking behind every turn... wow, what a great vacation! This was better than the Painted Desert! Oh yea... I was looking for my wallet!! I ran out of the empty school and back to the car. The pack of wolves were gone now as well as most of the cars (did the wolves drive there?). BTW: who leaves a whole high school open like that for any schmuck like me to run loose in? Whatever... this definitely wasn't New York.
I decided to head right for the Tuba City Navajo Police station (which was a whole other story in itself) and finally talk to a real person. They connected us with the security guard who connected us with a friend who lived down the street who connected us to etc. etc... HOORAY! They had my wallet! Now the guard had to go look all over town for the woman who had the keys to the safe of the inn so he could get it for me. He had tried all her friend's houses but she wasn't around - he was going to try some of the other places she hung around. I bit my lip as I was tempted to suggest he send up smoke signals. While waiting for him to do that - he let us into yet ANOTHER empty high school to roam around and stay warm. Wow, maybe on my next vacation I can go on a tour of empty shopping malls and pretend I'm in "Dawn of the Dead".
With wallet in hand (all cash and credit cards untouched) and the clock now ticking, we sped like demons towards Page, AZ, keeping our eyes peeled for the perfect open expanse to spend the turn of midnight under. Little did we know that our midnight adventure wasn't going to be super spiritual as much as it was going to be like another scary horror movie...
On to Part II of our trip...
Us almost spend midnight of Y2K in jail!!!
SEE: Yak attack!!!
SEE: Mark and Michael snow streaking!!!
SEE:More, more, more stunning landscapes!!!
SEE: Fake wood paneling!!!
SEE: Liberace's house!!!
SEE: Windshield fluid!!!
SEE: Rock climbing!!!
SEE: Rock licking!!!
SEE:The nauseating, zillion-mile-high roller coaster!!!
SEE: Las Vegas?!?! Zzzzzzzzzzz...