Sunday, July 15, 2001

Melisa's got the last log to post soon and my final batch of pictures (More Texas, Memphis, Arkansas, Tennessee, Illinois, and the lovely Chicago skyline from the south side. Home sweet home.

Thursday, July 12, 2001

Latest pictures are posted. In the last swing of our trip, we've managed to synch up text and pictures. They are at
Day 24, Wed July 11 (Melisa)
We rise early to make our appointment at the Chinati Foundation. This is the real reason we’ve come to Marfa, Texas. Some background: a couple of months ago, there was a six-page spread in the New York Times about an exhibit in west Texas of modernist art installations in a former military barracks. Paul was fascinated by the article and saved it. He told himself, “If I ever have a chunk of time off, I’m going to find my way to Texas to see this work.” On the road we were unable to find the article, didn’t know the artist or even the town. But after a few calls (the Internet has taught us nothing if not resourcefulness – the Texas Board of Tourism, Houston Museum of Modern Art, Marfa Chamber of Commerce) we got the info and made our trek.

Now we’ve learned that the place is called the Chinati Foundation. It was founded by a famous modernist artist and critic, Donald Judd. Originally from Missouri, Judd spent much of his life in New York and developed the idea that art installations should be permanent. That they should be created by and for a specific place and never moved. Whether the idea or Texas came first I can’t say. But he lived in Marfa for many years and bought an abandoned army barracks, along with several large buildings in town. There he created/installed what is now seen to be the culmination of his work, an untitled piece of 100 aluminum boxes in a large brick structure. Reading back those words I realize they are a gross injustice to the work. For these are not just boxes in a room. They are sublime. The work literally leaves us speechless. It is the first installation we see in our private three-hour tour and it nearly knocks the wind out of us.

It’s a long beautiful room, concrete floors, high ceilings, brick walls. All around, large four-panel windows have been installed, flooding the room with light. The boxes are quite large, all identical in size, all aluminum. The differences are in their interiors. Here there are sweeping diagonal planes, vertical columns, floating mini-boxes, emptiness, light. The seams of the interiors are so flawless, they sometimes disappear in the light. There is a play of depth and flatness here that is awe-inspiring. Judd has actually made the flat deep and the deep flat. Each new interplay of planes is a revelation. Take three steps left and light changes the sculpture’s dimensions entirely. There is no question that the boxes are at home here – the light, the concrete, the roundness of the ceiling, they could be nowhere else. I am fascinated by the genius of craft at work here, the way that aluminum becomes painterly. Paul is moved to tears. This work is tremendous.

The remainder of the tour is engaging and rich, though nothing will compare to the initial Judd work. We see more Judd boxes, this time wooden, suspended on a wall. We see a whole series of Flavin light installations – long white rooms that end in diagonally vertical fluorescent bulbs. Again depth, flatness, light as paint, light as sculpture, colors vibrating. We see an installation that simulates an abandoned Russian schoolhouse. Lovely, nostalgic, sad. Another installation is all poetry, word art, words shaped as art. If it weren’t so hot, I’d stay and read them all for it’s clear there is sharp wit here. Another installation is titled, “Things That Happen Again” (or something close). Two large forms of copper, shaped like cork lie far apart on a concrete floor in a building that somehow, has copper light. Wooden beams criss-crossed above. The wildlife on the grounds seems part of the show and a wild pig scampers nearby. As we pass between buildings a deer trots by. Everywhere there are butterflies, moths, flowers, ants. The world is quietly buzzing.

By the time we reach the dinner hall, a room created for special events, we are ready to move in. It’s a brilliant idea for a home, very large, airy, but very very simple. Just a table, chairs, two sofa-like pieces, a sleeping loft. Kitchen, bath. What else could one possibly need? Again, the sunshine is flooding through creating beautiful shadows and art of its own accord.

A quick trip downtown yields another warehouse-like building. Parts of smashed cars as art materials. The artist claims he is driven not by emotion or intellect but by sex, because the pieces fit perfectly together, but not welded together. Paul makes a kooky sign (as in, is this guy loony toons?). Still, the work is interesting.

Our minds and hearts have been pried open by art. It feels incredible that this could happen in west Texas. And yet it has. We wish so many of you reading could experience it too! There is an open house in October….Marfa, anyone?

In the early afternoon, I sleep (I’m doing that a lot these days) and Paul drives, entranced by his surroundings. Maybe it is the art that has set his eyes aglow, but he vows that this stretch of land is perhaps the most beautiful yet. Move over Wyoming, Texas has his heart.

We are prodigious in our driving today and we sleep in Fort Worth, having crossed half of this gargantuan state. Tomorrow: Memphis.
Day 23, Tue July 10 (Melisa)

As we leave the city behind, the landscape becomes flat and empty. Similar to what happened in Wyoming, Paul begins to fall in love. There is something majestic about these long stretches of country, sublime, Paul might say. The day is hot and dry and dust devils abound. These are mini-tornado-like winds that pick up dirt and form funnels. They can grow up to 20 feet high and within seconds disappear. Paul is punctuating the silence with exclamations over the dust devils ‘Wow!” “Oh my god,” “Look look look!” “It’s huge!” They are remarkable. Sometimes they come right up to the road and give the car a shove. Whoosh!

It’s a long quiet drive across west Texas. We arrive at our destination mid-afternoon: Marfa, Texas. It’s a tiny little town, a bump in the road, but as we learn, there is quite a bit of history here. There are thunderstorms brewing and we’re not sure whether we’ll see one of the town’s main attractions: the Marfa lights. The lights are an unexplained phenomenon. Small, motorcycle-like lights in the distance that appear most nights and are only visible from one particular spot. They hover, go in and out, and what they actually are is completely unexplained. They’ve brought Unsolved Mysteries here, the Japanese television equivalent, scientists, triangulated helicopters, and they cannot figure it out. The best they can do is to say they are “reflections” but it’s unclear of what off of what.

As the sun sets, we drive towards the viewing spot and pull over to watch the storm for a bit. It’s putting on quite a show, yellow shocks of lightening across a dark blue gray sky. We sit in the car for no more than five minutes when a white pick up truck pulls up beside us. I roll down the window, thinking he’s got a question or something. When I look at him enquiringly, he just says, “It’s quite a storm, innit?” He turns out to be Lee Donald, a “Marfian” who has lived there for 35 years. He’s sipping a Budweiser discretely and his plan, we learn, is to keep us company all night long. It’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he is drinking and driving and uninvited. On the other hand, he has lived about a dozen lifetimes and he is full of interesting tidbits about life in Marfa. Though I take it with a grain of salt (beer), he tells us he has traveled the world as a sculptor, no less. He says, “Yea, I guess I’m just one of those weird rednecks.” He was best friends with Donald Judd (the artist whose work we are here to see – this story checks out when we ask about it at the foundation) and he both created his own works as well as installed those of others around the world (“I lost a wife over it,” he says). He’s also been a truck driver, done construction, and most recently installed Cisco routers to provide local broadband. So we just sit and listen to him talk about Don (“uh, Mister Judd, that is”) and the foundation and the politics with the kids after Don died. He laments the gentrification of Marfa (“There used to be two lawyers here, now there’s 28…they’re buying up property and rebuilding everything new…used to be a cowboy could rent a place for a hun’red dollars a week. Now it’s $50,000 to buy…”). And of course, he offers to show us where to see the lights (“That is, if ya’ll don’t mind the company.”).

What happens next is quite cool. We climb up on the picnic tables and watch the sky, and listen to Lee amble on. Our eyes fix on anything that is lit and we consult our resident expert. “What’s that?” “Venus.”” “What about that?” “A star.” “So low on the horizon?” “Yep.” On we chat until suddenly we see a light far from the stars. It’s hovering. Then a second and a third. They seem to be dancing together, dipping up and down, in and out. Now two. Now one. Now three. They turn on and off and reappear much to the left from their original appearance [we managed a photo so you can see for yourself]. Even Lee stops his chatting and says, “Well, now.” The Marfa Lights. We turn our minds round and round it, asking Lee for everything he knows. Could they be cars? They move too oddly. Planes? Too dark. Motorcycles? They’re high off the ground. Reflections? This seems the most probable explanation, but reflections of what? They are in the middle of nowhere. Lee attests to their position over mountains where there are no roads. He tells us about the time he came out with a Japanese scientist to find the science in it, and they could not put together a solution. Three vehicles several miles apart in a triangle around the lights. But only one of them could even see the lights and still it was unclear where they were. So perhaps we’ve been duped as hundreds of tourists have been (since 1880, the booklet tells us). But if so, it’s a mighty good trick. Better than X-Files.
Day 22, Mon July 9 (Melisa)
Today: New Mexico. The skies are a brilliant blue today and the clouds remind me of Wyoming. Fluffy puffs large and small that seem placed expressly to decorate. Again we are happy to be on empty roads where our only company is the occasional cowboy passing by in his pick up. The day is quiet and warm and we pull off to get a closer look at a Radio Astronomy Observatory sitting silently in a cow field. There is a cow crossing sign and just as we approach, several cows trot onto the road. We watch them cross, grinning. The last pair is waiting politely on the side of the road looking at us like, “Well? Are you going?” We bring the car to a complete halt. They look for all the world like they’re saying, “Okay man, whatever you say” as they cross. We’re about to pull ahead when one last cow and calf come racing across the road – “Wait for us!” Very cute.

Our afternoon of driving starts to wind down as we approach White Sands National Park (one more!). We pull into the lot, climb out the car, clamber up a sandy hill, and quite suddenly we are in the Sahara. The photos make it look gray – it isn’t. Pure white sand surrounds us, hills all around. The only sound is the whish of the wind over the sand. This may be my favorite place yet. The animals are all burrowed deep within the hills. The plant life clusters to certain spots so that there are entire plains of vision that are only sand. The air is cool from the breeze, the light is rich and the sand timeless. This is the place that time forgot. It really does feel like wilderness – what a beautiful white glow! I sink my fingers in it, dig my toes in it, nothing but silk…makes me wish all the world were made of sand.

Once again, I feel that if the trip ended right at this moment, it would be lushly worthwhile.

We finish the day in El Paso which is largely disappointing. It looks like nothing so much as Cincinnati, Ohio. Old, once industrial, once interesting, with remnants of semi-cool architecture, but for the most part dumpy with nothing going on. This city has become it’s namesake: a passage from and to the US and Mexico. Nothing more. Still, we stay in the oldest hotel in town and see Paul Rodriguez in the lobby. Apparently the hotel is popular with Mexican comedians (Cheech & Chong are rumored to be staying here too). We have a nice dinner and set our sites on Texas in earnest.
Day 21, Sun July 8 (Melisa)
[ed. Note: just noticed my day numbering was off by one – apologies.]

We spend the morning driving around the park and stopping at the viewpoints. It makes us itchy to hike – if it’s this beautiful from this distance, how incredible must it be to be surrounded by the red ridges, the swooping hawks, to be close enough to see movement in the river? But my doctor’s orders are to take it easy, so we content ourselves with the views, each one more stunning than the last. Paul’s panaroma shots give a little bit of the feel for it, but it’s an indescribable beauty. We will return to this place.

For now, it’s back to the road. At this point we have a large dilemma: do we continue the theme of national parks and visit Bryce Canyon, Zion, Escalante? Or do we chase down the art installation Paul is hungry to see in west Texas? This route would take us through another broad swath of America including Memphis. This is not an easy decision. I have been hearing about Utah for years so that the state has taken on a kind of mythical status in my mind that equals beauty. Conversely, when the hell else will we EVER go to west Texas? Our reasoning:
The parks make us hungry to hike, and I really shouldn’t risk it (baby is having a little bit of a rough and tumble first trimester).
We don’t really have enough time to really hike the parks, even if we could.
There are storms headed north and we could get rained out.
We have seen so much natural beauty, we are at risk for becoming jaded and nonplussed by yet another beautiful vista.
The parks are not going anywhere.
Modernist light installations in former army barracks in the middle of nowhere? C’mon! It’s cool!

We decide to head for Texas.

We spend the rest of the day driving through Arizona, stopping occasionally to look at still more incredible vistas. There are canyon views all around. We have taken smaller roads and are delighted with how empty they are. We could almost stop in the middle of the road to take photos. Instead we find still more “attractions” right on our path. We see signs for a meteor site and decide to check it out.

Meteor crater turns out to be an enormous hole, blasted out of the earth by, you guessed it, a meteor. This place turns a hefty little profit, we observe, as the family of four Italians hands over their twenty bucks. (The little girls are freckled and precocious and they run up the stairs talking loudly, and perhaps self-consciously to each other in Italian. The father ambles up behind them in his never-to-be-seen-in-the-US-lime-green sweater. I love finding internationals in random places). We make our way up and look down on what is indeed an enormous crater. But similar to the Grand Canyon, it’s almost impossible to grasp the size because of the lack of context. To assist the visitor, the management has placed a six-foot “astronaut” in the very center of the crater, waving next to an American flag (supposedly Apollo astronauts trained here in preparation for their trip to the moon). Neither is really recognizable with the naked eye. But when we look through the viewing scopes and see them magnified, and then look again without the scope, our brains begin to click into understanding. This crater is colossal. Check out the photos!

Onward we go and before long, we arrive at yet another national park (our National Parks pass has more than paid for itself, we are proud to note): The Petrified Forest. This is a place where a large number of trees (a forest, in fact) was subsumed by geological forces in the earth and then covered by minerals. Over time, the minerals entered into every nook and cranny of the trees and replaced their entire substance. The result is trees that have the exact shape and visual texture of trees, but are in fact composed entirely of stone (minerals). The forest is at the end of a drive that takes us through what they call “Painted Desert.” Paul calls this “the Badlands in color.” It is beautiful. Stripes of purple, maize, green, umber, blue, rust all banding around the graceful curving forms. We also pass a placed called Newspaper Rock, a large rock face covered in ancient petroglyphs. Very cool. When we reach the Petrified Forest it looks a bit littered. Logs and stumps strewn about. It’s almost as if someone has been sloppy about their wood chopping duties. But when we go on foot and approach the stumps, we find rainbows. Paul thinks they’re ok, but I think they are glorious. A wood stump made of black and rust stone! See the photos and decide for yourself.

The colors in this state are tremendous. Dozens of greens and yellows. The skies are a little stormy to the west and the contrast of gray-blue to golden grasses is startling. Here again the photos don’t quite do the landscape justice. Paul keeps gasping as we rise on a hill and another view lays out before us.

We finish the day at Elko’s Motel. The cowboy behind the desk looks at us incredulously when we ask if there is a vacancy. He answers with a bass voice that you have to hear to believe, “Why yes ma’am.” His teeth are sparkling white like his hair and his under bite is pronounced. “Would you like smoking or non?” I keep coming up with questions just so I can hear his voice. Where is the laundry? Where can we get soap? What time does it open? I know the answers, but his voice is rich and comes from a cavernous place. It’s past 10 by the time we hit the room and we collapse gladly.
[More July 7; Melisa]
We’ve had our fill of back roads and are eager to get to the day’s destination: The Grand Canyon. We arrive just after sunset and stop at the first viewpoint. The parking lot is full and the babble of chatter that consumes us as we step out of the car is international: Japanese, Italian, Polish. It’s late and I’m tired and so I trudge down the path to the view. A sharp intake of breath and I am spellbound. Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. Photos cannot do justice to the vastness of this space. The eye immediately loses understanding of perspective. The only sense my mind manages is that somehow we have landed on another planet. How else to explain the enormity of the landscape? It’s as though I were gazing from an airplane window or a high rise. The Colorado river is a teensy little wedge of green peeking out from the red. The canyon is massive, luminous and silent. It’s getting dark and with one look from me Paul knows I want to return in the morning.

We decide to stay in the park. The lodge is identical to the lodges at all national parks, except for the employees and clientele, both of whom are notably international. Families, couples, retirees, it seems everyone is from all over. We are all pretty equally disappointed with the cafeteria cuisine. But we’re happy to be cozying up in the yellow light of the cabin rooms.

Tuesday, July 10, 2001

More pictures. Arizona. Click here.

Monday, July 09, 2001

Day 21, Sat July 7 (Melisa)
Without a little reluctance, we pack up and summon the valet. Vegas was great, but as Paul has become fond of saying, “the road calls.” We strike out to the Grand Canyon to resume the great American adventure.

Our goal is to arrive at sunset but we don’t quite manage it. Lured by back roads and native reservations we make some loops and run into flash floods. The speed with which the rain fills the dips in the road takes our breath away. The sky is banded with color, the storms vertical columns that bring tornadoes to mind. A little dazed by the spectacles nature throws in front of us, we stop for lunch.

Dolan Springs is a little strip of RV parks and beat up old buildings consisting mostly of real estate companies. There’s an Elks lodge, a grocery store, a jail house (this last, incredible, it’s the size of a shed, room enough for perhaps just one prisoner), and a couple of cafes. We stop at the Kountry Kitchen. I am, as per usual these days, ravenous and I scarf down what seems to be the best BLT I’ve ever consumed.

There is a group of residents sitting around a table nearby waiting out the storm. They are all middle-aged, very comfortable with each other, laughing often. Their faces have a weathered quality and a kind of peaceful resignation. It may be my traveler’s mind romanticizing, but are they happier here? Do they understand something we don’t?

Day 20, Fri July 6 (Melisa)
Today is a very special day. Lyzzie’s birthday (Happy day!), and our confirmation of another birth to come: our very own little one. I am just halfway through the rough and tumble first trimester, so please don’t spread the word far and wide, but it’s official: we have a heartbeat. At Desert Radiology, we heard the heartbeat of the little tiny blob that is the baby inside me. My body: gone haywire. My appetite: ballooned. My energy and patience levels: low, all of it in service of this little tiny growing one. I am beaming. Paul can’t stop hugging me. It’s raining for the first time in six months, a major storm, but we stand inside the clinic waiting for the taxi and grin.
Day 19, Thurs July 5 (Melisa)
Las Vegas is tremendous. If you haven’t been since they converted it from sleazy strip to Disney Land, you should visit – this is Disney on steroids. The feeling in the air is akin to Mardi Gras, but for families. Babies, retirees, teenagers all walk the strip late into the night. They go from one hotel attraction to another. To wit: a 40-foot volcano that explodes over waterfalls and palm trees every 15 minutes – fire, gas explosions, simulated lava, vaporous smoke; a water show of hundreds of erupting fountains every 20 minutes; a pirate show, roller coasters, trams from one hotel to the next, and of course, casino upon casino. A female voice purrs out of megaphone speakers, “It’s hot! Wouldn’t you just love an ice cold margarita? Come and get yours free at the bar now! Or how about a latte or cappuccino? Compliments of the Regent Casino!” We pass cover bands playing just off the street, everywhere brochures are thrust into our hands (“Hot ladies! Call today!”) and the digital displays hawk their wares just as surely – Siegfried and Roy, Melinda First Lady of Magic, Cirque du Soleil. True to it’s word, Vegas is chock full of action.

Our suite (we are staying at the Venetian, an “all-suite hotel”) delivers on the promise of Vegas with full regalia. At 1100 square feet, it is nearly as big as our condo. All marble bath, gold-plated fixtures, two massive armoires (a TV each), a full living room and study. Beth surmises that the goal is to make you feel rich so you’ll spend a lot of money and let me tell you it works. Almost immediately we are in the mall (“St. Mark’s Square” where it is perpetually twilight and there are performers walking the “streets” and bursting into operatic renditions of ‘Sole Mio’ from time to time) buying Paul’s summer wardrobe. One doesn’t want to look too shabby (one certainly doesn’t want to look unemployed) as one strolls across the marble under the giant frescoes while classical music streams out over the chandeliers. We engage in chit chat with a nice couple from Denver as we wait to be seated at the “outdoor style” café. We look at each other and reply in unison, “We’re consultants.” Vegas is not for the unemployed.

Indeed it is designed for those on the cusp of prosperity and fittingly, there are many brides about. One prepares to mount the bridal gondola which tours “Venice” so that she may be serenaded by a man in a striped t-shirt and straw hat on her special day. The Venice theme is pushed over the top in every way possible. There are maps of Venice, Italy for sale. There are postcards with photos of Venice, Italy that say, “The Venetian.” Shops sell hand blown glass, leather goods, glass pen sets. It’s almost as if we were in…the heart of America.

Outrageous as it is, unfailingly tacky in some ways, unabashedly entertaining, we sort of love it. It’s clean and cushy and comfortable. The people watching is almost better than a Paris café (for sheer volume if nothing else), the shows are fun (we see “Femme” direct from the Crazyhorse in Paris), everyone is smiling, the coins clink cheerily out of the slots (not ours), the cars (“You could win this!”) spin dazzlingly in the middle of the casinos, and just as it should be in a town built by the mob, you can get a great espresso just about anywhere (Paul is astounded).

We celebrate our anniversary in the “grill” of a celebrated Italian restaurant with the largest wine list in America (“Probably in the world!” our enthusiastic waiter tells us). The food is good, the wine is quite good (again an astounded Paul) and we are content. We toy with the notion of staying here for the duration.
Day 16 - 18, Mon July 2 - Wed July 4 (Melisa)
Today we head to the mountains for time with our good friend Beth at Lake Arrowhead. We are preoccupied with directions and time and the possibility of a doctor’s visit and are taken by surprise by the rich landscape. The road winds sharply from left to right and not unlike Big Sur, the valleys open up before us, thousands of feet below. This is home to Rim of the World high school. No modesty here – it’s not Rim of Arrowhead or Rim of California or even Rim of America, no sir, it’s the rim of the WORLD. God bless America.

The following couple of days are a study in relaxation with long enormous home cooked meals, games, reading, sun bathing and lively conversation as we roast marshmallows and drink wine. Here’s to Christie, Beth, Julie & John, Sandrine & Sandy for a great time. Next stop: Death Valley.

We sped through Death Valley. Too quickly. How do you spend time in the Valley of Death when the temperature soars past 130 degrees? First, you must know that Death Valley is vast. It is the largest national park in the continental United States: 3.3 million acres. Approaching from the West, you pass desolate mining towns and see the Panamint Range before you. Climbing into those mountains, we move off the beaten path (4 or 5 cars per hour drops to none) into the wilderness. The map claims we are on unpaved road, but remnants of asphalt are good enough to navigate. A small sign tells us we have entered Death Valley. Oddly, our entrance is an oasis of wild roses, nestled into narrow rocky cliffs. One car, ours, can pass between the high, narrow, green channel. If we were to break down here, we would need to wait until evening and walk in the 100F night to the closest paved road where cars are few and far between. Here, we meet no one. The range is dotted with low shrubs that remind me of the Colorado desert. The mountains have many colors. On the Eastern side of the Panamint, we drop down into the dunes and take a quick break at Stovepipe Wells. The heat is intense and a hot dry wind blows. Try this at home. Go get a hair dryer. I’m serious, grab a hair dryer. Plug it in. Turn it to the hot temperature setting and to the low fan setting. Point the nozzle at your face and keep the end of the nozzle about 6 inches from your nose. Turn on the hair dryer and keep it pointed at your face for about 30 seconds. What you are experiencing is one of the experiences to be had in Death Valley. That, and the fact that this is one of the most beautiful natural geographies in the world.

I’ve just scanned the tour book for Death Valley. I glance at the section titled, “When to Go.” It reads, “Not in summer.” I’ll steal a little more. “The geological term for the area is graven, a sunken section of the earth’s crust. Its barren, silent depths contain the lowest point in the Western Hemsiphere – 282 feet below sea level.”

The area with sand dunes is smaller than I remember them from some 20 years ago. Have winds blown them away? Even so, these dunes have the same majesty of the Saharan dunes. Gorgeous golden sweeping curves, dimpled with brown shadows and glistening yellows. Turning south, we head toward the salt flats and the Devil’s Golf Course, the remnants of an ancient sea. As we drop below sea level, the air becomes denser, the heat hotter, and I begin to think deeply about the talent of German engineers. Our car engine keeps a cool and steady 190F. The air conditioner struggles but cools.

The Artists Palette is a range of mountains dotted with yellows, reds, oranges, greens, purples, browns, and whites. A real beautiful mess that appears to be painted on the sides of the canyon. We take the loop road and marvel like kids in a candy store.

Further down we enter the salt flats. Brilliant white crusts of salt, contorted through their forming into inscrutable shapes. They recede into the horizon where the Panamint range and ancient mine ruins hold their wonders for winter hikers. Sand and other soil dusts the salt to create a beautiful white and brown fresco. We descend to Badwater, a sad little puddle of water as large as a kiddie pool. The salt here is hard like stone and, amazingly, snails live in the salt cracks (walk carefully). Melisa and I step out of the car. We are in an oven. The air is alive with potential. I would say the silence is unbroken, but the air here makes a sound as it swirls around itself, around its own heat. The little kiddie pool ripples, no – vibrates, with its own evaporation. The energy here is intense. I’ve never felt more alive in the last 1000 days.

On the eastern side of the park, after we have exited, we run into wild horses. Then, half-way to Vegas, a terrible storm. Tornados are rare (if not impossible here), but you could have fooled me. We could see the terrible supercells charging across the hot landscape. Keep in mind that the sun is setting and the temperature is still 100F. As we approach the storms, cracks of lightning attack the asphalt. The supercells, about six of them, have an ominous funnel shape. Some are a quarter mile across. One is about 2 miles wide. Suddenly, hail smacks the car. The road is covered with loose scrub, tree branches, and other vegetation the storm has picked up in its travels. A sheet of water cuts across the road; the wind is fierce. The sky is deep gray blue, pink, yellow. Then, the water (there are no individual drops that I can see) is pounding the car. All traffic halts and puts on their emergency blinkers. Then, I see nothing. We wait a fearful half-minute until it is clear enough to continue. By the time we can see the Vegas lights, the air is dry and warm.

And where do we find ourselves on this colossal country’s Independence Day? Las Vegas, of course.
Day 15, Sun July 1 (Melisa)

The morning is perhaps more beautiful than the evening. As I lay in the tent staring at the light, soaking up the quiet, I hear a little rustling nearby. Something is very quietly picking at our packs. “Paul!” “Paul! Do you hear that ?” “What?” “Something in our packs!” The sound of the unzipping of the tent is deafening. He creeps out and pads over the rock. A round fuzzy figure leaps out of sight, zero to five feet in seconds. We learn later it was a kangaroo mouse (“I thought that thing leaped awfully high!”)

By nine o’clock the heat is so oppressive it is driving us out of the campsite. GPS to the rescue as we follow the digital arrows and make it back to the Passat safely. Once on the road again, Paul has only one word: HAMBURGER. The body knows when it needs protein.

Often in these towns we have the choice between the national chain joint and the local café, side by side. Usually we opt for the local. The sign caught our attention – Charbroiled Burgers! Fries! Shakes! When we walk in, the entire place sizes us up. After sitting a while watching, we come to understand that every single person in here knows each other. A young couple with a small child comes in and sits with the old men up front by the grill to chat a spell before going to their table to eat (Paul falls in love with the wide-eyed mom). The local hotty sits in a booth nearby flipping her blonde ponytail from side to side. The old men grouse and then yuck it up. But the waitress treats us the same as everyone else. We are served enormous platters of food and we nearly polish off the entire meal.

Once again, the heat saps us of all energy and we decide it’s laundry time in Yucca Valley. But we’re not going to settle for a little dumpy town without seeking out some local color, so we check in to a Theme Room at the Oasis of Eden (recommended by my dad). Our selection? Tahiti. This one defies verbal description. You’ll have to check out Paul’s photos. We finish off the night with Lara Croft (dumb, but appropriate and mildly entertaining) and sleep soundly.

Saturday, July 07, 2001

New pictures at click here.

Friday, July 06, 2001

I've got the next batch of pictures almost ready: Oakland, Route 1 in California, Southeast California, Joshua Tree National Park, Lake Arrowhead, Death Valley, and Vegas. We've been very very busy in Vegas and have a surprise for our readers. The last picture in the batch will reveal all! I've gotten rid of NetZero. To all considering free ISPs, do not go with NetZero. Just hooked up with Earthlink and am running at 41Kbaud, so picture uploads should be a little more smooth. Stay tuned. We should be updated by July 7. Then we head back into the wilderness, so updates may come every 2 or 3 days.
Day 14, Sat June 30 (Melisa)
After all these nights of motels, hotels and friends’ pads, we are getting very antsy to camp. So we skirt the temptations of Los Angeles and the southern end of Route 1 and make a bee line to Joshua Tree. By hook or by crook, we will camp! As we enter desert terrain, the heat rises and almost suddenly, we are in the full bake of a desert afternoon. Two o’clock finds us dragging into Palm Springs, starving but pleasantly subdued by the oven-effect of our environs. The heat saps everything, all worries, all anxieties, leaving only a steady calm in its wake. Every thing we eat is made all the more delicious and I luxuriate over a tall glass of sorbet: mango, coconut and strawberry. Yum. We are momentarily tempted by the thought of lounging around in Palm Springs all weekend, but our camping gear sulks in the trunk and we push on to Joshua Tree.

The terrain is so dry and empty that we can see the road for miles ahead of us, winding through the desert. The entrance to Joshua Tree just sort of shows up, with little fanfare. Made cautious by the many full campgrounds that have turned us away, we ask, do we need a permit? Are there sites available? The woman gives us an indulgent smile, “You got the place to yourselves.” We look at each other, momentarily concerned. Why is there no one here? Are we crazy to camp in the desert in July? Does everyone know something we don’t? Well we are at least going to check it out.

What marks this place from the others we’ve been is the almost unearthly quiet. There is nothing but the sound of the breeze. It feels unchanged over millennia, indifferent to our presence, prepared to endure, even thrive, in the scorching heat for eons to come. We find ourselves whispering as we prepare the packs, fill out the “backcountry camping” forms and strap on our boots.

The desert is stunning and vibrant with life. The stereotype is that nothing can survive, but in fact there are plants and animals all around, green everywhere. Half a dozen different kinds of cacti, pink, green, yellow. Lizards, hawks, and more we’ll discover.
The sun is low in the sky and the breeze cools us as we select our campsite, climbing up rocks, avoiding the bees, and seeking a flat spot where we can sleep. As Paul sets up camp, the sun pulls out all the stops for the most beautiful show we’ve seen – enormous pink swaths, white marshmallow clouds, orange and blue stripes. When the sun sinks below the mountains they turn black, orange glowing all around.

There is a problem with the camping stove (the gas and the stove are not connecting properly) so Paul has to hold the gas on full-throttle as I hold the beans over the stove. We get the feeling that there are animals all around, laughing at us. But when we climb up onto the rocks, pot of black beans in hand, and see the moon risen, lighting up the desert for us, we are content once again.

Our night in the desert is magic. What I learn is this: the night has phases and moods just like the day. Not even the moon is constant. 1: moon bright, no stars, gentle cool breeze, crickets softly singing. 2: the moon has set, the stars are everywhere, the crickets are quiet, the breeze is gone. It is so still it is almost vibrating. 3: the light has begun to creep in, an occasional breeze returns and the clouds show up to decorate the sun rise. The morning is perhaps more beautiful than the evening. As I lay in the tent staring at the light, I hear a little rustling nearby.
Day 13, Fri June 29 (Melisa)
Route 1. We drove from Half Moon Bay to Santa Barbara. We did the 17-mile scenic drive around the Monterrey peninsula, saw the famed Pebble Beach, and lunched overlooking the ocean with German tourists and immaculate waiters (the Hyatt). We were hoping for a beach dive with cheap fish, but no such luck. This part of the country is shee-shee defined. But you can’t complain when the view is this spectacular.

We wound our way up and down the cliffs and reached Big Sur. Massive blue skies, long rusty cliffs, waves crashing in the distance. The air is pine-scented and alive. We stopped and stood over the cliffs, our toes sinking in the mat of mossy green. Our chosen road stop was covered in a profusion of flowers, birds chirping. As we stepped around to take in the view, we came upon a small group of people, smiling, tentative, giving each other direction -- a wedding rehearsal. Back to the road, our spirits high.

The areas between Big Sur and Santa Barbara are in marked contrast. The other side of the tracks, as it were. The look here for young men seems to be shaved head, ZZ Top goatee -- long, scraggly, uncombed. Wraparound shades, no shirt, shorts and vans. No camping available (everything on the beach is booked three months in advance) but as the little old lady at the camping booth told us, the trucks start in just about ten o’clock and continue all night long. Beach races with monster trucks, there’s a name for it, isn’t there? Derby? Loud and obnoxious relative to our intentions for romantic camping. We press on.

By the time we get to Santa Barbara it’s nearly eleven at night and we are exhausted. A little desperate after two main drags of full-out no-vacancy signs, we stumble across the Santa Barbara hotel and manage to nab the very last room. Cop show re-runs and giant burritos and we are sated once again.