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All-American road

Las Vegas is strange for so many reasons, not least of which is the very fact that it exists where it does. Its name, which means “The Meadows,” could not be more misleading. Outside the city limits, the desert makes it very clear that it was not designed to support life—much less creatures as particular as humans. It implies a life cycle that consists of relatively little between dust and dust. Certainly there is wildlife hidden in the arid basin, hard and spiny as the yucca and desert scrub itself, or else hidden away in the hills until nightfall cools the valley for warm-blooded species to roam. The creatures that thrive there, though, are the cold-blooded ones.

When people think of Las Vegas, the image that leaps to mind is that of the Strip—that Rhapsody in Neon otherwise known as Las Vegas Boulevard, which in 2000 the U.S. Department of Transportation enshrined as an “All-American Road,” an exclusive subcategory of its National Scenic Byways program. By designating certain roads as such (there are 99 National Scenic Byways and 27 All-American Roads) the DOT hoped to “recognize and enhance the best of America’s national transportation corridors”—ways that are “often ‘off the beaten path’ and provide a taste of real Americana.” Inevitably, press releases evoked the language of the famous Frost poem, and so begged the question: How does one expect to preserve the Road Less Traveled by diverting traffic to it? The bureaucrats, it appeared, had appropriated only Frost’s romanticism and not his sense of irony.

Unlike most of its peers on the All-American Roads list, of course, the Vegas Strip was not awarded the distinction in hopes of drawing in crowds and the services to support them, but rather because of the garishness of those that already existed. Indeed, of all All-American Roads, Las Vegas Boulevard stands to suffer the least from that designation, because the value of its “intrinsic character” owes not to the absence of human invention but to the gluttonous conceit of it. Although it is unlikely that a significant proportion of tourists seek out Vegas on a tip from the Federal Highway Administration, any added attention would only accelerate the cultural ferment that makes Vegas such a darling.

As it stands, Las Vegas garners just about all the attention it can handle. For all its ostentation, the Strip was difficult to spot amid the sprawl, which spread across the basin like mold in a Petrie dish. It had the aggressive character of the sprawl that orbited Houston, the swagger that comes with being located on an essential access road of a famous metropolis. But rather than catering to mundane needs, Vegas sprawl seemed largely directed toward indulgent appetites: Fewer home furnishings outlets and pharmacies, more high-end sports car dealerships and strip bars. The marketplace has little use for practical commerce; here, fortunes change hands quickly and capriciously, instilling consumers with the fear that if large sums were not spent at once, they might vaporize without warning. This was extremely intimidating to our carful of penny-pinching travelers, and we rolled into Vegas to the tune of Gram Parsons singing “Vegas ain’t no place for a poor boy like me.”

We were staying at a hotel called the Sahara, located on the far north end of the Strip. The room had cost $45 a night after tax through Hotels.com, which was cheaper than most walk-in motels we had seen in towns where the night life was confined to swilling Red Bull in a pickup flatbed outside the 24-hour Exxon station; the assumption being that any money you “saved” on the room would eventually find its way into the hotel’s many slot machines. These were in no short supply. While most conventional hotels dedicate an ample part of the ground floor to the lobby, the Sahara, to maximize the square footage of its casino, had squeezed the lobby into a narrow corridor, making it resemble the check-in station at a poorly run airport, both in appearance and inefficiency. But with each shuffle of weary travelers shin-shoving their luggage through the queue I saw the desire for a cocktail and the cathartic yank of a slot box rise incrementally, leading me to believe the lobby design was not a product of incompetence, but of genius.

While Ben and Rachel waited in the line, I took a walk in the late-afternoon heat. The sun was still high above the spire of the Stratosphere, a hotel made to resemble Seattle’s Space Needle. In addition to the chance to enjoy the world’s three tallest thrill rides, the Stratosphere’s novel altitude provides guests a convenient place to commit suicide; five people have leaped to their deaths from the observation deck since the hotel opened in 1996. Craning my neck, I could see a green bow of track loop and hear the screams of riders as the roller coaster simulated this experience by whipping them momentarily over the edge the observation deck. The ride is called the Insanity. In April 2005, the Insanity shut down automatically due to high winds, leaving 18-year-old Erica McKinnon and her 11-year-old cousin Gabriella dangling 900 feet above the Strip in a 60 mph breeze for nearly an hour and half. The hotel compensated the girls with year-long passes to the ride, somehow managing to do so with a straight face. Up on the spire itself, a ride called the Big Shot rifles guests repeatedly up and down the spire in a manner traditionally associated with self-gratification.

Apropos, when I uncraned my neck I was looking at porn. I vaguely recalled the call girl catalogs from my only previous Vegas experience, when my dad brought the family along on a business trip. He had been sternly rebuked by an official for letting me and James into the slot pit. Once it became clear that there were precious few areas of the hotel we were actually allowed to be in, we took to the streets, where the lecherous flyers were strewn about the sidewalks, prompting our mother to drag us along at an uncomfortably brisk pace. Unchained, I was able to study them more carefully. The breadth of the selection was truly impressive—“college girls,” “mature” women (40+), very “mature” women (60+), blondes, brunettes, Asian girls, fetish, “alternative,” whatever that could mean. No vendor passed on the temptation to offer a “$69 Special.”

As arresting as it is by night, Las Vegas is extraordinarily ugly by day. At night, the stained concrete walls and sun-faded facades disappear into the shadows, overwhelmed by neon blooms whose colors never pale. During the day they fester in the heat like plastic furniture in a sandbox. In the void of the night, the uncanny architecture of the Strip seems to make sense in the same way the logical inconsistencies of a dream sequence flow easily in the moment: Now you are in the Roman Forum, surrounded by moving white-marble tableaus, designer clothing outlets, and women in form-fitting bunny costumes dancing in cages; suddenly, here you are staring up at the Statue of Liberty and a condensed, pinkened New York City skyline behind it; and say, is that Elvis Presley drinking something out of a green plastic vase with a crazy straw? Didn’t you see him earlier posing with Japanese tourists outside a giant obsidian pyramid? Oops, now you’re in Paris! Then dawn peels back the curtain, spilling sunlight into the darkness. “What the hell was that?” the traveler mutters, sitting up with a start. He puts a hand to his brow and squints out at the day-brightened fantasyland. “And what the hell is all this stuff doing in the desert?”

I walked about a half mile south on Las Vegas Boulevard before giving up and turning around. The streams of sweat that trickled down my temples had successfully navigated through my beard and now pooled at the crux of my clavicle, wrinkling the front of my collar. Plumes of dampness had also spread outward from my chest, armpits, and back. “You look hot,” remarked a full-length mirror advertising a local bus company. “Why, thank you!” I replied, blushing through my sunburn. It was not until later that I realized I was being mocked.

Ben called and told me they had managed to bypass the two-hour check-in line by lodging a loud complaint at the customer service desk. I offered to pick up some beer on my way up. The air-conditioning of the minimart was a welcome relief. I grabbed a six-pack of Fat Tire and two bottles of the cheapest Champagne they had. On a two-foot ceiling beam that divided the liquor store from the general store, I noticed a series of admonitions: “Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour longer –God,” said one. “You think it’s hot here? –God,” warned another; vestiges of the piety that was the basis of Las Vegas’s initial settlement as a Mormon outpost in 1855, when Brigham Young sent missionaries to convert the local Paiute Indians. They abandoned the project after two years. The task lying before the city’s modern evangelists is even more daunting, which is probably why their goals are more modest: “Hey you, stumbling drunk out of a wedding chapel with the hooker you bought with what was left of your kids’ college trust after seven hours at the craps tables—clean up that language, will you?”

Eight years before he dispatched the Latter-Day Saints on that unfruitful quest to sanctify Las Vegas, Young had sent an expedition of 238 members of his flock to California under the direction of an ambitious 28-year-old saint named Samuel Brannan. Brannan eventually broke with the Mormon Church after Young refused to lead the rest of his followers to California, and began embezzling church funds and filling his small general store with mining supplies. He then purchased a vial of gold dust and marched through the streets of San Francisco, shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the Americas River!” Fevered prospectors flooded the Sacramento Valley, where Brannan’s store waited to outfit them with the necessary gear. Only a fraction found significant amounts of gold; most found tedium and toil and returned home broken men. Brannan, on the other hand, became California’s first millionaire without ever shouldering a pickaxe.  

I hadn’t intended to gamble. It did not seem like a terribly good idea, seeing as how my gaming competence grew hazy beyond “Go Fish” and I had just been had by a bus advertisement. But in a place where the alternatives were watching TV in the room or shelling out $47 for nosebleed seats to watch Roseanne Barr ruminate on the travails of menopause, gaming actually seemed like the least wasteful use of my time. I pocketed $20 and went downstairs.

I was apprehensive about gambling in front of real live people, but I didn’t want to play slots. Slot machines are for the people in the casino who want their gambling experience to be both joyless and interminable. The appealing aspect of the slot machines was that they require no smarts or experience—just the sufficient motor skill to pull a lever and the endurance to do so over and over. The downside being that it is impossible to hone any expertise that might tip the odds in your favor. Every once in a while, the mathematics would churn out a big winner, and the casino would take that person’s photograph and post it on the wall along with the sum of their prize money. Waves of new prospectors would then flood the slot banks, where they would sit hunched for hours with reflections of the titles (“Money Storm,” “Days Off,” “Ducks in a Row”) dancing in their glassy eyes—hopeless portraits of profound hope.

I chose video blackjack. The virtual dealer was a blonde woman wearing a snug leather bustle who smiled at me as I settled on to a stool alongside two other gamblers, a man with a goatee and a sleeveless shirt and a white-haired woman sporting a matching cotton shirt-and-pants combination so near to the color of her skin as to provoke a frightful double-take. The minimum bet was nice and small, $3, and I spent the first few hands wading in cautiously while orienting myself to the buttons on the console. Once my body had adjusted to the temperature of the game, I plunged in with a capricious $10 bet—and won. All of a sudden, I was up $15. Adrenaline surged unexpectedly through my veins. I punched the quit button and quickly cashed out my voucher. The bills from the machine were extra-crisp; a twenty, a ten, and a five. I folded them around my finger, unfolded them, wagged them bag and forth, then pinned them between my thumb and palm and splayed them in a rigid fan. Five minutes of work and I had paid for my share of the night’s lodging—what a racket!

Not knowing what exactly to do, I marched aimlessly through the casino for several minutes. If I go back to the room now, I thought, I can rest easy—$15 isn’t much, but it is more than I came in with and therefore more than I expected to leave with. My economics professor in college had taught us that the smart traders aren’t the ones who sell stock at its highest point. Calculating exactly when a stock will peak is an impossible science, and the ones who do so are either lucky or cheating. The smart traders—a distinct minority—are the those who can distinguish anomalies from trends and cash out their stock while it is still rising. Another video blackjack dealer made eyes and me, her lips sliding back into a disarming smile as she cocked her head and gestured toward a stool. A smart trader never sells too late in the climb, I reminded myself, but he also never sells too early. I sat down.

This time I bet big right away and lost all but $5 of my winnings. My adrenaline retreated, and I almost cashed out right then and there. But I was able to steady my nerves by reminding myself that the difference between $0 and $5 is pretty much negligible; losing the bulk of my winnings had simply relieved pressure, leaving me to “have fun” with the last of it. I won a cheap hand, then bet big on the next one and made blackjack. Just like that, I was up $28. My heart began to pound again, but I resisted the temptation to cash out immediately. I played two more hands and lost $8 before finally withdrawing my voucher. The two $20 bills I got for it were crisp, but they felt lonely. I fell asleep that night under the starchy sheets of my free hotel bed, a light tingling running up and down my legs, wondering what $56 would have felt like folded against the skin of my palm.     

The next day we bought a full-day monorail pass for $12 and headed downtown to the Wynn, a hotel and casino just west of the strip that looked like an enormous shred of gold leaf bent in a slight crescent. The monorail car was covered in a black-and-green mural advertising a caffeinated energy drink. “Unleash the Beast,” it said. Indeed.

The Wynn was sleek and new. Unlike at the Sahara, which was built in 1952, the smell of cigarettes, air conditioning, and stale sweat had not yet taken root, and the casino smelled like new carpets. The waitresses had better skin and nicer legs. The slots, encased in fake wood paneling, looked less like pinball machines and more like jukeboxes. The gaming floor had the refined elegance of an upscale restaurant, and I felt decidedly more out-of-place there than at the cacophonic arcade that was the Sahara. We were there to meet a pair of friends from high school, Russell and Zack—practiced gamblers who made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas regularly and happened to be in town. By the time we arrived they were deeply involved in a poker tournament, which gave us about three hours to kill in the casino. Inevitably, we ended up at a blackjack table. I was severely out of my element. There were no video machines here, no virtual temptresses with reassuring smiles and to take me into their care; just a businesslike woman in a black tunic named Kimberly demanding a $10 minimum bet. We sat. There was no talking. The hands progressed with astonishing speed, I could barely add quickly enough to keep up. I won the first hand, putting me up $30. Then one loss, another, then a bust, and I was back to scratch. So much for the free hotel room. The crash took about three minutes.

The adrenaline of loss ran dark and deep. I wanted more than anything to keep gambling. I managed to resist by gaming vicariously through Ben, who went on a roulette run that evening. Up $260, he turned to us with fire in his eyes and declared, “I could bite through someone’s neck right now!”

At around midnight, we took a break from casino-hopping to watch the fountain show in front of the Bellagio. We pushed through the crowd to the railing. As Tina Turner wailed the Star-Spangled Banner over a public address system, cannons shot 70-gallon geysers against a background of billion-dollar resorts illuminated by hundreds of billions of watts of energy. We were deep in a dream, a fantasy where castles of impossible decadence rose out of the desert; an empire built on blind optimism. And in the shadows between the gulfs of light and movement, silhouettes of future casinos loomed.

Muffled explosions kicked the water columns to their tallest height yet, and Turner hit her high note. Standing at the edge of a lake in the middle of a desert, a block south of the Roman Forum and a block north of a pyramid, and staring up at the Eiffel Tower, I wondered if we had found America.

Posted from 7th Avenue, San Francisco, California.

A dream deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?

 

-Langston Hughes

Viewed from CA-86, the Salton Sea was a jewel; an immense, glassy mirror reflecting the blue-white sky and the Chocolate Mountains behind them. It was a postcard-grade dreamscape apropos of California, climax of the West and repository for American ambition. In the mid-20th Century the Salton Sea was seen as a worthy inheritor of this idyllic tradition, and developers and vacationers descended on it like forty-niners; although rather than removing treasure from deep holes in the earth, the new prospectors dug shallow holes and poured treasure into them. Civilization bloomed on the banks, and the Salton Sea quickly became a more popular destination than Yosemite.

 

But something went wrong. The sea, which formed in 1905 when the Colorado River overwhelmed a dike and drained into the Salton Basin for a year and a half before engineers finally diverted its flow, began to stink. As it turns out, the basin had no natural drainage system, which is why the floodwater pooled there to begin with. Anything that flows in, and does not evaporate in the desert heat, stays in. The state’s latest dream vault soon became a sump for river salt and fertilizer-laced runoff from area farms, which soiled the sea and its burgeoning resort community.

“It is better to burn out,” Neil Young famously sang, “than to fade away.” When it is one’s fate to die, it is best that death come quickly; left to leisure, it will drain a man of dignity long before his veins run dry of life. If a hero dies in a dramatic blaze of glory, he remains a hero after he dies. If life escapes him gradually, the romance and symbolism of his life will rot into farce. The death of the Salton Sea has been ingloriously slow. As we turned off the highway and crept toward its shores, we saw the dreamscape fade into a wasteland before our eyes. Many of the structures were carcasses, drafty and gutted. We ventured into a defunct tavern, startling its latest tenants, who erupted out of the ceiling and took flight out the windows. They had signed the old barstools—the only remaining furniture—with mounds of pigeon shit. Prior squatters had blanketed the interior walls with graffiti. An abandoned motel sat on the opposite shore, its rooms boarded up, its swimming pool drained. The homes that still had green lawns and cars in their driveways were closed into high-walled cages with signs cautioning us to beware of dogs.

The decay was startling to observe, but it was something else to smell. Where the visual apparatus is sanded smooth by the grain of a million images, the olfactory remains sharp; its reach is limited, but when it comes into contact with something, the friction tends to be greater. When we parked by the beach and got out, the stench of the sea was jarring. It was rancid, like moist garbage. The eutrophication of the water mixed with the putrefaction of the creatures that once dwelled in it created a taste that the salt was powerless to mask. Along the beach the corpses of tilapia fish were commoner than shells, their flesh crisp and beset by flies. Shards of fishbone mixed with the sand, replacing it completely in some areas and making the banks of the Salton Sea look less a beach than a graverobber’s pitch pile. And the smell. It clung to us like dew. Certain flies turned from the tilapia to us, and we spent the next part of the car ride shooing them out the windows. But even after the flies were gone, the smell lingered.

And while the masses that had flooded to the sea mid-century were also gone, hope seemed to linger among those who had remained. When Ben asked the clerk at a tiny general store/marina near a gated pier whether Salton Sea was not one of California’s biggest tourist destination back in the ’50s, she had corrected him enthusiastically: “It still is the largest bed of inland water in the state!”  Later, we stopped into a bar in Salton City called Captain Jim’s and joined an elderly woman named Vi for an early-afternoon beer. Vi’s white hair was cropped close to her scalp like cauliflower, and her cheeks hung from the large frames of her glasses like faded pink drapes. She looked like a grandmother in the mold agreed upon by most cartoonists, which made the image of her small, round frame perched atop a barstool and bent over a mug of Budweiser almost comical. She was chatting with Barb, a forcefully personable bartender with a wide smile. Barb—Mrs. Captain Jim, as it turned out—was also on the wrong side of 50, but her hair retained its orange hue and hung loosely in wisps.

“The sea’s not polluted!” Barb cried, waving away the suggestion with her hand as though it were an undercooked steak.

“No?” we said.

“It’s just that the water from the farms runs off into there and makes all these algae blooms,” Vi explained.

“Oh.”

“The smell comes from these sulfur plants across the way,” she continued. “The sea is just fine.”

“Can you eat the fish that come out of it?”

Barb had begun nodding as soon as I had gotten through “can you.” “Yep. People come from all over to fish the Salton Sea, it’s huge tourism.” She reached under the bar and produced a photograph of a man holding up a Corvina the size of a Christmas ham. “That one’s from 2002.”

“So there are still fish out there?”

“Yep.”

“As long as you can catch them before they die.”

“That’s right.”

We sipped our Coronas. The lime wedges Barb had fit into the mouths were dull and warpy, and I fed mine down the bottleneck with the help of a plastic straw. Ben wandered over to the jukebox, and soon The Band filled the tiny room with “Up on Cripple Creek.”

“Is it usually this quiet around here?” I asked.

“It usually picks up on the weekends,” Vi replied.

“We usually have big parties every two or three weeks,” Barb added. “In fact, if you look over there on that back wall, you can see pictures from some of them.” I stepped over to the collage. “Those ones on the upper left are from our ‘Christmas in July’ party,” Barb called from the bar. “And the ones in the center bottom, that’s from the half-birthday party they threw me.” My eyes drifted over the photos. Hardly any of the partygoers could have been below the age of 50. Their smiles folded easily into well-worn creases across flushed cheeks. Some were caught mid-sway in a rigid dance move, karaoke microphone in hand and distended bellies constrained beneath high waistbands, swung precariously away from the center of gravity.

“You guys sure like to get extra mileage out of those holidays,” I said over my shoulder.

“Well,” Vi chuckled, “anything to keep people from getting bored.”

Posted from Echo Park, Los Angeles.                     

Losing time

Not far out of Albuquerque on I-40 we hit the Laguna Pueblo Indian reservation. The casinos sprouted up almost immediately along the highway. Their names—Sky City Casino, Dancing Eagle Casino—were spelled out in bulbs atop towering poles. Their facades were loud with color and exclamations. When we stopped for gas, I noticed that the entire back wall of the mini-mart was lined with slot machines. When there weren’t casinos, there were what the billboards called “Indian villages.” These were small clusters of shops selling “authentic Indian jewelry,” shards of petrified wood, herbal remedies, and other bric-a-brac alongside racks of garish T-shirts, mesh caps, and soda. Sometimes these “villages” had model teepees set up in the parking lots, and somebody had turned a pink rock shelf above one village into a silly-looking diorama of plaster bald eagles and mountain lions, frozen in action-poses.    

The Laguna reservation ended before we got to Gallup, located just outside the eastern border of Arizona and the Navajo Nation Reservation, which is the largest in the world and occupies nearly half of Arizona’s upper-right quadrant. Gallup once claimed to have more millionaires per capita than any other place in the world, although when Forbes asked for proof in 2000, city officials were at a loss. Additionally, it had been called the “Indian jewelry capital of the world” with at least one local business journal asserting that if this industry one day disappeared, the town would disappear with it. According to one local woman, Gallup had also been known as the “drug capital of the world,” though she said it has shaped up in recent years. Several decades ago, the writer Ian Frasier wrote about how Navajos from the reservation would stream into Gallup to drink, since the sale and possession of alcohol in Navajo Nation was illegal.   

We stayed at the El Rancho hotel, a decorous old manor famous for lodging American movie stars in the 1940s. The hotel was only building around that implied any sort of wealth, and it shared a gloomy strip of road with gas stations, a pawn shop that doubled as a church, and several adobe motels with warped roofs offering rooms with bars on the windows for $21.99 per night. Normally, that is where we would have stayed. But we had gotten a substantial discount on El Rancho’s normal $102-per-night rate because Rachel’s cousin was a supplier for the chain jewelry stores owned by the same man, Armond Ortega, who owned the hotel. On the wall next to the check-in desk there was a writ of commendation addressed to Ortega from the state legislature praising him for restoring this “home of the movie stars.” The stars themselves admired their hotel from black-and-white photographs on the wall. They were joined by mounted deer heads. There was an upright player piano and an enormous geode near the check-in desk. Furniture, dark as the floor and walls, crowded the rest of the floor. A double staircase curling up to a ring of balcony, and the two threads of stairs framed a giant fireplace in black brick, crowned with steer horns. Replace them with moose antlers, and the hotel could have been a ski lodge.

The desk attendant recommended that we go to the public square, where a traveling Indian dance troupe had been performing powwow dances nightly. The square was actually a circle, with seats carved into the inside of the perimeter and a smaller circle of gravel in the center. I guessed that the inner gravel circle was included in the design of the courtyard with dancing in mind. It all sat in the shadow of the courthouse, a tall, ornate building, easily the nicest one around. People milled around the square—families with kids, adolescents in trendy clothes, older folks. They were mostly Indians. Some people I knew back east had some Indian blood, but never in substantial proportion to their full allocation. The percentage was usually negligible enough to be little more than an amusing bit of trivia—like being double jointed, or having a birthmark shaped like one of the great lakes. Here, the Indians outnumbered the whites, and they were full-blooded, or close to it. Their skin had a general darkness to it, although some—usually women, in the present case—were fairer than others. Their hair was black or gray, depending on age, was usually shoulder-length or longer, and sometimes drawn up in braids or pinched in a ponytail. Other than that, they looked like anyone else.

The dancers, on the other hand, were done up in full regalia:  outfits decorated with feathers, colorful beads, and ankle bracelets with shells or bones that rattled in time when they stomped up and down. “We dance for those who can no longer dance,” one dancer told Ben before the exercise as he pulled on his costume, “the elders.”

To call a powwow a traditional Indian celebration is something of a misnomer, much like the word “powwow” itself. “Powwow” was originally a mispronunciation of an Algonquin word meaning a gathering of medicine men or spiritual leaders. But amid the program of Anglicization, the tribes assimilated the incorrect English version, and the term was broadened to mean any sort of gathering. According to at least one oral history, the dancing aspect of modern powwows was adopted from the Omaha Indians’ postwar celebrations, which date back centuries. The history of the modern powwow is more recent. Some trace its roots to July 4, 1881, when the Flathead Indians held one on their Montana reservation in defiance of the U.S. government’s ban on traditional dances, under the auspices that they were celebrating America’s Independence Day. Federal authorities didn’t buy it, and the celebrants were dispersed.

To help narrate what was going on, I enlisted the broad-shouldered, graying Indian man sitting to my right on the courtyard wall. He had his family with him—a smallish Indian woman with dark eyes and a serious countenance holding a baby, and several young children on her right, aged just shy of adolescence, or barely into it. I guessed that he was their grandfather, but didn’t ask. He named each each wave of dancers for me as they took their turn. The female “jingle dress” dancers pawed gently at the ground with their toes, alternating feet every two beats, the elk teeth lining their skirts clattering with each shift. A huddle of young Indians kept time with a communal drum, which they would all strike in unison while one boy wailed a melody and the rest echoed it in chorus. The time never changed. They called it the “heartbeat.” The male “fancy dancers,” adorned with extravagant headdresses, leaped and crouched and twirled the miniature whips they held in each hand. The “grass-stompers” lifted their knees high and stomped methodical patterns in the gravel. My Indian friend told me the grass-stompers were traditionally the first ones to dance, matting down the field for the other dancers. Since the gravel circle had outmoded their function, the grass-stompers no longer went first, and danced only for tradition’s sake. Older Indians participated in a war dance, crouching with their forearms cocked in front of them and swiveling their heads in anticipation of an ambush—from behind the coffee shop, perhaps, or from the shadowy portico of the courthouse. The heartbeat pulsed steadily on, but the men danced out of time.

The next day we crossed into Arizona, which was hot and dry. Unlike West Texas and New Mexico, where we had seen cool temperatures, overcast skies and a number of rain showers, Arizona had not forgotten it that it was July, and that it was a desert. Petrified Forest National Park, where stopped to hike, remembered that long ago it wasn’t. In the Triassic Period, about 250 million years ago, northeastern Arizona was a lush tropical forest. Eventually, the trees were washed away by floods and buried under volcanic ash. Minerals from the ash permeated the ones that hadn’t decomposed in the initial deluge and crystallized as quartz; thus, the contours of the original wood were preserved. But it was no longer wood. It was stone.

We stopped into the mini-mart outside the visitor’s center and bought a gallon of God Bless America-brand water for $3. Then we drove into the park, stopping first at several lookout points to behold the Painted Desert before winding into a lower basin, looking at the chalky outcroppings and gradated sand in solid heaps and taking huge swigs from the water jug. At one point we stopped to play catch with a baseball on a spongy gray plain alongside the road. The ground was fractured into webs of tiny hexagons, which sank unbroken beneath the weight of our sandals. I am almost certain we were not supposed to be out there.

Later on we hiked down a gap in the plain called Blue Mesa, walking a path that wound around giant cones of earth in the shadow of the fissure’s craggy battlements. There were pieces of petrified wood strewn everywhere, as if the valley was a landfill and the fossils garbage. The examples varied in size and color, with some tiny and yellow as a fresh-cut shard, and some the size of unquartered logs, with prismatic rings across their round ends. “God made some stuff, huh?” Ben said, quoting old John Thomas of the Mississippi cactus plantation. He picked up a small ring of petrified wood about the size and shape of a discus, with a glossy red surface blending into purple. “I really want to steal this,” he said, holding it in front of him like a looking glass. The fine was $325 and up for removing objects from the park, although tourists pilfer about a ton of petrified wood each month anyway. We stared at the disc for a moment. Then, to preclude any decision that might cost us two weeks of gas money, I took the wood and tossed it toward the dunes. It spun through the air in an arc, then hit the ground with a dusty thud and broke apart into several wedge-shaped pieces. I blinked with surprise. The wood had felt so solid in my hand. It was stunning how something that had endured so long could shatter so easily.

Since we had been in Arizona, red-and-yellow billboards had been urging us to COME SEE THE WORLD’S LARGEST INDIAN RESERVATION! Where AR-99 broke off from the interstate we finally obliged, setting our sights toward a dot on the map near the southeastern corner of Navajo Nation called Leupp. Unlike Arizona, the reservation recognizes Daylight Saving Time; we gained an hour as we crossed into it. Leupp was a small village, the same sun-scorched color as the desert. Along a road leading up to the school there were rows of identical houses, some lived-in, others boarded up. Others were imploded, with the walls curled inward and the roofs flat to ground, as if they had been stepped on. We passed a children’s center, closed for renovation, and a Mormon Church, white and new-looking and the sturdiest-looking structure around.

We saw no signs of life until we reached the gas station, where dark-skinned Indians were lined up for the pumps in their trucks with the windows down. The lot was not paved and there were no marked spots, so I drew the car to a rest near the corner, out of the way of any cars that might want to join the gas lines or leave them. The minimart was the shape of an anchovy tin and had two frightening spider-web cracks on the glass door, the centers of which had been gummed up with some sort of compound. Inside, families perused the frozen dinners and younger Indians joked and smiled with one another. We were ignored almost entirely. I grabbed a fruit-and-nut granola bar off a rack, took it to the register and, in what must have seemed like an insult to her ability to perceive the obvious, explained to the young clerk that we were from out of town. Having forfeited any fantasies I might have had of not seeming like a tourist, I asked, “Is there any place in town we could go to learn about the town or the reservation?” She said there wasn’t anywhere in town like that.

On my way out I picked up two newspapers; the Flagstaff paper, the nearest city outside the reservation, and the Navajo Nation paper. The front of the Flagstaff paper had a story about how 12 Indian bootleggers had been apprehended in an alcohol sting. The Navajo paper had a story about a debate over whether residences on the reservation should be given formal street addresses to facilitate 911 responses. Opponents argued that the point was moot since many residents did not own telephones.

Outside, I walked over to an Indian man wearing a maroon cap who was seated on a rock in the back corner of the parking lot and introduced myself. The man’s name was Ed. He was in his 40s, or looked it anyway. Ed’s face was leathery, shaded pink just above the corners of his mouth, and held an expression that most closely resembled bewilderment. I might have asked him what he was doing sitting in the corner of the gas station parking lot, but I wasn’t sure he knew himself. So instead I took a seat next to him and asked what people in Leupp do.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess walk around. Sometimes play basketball down over there,” his voice trailed off at the end of the sentence, and he half-gestured with his left hand.

“What about for work?”

“Um, well, they got the store there. And some folks work over there sellin’ hay, but that’s mostly white folks.” I looked over behind the minimart at a small red barn with a hand-drawn sign. “HAY,” it said. A skinny white man in sunglasses and a cowboy hat milled around in front of the stacked bales.

I talked to Ed for a short while longer. He said he took meals at the local school for $1.50 when it was in session. He told me there was a Baptist church up the road where some white folks from out of town were having a retreat. Ed would mutter answers to my questions, but never volunteered any sentences. He didn’t seem annoyed by me. He didn’t seem anything by me. Sometimes we would sit in silence for long intervals and stare into space across each other’s eyelines. It dawned on me that he was probably sitting in the corner of the gas station lot because there was nothing else to do.

Across the street on another unpaved lot—the road running through town was thing only surface paved surface in Leupp—a medicine woman named Cimi (Pronounced “Simmy”) and her portly husband Thaddeus sat under a tent behind a folding table covered with jars of medicinal herbs. The labels spelled the herbs’ Navajo names and the ailments they were meant to address: Nabiih soothed sore throat. Ts’aahlts’aa’I helped suppress appetite. Iinii Ch’il mended dry skin. Agizee’ Azee’ eased arthritis pain. Ketloh broke fevers. Tseghanil chi’I’ stopped diarrhea. Biketlool Iitsooigii dissolved gall and kidney stones. Ne’etsah Azee cleared up acne. Hisiiyaani cured cancer, as well as asthma, skin sores, ulcers, and bronchitis.

Cimi was slender, and youthful, though the grooves running down from the corners of her mouth and eyes suggested that she was probably in her 50s.

“People around here can’t afford to go all the way into Flagstaff to get medication when they get sick,” she said. “Most of them don’t have healthcare coverage anyway, since a lot of them don’t have jobs and they can’t afford to buy it themselves. They’re supposed to get it free from the government, as part of the treaty where they gave up their lands, but they can’t get that anymore. They have some clinics—usually staffed with a few doctors from outside the reservation and medical students who come here to learn—but they’ll usually just give them some aspirin or ibuprofen and some water. It dulls the pain, so they figure something is working. But the people here, you know, they don’t know what’s going on inside their bodies.”

“Does this stuff work?” I asked, striking a more skeptical tone than I had meant to.

“It comes from the ground,” Cimi said. “Of course it works!”

I nodded sheepishly.

“Anyway, there are a lot of health problems on the reservation,” she continued. “Alcoholism, diabetes…you see all the vegetables in the store over there?” She gestured at the minimart.

I distinctly remembered my granola bar being the healthiest item on the shelves. “No,” I said.

“That’s what I mean. And you know, that’s the only place around here you can buy food. They’ve got a kitchen over there, you know like food stamps? That’s the one thing the tribe pays for, that and the children’s center. But in order to be eligible you have to prove employment, and most people here who work make jewelry or medicine and do a lot of trading.” She pointed to a case full of bracelets and rings next to the herbs on her display. “That’s the kind of stuff people give me when they don’t have cash to pay.”

“So the economy is pretty insular then. People just trading with each other?”

“Not many people can afford to commute.”

Cimi was clearly accustomed to dealing with tourists. People on the reservation bought her herbs and tobaccos, but tourists were not only guaranteed to pay in cash but also to turn the trinkets she had acquired in barter trades into cash. So far she had been speaking to us in a familiar, ambassadorial sort of way, and sure enough, Rachel bought a tin of balm. But when the subject of non-tourist whites came up, Cimi’s voice darkened.

“They’re trying to get rid of our culture,” she said. “The culture is what makes us strong. And, you know, there is a big problem with alcoholism in Navajo Nation. It’s because people are confused! The white missionaries come in with the churches and start telling us our culture is wrong, and the schools start telling us our language is wrong. Our language is what makes us happy! Speaking in our own language—it’s a source of pride, you know? But we can’t even teach our children anymore. I tried to educate my kids at home and the cops came by and told me I had to send them to the school.” She paused and looked down the dusty lot, where a group of Indian kids sat in a circle of folding chairs in front of another vendor. “The younger generations, anyone under 45, really, not many of them still practice the traditional religions. It’s dying away.”

An Indian woman, younger than Cimi, had approached the table and was perusing the tobaccos. “Are you a Christian, or a traditionalist?” Cimi asked her. Her tone was not hostile but carried enough force to startle the woman, who muttered something I could not understand. “So, more traditional? Yes, OK.” The woman purchased a small bag of herbs and scuttled away without acknowledging us.

Cimi went on. She told us about a developer who was trying to secure rights to expand a ski resort on a mountain just off the edge of the reservation that the remaining traditionalists among the Navajo consider sacred. She said some of the reservation Indians—the “warriors”—had been making regular pilgrimages to the mountain to sit and protest its development, and had faced a good deal of abuse. “The warriors have always had the duty of protecting the tribe, and that means protecting the land we pray to. So we pray to the mountain and for our warriors who protect it, and we pray for our enemies too, because, you know, they’ll have to meet their creator someday.” And she smiled. It was not a happy smile, but it was not entirely ironic, either.

It did not take long to get out Leupp and into the arid plain, where mobile homes sat immobile next to rusting propane tanks. Soon we crossed into Arizona, and the clocks returned to standard time. In the highway grass just over the border, hundreds of discarded glass bottles winked in the late afternoon sunlight.

Posted from the Sahara hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada.       

Change

Albuquerque took a toll on us.

We had originally planned to drive directly from Santa Fe westward toward Gallup, where we would stop at a hotel halfway to our next destination in Arizona that Rachel’s cousin had recommended. But at the last minute we heard that John McCain was going to be giving a talk in Albuquerque, and that the state Democratic Party was arranging a picket protest outside of it. Both sounded like good excuses to survey the political landscape, which is certainly as elemental to the place as its wind-blasted prairies and monumental red outcroppings, albeit far less pleasant to look at.

Soon after we breached the city limits, I decided there was no way any politics we might find in Albuquerque could be uglier than the city itself. If it seems as though I have written obsessively about urban sprawl over the course of these diary entries, it is only because the cities we have visited have left me with no choice. I have attempted to capture these phenomena as vividly as possible, and in an effort to keep the descriptions fresh for the reader I have exhausted most of the metaphors in my arsenal. I realize now that I have been flattering them unduly. Metaphors are wasted on urban sprawl. Comparing the boxy concrete buildings to mesas and their vast asphalt parking lots to oceans suggests a majesty of which these structures are unworthy. Urban sprawl is designed based on human formulas of efficiency, and is accordingly bland. The geological incidences one might contrive to compare sprawl to for the sake of metaphor are rougher, rawer, and forged by a more ruthless architect. They are raised and refined over epochs, and then destroyed just as painstakingly. While they exist, their purposes are less easily understood than, say, a Walgreens’s—just as their edges are not as neat and their dimensions not as precisely engineered. The power of the natural world lies not only in its forms, but in its complexity. Strip malls, by contrast, are prosaic, and deserve prosaic portrayals. I anticipate that my accounts of American sprawl are far from being over. If the reader grows bored and frustrated with the repetition of the same dull images, then he will see exactly what I see and feel exactly as I feel, and I will have succeeded in my task.

Suffice it to say that Albuquerque had sprawl. Lots of it. We checked into our motel early in the afternoon and spent the rest of the afternoon hiding from it, sprawled out on our stiff bedspreads, staring at the television screen and allowing the dry climate to sap our bodies of moisture and purpose. The room was stale and smelled like air conditioning, but we wasted away in it for hours anyway, having seen no evidence that anything we might find outside would prove more stimulating. It was all gray, even the sky. We managed to rally ourselves for dinner, and sought relief from this dreary monotony in a district called “Old Town.” Not fully realizing it was only 5 p.m., we caught the staff at a Mexican restaurant off guard and then took a stroll around the plaza. But it didn’t do much to drag us out of our slump. The adobe buildings that were once residences were now high-rent souvenir shops. The only thing about Old Town that was actually old was its shell—a veneer retained for the purposes of drawing in tourists eager to escape the sprawl. Admittedly, Old Town’s aesthetic was charming by comparison. But it was equally banal; high-end sprawl, dressed up in adobe. We browsed some shops cursorily but couldn’t afford anything, so we left.

We picked up some ice cream at Walgreens on the way home, then locked ourselves in our motel room and fell asleep with the TV on.

The next morning, we woke up early and tried to get into the McCain talk despite the fact that we didn’t have tickets. We threw ourselves at the mercy of a smartly-dressed young woman with blonde hair and a clipboard. She could not have been much older than we, albeit far less disheveled; for instance, she had probably bothered to change clothes at some point within the previous four days. Still, her dark pants suit did not disguise the fear behind her eyes. They were the eyes of someone who knows she cannot afford to screw up.

The young woman was briskly polite, and for a minute I thought she might be considering letting us in as props—young people they could seat somewhere within range of the camera’s eye to prove that McCain’s politics were more appealing to the younger set than his old-man musk was repellant. In the end, though, I think the young aide realized—correctly, no doubt—that putting us and the candidate in the same frame would do more to alienate his base than to expand it. “But couldn’t we just sit up on stage with the senator?” I asked. She did not find this humorous. We were denied entry.

We spent the next hour or so hanging out at a nearby intersection with the rest of the riffraff. They were holding up signs with slogans such as “Like Bush’s economy? Hire McCain!” and other messages that boiled down the broad issues to the point that they were simple and catchy enough to convey to passing motorists, some of whom honked approvingly. “If you want a sign, they’re right over there,” said one young woman, pointing to a pile. She was one of only a handful of young folks smattered among the crowd, the protesters were mostly in their 40s and 50s, some significantly older; two elderly protesters were actually toting oxygen tanks. It seemed odd to me that these people were leading the cries for change. I had always perceived the desire for change as a symptom of youth, emerging in tandem with a growing awareness of the society’s various problems and an instinctive optimism that these problems are solvable. Outrage at the status quo for tolerating such problems is translated into vehement cries for change; with age these cries become loud complaints, then bitter laments, and finally, reluctantly acknowledged facts—at which point an aversion to change sets in, and the struggle is taken up by the next generation. But this was different. The Aquarians and their antecedents at the protest did not seem motivated by the ambition of achieving something new, but of reclaiming something lost.

We coasted out of Albuquerque on this energy. The sprawl ended eventually, but in an ominous sort of way: The sprawl did not run up against any sort of natural barrier. It did not appear to have surrendered to the desert. It simply stopped, as if pausing to catch its breath. There was still plenty of room.

Posted from Deer Lodge Road, Cottonwood, Arizona.   

Road food

We left Marfa going northwest on US-17 across the softly undulating prairie and through the occasional canyon, whose high walls would appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. We passed through a number of small towns, some of which we had had seen the previous afternoon on a day trip. One was called Balmorhea, which sounded enough like some sort of gastrointestinal illness to make us nervous about the fact that we were going there to swim in a chlorine-free public spring full of algae, catfish, and hundreds of strangers. Another was called Fort Davis, which appeared to be an authentic high desert hamlet until we noticed the upscale hotels and faux-rustic storefronts that we had learned were the telltale sign of a town that was playing to an audience. Not that I necessarily blame it; all too often, the faux-rustic storefronts in these highway villages were the only ones without boards in the windows.

Pecos, by contrast, had either given up on gussying itself up for passers-through or had never bothered to try. It was a hot, flat wasteland that smelled of cooked asphalt and motor oil. This would have been less unappealing if our hard-ridden chariot had not been overdue for an oil change, a task we delegated to a trustable old garage owner named Eddie, who had an completely incomprehensible accent and five portraits of John Wayne in his waiting room. While we waited for Eddie to finish up his previous charge, we went down the road to grab lunch at a place whose name, “Abi’s Kitchen,” was announced in a crude mural on its side wall.

The interior of Abi’s smelled like a nursing home, and managed to be just as drab despite its colorful sponge-pattern paint job. I ordered a runny bean-and-cheese burrito and a glistening mountain of fries that prompted my heart to start palpitating S.O.S. in Morse Code. Still, my hunger got the better of my prudence, and I finished the entire plate. Within minutes, my chest and back ached like I had been worked over with a tire iron. After paying, I lurched over to a nearby gas station mart for a dessert of Extra Strength Tums.       

This experience is not atypical. Our diet thus far on the trip has involved a dual quest for balance—between frugality and nutrition; local variety and, well, nutrition. The initial Southern swing has been especially punishing on our digestive tracts, which, over the years, had been coddled into pusillanimity with soy, organics, and other forms of casually administered nutrition. In the South, especially the rural regions, food is fried and usually breaded—unless we’re talking burgers, in which case a wad of beef roughly the size of an infant is grilled until soggy with standing pools of grease and then balanced between white-flour buns. As a vegetarian, my menu has for the most part been limited to grilled cheese and French fries, for better or worse.

If it is early enough, I could at least get some protein in my body by ordering eggs. Such was the case at a restaurant in northern Alabama called Dee’s. Located on an otherwise condemned strip mall, Dee’s was the first diner that I ever needed to show I.D. in order to enter; a city ordinance forbade people under 19 years old from entering because it was a smoking establishment. With several rows of pool tables and a jukebox in the back, it could easily have passed for a bar, aside from the signs announcing its 3 p.m. daily closing time. The cooks did not seem especially pleased when we entered. “Ah don’ feel good,” muttered a mole-eyed gentleman with no fewer than four chins as he rousted himself to prepare our food. One can imagine how contagious his sentiment was. I owed Ben $10 from a tractor pull the previous night, and since I only had a few bills in my wallet I proposed that I pay for both our meals on my debit card. I asked whether they accepted debit in the same breath as I asked whether they were still serving breakfast. This, it turned out, was a mistake. The waitress paused hard before reluctantly taking my debit card. “No breakfis,” she said in a tone that precluded any further negotiations. Just like that, I was doomed once again to grilled cheese. “At least it has calcium,” Rachel offered, although even of this I could not be certain; the melted substance between the two buttery triangles of bread was a suspiciously lively shade of orange, and I suspected it might one of those synthetic products distributors were legally obligated to call “cheez,” lest it be confused with the actual thing.

In spite of these qualms, we have continued to endure such fare on a semi-regular basis.  After all, our purpose in this journey is to experience America, and part of that experience involves adjusting to the nutritional vacuum that encompasses a large proportion of the country. However, we found out early on that participating fully in the American dining experience was inhibiting our ability to experience other aspects of America by dulling our senses and dampening our enthusiasm for exploration, learning, and activity in general. Therefore, we settled on a compromise: For roughly half our meals, we would opt for local restaurants; for the other half, we would eat at Subway.

The mere viability of this plan is a testament to the sandwich chain’s remarkable ubiquity. In a country notorious for being the fattest in the world, it is no less than stunning that Subway—a brand that promotes calorie-counting—has become the nation’s most prevalent fast-food restaurant. Franchises have cropped up everywhere: In gas stations and Wal-Marts, in strip malls and alongside desert highways. There is a saying that we have heard applied to nearly every town and city we have been that says if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. Along America’s interstates a similar rule applies: If you don’t like the food, wait five miles—there’s bound to be a Subway just up the road.

As I recall, the point at which this phenomenon began to pick up momentum was when Jared Fogle, the morbidly-obese-recluse-turned-svelte-spokesman, went on TV and held up his old pants to reveal the how repulsively wide he was before he was transformed by Subway’s magic sandwiches. Since, the brand’s popularity has skyrocketed, leaving observers to wonder whether America’s insecurity will prove ultimately more powerful than its appetite.

Posted from Deer Lodge Road, Cottonwood, Arizona.

The map of the United States has always looked to me like something I might have drawn when I was nine years old. I would plan in my head an intricate design and give myself a broad canvas on which to realize it. But my imagination would inevitably exceed my patience, and the finished product would start with a painstakingly detailed corner and grow gradually less meticulous as my tolerance for the project eroded in the face of its daunting scope. Similarly, on the U.S. map the states begin small and asymmetrical. But at about the Mississippi the artist’s patience begins running thin, and they start getting bigger and more geometrically familiar, staggered like bricks as if to mask the laziness a simple grid would have implied. Still, some might excuse the designer for choosing plain shapes to reflect the plainness of their content, and large forms to accommodate their vast emptiness.

Thanks to the Rio Grande and the Gulf Coast, Texas was spared the rectangular monotony of most of the western states, but it was still big and empty. Once we got out of the hills, the landscape opened up into miles of rolling ranchland freckled with sagebrush and other hardscrabble vegetation. Barbed wire hemmed in the highway, and every once in a while there would be a gate and an arch with the name of the ranch and, more often than not, the bleached skull of a steer. The sky was overcast and temperamental, as it had been ever since New Orleans, and broad enough that we could see rainstorms miles away, floating through it like jellyfish. When the atmosphere got thick enough, the desert looked just like the ocean.

The town of Marfa, then, was either an island or an oasis. It appeared alongside the highway more or less like the other towns we had passed through—clusters of storefronts and low-lying homes, and filling stations leveraging tourists’ fear of being stranded in the desert into astronomical gas prices. But Marfa was different. The artist Donald Judd had moved to Marfa in the early ’70s, and had become taken with the high desert in the way one can imagine a minimalist would be. In time Judd disciples from New York City followed and repopulated defunct buildings around town, turning them into galleries and studios. Amid the novel aridity of the desert this bohemian subculture demanded certain familiarities, which how I imagine the coffee shop came to be, and the market with organic sweets and pre-mixed smoothies, and the bookstore where the work of droll essayists and leftist muckrakers were displayed prominently. For lunch both full days of our visit we bought falafels and pomegranate soda from a silver trailer camped on the main drag that kept giving us our change in $2 bills and Kennedy half-dollars. We ate them at picnic tables in the company of skinny, bearded twentysomethings and fiftysomethings with braided hair and paint-stained jeans, while Border Patrol lock-up vans and mud-splattered pick-ups driven by Mexican laborers passed on the street. The Border Patrol has a sector headquarters in Marfa, and police monitor it carefully for illegal immigrants and drug traffickers, close as it is to the border. And so just as the hipster culture mixed oddly with the barren backdrop of West Texas, the looming presence of law enforcement blended awkwardly with the free-spirited ethos of the artists’ colony, and the strange energy of the place reflected both contradictions.

Judd, when he was alive, worked out of two hangars on a former air base that at different times had served as weapons laboratories and work camps for German POWs. The site is now run by the Chinati Foundation, a non-profit Judd founded, and a good deal of his work is still on display there. A slender young intern led us on a tour of the grounds. I cannot claim to ever have understood minimalist art as I was meant to, though not for lack of trying. In the past, I have sat on the uncomfortable benches in the MOMA galleries for hours trying to figure out how a formless series of brushstrokes on the corner of a canvas might inform my understanding of the human condition; but more often than not, this process does little more than make me very, very sleepy. Other visitors will see me squinting at a piece with apparent concentration, and politely take detours to avoid distracting me from what must appear to be a life-altering communion with the art and artist. They wouldn’t likely bother if they knew what I was actually doing was trying to gauge just how inescusable it would be for me to curl up on the bench and take a nap.

Despite my nearly flawless record as a Philistine, one of the Chinati exhibitions did strike me. It was a series of hollow boxes made of milled aluminum, each about three feet tall and four feet long, spaced evenly across the length of one of the hangars. While their exterior dimensions were all equal, the slabs that bisected their interiors were all different. These slabs would create shelves, angles, and compartments within the boxes in ways that confused the eye at first. Often, I would have to concentrate very hard or walk around a box to see it from a different angle in order to figure out the actual positions of the slabs that occupied it. Even then it was difficult; the light streaming in from the wall-length windows would play off the surface of the metal, obscuring certain angles while creating the illusion of false ones.

At one point, Ben called me over to a row of boxes. “Check this out,” he said, crouching and gesturing for me to do the same. “When you look at it from this perspective, you can see across the tops of all these boxes, and they all look the same…” He stood up slowly. “…but when your perspective changes, you begin to see how they’re all different.”

I turned this concept over in my mind several times. Each of the boxes had a definite design; the interior slabs connected to the frames at specific, measurable angles. Thus, each piece could be demonstrated to have specific properties and proportions. However, when Ben stood up and I stayed crouching, he saw unique boxes and I saw identical ones. Even if I also stood and saw the distinctions, out eyes would see a slightly different series of boxes, based on the remaining difference of our unique perspectives (for two pairs of eyes cannot occupy the same space), as well as whatever variances exist between how our eyes receive the images before us, how they relay those images to our brains, and how our brains interpret those images. You could, of course, show us diagrams of each box, and there is little chance we would disagree on the facts of their dimensions. However, a diagram is just a diagram. The truth of the box lies in its realized form, and that truth is different to each person who stands over it, brow furrowed in concentration, trying to figure out the angles—or maybe just pretending to.

The map that I have studied my whole life—that series of shapes that start out tiny and idiosyncratic and grow larger and more uniform as they move west—can tell me standard facts about my country’s proportions and properties. But it is entirely likely that I learned more about America from Donald Judd’s aluminum boxes than that map ever taught me. The impressions I have gleaned and documented over the past five weeks are studies of the map’s realized form. I cannot call them true, but I can call them mine. And that will have to do.

Posted from Subway, I-45 W Exit 89, New Mexico.    

Birthdays

Rachel and I share a birthday, and we chose Austin as our host. We avoided the interstate as best we could, sticking to state highways that bordered fields of cotton and wheat and the first ranches we had seen. Near a municipal jail we saw a billboard advertising the services of a bail bondsman offering to “get your feet back on the street.” Near a landfill bursting with refuse we saw a sign warning of a $10,000 fine for littering.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant with a wooden porch called Bever’s, which had a drawing of a beaver on the sign. I was too hung up on the spelling difference to appreciate the pun, but that might be my problem more than theirs. Next to the door I noticed a plaque identifying the house as a state historical site without giving any further information. The waitress I asked about this didn’t seem to think there was any more to give. “It’s just old,” she said. This seemed to me a relatively unimpressive achievement. I had expected that maybe Davy Crockett had stopped in for an omelet and hashbrowns on his way from Tennessee to the Alamo. But then, places that stake their historical importance on their intersection with the lives of famous people undersell the value of their own histories. It is like putting a picture of the time you met George Clooney in a restaurant on the cover of your scrapbook. The appeal of touching fame is commoner than most, even to the very cynical; which explains not only why places tend to advertise the most trifling brushes with it but also why those advertisements are so effective in drawing people in. It also explains why, in this case, I was initially nonplussed by the Bever’s conflation of age and historical significance. Upon reflection, I decided it was refreshing.

We had made reservations at a hotel at the edge of town. We wanted to get there as soon as possible, and having decided there was little romance to drain from the process of locating it on our own, we plugged the address into our cheat box. Our plot was soon foiled, however, by a maze of raised highway loops; they were apparently new and therefore confounded our technology, which kept naming phantom roads and suggesting nonexistent turns while the loops slung us in dizzying crescents within spitting distance of our hotel. There is no frustration in the world as maddening as being able to see your destination and helpless to reach it.

South Congress Street, where we spent the evening, is a sloping strip of restaurants and bars just south of the Austin skyline. People streamed along the sidewalks on either side of the street, a mixture of hipsters, tourists, and eccentric locals. On one stretch, we passed a group of free spirits giving out free hugs. Another group of sinewy women had unfolded colorful mats on the sidewalk and were giving public yoga demonstrations. Elsewhere, a heavily made-up woman in her fifties wearing what looked like a Princess Jasmine costume, was explaining to a camera crew that she was a seer of divine dispensation. Every block or so, members of some evangelical sect would hand us faux scratch cards claiming that the long odds of winning the lottery were equal to the long odds of Jesus Christ fulfilling all 48 Old-Testament prophecies, and urging us to join the side that had already beat those odds. (Pointing out that this logic would mean there would be as many new messiahs each year as there were lottery winners, Ben politely handed the card back.) The ambient sound of country blues emanating from outdoor venues made this bizarre street scene seem oddly casual.

We celebrated the occasion modestly, with dinner at an Italian cafe that was apparently too fancy to have the wait staff serenade us, no matter how relentlessly we kept bringing up the fact that it was our birthday. We followed this with several drinks at a nearby bar, and then several drinks back at the hotel, which our cabbie did not seem to have any trouble getting to.

The next day was America’s birthday, which, I begrudge, was celebrated more widely. We drove southwest and found a jubilee in Schertz, a town about ten miles outside of San Antonio. It was being catered by a traveling carnival outfit, which was serving the usual: Tilt-A-Whirls, a Fun House, a Ghost House, Flying Saucers, each offering riders the unique thrill that comes with knowing the groaning machines could fly apart any moment—and that even if they don’t, tetanus and whiplash are still distinct possibilities. The carnie games prompted me to consciously ignore the normal social protocol of acknowledging someone who is trying to get your attention. Giving money to one of these smooth-talking bilkers is like giving money to a panhandler, with the added upside of getting to throw a dart at something and the added downside of failing to complete a challenge. In both cases, there is a suspicion that your money will be spent on booze.

We left before dusk, guessing that a cheap motel room was more important than fireworks; although if we had known the former would not be an option, we might have strategized differently. Our mistake was to assume that people would not be rushing to the Middle of Nowhere, Texas, to celebrate Independence Day. As it turned out, the Middle of Nowhere—and by this I mean the cartographic void of the Texas Hill Country—was, in fact, a popular destination for wealthy tourists. Thus, the Middle of Nowhere had become Somewhere; specifically, somewhere we couldn’t afford to stay. The next day I would understand why. It was too beautiful to be cheap.

“Oh yeah, all the places around here fill up months in advance for the summer,” said a doughy young clerk at a filling station 20 miles south of Leakey. We had just been turned away by a string of motels over the previous four hours in what we decided would have made an amusing montage if sped up and overdubbed with funny music. “You could try the state park, but the camping sites are usually booked way in advance, too.”

We did, and they had been. At mercy of a kind-looking old woman at the visitor’s center, we were granted permission to camp out in the parking lot, along with several other carloads of naïve travelers. We opened cans of cold beans and hot beer for dinner, then unfolded our sleeping bags on an island of grass and listened to fireworks explode behind the clouds.   

Posted from Camanito Montao, Santa Fe, New Mexico.