Sunday, June 10, 2012

Drive-bye: Western Edition

Welcome to the 50th post of this blog. This is a substantial one!

Goodbyes are always tough. I have said goodbye many times before, to many of my dearest relatives, friends, and friends who feel like relatives. However, this time echoes the farewell that David Livingstone wished Britain, with a degree of uncertainty and determination that only a grand, risky expedition could bring; the kind of goodbye that feels saddening a few hours later because one suddenly realizes it is not the usual "see you later". I will miss the people, and the meaning that they have given the landscapes around them: no environment is whole without the human prism.

I am thankful for the gift of the Internet, and the immense power to connect with those far away –including my own family-, narrate my whereabouts, learn from others, teach and inspire many, and, lastly, generating that little bit of sustenance that allows me to have my basics.

Crossing the Golden Gate, once again, to drop the Mooneys at the airport.
The weeked that I house-sat in Petaluma was not too remarkable. I sold some Mercedes parts –meeting at midnight with the buyer, as we could not find any other time!- and went down to San Francisco a few times to help my friend Alex look for some housing and stay away from all the cat fur at the Mooney home zoo. One of these times I went down to Burlingame Motors to drop a Mercedes 280SE rear end; I also went on one last junkyard adventure to the local pick-and-pull in Newark to find a regulator to fix the window in my former landlady's Mercedes E320 estate –free of charge–; and finally, I got an antique painting I had forgotten to pick up when I left. The day prior to leaving I met with Jim B, a loyal friend from the PeachParts community, a blast –as usual- full of car talk and classic San Franciscan good food nooks.

Before leaving for Los Angeles I identified an opportunity on Uship: a 325lb bronze sculpture needed to be delivered to Santa Fe. I offered to transport it for my cost in gas, and the shipment was booked almost instantly. The day I left San Francisco towards Los Angeles I picked up the massive statue and fit it in the back of my LandCruiser with the help of a forklift and two other brave souls –including poor Alex, who this time sported a very appropriate tank top to add to our blue collar glamour. After loading the piece we stopped by a gallery where Alex knew RISD graduates worked, a gorgeous space full of beautiful clothing and good wine. On the way down I-5, Yoda, the Toyota, performed excellent, even on the feared hills of the Grapevine. Ahead awaited two days in the City of Light, where many friends expected our arrival!

$250 worth of gas for a little deviation in my way to Wichita. Bought two blankets at Goodwill and sealed the deal!

I tried to meet with everyone I knew in the Los Angeles area with mixed success: while most of my college friends showed up –with the exception of one-, I could not meet with Nate, a mechanic-adventurer from the LA area. That did not stop me from having a worthy phone conversation and meeting with Benzguy300 to pick up some Mercedes parts for myself, and Rollguy (Rich), a genuine role model and a true jack of all trades.

Desert around Hesperia, CA. One year later, it's just as beautiful.

Ah, the morning sun! The anticipation for the journey, lingering in the air!
 The night I left Los Angeles I stayed with Rich and his wife, showing bits of the upcoming episodes from Open Roads, including the hilarious 30-second animated intro. The next morning we picked up some waste vegetable oil to turn into fuel and had breakfast at a local diner. We talked about the upcoming PanAmerica trip, as well as cultural differences with exchange students from Germany –one of the being the theft of Denny's mugs– and future projects.

Rich's impressive collection of player piano scrolls. In this trip I used a Canon 60D, my production camera.
We soon parted ways, and by 7.30am, after a quick refuel –the FJ80 LandCruiser average up until that point had been 17/18mpg– I headed into the desert towards Barstow, passing through miles of deserted land and solitary buildings, shells of dry wood like ships in an empty ocean.

So much nothing! Nothing everywhere! Soon thought of A Horse With No Name.

In the middle of the desert, on an uphill, I passed a mysterious woman, dressed in black, texting on her phone by the side of the road. A mile ahead I saw a Mazda with its hood up, and quickly turned as soon as I put the narrative together. All my life I have been warned about picking hitchhikers, but this time, in the middle of the desert, with absolutely nothing for miles, I decided to turn around and offer my help. Still, my paranoid side made me put a screwdriver under my thigh as I approached the lone wanderer. Upon picking her up, it so seemed that she had gotten to a place where she could get cell phone reception to ask for help, which was now a few minutes away. She was very thankful for the lift, and I offered to take a look under the hood. All her engine oil was gone, sprayed all over the bay, perhaps due to a broken hose next to the dipstick; I instructed her not to even start the car to avoid seizing the engine. More help arrived almost immediately, so I waved her bye once the situation was under control. I definitely felt relieved I took those few minutes to take her back to her car instead of driving mindlessly down the endless desert road.

One of the Insterstate 40 business loops, a chunk of the legendary Route 66.
Soon I hit the interstate, but, due to the weight of my camera, I could take very few pictures on the go. In fact, this heavy DSLR made it too risky to photograph while driving, as it had been the custom with my lighter point-and-shoot in previous trips. Every picture that you see on this blog entry is taken while the car is still, or entirely by random, with one hand on the steering wheel and my forearm strained by the substantial weight of the camera. One out of every twenty pictures taken at random came out looking somewhat passable.

This is the only good picture in several dozens taken at from this beautiful canyon.
I crossed Arizona and New Mexico in the blink of an eye, windows open, roaring at 70mph, singing several opera concoctions from "O Fortuna" to "Con Te Partiro". I stopped for some refueling and miscellaneous beauty hunting, especially on the long stretches of Route 66. Much of it was run down, yet I could spot some beautiful examples of googie 50's design and passed a 55 Corvette wagon. Too bad camera operation was too clumsy to handle from the driver's seat.

Virgie's restaurant and lounge in Route 66.

More Route 66 signs with googie flair, the Colonial Motel at Gallup, NM.

Absolutely gorgeous Ford Lincoln Mercury sign, still linked to an original, working dealership!

Run down signage at Gallup, again. Makes me wonder about how it was before the days of the interstate!
By 10pm I had arrived to Albuquerque, still with one hour ahead of me towards Santa Fe. As many hours as I had driven, the only signs of fatigue came to bother me in my shoulders. By 11pm, I was parked in Canyon road, where I walked around a few pretentious nighthawks sipping alcohol late at night, quoting intellectuals and throwing swearwords all over. I went back to my truck and snuggled awkwardly next to my massive bronze cargo. I think it's the first time I have slept with a man!

Morning in Santa Fe with two hours to spare. What should I do?

Canyon Road is a little street with stone gutters and adobe haciendas in the heart of Santa Fe. It zigzags slightly, displaying its full array of colors like a bright toucan, mixing colonial Spanish architecture with sophisticated art galleries. Real estate, I bet, is not cheap in this area!

It seems that all buildings, by some town ordinance, must adjust to this colonial adobe style.
Absolutely stunning portico in Canyon street, housing a –guess what– gallery of fine arts.
My candidacy to work for National Geographic. Classic tourism office photo. Thanks, Canon 60D!
Characters in this street are quite... spicy, yet full of flavor.

Two happy artists chatted lively in the threshold of the Ladell Gallery. I met one of them, Arlene, the owner, who showed me inside. We soon got talking about RISD, and the difference between the art scene in the New York City area and Santa Fe. "We do not miss the hipsters", said her friend. And it is true: it felt refreshing to be surrounded by art as a means of colorful and relaxed self-expression, of seeing the world with happiness, rather than a half-assed statement of ironic disdain. I quite did not miss those hipsters either! It's so disheartening to see that many artists follow that trend –in art school I have witnessed many a complete, gruesome metamorphosis– because they do not know of any alternate lifestyles! Just you, and your art, and the sun, and the New Mexico sky! Simple, plain life.

Color, color, color! I was thankful to be let free to snoop around Arlene's studio!

As we chatted a friend of theirs stopped in in the middle of the street in his Lincoln town car to talk. With calm and care, people circled around him, until a very angry woman stopped violently and started sounding her horn. "It's a double line!", she said, to which I responded "It's Santa Fe!". "Boy, there's someone who hasn't living here for too long!", said one of the animated artists. "She acted quite like a New Yorker", I responded. We all laughed and waved each other goodbye.

Taste of Old and New Mexico... what I would give for a glass of fresh horchata in the shady porch!
Finally my cell phone struck 10 o'clock. I ran down to the Turner-Carroll gallery and was greeted with enthusiasm. "I come to deliver the sculpture of the man sitting", I said, to which I was responded with a surprised look: "You don't look like it, with that camera!". Soon I got the Land Cruiser and parked in front of the gallery. Two other men came out to help unload my quiet travel companion.

160 Kg of bronze, finally in place!
After some struggle we finally positioned the sculpture in front of the gallery, so I was free to take some pictures around. I talked to the secretary of the gallery, Natalie, about Native American villages in the area, which I would have LOVED to see if I was not in a hurry to return to Wichita. Darn it.

If you wonder where this is, check out the website for the Turner-Carroll gallery.
I turned the ignition and Yoda purred once again, ready once again for loyal service to the confines of the Earth. And so, with $250 extra in my pocket, I kept driving through hills and vast, flat roads in the middle of nowhere, towards the infinite plains of the Heartland.

Bye, bye! Note my friend's pensive face as I drive away from Canyon Road...
The drive from Santa Fe was uneventful to a point in which I decided to stop by Las Vegas, New Mexico, just for the sheer curiosity of its name. There was not much to see other than turn-of-the-century constructions, many in great shape; so I stopped in the local Salvation Army to see if any of their curiosities could catch my eye.

Parts of Las Vegas looked pretty similar to New Orleans, with an Old West touch to them.

Nu-Way Cafe. Again, on the eternal quest for cool googie signs. Gotta love their style!
There was a point at which I arrived to Route 54, which would take me all the way to Wichita. I turned by GPS off and I sighed in boredom, with some giggles in between (Hooker, KS –followed by Beaver, KS... yes, very mature of me) until I found a sign full of meaning, tragedy and rebirth: Greenburg, KS.

John Deere dealership, with several windmills in the background –source of the town's power.
Founded by a Stagecoach tycoon, Greensburg used to be an in-between town where the big railway companies would stop for water –sourced from the world's biggest hand-dug well–. However, in 2007, the entirety of the city was deeply devastated by a tornado, which leveled the town and left behind a high number of injured and dead. However, the relentless spirit of its inhabitants made it into what it is today: a town built to energy-efficient standards, powered in its entirety by wind turbines –ubiquitous around its landscape. It is just heartwarming to see how a town, despite extreme adversity, can rethink –and improve- the way it rebuilds itself, scratching past conceptions.

Andy Warhol would get a kick out of the repetition of this agricultural machinery.
Donald's Serva-Teria in Pratt, Ks. Space-era signage at its best. Where did this basic degree of creativity go?
I arrived to Wichita at 10pm, where I crashed into my bed immediately, waking up the next morning as if these landscapes had been a dream. Soon this blog will get 10,000% more interesting, as soon as I reveal a new change in my expedition vehicle and the preparations for the long PanAmerican journey start taking place. Until then, stay glued to your computer screen, and follow This European Life on facebook! Be good and stay out of trouble! ;)

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