I posted an essay on Medium about attending a certain creativity cult conference yesterday.
There’s a parallel San Francisco that I go to in my dreams. It’s full of unfamiliar streets, buildings, shops, but I know it’s San Francisco. It has the same beauty and mystery that has always attracted me to the city, but it’s unfamiliar, constantly shifting, unknowable.
Mostly unknowable. Because, see, it’s the same city. A ramshackle three-story Victorian that is the setting for one dream may come back days, months, years later, in the background of another dream, as I walk past, lost. There’s one curve of road, with a strange new metro line on it, that I walk over and over as I try to find my way around this city. (I’m pretty much always lost in my dreams.)
I’m slowly mapping it, I think. I’m slowly starting to connect pieces of this city, that looks like a love child of Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, even though the pieces move around of their own volition with alarming frequency.
How do I know it’s San Francisco, if no landmarks are the same? The same way you know anything in dreams – you just KNOW. But more than that, I know it from the way I react to it. I have the same feelings that I have towards the real city.
It awes me, and confuses me. It’s strange, ever-changing, unknowable, and it certainly doesn’t feel like Home, not when you look at it on a macro level – it’s someplace you have to fight your way through in order to find your way Home. And despite of all that, I love it more than I reasonably should.
Most of the wandering on my trip took place in Nevada, as nearly all the sites I wanted to hit on this go-round were in the desert. There were some great ghost towns and haunted spots from my start in Missouri, for sure, but those only popped up at the rate of about one a day.
Like Texola, OK, where the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl pushed residents out, and the nostalgic Route 66 tourism (the juice that keeps towns like Seligman on the map) didn’t bring enough in. I had a great time tromping around through obviously unsafe ruins and poking into doorways where I probably shouldn’t have been.
Another day was for Picher, OK, an old mining town that the EPA calls the most toxic place in America, where only a handful of people refused to take the federal buy-out. I poked around the Picher Mining Museum (now empty, except for a strange tiny photo of an antique clock on one wall), respected the signs that told me a building was still inhabited, and walked all through the others.
Not all the sites I headed for were ghostly. Visionary and outsider art has always been as much of a draw for me as the unknown and spooky, and this trip included a healthy dose of that as well. I’ve meant to hit up Slug Bug Ranch and Cadillac Ranch in Texas for years, and I finally had the opportunity. Carhenge was a highlight of my last trip; there’s just something about the idea of big ol’ road trip machines sticking out of the earth in odd ways and covered in colorful paint that calls to me. Especially if you get to leave your own mark on them. The best bit was watching a young punk couple spray their names onto a car in the middle of the row. Before leaving, the boy came up to me and grinned, and let me know that they’d collected all the cans with leftover paint in them, and that I should feel free to grab a couple and go nuts. They walked off hand-in-hand.
The next day’s site wasn’t ghostly either, just awesome: Cano’s Castle, in Antonito, CO. 30 years of junk collecting and building, and the result is a glittering, towering, pile of awesomeness. Dusted in snow when I saw it, it was freaking astounding. I’m both a bit sad and a bit relieved I didn’t run into Cano, the marijuana & Jesus-inspired builder. Sounds like he has some strange views about women, and food. Still. Next time, maybe. There’s a sweet little narrow gauge railroad that runs up the mountains from there in the summer, and a return trip might be called for.
I didn’t find any ghosts at the Weatherford Hotel, in Flagstaff the next night, though I wasn’t looking too hard. Actually, the St. James, a few nights earlier, was the only spot where I spooked myself to the point of almost seeing something. My room was sans bath and at the end of a long mirror-lined hallway, which meant I had to run down creaky floorboards and past doors open to empty poker rooms with antelope heads on the wall every time I had to pee. I also stood for long minutes outside the most haunted room, where other visitors left offerings in the morning, and almost convinced myself I heard something. And I ate green chile, both for dinner and breakfast the next day, that flat-out changed my life. My mouth is watering right now. The Bay Area might be awesome for international food, but it’s severely lacking in southwestern tastes.
That was the first five days, bringing me to the desert and Nevada. The next day was when I really went a bit nuts.
I spent that night at the Amargosa Opera House Hotel. It was a Thursday, which sadly meant that I missed the performance by one day. But I met the young dancer from Oakland who is carrying on the vision of the founder, a New York ballet star who renovated the little decrepit Death Valley theater and danced, regardless of whether she had an audience, every weekend. And I saw the wild horses that came up to her back door every night. And I met the hawk who spent his nights in the old barn, thanks to an introduction from a chihuahua-toting Modesto man who had been there for a week. If you think of this lovely old place as a historic hostel with private rooms, and you’re cool with that, you’ll love it.
I left at sunrise the next day to get to Rhyolite, where the old West ghost town wasn’t itself the attraction. Within the ruins lies the Goldwell Open Air Museum, where artists have scattered works here and there in the desert setting. The ghostly forms were, obviously, my favorite. They reminded me of my favorite building in San Francisco.
On to Scotty’s Castle… but I made one quick detour on the way. I was geocaching this whole time, and that lovely little sport/game led me to some fantastic spots. But none compared to the Hard Luck Castle. The second cache, about 4 miles down the dirt road after you turn at the big attention-grabbing Tourist Attraction! sign, was located at a fantastic roadside shrine – and I simply cannot resist a roadside shrine.
When I got to the end of the road and met the shrine’s creator, I learned that it was built from the bed of a truck that cracked an axle when he was hauling his first load up the road to begin his castle. Oh, his castle. It looks pretty nondescript from the road – just a big round green bunker, with a bit of a tower in the middle where you can watch the stars – but as soon as you get closer, you start to see the amazing bits. This is your classic lone-man-builds-a-dreamhouse-in-Nevada-to-escape-the-government type scenario, and the tour will blow your mind. The great doors open to a circular room, with arched doorways leading off in various directions, and an immaculately tiled labyrinth taking up the entirety of floor. With a jewel in the center.
The main living room has not one, but two pipe organs, one rescued from a condemned church, one from a theater. It also has a 5-foot wide latchhook wall hanging, made by the builder during a long Tahoe winter (part of the reason he chose Death Valley). As you go through the house, the details overwhelm you: the conjoined HL logo with a naked woman on each side (pretty sure I spotted a – classy – naked woman in each room of the castle); the commemorative bricks placed (first, last, and in honor of departed dogs); the central fountain-filled courtyard, open to the observatory above and joined by a circular metal staircase; and oh lord, the white and gold bathroom dominated by a gleaming tub and a huge window with an expansive view of the desert valley. Simply amazing.
So as I said, on to Scotty’s Castle – which, while part of a National Park and a Historic Place with an Entrance Fee and Picnicking Area and also Parking For Recreational Vehicles, was way less impressive. An engineering marvel, and a gorgeous deco building, but how can you compare a private tour that went into every room with a don’t-touch-anything, follow-the-guide, stay-in-your-pack-of-30-people tour? You can’t. I left early, and moved on to Goldfield, a town studded with geocaches, art cars, abandoned buildings, and historical markers. Perfection.
Still, I rushed through it, as sunset was coming and I had to get to my lodging that night: the Clown Motel in Tonopah. This was my last haunted hotel for the trip, and probably the one I was the most excited about. It’s like doubling-down on terror: not only do you have ghosts (well, maybe – the owner says any ghosts are just nearby, in the adjoining cemetery), but you also have clowns. Clowns. Lots, and lots of clowns. Over 500 of them in the motel’s lobby, a collection that went a bit mad. However, I actually found this one of the most peaceful nights of my trip. Aside from a clown holding my door number, and a tasteful pastel watercolor of a clown gentlewoman holding a parasol in an Edwardian dress above my bed, the clowns were mostly confined to the lobby. I slept like a log. No evil cackling or anything.
And that was my time in the desert. I spent one full day traveling a distance that you could make non-stop in about 2 hours. Bliss. The high point of my trip. I’ve always given Nevada a wide berth, calling it the one state within which I found nothing to love on my first road trip. I love the Arizona deserts of my ancestry, but the Nevada ones always felt truly empty to me, not conducive to living (or dead) souls. Man, was I wrong. You just have to go a little slower and be willing to off-road it a bit, and the uniquely-Nevadan spirits will show themselves.
Like clockwork, on day four of my road trip I hit my cranky existential crisis. It didn’t help that for this trip, day four overlapped with my birthday, which always makes me a little bit cranky. So double crankiness.
I had a wonderful visit with two parts of the family that I never get to see, and then hit the New Mexico roads. About an hour in, my crankiness descended.
I’ve never liked birthdays, but I hate telling people that, because they nod their head and say, “yep, getting older sucks.” That’s not it. I’m cool with getting older, if for no other reason than it releases some of the societal expectations that get forced on younger people.
It’s the ghosts of birthdays past. I’ve had some great ones, and whether I’m consciously remembering them or not, I think my brain tries to hold each new one to ridiculously high standards. I don’t really like that about my brain.
Last night I sat and listened to the Italian study group that was inhabiting the upstairs saloon at my historic (haunted, of course) hotel. The ghost of my last trip, to Rome and Venice, was floating about, but it wasn’t making me feel all nostalgic and wanderlusty. It just felt like I was trying to be manipulated into a good mood.
(By the way, 100% sounds really cool in italian. Cento perciento. Or something like that.)
The facilitator, who is from San Diego and has a very large family, was very cute, but this was a closed group and my Italian skills are below remedial. I moved over to the mostly empty ground-level bar for another cocktail (apparently all the kids were in the basement bar playing trivia), but I didn’t really engage with anyone and booked it upstairs pretty early, hoping to see a ghost. Because how can a too-young college kid at the bar compare with a pair of honeymooners who died in a murder/suicide in room 54? He can’t.
… Yeah, I think this bit of my brain that is fixated on ghosts may not be the most healthiest thing for my real-life relationships. Something to think about on the long desert roads scheduled for day five.
(Also, it’s just painful to listen to college kids hit on each other in halting Italian. “Can I dance? Oh, DO I dance. Yes.”)
Your video for the day: Senza Fine, the best part of the horrible 2002 film Ghost Ship, with a bizarrely creepy background image.
On my last road trip, just over 10 years ago now, I noticed a surprising thing when I crossed state lines. Things changed. I’d always assumed these borders were largely arbitrary, formed by politics and history and maybe a river here or there.
Nope. I found that each of the states had distinct landscapes and personalities, and these changes took place pretty much right on the borderline. Today, when I passed from New Mexico into Colorado, that feeling was reinforced. Suddenly, trees! The adobes shifted to log cabins. The weather and the rivers were the same, but now there were fly fishing outfitters. All of this within the span of about 10 miles.
This time, though, because I was thinking about it, I noticed the shift coming back into New Mexico down a different road. On this road, the changes were far more gradual; it took nearly an hour of driving for the landscape to feel like a new place. (Yet another sign that the brain tricks you, and only remembers what it wants to remember.)
And of course, since I seem to be traveling on a theme this time around, I started to think about the borderlines between life and death. Sure, sometimes they’re abrupt: life on one side, death on the other. But maybe sometimes they’re a bit more gradual…
I was lucky enough to see two aunts today, who live about seven hours apart from each other within New Mexico. The first, who’s right next to one of those gradual state borders, was who I was aiming to reach when the snowstorm pushed into a haunted hotel instead.
“I worried about you!” she said. “Did you sleep at all? Did you even know what it was, going into it?” I reassured her, and we got to talking about spirits. I think one of the reasons I seek them out is because I’ve never seen one. I’m not what you’d call sensitive, really in any sense of the word. So I look for them, and enjoy the terrifying tricks that my mind plays on me along the way.
She had an amazing story, about coming down a grade in the snow, losing traction on a pile of slush, and hearing her father’s voice telling her to let up on the brake. She swears she never would have thought to do that, and that he saved her life that day.
As I sit near Santa Fe and think about borders and spook-filled late nights, this feels appropriate, from Tom Russell’s Borderlands album. “Baby wakes up and calls to me, ‘What is that lonesome sound? It echoes off the mountain out near the lights of town.'”
On an unrelated note, I started to get nostalgic for the sketchy places I’ve slept in (the hotels and family homes on this trip have been freaking DIVINE, I feel spoiled) and discovered that my favorite, the Sleeping Buffalo, has been seriously swanked up. I reeeally want to go to the new spot, but I’m a little sad, too. Here’s what it used to look like, except I’m pretty sure it was never really that clean or that bright. I remember dim lighting, murals obscured by decades of mineral deposits, and the only after-hours entry was through a darkened, perennially under-construction motel with plastic window coverings flapping frantically in the wind. Once you actually got to the pool, your senses were overloaded. The water coming in through the exposed pipes (with holes punched into them for jets) blasted your eardrums so that you could just barely hear the menacing, grumbly, hungry noises of the water running back out, and the jets churned up the rust colored water so much you could not see your foot as you stepped naively into the water. It was a pretty good bet that the crazed serial killer lurking in the abandoned motel behind you was going to grab up one of the power tools left lying about and easily sneak up behind you.
I loved it. I miss it. RIP, old Sleeping Buffalo.
My spirit tour continues…
To sum up, here’s my timeline so far:
Friday the 13th:
– Hop on Spirit Air to Dallas, connecting (belatedly) to Missouri, to pick up the car.
And so much more still to come…
I like ghosts. Whether or not they exist (and I will withhold all judgement on that), the very idea of them makes me all tingly. They are things that exist through storytelling, and often only through storytelling. What is an icy hand on your back if you don’t tell about it, with great gusto and exaggeration, to your buddies in the bar the next night? Have you ever heard of a ghost that lived an uneventful life and died peacefully in their bed? No, their lives and deaths were undoubtedly filled with drama and plot twists.
I like adventures. I’m sure that’s not a surprise, what with the deep and abiding love of getting lost that I confessed to in my last post. I’ve bungee’d, zorbed, slept alone in the woods, cross-country tripped solo, visited 48 states and 6 countries, whitewater rafted, swapped a desk job in publishing to drive a freight train, went skinny-dipping in a leech-filled pond with people grabbing my ankles (okay, that was at a theme event thing, but still), and more.
I freaking LOVE Ghost Adventures. I watch it ironically, and scoff at the frat boys yelling “Come at me, bro!” to ghosts, while magnifying every possible sensation to the millionth degree. Later at night, I watch it totally un-ironically and have to turn on every single light in the place.
So while I didn’t plan this trip based on their site visits, I was stoked when I discovered how many of the places on my itinerary that they’ve also been to. They’ve visited the St. James and Amargosa, and even the Clown Motel, but they went to the other haunted hotel in Flagstaff, the Monte Vista, while I’m hitting the Weatherford.
Of course, it’s a tourism thing. They’re on the Travel Channel, for pete’s sake. Ghosts and travel go together perfectly; locals can tell as many tall tales as they want, and the history of a place will only grow. Right now, I’m sitting in the lobby to work, and listening to the front desk agent field calls. On about 3/4 of them, he mentions the paranormal. He’s pretty good, though; when I stopped in to get out of a blinding snow storm white-out, he didn’t say a word about ghosts. It was only when I saw the signs while coming down the hall (“Ghost Investigators:” followed by a list of rules, one of which is “No Ouija Boards”). Even then, he downplayed it, just in case it was a turn-off for me.
It was not. This trip, man. It’s doing this itself, I swear, my fingers aren’t even on it.
Before I got a smartphone – and this was embarrassingly not long ago, like less than a full year back now – I railed constantly against google maps and online tools for travel. Yes, they mean you’ll never get lost again. But you’ll never get lost again. That’s heartbreaking.
I love getting lost. On my year-long road trip (chronicled here, because I’m really not at all an anti-internet person), I was lost about 89% of the time. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and absolutely the best way to travel. You never miss anything, because you weren’t aiming for anything to begin with, and you find little amazements that delight you. Like this, hidden behind a bush off Route 66:
Y’all, I was wrong. That little guy? Geocaching.com actually led me to him. And this?
Roadtrippers.com. Here’s the thing: I’ve figured out how to use the tools.
Today, they actually helped me get even more lost than normal. Because I was free of any fear. I knew that I could dig myself out of any hole that I wandered into accidentally. It may be that the degree of ‘lost’ness wasn’t quite as great, that because I wasn’t really in danger of never coming back, then maybe I wasn’t ever truly lost. Still. I got lost enough to bliss me out, anyway. I ditched my expectations, and found back roads and heartlands backyards that blew my mind.
I may just be a luddite no more.
I’ll leave you with one last image. Early this morning, I was following a geocache link out to a cemetery in Kansas. I could see some headstones off in the distance, so I started crossing an empty (I thought) field toward them. A few steps in, my boots clicked on something. I paused, and started pulling at the weeds, uncovering a gravestone. Then I uncovered ten more.
“Hello. Hello? Hello! Hello! …. Hello?”
The empty baggage carousel of an international airport is a strange place to hang out and listen to “Welcome to Night Vale” podcasts. And yet, it’s somehow also the most perfect place in the world to do so.
A car pulled up about twenty minutes ago. It’s still sitting there, its lights on. The engine may be running; I can’t hear from inside the wall of glass.
A cleaner overheard a man speaking on the phone in Swahili. (The same man who could not get a clear connection a second ago, and simply repeated hello twenty times.) Both were delighted, and surprised, to find each other here. One was from Kenya, the other Tanzania, but the shared language united them for a moment.
“Hello? Hello? Helloooo. Hello. Baby. Hello.” He’s trying again.
The car has moved on, very slowly, down the passenger pick-up lane.
Maybe the reason the desert is such a place of weirdness is that it inspires late nights and insomnia. The million stars so bright they keep you awake; the warm nights that encourage sitting outside on a porch, not cuddling under a down blanket.
I love the languorousness of late night people. At 2:41 A.M., no one is in a rush. You’re walking down the hallway only to keep awake, not to actually get anywhere.
I’ve switched from “Night Vale” to Tom Waits. Blood Money. Best damn play I’ve seen, maybe ever.
Night people can sit and stare at a vending machine for twenty solid minutes. They might not ever get anything; they might not even intend to. But they can carefully consider their options, staring not-quite-vacantly until another night person wanders slowly over and they have to give up their position.
Because night people also do not overlap. There’s one sitting right behind me, barely four feet away. I could reach out my hand and touch his furry lined cap. But I never would. We’re in different worlds. And in fact, it seems a little weird that we’ve both been sharing this space for so long. An hour has gone by, with each of us studiously ignoring the other.
Well, he’s ignoring me. Obviously, I am pretending to ignore him while listening carefully to all his conversations.
There are reasons for moving slowly late at night. Your actions can become repetitive very easily, and if you are moving fast, quickly making vending choices, popping chocolates into your mouth, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll never stop. This crosses over to other things as well; writing, say. Smoking. Or driving.
Driving late at night, through the desert, your speed gradually increasing, without you even realizing it, until you’re passing the gulch where James Dean died at 100 miles per hour. It happens. It’s the desert.
I don’t really believe in ghosts. Not really. I believe in them less than I believe in God, though I do feel like both of those beliefs are on a kind of spectrum of “well it doesn’t hurt, and it could be a really good choice should the afterlife prove to be long.” I don’t believe in ghosts, yet this trip has turned into a ghost-hunting expedition. From my arrival on Spirit air and my refusal to get a hotel room during my 12-hour layover (maybe the non-overlapping of night people is actually a sign that they are in fact ghosts) to the three haunted hotels that just lined themselves up perfectly with my itinerary, the theme of this trip built itself.
Odd, I don’t think of ghosts when I think of the desert. Ghosts are a plot convention for urban areas, or at least rustic and aged small towns. I can’t picture them wandering among the saguaro cactus.
“Hello. HELLO. Hello?”
A whole slew of people who are not night people just entered. A plane must have gotten in, or it’s closer to dawn than I realized and the next shift is coming on. It’s easy to tell them apart; these folks are out late tonight from necessity, and they’re all on their way somewhere, in a bit of a hurry. They’ll make it to the cabs and their next hotel, or to their cars in the employee staff lot, and they won’t slow down to see the ghosts. They occupy each other’s spaces, overlap with each other, and avoid the eyes of the specters moving slowly on their fringes.
I have disappeared on many of you. I promise, it’s not because you had a baby. (Even though you’re right, I don’t really care for babies.) Or because you moved. Or because you have a new girlfriend/boyfriend/wife.
I am broke.
I just entered the final year of a massive debt repayment plan. Most of y’all are aware, at least up to a degree, but…
I’m never sure if I talk too much about this, or too little. But I think I’m on the “too little” side, from a lot of of the conversations I have. Because I live with this every day, it bugs me when someone doesn’t understand why I can’t just rent a car and drive up to visit. Or come out to dinner, or a show, or any other million things that cost money. It’s unfair, I know: it’s my circumstance, not yours. Of course it’s not on the top of your mind. And even if it is, you might not understand exactly what I mean when I say “I’m broke.” Because I try to make it seem like I can go to a show on a whim, and I never mention the hours of budgeting and tweaking said budget that makes it happen.
There’s this whole mixed-up cocktail of feelings that make me want to never, ever speak about this. Today, as I looked at the $10 in my weekly budget and at my undies drawer that’s down to the granny panties and I realized (not for the first time) that I would be wearing every hideous pair and maybe hand-washing a few to get me through to payday, I wanted to talk about it again.
So. What keeps me from speaking up?
I just watched Frances Ha (on the Netflix that I was sure I could again afford the $8 a month on two months ago, and that I will be canceling again this month), and this movie, this movie is my broke-ness. (See this article in Slate that talks about money in the movie.) In response to Frances calling herself poor, a friend says “You’re not poor, that’s offensive to real poor people.”
I am not poor. I know I’m privileged, and I see all the advantages that I have had and still have, and the fact that I have made many choices (both wise and unwise) that have brought me to my present state of broke-ness. My being broke is not a life-crushing, perpetual thing. When I talk about my broke-ness, I’m not asking for help; I have a great support network that I clearly communicate to when I need help. Neither am I asking for pity; my life is pretty good, actually.
I don’t even like to admit to myself how broke I am. That can mean I end up doing things like eating at a schmancy burger place with friends when I know I don’t have the funds for it that month. There’s a deep shame, that I’ve done something horribly wrong with my life, to the end that I cannot afford the same luxuries my friends and peers can. I want to hide my bad choices, make them invisible – except I’m pretty sure that’s the whole feeling that leads to a nation full of debtors. Ignore the problem, just charge it.
Shame’s connected to another feeling, one that’s harder to put a name to. The feeling that makes you fly to Paris on a credit card. To feel, for just a moment, like it’s something you can do. To show to others that it’s something you can do. Like buying a designer handbag, it can be a survival mechanism to present yourself as coming from a place of strength. Never admit a weakness. Always put on your best face. Fake it ’til you make it. I recognize my privilege here, as well, even while feeling a feminist desire to transmit the fact that I am strong, that I am capable of providing for myself, that I am at your level.
I’ve had bouts of depression that I didn’t understand in the past, and that led to me being a person who made excuses. I would make plans to go to a party – then the night would come, and I’d find I simply couldn’t face people. *cough cough* sorry, so sick. I’m also a terrible liar, so it was pretty obvious to my friends that I was just making something up.
I’ve come completely about face on this; now, when I can’t face an event, I’ll tell you flat out. I’ve come so completely around in the other direction that making an excuse of any kind, even when it’s a legit reason, makes me feel guilty. So I stay quiet.
Part of this is because the money thing always feels like an excuse, and not legit. My budget always has a little bit of wiggle room; after food and housing and debt payments and utilities, I generally do have $100 or so to play around with. But then my dog (adopted when I still had my head in the credit card sand) gets sick. Or she doesn’t, but I desperately need to get a carshare to take her to the dog park so she won’t jump on my head at 5am. Or I made a stupid choice on a schmancy burger or a cocktail yesterday. Or I broke my glasses/computer/toe. Or I wore out the soles on my last pair of boots.
Some of these are things I could have avoided. Yes, I probably could have prioritized seeing you. But I didn’t. Something that I didn’t plan came up, and this – which I can and must plan – is withering as a result. I’m sorry.
That’s really what all this is about. I’m sorry. I miss all of you, and I’m sorry that I haven’t prioritized our friendship. I’m trying to come up with ways right now to make this better – you may be getting a skype date request from me very soon – because I’m sorry. There are reasons I disappeared, and if I didn’t make those clear to you from the very beginning, if you think I just don’t care to hang out with you any more, I am very, very sorry.
Because of this mixed up slurry of emotions and my deep desire to avoid the topic, I tend to avoid reaching out to you. I can’t offer to visit you, and it doesn’t seem fair to make you do all the work, plus I know you likely have reasons that make it hard to visit me, so I just avoid the awkward conversation all together, and the “we should totally hang out”s that invariably start to feel disingenuous.
Okay, I started this in kind of a light-hearted place, and it just got all serious. So… in case I can’t see you soon, please enjoy one of life’s free (if you have the privilege of internet access) pleasures: slow lori GIFs.