June 27, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 9 and 10, Nebraska and Iowa

We see Nebraska and Iowa mostly at 80 m.p.h. on the I-80, so it's a condensed and truncated view at best.

Geographically, the skies are as vast as they say and the fields of corn and cattle pasture a never-ending emerald smear.

It's dangerous to generalize but the people seem humbler, as if they haven't forgotten what community is and the small rituals required to maintain it. I go for a run to shake off the car legs and every single person I pass says hi. No one wears sunglasses and there doesn't seem to be a gym or organic grocer in sight.

Of course, these same friendly folk voted overwhelmingly for Trump, at least outside of Lincoln, Omaha, Des Moines, and the other major cities (though curiously, they aren't as in your face with the flag and make America great garbage as Californians).

Then going on the leaflets in rest stops and every billboard trying to pull you into a local source of pride, they're smitten with Lewis and Clark, the Mormon trail, the California trail, pioneers, and every other force of Manifest Destiny, to the expense, I would say, of other histories.

I did a little research and found that at one rest stop outside of Omaha, on the Big Blue River, a tornado hit the camp of Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe in 1877, killing Standing Bear's daughter. The tribe it turns out was heading for Oklahoma because white settlers had dispossessed them of their land in Nebraska, and along the way a quarter of them died. When they tried to return to their homeland two years later, soldiers from Fort Omaha arrested and imprisoned them on the very spot on the Big Blue where we stopped.

Standing Bear would fight his imprisonment and eventually win. The ruling was the first time in U.S. history "that an Indian was a person within the meaning of the law," explained a plague, at the end of a path behind other plaques honouring American soldiers who fought in Vietnam, the sacrifices made by pioneers to break the land, and something about Purple Hearts, in case your patriotism was beginning to waver.

In Iowa, we stop on the eastern extent of the state, just across the Mississippi from Illinois, in Davenport. It's pouring rain but we make an effort at least to see the Mississippi, which is an inch or two from overflowing its levees. It's the first time we've seen the huge river, as vital as it is to the settlement of North America (just take a look at this map of light pollution, with the Mississippi splitting the two distinct zones). The river makes a big impression.

Downtown Davenport, meanwhile, feels like the rust belt, or the outer fringes of it anyway, a little like Southern Ontario. Rough but homey. We J-walk for the first time not worried that a cop will arrest us. And we stand in centre medians while cars keep going right by, not confused in the least at the sight of pedestrians.

June 26, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 8, Tundra

We leave our campsite on the sunnier west side of Rocky Mountain National Park and drive east along the U.S.'s "highest paved road," directly over the peak of the cordillera, not knowing what to expect, nor having read much about it.

Soon we hit Milner Pass at the Continental Divide, where the water of the Americas splits east and west.

Up there we see elk with "huge racks," a guy with binoculars and fingers that look used to pulling triggers tells us, and longhorn sheep clinging to cliffs, though too far away to really see well.

Above us, in the peaks, is snow, "but I don't think we'll get anywhere near it," I announce.

In the backseat, the kids read a pamphlet and inform us of the various regions—montane, subalpine, alpine—just as we pass from one to the next. Quickly we hit the tree line. "Okay, maybe we will see snow."

We keep ascending. The treeline passes and we definitely see snow. In fact, it starts to snow. We get out and climb a peak to 12,000 feet. Grey clouds swirl. A marmot shuffles by. It's hard to breathe, and we're freezing in shorts. One daughter declares that she hates the tundra, right after she trips on a rock and falls. But the mountain flowers are an inspiration, and the view is exquisitely, superlatively exciting.

On the way down the western side, it storms, with wind so strong it feels like our car will pull a Dorothy. The temperature drops to 6 Celsius according to our car thermometer, which I bang, like  Fonzie, convinced it's broken.

We're supposed to camp in Lake Ogallala, Nebraska, but decide instead to book a night in a motel. Oh, it's glorious, and we spend the rest of the day reminiscing on why.

Some of the things you take for granted when you're camping:
  • Walls that insulate you from rain, cold, noise (especially hillbilly rock and the air brakes of big rigs), and pesky animals
  • Breakfast you can make in under an hour without throwing out your back
  • A shower
  • Warm water and a sink in which to wash dishes
  • A toilet that isn't a five minute walk away up a hill and over a rocky path, without trip lines from tents that cause your kids to fall and cry
  • Lights that turn on with the flick of a switch, so you don't stub your toes looking for a flashlight
  • A fridge not just to cool your food but store it, rather than have to string it up a tree because of scavengers with fangs
  • A mirror that isn't a dented piece of metal affixed to the wall, even if looking at yourself while camping may not be the best decision
  • A proper soft, dew-free, debris-free bed, with no insects in it
  • Kids that don't look feral
  • Not seeing white families with deluxe RVs and a Walmart of goods try to recreate the suburban homes they've just left behind for a few days
Tomorrow, Omaha!

June 24, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 7, Rocky Mountain

We stay put today. It's hovering around the freezing point when we wake up, but Rocky Mountain National Park north of Denver, one of the oldest national parks in the U.S. is too sublime to leave right away.

We spend the day hiking up East Inlet Falls to Lone Pine Lake, or at least close to the lake before we fizzle out, some 9 miles and 2000 feet of elevation climb.

We see lots of scat, fly fishers in meadows, trees chewed by mountain pine beetle, and Texans.
Sunburnt and destroyed at the end, we find a library in nearby Grand Lake with amazing chairs to snooze in.

In the evening, we attend a ranger talk on bears and the ranger gets the kids to hold up a grizzly pelt with a huge head and long fangs for the audience. Bears, if you didn’t know it, are wily suckers. They have elephant memories and noses that can smell five miles away, maybe that sandwich you’re eating right now. But if you string a scary Halloween figure that shakes or glows on your dumpster, they get scared and run away.

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 6, Colorado

Fandango doesn't make it. The desert proves too hot for a freshwater crayfish.

Before leaving Moab, we bury him under a mulberry tree, all teary eyed, glum. The orange crustacean has been with us for almost two years. We talk about how we'll miss his Popeye eyes, the way he scratched at the side of his Tupperware box when he was hungry and could see we were eating at the table, and how he came out of his favourite plastic bowl when we put classical music on or played the violin.

For the rest of the day, we drive, drive. It's our longest stretch so far, 325 miles.

Initially, Colorado doesn't look too different from Utah, till you hit the Rockies and start to ascend. The surroundings change from desert to alpine in a matter of an hour.

On Interstate 70, we cross through Glenwood Canyon, a feat of highway engineering that rivals, for us, Autostrada 10, which hugs the Mediterranean through Liguria past Genoa. Both snake through narrow tunnels on improbable ribbons of road, like roller coasters, passing incredible scenery. 

By the time we reach Stillwater Campground on Lake Granby, close to where the Colorado River starts, the temperature has dropped to 7-8 degrees Celsius. Mountain chickadees come chirping around. Chipmunks. And it starts to feel more like being in Toronto in late autumn, only we're surrounded by mountains.

June 23, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 5, Moab

We arrive in Moab, Utah on the outskirts of Arches National Park in the late afternoon and it's too sweltering to do much but stay put. Our campsite is noisy and dusty, on the edge of a highway, and mounting the tents in the open sun just about does us in. Fortunately, there's a dining area with AC and even showers in the bathroom, the first we've seen since Vegas. Finally, no more smell of moldy cheese stuck in an armpit, eh, kids?

The campsite owner is friendly and tells us about a local secret, a nearby stream, Millcreek, which comes down from the mountains and ends at a small waterfall in a "cowboy's swimming pool." We head there to get wet, rather than venture into the national park to see choice spots like Fiery Furnace.

The way into the falls runs partly along a path but also through the stream itself. We strip down, leave our shoes on, and wade through the rocks and rushing water, through another twisted riparian-desert zone.

Carved into the cliff sides, we spot petroglyphs, probably of the Anasazi people.

We arrive at the waterfall and there aren't any cowboys but there are dudes drinking beer and cliff-diving into the water. The water is filled with boulders and only five feet deep at most, in only one small spot near the base of the waterfall. A young woman in a see-through bikini laughs hysterically and dogs jump in and out, barking like car alarms.

I hear bones cracking in my head. A search and rescue arriving.

But in the meantime, it's almost 7 p.m. and 40 degrees. We jump in, yippee!

June 21, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 4, Capitol Reef

This is the vista that hits us upon entering Bryce Canyon National Park. The columns of weathered rock are called hoodoos and apparently the local Paiute view them as "Legend People" who were turned to stone and fixed in place, like the ancient Pompeiians, for behaving badly.

By the way, have I said the geography of southern Utah is like nothing of this planet? That it's spellbinding, druggy? I think I'm getting mystical out here.

Tired from hiking, we spend half the day travelling to yet another national park, Capitol Reef. We settle in a campground in the town of Fruita, settled by Mormons along a small river and filled with fruit trees and mule deer. The deer are everywhere.

We pitch our tents under a cottonwood tree, eat, and leave to explore.

The place is bipolar: along the river it's green and bouncing with life, but a few steps away and the desert reemerges, its dust rust and salted, even sprinkled with uranium which the Department of Energy had its sights on at one point.

Before bed, a climb into the mountains and talk in an amphitheatre by the guy who processes the images from the Hubble Space Telescope and just happens to be the photographer in residence for the park at the moment.

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 3, Bryce Canyon

No campsites in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, so we camp 17 miles away in a forest accessible by a bad dirt road. City cars like ours are not made for bad dirt roads.

We're now 7,500 feet up and it feels alpine. We explore a nearby lake and catch a frog, see investment bankers leeches, spot trout along the shoreline, watch a muskrat swim, and spot a group of wild turkeys. Unattended cows also roam about and moo across the lake at us.

Earlier, we hit on a good idea: ice, at gas stations, but it takes us three stops before we find beer. Oh yeah, this is Mormon country.

Overnight the temperature drops from the mid-30s to 7. We get up frozen at 5:30 with the birds and mooing cows and put on all of our clothes in big layered blobs.

Have I mentioned that we brought Fandango, our pet crayfish? I pop the lid on his container. He's been out all night under a tree and is now, unusually for him, upside down. I poke him and he waves in slow motion with his tail.

An  hour later, we’re back in the car and headed for Bryce Canyon, first in line when the gate opens.

June 20, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 2, Zion

The best part about Vegas is leaving. We made neither gains nor losses, because who can stand sitting in front of a pinball machine on speed and steroids anyway.

Desert, lots of it, and grey and monotonous through Nevada and the northwest corner of Arizona. Then Utah and it's all thick slabs of cheese and chocolate with a sprinkling of green in the valleys.

In Zion National Park, Utah, it's so hot setting up camp, especially pumping up the new blasted inflatable mattresses, I get dizzy.

The deer aren't too smart - they come right up to you.

We explore The Narrows, a deep crevice cut through the mountains with a river in it. Nothing like wading in cool water to freshen the whole body.

At night, a ranger talk on astronomy. We see Jupiter and its moons through a telescope. Conclusions: we're minuscule as a species, not even a single granule in the whole world of sand and dirt and dust combined. But we don't know it because we’re polluting the sky with artificial light, making it harder and harder to see even the biggest, most obvious stars. Did you know, artificial light so corrodes melatonin and warps the circadian rhythm that it's carcinogenic? Goddammit, even that!

June 18, 2018

L.A. to Toronto Roadtrip Notes: Day 1, Vegas

The hardest part about a trip like this is getting out the door. Then it's fine.

The California interior along the 15 is bleak. Dry as a bone. Dust storms. Abandonment.

In degree, Vegas is worse than we expect. A sewer of advertising. A relentless dopamine rush. Labyrinths of slots and blackjack pits. People pay for this?

We cool off in the pool of our "resort hotel," Circus Circus, "because life is a circus - let's play!"

On the strip afterwards, a drunken reveler surrounded by Chippendales and more walkers than we've seen anywhere outside of New York in the U.S., shouts, "Get the damn kids away. No kids here."

We find two quarters. I spend mine on a slot and lose. My daughter gives hers to a homeless guy.

Onward ho today to Utah.

June 7, 2018

A Few of the Things it Chops

24" x 48", collage, spray, and acrylic on birch panel

School is ending and the household is busier. We're getting ready to set out on a 2,500 mile journey by car in a week and have only just, I hope, secured all the campsites and hotels. Oh, and we've just received news about our immigration status which amounts to a punch in the gut. But the painting, happily, keeps apace.

In a time of perpetual change and movement, the feeling of running harder and faster only to stay in the same place, it's been important for me to cling to stuff, like a primordial lifeform on a deep-sea vent. I'm reluctant to throw out old familiar clothing and whenever the flux thwarts routines and anchors, I frantically reassert them.

This piece is heavily collaged, meant to reflect, I think, the scattered sensations I've taken in and struggled to assemble into some sort of meaningful picture. It should be with me at TOAE in July. Just need to get my suction cups off of it.

June 1, 2018

Lo-Gas Eat

36" x 48", acrylic, oil, spray, and collage on birch panel
Collage is "an evolution beyond narrative," an "antigenre," claims David Shields in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. The "art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century."

Shields goes on, "By incorporating materials that are inextricably linked to the realities of daily life, the collage artist establishes an immediate identification, both real and imagined, between the viewer and the work of art."

I've long been interested in collage, going back to middle school and hearing Grandmaster Flash for the first time, or reading T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" in a high school poetry anthology, or seeing Josep Renau's war posters in an exhibition during a long-ago trip to Spain.

Album cover, 1982
Renau, "El fascinante Rey del PetrĂ³leo," 1957
These days I'm getting interested in not just working collage into recognizable scenes but using it to construct new ideas, as a driver for the image-making itself.

The straightforward scene, depending on how it is cropped and presented, how it is stylized, can deceive, but taking ready-made chunks and synthesizing or making sense out of them feels honest, maybe the realer tool to tap into reality.