When we left Las Vegas, I was a little surprised by how much fun the whole portion of the trip had been. A lot of that was because I had such a great companion at my side. Still, I never expected to enjoy Vegas that much. It’s an obscene city on a variety of levels. I’m also pretty confident that if I actually lived there, there would be an inevitable conclusion of trying to fashion a permanent Ultimo Dragon mask for myself out of cement. Yet I think I’ll go back sometime. There is even an argument that could be made for the idea that I’m looking forward to it.
The Grand Canyon is beautiful. In the abstract, I understand that. Dozens of people were along the trails that take you to and from the Canyon and other nearby areas. Dozens more were hanging around various points in which you can take in the dizzying view. No offense, but it doesn’t do much for me on a personal level. Same for the Hoover Dam, which we also stopped to see during the trip. Neither of these things are all that exciting to me. Strange, considering my capacity to be fascinated by history, stunning acts of engineering and design, or by awe-inspiring pieces of nature. Both of those destinations were of minimal interest to me. Cara wasn’t particularly interested in them either. She just wanted to be able to say that she had seen them. I guess there is an argument for that philosophy. Visit these things, and find out if you will respond to them in any particular, meaningful way. I didn’t, but I’m glad I had at least tried. I had never seen either up close. I have ridden through the general areas of both locations at different times in my life. Not having a strong emotional or spiritual response to the Hoover Dam or the Grand Canyon didn’t bother me. You can’t have a deep connection to everything, but you should at least consider the potential as often as possible.
After all, who the fuck knows? If you haven’t been surprised in a good way over the past year or two, something might be wrong. Maybe you will get more out of Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park than I did.
Part of this trip was designed for both Cara and I to meet up with various friends. I had arrangements with people in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Maryland. Cara had set something up with a friend in Texas. It didn’t make sense to drive across the country, and not take advantage of the opportunity to meet with people we knew and loved in one way or another.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was able to catch up with the endless wit and beautiful weirdness of Kleft Jaw cohorts Frankie Met, Lindsey Thomas, and Nate Maxson. It would have been nice to burn through the city until dawn with unbelievable delirium on our sleeves, in our hearts, and in our minds. As it was, we settled for beers and talk of books, writers, and the formidable future of Kleft Jaw. They remain one of my favorite standing gigs. They have put out of my first book. Frankie has brought me on board for readings in places like Long Beach and Denver. The small press continues to allow me the twin honors of putting out the magazine, and hosting the (on-hiatus) radio show. Any space of time in their company is good time. Visiting Old Town Albuquerque, which I never did during past trips to the city, was a lot of fun, as well. There was an odd enjoyment to visiting Twisters, a fast-food chain used as the site for Los Pollos Hermanos on Breaking Bad. A lot of the city now celebrates the fact that one of the most important TV shows of the past quarter-century was filmed there. If you want, you can even visit the candy shop that was responsible for creating the blue meth. Having now done that, I can tell you that it’s also a neat little candy store.
And you sure as hell need to make it a point to stop by Tinkertown, which is a little ways outside of Albuquerque. It was mentioned on Breaking Bad. That little act of name-dropping doesn’t even touch on how remarkable this place is. Any description I could offer isn’t going to cut it either. We spoke at length with the wife of the man who started it, who has since passed away. What started as a man who loved to collect and make wooden figurines turned into a sprawling estate. This includes twenty-two rooms. Fifty-thousand glass bottles make up its walls. Thousands of things inside Tinkertown are just unusual and wonderful in equal amounts. And let's not forget about the antique wooden sailboat that spent ten straight years traveling the world. This is the lousy introduction I can manage for this place. We were there for a couple of hours, but it would have been easy enough to lose the entire day there. The figurines now number in the thousands, and there are diorama setups and scenes to give every single one of them some sort of part to play.
There are old toys that were rescued from oblivion. There are vintage political buttons, old storefront signs, animatronic machines older than Christopher Lee’s last birthday, other machines that tell your future, and things I can’t remember now. Museums should endeavor to commit as much history as possible. Unfortunately, the more traditional versions generally do not pay attention to eccentric, individual histories. These sorts of people usually have to build their own museums, and so few of them ever actually do. Ross Ward, the man who started Tinkertown, was able to build such a monument in his time. Celebrate that. Tinkertown is miraculous and beautiful. This is not only in terms of what it accomplishes by existing at all. This is also in terms of the specific, endless oddities that greet anyone who makes it a point to visit.
One of my favorite aspects of this trip were the examples of people who were so committed to bringing offbeat visions to life. Route ’66 has a lot of these, and I’m grateful to Cara for including so many of them on this trip. All the little stops represent a large reason why neither of us came close to the kind of burnout I get from two days or more on Greyhound or Amtrak.
In Edmond, Oklahoma, I met up with my friend Danielle. I won’t bother to make a strong argument for Tumblr in a general sense. I will tell you I’m glad I signed up for the site a few years ago. Contrary to what some people and certain sects of Reddit will tell you, there are some pretty wonderful people on that site. Danielle is one of them. A published poet, she moves across the details of a hectic life that involves raising two exceptional little girls, running an Etsy store that sells the cutest goddamn hedgehog pillows in recorded history, and making time to let relative strangers sleep on her couch. I have wanted to meet her since we ran into each other on Tumblr a couple of years ago. Edmond is nice enough. Oklahoma overall tends to strike me as a series of dreary towns and dreary cities across a dreary backdrop. All of it is sometimes interrupted by violent tornadoes. That may or may not be accurate. What I know for a fact is that Edmond, Oklahoma is home to an amazing friend, as well as a deliberate, surreal 90’s throwback of a coffee shop. No surprise that the amazing friend is a lot more interesting to me.
In Katy, Texas, I took a couple of days with a friend, while Cara went off to see one of hers. Being apart didn’t bother me. Taking a break is a good idea for long-term road trip cohorts. I have known my friend Michelle for approximately fifteen years. We had met on a message board for the band Jack Off Jill, but this was the first time we had ever actually met in person. Being Texans their whole lives, she and her husband didn’t think much of my visit to Amarillo’s Big Texan restaurant. My desire to try the Big Texan’s 72 oz. steak challenge (no one would bankroll it for me, so I didn’t) didn't impress them. The visit itself amounted to a couple of pleasant, sedate days in their company. After days of running around on the road, visiting people, stopping at cities, clown motels, and motels where it just kind of looks like someone is going to fucking murdered (but the diner across the street was good), it was a different kind of startling to just sit still.
We did take in a participation-demanded screening of Mel Brooks’ more-or-less classic Spaceballs at the famous Alamo Drafthouse. Nothing of note happened beyond that. I watched a lot of of TV. When that got old, I played with their brilliant one-year-old son. I even caught up on work for Kleft Jaw, Drunk Monkeys, and Cultured Vultures. When I’m traveling, I tend to skip out on work. I don’t even keep notes, or take a few minutes to work on projects that are important to me. This is a mindset that comes back to haunt me. I am thinking about this, as I try to reconstruct this specific article from memory. The implication is that I only work when I have no other choice.
I do still work for the straightforward pleasure of it. One of the silly things I did after turning 30 this past May 28th was take stock of my eighteen-year career as a writer. Yes, I know it sounds stupid, but I did in fact decide at age twelve that my main vocation was going to be writing. I'm a little too fond of the detach I make from the computer, from writing, and from the gleeful litany of stupid things on the internet that keep me from writing. When I do stop, I’m rarely in a desperate hurry to get back to it. Once the professional routine swallows me at the ever-expanding waistline, then I tend to get jazzed up for time to work on poems, short fiction, novels (I still have one coming out next year through Kleft Jaw Press, I swear to fucking god), articles, and reviews. Then all the other things I try to do in-between freelance writing gigs. What was nice about taking a day to catch up on gigs in Katy was how I was actually looking forward to writing. It’s not that my gracious hosts ignored me. They just had their own routine. When people are amiable enough to allow me into that, I try to stay out of the way as best I can. If you can give me a place to write and drink coffee, we’re pretty much all set.
By the way, when I did take stock of my career on my 30th birthday, I decided that things were going well. Although I still struggle to feel like I have anything useful to contribute to the literary community I am part of, I can't complain too much. I also hate myself for never making enough time for personal creative projects. That feeling is rare. I get to write for four different literary magazines. I have a book out, and people seem to like it well enough. I’ve done readings all over the country. All in all, they have been successful ventures amongst a crowd of intense, brilliant literary practitioners. Vicious, engaging, compulsory ideas can still wake me out of a nap that’s been brought to you by the good people at Rotgut Cocktails Inc. Compromises and spectacular failures through the years have not stopped me. I still write. I still get to do a lot of the things I want to do. The future of my career is going to have a few more pleasant surprises, before it is all said and very much all done. What else can anyone ask for with a straight face?
You can’t top seeing someone you love really, really enjoy stopping at the Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma. This is another Route ’66 destination that you may have seen on TV, if you watch a lot of those sorts of shows. You can describe it to someone, and you can describe it in the simplest terms possible. Tell them that someone built a dock that overlooks a lake in the shape of a massive blue whale. They will still want you to elaborate a little, as though you build the damn thing yourself. The whale is outfitted with slides and ladders. For insurance reasons, it is no longer a swimming spot. You can still take pictures. Visit the gift shop. It's run by a nice woman who believes with unshakable sincerity that she is working to safeguard an essential piece of American Strange. She is. While Cara chatted her up, I studied vintage photographs of the whale and surrounding areas that you could buy for a few bucks.
When you look at pictures like these, you can’t help but sketch out little theoretical biographies of the fading figures who are having such a great time. You can’t help but wonder about the teenagers sitting in the sun, pausing in mid-sentence to let someone take their picture, or not even knowing someone has a camera. You think about all the kids in the pictures of the animal sanctuary that existed nearby for a great many years. Who went on to have nine husbands over twenty years? Which ones wrote books? Which ones went out to Hollywood, didn’t make it, and accepted the consequences of putting too much stock in dreams? Which one grew up to name every single dog they have ever owned Mortimer? Who died? Who still lives in the area? It goes on like that. Most of my life revolves around thinking like this, which might explains the career I chose.
Dumb as it all is, the science of possibility in the lives of strangers is a lot more interesting to me than the science of a lot of other things. Rigid facts and stories are not awful things by any means. I just prefer it when the details are vague enough that my imagination can take a crack at filling in some of the blanks. I realize that a lot of religion-based genocides get started that way, but my plans are not that monumental.
The Blue Whale itself is a bit of a creepy oddity, but it’s worth seeing. It’s another thing that has been around for a long time, but I don’t suspect it will be around forever.
Of course, most things won't be around forever. This includes people, although I don't like to think about that. Missouri decided to remind me anyway.
Join us in two weeks for the conclusion of The Long Way Home.