Party in the U.S.A.
2009: Criss-crossing the country in search of new adventures and reconnections with the past
The landscape in White Sands, N.M., consists almost exclusively of high, brilliantly white sand dunes that are constantly shifting. The limited vegetation is hardly enough to keep the land in check, so there are National Park Service signs everywhere reminding you to turn back if you can no longer see the trail. You can park and walk up atop the dune, and while your feet sink slightly into the soft sand it doesn't much feel like earth is moving underneath your feet. Across the horizon, you can watch adults and children slide down dunes on bright plastic discs. It's breathtakingly beautiful, but with no visible shelter or wildlife, it's one of the most frightening places I've ever visited.
Kristen and I arrived in White Sands entirely by chance. Our original plan for the return leg of our cross-country trip had been to take a more southern route, through Tucson to Austin and then northeast to Baltimore; but plans, like sands, change.
Our cross-country trip itself was already an anomalous adventure. We'd originally been hoping for a summer tour to promote the Degenerettes' just-released debut CD, but the time to book a tour never manifested. It was also time for me to go back to California. Some seven years after uprooting to Baltimore, I still had a couple of precious items stored with friends; I hadn't even returned to visit family since maybe 2005. Before we knew it, Kristen and I melded the ideas into a single two-week road trip.
When we began talking about the trip, people would respond with low-grade envy: I've always wanted to do that. It's curious that so many give lip service to the idea of the cross-country road trip. I'm not sure whether Kerouac or Cort?s is the stronger tickle in our collective inner pioneer, but there it is--we were going to live a dream.
As the trip-planning ensued, I didn't have much time to consider its temporal context. This life-long dream was being realized in a year already littered with milestones. Many of my performance and film projects were finally bearing fruit. My 40th birthday loomed, and with it the 40th anniversary of a ton of cultural landmarks: The Moon landing. The internet. Stonewall. Woodstock. The Tate/LaBianca murders. The launch of Sesame Street, Monty Python, and The Brady Bunch. The end of the Beatles and the beginning of Led Zeppelin. Forty years ago, Nixon was sworn in for the first time. All of this does inspire in me a mild-yet-ridiculous pride for my birth year, but ultimately I'm not really prone to fits of nostalgia. Nevertheless, every five to 10 years I get to wait with my checklist, anticipating the Terry Gross Ensemble's variations on "Remember When" and wondering what Beatles doodad will emerge from the tar-pits.
But this year, even as the nostalgia reached fever pitch, it served as mere background noise for my own frenzied preparations--collecting resources and preparing to put a dozen projects on hiatus.
Our first leg was to Chicago, where we had booked our single music performance--a kick-off benefit for a girls' rock 'n' roll day camp populated by an adorable gaggle of pre-teen girls and their mothers, all glammed out in their Ziggy Stardustiest. We discovered an amazing taqueria, where we gorged on the only food that I crave (and which Baltimore is sorely lacking). We screened films at a friend's house, and then set out for our next long stretch--in two days we'd get to pass a whole lot of corn and mountains to get to California. In Omaha, we found the most amazing freeform commercial radio station; we stopped to camp at a Nebraska KOA where we had access to electricity and wireless internet service inside our tent. I made fresh guacamole and Kristen cooked tacos on our portable stove. We fell asleep watching The Descent on a portable DVD player.
The next night, we landed in a Salt Lake City hostel, a low-grade mistake. Salt Lake's seediest sat on the steps at all hours, smoking and philosophizing while Kristen and I scrounged for pasta forks and potholders in the kitchen. But the hostel introduced us to the Salt Lake morning TV news--the top story was the same as yesterday's: the manhunt continued for the Latino man who had groped a white lady jogger in a public park. On our way out of town, we stopped at a diner where an embittered waitress stole our table away from the waiter who was wearing a gold lam? shirt at 10 a.m. My waitress made me feel like I'd betrayed my gay family while I sucked down coffee in sheer defiance of my own Mormon heritage. And then we migrated to California.
Santa Cruz, my old stomping ground, is a place so hotboxed that time stands still. Not much seemed to have changed, and we spent most of our time at the beach. Every day in California we were at the beach--in Santa Cruz and Big Sur, in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. In Santa Barbara, we stopped just for an hour or so, where I watched nasty seagulls battle over the carcasses of pigeons.
My sisters live in Los Angeles, so we'd planned a long stop there. I've been reconnecting with my sisters since the 2008 death of our mother, and they were introducing me to new and puzzling things, including Mormon hipsters. The visit was delightful, although I fell asleep on the beach and sunburned my ass on the last day in town.
It was as we prepared to leave that plans changed--instead of Tucson, we decided to go to the Grand Canyon; from there, we'd continue on to a hot spring spa resort in Truth or Consequences, N.M. The Grand Canyon, of course, was incredible; the horizon was emphasized with the smoke and fire of a controlled burn. On the way out, we hit the best diner I've ever been to: Goldie's Route 66 Diner in Williams, Ariz., which served farm-fresh eggs and the most flavorful fried zucchini ever made.
The spa in Truth or Consequences--a town named for a game show--was right on the Rio Grande; you could soak in a number of hot tubs (which did wonders for my travel-wearied sunburn) and then get into the rushing, cold river for an otherworldly experience. Upon checking in to the spa, we got the most delightful surprise of the trip: Our old bandmate Dana was working there. We spent the next two days soaking and reconnecting with her. Dana was the one who tipped us off to White Sands. We headed there directly after leaving the spa, and from there we passed through alien-crazy Roswell.
We'd changed course, and so we found ourselves with four days left to get across two-thirds of the country, and no matter how much I wished for an alien spacecraft to nudge us along nothing manifested. We decided to power through, driving through flatlands with storms all across the horizon, trying not to think about tornadoes. We stopped in the tippy-top of Texas; we made it through to Memphis where I bought a bag of Jolly Ranchers for nostalgic fun, and promptly broke a chunk off one of my molars. We pulled over in Nashville, where we witnessed an amazing band of studio musicians while we picked from decidedly non-vegetarian options, and then dropped in on Kristen's brother in North Carolina. The night after that, we were nestled home in Baltimore, pretending to be ready to get back into our respective grooves.
I'm glad to have gotten this cross-country bug out of my system, although I think I'm going to miss the romantic notion I held for so long. But in its place stands the knowledge that my decision to move to Baltimore ranks among the best ever made, and I'm reminded of that fact every time I drag my tongue across the jagged little tooth hidden in the back of my mouth.
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Trashing Days (12/23/2009)
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