When I was clerking for a federal judge a few years ago, I started a project drawing the U.S. presidents. It was triggered by my acquisition of a 1981 set of World Book Encyclopedia and the delight in reading historical entries for our nation’s forefathers, all the way up to, but not including Reagan. Also, I was taking classes at the time at the Ann Arbor Art Center with Heather Accurso who makes sometimes terrifying baby art. These are some of my drawings from the president project.
When I quit my job several months ago, I did not have a Master Plan. All I knew was that I had to go on a road trip. I decided that rather than photograph my adventures, I would draw them, the thought being that drawing would force me to be more “present.” I’m posting those drawings and thoughts from the trip in installments. The first post is here, the second is here. This is the third.
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When I left Palm Springs for San Diego, I drove a southerly route, towards the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea is a man-made accident. Query whether man can make accidents? A man-instigated accident? Before the Hoover Dam, in the early 20th Century, the California Development Company attempted to reroute the Colorado River to irrigate a chunk of land in Southern California. It worked for a time. The canal was dubbed the Imperial Canal. But within a few years, the project failed and in 1905 a major flood breached dikes that the Company had built, dumping water into what was basically a dry lake bed. The water has no natural outflows and over time it’s become saltier and saltier. So basically, it’s not useful for agriculture and fish don’t thrive in it.
Driving through Salton City is bleak, bleak, bleak, and gorgeous in a tragic sort of way. (Hello! I’m from greater Detroit. Tragic beauty is my jam.) The town was founded in the 1950s as a seaside resort town, which I presume explains why the street names have hopeful seaside names like “Dolphin Drive” and “Sea Gull Avenue.” Problem is these streets lead past big dusty empty plots of land towards mobile homes and ramshackle adobe structures. My visit was quick and sobering after Palm Springs.
West of Salton City I drove up into Anza-Borrego State Park, but not before coming across an abandoned cabin in the middle of a salt flat. Inside these names were inscribed, just so, next to a gaping hole in a concrete wall. The names seemed like the premise for an awesome 80s ensemble movie about teenagers coming of age while riding ATVs across a bleached-out landscape.
Crossing Anza-Borrego was extraordinary. I went from a lunar landscape to lush desert landscapes, all in a zippy Mini Cooper. I stopped in Borrego Springs where I bought an unattractive straw hat and a date shake. That is, a milk shake flavored with dates. Now, I like a milkshake just as much as the next person — nay, much, much more — but I learned that dates do not a good milkshake make. You can’t blend a date. It just turns into chewy smaller bits of date that are emulsified with the ice cream. Unlike bananas or strawberries, say, which lend themselves to being puréed, a date just adds weird texture. Verdict? Blech.
On the other side of the Anza-Borrego desert, Route 78 spat me out into an alpine-like wonderland: the Volcan Mountain Preserve. Basically gorgeous pine trees and lush green fields and grazing cows and fruit pies for sale in a town called Julian. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such dramatically different landscapes in such short order. The drive from Salton City probably took 2 or 3 hours and I felt like I’d gone from Return of the Jedi to The Sound of Music, with maybe Raising Arizona in the middle.
On my way to Palm Springs from Joshua Tree, I drove down into the Morongo Valley. I stopped to eat ribs at Willie Boys Saloon and Dance Hall. There was a mechanical bull but it was resting (it was only 5:00 PM or so). At the bar, an older man was trying to convince a woman to hire his band for an upcoming local festival. She put him off gently, “I’ll have to discuss it with my committee.” He pleaded, “I play harmonica and guitar.” “Yes, I’ll tell my committee.” A woman who was roughly 85 years old came in wearing a blond wig that looked as though it had been stepped on, more than once. She ordered a cosmopolitan, crossed her legs and pursed her lips.
In the Coachella Valley, I saw a dozen military tanks roll up the highway going north. Soldiers in desert fatigues, with helmets and goggles, sat on top of the tanks as though searching for roadside bombs. They had guns too. At sunset, the wind turbines took my breath away — an entire ocean of them stretching from the San Gorgonio Pass (“the second windiest place in the country”) south and west towards the Salton Sea.
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Palm Springs, the guidebook said, is a place for retired persons and gay men, and gay retired persons. I loved it. I want to die there, a shriveled tan little woman with immaculate shag carpets and a big dog. The Design Sponge Palms Springs Guide was very helpful (though some shops mentioned have closed since the guide was first posted in 2009), as was the Palm Springs Modern: Mid-Century Architecture Tour App — well worth the $4.99.
In one shop in Palm Springs, I found this “primitive” sculpture nestled in between Danish mid-century modern furniture pieces. It had big teeth and was chiseled out of a single massive piece of wood.
Another one in this series.
When I quit my job several months ago, I did not have a Master Plan. All I knew was that I had to go on a road trip. A road trip seemed like it would be cleansing, meditative. I could visit all my friends who live on the West Coast and whom I rarely have the time or resources to visit properly. The Road and America would help me recover a sense of identity I felt I’d lost. I decided that rather than photograph my adventures, I would draw them, the thought being that drawing would force me to be more “present.” I’m going to be posting those drawings and thoughts from the trip in installments. Here goes the first.
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Earlier this year, I flew to Arizona where I have family. I borrowed a car and drove West. My mom and my nieces waved me goodbye from the drugstore parking lot down the road from my parents’ house. It took over an hour to get out of the metropolitan Phoenix area. I had no idea Phoenix is such a wide city. Miles upon miles of big stores, the occasional lonely saguaro, more big stores. Each time I thought there could be no more adobe-style housing developments stretching into the sandy hills, there were more.
I made it into the desert. Alone in the car, I grinned like a madwoman, happy to be driving. Before crossing the border into California, I stopped in Quartzsite and bought myself some celebratory beef jerky. The jerky people let me sample different varieties before I committed: teriyaki? carne asada? sweet and spicy? Each sample handed to me delicately with small wooden tongs. I looked at gems in a massive hangar of a store called Gem World. When I didn’t buy any gems, the saleslady looked at me as if to say, “Are you crazy? You just walked into a warehouse full of buckets of pretty rocks and you don’t even want a small polished quartz unicorn to take with you as a memento?!” I wanted to tell her I was happy with just the jerky.
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Joshua Tree National Park covers corners of two different deserts. If you start on the southeast end of the park, you might think you went to the wrong Joshua Tree National Park, because there are no Joshua trees. That’s the side of the park that’s filled with ocotillos (what fireworks would be if fireworks were flora). It’s part of the Colorado desert, which is in turn part of the Sonoran desert.
I started in the Colorado/Sonoran desert part of the park. I saw a cottonwood grove, blooming like an emerald city in a fault line between two rocky outcroppings. Farther along, everything was bone dry. My sneakers got dusty. I met a lizard. He sat on a rock while I drank water. I hiked to Mastodon Peak where crows circled overhead. I could see for miles. I was so happy to be on a road trip, to not be a lawyer in a law firm in midtown Manhattan, to have such a blank slate, to be so surrounded with big beautiful non-judgmental rocks, that I cried. When I met hikers on the way back, I was cheerful but puffy-eyed.
The northwest side of Joshua Tree encompasses part of the Mojave Desert. The road that leads there was under construction, so we had to be led by a pace car. We drove slowly over gravelly bits for miles and I listened to NPR. When I saw the first Joshua trees, I squealed. They are every bit as Seussian as I thought they’d be, but still so beautiful and majestic to see up close. At Keys View, an overlook where one can see the San Andreas fault cut across the Coachella Valley, there was a group of men, posing suggestively on a dead tree. They had big muscles and were very tan. One gentleman inexplicably had on a Mexican wrestling mask. He crouched and purred, while his friend photographed him against the dramatic backdrop.
About a year ago, I started making these hair collages. At the time, I had long hair and was constantly frustrated by how little my hair looked like a Pantene commercial. My hair was long, which I’d been told the fellas like, but it was thin and sad-looking. This is the portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower I did. I’ve since chopped off my hair and, boy, am I happy.