Monday, 30 April 2012

The Perfect Review

A few weeks ago, we stayed at the Bayside Inn, the cheapest motel that we could find in the shi shi coastal town of Monterey. After the manager told us that he would “give it” to us for 39—a very reasonable price as compared to the other motels in the area—we somehow ended up with a receipt for over fifty dollars. Granted, Ricky should have asked him how it ended up being so high before he signed the receipt, but I don’t think either of us expected him to slip in what he later told us was  a “service fee” on top of the tax. We felt swindled. Isn’t providing us with a room and taking our credit card the one and only service of this motel? What chutzpah!

Aside from the dishonest owner, the place was dirty and there was no hot water. Outraged by all this, we decided that the only way to regain control of the situation, since we had already paid for the room, was to post a negative review of the place on Google.

Despite the fact that we have stayed in a million shitty motels, and the question of whether to review has come up before, I have generally veered in the direction of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say it.’ I have never been comfortable with the idea of potentially compromising someone’s livelihood.

But this incident made me think: if they’re going to be dishonest, then they’re compromising their business—not me. We have appreciated whenever we’ve known the truth about a place before going there, so we might as well use our massive wealth of expertise in shitty motels to the benefit of other unwitting travelers.

The Bayside Inn in Monterey, CA. 
A few days later, we left Big Sur, for the second time, and spent most of the day driving away from the coast and toward Squaw Valley, a small town that we chose only because of its proximity to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks. As with all towns right outside national parks, Squaw Valley mostly offered accommodations that were way out of our price range. There was one motel, however, the Squaw Valley Motel—we’ve learned that the hotels that are generally the cheapest are the ones that name themselves after the town in which they are located—that was more or less affordable. Camping, in this case, was out of the question since the parks were way up in the mountains, and besides, we had reservations for three nights at Yosemite starting a few days later. As Ricky put it, “We might as well save what desire we have for camping in a bear-infested campground in the freezing cold for Yosemite.” So on we went to a night of relative luxury at the Squaw Valley Motel.

Or so we thought. After showering and making ourselves comfortable in the bed, I noticed a small bug crawling on the headboard out of the corner of my eye. It was very flat, reddish-brown, and it had little clippers at its head. I jumped backward, and said “Oh shit! Is that a bed bug?”

“Relax,” Ricky said. “Let’s check it out on the iPhone.” A practical plan it was. He Googled bed bugs and pulled up a picture to compare. And there was a picture of a flat, reddish-brownish bug with clippers on its head.

We decided not to lose hope. “Ask Google whether bed bugs are very flat,” I said hopefully. “We can’t really tell exactly how flat that bug is from the picture.”

“Bed bugs are reddish-brown and very flat,” he read from some website about bed bugs. 

Okay, so it’s a bed bug. But maybe he’s just a lone soldier, and if we kill him, we won’t have to worry about any others. We did, after all, as we do with all of motels, check the sheets for evidence of bug sheddings and red blotches from bug bites. After spraying it, and the surrounding area, with OFF!, we decided to put the episode behind us and do our best to sleep through the night.

But a little while later, I noticed yet another bug, the same type, crawling up the wall. At this point, we decided that it was time to do something about it. Ricky woke up the manager, showed him the two dead intruders, and insisted that we be moved to a different room, in the other building, as far away from this room as possible.

The question of whether to review the shitty motel again came up. The owners seemed really nice—a small husband-and-wife team. But do we just sit silently and let other unwitting customers get bitten by bed bugs? We decided to put off the question for another night.

This is what a bed bug looks like, in case you're ever unfortunate to come across one or two. 
Meanwhile, traumatized from the incident, we realized that there was really nowhere for us to stay in the area—since we weren’t staying here again, the other hotels were too expensive, and camping was out of the question. So we turned to our trusty friend: couch surfing. After sending several urgent couch requests to hosts in Fresno, the nearest big city, we did our best to sleep through the night with the hopes that we would be staying in a warm, bed-bug free room the following night.

Sure enough, we got a call the next morning. “Hello, this is Sharon.” It was an older woman with a British accent who Ricky had sent a couch request to the previous night. (Full disclosure: Ricky and I have been interested in couch surfing with an older person, since we determined that older people meant better accommodations and a higher likelihood of free meals). “I have to tell you that I actually declined your request, because I have another surfer coming to stay with me in a few days, and I thought it would be too much to have you guys stay, and for her to come right after. But then I decided, you know what? You guys seemed really nice from all your reviews on couch surfing, and I wanted to meet you, so I said: what the hell!”

We were looking forward to meeting the very verbose Sharon, and her husband Ron, later that day. But first, we had some very big trees to see. 

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are comprised of two contiguous regions—Kings Canyon, which is known mostly for a large canyon just below the Sierra Nevada backcountry, and Sequoia, which houses the most giant of the Giant Sequoia trees in the world. Although, the divisions are not actually that clean: while Sequoia houses the largest mountain in the Sierra Nevada and the continental U.S., Mount Whitney, Kings Canyon houses the widest tree in the world, the General Grant. 

As we drove up into the mountains of Kings Canyon—8000 feet up—we noticed that the ground was covered in snow. We quickly learned that the General Grant’s Highway, the main road connecting the two parks, was closed due to the snow. Although our original plan was to soak up the two parks over the course of three days, between the closing of the highway and the lack of a place to sleep, we realized that our bout in the park would have to be compressed into a single afternoon.

And since the drive into the canyon was also closed for winter, the only activity left on the agenda was to see the General Grant Grove of Sequoia trees in Kings Canyon. The path was covered in snow, and we were not wearing the right equipment to traverse through it. But, along with the other few visitors, we trudged through to see what we all came for. The General Grant Tree—which is only the third largest tree in the world (not the tallest or the densest)—is known for being the fattest. At forty feet in diameter, the tree was a pretty sublime sight to behold. Remnants of a time of giants, Sequoia trees, which are a type of Redwood, covered the planet when dinosaurs walked the earth. So roaming among them is actually a kind of spiritual experience, rendering the person so incredibly small in the face of this magnificent piece of nature.

The General Grant Tree, partially covered in snow.
A couple hours later, as we were ready to concede to having only seen one tree grove out of two enormous national parks, we noticed that the barrier in front of the General Grant’s Highway was suddenly gone. As luck would have it, it was the first day of the season they were opening up the road. We were now able to peek out onto some beautiful vistas overlooking the Sierras, as well see the largest tree in the world—the General Sherman. The Sherman Tree is not the widest, nor the tallest, nor even the oldest tree. But it is considered the largest tree because it is wide enough and tall enough to have the most wood of any tree in the world. Actually, that makes it the single largest living thing in the entire universe as we know it. At nearly 2,000 years old, the tree was living during the reign of Cleopatra! As you might imagine, though, these trees were not officially named until the time of the Civil War.

The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range--Mount Whitney is somewhere in the background.

As you can see, it's a very, very large tree.
Thrilled that we managed to see the essentials of both parks, we were looking forward to heading into the comforts of a real home before heading into the wilderness of Yosemite a few days later. When we finally arrived in Fresno, at a modest house on a quiet block, Sharon, a heavy-set woman, greeted us both with big hugs, and bowls of ice cream. She talked our ears off with tales of her youthful adventures traveling across the world, her experiences on couchsurfing—and all the difficulties of surfing as an older woman—, her children, her hometown of Durham, England, and her regret for having settled down in one of the most boring cities she’s ever been to—Fresno. Meanwhile, Ron, a small, white-haired Fresno native, just sat there in silence and occasionally nodded his head. Once in a while, he interjected to talk about his experiences hitchhiking across the country as a teenager. Ricky and I later determined that he had had a bad trip about forty years ago that he has yet to entirely recover from.

After finally being allowed to go to sleep—as Patricia Marx noted in her recent New Yorker article, with couch surfing, “incessant sociability” is your fee—Ricky and I spent the next day trying to find what to do in Fresno. We couldn’t find anything. We stopped briefly at a café, perused a pretty sizable book barn, and drove around the “historic” downtown district.

We finally capitulated and went back to the Shroud residence—even if that meant more incessant sociability. That night, we cooked them dinner and played a game called “Quidler,” a Scrabble-like card game.

It was a pretty hilarious endeavor. Sharon whipped out a surprisingly competitive streak, as she sat there with her laptop to help her come up with words while the rest of us had no such help. Meanwhile, the laptop only seemed to help her come up with words that I’m pretty sure are not words at all. When Ricky and I asked her, “What’s ‘Wi’?” she said that the computer confirmed the word. Schon joked that it was “half of kiwi.”

Different though they were, to say the least, our nights with the Shrouds were ultimately interesting and enjoyable. In Marx’s article, she winks an eye to her fellow New Yorkers as she enumerates all the various eccentrics one meets on couchsurfing. And it is true, in our experience, that the people who choose to host are not run-of-the mill.

But the reality is that these are the people who choose to let strangers feel at home in their home. Marx intellectualizes about it, asking, “Has our relation with machines made us feel so deprived of human contact that we befriend anyone and shack up with whoever has a mattress?” But while the rest of us are busy antagonizing—throwing in made-up service fees, or making fun of the eccentrics on couch surfing—these people are opening up the world just a little more.

I think that if there’s anything that computers have really changed, it’s just transparency—that there are consequences to being dishonest, and rewards for being gracious. Sharon wanted to host us on account of an extremely flattering review we received from Peter in Santa Fe. He wrote: “What a bright, sweet couple. What a great trip they're making. By the end they'll know more about the USA than most of us because they're smart and curious and are going everywhere. If they want to stay with you, say yes right away before someone else does." 

We've learned that it always pays to be honest and friendly, because just as a bad review can screw you over, a good review might provide you with free lodging all across America. 

Near the end of the Quidler game, Sharon announced, “It’s anybody’s game…except Ron’s!” This came after several instances of telling him that he wasn’t using his brain. He didn't seem too fazed by her commentary. 

Later, Sharon put down the word ‘ki.’

“What’s’’ki?’” Ricky and I asked incredulously.

“It’s half of Kiwi,” said Ron.

Photos From The Road: Desert Edition

Just posted more pictures from the road. This second album goes from March 5th through April 2nd, from Louisiana's Cajun Country all the way through Death Valley National Park in southern California. Hope you enjoy!

Two teasers:
Waking up at the campground in Monument Valley, Utah.
Going out to watch the sunset from the sand dunes in Death Valley.

 Again, click here to see the album. You don't need to have a Facebook account or know how to use it in order to see the photos.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Photos From The First Few Weeks

While you and the rest of the world anxiously await Brahna's next blog post, here's something to while away the time at work. I just posted an album on Facebook with some pictures from the first few weeks of our trip, from Wayne through New Orleans, from February 14th through March 4th. Many, many more pictures than we've been able to put up on the blog. These represent about 1/4 of the pictures we took during that time, but they're a good, manageable, curated selection. You don't need to have Facebook or know how to use it in order to see the pictures. Click on the link here for things like the following:

Stretching at Myrtle Beach.
Brahna running down an Indian ceremonial mound off the Natchez Trace.                 

Again, you can click here to see the album.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Returning to Big Sur, and Then Returning Again

Henry Miller once wrote that it was in Big Sur, the wild central coast of California, where he first learned to say “amen.” I had the same experience about two years ago when I accidentally stumbled upon Big Sur’s lush mountains and rocky coastline and intense blue waters, its unrivaled meeting of land and sea.

The Big Sur coastline.
 In August 2010, I left New York on my third transcontinental train trip, my second one alone after being shown the ropes on a weeklong trip with my father in 2005. The final stop on my itinerary, after a few days in Denver and San Francisco, was Monterey, which I really had no other incentive to visit other than the fact that it was there. About 100 miles south of San Francisco, Monterey is a relatively small town of 30,000, which owes its outsized renown to its celebrated aquarium and its designated mascot, John Steinbeck.
I took a train and a few buses into town and stayed at the international hostel a few blocks from Cannery Row. In the morning, I rented a bike—the kind of luxury these shorter trips allowed me that, on a four-month trip, are no longer available—and started out along the bike path around the peninsula towards the 17-mile drive. In Carmel, I heard that there was a Monterey-Salinas Transit bus running south into Big Sur, and that it allowed you to store bikes for the ride. I bought a few sandwiches and hitched my bike to the front of the bus. On the way down, while struggling to peer down every canyon, to watch the waves crash on the craggy shore, occasionally pushing my eyeballs back into my head, I spoke at length with the bus driver, who told me about his kids and his ambitions, and gave me recommendations about what to see in Big Sur. Mostly, he just endorsed the advice of a newsletter I had picked up: the best thing to do in Big Sur is to “do nothing.”

He dropped me at the picture-perfect Bixby Canyon Bridge, and told me to bike up the old coastal road, which fell into disuse and disrepair since being replaced by Highway 1 in the 1930s. It winds in and out of the canyons and over and around the mountains which the new road bypasses with its lovely newfangled bridges. The scenery was stunning: the canyon opening up, the road ascending, redwoods lording over all. The road proved too rough, though, and soon my ogling was interrupted by a final rupture somewhere in my bicycle. Sweaty, dirty, and dehydrated, I had to lift the lifeless bike almost three miles down the mountains and wait on a ledge overlooking the Bixby Bridge while my friend the bus driver finished his route further south. Back in Monterey, I somehow skirted the bike store clerk’s admonitions that I wasn’t supposed to bring the bike into the mountains, and convinced him to give me a free bike the next day.
I was more prepared this time, and picked up the bus in downtown Monterey. Following the driver’s new advice, I finally took the bus past the Bixby Bridge—around the curve in the road that I had seen hundreds of cars and RVs take the day before as I sat helpless at the bridge, hoping someday to make it past that curve and into the promised land. I picked up a sandwich again at the deli in the town of Big Sur and biked downhill to Andrew Molera State Park, where the Big Sur river flows into the Pacific. I spent that day frolicking on the beach and on a little cliff extending into the ocean. There was a large rock sticking straight out of the ocean in front of the cliff, and on it was a group of tiny grey birds, one by one lifting themselves into the strong winds and landing back on the rock. They seemed to be learning how to fly.

Eventually, I lifted myself off that cliff and reconciled myself with leaving Big Sur only by promising that I’d eventually return. Though I slept in Monterey all three nights, I had basically commuted to Big Sur both days. The next morning I took a bus to Salinas, explored the excellent museum at the National Steinbeck Center, and then a final train to L.A. 

I thought a lot about Big Sur after that trip, and Brahna was basically right in her last post that I have been chewing her ear off about it since the beginning. The day after taping Jeopardy in L.A., my parents and I retreated to Sequoia National Park to decompress. I flew from Fresno, where I’m writing this now, to Montreal, and the next night participated in my first meeting as an editor for the McGill Tribune. Brahna, who was also an editor, had just arrived in Montreal from New York, and the rest, of course, is history. Anyway, Big Sur remained in my mind as nothing less than the place where I first learned to say “amen.”

Waiting at the Bixby Canyon Bridge, August 2010.
It rained sporadically but extremely hard during our first night in Big Sur. It seemed to have stopped just before we opened our eyes saw the orange rainfly of our tent brightened with at least a little light. We intended to use this momentary pause to dress, make breakfast, and maybe even enjoy a quick hike before it inevitably started raining again. We emerged from the tent, and beheld the view.
The Kirk Creek Campground was built in the 1930s to house prisoners from San Quentin who were 
hired to build Highway 1 for 35 cents per day. The fact that it is part of Los Padres National Forest and also on a 100-foot bluff directly over the Pacific Ocean tells you all you need to know about the amazing land-and-sea combination of the Big Sur coastline. The view from our site, across the little campground road from those directly on the edge of the cliff, was of the highway hugging the rugged coastline for miles to the south, and of the ocean reaching to the horizon in the west.

We wanted to go on a nice hike in the mountains or along the coast, but, needing lunch supplies, decided first to drive down Highway 1 to that Big Sur deli of my memories. Then, driving back north, we stopped at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, or, rather, in a small pull-out beyond the park entrance, so as to skip the absurd $10 entry fee. The draw there is McWay Falls, billed somewhat falsely as the only waterfall in the U.S. that flows directly into the ocean. It actually used to flow directly in the ocean, until a 1983 landslide a few hundred feet up the coast brought tons of sediment into the cove, creating the pristine beach onto which the waterfall now falls 80-something feet before then running into the sea. For what it’s worth, the massive scar from the landslide, which cut through Highway 1, is visible from a spot in the park which has the remains of a cabin built by Julia Pfeiffer Burns and her husband, whose respective families were some of the first white inhabitants of Big Sur in the early 20th century. Of course, I found the idea of having a house right there on the coast, especially before all the modern traps and conveniences, absolutely tantalizing.

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
We continued driving back south, intending to spend the afternoon hiking some trails which led into the mountains across the road from our campground. Before leaving, thanks to the advice of Brahna’s extremely outdoors-minded brother-in-law, Asher, we had bought rainproof clothing so as to stay relatively dry while hiking. We had to reconsider these plans, however, as the buckets of rain suddenly turned into sheets of sleet and then pellets of hail pummeling our car. Instead, after pulling into the campsite, we sat in the car and watched, appropriately enough, a classic noir film called, “Detour.” It is one of several noir movies included in a box set my father was given awhile ago and never particularly liked. I don’t really know why, but I brought the box along as the only DVDs we’d have for this trip. Brahna and I have intended to watch “Detour” since the beginning of our trip, but had to continually postpone our plans after one or the other of us protested out of fear. The plot description on the box said it was about a hitchhiker whose benefactor-du-jour suddenly dies on the road. The hitchhiker, knowing he’ll be accused of murder, disposes of the body and takes the man’s clothes and car, assuming his identity. Later, down the road, he picks up a female hitchhiker who suddenly turns to him and says, “What did you do with the body?” I had repeated that line, in a hushed voice, to Brahna so incessantly that neither of us, whether in a motel or a campground, thought we could handle it. We decided to watch it that day in Big Sur only because it was daytime and because we presumed no shady characters would dare to be outside in such dreadful weather. “Detour” turned out not to be scary at all, but, like all noirs, comically overwrought and nonsensical. As the film entered its final scenes, the rain stopped slapping at our windows, and we got anxious to start hiking. 

We found the trail surprisingly sunny, and cached our rain gear and fleeces in a bush. As we climbed higher and higher, our view of the coast widened to include many series of crags and promontories to the north and south. When we finally turned back due to lack of water, we actually ran part of the way down the trail, luxuriating in the cool sea breeze and the clean air. Back in the campground, we decided to relax and read for the rest of the afternoon, instead of investigating a road heading east into the mountains that seemed to promise great scenery. That choice seemed ratified when our neighbors across the street—it’s funny how campgrounds often mimic civilized society—invited us to bring our chairs to their campsite, one of those abutting the cliff’s edge, to watch the sunset. Gale and Deanne Sandholm of Helena, Montana, were excellent hosts, lending us their binoculars to spot the distant spouts of grey whales migrating north. The sun set too quickly, as always, and Brahna and I excused ourselves to make a fire to save ourselves from the sudden cold. The Sandholms, who seemed to be in their 60s, retired to their mini-RV. Rather, they went “inside,” as Deanne put it, and as Brahna and I repeated to each other throughout the cold, and then rainy, night.

Brahan, the morning we left Kirk Creek campground.
 We took advantage of another brief dry window the next morning to disassemble the tent and pack up the car. We drove back up Highway 1 and into the same Andrew Molera State Park which I biked into almost two years ago. We hiked out to the cliff extending into the ocean, in front of the rock that still had birds on it, and ate our lunch and braved the wind, and I resolved for the second time on that spot, though now certainly with more truth and feeling and companionship, that I couldn’t possibly be happier.

Molera Point, April 2012.
The Big Sur River was flooded with spring rains, so we couldn’t cross it to get to the beach. Instead, we drove north on Highway 1 towards Monterey, leaving Big Sur with heads turned around and promises to return, not knowing then how soon that return would be.

We stopped in Carmel, the artists-colony-turned-BoBo-heaven just below Monterey, to explore the Point Lobos State Preserve. At the beginning of a trail down to the ocean, I passed a sign warning hikers to avoid poison oak. It had a picture of the shiny leaves. Just a short way down the trail, I accidentally brushed my leg against precisely those shiny leaves, and a few yards later did it again. I told Brahna, “I just brushed against poison oak, I’m going to break out in a rash.” Sure enough, later that night, my left forearm developed a seven-inch long bubbly, blistery rash, so swollen it prevented the entire arm from bending properly. It has since opened and cracked several times, but seems to finally be on its way out.

 Our home for the night was one of our characteristically awful motels, though we did enjoy our first showers in quite a while. We decamped the next morning to a café on Cannery Row, to do some careers and trip research, and then drove out to the ocean to watch the massive waves that came after the storm earlier in the week. The next day in Salinas I worked in a café while Brahna explored the Steinbeck museum, which I still remembered from my last trip. We spent the afternoon driving south through the Salinas Valley, stopping for lunch in Soledad, which, like most towns in the area, is almost entirely populated by Mexicans. After another stop at a grocery in King City, a town that features prominently Steinbeck’s East of Eden, we headed west on a small road into the mountains. We were going back to Big Sur, our exile having lasted all of two days.

Sometime in the course of the research I’d done in Monterey and Salinas, I discovered that there are two remote National Forest campgrounds in the mountains above Big Sur, accessible only by driving 10 miles east from Highway 1 or 30 miles west from King City on the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, itself the only road, besides Highway 1, out of Big Sur. That road, coincidentally, is the same road into the mountains that Brahna and I nearly explored the day we watched “Detour” in the car and went on a hike once the rain cleared up. Driving into the mountains, through a massive military base, we enjoyed the idea of having made a complete loop in the last few days. We set up camp not ten miles from the Kirk Creek campground above the ocean, and even drove nearly all the way back there, through a thick redwood grove and along the unguarded edge of some pretty serious coastal canyons, for a glorious sunset. Our view of the coast this time was even wider than it had been on our hike. We saw our old campsite occupied by a new tent, the site of our friends, the Sandholms, occupied by yet another mobile home.

Our site in the mountains was one of only two in the eight-site campground occupied that night. The creek rambling and murmuring just a few feet away was a pleasing lullaby, but it also obstructed my usual paranoid observations of the sounds of the night. That uncertainty, plus the cool mountain air and my mangled left arm, made it a difficult night. We broke camp later than expected the next morning and finally did leave Big Sur, with heads turned around and promises to return.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Exiles on Main Street

After forty days and forty nights of wandering in the desert, we had finally reached the Promised Land—California. Joni Mitchell Sang about it, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac wrote about it, and Hollywood movies consistently present it as a land of milk and honey. Early settlers came to California to find gold, and they found it. And in the past two months, people all over the country would see our New Jersey license and ask: “Are you heading to California?”

For us—and particularly for me, a first-time visitor—it was a promised land for all those reasons. But mostly it was a promised land because it promised to provide us with as many days of rest as we needed before continuing our exhausting, albeit rousing, journey.

Aunt Rieva’s house in Irvine—a town in Orange County, just south of LA—was truly an oasis in the desert. A bright California home with a real bed, a real kitchen, and a real living room, it was a kind of luxury we had almost forgotten about. (Side note: Despite the fact that aunt Rieva is not my aunt, and that I don’t come from a family where aunts are called “Aunt So-and-so,” Ricky has engrained this title in my head to the point that I can only call her Aunt Rieva. Even my mother caught on when she sent a package to the three of us addressed to “Brahna, Ricky, and Aunt Rieva”).   

And the timing could not have been more symbolic, as our arrival at Aunt Rieva’s coincided with the beginning of Passover—a Jewish holiday, for those of you who don’t know, that celebrates the freedom of the Jews from bondage in Egypt, and their beginning of a long period of wandering in the desert before finally reaching the Promised Land of Israel.

I was sad to be missing Passover at home. In my house, Passover is a time not only for family and food, but also for a motley crew of friends we only see once a year. On that night, we laugh, sing, make jokes, and do our best to ask new questions about a very old tradition. On that night, we have a 2-hour post-mortem even after the Seder ends at two in the morning. We re-discover, even for the sixtieth time for some of us, why that night is different from all other nights.

But what could we do? We were on the other side of the country, and there was no turning back until we made a complete circle around America.


The day after our arrival in Irvine, we had a few tasks to complete: to give the car a much-needed vacuum and scrub, do some long-overdue laundry, begin the daunting task of researching our post-trip careers, and for me, catching up on the new season of Mad Men on Aunt Rieva’s countless-channeled television. After making ourselves a lavish breakfast of eggs and toast that we ate in the backyard under the hot California sun, we set off to cross these important tasks off our list.

But despite our seeming ability to lounge around that house for days on end, there were still things that we wanted to do and see in the LA/Orange County area besides the inside of Aunt Rieva’s house. Despite Ricky’s protestations, I wanted to do the whole Hollywood tour, and we were both interested in driving the hour south to see the famed San Diego Zoo.  Knowing that these kinds of activities were not in our budget, Aunt Rieva very generously offered to make a trip to the zoo our respective birthday presents.

Like excited little kids, we headed off for San Diego the next morning. After asking Ricky several times whether he had the tickets that we had printed out at aunt Rieva’s—and receiving affirmations—we walked the few blocks from the parking lot to the zoo entrance. Lo and behold! Ricky said that he did not have his wallet and that he would need to go back to the car to make sure it was not lying out in the open. After he returned, and reported that he must have left the wallet at the house, I asked him again whether he had the zoo tickets. Lo and behold! He did not. So after waiting in the customer service line to sort it all out, we finally entered the zoo.

Amidst a sea of overstimulated children and flustered parents, we approached the zoo like we do everything else: we took out a map and marked off exactly what we wanted to do and see. And suddenly, there we were—two civilized creatures who had grown accustomed to living in the wild, visiting wild creatures that had grown used to a life in captivity.
I don't think this tiger was thrilled with his confined surroundings.

A seemingly disoriented jaguar

I enjoyed watching the ferocious yet regal beauty of the big cats—your leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, tigers, and mountain lions. Ricky, meanwhile, was transfixed by the primates. First there were the bonobos performing some kind of sexual act, and then there were the orangutans, who were involved in some kind of game involving untying rope knots and swinging on them. With their eerily human-like behavior, they were indeed fascinating to watch.

The bonobos.
A curious orangutan.
The following day, we battled the traffic and ventured into the world of Los Angeles. Our first stop was Venice Beach, which we figured we’d stop by just for kicks. What with the surfers, the skaters, the stoners, and the greasy beach food, I felt like I had stepped into a really bad 90s movie. There were also the “doctors” in green coats trying to offer “consultations” to determine whether you needed medical marijuana.  Ricky and I agreed that if people really wanted weed to be legalized, they would have to stop making a complete mockery out of the idea of “medical” marijuana. After eating French fries and ice cream on the beach, and then declaring ourselves sick to our respective stomachs, we decided to move on to the next LA circus.

With careful highway instructions from Aunt Rieva, we drove into the posh neighborhood of Bel-Air.  Looking highly conspicuous in our beaten up Honda in a sea of Porsches and BMWs, we did our best not to linger for too long. At any rate, most of the houses were hidden behind vast hedges, and the many cul-de-sacs made it difficult to maneuver the car. So after our stint in Bel-Air, we moved on to Beverly Hills, which gave us better views of the obscenely-sized mansions. “It’s important that we see the lives of the one percent,” I told Ricky. “They represent this country as much as the 99.” I was only half joking.

After visiting the places where celebrities live, we went to visit the places where celebrities are enshrined. We haphazardly strolled through the Hollywood walk of fame, and looked at the handprints in front of Grauman’s theatre. It was what Ricky likes to call a massive cluster fuck (CF for short), and it kind of made us long for nature.

Ricky looking at somebody's hand and foot prints--not really sure whose.

A random choice, I know. Gilda was a lot less crowded than Christina Aguilara next door.

That night, the first night of Passover, I put together the best ad-hoc Seder that I could for Ricky and Aunt Rieva. My mom had sent me a large package with matzoh ball and cake mixes, so instead of paying sixty dollars to share Passover with a random family—that’s apparently the going rate for the many shuls I called in Irvine—I decided to see what I could do to put together my own Seder. It was quite nice actually. We read from the hagaddah and tried our hand at askomg new questions about a very old tradition. It wasn’t quite the marathon I was used to, but still tired and weary from the last eight weeks on the road, Ricky and I could relate to our wandering predecessors a lot better than we otherwise could.

After making the next day yet another day to chill and catch up on a few odds and ends, we decided that it was time to venture off, albeit reluctantly, from the enjoyment and comfort of Aunt Rieva’s. But before our departure, Aunt Rieva first took us on a tour of Orange Country—including Laguna Beach (home of the eponymous reality show), Newport Beach (home of that horrible melodrama The OC), and Huntington Beach (home of the Beach Boys)—before sending us off for good.

That night, we only made a bit of headway driving up Highway 1, the magnificent coastal highway, and stayed the night at an overpriced campground near Malibu. It was kind of pointless, but at least we beat the Monday morning LA traffic. The following day, we continued our drive up 1—stopping briefly at a café in Santa Barbara to put up the last post—and spent the night at a motel in Morro Bay, a coastal town known for its large rock in the sea. 

Morro Rock.
When we woke up the morning, we eagerly headed for Big Sur—a place that is known for its unique marriage of mountain and sea, and a place about which Ricky has been waxing poetic since the day we met. Our plan was to stay at a National Forest campground, which was situated right next to the ocean. Unfortunately, it began to pour around two in the afternoon, and after racing to the campground, we ended up pitching our tent in the rain anyway. It was a game of hide-and-seek, involving connecting the poles and hammering in the stakes from under the rain tarp. Barely getting the tent wet, we emerged triumphant. Before capitulating and heading into the tent for the night, however, we decided to take a quick jaunt on a path leading to the ocean.

After walking only a few feet, we became wet and muddy. But the walk was absolutely glorious. After a month in the desert and almost a week in LA—a desert of a different kind—we reveled in the ocean, the muck, the lush green landscape, and in the smell of things that are actually alive.

Ricky reveling in the muddy path. (The pictures are blurry because of the Ziploc bag I put over the camera to protect it)

In front of a very rough Pacific Ocean. 
When we got back to the site, we had to do a little dance involving taking our wet clothes off, putting dry ones on, and running into the tent. But once we did, it was surprisingly warm and cozy.

Despite the pouring rain and the imminent threat of our tent collapsing on us, we slept soundly through it all. 

Monday, 9 April 2012

Camping is Inconvenient, Las Vegas is a Shitshow, and Other Revelations

One consequence of more or less living outdoors—we recently ended a stretch of camping ten nights out of twelve—is a renewed appreciation for those civilized conveniences you camp in order to specifically avoid. Some of my discoveries on this trip include the seemingly obvious facts that refrigerators are rather more useful than plastic coolers, in that the former don’t require you to purchase new bags of ice every two days; that mattresses and beds are actually much more comfortable for sleeping than hard gravel; and that solid walls are astonishingly effective at blocking out rain, cold, and wind. More shocking than all that, however, was my discovery that electrical lighting allows you to keep doing enjoyable and productive things even after the sun goes down.

The camping set-up at Grand Canyon.
Our long stretch of camping began in Canyon de Chelly National Park in western Arizona, which Brahna described in her last post, and continued through Monument Valley and into Utah. We pulled into Moab—“the adventure capital of the world”—late one afternoon, hoping to camp in one of the Bureau of Land Management campgrounds between Colorado River and sheer canyon cliffs. After discovering, in the course of a beautiful drive through the canyon, that every single spot was taken—we’ve had the bad luck to be in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, and now California during each of their respective spring breaks—we settled for a mostly empty private campground just south of town. I tied my beloved canvas hammock to a tree on one end and to a picnic shelter on the other. We try to make these places feel like home.

The next morning we set out for Arches National Park, one of two parks in the extremely rugged canyon country surrounding Moab, the only town of any considerable size for dozens of miles in every direction. We got our cancellation stamp at the visitor’s center and watched the parks service’s video about Arches—mumbling our comments and criticisms to each other as we left the theatre, much as ordinary people might after watching a feature film. Later, we hiked into the Devil’s Garden area of the park, admiring the unbelievably chaotic and sublime red rock formations all around us—arches, bridges, needles, fins, and others I’ve forgotten. It felt more rewarding to choose one part of the park to explore by foot and at length rather than to spend too much time in the car trying and, inevitably, failing to see everything. After the hike, we stopped in Moab to participate in that old Kreitner family vacation ritual, D.D.O.I.C.—Daily Dose of Ice Cream.

Following the advice of an old book I found at a thrift store—a 1995 edition of National Parks of the West—we decided not to try to see both Arches and Canyonlands, the other Moab-area national park, in one day. Far better, the book recommended and we agreed, to stick around for another day and at least gesture towards giving each park its due. Also, considering that Canyonlands was reputedly more for serious adventurers—white-water rapids, intense rock-climbing, extremely rugged backcountry roads (4WD required)—than comparatively impotent day-trippers like Brahna and me, we decided to spend the next morning relaxing at the campground and at a café in town, before later in the day driving out to Canyonlands and seeing whatever, given Mortimer’s limitations, we could possibly see.

Once we were at the café, however, we felt so good about knocking things down—planning for the next few weeks, researching jobs for the summer and beyond, paying speeding tickets, writing for this blog, dutifully reading up on what Rick Santorum said and who was pretending to be pissed off and why—that the thought of driving 40 miles out to Canyonlands just to stop at a few overlooks became incredibly unappealing. Much more attractive was the prospect of devoting the rest of the afternoon to chilling, chilling, and, if any time remained, more chilling. After stopping in Moab for dinner supplies and beer, we went back to the campground. Brahna continued research for her last post, and I spent the day reading in the hammock. It was glorious.

Hiking in Arches National Park.
 Another great decision we made at the café that day was to ditch our earlier plans of driving hundreds of miles out of the way in order to visit both Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks before heading south to the Grand Canyon. While I was particularly excited about seeing Bryce in winter—though, at such a high elevation, the ground would still be covered in show, which means we couldn’t camp, which means we couldn’t save money—it felt like we were stretching ourselves beyond endurance. I made reservations for the campground on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for the very next night. We left Moab relatively early, doubled back into the Navajo territory in Arizona, and approached the Grand Canyon from the east.

The first night we didn’t really explore the canyon at all, except for stopping at a few overlooks on the drive in. We had a home to set up, after all, and extremely overpriced grocery shopping to do at the market in Grand Canyon Village. We enjoyed a much-needed campfire for the first time since Louisiana—the Southwest is seemingly under one massive burn-ban—and tried to endure the sub-freezing nighttime temperatures, layered in almost every cold-weather item we each had, gripping those 99-cent hand-warmers, and burrowed deep inside our mummy bags. 

As Brahna has noted, sleeping in the cold is completely exhausting. After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we went down to the visitor’s center, collecting our stamp and watching the park’s suspiciously well-produced introduction video. We were exhausted walking along the paved rim trail, though obviously reveling in the view. After picnicking on a small peninsula with a particularly sheer drop-off and expansive view—perhaps, hopefully, precisely one of those edges my father, when I first visited the canyon seven years ago, barred me from even approaching—we turned back, assuming the view would be much the same around the next bend, and retired to the campsite to—what else?—chill.

Overlooking the Grand Canyon

We struggled through another night, this one even colder. In the morning we hardly had the energy to start a presumably intensive hike into the canyon, which we had put on the day’s schedule. We did it anyway, and enjoyed another picnic lunch with an unbeliavable view. After a short nap, we assessed our situation. The plan had been to stay at Grand Canyon one more night and to leave early the next morning for Las Vegas. But that second night camping had really done us in. It was our eighth night camping in a row—doubling our previous all-time couple record. We were tired, cold, and dirty. With uncharacteristic profligacy, we decided to abandon the $18 we’d already paid for the Grand Canyon campsite for that third night. We climbed out of the canyon—truthfully, we hadn’t gone that far down—and returning to the campsite, hastily packed everything into the car and drove off, assuming we’d find one of our beloved old motels. At the Ash Fork Inn in the tiny town of Ash Fork, Arizona (whose fortunes apparently rose and fell with Route 66), Brahna cranked the heat and we ate leftovers before collapsing into a long sleep.

Feeling refreshed, we ate breakfast the next morning at a local diner, where Brahna was a bit taken aback when she saw a guy walk in behind me with a handgun very visibly attached to his thigh. Then we drove for about 100 miles on the old Route 66, the longest stretch in the country where the original road remains intact. We stopped at Oatman, an "ghost town" which still hosts descendents of wild burros around from the mining days. What with all the businesses on the main street trading on the town's past, it sure didn't seem like a ghost town, until I realized that a ghost is merely a new incarnation, in a scarier form, of what came before. The obscene commercialization of "ghost towns," ironically, would seem to fulfill the requirements of the term.

Ice cream and a wild burro.
While in Moab I had reserved a room in the Vegas Club and Casino—seemingly just off the Strip—for a surprising $58. Though the whole Vegas thing seemed, in advance, somewhat antithetic to our personalities, values, and budget, we were looking forward to walking the Strip and wasting a few dollars on slots and generally taking in the whole tableau. Despite our tight budget, we were looking forward to letting loose for a night and letting the chips, so to speak, fall where they may. Though we had spent the previous night in a motel for a change, we still felt alien to all the big-city trappings that, back east, we wouldn’t think twice about. The “h” in the “hotel” sign seemed to indicate a level of luxury for which have been habituated into no longer considering ourselves eligible. We marveled at the parking garage, and at the option, though we declined it, of leaving Mortimer to a valet. By normal standards, of course, the hotel was nothing to marvel at, but for us it was spectacular.

We spent the afternoon and early evening calling our families and preparing ourselves for what I’m told real people call “a night out.” Brahna wore what I think she called a “dress” and I managed to dig out of my duffel bag a button-up shirt, before Brahna had me replace it with another. We left the hotel and immediately encountered a large crowd gathered around some country music performance. We walked a few more blocks to Las Vegas Boulevard, where, in place of the massive casinos and wild light and water shows we had expected, we found a typical sleepy downtown thoroughfare, not just empty, but alarmingly so.

Using Brahna’s trusty iPhone to calculate the walking directions from us to the MGM Grand, we realized that the great Vegas Club and Casino is nearly six miles from the real action on the Las Vegas Strip. Thus, of course, the $58 room. We didn’t want to bring Mortimer down there, afraid of what the parking situation might be, and didn’t want to spend the money on a cab, so we found a city bus that would bring us downtown for just $2 each. We shouldn’t have been surprised to learn, for neither the first nor the last time that night, that you ultimately always get what you pay for.
We appeared to be the only Strip-goers on the city bus that night. It would seem that most people who can afford to blow hundreds of dollars in one night on booze, slots, and strippers can probably also afford to either stay closer to the action or at least take a cab to it. Who knew? 

On the first stop after we got on, the bus driver knelt the bus down to accommodate a black woman in a wheelchair, gripping a McDonald’s bag, and a young man who appeared to be her helper, getting on the bus. Clicking her wheelchair into the floor, the driver caught sight of something in her McDonald’s bag and, assuming an official posture, issued his verdict and sentence: “No open bottles on the bus, ma’am, you’re going to have to leave the bus.” A private security guard, gun in holster, approached the woman from behind and starting to help the bus driver eject her chair from the fasteners in the floor. All this time, the woman protested that the bottle was not hers, that it was given to her, and kept trying to hand it to her helper to toss into the garbage can next to the bus. The driver and the armed guard continued to struggle with her chair and actually began to roll her out the door. Brahna and I were startled by the scene, but didn’t say anything. All I could find the power to do was keep watching and hope the driver and guard would notice that people were watching. Eventually, they allowed her to throw the bottle out and stay on the bus.

Brahna and I talked about what we’d seen over a brutally unsatisfying dinner at a Denny’s on the Strip (the only cheap eat, it was late, and we were super hungry). While Las Vegas obviously has problems with drunkenness and all kinds of public nuisance, both in the street and on public transit, I couldn’t get the picture out of my head of an armed private citizen forcing a handicapped woman off a public bus for the crime of drinking. While I know that alcohol has negative consequences on both personal and social levels, I just can’t convince myself that what we saw on the bus is the way things should be. 

The driver could have chosen not to look inside the McDonald’s bag, or could have asked her politely to choose between the bus and the bottle. The guard could have, generally speaking, chosen not to make himself a professional prick. I don’t have any concrete proposals here, but the mere possibility that they would have kicked that woman out onto the windy Vegas streets made my heart a little sick. It at least dampened my enthusiasm for drinking and gambling alongside my fellow advantaged citizens on the Strip. Brahna and I just walked around the casinos watching other people do their thing. We caught a midnight bus back toward our hotel’s neighborhood, having bought not a single drink and having wasted $6 trying to figure out how to work the slots.

Making the best of it in Vegas.
The next stop on the itinerary was Death Valley, which became the first national park I ever visited on a family trip in 1995. True to its reputation, the valley proved an inconvenient place to expose oneself to the elements. Fierce and steady winds swept over the badlands and the parking-lot-like campground, making our typical home-making routine pretty difficult. The hard ground made staking out the tent impossible, so we filled it with shoebox-size rocks and tied others to the tent fly. I also maneuvered Morty into position as a windbreaker and tied the tent through the window to the steering wheel for anchor. As difficult as the operation was, it felt good later that night as we sat inside the tent and didn’t have to worry about our shelter. A group of French campers in the spot next to us didn’t even try to set up the tent, and slept in their sleeping bags without any protection from the wind.

An old railroad car in a ghost town (a real one this time) near Death Valley.
Cooking that night was difficult, and I had to resort to using lighter fuel to get a campfire going. The wind stoked the fire continuously, and our four logs—bought for an arm and a leg at the only store nearby—didn’t last long. Though the temperature at Death Valley’s famously low elevation was much warmer than it had been atop the Grand Canyon, the intense winds made for an uneasy night. The next morning we tentatively unhitched the tent from the steering wheel, and left it for the day, hoping it’d be there when we returned.

As we did at Arches National Park, we decided not to spend the day in the car driving around the whole park—we were surprised to learn that it’s the largest national park outside Alaska—and instead chose one particular hike to explore at length. This hike led up a relatively young canyon, winding through tiny passageways at some points and across broad flood plains at others. The trail ended at a dry waterfall, where we relaxed for a while and picnicked in the shade. Afterward, we drove back down an bumpy, rocky road—I constantly have to remind myself that we still need to get the car, somehow, back to New Jersey—and bought some ice cream and beer. We borrowed a picnic table at a nearby campground so we could cook our dinner before the sun went down, and, barefoot, brought our spaghetti and beer to the top of one of the tallest sand dunes in the park. We watched the sun go down over the Panamint Mountains, and stayed on the dune for a while afterward. It was almost completely dark when we walked, accompanied by circling bats overhead, back to the car and drove the 30 miles back to the campground.

Our hike in Death Valley.

Sunset on the sand dunes. The canyon we hiked during the day is in the mountains in the background.
We woke around 5:30 a.m., broke down the tent in the dark, and drove to Zabriskie Point, which our National Parks of the West book said was the best place to see the sunrise in the park. We were surprised, upon arriving at the landmark, to find that the other sunrise watchers were facing the Panamint Mountains to the west, with their backs to the Funeral Mountains in the east. Only as we waited for the sun to rise over the mountains did we realize that the real show at Zabriskie at dawn is not the sun coming up in the east, but the shadows of night dropping off in the west. As the Funeral Mountains blocked us from the already-risen sun, the towering summits of the Panamints started glowing. Gradually, more and more of the mountains to the west were receiving direct light and irradiated an almost pinkish glow, while we, situated at the base of the eastern mountains, had to wait for the shadow to recede down the mountains and across the valley floor to meet us. Eventually it did, and the shadows playing across the badlands in front of us gave the impression of black and white marble pudding. It was one of the best sunrises I’d ever seen, though our backs were to the east the entire time.

The Panamint Mountains at sunrise.
A few minutes later, as we strolled across the salt flats at Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level), Brahna and I decided, for the third or fourth time in a week, to cut out a superfluous, though enticing, part of our schedule, and to give ourselves the R&R we really quite desperately needed. Instead of proceeding to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, which I had been looking forward to, we decided to drive immediately, however long it took, to my aunt in Orange County. For weeks, Aunt Rieva’s house had appeared to us like a civilized beacon in the cold, windy, savage night, and we couldn’t bear the thought of delaying our arrival there as we camped one or two more nights. Besides that, we had been in the desert for nearly the mythical forty days and forty nights—about a month since San Antonio—and even if we forced ourselves to go to Joshua Tree (“a desert park,” its website warns) we knew we wouldn’t appreciate it. Enough with rock formations and sand and badlands and cacti! Screw you and your yucca plants! “Is the desert totally dead and lifeless,” we’d ask each other, mocking the parks service brochures, “or is there more than meets the eye?”

We drove out of the desert, filling the tank with only a few gallons at a time of their insanely-priced gasoline, and hopped on the freeway heading west. It seemed, by the time we knocked on my aunt’s door, that if the drive across the country—9,000 miles in seven weeks—had taken another minute more, one or both of us might have collapsed.

Offended by gas prices in Death Valley. Chevron is consistently 25 cents more expensive.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

On The Reservation

While we were couchsurfing in Santa Fe, our host Peter told us that Navajo Nation—an American Indian-governed territory about the size of New England—was something that we should be sure not to bypass. Standing in the middle of his art studio, and wearing a sort of longish frock, he told us that it would be a mistake to go directly to southern Colorado and Utah before going to the Grand Canyon, as we had planned, rather than stopping in Navajo territory first. Spanning northwest New Mexico, southwest Colorado, northeast Arizona, and southeast Utah, the Navajo Indian Reservation, he explained, is the largest reservation in the United States, and in addition to the over 165, 000 Navajos who call this place home, there are countless beautiful canyons and ancient ruins to see there.

“Stick to the touristy areas,” a National Parks ranger told us later that day in Petroglyph National Monument, a series of cliff drawings right outside Albuquerque. “And don’t take any pictures in the towns.”

By “touristy areas,” she meant the places that are located within the reservation, but owned by the National Parks Service.

During our stay on the Navajo Reservation, we did stick to the touristy areas. But observing the sheer distinctiveness of life there was unavoidable.


After leaving Santa Fe, we began our adventure in Bandelier National Monument (yes, it was a cancellation stamp opportunity), where we explored ancient cave dwellings.

The ruins in this region belong not to the Navajo, but to the Ancestral Pueblo people, who farmed the land and established villages long before Europeans landed in North America, and before the Navajo arrived from Canada in the late 1500s. They carved complex dwellings out of the cliff sides, and created underground structures called kivas to house religious ceremonies. As we learned from the National Parks video (which we view as avidly as we collect cancellation stamps), Pueblo descendants believe that their ancestors’ spirits continue to live in the canyons, so these areas should be respected as sacred places.

A view from inside one of the cliff dwellings in Bandelier. Located about ten feet above the cliff floor, these dwellings are surprisingly warm and cozy.
Over the course of the next few days, we visited many such dwellings: Chaco Canyon, a grand, multi-storied architectural structure built by ancient Pueblos in the ninth century; Navajo National Monument, a series of dwellings built into cliffs; and Canyon de Chelly, a labyrinth of several canyons with ancient ruins built within them. There are records indicating that Native people—Paleo-Indians, basket weavers, Pueblos, and eventually Navajos—have been living in these canyons for over 5000 years. While there is no written history of their lives, the many petroglyphs on the canyon walls tell us their stories.

Ricky amid the ruins of Chaco Canyon.
When the Pueblos eventually abandoned these dwellings (and settled in other areas in the southwest to become the Hopi people), the Navajo became the dominant tribe in the region. As we learned from the Navajo Museum we visited later in the tribal capital of Window Rock, after the U.S. displaced Mexico as the central governing power, the Diné—Navajo for “the people”—suffered greatly. Armies murdered people and burned homes, crops, and livestock. In 1864, soldiers marched the survivors of these raids 300 miles to a reserve in eastern New Mexico. The tribe was finally allowed to return to their home four years later, but the “Long Walk” still remains a tragic event in Navajo memory.

But even though Canyon de Chelly is administered by the National Parks Service, the canyons themselves are still home to the Navajos. This is clear from the fact that you can’t actually go down into the canyons without a guide. Unlike the other national parks we’ve visited, the ones in Navajo Nation don’t present videos telling you about the geology of the place; they tell you about its sacred significance, and use language like “ancient voices can be heard here.” As Ricky noted, places that are sacred to Native Americans are really the only places in America that are old enough to be considered holy at all. The parks on the reservation present more than ancient history; they present living history, too.

Visiting the parks, you feel not like a fellow citizen of the United States, but like a visitor to a foreign country. Stepping out of the car and onto the overlooks, there are Navajos there to greet you with a warm “Welcome to Canyon de Chelly. Is this your first time here?” And then they’ll often say, “Would you like to take a look at some of my artwork? I grew up right here inside the canyon.” You feel as if someone just placed lei over your head. You feel guilty because you know that they really need you to take a look at their artwork.

Unable to pay for a guide, Ricky looks down into Canyon de Chelly from above.
Doing my best to zoom into the ruins from the top of the canyon.

It was in Chinle, the “big city” outside Canyon de Chelly, in which we stayed at a free campground, where we first realized we were the only non-native people in the area. We bought groceries at Basha’s, “a Diné supermarket,” and went to have dinner at one of the few restaurant options, a pizza store. In both cases, we experienced the slight feeling of being undressed by many eyes. It wasn’t the stare of hostility or resentment, I don’t think. It was just the sudden awareness of outsiders in their presence.

During our stay in Chinle, we also visited Window Rock, Arizona, which is essentially the Washington, D.C. of Navajo Nation. I think the most surprising part of being on the reservation was not seeing the things you might expect, like poverty, but actually how similar—at least on the outside—their life is to that of most Americans. Families are picnicking in the park, teenagers are laughing over a Burger King milkshake, and mothers are shopping for groceries. The only difference is that the shopper, the cashier, and the guy parking his car next to you are all Navajo.

A Navajo park in Window Rock, AZ. 

I was fascinated by the little touches, like the logo for "women" on the restroom door, that signaled that we were no longer in mainstream America.

During our final night on the reservation, we stayed at Goulding’s—a campground next to Monument Valley, which is the the only major park in the area owned by the Navajos and not by the NPS. Goulding’s was opened by a couple of white settlers in the early 20s, who set up a trading post for the local Navajo population. With the onset of the Depression, however, the Gouldings suffered a financial blow. That is, until a Hollywood director, one John Ford, decided that the arid desert with its unique rock formations (hence the name “Monument Valley”) was the perfect location to shoot Stagecoach, a United Artist Western starring a baby-faced John Wayne. Although the campground is now entirely staffed by Navajos, it continues to attract visitors both to the campground and to Monument Valley through its association with John Wayne and Westerns more generally. When we arrived, we were delighted to learn that they would be showing Stagecoach that night—as they show a John Wayne movie every night.

What is ironic about Goulding’s, though, is that while the filming of these westerns helped to keep Monument Valley alive, as anyone who has seen a western knows, they also contribute to the negative/flattening portrayals of American Indians in film. Goulding’s helped Monument Valley thrive, but it also turned it into a tourist trap—something commercial rather than something sacred.  

The filming of Stagecoach in Monument Valley
Me at a very windy Monument Valley 
Interestingly enough, the Navajos at Monument Valley are well aware of this issue, as on one of the signs in the visitor’s center they mention the infractions of the “visitors to the region” and the ways in which they exploited Monument Valley’s resources. The truth of the matter is that Ricky and I hated Monument Valley. Not only did we have to pay $10 to enter the park (we enter National Parks for free because of our annual pass), but when we asked the man at the kiosk whether we would be able to explore the park in a two-wheel drive, he told us it’d be no problem. It turns out that it was. After warding off several people trying to get us to pay $120 for a guided horse tour, we only made it about a mile into the road, realizing that the car couldn’t sustain itself on the bumpy, unpaved road. As Ricky drove slowly, angrily back to the visitor’s center, he said he felt suddenly less interested in the book he had been reading about the Navajo.

Our inability to really make sense of the reservation—the presence of both normalcy and also a kind of third world feeling—helps to explain the paradoxes of the reservation system itself. As anyone who is a part of a religious or ethnic community knows, preservation and separation are virtually one and the same. If reservations are the means by which American Indians can continue to practice their ancient traditions, and in the case of the Navajo at least, live on their sacred lands, they are also the reason for poverty, unemployment, and general disconnect from the mainstream world.

I haven’t been able to do the kind of research I would like to in order to present more facts when writing about this highly complex topic. But with a little bit of Googling I was able to at least confirm something that Peter had told us: since the inception of the United States, there hasn’t been a single treaty between the U.S. and the natives that the U.S. hasn’t broken. Although policies have varied from extermination to “civilizing” missions, the ultimate goal is always the same; to force them to embrace European-American culture. Speaking to the Brothers of the Choctaw Nation in 1803, Thomas Jefferson said: “Compared with you, we are but as of yesterday in this land. Yet see how much more we have multiplied by industry, and the exercise of that reason which you possess in common with us. Follow then our example, brethren, and we will aid you with great pleasure” (Yale Law School). So, even a historically moderate attitude implied a complete disregard for the preservation of native culture.

With the growing population of American settlers, however, the policy quickly became even less understanding. Under Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, authorizing the government to relocate southeastern Cherokees from their homes and forcefully move them to lands west of the Mississippi. Jackson used the military to transport them west on what became known as the “Trail of Tears.” Reservations, as these new lands were called, were generally located in places where they could be separated from tradition and more readily pushed into European-American society. After handing the cashier a $20 bill with the face of Andrew Jackson on it in that pizza store in Chinle, Ricky noted how bizarre that must be for them.

As more and more people came to the west—first the early settlers, then the tourists arriving on the transcontinental railroad, and later those travelling on Route 66 and the early US highway system, native culture was further forced to become something of a tourist attraction. Whether it was Westerns depicting Native Americans as wild and blood lusting, people going to the southwest to visit the famed trading posts, or youngsters taking “Indian Detours” during cross-country road trips, native culture seemed to appeal to the commercial mainstream as a result of its connotations of an “exotic” past. 

A prime example of this phenomenon lies in the Fred Harvey Company, named for an entrepreneurial freight agent, who began opening restaurants in the late 19th century in order to accommodate the growing number of travelers on the new Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railways. Harvey also began to offer people the opportunity to go on "Indian Detours," bringing them into the areas that had previously been considered exclusively for natives. 

A 1920s billboard advertising an "Indian Detour."

We actually stopped at Petrified Forest National Park, in order to view an example of the Harvey Company's legacy. In addition to being home to a collection of logs that have turned into beautiful gemstones as a result of some geological process I don't really understand, the park is mostly famous for being the only national park that includes and protects a sizable portion of the old Route 66. Opened in 1940, the park also houses the Painted Desert Inn, a restaurant that was built by the Harvey Company to offer food, souvenirs, and lodging to these Route 66 travelers. Here, the famous "Harvey Girls" provided legendary service to the public, and helped to attract hordes to the otherwise desolate region.  

A photograph from the Painted Desert Inn during the 1940s
That's me at the Painted Desert Inn- now it's just a museum and visitor's center.
The growth of tourism in the area explains how the Navajo have both conceded to the assimilationist demands of the U.S. government, while still trying to hang on to their true selves as best as they could. 

Today, the legal standing of American Indians remains complex: there are over 500 federally-recognized tribal governments in the US, and these tribes possess the right to form their own governments, enforce laws within their lands, tax, and to zone and exclude people from tribal territories. But limitations on tribal powers are the same as those on states; they don’t have to power to make war, coin money, or engage in foreign relations. They also face the extra burden of trying to maintain a culture that the government has long tried to extinguish, and to live in a situation that is unfortunately conducive to poverty, unemployment, and lack of education.

These statistics were posted in the Monument Valley Visitor's Center.
While many improvements have been made—for example, tribal colleges have been founded on many of reservations, and in 2009, Obama signed a historic apology into law for past “ill-conceived policies”—the situation remains historically tragic and endlessly complex. Despite Obama’s claim that we are “one people, one America,” I have found that this really couldn’t be further from the truth.