The squirrels in the Grand Canyon are comically tame. Take this one in the above picture , for instance. Some hiker had left a banana on a rock on the trail and this little guy was meticulously peeling it to reach the pulp. A crowd gathered (including me) to take pictures and gawk. The squirrel didn't care. He went on with his business. I held my camera 5-6 inches from his head for that picture.
Then there was this dude (ABOVE). I hiked down into the canyon and rested at the bottom. While sitting there drinking water and eating nuts, enjoying the view, I noticed a flurry of movement between my legs. The squirrel was scrounging around under my knees! I jumped up and he ran off but soon came back for the above photograph.
The Grand Canyon is pretty damn cool. I mean - it's big. It's fucking huge. The park itself is the most built-up, touristy national park I've visited yet. This park has its own free shuttle bus system. It has resorts, restaurants, museums, and campgrounds. The entranceway consists of 5 tolls and they were all backed-up when I pulled through.
I have some gripes with the campground end. You're charged $25 to enter the park. That gets you a 7-day pass. But in order to camp overnight, it's $18 / night, on top of the entrance fee. And that's 18 bucks for some damn primitive camping. No hook-ups, narrow, potholed roads, and heavily-vandalized bathrooms which don't have soap. That's right, no soap. I don't mean that they'd run out - I mean there wasn't even a fucking dispenser on the wall. Just 2 toilets and 2 sinks and the sinks only squirt out cold water in timed bursts.
There's a showerhouse which costs $2 per 8 minutes of showering. Are you getting the idea? You just paid $25 to drive in, $18 for a parking space jammed in between other campers, and these fuckers can't find it in their budget to stock the bathrooms with HANDSOAP???
Ok, I needed to get that off my chest. I'm glad I went to the park, as costly as it was. The first day I walked up and down the North Rim (didn't get all the way in either direction - it's long) then turned in early. The next day I hiked down into the canyon. It's 3 miles down and then 3 miles straight-up. The trail was packed with all sorts of hikers.... hikers who looked like they'd just stepped out of an REI dressing room, hikers wearing white speckless Keds and button-down shirts, child hikers, teenage hikers, old people hikers... and none of these surface traits could predict who was going to handle the hike comfortably, and who was going to be pulling over every 5 minutes gasping in agony.
On the first day, I was lucky enough to witness a snow/hail storm raging across the canyon. Check out the picture below. Doesn't it look prehistoric? It was all ooh's and aah's until the hail pummeled the sight-seeing area and everybody ran helter skelter for cover.
Where to begin? This was my first time to Las Vegas. My central impression is that most of the depictions of Las Vegas in cinema and television are accurate. The only difference is that when you actually walk the strip you can't mute the sound or change the channel when the atomic bomb of sound and neon strikes you. It's completely outrageous, utterly overwhelming, and definitely worth-seeing once in your life.
It was a fun trip for observational purposes, but I can't imagine going to Las Vegas to "party" like most of the others there seemed bent on doing. The drunk and merry poured in and out of the casinos and restaurants, people of many ages, carrying cigarettes and oversized margarita tubes and $1 beers. At the slot machines sitting side by side were people dressed to kill and people looking like they'd just rolled out of bed. Whether it was 10 AM or PM, they were out there getting drunk and gambling.
I met my mother and older brother in Vegas; it was a family vacation. None of us gamble but for experimental purposes we did feed about 75 cents into a slot machine to try it out. We lost. We walked away.
Shows are abundant. There's the famous Las Vegas headliners... Don Rickles, Wayne Newton, Sigfried and Roy, David Copperfield, etc... then there are the musicians and comedians present on temporary gigs. Either way, their faces are all over the place. Via our hotel we got free coupons to attend a show by "mentalist" Gerry McCambridge. It was totally entertaining. He was very funny and foul-mouthed on stage and the tricks were curious.
Of course, there's the specter of prostitution everywhere as well. Sex working is illegal in Las Vegas (and its whole county), but legal elsewhere in Nevada. Still, it seems to be happening in the famous Sin City. On the streets you can pick up little trading-card sized hooker advertisements and there are Adult/Escort newsletters in boxes on every corner. Yes, I collected as many as possible.
There is a casino for every famous city and historical context. 1920s NY, medieval times, Hollywood, Paris, Nascar... every theme has been mined and interpreted in the form of gawdy interior design. This makes for good sight-seeing. You're free to walk in and out of whatever casino you want. It's strange... many of the sights were "beautiful", but due to their nature as imitations, due to their inherent falseness, I didn't feel moved by them. It was more of a freakshow. The one exception was the elegant and understated Belagio fountains show (remember the triumphant crooks relaxing in front of it in the end of "Ocean's 11"?).
ABOVE: We attended the famous "Fremont Street Experience", which is a gauntlet of shops set beneath an enormous digital screen "ceiling" that blocks out the sky. Musical tributes are played on the screen; we saw the tribute to Queen. It was pretty neat seeing humongous lightning bolts and visages of Freddie Mercury soar across 3 city blocks.
We took some day-trips beyond Las Vegas. Red Rock Canyon has a fine driving loop with many stopping points to enjoy the big rippled rock faces and gorges. We also went to the Hoover Dam.
From Slab City, I drove north in California to Joshua Tree National Park. I camped for 4 nights at different sites throughout the park, but was not blown away by it. That's probably indicative of me being a little burnt-out rather than the park being lackluster. I did a few hikes, including one to a palm tree oasis in a little valley. The weather was sunny and cool. After the landfill that was Slab City, every campground seemed pristine. Joshua Tree is popular amongst climbers (see the many boulder pics below) but I don't know how to climb.
I emerged on the north end of Joshua Tree and proceeded west, stopping in 29 Palms, Joshua Tree, and Yucca Valley. In 29 Palms I filed taxes at an HR Block. Thn I met with an old friend in Yucca Valley and hung out there for about a week. Parking laws are lax in Yucca Valley and I could more or less park overnight wherever I wanted. I had access to internet via coffee shops and there was a movie theater within walking distance where I saw WATCHMEN and THE INTERNATIONAL. Since I have nothing else to report in this blog entry I'm going to play the role of a movie critic for a few paragraphs...
I went into WATCHMEN as a loving fan of the novel. The film is a triumph in many ways but it stumbles severely with its climax and it's that misstep which is, unfortunately, the most memorable. At one point, about 20 minutes before the ending, audience members at my screening got up from their seats and collected their coats and cups and started to exit --- not because they were unhappy with the film, but because all signs seemed to indicate that the credits were about to roll! Then the action resumed and they sat down again. They looked embarassed but really the shame belongs solely to the filmmakers for their tone-deaf pacing and editing in the final act.
If I had to sum up WATCHMEN I'd compare it to that goofy football blunder by Philadelphia Eagle DeSean Jackson this past season. In an important game against a rival, Jackson, a rookie, made a stellar reception and began running toward what would have been his first NFL touchdown. However, about 1 yard from the goal line (and glory!), he "fumbled" the ball. Calling it a fumble is too forgiving. In fact he tossed it to the ground as if he were already in the endzone. The Eagles eventually recovered and won the game, so 'no harm, no foul'. Unfortunately, we can't say the same for the makers of WATCHMEN.
Then there was THE INTERNATIONAL - a film which I saw mainly for Clive Owen, who with each of these types of movies becomes more and more gloomy (and he's all the more magnetic for it). The film didn't disappoint me.
That's it for this post. I don't have much else to report. I've included some photographs from Joshua Tree below.
Slab City is located in southeastern California, not far from the Arizona border. Back in the day it served as a military installation and as a result there are the so-called "slabs" (planes of concrete) jutting from the sand, as well as a few concrete tanks and bunkers still standing. Via what I suspect is some substantial looking-in-the-other-direction by the government, Slab City is the "last free place" in America, where you can literally drive in, choose a spot, and camp there indefinitely, without paying anybody.
I'd known about Slab City for awhile. I knew what it was conceptually, had seen photographs and read about it, and like everybody else, seen it depicted in "Into the Wild". But none of this information really prepared me for just how colorful and outrageous it would be.
Imagine hundreds of people, young and old, American and foreign, from all walks of life, camped in a desert flatland. Hippies, nomads, veterans, students, drunks, bums, hitchhikers, snowbirds, businessmen... anyone and everyone (although it seemed to be a predominantly male population).
There is no running water, no electricity, and no sewer system; there are no real roads; and there is nobody in charge. Residents live in everything from super-expensive Class-A motorhomes to ancient-looking schoolbuses. Every manner of car, van, and RV living can be found in Slab City, as well as some shack and tent dwellings.
Some people come just for a visit, like me; others spend the winter; and the real toughguys sweat it out all year long, even in the 125+ degree temperatures of summer. There are 3 social clubs. I attended the Oasis Club. There was a very good feeling at the Oasis Club, a real sense of community and friendship. On Saturday nights, there is a lively "open mic" type event at a makeshift concert stage called The Range. People go up and do acoustic sets while the audience mingles and parties down below.
By walking around Slab City, you can see many innovative "living off the grid" practices. Everybody has solar panels (a solar panel dealer/installer is a permanent resident). There are rainwater collectors, solar ovens, and complex arrangements of roofs and tarps to ward off the heat. The residents who have moved into the old military bunkers and containers have customized them into livable homes.
Of course, there are downsides to a place like this. The "anarchy" atmosphere means that people can dump trash wherever they want. Some areas in Slab City are veritable junk yards (composed largely of RVs reduced to their elements). While skeletal RVs can be kind of charming to look at, the endless piles of household trash are not. Almost every bush or tree has a bedding of waste around its roots. It seemed like the culprits were the residents as well as outsiders who come in to the Slabs solely to dump. I don't know which case is more reprehensible: outsiders driving in to dispose of garbage, or those who call this place home and still trash it.
What was all the more confounding to me was that just 3 miles up the road, in Niland, was a recycling plant where they PAY YOU for your scrap!!! I stopped by on my way out of Slab City and made a few bucks off my cans, bottles, and plastics. If somebody in Slab City organized a system of collecting recyclables they might be able to make a pretty penny AND clean up the place. Or who knows, maybe I'm being idealistic; maybe it's been attempted already, to no end.
ABOVE: The famous Slab City "shower". This concrete pit receives the run-off from a hot spring about 100 yards away. By the time the water reaches this pit it has cooled down. So you can climb down and wash up. Obviously the cleanliness of the water is questionable but its better than nothing (as well as quite refreshing on a hot day).
ABOVE: The Slab City library. I spent some afternoons reading and browsing in this lovely little open-air library.
Another famous Slab City landmark is Salvation Mountain. It's not really a mountain, more of a rock formation, that has been painted beautifully top to bottom in bright colors. The creator, Leonard, lives there year-round and is present to give tours. There was a regular stream of tourists coming into Slab City just to see Salvation Mountain.
The partying never stops in Slab City. Because really, unless you have a private past-time, there's nothing to do in Slab City but visit people, get drunk, and eat food. The oppressive heat for most of the day makes a cold beer pretty desirable as well - even if its 10 AM. You can make friends very quickly in Slab City and everybody is more than happy to share food, drinks, and stories.
Unfortunately, I need a little bit more than just partying to feel content. As the days passed, I grew increasingly itchy to leave. The ice in my cooler melted. I ran out of food and electricity. My porta-potty grew precipitously full. A swarm of black flies invaded my van and many duels occured between me, armed with a rolled-up magazine, and these desert flies. Justin 7, flies 0.
So, after attending The Range on Saturday night, I left the next morning. I'm sure if I'd stayed longer I'd have met many more cool people and developed a deeper understanding of its community. Maybe I'll go back one day... maybe not. If you want to see a truly other-wordly place and meet some colorful personalities, visit Slab City. Don't forget to pick up a shitload of beer on your way in, though!
OK, now for the other RV heartland in this corner of the country: Quartzsite, AZ. A perfect storm of conditions have made Quartzsite into an RV mecca: the presence of several enormous flea markets and swap meets, as well as a thriving rock trade; easy access to free BLM camping; being located halfway (more or less) between LA and Phoenix.
Quartzsite is apparently at its peak in January and February. I arrived at the tail-end of this and parked in the Hi Jolly BLM area (BELOW: a van among buses).
There's not much to do in Quartzsite other than shop. By the time I arrived, most of the flea markets seemed thoroughly picked over. But I did buy find a few treasures (aka junk). The BLM land was congested with buses, but it was clean and peaceful, and only 3 miles from town.
The best thing about Quartzsite was this rockin' used bookstore on the edge of town, Readers' Oasis Books, owned and managed by the famous Naked Paul (BELOW).
This bookstore had everything a used bookstore should have (including a fluffy cat sleeping on the discount paperbacks as seen BELOW). Big stacks of books, rare editions, collectibles, vintage paperbacks, books on tapes, records, and magazines. There was always the feeling that if I dug a little deeper into a stack I could find a real gem... I traded some books in and got a fair amount of credit for them. I talked to Naked Paul and it turned out he used to do a naked blues set in Providence in the 1970s.
BELOW: an abundance of stuff at one of Quartzsite's junk/antique dealers.