Thursday, September 25, 2014

Inspiration & Impulse: Impressions of Detroit

We come clunking into Detroit, full of vague, half-formed expectations and fresh from Over The Rhine, Cincinnati, where we visit a bustling farmers market, snap photos of bright murals and are called to by people clumped together in stoops, idling near their neighbors on bikes, or passing in a car. They crane their necks to look at the tattoo on Tressa's thigh, they ask how we are, two white girls in shorts with bright backpacks and lost faces.

Detroit comes puffing into view, on either sides of us steely machinery sprouts up, billowing sinister pink clouds, and the freeway rolls us onward, small beneath the ruddy brown of so many tall buildings of crumbling brick and broken glass, boarded up or jagged. We are pedaled around in Mars' rickshaw, like uneasy royalty, gliding beneath the tall sky walk, bumping through orange cone road work, where a deep trench has been hacked into the road for the light rail. Mars asks a passerby what he thinks of the people mover, as they call it, and he shakes his head and says, it's a waste of damn money.  We sweep along chain linked fences and big graffiti walls, in and out of the streets, every other building staring back with a vacant gaze, and we wait for the city sound, but it's quiet, footsteps and friends calling out, here comes trouble! with affection in their voices. Parking garage attendants smile at us and business transplants roll by in identical cars without looking.  Now there's a new city hall, while the old one glowers with abandonment, like so many other old structures, regal with copper and brick and ornate paint but dark with loneliness.

Something hangs in the air, something more than the burnt smell of industry. We eat caramel apples and watch a live drummer play with a DJ at the grand opening of an abstract new mural — it's open to the public but a security guard smiles at us from his post. Yeah it's open to the public, but they're probably not letting in the crackheads, Mars says, stony and unreadable in his dark shades. He says he wasn't schizophrenic until he did too much LSD, and now he tries not to take in too much information at once. He says he doesn't trust the new girl at the cafe yet, she looks stressed as the line piles up, but she digs him out two extra pickles and knows him by name. He tells us about the bike shop and the squat he poured himself into, the greenhouse and the gardens, and the windows he made with old glass bottles and cement. He tells us about being stabbed in the shoulder with a screw driver. He tells us about his disappointment with the projects, all this potential and beauty squandered by a lack of motivation, just a bunch of stoners without the foresight to gather firewood before fall. He doesn't have much to say about home, he doesn't feel any of that in Detroit, but he's going to be here for a while, partially to build a relationship with his father, and they're going hunting next weekend, so...

Detroit feels so full of possibility; emptied out and purged and burned and battered and ready for something new, ready to burst back up from the broken glass and build something, but the question is what and by whom. Here's a place dense with history and hurt, and so much desire. What can we fill these holes with to make it whole and how can we cradle that history and build upon it without burying it? People are asking themselves, asking their neighbors.

Detroit is not a blank slate, Harry says over a table full of Lebanese food in Dearborn. He tells us about leaving in 90's, how he'd never expected to be back, but here he is, a week away from buying his home in Brightmoor, a neighborhood hit hard by heroine and crack and yet now full of community gardens, full of boarded up houses that have become murals, poem houses, theater spaces, neighborhood message boards. It's easy to come in and look at all the empty space and think — I could put something here, this could be mine — but it's harder to see all that blank space in the context of its surroundings and its history and to escape the cycle of colonization, the weird white impulse to conquer, and instead make use of that space in a way that considers its impact, that is respectful of the people that never left Detroit. Some people are saying, let's bring Detroit back, to what it once was, but that's not an option, so now there are people like Harry, the skinny white guy that walks his two dogs through Brightmoor every day, and his neighbors with their handmade chicken coop and youth garden market stand, trying to bring Detroit forward.

We visit RECYCLE HERE! where artists are welding a storage container into a workshop space in an art park with a dinosaur made of junk and cityscapes painted in rubble around a fire pit, by the overpass, filled with stagnant puddles and incredible painting. "War is over!" "Evolve!" "Dear Dad, this is my last letter." We meet factory workers next door that pose with us for a group photo, warm and laughing and present. Across the street, sooty artists laugh, too, snapping a photo of us posing for our photo in front of a the big YOU GO GIRL mural. They lean up against a planter box made of painted tires, smoking cigarettes in overalls and dirty white shirts. They are from Florida and Tennessee, here now to weld, to live in a artist communities like the Treasure Nest. They tells us about underwater caves and queer communities in their home states, they tell us we should be in Detroit for the weekend when there will be a flame thrower and green eggs and jams at dawn.

When we drive away, in the heavy honey light of the setting sun, dodging potholes and wondering about all the parties we'll miss, we are full of longing and relief and ideas and regret and inspiration and hope. We want to stay longer. We feel that empty-space impulse, too. What could we do with all this crumbling open terrain? We can feel that there is so much more, something amazing being built behind the next turn, something big being dreamed up in the hollow building two blocks down, someone fascinating to talk to drinking coffee in the next neighborhood, but it'll all have to wait. Travel is never ending, a constant unraveling of all the places you want to be and all the ways you can get to know them, all the time you can spend burrowing into the heart of somewhere. Travel is an impossibility, the further you go, the more places you promise to return to, the more you realize you can never do it all. The more things you glimpse, the more you are aware of all the other billions of things that are ceaselessly occurring out of reach and how limited your scope of experience is. All you can hope to do is really be there for the moments you are able to access, to really be in whatever space you are inhabiting now.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mummies, Museums, Mischief and More!

We've been moving much faster on the second half of our journey — suddenly, time has become our enemy because we are much too Californian to face any kind of real east coast winter, and because we have the goal of reaching Florida, where Colin has rented a condo for a week, by November 1st. So from Utah we headed into the Boulder area to meet up with Nicki, who was staying at an AirBnB where we managed to make a few meals and sneak a shower. Boulder was cold, possibly the coldest temperatures we've experienced yet and one night a little slushy snow even came down on our sleepy van. The weather prevented us from doing most of the outdoorsy stuff Colorado is known for best, but we took a pretty rainy day hike and had some cozy cafe days with Nicki.

Once we left Colorado, we were strangely excited to get to Kansas, despite it's reputation as possibly the worst state ever. But a Kansas native had given us a weird tip in Idaho, so we headed to Lucas, Kansas (the grassroots art capitol of Kansas) and checked out The Garden of Eden, a limestone "log" cabin and cement sculpture garden built by an old eccentric veteran and Mason depicting some of his unusual beliefs. SP Dinsmoor, the artist, also actually had his body mummified and entombed on the grounds, so we got to see a moldy dead guy as well.

Our next stop was Lawrence Fucking Kansas, recommended to us as a hip little liberal haven within the state. We couchsurfed with Travis, a Texas native that had a long term house sitting arrangement with an old professor of his, and we spent Saturday night with him and his friend James, sipping fancy cocktails at a speakeasy that purportedly serves freedom as a side with each drink and plate, and then listening to some pretty great music at a dark little jazz bar, and finally getting to meet James' pup Sadie before heading back to the van to snooze. The next day we met James and Sadie for a stroll around the KU campus and then Travis showed us some of his favorite places in Lawrence: a wonderful little used bookstore, a friendly record shop featuring cats in bow ties, a fun little hippy shop, and a smoothie place.

We cruised into Kansas City late at night, urban camped, and then spent some time drinking coffee and jogging in town before continuing onto St. Louis, Missouri, where we arrived at another couchsurfer named Amy's house and hung out with her and her also well-traveled neighbor, Matt. We had more fun than we could possibly imagine just hanging out with them, chatting and laughing and exchanging travel stories as well as talking about home well into the night. The next day, we met a second host, eerily close to Amy's place. Ryan was this hilarious fish expert who happened to be from Northern California. We drank beers and wandered around some St. Louis alleyways, peering into dumpsters and harvesting unloved tomatoes that were dangling outside of people's fences, and our night culminated turning a Contact VHS we found into a drinking game with two of his wonderful friends.

Our last day in St. Louis was spent at the City Museum, this absurd wonderland of crazy interactive art, climbable tree houses, caves, a 10-story slide and a rooftop ferris wheel. We took off in the evening and arrived at our next hosts' house in a Chicago suburb absolutely pooped. Our new hosts, Jordan and Nate, were an unlikely duo — on Ohio native and architecture grad turned print shop manager and an Southern California grad student aspiring for med school. We planned to spend our first day working and jogging respectively and then we'd take the train into the city and see what there was to see, but after the work/jog portion of our day, Jordan locked himself out of the apartment, so instead we drank a bunch of beer in the van until Nate got home and then made him drink a bunch of beer, explored their dusty attic and then ordered a pizza. The next day we actually made it into the city in spite of being public transport novices, and met up with Kelsey's friend Chelsea for a stroll to Millennium Park which was full of iconic art and then we went and had a real Chicago pizza experience at Giordano's where we all got drunk on cheese and carbs and had to waddle back to the train stations to get back to places where we could succumb to the inevitable food coma.

There are probably a million more things we should have done in Chicago, but cities overwhelm us, so we were actually quite relieved to move on. Next up: Indianapolis. We couldn't find a host here, but Kelsey ran through the city a bit, found some exciting foliage, and Tressa did her coffee shop thing, and then together we walked around Broad Ripple, a kind of collegiate township where we sipped some Indiana beer and people watched at the Triton Tap while the sky throbbed with pink lightning before we had to scurry off the patio and out of the rain. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

We're Alive!

Hello friends and family, we apologize for falling off the face of the earth for so long, but van life has been quite hectic!

Last we spoke, we had dipped our toes into Utah for a rodeo — shortly thereafter we plunged into Salt Lake City, where we met up with an old friend of Tressa's for an exhausting but worthwhile uphill hike with an insane elevation gain that ended with a swim in an exhilaratingly icy lake.

We did some CouchSurfing, first with a charming and goofy Pennsylvania native that had an array of fascinating stories and had acquired an incredible lady dog named Kudra while hiking alone in New Mexico, and who we dubbed Pizza Eric after he fed us some of his delicious homemade specialty dish.

Later, we "stayed" with a witty Mormon hipster that failed to warn us that he, in fact, lived with his entire Mormon family, and that we had to pretend to be old friends from his mission in California; one of the least comfortable CouchSurfing experiences to date. We checked out the big intimidating temple, experienced the Utah beer struggle, drove past the Great Salt Lake, but decided it smelled icky and passed by to instead enjoy a gorgeous sunset in the Bonneville Salt Flats.

On our way to Reno before Burning Man, we stopped in a little Nevada town called Elko to rest, but discovered that there were CouchSurfing hosts in town, which is town we came to spend a wildly unexpected and wondrous night with Heidi and some of her cohorts, before getting to relax in an air conditioned apartment with their three kitties, Comet, Steak Knife, and Toulouse, scampered about. We soon met her house and soul mate, Kailie, and instantly become fast friends with the dynamic duo. We ended up spending three days in tiny, unassuming Elko, thrifting and crafting, making tasty meals, lounging and laughing with these incredible humans, ultimately making plans to camp with Heidi at Burning Man before we took off to meet Kelsey's dad, Colin, in Reno.

We stayed with Colin at the Circus Circus in Reno, dragging him along with us to do some last minute Burning Man shopping, and catching up before heading to one of the most classically American pastimes: a baseball game! The $1 hot dogs enhanced the whole experience. The next day we took a day trip to historic Virginia City, where we strolled past old saloons and visited the Fourth Ward Schoolhouse and met an endearing and well-traveled older lady that shared her vast knowledge with us passionately.

Evan came to Reno to meet us before the Burn, and Colin left the next day, so the three of us caravanned to Sparks, where we stayed with an inviting polyamorous couple that opens their home each year to the multitude of Burners stopping through the area. We met a whole gaggle of interesting folks also getting together last minute goggles and bike lights, and shared a meal of Twin Palms veggies that Evan brought out to us.

To write in detail about our three collective burns would require so much more than we can put here. If you've been to Burning Man, you know that the experience is a multi-layered explosion of self-exploration, fun, fire, and friendship almost too big and varied to put into words. Already this year was crazy, because we once we got into line, we were struck by a lightning storm, complete with a downpour of rain and hail that caused the gates to close and prevented vehicles from moving for something like 12 hours. However within slightly over 24 hours, we made it inside, set up camp, and had a magical week filled with donut holes, puns, wind and dust and magic, coincidence and gifts, bloody marys, and heckling, and we all emerged exhausted and satisfied and dirty, and all caught colds immediately after our return to the default world.

Our trip took an unusual twist after Burning Man, when we decided to return to our Sparks CouchSurfing hosts to take hot showers and do some laundry, as well as share a barbeque dinner and some stories with our hosts and some other dusty souls. Afterwards, in another unusual turn of events, we backtracked again and returned to our new feline-loving friends in Elko, where we both agreed we felt strangely at home, making use of their kitchen casually, giving Kailie a ride to work and bugging Heidi for scones at the coffee shop where she works. We had such a wonderful time with our Elko tribe, we felt as if we could stay forever, but, of course, adventure called, so we embarked on yet another travel déjà vu and returned to Pizza Eric and Kudra, who we added to our two-car caravan.

The four (well, five if you count our four-legged friend) of us headed to drizzly Uinta hot springs for some glorious egg-fart scented lounging, and then to Goblin Valley, where we camped. In the morning, Eric, who happens to be a bonafide outdoorsman, took us canyoneering for the first time — essentially hiking, scrambling, and occasionally sloshing, wading and stemming (propping ourselves with our legs and our buns and shuffling over wet crevices) through Ding and Dang canyons, passing Kudra over the steeper drops, much to her dismay. It was quite the adventure.

The next day Eric left, taking Kudra and our cold with him, and we headed to awe-inspiring Arches National Park, where we did a bit of exploring and watched a dramatic sunset and a nearly-full moonrise.

We left Utah yesterday, headed for Colorado to see the Four Corners Monument. We simultaneously celebrated three months of travel and Evan's last day sharing our journey with us by treating ourselves to margaritas, incredible Mexican food, and a shabby motel room. Today, we said our goodbyes, and as Evan turned and headed west for California, we are continuing east to visit a good friend in Boulder, Colorado.