10) Dichotomy Paradox
– Feb. 1st – 9th, 2014
“That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal.”
Chapter Ten. Half Way. Ten. The number of the cosmos. The paradigm of creation. The Tetraktys (or Dekad, or tetrad), symbolizing the divinity. Ten. The two hands, meaning completeness. Ten. The names of God. The ten archangels. Ten. The number of the Sephiroth, the spheres of the Ain Soph. Ten. Symbolized by the Tree of Life, which is the first cause of the other nine numbers. Ten is the mystical return to unity, and there is no return without the turning point: Chapter Ten. Half way.
It eventually became very dark on our way to Nevada. We were half way, or three months, through our allowed six months per year as “tourists” in the United States. The sun had already set a couple of hours earlier when Kat pointed out the unnatural glow in the sky, off in the distance and through the car window. The glow was stationary and set in a specific place, but the more I deduced its direction by looking at our map and seeing where we were, the more we knew that the glow was not quite coming from the west. I had figured the glow to be a residual lighting of the area around where the sun had set, but this was not true west. Over the next ten or twenty minutes the glow had grown a bit larger, not by much, but this again did not point to the sun below the horizon, in which case the glow would have been decreasing in size over time, and not growing. The glow, as Kat had guessed, was Las Vegas, still more than 90 miles away from us, or at least an hour and a half by way of highway driving. I have heard that Las Vegas can be seen from outer space, and not bothering to check that claim online or anywhere else, I feel comfortable in simply accepting it. I wonder if from space the mass of people on the strip wearing name tags and trying to look official can be seen trying to offer you free tickets to Las Vegas shows in exchange for 90 minute no-hassle, no-commitment seminars on “vacation ownership”, even if you refuse to make eye contact with them. There may be enough of them to make it so.
We crossed into Nevada by the Hoover Dam, a place we knew, and still know after having been there, very little about. It was about 8pm and very dark, with no moonlight at all, but we thought we might drive up to Hoover Dam just to see it, and then perhaps come back in the day time to see it better. The few miles of driving from the highway up to the dam became less and less friendly, particularly in the dark. It was one road in and one road out with barbwire fences popping up and growing in height the closer we got. Finally through the darkness one of us spotted a sign stating “Vehicle Inspection Ahead”, and within a mile there were armed guards asking to look through our trailer and car. In the darkness and concrete, giant flood lights illuminating only small government buildings, tall fences, and desert, while cloaking everything outside of its cast in blackness, it looked more like a border crossing than a national attraction. Ever wary of unlawful, or even lawful, searches such as these, and it being dark and me feeling like a criminal trying to break into a prison more so than a tourist wanting to visit the Hoover Dam, I asked them if the visitor centre was open, assuming correctly that it was not, and then upon his confirmation told him we would come back in the day light tomorrow during their open hours, then turning the car and trailer around and wondering where we could settle for the night.
La Hacienda was the first Nevada casino I ever walked into, and it met my expectations perfectly with its cigarette haze and sad luck gloaming of unnatural light. Another trough not fit for consumption. In the year 2014 in Nevada casinos you can still smoke indoors. I remember when indoor smoking was being phased out one space at a time, some fifteen to twenty years ago, and the change was certainly conspicuous. But I think that the reverse effect of being phased back in to a world where anyone is permitted to smoke indoors after a long space where such a thing had been not only illegal, but also socially unacceptable, is at least as strange. We were only in Nevada for five days, but casinos, we would discover, are everywhere – inside gas stations, Walgreens and other drug marts, hotels, grocery stores… and wherever they were, there were people smoking indoors.
The first sign I noticed in La Hacienda’s parking lot read: Heat Kills Pets & Kids. This sign must be useful, I thought to myself, whenever somebody drives here with their pets and kids having predetermined to leave them in the car whilst they go gamble (and smoke) in the casino. Good thing for that sign. While the old-school Gene Wilder Willy Wonka slot machine inside was tempting, I never gambled. I drank a two dollar beer and smoked a half a pack of second hand smoke and went back to the trailer to sleep. Later in the night we would be wakened by a security guard knocking on a trucker’s cab door and telling him he couldn’t sleep there, so when the security guard walked out of sight (he must not have noticed us because of our smaller size), we drove away and parked on the side of the road that leads to Hoover Dam.
In the morning we left our trailer on the roadside and drove to the Hoover Dam, so that they would only search our car and not our home as well. But unlike the night before, they never asked to search anything, and sent us straight on through.
The Hoover Dam is the only place we have ever been, whether on this specific trip or otherwise, where you actually have to pay just to get inside the Visitor’s Centre. And it’s $10 per person. To enter the Visitor’s Centre. From there, we could have paid $25 per person to wander through the actual dam, and/or if we wanted a guided tour there were a few to choose from, some of them $50.00 per person. And even the parking was $10 per car car, before paying to enter the Visitor’s Centre or wander through the dam or do one of the guided tours. A family of four could easily spend $200 for an hour or two at Hoover Dam. The parking attendant told me I could park for free on the Arizona side of the dam (Hoover Dam is split down the middle by the Arizona/Nevada border we now learned in the daylight of February 1st, exactly three months in to our allowable six month stay in the U.S.), if there were any free spaces still available, which there were. We wandered across the bridge and back, and tried to derive some historical information about the dam from the gift shop (which was free by the way), but learned little. ‘We shall have to YouTube this “Hoover Dam” later’, we thought smugly to ourselves (YouTube of course being a verb as well as a noun). What interested me more than the dam itself was the artwork commissioned there upon the dam’s opening in 1935, an astronomical theme laid out in art deco. There were great bronze statues dozens of feet tall: men with wings reaching upwards to the sky in a look of triumph and achievement, something straight out of The Fountainhead, it appeared to me. Between them was a taller-still flagpole, a large bronze ball atop its pole, which represented the sun. At the base of the flagpole the floor everywhere was a black stone finish, representing outer space. And made permanent onto the floor were celestial bodies: other stars, and planets with their outlined orbits. It was explained in writing across this floor space, which was hundreds of square feet around, that all of these planets and so forth were positioned permanently in the floor precisely as they were in actual fact on the day of Hoover Dam‘s unveiling, meaning that should this place ever be discovered and unearthed in the very distant future, by humans or otherwise, the position of the planets and stars in the artwork would reveal to any discoverer the date of its creation, right down to the exact day (which was September 30th, 1935, by the way).
A pleasant side effect of the Hoover Dam is Lake Mead, a place that would never exist if the Colorado River hadn’t been dammed there. By the lookout to Lake Mead from the dam there is a sign with two photographs shown side-by-side: both photos are taken from the same spot and point in the exact same location, but one is taken in the spring of 1937 and the other only a few months later in the summer, the latter showing Lake Mead, where before had lain nothing but plain desert. Instant lake. Lake Mead was afterwards named the first National Recreation Area in the United States.
Intrigued by the RV park by the lake that we could see off in the distance, we drove towards Lake Mead following its single in-and-out road. There was a full hook-up RV park starting around $30 per night, but beside that there was a dry camp area that offered only washrooms (with no showers), where by the honour system we were to pay $10 per night into a locked mailbox. Lake Mead, we had been told, was only 45 minutes from Las Vegas, a place that the both of us had agreed we did not intend to spend at inside the trailer. So we found a camping space in the closest row that overlooked the water (from maybe a few hundred feet, but with nothing blocking our view), and paid the $10 to the mailbox. Upon detaching our trailer at the camp site, we drove the 45 minutes to a truck stop on the way to have showers, and afterwards headed towards the Las Vegas Strip.
We came at the Strip heading north from Dean Martin Blvd (oh, the crooners we love and the streets we name after them!) and drove straight through, past the Strip itself, past Fremont Street Experience, until we came to North Las Vegas which it seems was the older part of town. We continued well past any of the ostentatious visitor areas until Reality was leaking through all the cracks, the glow of Vegas’s fantasy abruptly disarmed by the painful reminder that however high our highs, there must be an inevitable and equal low. ‘Here’, I thought, ‘is all the reason we need to not spend the night in this city.’ We have slept in some unseemly places, some made discomforting to us by the noise and shouts and traffic of major cities, others made hauntingly eerie by their vast remoteness and deafening silence, but still we have our limits of where we find sleep, and by nightfall it was good to know that we would launch ourselves a good 40 miles away from the unmitigated glare of the neon Gomorrah to sleep in relative peace and tranquility.
Not just any street merits the epithet “Experience” right in its very title as added descriptor – in fact, I can’t think of any others that have tried… But the Fremont Street Experience does in fact meet and even exceed any notions conjured by this self-appointed grandiose title. Like most things “Vegas”, the Fremont Street Experience is difficult to describe for its assault on the senses, and must really be seen to understand – hence the “Experience”, I suppose. It stretches a few blocks under which it is completely covered by a tall ceiling, the buildings themselves acting like walls, and the perceiver is left having to continually remind himself that he is in fact outdoors, when all indications point otherwise. The ceiling of The Experience is a base onto which an elaborate light show is projected, and between the ceiling and the street hang long wires for acrobatic performances. Public consumption of alcohol, on Fremont or elsewhere, is encouraged, and prevalent. Street performers of all kinds can be seen in any direction, and to say there is no shortage of sights and sounds would be a gross understatement. Here again is where language may fail the keenest of wordsmiths (not to include myself among them, however), but I will say that the Fremont Street Experience must truly be… well… er… you should try it out for yourself.
The casinos of the Vegas Strip have somewhat of an opposite effect to Fremont, in that whereas on Fremont one can forget that one is outdoors, the greatness and the design of some casinos can leave one having to remember that one is indoors, despite the ceilings painted like skies, despite the buildings-within-buildings that make the inside of a casino look and feel like an outdoor street. There is an Alice in Wonderland hallucinogenic quality to it all that distorts size and scale, and morphs fantasy with reality and the other way around. “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small”. I remembered back to Austin Texas and the R.V. Nightly campground, when our friend Benji told us that Las Vegas is a fantastic and wonderful place that no one would ever want to visit as a normal person. If there were one place I might want to disappear into an oblivion of excesses to never come back from, here, I thought, is that place. Here is where all humanity has become so enamoured with its own reflection that it has forgotten, like Narcissus, the real world from which that reflection was derived.
On Sunday February 2nd we awoke at Lake Mead and decided to stay there for a full day, just to have a day of nothing. If Las Vegas was the perfect injection of overstimulation, Lake Mead seemed its natural counterpart in all of the nothing that it would provide for us. We relaxed, wrote, read books, and I don’t really remember what else. I made some computer music in GarageBand. Fun stuff.
On Monday February 3rd we went back to Las Vegas, determined to explore the Strip by foot (much of it we had only seen by car a couple days prior). We had been told by many people, and learned this day in first-person, that another one of Vegas’s spacial distortions was that you can see a building that is right next to the building you are currently standing in front of, but it might take 10-20 minutes to walk from one to the next. Over and over you can walk and walk and walk and all of the same buildings that seemed reachable half an hour ago are still seemingly just as far away as when you started, as if you’d been walking in place on a treadmill the whole time. We had been told this would happen to us, but it only really came believable once we saw it for ourselves. We rode a monorail from The Excalibur to The Luxor, two casinos which are virtually right next to each other. The monorail only took a few minutes and might seem unnecessary, until you try to walk from one building to the next, and then the monorail suddenly makes a lot more sense.
Inside The Luxor, which is an actual pyramid with a larger-than-life recreation of the Sphinx guarding its doors, we splurged and bought tickets for the next day to see Criss Angel‘s show. We also saw an exhibit within The Luxor called Bodies, which showcases real human cadavers that have been specially preserved and made to display its various functions, coloured dyes showing veins, arteries, nervous systems, respiratory systems, and so on. The exhibit was quite extensive and remarkable, not nearly as disturbing as I had imagined it might be. There was an art form, however controversial, to the human body on display, that its curators had skillfully honed, and the result was quite impressive. Again at night we drove back to quiet and dark at Lake Mead, the sky there still illuminated in the ambience of the Vegas excess.
On Tuesday February 4th I wanted to see Circus Circus only because of its prominence in the book and film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But the casino was sad and dirty; I never found the revolving merry-go-round bar, if it is in fact there; the acrobat show was closed due to construction; nobody had an orang-utan; and it appeared none of the casino had really been cleaned since Thompson himself roamed its halls in madness some forty years ago. Oh, and one of the members of Motley Crue owns a bar there. It doesn’t matter which one.
At night we went to see Criss Angel‘s ad hoc show Magic Jam – Criss Angel himself healing from shoulder surgery for the next six months, had put together and was hosting a show of a dozen or so other magicians, where he himself would occasionally perform an illusion as well. He had his own theatre built permanently in the Luxor, and was recently told by his doctor not to perform for at least six months. I presume a six month total hiatus would mean the end of anyone’s career in Vegas, so this was a way for him to not ruin his shoulder while letting the show (as it must) go on. [As an after-note, there were large pieces of glitter that fell from the ceiling at the end of the performance, which we are still finding months later in a pocket here or a purse there. I think this itself, if not illusionary, is a little bit magical.]
Overall, Las Vegas did win me over, like an obnoxious acquaintance who’s half drunk every time you run into them, but they mean well, or so you figure, and god love ’em for trying so hard, I guess. It’s good to know who you are, and work with what you’ve got, and this place is doing a pretty keen job of that.
On Wednesday, February 5th, we spent our final day at Lake Mead. We finally got to talk to our neighbour at the next site over, a middle-aged woman named Liz who lived in her trailer full time, which I will now guess to have been about 25′ – not too big, not too small. At this point in our trip we are still without electricity, and there persists a lingering curiosity about solar power. Neither of us having much electrical knowledge (it is true that I had a short stint of about three months as an electrical apprentice, but that was more than ten years ago now, and I was laid off without learning too much about electricity after September 11th, 2001, when the business owner literally lost some of his customers in New York City and was forced to lay off some of the new guys. But I digress…) the jump to solar energy can be intimidating, and we maintained a rational fear of buying any expensive solar equipment without fully understanding it or even knowing if we bought the right stuff. As a friend who we will meet in the coming weeks, Bob, would say, “Every learning curve starts as a straight line”. Anyways, Liz was very set up in terms of solar energy, and she was good enough to show me how her set up worked, using a 200W solar panel, a charge controller, and two 12V deep cycle batteries. Her inverter would invert the batteries’s DC current into AC current to use for ordinary appliances, her computer and television, and so on. And any lighting or anything else that could possibly be powered straight from DC current was a bonus, as the process of inverting DC into AC means losing some of the power. She also had attached a washing machine to the back of her trailer using part of its rear storage area, something we don’t see very often.
We drove west into California around dinner time, and using a shortcut headed south from the I-15 down a smaller and basically unmaintained road on our way to Joshua Tree National Park [I looked this up later on Google Maps and the road changes names a few times, from Morning Star Mine Rd., to Kelso Cima Rd., to Kelbaker Rd.] We passed a gas station at this corner charging more than a dollar more per gallon than what we were used to seeing, with a large sign that read in handwriting, “LAST GAS FOR HOURS”. Luckily we were at about 5/8ths of a tank so we decided to risk it and kept driving. The road must have started where there was natural geographical shift, and not long after we turned we saw, in dark silhouetted multitudes, our first Joshua trees. The Joshua tree, as we were seeing for our first times, is an odd specimen that could come straight out of a Dr. Suess book, a sort of half-cactus half-deciduous thing of great humour and experimentation. The road was crumbly and unkept, and the sky was very dark, and there were no stores or houses or towns or even other cars or people for maybe an hour. It was the beginnings of the vast Mojave National Preserve, and in the shadows of the desert the creeping Joshua trees took the place of people.
Eventually, after seeing no signs of civilization anywhere, we came across the most unlikely of buildings: a visitor’s centre. It was a town called Kelso, where in the darkness we could start to make out a small handful of decidedly abandoned houses, one of them burned down to the ground but with the brick fireplace and chimney still standing in the middle of its surrounding foundation. As our eyes further adjusted, we could make out more houses on the horizon off in the distance. It being late, our slumber overtook the curiosity to find out the purpose of this visitor’s centre. We laid down to sleep, and something happened that seems to happen often enough: a train went roaring past us, less than a hundred feet away and blasting its horn, its passing shaking our trailer. Train tracks are not always easy to see in the dark, and as we would learn in the morning, the visitor’s centre building – for the Mojave National Preserve and the Kelso Dunes – was formerly a train station. There are many train tracks across America and many of the highways were afterwards built to follow the tracks, so our arriving in strange places in the dark to find sleep on a somewhat regular basis means that being surprise-awakened by a close proximity train is not an altogether uncommon event.
On Thursday February 6th we saw the first town in a while, called 29 Palms. Not many towns use numerals in their names, I thought to myself. We passed through salt farms, with great canals that were filled with water that would pull salt from the earth – we were now below sea level and would be, more or less, for quite some time. The water would then evaporate and the canals would be harvested for their salt. We passed many abandoned houses, but eventually there came a distinguishable town with a main street and businesses and schools and houses. We made a left somewhere and drove a few miles into the 29 Palms entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. The Park is much bigger than we realized, and there were numerous entrances, the next one down being about 16 miles away in the town of Joshua Tree, where we would find coin operated showers and a laundromat. In the park there are numerous campgrounds, some for tents, other for RV’s and trailers, and most of them charge $10 per night. There are no facilities or electricity or water anywhere to be found, except for composting toilet houses scattered here and there. The roads through the park at their longest points run almost 40 miles across, and the park is defined by its giant grey boulders, fields of cholla and other cactus, and in scores its namesake, the Joshua trees.
We found a nice big camp site that was probably more than a hundred feet wide, at Belle Campground, where we would spent the next three nights, of February 6th, 7th, and 8th. The physical surroundings of the area which were rather alien to me sparked an inspiration to draw pictures, for which I used only Sharpie markers since I have them in many colours, and from these I would contrive a poem and later collect it all and make a children’s book to give to Charlotte on her 6th birthday – something that was coming up on March 5th, when we would fly back to Ontario from San Diego to see her for almost two weeks before flying back again. I made one copy of A World Of Cute to give to her, and I have materials for a second copy that I have still yet to make (just to have a back up).
Three days went by quickly and were used for relaxation (moving every day takes up quite a bit of our time and energy, so when we do stop moving for even a few days, even if our intention is to explore, we often succumb to quiet rest). It was time to move on.
On Sunday February 9th we drove all the way from north to south through Joshua Tree National Park, towards a town or area called Cottonwood, and after about an hour we had finally left the park limits. We drove through pure desert, crossing over the I-10, until we found a small town called Mecca. Mecca was a hispanic town and seemed exempt from any recognizable American franchising or corporate branding; it felt like we could be in Mexico or central America. And being below sea level in the desert we found ourselves in truly hot climates for once. Through here we passed south down the 86, running along the west side of the Salton Sea, where we stopped at Salton City.
Salton City is an unsettling remnant of its former prestige, a haunting desolation where the American Dream once thrived. There are many factors and angles regarding the rise and fall of Salton Sea, where here I will not elaborate. In terse account, the sea came here unnaturally in the 1950’s, the area was then built up commercially in similar fashion to neighbouring Palm Springs, but the Sea for a host of reasons over the next couple of decades turned into a cesspool, and quite suddenly one day was evacuated, and it has remained basically abandoned and arguably unliveable ever since, the result offering a dark forecast of what will eventually come, whether sooner or later, to all of our monuments of prestige and achievement. In Salton City, there are still a few people living, scattered here and there, but there are good stretches where you can just get out of your car and feel like you’re in that little evacuated desert town in The Hills Have Eyes, which of course bodes well for morose doom-and-gloom photo shoots of all types, though I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of guilt for photographing for my amusement what was literally the ruined dreams of people who lived here decades before, and for a handful of those still hanging on, the last hope for any possible though unlikely revival (but the lure of the photo-op here was too strong!).
For reasons implied above, there are two types of people (in general) you will find in and around Salton City. There are the lookie-loo’s, like me, who hold some fascination in the disintegration of former achievement: for ephemera, for karma, for irony, for sadness, for poignancy, for revenge, or for any such reason. Then there are those left behind: those who perhaps held property here, had invested their money, or even invested in the simple belief that things could always move up and up and up forever, and that through their belief they could never be forsaken. These are the lost and the destitute, and they cling to the belief that this place, and this ideal, can be turned around, and will be, one glorious day. In naivety, in desperation, there can be only blind hope.
Salton Sea has a long-stretching white beach, and it can only be noticed by approaching it up close and in person, that the beach contains little to no sand, and that its whiteness is made pretty much entirely out of the bones of dead fish. What could be more perfect for a ghost town, I wondered, than a beach made of crushed bone? And seeing the large all-caps red letters of “SALTON CITY MARINA” on a time-weathered sign in the midst of junk and bone and wreckage, it’s not hard to imagine what it might have looked like in its heyday, a stark reminder that eventually, this is what happens to everything, everywhere.
Having not showered recently, and “fresh” from a garbage town on a crushed bone beach, and it being dark now, we settled into the cheapest motel in Brawley, CA, called the Desert Inn. The Desert Inn’s clientele was almost entirely made up of construction workers who were working in the area, and the motel owner had told us that since the summers were so brutally hot here, any outdoor worker usually worked a shift from about 2am till noon so that they could be inside in the shade and air conditioning by the time the hottest point in the day rolled around. Sure enough, we did awake some time after midnight to hear a couple dozen trucks start up and exit the parking lot.
Zeno maintained, like Aristotle, that if an object in locomotion is to arrive at its destination, it must first arrive at the half-way point, but before it can arrive at the half-way point, it must first arrive at the quarter-way point, but before that the eighth-way point, and so on. This requires an infinite number of tasks, and so is impossible, and is part of his basis for claiming any motion to be an actual illusion. Our attempt is to defy the static, and if nothing more, feign motion, continuing on into what might be an eternity of half-ways.
On Monday February 10th, we drove from Brawley to a place we had been excited to see firsthand, a place where we thought we might spend a whole week (a week being about the longest we have stayed in any one place this entire trip) but where we ended up spending about seven – Slab City.