Hey, haven’t seen your inbox or spam folder in a while, nice to be back! Are you safe? Are your hands washed? My reaction to the virus has been writing silly jokes about it by day, and thinking this is the Franz Ferdinand of WWIII by night. It’s day now, so everything’s good! I thought I could send something to read to distract you from impending doom!
Lots have happened since December. Here are a couple of highlights for you.
Clouds in the Andes
As soon as I hug my brother we start plotting our break-in. Ever since I left Ecuador it has been a dream of mine to go back unannounced, to ring the bell at my parent’s (my) home and say “it’s me!” And at 1 am of a cold Tuesday in early January I’m in a car with Aut and my brother, who just picked us up from the airport, ready to fulfill some form of this fantasy. Our plan needs enough urgency to wake our parents up but not enough drama to scare them too much. So my brother walks in and wakes them up, telling them he needs help with two stray dogs he just found on the road. They reluctantly get out of bed, my dad saying “why can’t you do humane acts in a normal schedule?!”
The plan is perfect. I see their faces transform from resigned anger into disbelief once we meet under the entry light. I jump and they curse and we hug. It’s 1:30 am and the screams of my parents’ disbelief echoes through the dark and empty streets into the valley below us.
It just takes an instant to feel like I’m back into my Ecuador routine, to accept the normalcy of seeing my brother, having lunch with my mom, talking to my dad at midnight. Highlights of the trip include the long conversations with my mom and sharing a stage with my dad, who did stand up for the first time. Before this we’ve also spent a month in Michigan with Aut’s family, and it’s easy to call other places home besides our tiny camper. Ecuador is also a tiny camper, a small and warm home that doesn’t have much but everything I need is within reach.
Besides the obvious joy of seeing my family I love going back to the Andes. In the highlands of Quito the clouds come down from time to time and cover the streets with a white mist that turns all lights into cotton balls and all sounds into echoes. We take a hike to a near peak, one of the active volcanoes that dominates the landscape around the city. When we reach the top we can’t see its mouth as it’s covered by clouds breaking into its ream as a slo-mo version of a coastal cliff in a storm. It’s a strange thing, being on top of the Andes: the clouds move faster than usual but they still simulate a measured flow, like a gentle river. Time stands still up there, just like in my parents’ home, and it doesn’t feel like I’ll ever come down of that mountain, say goodbye to my family and friends, get on a plane, or drive back to my other tiny camper.
We’re in Texas, and the biggest issue I have writing about this state is the fear of not knowing if I’m inadvertently messing with it. I’ve been thoroughly warned I shouldn’t do that. “Don’t mess with Texas” is such a weird, violent motto. Other states have messages like “Enjoy Missouri” or “Drink Wisconsinbly,” or “Drive quickly through Indiana.” All positive slogans. But here a tourism board got together and was like “let’s open with a threat.”
We’re volunteers at for Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, a relatively small corner of protected federal land an hour south of Houston. We’re here until May to help with their visitor center, student field trips, their outreach to the Latino community, and to help raise butterflies. In exchange they provide us an RV spot at their volunteer village with electricity and water hook-ups. We really loved the idea of learning about butterflies and the bird watching opportunities, but there’s also a building here in the village that has a bathroom and a shower. Now I don’t know if you have access to electricity and a flushable toilet, but if you don’t I highly recommend it.
When we arrive we meet a long-term volunteer called Stan. He’s a tall, long-limbed, 60 year-old man who appears a bit crass and direct, and who’s giving us instructions on what to do and how to do it for a full week before we even meet our official supervisor. Stan moves slowly, not because of his age but from what seems to be a certain form of resignation, as if his limbs would be dancing to a band called Government Bureaucracy. He wears a cap he removes every two minutes to scratch his head. He has wild hair, and big eyes under small rectangular glasses. He uses the entirety of his huge, well-worn hands to push them back into place.
At first he strikes us as menacing but it only takes us a few days to see that his towering presence is not really a contrast but a complement to his affability. His kindness is revealed to us as he shows us how to raise monarch butterflies. He checks for eggs under the leaves of the milkweed, picks up these white balls the size of a pin head, feeds caterpillars a fresh handful of leaves, picks up butterflies from their wings into their food. These delicate jobs would seem absurd in the giant hands of a once organic farmer, but he handles them delicately, whispering “don’t do this to me, baby!” whenever one of them tries too hard to escape his soft grip.
I’ve been catching up with my past recently, remembering all those different people I used to be. I remembered, for example, a fragile little 8-year-old who cried too much and loved browsing through his “Mundo de los Niños” encyclopedia. Volume 3, called “The Natural World,” had a section on the Sequoia trees, giant towers that grew in a distant land called California. The pictures seemed to this kid as fantastic as the ones in Volume 7, called “Myths from Around the World.” The little boy, at that time, was able to distinguish fact from fiction, but in his mind the image of ant-size men around colossal trunks remained classified as something impossible.
I finally saw the monsters recently, and I pictured myself sitting down with the kid, trying to explain to him how light and soft their bark feels to the touch, how they seem both menacing and fragile, how magnificent they are in person, shining like copper, kingly among other trees, with the wisdom and nobility of centuries, hiding inside their 30-foot width the secrets of thousands of years. I looked up the trunk of the tree, extending to the sky like a golden brick highway, and I tell you, kid: There’s not much difference between you and me. This tree has barely changed in the last 30 years.
Now please stop hiding boogers under your bed.
I also reread, along with Aut, The Lord of the Rings, so I’ve been reaching out to the awkward teenager that stands between the kid and me. I used to be a massive Tolkien fan. My friends and I wore capes and brought swords to the first movie premiere. I wrote my crush’s name in Sindarin characters on my school desk. I used to listen to the Silmarillion-based album “Nightfall in Middle-Earth” by the number one German Power Metal band of all time: Blind Guardian (the album, I found out recently, still holds as a masterpiece!). We belonged to the Ecuadorian Tolkien Association, whose Elvish tongue name translated to “The Middle of the World.” There were around 9 of us, fittingly. The group dissolved after a couple of members started fighting for the presidency of the club. I never noticed the irony of this until now. I guess power corrupts, even if it’s the power of a ring of nerds around a table in a coffee shop.
I didn’t expect to enjoy the book again as much as I did. I’ve felt distance from that teenager, and in principle I would’ve argued that I now find the plot of good vs evil too reductive. But I was so incredibly moved by the book, the world Tolkien created, and the fragility of that teenager who used to hide behind capes and swords. Tolkien placed an enormous importance on surroundings: characters in the book are linked to the natural world that surrounds them, and a threat to their realm is what moves them. Animals, plants, rocks, trees: all things are full of life, and the way characters interact with nature determines their fate. And while Autumn and I are on this journey, through all types of land, and while I live outside of home, so far away from the person I used to be, I can’t help but think about the places I come from, and how thankful I am not only of my origin, but my distance from them. It saddens me to be away from home, and it saddens me to leave a newly discovered place. But this kind of sadness is like fuel. It’s the kind of sadness that is indistinguishable from joy, the feeling that I find, for example, in a Kurt Vonnegut novel, or a Paul Simon song. The same feeling a good story is made of.
Around the time we were finishing the books, Aut and I drove through Route 66 in Arizona, back to the same places we went through 8 years ago, when we reluctantly decided to get married in Las Vegas. We stopped at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, a fast food restaurant where, before the drive to the city, we stopped for a treat. A strange man dressed in black bought our ice cream for us, and as we discovered he was a poet and translator of 13th century poet Rumi, he decided to recite a poem for us and our journey. And that truly was our wedding ceremony: this strange man with a stutter, and the cashier as our witness. It felt emotional to be back at the place and find out things are still as good as an ice cream cone on a hot day.
In The Lord of the Rings storytelling is a central motif. Each story feeds others, and people’s identity is built upon the stories they tell. The characters sing songs, and their oral tradition is passed around in stories shared by a fire. When Frodo finally destroys the ring, is rescued, and brought back to camp, all characters reunite and celebrate their victory by listening to the story of what just happened, as a bard starts singing:
“And he sang to them, now in the Elven tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”
So there it is, my connection with this kid, this teenager, and the adult who didn’t want to get married. All three of them would be so incredibly moved by this quote. Pain, distance, and irrevocable change, but thankfulness and joy for life. Joy like a sword.
Silence and Las Vegas We’ve moved a lot in the past couple of weeks, from southeast Utah, to Nevada, to California. Some nights are windy, and others are full of nocturnal life. Sometimes we hear the rumbling of an airplane, or cars driving by on distant and not so distant highways. But in the deserted lands of the west several nights are dead silent. No birds, or coyotes, or trees shaking with a breeze. Just overwhelming silence, surrounding us like water.
Public campgrounds are never silent. The worst thing about them, of course, is the occasional sound of a generator. It’s not only loud and annoying, it’s also the idea of it. It is the confirmation of our impossibility to escape into silence. It’s like the ghost of fossil fuel coming to torment us. “Booo, unleaded gasoline fumeeees.”
When we reach Death Valley and spend a night in the middle of the desert, where everything seems to stand still, I realize that if God is real he must dislike me. Because now, even when we’re alone, surrounded only in darkness and silence, I hear the rumble of a generator. Aut says I’m crazy, and it seems like I am. The sound appears to me to be coming clearly from the outside world, a distant generator laughing at me. I heard it first elsewhere, several nights ago. The fact that it’s still here means it’s inside me. My brain has been filling the silence with motor farts.
Before Death Valley, we pass through Las Vegas and spend two nights at a friend’s house. Aut and I have been here before, almost 8 years ago, when we reluctantly stopped for 20 minutes just to get married in the cheapest place we could find. (I wrote about it here, if you’re interested!). I hate this place. The visual and aural pollution of this city represents everything that’s wrong with Capitalism. In principle, the idea that few can be rewarded by the loss of a majority would seem unfair. “But what if YOU could be one of the few?” says Capitalism, smiling like a TV show host. Las Vegas has taken that model and added a Pavlovian strategy of lights and sounds and country singers to guide us straight into it, like rats in a gold maze, pushing levers for food. The city has been founded on the idea of waste, boasting flashing lights and water fountains on top of a land that’s supposed to be a desert, and it’s supposed to be dark and waterless. Las Vegas stands here like a middle finger to common sense, a city that is the equivalent of a fat, voracious bully stomping on nature just for fun. We’re wasting resources to the detriment of the landscape and future generations, but you can be one of the few who can enjoy it now!
Back into Arches Some days ago we visited Arches National Park. It’s also not the first time we’ve been there. Seven years ago we took a trip down Route 66, and on our way back we stopped here. Time seems to stand still in this deserted area, where the dry remains of dead pinyon pines lie under arches. These rocks are suspended in the air, and look so fragile, so ready to fall, but have not changed in decades.
Last time we came we took a self-timer picture of ourselves jumping, or trying to jump, in a sandy opening among the red rocks. You will never lay eyes on this picture as long as Aut and I live. It’s a disaster, but it’s our sacred disaster, just for us. Autumn’s face is pained from the effort of jumping one inch, her neck muscles extending, her eyes mostly closed, her arms awkwardly suspended. My feet have not left the ground. One of them reaches in the attempt, the other one has refused to even pretend: the hand hasn’t even left my pocket. My face is contracted, my lips open in a painful O, my teeth clenched. Once in a while, every year or so, one of us finds it in our hidden, password-protected double-encrypted file folder, and we cry from laughter.
As we walk in the park we think of that picture and try to remember exactly where we took it. So every hike through the park is also a hunt for the place. In our last stop, exhausted from a day of hiking, we finally find it. The moment comes back to us and we feel accomplishment, and we cry laughing. “Let’s try it again,” Aut says, and we do. I won’t describe the result of our second attempt, but let’s just say things in Arches do not change. Time is suspended here.
Names on the Rock There’s a popular hike in Canyonlands National Park that ends in a beautiful arch that frames the landscape below. We’re enjoying the views when I see a woman carving her name onto a giant stone next to the arch. “You’re not supposed to do that,” I tell her. I don’t like confrontation and just saying these words already feel like an act of infinite courage. My heart is pounding.
She’s immediately embarrassed. “Oh, it will come off,” She says. “No, it won’t,” I respond, saddened more than aggressive. “And now you’ve destroyed something that belongs to all of us.” “I’m sorry,” she replies. “It’s a good reminder. Thank you,” says her mother. There’s more I would like to tell her but we leave. As we walk back my mind plays hundreds of scenarios of things I could’ve said, but no fantasy or conclusion is good because the rock has been defaced forever.
What is it about us humans and our need to leave a mark? When I confronted her, this woman suddenly realized what she had been doing, like a sleepwalker who awakes to find herself in the living room with her hands covered in blood. More than an act of evil vandalism, it seemed an instinctive need to be remembered. Useless breadcrumbs left for no one, for no reason. I don’t think I would ever do what she did, but I do recognize the impulse in myself, in this letter, for example. The need to proclaim “I’m here,” even when you have nothing else to say, even when your name means nothing.
Throughout this whole region we’ve seen petroglyphs of the Fremont, the Paiutes, the Puebloans, and other inhabitants of the land. We’ve also seen signatures of pioneers and explorers, or early 20th Century visitors. What is, deep down, the difference between this woman’s carving and the historical ones? Of course, the immediate answer is the logical one: hers has no significant cultural reference, and it’s not a good testimony of the historical and cultural process of these lands. But then again, it very well may be: in the future, anthropologists may be able to gather signs of an era where natives roamed and hunted these lands, where pioneers came to settle with their cattle, and then the time when industrial tourism and very large crowds of people eroded and destroyed a large part of the land. “This part of history,” a ranger would say, “was notorious for incredible amounts of waste, a visual obsession with social media identities, and the absurd need to carve names on rocks even if you were here only for the weekend. Here, as you can see, a vapid creature with no power of analysis or self-awareness, started writing her name, as a testimony of how irresponsible these people were, and how obsessed they were with the idea of being remembered. This name, however, is incomplete. Anthropologists believe this is due to her being interrupted by Esteban Touma, as the name and place matches the description he made in his incredibly popular and wonderfully written newsletters, which are now required readings in high school, and have secured Mr. Touma a place in immortality, as you all know. His name will always be remembered here, in Touma National Park.”
We make a stop in the far northwest corner of Colorado, almost next to Utah, to visit Dinosaur National Monument, near the town of Dinosaur, to see some dinosaurs. The town and the park are there because of this quarry, the paleontology equivalent of Scrooge McDuck’s vault. The quarry is a large wall, preserved as found, which displays hundreds of fossils from several different species of dinosaurs. Weird to see these bones, all scattered with no order, fossilized millions of years ago after the corpses of its large owners were trapped and deposited into mud by the flow of a river longtime gone. Some of the fossils are almost complete skeletons, but most are just a jumble of ex calcium, a mix of femurs, jaw bones, and ribs from different species. I picture their dead bodies being rocked gently by the flow of a current that used to pass by my feet, all these different, individual beings, predators and preys, slowly becoming just one muddy mess. We all know about dinosaurs, but can we really picture them? All those living creatures, searching for water and food, their footsteps still resonating, somehow, in this fossilized mud. A part of me feels reverence for them, as they are part of this resilient force we call life. Another part of me thinks they’re idiots. They all got trapped in this waterbed and all died similarly. What a dumb way to die! I feel pity for their stupidity and their inability to get out. And in that stupidity I also feel a sense of belonging, a connection beyond time, for we are as dumb as these dinosaurs, aggressive and ruthless, devouring each other, dumb enough to not see our extinction coming, falling all over again in the same pitfalls, our bones all the same, indistinguishable. The difference, of course, is that theirs at least had the decency to look cool. They had those hammer-like tails, or razor edge backbones, or super sharp teeth. Spiky things coming out of their heads. Horn-like skulls that probably sounded like the saxophone arrangements in “Who can it be now” by Men at Work. What do we have, opposable thumbs? An acute sense of our own mortality? We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to learn how to make tools to create instruments, and the result is the band Men at Work? Pathetic. Give me some spiky vertebras, I’m trading in my logic and reasoning. We then drive into Utah and stay in an empty campsite near a water reservoir. There’s no one here. Silence, except for oil-drilling machines. We see their silhouettes in the horizon. They appear as ruthless and aggressive as dinosaurs, perhaps a bit more monotonous in their movements. Each time they dig in their heads the ground rumbles a bit under us. I think about fossil fuel being really old organic material. Dinosaur juice. Those bodies, the brilliant ones that escaped the quarry and died perhaps a more noble death, are today being honored every time a country boy revs the engine of his Dodge Ram 1500. Their roars are back, and they’re destroying the planet that buried them eons ago. It’s a patient revenge, I guess.
Salt Lake City and the Smile of Mormons High Interval Training is an exercise method where you switch between periods of high activity and resting periods to achieve an intense workout. Whoever came up with this method very probably did it while walking through Salt Lake City. Their streets are incredibly wide, so when you reach an intersection you don’t just cross the street, you bolt through it, the crosswalk countdown impossibly low, the other side a finish line. They should add volunteers in the middle section offering cups of water. The city is not only the state capital, but more importantly the religious center of the Church of the Latter Saints. Halfway through our first street crossing, when the red hand is telling us to stop, I suddenly realize how significant its role is in the city planning: believing you’ll be able to cross the street in the allotted time is an act of faith.
There is something mystical about this lake and the mountains around it. The clear skies and the water’s reflection cast a mirage at the edge of the mountain, and the cityscape looks like a vibrating illusion. “It’s actually the smog concentration,” Aut tells me. Salt Lake City’s original planning was that, the illusion of Joseph Smith, who laid down plans for a city whose center would be its church and its long blocks the communal spaces of its congregation (the smog was not part of the original blueprint). Smith’s dream has clashed and merged with another dream, the one of urban capitalism, creating long blocks of clean commercial architecture along the direct and indirect influence of Mormon ideology. As a pedestrian, those two ideals seem to clash. The city is unwalkable.
I don’t know much about Mormonism, and whatever I try to learn ends confusing me more. The city seems to reflect that a bit. It’s confusing to me. It also seems to reflect a bit my personal interactions with Mormons. Like the ones I’ve met, the city looks as impeccable as a white shirt and a tie. Open, inviting spaces, but its structures and contents difficult to navigate and understand. Something hides behind Mormons’ smiles that makes me a bit wary. I don’t have anything against any religion, but I can’t disconnect their clean presence and their flawless smiles with their inclination to proselytism. And I don’t particularly like proselytism.
I’ve had my encounter with the Iglesia de los Santos de los Últimos Días, as it´s called in Spanish. I became aware of its existence because the first drummer of Oblivion, the heavy metal band, was a Mormon. If you don’t know Oblivion first of all, I feel sorry for you, and second of all, it means you are not one of the 15 people that were aware of its existence. It was my band. I played rhythm guitar, and in the earlier stages of the band, which a hardcore fan would say was the best stage of the band, I also sang lead vocals. That hardcore fan was me. My friend Chespi, the drummer, was a normal kid, except he refused to drink alcohol with us, or Coca Cola for that matter. He was very direct about his faith but didn´t judge us or tried to change our behavior. He also got us a gig in a talent show in his church. As long as we were respectful, we could play any song we wanted. We were excited and ready to release heck.
None of the people in this church seemed to mind when four teenagers walked into their place of worship wearing rock t-shirts and carrying flying V electric guitars. Growing up Catholic I thought it was kind of cool of them. They were inviting and approached us to say hi with their big opened eyes and permanent smiles, and growing up Catholic I thought it would be exciting to see those smiles turn into suffering. It was our time to hit the stage and Chespi marked down the beat. I hit the opening chords of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” by Metallica, expecting the congregation to be shocked. But no one was shocked. Not even when I sang the line “take a look to the sky / just before you die / it’s the last time you will!” People kept smiling throughout the song. I think they were smiling, it was hard to tell because the band agreed to wear sunglasses on stage. After the concert several of them approached us and told us “good job,” including Chespi’s parents. We left, feeling like rock stars.
A couple of weeks later Chespi informed us he was getting rid of his CD collection and quitting the band. He had a talk with his parents and some elders, and they all decided it was better if he was not exposed to that music. There was something hiding behind those smiles after all, I thought.
Salt Lake City reminded me, perhaps unfairly, to that episode. The city looks inviting and welcoming as a warm smile, but behind these white and impeccable buildings someone might be judging people’s decisions in silence. I don’t know, I may be wrong. After all, I walked through the city wearing sunglasses.
Distance from the equator
I’m so far from what I call home. The distance seemed so big when, during the beginning of this month, Ecuador saw social instability and violence, as never seen before. It’s so hard to be away from that, but it’s also easy to ignore it, as if the crisis was nothing but a button in my phone. I could tune in and out of it. There’s not much I want to say about it, except that the problem is not new and that, despite the fact that the country is back to normal, the problem has not disappeared. Beyond the economic issues and the political turmoil, what hurts me the most is the distance that exists between the ruling urban middle class and the indigenous population. Their voices are seldom heard and their intentions are never understood. Even when they act and speak loudly, like they did earlier this month, people wonder who has manipulated them? Who’s behind their rebellious acts? In the eyes of so many people they have no agency. We’re very unaware of how racist we are, and how much we push them away from the national dialogue. It’s painful also to see how much race and social status are connected. It’s hard to see how so many people use the word “indio” as an insult. The division in my country goes beyond political boundaries: it’s inside us, in our impossibility to recognize and understand our own cultural and genealogical history. We try to escape from our own identity. I read the news and I think about these things, but then we’re driving through southern Utah, and we’re reaching Bryce Canyon National Park, and I press the button in my phone, and I escape from it all, like I’ve been doing for the past nine years.
Where we’ve been:
Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest
The Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park
Fort Collins, Denver, Boulder
Arapaho National Forest
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Pike National Forest
Curecanti National Recreation Area
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Colorado National Monument
Mcinnis Canyons National Conservation Area
Rocky Mountain National Park
We drive up the high road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The 2 lane
highway has almost no rails and has menacing cliffs and scary
switchbacks. Clouds are close and the air is thin. One mistake and the
car could fly down. It’s terrifying to imagine what would happen if a
car would go over.
We make it to the Alpine Visitor Center. There’s a trail by the parking
lot that takes you to the top of a hill, and we start the slow ascent.
The wind picks up soon and the lack of oxygen makes my heart beat
faster. That’s the only thing I can hear. Except for, suddenly, the
sound of brakes and a car crash below us. We turn around and see the
commotion in the parking lot below: a car veered to the side, ant-sized
people moving about, and a large, black SUV accelerating in the wrong
lane after the crash. Its tires screech loudly, it crosses the parking
lot and heads towards the intersection and the highways at 50 mph.
Without control it hits the curb with a loud thump that, because of the
distance, comes to us a fraction of a second delayed, and crosses the
road to the other side. It hits the curb, and flips in the air, once,
beyond the shoulder and onto the steep mountain, then twice as it lifts a
giant cloud of dust, and miraculously stops before going further down.
The sound is all wind again, and below we can only see the emergency in
Aut and I are in shock. We’re halfway up the trail. What do we do? Do we
just ignore the whole thing and go up and see the view above? Or do we
go down, stand along the accident as more of the curious people standing
in the way of others who can help? We finally decide to go down to make
sure everyone is okay. Luckily, it seems, everyone is miraculously
alive. The surprise of witnessing the event exhausts us.
Emily and Jamie’s house / Boulder and Tea Overdose
The rest of our time in Colorado hasn’t been that dramatic. We spent
some days at our friend Emily’s house outside of Denver, where we went
because I had some stand up shows. Emily and her husband Jamie’s place
makes me miss having one. Every corner is covered with pieces of their
hobbies and the things they love. Every corner has a purpose. She likes
plants and painting, so there’s a small jungle by the window, paintings
on the walls, and a studio where she works. Jamie likes making cocktails
and records, so he has a mini bar and a little corner with a record
player. Their patio has a pergola they built together. In the basement
they take delicate care of their fish tank. Every corner is a bit messy,
not from carelessness, but from its constant use. Their house is an
adult playground and I love it. We met Emily in Indonesia, where we
lived for a year, so it was nice to remember how strange it was to live
in our wild, chaotic city. Samarinda is a town on the eastern side of
the island of Borneo, fueled by irresponsible mining, drug trafficking,
and limited access to beer. We reminisce about the several times we left
town to travel elsewhere in the country, especially to the tiny island
of Derawan, which is the most beautiful place in the world and no one
knows about it, so please keep it cool and do not share that
We visit Boulder, which smells like cotton candy and privilege. I
thought I would like the city, but the income disparity between the city
and the rest of the planet has created not a bubble but a diamond of
isolation. It feels so exclusive and distant. I had two shows there and
the crowd didn’t seem able to laugh at themselves. Who knows? Maybe
Boulder is great and I’m just resentful that my shows there didn’t go
that great. It’s just unbelievable to think people wouldn’t like me.
What?! I’m adorable, Boulder. YOU are the problem.
We did enjoy one thing about Boulder: the Celestial Seasonings tea plant
is there, so we went and visit it. They offer free samples and let you
tour the place. I don’t know if you know Celestial Seasonings, but some
of their teas should be Schedule I narcotics. Mix a bag of Sleepytime
with a bag of Tension Tamer, that shit will mess you up. Don’t worry,
it’s legal in Colorado. We buy boxes of teas: Jammin’ Lemon Ginger,
Lemon Lavender Lane, Mint Magic… We’ve been having mystical experiences
most nights since.
The Magical Land of the Dab Bar
We then go south to Colorado Springs. We drive all over town looking for
water and a decent park to eat. The city turns and twists unexpectedly.
We find ourselves in a fancy, new park, and two minutes later in a
run-down, dry grass open space. I get a guest spot in a stand up show.
It’s at a dab lounge, which means nothing to me, because I didn’t know
what a dab bar was. But then I got there, and did the show, and I have
to tell you… I still don’t know what a dab bar is. Supposedly, it’s kind
of a social club for people to go and get high. This one, I read in the
news later, has dubious legal standing, and it feels that way when I
get there. The sign above it says RZU storage, and as you come in
there’s a room with weed products: pipes, bongs, rolling paper, spray
paint, instant ramen noodles, you know, marihuana essentials. The guy in
there looks like Tom Petty with a white mullet and a fu manchu
moustache. Also he has an ivory knife sticking out of his pants. He
checks me in. There’s a door in the back. He buzzes me in and I go
through into it like it’s Narnia. It truly feels like a magical place: a
land where the walls are covered with the colors of the Jamaican flag. A
land where a dog walks around licking everyone. A land where you can
share pipes and bongs for a modicum price. A land where you can pay $2
to grab the waffle mix that sits on top of a counter and make your own
waffles in the microwave. It’s hard to find who’s running the show
because everyone is high out of their minds, but after an hour or so the
show gets going. I’m introduced as the “brown comedian.” Surprisingly
it’s a fun show. Easiest crowd work I’ve ever done. Maybe this is my
Here’s a challenge: how do you keep yourself clean without a shower and
limited access to water? Well, we have several answers for that problem.
Sometimes we find a real shower, in a campground, or in a friend’s
house, but that’s rare. We use body sprays made by Autumn to scrub every
night. We have a shower on the outside of our camper and a privacy
tent, but this wastes a lot of water and sometimes we’re not able to set
the tent up. More often than not we rely on a sink shower, which means
one of us uses the tiny camper sink to wash, soap, and rinse the entire
body using a cup and our reserve water, and the other one turns to face
the back in order to pretend there’s some sort of privacy in here.
Now, a sink shower may sound to unexperienced newbies such as yourselves
as something difficult and awful. I will admit it’s a challenge to use
such little water, lots of soap, and several towels in order to not make
a mess, but sink showers are INCREDIBLE. Given that you have limited
space you need to divide all your scrubbing attention to different parts
at a time, which means a more detailed and conscious cleaning process.
Given there are several complicated operations happening at the same
time (balance, contortion, scrubbing, water release, water control…)
your whole attention is devoted, unlike the otherwise mindless and
mechanic operation of standing under a real shower. Real showers are for
dull beginners. If showers were a videogame, sink showers would be
“Difficult” mode, as they require complex multi-tasking abilities, yoga
flexibility, and karate-like precision. So next time you feel the need
of cleaning yourself take it to the next level and put all your skills
to the test. Then call me to thank me. Namaste. You’re welcome.
Stargazing in Colorado with Phil, whom I love.
As we move west into the Rockies the nights start getting colder and
darker. We spend several nights in high-altitude campgrounds, mostly
alone and undisturbed, surrounded by juniper trees and pinyon pines. At
night there’s nothing but silence and the darkness of moonless nights.
Our window looks like a flat TV screen and we leave our shades open.
During these nights, as we fall asleep, we see the Milky Way and the
constellations, and the blue, rotating light of the sky moving, like the
universe’s slowest movie. Like a less boring version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Our star-watching nights suddenly become much more interesting once we
reach Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We attend a
volunteer-led stargazing session there. Phil, a retired astronomy
professor, leads the session with his own telescope. He is very
knowledgeable and very matter-of-fact. There’s not a lot of emotion in
his explanations, but he takes questions with efficient enthusiasm. He
shows us Jupiter, and Saturn’s rings, and the Andromeda galaxy. He shows
us his favorite constellation, Cygnus, which is a swan flying right by
the Milky Way. It is now my favorite too. This is a constellation that
makes sense! You can see the neck, and the wings, and its little feet.
It must’ve been easy being an artist in old Greece. You just drop seven
blots of ink on a piece of paper and say “Look, a horse with wings!”
There’s no clear structure to Phil’s talk, he just tries to cram the
most interesting stuff we can see in the two hour span he’s there. “You
must find daytime very tedious,” someone in the group says teasingly.
“Not particularly,” he responds, not willing to take the joke. “As a
matter of fact, I have other hobbies and I do a fair amount of
activities while the sun is out. Now let’s take a look at the Pleiades.”
I’m in love with Phil.
After that lesson we’ve been practicing. It’s easy now to find several
constellations, including Andromeda, Sagittarius, the Serpent Bearer… My
favorite is the Pleiades. My review of the Pleiades: six stars. We also
see the Andromeda galaxy, and learn from Phil that the light we see
from it is 2.5 million years old, almost the same amount of time it took
for erosion to form the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, give or take
The Silence of Stars
People like to watch horror movies because something in that jolt moves
them inside. I guess those people have never really looked at the stars.
They’re terrifying. They make me uneasy. It’s so scary to know that the
colossal secret that hides beyond their unfathomable distance will not
be revealed to me in my lifetime. And it won’t be revealed to us ever.
It makes death more frightful. Some people look at the stars and dream
of the possibility of exploration. I feel the opposite. I think of the
men and women who came before us and will come after, and the
awe-inspiring silence they’ll hear coming from the stars we share. The
amount of information we’ve acquired about the universe has grown
exponentially in the last 100 years. Yet everything we’ve learned seems
to be nothing but a very complicated way of showing how much we still
don’t know, how much silence and darkness is engulfing our existence.
Unlike our ancestors we now have the scientific certainty that we are
minuscule, and alone. We’re all trapped in this bubble, unaided in our
futile attempt to try not to think of that “Baby Shark” song (sorry).
Isn’t that scarier than a Stephen King novel? How did we not collectively lose our minds when scientists in the 20th
century discovered the full scope of the universe? I can’t even accept
my own life as insignificant, how about all human life being nothing but
a microscopic flash in the vastness of the universe? All human
achievements – the pyramids of Egypt, Cervantes, Hall & Oates’s
greatest hits – will eventually disappear. All of our tears, and
embraces, and creations are a billionth of a fraction of a tiny little
flashy spot in the middle of billions of other flashier spots, soon to
be forgotten by the universe.
Luckily for us our brains have learned to ignore this fear in the stars,
so during regular hours we can find hobbies and do a fair amount of
activities while the sun is out.
Hey, long time no see. I’ve had a couple of busy couple of weeks (as in “I’m not working and don’t want to open my computer” busy). I’ll start by letting you all know that, if you haven’t seen it, my Comedy Central set came out last week. You can watch it here. They edited out the part where I riffed on forgetting a joke, thank god. Overall I’m happier with it than I thought I would be. I received so much feedback from friends, family, and strangers. It was overwhelming and great. Damn, those social media hearts, they get to you. Thank you to all of you who reached out or watched it! The ads I made for Pringles are also out. There are four of them with different topics: pugs, coffee date, emotional cheating, and wine. The concept is a bit dumb (it’s an ad, after all), but I had fun doing them and was happy to see several of the lines I wrote or improvised in the ads. We’ve had a couple of social weeks! We spent an entire week with our dear friends, Beth and David, in a cabin up in Wyoming, near the Bighorn National Forest. Days of regular showers, a full kitchen, great conversation, and just hanging around, sharing food and drinks. The days are accompanied by the sound and feel of the creek that overlooks the property, and I spend a good amount of time walking up the river, jumping from stone to stone. The prehistoric Netflix. I could watch a river streaming for hours. We also wade in a beautiful swimming hole down the road. The river opens up right under a big clay wall that has several natural holes. David and I create a game that consists of throwing rocks into these holes, to see if we can make the rocks stay there. We feel like we’ve invented something totally original, until I realize it’s just a giant, natural version of skeeball –without the tickets.
After a week we say goodbye to Beth, David, and hot showers, but we stop by Thermopolis, a town with hot springs. They’re so proud of it they painted an entire mountain to say “World largest thermal waters”, with an arrow pointing at the town. We swim in their free pools. They smell like sulfur, so I come out smelling like rotten egg for a couple of days. This is a preferable alternative to my natural smell, to be honest.
On our way to Yellowstone we spend a night in Cody, WY, a town founded by Buffalo Bill, whose real name was Cody. In an attempt to recreate his sense of entertainment, this town has a theatrical shootout in the street. At 6 pm they roll out into the streets 3 shacks that represent a saloon, a bank, and a jail, and 5 characters that represent Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Wyatt Earp, and two unnamed women. All of them, buildings and characters, very stiff and badly constructed. The old-town bank shed had letters badly painted on it that say “ATM inside,” with an arrow. Whether this was a post-modern addition to add some humor or a graffiti by a local vandal was not clear.
Before the start of the scene, the emcee, a slow-moving man who has to read from a piece of paper the list of sponsors -the city of Cody and the local Chinese restaurant-, asks everyone to stand up for the national anthem. It surprises me how quickly everyone rises up, as if showing allegiance to the country seems natural before some street entertainment. I immediately feel bad about thinking that an act of patriotism before a shooting seems ironic, considering the latest news. Apparently I’m the only one who’s confused about it, as everyone is singing their hearts out. Why? Is the amateur production of an outlaw shootout what the forefathers meant when they were talking about freedom? I know Lincoln wouldn’t appreciate the sound of a gunshot during a play. The emcee then introduces the characters, who shyly proceed to their marks. They seem a bit old and they’re exhausted by the time they greet the audience. The first act gets on their way: Cassidy and Sundance are playing “Go fish” in the saloon. When one accuses the other of cheating they both stand up, ready for a shootout. At least that’s what the script must’ve said. Before standing up they grasp the table in place and move the props carefully. Sundance Kid takes a cautious step back, unholsters the gun, peeking at it as trying to make sure it’s ready. “No one calls me a cheater,” he says, while taking a couple of minutes to pull his gun out. But the gun malfunctions and doesn’t fire. In the confusion Butch Cassidy takes out his gun and after some hesitation he hands it to Sundance Kid, who shoots him. The moment the gun is heard I realize I’ve had enough of Cody. I’m not sure how the play ended, but if you hurry they may still be at it.
We head towards Big Sky. Our friends Holly and Brian have invited us to a music festival there. I’m not much of a concert-goer anymore. For me, listening to music has become a very private act. But being there I’m reminded of how fun it is to go up front and just feel the music pulsating through you, your friends, and a bunch of weird, fun-loving people. What a cool thing to show someone from another planet: a group of human bodies moving to magnified vibrations, raising hands and screaming at command, trying to sync up to these beats. “How come” the aliens would ask, “a ridiculous hat and a flashy scarf is cool as long as you’re on a stage, holding a guitar?” and I wouldn’t have an answer for them because I would be too busy clapping for Clay Johnson on drums or whatever.
Before heading into Yellowstone we stop at a free campsite where I meet Chris, Bob, Andrew, and Mike. We’re all strangers but we’ve come from our campsites to see Andrew’s rig. It’s impressive. A giant school bus covered with home-made modifications to be turned into a 2 bedroom apartment that San Francisco residents would envy. It has two bedrooms, a compostable toilet, a fully-equipped kitchen, a small living room, and a small garden with herbs, along some hanging plants. The most noticeable aspect of the bus is the second floor: they’ve taken a classic Volkswagen van and put the top half of it on top of the bus. We tour the place, amazed at how big and cool a school bus can be without kids. We go up the stairs (it has stairs!) to the VW. The back window of it opens up into an 8×8 deck. In front of the VW there are several solar panels. Bob, an old man with a southern accent who tours the bus with me, Andrew, who bought it from a family some months ago, and me, sit at the deck and do some wonderful small talk: from camping, to full-timing, to vans, to Volskwagen, to Hitler, to socialism. When I find myself uselessly trying to convince Bob that Nazi Germany was not Marxist I realize I should just let it go. We’re just two strangers in the roof of someone else’s modified bus, this is not a place to discuss politics. Later I learned Bob just got a divorce after 41 years of marriage and has decided to spend his half in a class C camper and go see the country. Later I meet Mike, who tells us he’s moving to a new town and a new job, arriving late as he had to take care of family issues. His brother had died a week ago, unexpectedly, in a McDonalds, suffering from a condition he may also have. Another camper, Chris, is sitting by the fire after e come down, so I start talking to him. He’s a young guy, with a shy smile and big eyes. I immediately feel comfortable with him and start talking. He seems open to people, and tells me how happy he is that I decided to come join them. He speaks slowly and stares intensely but warmly. He’s nice but there’s a sense of feebleness and defeat in his voice. When I meet Haley, his dog, he tells me how much she means to him. “She helps me in my dark moments,” he says. Chris lives in a modified pickup truck, and has been living there for 3 years. “It’s a small space, now that there’s two people in it.” I didn’t see anyone else. “Tanya is accompanying me,” he tells me. She’s a Finland native who’s been traveling with him for the last two months. Chris looks at the fire, and understands the weight of the words he’s about to share with me. “I just want to show her a bit of this country before time comes. She has brain cancer, and doesn’t have long.” She sleeps most of the day, I learn. Her memory is fading. She repeats herself and gets disoriented. “But it’s nice to share the road with someone.” Tanya comes out later. She moves slowly and her difficulty communicating could be because of her English vocabulary or her condition. She tries to go into the bus as if it’s her house, and asks about the showers. “No showers here, Tanya,” Chris says, leading her back to bed. “This is our last stretch,” he tells me later. “She’s starting to forget things, and I’m not qualified to take care of her.” As the night falls the conversation among all of us goes to more expected places: work, travels, etc. And despite the intensity of Chris and Tanya’s story, and Bob’s, and Mike’s, we fall back to small talk. What else can you say to strangers who hold inside of them unspeakable feelings? Let’s just talk about the weather, campsites, or fascism.
We spend a couple of days in Yellowstone. Fire and water are in constant struggle here. These multicolor pools and their violence are like a prehistoric soup, cooking unicellular organisms and the secrets of geology since forever. We hear about the horrible burns and deaths of dozens of people who have fallen in these pools, and the rangers in charge of retrieving the bodies. It’s a land of altitude and earthquakes. Despite of how different the landscape is I can’t help but to feel a connection to my Andes. The rock formations, the sharp silver edges of the volcanic mountains and the sudden waterfalls all remind me of home. Yellowstone is a beautiful park, but it’s also a great example of what I call the tourist paradox: there’s so much people you can’t really enjoy the place that much, but you are also part of that problem. In those cynical eyes I see every tourist as an idiot, and I’m sure I’m seen the same way. If an alien sees us collectively, humanity may appear as a mass of bodies standing in the way of each other for the chance of a photo opportunity. But if that same alien takes the chance to meet me individually they’ll find a charming, interesting human who is mindful of his surroundings and knows how to use his car blinkers. In any case, it’s beautiful, and everyone there deserves to see it. Even if they’re carrying selfie sticks. Ok. Maybe not.
Where we are: Grand Teton National Park Where we are going: Colorado! We’ll be in Denver and Boulder soon. If you know a place we can park our camper please let us know!
Signs for “Wall Drug” started appearing in Minnesota, 500 or so miles before reaching it. As we approach the town of Wall, the insistence of these billboards reach the intensity of a hungry toddler. What is Wall Drug? The signs don’t exactly say. They offer “free ice water,” “5 cent coffee,” and “cowboy boots.” It’s a place that seems to be trying to capitalize on the emptiness of South Dakota. In the plains of its highways it feels reassuring to have signs to pass by, and to have some kind of destination. Wall Drug is the entrance to the Badlands and to the Black Hills. Books, food, gear, clothes, memorabilia… Wall Drug doesn’t just sell these things, it also sells the idea of itself and what it represents. This eclectic shopping mall is an important destination because there are signs that tell you it is. The place is filled with self-congratulatory items and presents itself as a world-famous destination. Without that context, if you find yourself inside it and look around, you’ll see that Wall Drug is just a small shopping mall disguised as a tourist attraction. Here’s a tip: if you want to be a tourist attraction, just put a sign that says you are a “world famous” tourist attraction. The world is not going to protest, because the world has no idea you exist. Without context, without its signs, Wall Drug is the most boring place on Earth. All those billboards provide a sense of an empty promise. A falseness that reflects well the story of the region and the story of this country. In the United States, just like in Wall Drug, the idea is greater than the reality.
From a distance the shade of the trees of the Black Hills do look dark, as if the sky was torn down layers of wall paper. It’s easy to see why the natives called them “the heart of everything that is.” Its rolling mountains covered in pines are full of life, and sounds of animals echo all around the area. As the United States started moving west and reached the place, conflict with American Indians arose. However ever-lasting peace was achieved when in 1867 the US and leaders of some tribes of the area signed the Fort Laramie pact, where the US agreed to renounce this territory to Native Americans. In US legal terms, Ever-lasting, of course, is the period between signing an agreement and finding gold in the territory. Give or take a couple of years. The gold rush, the entire history of the West, was, like Wall Drug, a promise of something greater than reality. Just like the Homestead Act, which promised plentiful land for the taking, the possibility of individual wealth was pushed forward by a very calculative government that wanted to get into these territories with no regard of others.
It was here that the myth of the West was born. The sheriffs, the brothels, the duels. Walking through Deadwood South Dakota made me want to go into a saloon to drink and gamble. Sadly no one was playing UNO. The romanticized view of the West was pushed forward by Buffallo Bill, a man who turned these troubled times into entertainment. People like Calamity Jane, Wild Bill, and Buffallo Bill himself became famous not necessarily for what they did, but for how they presented themselves in these shows and what they claimed to have done. The myth of these characters was greater than their reality.
The hyperbole is the essence, it seems, of Wall Drug, the West, and of course of this country, the greatest country on earth.
Reality, as Told by Kevin Costner The day after hiking to the top of Black Elk peak we decided to take it easy, so we plan on taking the wildlife loop, several miles of roads where you can drive and see all of the park’s fauna. Before doing so we go into the small movie theater on the park’s welcome center, and we watch the video showing images of the landscape that’s sitting right behind the screen. The movie tells the story of an idyllic white family with empty smiles that goes wherever the father points to. In other circumstances I would laugh at the people who watch these videos. Instead of watching it on this screen, you could just take a couple of steps, go out, and see everything through your own cell phone screen! Idiots. But to be fair, these chairs are the nicest place we’ve sit in weeks. It’s also worth noting that reality, unlike this movie, doesn’t have cheesy orchestral music, transition visual effects, or happy families. Also, real life is not narrated by Kevin Costner. Okay, maybe that’s a good thing?
Kevin Costner has a celebrity monopoly in the area. Dances with Wolves is the only Kevin Costner movie where he didn’t play, watched or talked about baseball, I believe. I guess that’s why he might have felt like he had unfinished business in this region, where it was filmed, as in the 90s he decided to build a Bison park here, and commissioned large sculptures to adorn it. Did we go to Costnerland? No, because our friend KC backed out of the project, and the artist sued him in the early 2000s. Great. Another white man that doesn’t fulfill his side of a contract in the region.
After the movie we took the wildlife loop and saw a bunch of strange, magnificent creatures. A herd of bison, wild burros, prairie dogs, motorcyclists, and pronghorns. By the time we were done it was six in the afternoon and we still didn’t have a place to camp. We had started the day in the Forest Service, where we got a giant map of the area. It looked like it was 1/10th scale. The idea was to find forest roads where dispersed camping is allowed. We had done it before, and it can be a very cool experience. The problem was these particular roads are like this presidency: irregular, filled with cracks, and seems like we’re not going to make it.
We went onto one of these forest roads, but the problem was that we needed to make sure we could back out or turn around on the road, so I went ahead to scout it. We spent an hour or more switching between me walking ahead, finding a spot where we could maybe turn around, Aut driving there, and moving ahead, and we didn’t find a single place fit for boondocking. As we started to turn against each other in frustration we gave up, and took a long, scary time to figure out a way to turn around our 15 ft trailer plus 13 ft car on a tiny, rough road. We managed, but the mood seemed spoiled. However, as we dealt with our defeat in silence, we saw a magnificent elk on the side of a hill, his silhouette shining in front of the sunset. Epic orchestral music started playing. “Despite the difficult times,” we heard Kevin Costner say, “the splendor of the mighty elk stands as a symbol of hope in these hills…” Dramatic pause, “of South Dakota.” This peaceful resolution to conflict has been a constant in the trip. It seems it would be difficult to be together all the time, and sometimes we do get annoyed with each other, but that only lasts for the minutes it takes until we see something that triggers that epic music and then we’re back to loving each other as much as Kevin Costner loves baseball.
How Cowboys survive Ponderosa Pinecone attacks Before reaching our next destination, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we spent 3 nights on a free campground called “Picnic Springs.” It’s in the middle of nowhere. Every campsite has mesas, cliffs, and rock formation, and ponderosa pine roots twisting and turning around rocks, hanging over the ledge. Our trailer and the campground clearance are surrounded by these pines, and behind it we have a small overhang, just for us.
I stand on top of the rocks looking at the other side of the cliffs and pretend it’s the late 19th Century and I’m a tough scout in search of gold. A brave, free-spirited man flirting with survival. Suddenly a pinecone drops behind me making a light sound and I suddenly get scared because what if it’s a dangerous rodent? It’s also not safe, being so close to this ten-foot edge. So I go back to my hammock and my puzzle book. Sure, these tough explorers were able to kill buffalos and survive in the wilderness but I’d like to see them fight through and defeat a crossword puzzle edited by Will Shortz. No cheating. Yeah, not to brag but I’ve done that a couple of times.
I think the term “cowboy” fits me really well. You can herd me like cattle and I cry like a child. Honestly, I can’t think of a least menacing name than “cowboy.” Wow. You are so tough you named yourself after the two most docile, innocent creatures around you? When they invented the term no one jumped in to suggest “bullman”? Did they try other ones first? “Don’t mess with me, kid, I’m a tough sheeptoddler.” Maybe they thought the hat may be enough. Maybe it is. Maybe I need a cowboy hat.
The flat plains of South Dakota suddenly descend into the Missouri river
and after crossing it the horizon changes dramatically until it breaks
into the Badlands. “They should actually be called ‘the
pretty-cool-lands,’” I tell Autumn, who rolls her eyes at me. “You
missed the opportunity to call them Badass-lands,” she responds, walking
away in search of a quieter place to see them. Damn, she’s right as
The Bad-ass-lands aggressive landscape consists of silver formations
that cut through the green and blue horizon with the fury of a punk
song. From their trails I feel like I’m a particle zoomed into the
crevices of an old elephant’s skin.
The hills at the badlands hold the secret to earth’s millions of years
of existence. There are yellow, silver, red, and white lines in these
mounds, all geological layers lining up from mound to mound confirming
earth’s age like the rings of a tree. The presence and absence of water
and its lifeforms fossilized forever into strips.
Despite their testimony of unfathomable past times the Badlands also
present signs of fragility: when standing among them you can see their
cracks and the sediments they shed with each rainfall as a testimony of
their disintegration. It’s a pretty little exercise, to compare your own
brief existence as a fragment of a second in the life of these rocks.
If those geological formations were shown in a fast forwarded video we
would see the water flowing and draining and flowing again, the
mountains rising and deflating like pimples, and somewhere in the middle
I could try to press the “pause” button to see the moment we all stood
among them with our mouths open, but probably couldn’t find us as those
VHS remote control wheels are really tricky to operate.
We should try to be okay with being minuscule and accept our existence
as a blink among mountains. A speck of dust in the next layer. Knowing
that I will die is terrifying, but paradoxically there’s a sense of
relief in the certainty of those mountain layers, their ability to
continue with their million-old formations, and the new creatures that
will roam them long after we’re all gone. And that’s how I would’ve
liked to feel when I visited.
Here’s the tricky part: Latest reports on global warming assure that our
collective irresponsibility will cause irreversible damage to the
prairies around this place and these layers. Autumn shares a report from
the Audubon society, which claims that in 30 years the ecosystem of the
place will irreversibly change. “My nieces and nephews won’t be able to
experience this,” She tells me while looking out a viewpoint. In a
hundred years or so of industrial progress we have managed to scorch the
earth to the point where even the testimony of its existence is in
peril. This is one of the worst things we’ve done, almost as bad as
adding artificial flavors to coffee. Layers of millions of years of
water and fossilized life that will collapse in the geological
equivalent of a nano-second because of our irresponsibility? Now that’s
what I call truly terrifying death.
A couple of miles down the road, away from the silver edges and in the
flat nothingness of the prairie lies the Minuteman museum. During the
height of the Cold War the US established several nuclear sites with
atomic rockets capable of destroying the entire planet in less than 30
minutes. Russia had a similar arsenal, of course. To me, the idea of
mutually assured destruction was not only shocking in its ability to
obliterate all life, but in the fact that the decision to end it all was
(is) in the hands of a couple of human beings sitting next to a
telephone and a couple of buttons.
The site tells stories of how close we got a couple of times to complete
annihilation if it weren’t for some operators in submarines who refused
to follow orders when correctly guessing their radars may be wrong. I
would love to meet the man who made the mistake to play a rehearsal tape
in a real control room and almost started Armageddon. “Whoopsie!” He
probably said to the disapproving grin of his commanding officer. “You
little rascal, you!” he must have reprimanded, with his fists in his
Anyway, these Domino’s pizza guns –ready to be launched in 30 minutes
or less and really, really bad, –were called the minutemen. This was
also the name given to a civilian militia group that was ready to kill
and die in any given moment during the US revolution.
In 1980 two young kids from California, D. Boon and Mike Watt, chose the
same name for a punk band that wrote fast, eclectic songs that lasted a
minute or so. They seemed set on the idea of destroying the structure
of the music business and to tour and perform as organically as
possible. The human connection between these two kids and their ability
to share their youthful and honest despair makes their music very
endearing. While touring in Arizona, D. Boon laid in the back seat to
rest from a headache. When the car axle suddenly broke he was thrown off
the back window and died instantly. He was 27 years old.
The call to action and possible death of the 19th century
revolutionary Minutemen happened with little warning, but the idea and
accomplishment of independence carried on as a testimony of their
existence. Boon’s life ended in a flash, but the music of the Minutemen
carries on as a testimony of his existence. In the badlands, prehistoric
water creatures have been extinct for millions of years, but their
fossils carry on as testimonies of their existence. It’s a bit scary,
just a bit, to think that we’re very possibly approaching an era when
death and destruction will have no follow-up, no testimonies.
The US government still has the ability to literally blow away the earth
into pieces. Every form of life, every mountain, every punk song ever
recorded, every single layer of the badlands, could be gone in an
instant. On the upside, this is the only way you’ll ever get the
cinnamon flavor out of your grandma’s coffee maker. It’s strange to
know, as we learn in this place, that there are federal employees right
now whose entire job is to go into an underground control center and sit
for hours, waiting to see if today is the day their phone will ring and
the day their fingers will push the last buttons on Earth. What a job.
Not only it must be hard to balance their stillness with the
significance of their jobs, but also I bet the wifi sucks down there.
Similar to the trash we produce daily, all these bombs we humans have
built can’t truly be disposed of. They exist now and will continue to
exist, their overwhelming power sitting inside a secret bunker like a
very scary version of Chekhov’s gun. As our environmental impact
produces economic uncertainty, massive migration, and unprecedented
famine and despair, will the world tension rise up enough for these
handful of employees to get a call and push some buttons? Or will we
agonize a bit slower, letting the planet disintegrate by the buttons we
are all collectively pushing –the actions of us all, who can’t or won’t
take immediate action to repair the damage we’ve created?
Whichever happens, two things are certain: one, the geological VHS video
that shows the history of the planet will end abruptly regardless, as
in geological times the difference between instant nuclear annihilation
and the accelerated consequences of global warming is minimal, and two,
nothing will remain as the testimony of the existence of life, except
perhaps for a bit of artificial hazelnut flavor in an old coffee maker.
First Impressions of the Grasslands
As we head out of Minnesota we listen to some history podcasts and learn
about the Dakota war. We drive through many historical marks that tell
different versions. The way history is told changes, but the desolate
plains of western Minnesota appear not to. In these markers old plaques
conflict with new ones. Blunt ones glorify the men who fought, captured,
and executed more than 30 natives, the largest mass execution in US
history. Contemporary ones recognize the government’s deceit and abuse.
One of them in New Ulm rises “in memory of all who suffered in the
Dakota War,” which seems almost offensive in its neutrality. The metal
plaques and concrete structures contrast harshly with their location in
parks and prairies where no one stops, and the only noise is the wind.
As we try to drive away from the Mississippi time starts moving slower
and signs of civilization are sparse. There’s nothing but grassland all
around us, so the wind comes full force, as it’s also trying to move
away from this emptiness. We cross the border into South Dakota. A lot
of people don’t know this, but highways in this state are actually
treadmills. Regardless of their 80 mph speed limit we don’t seem to move
much. As soon as we cross the state line the only thing we can see are
small concrete buildings with colorful signs that just say FIREWORKS.
Nothing more, except a few secluded farms and a large number of
anti-abortion signs. It’s so weird to me that areas of this country
where freedom is valued so much would bombard the few people that drive
through them with such heavy moral indoctrination. If life and freedom
are respected so much why are you blindly ignoring the circumstances of
the other lives involved?
I hope you forgive me these two lighthearted observations on a very serious topic:
1. “Every life is a little miracle,” some signs say. It may seem that
way around here, as seeing any sign of life within 100 miles within any
direction must be a joyous occasion. 2. It hurts the pro-choice movement
to have its counterpart called “pro-life.” When I first came to the US
if someone would’ve asked me if I’m pro-life I would’ve said yes, of
course, I’m a fan of the mitochondria! 95% of the time I’m into life.
The other 5% has been times I’ve heard “Despacito” on the radio.
We reach Watertown where we visit the county museum. I love these little
places that are basically old stuff from grandmas attics from all over
town, with some printed pieces of paper in comic sans. There’s always an
old iron oven and a weird mannequin staring directly into your soul.
Every guide in these museums is trained to start every explanation with
“they didn’t have phones back then.”
We’re greeted there by a chirpy blond lady he seem to have been aiting
to talk to someone since 1989. We ask for recommendations of things to
do in the state and spend the next four days listening to a stream of
consciousness that includes great ideas of places to visit, some history
of the county, and a little bit of casual racism. Her remarks are just
observations of places she has visited. She tells us, for example, to
lock our car doors if we enter Native American territory. “But,” she
adds, “you should probably be more scared of the white people, they all
carry guns and can be violent.” Yeah, people in the reserve could
probably attest to that.
Shelter from the Storm in Sheyenne National Grasslands
The sky in South Dakota seemed like an ocean, with its clouds slowly
wading around above us. But in our campsite in North Dakota the sky
seems like a river. Clouds flow down furiously, coming and going
dramatically while the grasslands stand still, waving. We have two rainy
days. Rain doesn’t fall, but explodes on top of us. We have our weather
radio on, and suddenly an alarm starts beeping. Our phones start
“Tornado warning. Get to safety immediately.” I can tell Autumn grew
with these experiences because she immediately jumps up and is ready to
act. I’m scared and fascinated. If you’ve heard a weather ready you know
the voice coming through the static: it’s calm, clear, and not from
this planet. No one should sound so friendly when enumerating the
counties that are in danger of being destroyed. The alert switches from
the relaxed voice to alarm sounds.
When the alarm goes off there’s little rain and it doesn’t feel
dangerous. As we get out of our camper and look up we see a giant black
cloud moving towards us. We go to the outhouse, the only concrete
building around. You can see the rain as a line, like a moving border
that seems so impossible close but still not above us. Birds stop
chirping and start flying away, and there’s an intense stillness. Just
both of us, standing outside, listening to the radio calmly enumerating
the counties and towns that immediately surround us. Wind picks up and
it lla turns black. We watch it pass by hat seems to be a quarter of a
mile from us. It’s a weird feeling to stand there, at the mercy of this
massive dark monster that moves fast and responds to no logic, and just
wait to see if we’re unlucky enough to have our things damaged, get hurt
or killed by it, or worse, to be forced to stay for a long time in the
outhouse. “It seems like a good place to wait for a tornado,” my dad
said later when I told him what had happened. “I would shit my pants.”
Ten minutes later the sky opens up like a curtain. The color blue
suddenly appears, and it brings bird songs with it.
Not so long ago this was the human experience: just stand in awe in
front of nature and take your chance. Seems easier to believe in a
superior power if every day of your life is ruled by the random strength
of natural forces. This primal helplessness may be scary but it also
bridges my connection with those frightened, defenseless creatures that
were all our ancestors, and that we still are. They must have had the
same experience, right here, sans a concrete outhouse filled with single
ply rolls of toilet paper. Lucky bastards.
Maybe I’m the scared one. The North Dakota natives were probably as
fearless as the only other people in our campsite. When the alarm went
off I went there, with the radio in my hand. “I don’t know if you
heard,” I said with urgency, “but there’s a tornado warning!” In my mind
I pictured Jim and Shannon dropping all their belongings and running to
the outhouse, thanking me for their lives. Instead Jim just turned his
back to me and said “fun!” and kept going with his business. After the
emergency passed and the sky turned blue I went to their campground to
see them just as relaxed as I left them. “You must be from around here,”
I asked. They nodded with a condescending smile.
There’s Nothing in the Dakotas
After Jim and Shannon leave we have half a day of solitude. We have a
tent that attaches to our camper, and completely seals us from
mosquitoes. New neighbors come at evening to say hi, Craig and
Katherine, and they are our first campground guests into the tent. He’s
reflexive and quiet, she’s loud and extroverted. Our shared beliefs in
traveling, conservation and politics makes the conversation easy, and we
relate to them a lot until they mention their love for Indiana. “Just
heading back home and seeing the fields of corn and the hot, humid air
of summer brings me so much joy!” she says.
I regularly make fun of Indiana, and how could I not, it’s an easy
target. Their motto is “the crossroads of America,” as if they knew
people who go there are also on their way out. I’ve driven through it
regularly on my drive from Madison to Michigan and if highway signs are
to be believed the only thing there is in Indiana is accident lawyers,
adult stores, and Jesus. Seems strange that someone who has lived there
and traveled away several times can find it beautiful.
I don’t understand it until later, when, during a conversation about a
particular park she sits up in her chair and says “that place is
beautiful! So many places are beautiful! Every time I go to a new place,
it’s so cool. Everywhere is beautiful.”
While Katherine may not be talking particularly about I90/I94, her words
resonate with me. The Dakotas are another national punchline. But I can
completely relate to Katherine here, in the uneventful grasslands of
North Dakota, where nothing happens and everything is beautiful.
Well, well, well, Fargo
In its welcome center the city of Fargo proudly showcases its connection
to the movie and TV show of the same name. Posters, t-shirts, a copy of
the script, set memorabilia, the original woodchipper from the infamous
scene of the film, signed by the directors, and a replica of the
woodchipper, which is placed outdoors, in case you come after hours. You
wouldn’t want to miss the woodchipper. Next to the woodchippers the
welcoming center has brochures on what to do in Fargo, and going to the
welcoming center to check the woodchippers is near the top of the list.
I find this incredibly amusing.
Foot note: if you haven’t seen Fargo you need to step it up. I don’t
want to spoil the importance of the woodchipper, but imagine a creative
way such a powerful tool could be use on a crime/dark comedy film by the
Coen brothers and you’ll have a strong foothold on the plot. It’s a
kick. End of foot note.
Fargo is a somewhat charming little city, very different from the vibe
of the movie, with an interesting history and notable geological
characteristics. It’s also somewhat hip and young. Hip cities are
measured by the presence of cool murals and amount of craft breweries.
However the city happily insists on their connection to a film that
projects a dark image of the area and featured the city for less than
two minutes. It’s a town built for and by railroad companies. Fargo was
named after the same guy in Wells Fargo, who built part of that
railroad. “Interesting fact,” I tell Autumn, “Wells Fargo was originally
named ‘well, well, well, Fargo!’ but it was too long, so they shortened
I find this incredibly amusing. Autumn doesn’t.
As we leave town we listen to some history podcast that talks about the
absurd desire for territory and the federal impulse of pushing west at
every cost. Railroad corporations were part of the problem. We hear
about the shady deals and coordinated greed of these tycoons with the US
government, which resulted in the repossession of lands, armed
conflicts, and suffering of the native people. Well, well, well, Fargo.
Maybe a dark crime film fits you just right.
Where we are: The Badlands, in South Dakota.
What’s next: The Black Hills, Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Duluth and Bob Dylan We unexpectedly end up in Duluth. I’m not sure I get this city. Is it an industrial town that moves on progress? Or a museum of old prosperity? Its streets run down from the hills, landing into the cold waters of Lake superior and the raised platforms of rusted metal, railroads and old industry. Lots of things are suspended here: bridges, walkways, time. But at the same time it’s a city of movement. Trains and ships disappearing in the horizon. Those hills pushing you down onto highway 61 as an invitation to leave. The entire city seems to be saying “let’s keep it moving.” Duluth seems committed to its connection to Bob Dylan. He was born and spent the first years of his life here, so we decided to go check his childhood house. It was only six blocks away, but on the hills of Duluth the journey seemed endless. How many steps must a man walk up before reaching Bob Dylan’s house? The answer my friend is too many. Get an Uber or something. In our way I think of Me and Bobby D. I have a weird relationship with him. I spent several years trying to understand why he was such a legend. But my English was never good enough to capture his lyrics while listening to him. I slowly started absorbing the meaning of his songs through his music, his phrasing, and some words here or there. I felt like I understood something, even though things didn’t make much logical sense. I’m happy to report that, now that I’ve learned more of the language, and I’ve come to understand more and more of his music, he still makes no sense. I am as lost as I was before. And that’s what makes him special. He is a masterful writer, but he seems to be able to convey an emotion beyond the words. Something always hides in his music, as in his demeanor. Something mysterious that seems to make sense beyond logic. I don’t get what he’s saying, but I get it. The house was a house in the same sense Bob Dylan is just a person. There’s nothing intrinsically especial about it. Nothing to get. Just another house in the block. Bob was also just another kid playing in the sidewalks of Duluth, looking below at the contrast between Lake Superior and the mysterious vastness of the engineered horizon of railroads and highways. The gravitational pull of that hill, the stillness of water, and the urgency of industry all below him, as some kind of metaphor for the United States. The kind of metaphor he doesn’t understand, but he gets it. We stand there for two minutes, looking at the plate. “First house of Bob Dylan. 1941-1947.” Autumn turns and sees down into the horizon. “Ok. Let’s keep it moving.”
Max, Holly, Clark, Soccer, and Minneapolis
We visit our dear friends Holly and Max. I’m excited to see them, not because they used to be our neighbors, but because I want to desperately see Clark. Whenever they left town, Holly and Max used to ask me to check on their cat, so I would go down the stairs to feed him. Clark and I have a love/hate relationship, as in I love him and he hates me. Those checking sessions where basically me leaving food on his plate and badly trying to get him to come out of his hiding spot to play with me. They live in one of the cutest houses in Minneapolis. How is it possible for a house to be quaint, cozy, and small, and still have 5 bedrooms? As soon as we walk in they make us feel so welcome, even though Holly is leaving for a trip abroad the next day. We connect to their WiFi, eat their food, and use their shower. Not to brag, but I’ve showered four days in a row now. They have set up their guest room for us, with everything we could need (except for gummy bears, which they confess have left for guests before. I guess we’re not good enough for them?). We left them a decent review. They take us out to dinner to a very busy and popular Ecuadorian restaurant. There’s a significant population of Ecuadorables here in Minneapolis, apparently. This is not the only thing that makes me nostalgic: Max’s knowledge and passion for soccer reminds me of my friends and family back home. I deeply admire Max’s ability to turn a casual conversation about a player into a clever reflection on world politics or history. I’m not particularly a sports person, but I learned to appreciate the sport in the same way I learned how to dance salsa, or be a Catholic: it was basically a requirement to graduate high school in Ecuador. As I’ve moved from home I’ve learned to understand that watching sports is a way to connect with people from all over the planet. And the US is so isolated in this sense, unwilling to pay much attention to worldwide competitions but calling itself the greatest country on Earth. You got your own sports here, and that’s it. In Ecuador we do have some sports that are only played there, like Ecuavolley. Our version has three players on each team, is played with a heavier ball, and I think it’s a requirement to have a slightly heavier dude playing without a shirt. It’s badass. In this country I consider watching soccer a political act. It’s a radically progressive political pastime. Liberals talk about the importance of appreciating and accepting the rest of the world but few are willing to sit down and try to understand the two things that all continents love: soccer and the metric system. You may very well think it’s boring (things you don’t understand are always boring; ask anyone who tries to watch football or baseball for the first time), but it’s the easiest way to connect with almost anyone in the planet. If you ever meet a Brazilian, an Italian, a South African, you can immediately start a conversation about how annoying Argentinians can be. So you think you’re progressive? If you don’t start watching soccer you’re still kilometers away from being woke. After leaving Max and Holly’s house we drive down a park in the city. I see a volleyball court with three men on each side, two of them are not wearing a shirt. Holy shit. Ecuavolley has made its way here. It’s almost an illusion, as we quickly drive away, but in that moment I get a glimpse of a couple of gringo faces in the audience. This vision is currently the best hope for the US. As for Clark, well, let’s just say I don’t think he’ll ever enjoy Ecuavolley.
Michelle, Mike, Fireworks, and Waterfalls Minneapolis spreads beyond my understanding. Every street seems to form a part of a perfect grid and then it abruptly lands on a river, a lake, or a park with a river or lake. It’s also a city full of corners packed with multicultural independent businesses with some weird angle. A butcher shop that’s also a record store. A coffee place that accepts used books as payment. A honey bee farm that makes free-range bicycles. You can’t apply for a business permit if you don’t brew your own beer. It’s a really cool city. At least for like three weeks of the year. Here’s where we spend our 4th of July. We stayed in Michelle and Mike’s driveway that night. I barely knew Michelle, she’s Aut’s ex co-worker and friend, but I immediately learn to respect and admire her. She has an incredible ability (and need) to connect with people, and seems to be happiest when building connections in her community. Waving to strangers, saying hi to neighbors, or handing flyers to create a community dog park nearby. She shares her backyard coop eggs with the neighborhood. In front of their house they have built a small wooden box that reads: Community Eggs Enjoy! For her, being an extrovert is a moral and political responsibility. It seems to me the perfect person to spend this holiday with. Regardless of the country or their meaning, patriotic holidays seem cartoonish to me. The imagined concept of what a country is sometimes seem even more plastic during those days. And the US is a ridiculous country. Not that there’s something wrong with that, every country is ridiculous. The concept of a country requires some level of ludicrous symbology. I’m not saying it’s silly to enjoy fireworks or holiday traditions, and I’m not passing moral judgement, just pointing out how absurd they sometimes seem. 4th of July especially. To be fair, it seems very proper to celebrate the US with explosives and rockets. This country surely is proud of being loud and blowing things up. We ignore the whole thing and go to Minehaha Park. Its paths, stairs, and corners remind me of the parks in bigger cities like Central Park in New York, or Golden Gate park in San Francisco. But in this one the calm demeanor of carefully designed public spaces suddenly clashes with an impressive waterfall and the fast river flow that follows. The park seems to symbolize the spirit of the city: planned urban organization next to nature. The loudness of the waterfall as we walk masks the sounds of the fireworks. Feels like a good celebration to me.
What’s next: The Dakotas! The Badlands! Thanks for reading and thanks to those who have replied. Love hearing from you.