Esteban Writes from the Desert

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

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.”

Esteban Writes from Salt Lake City

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Fossil beds and fossil fuel
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.

Esteban Writes from Colorado

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Where we’ve been:
Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest
The Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park
Fort Collins, Denver, Boulder
Arapaho National Forest
Colorado Springs
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 silence.
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 information.

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 crowd.

Sink Showers
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 500,000 years.

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.

Esteban Writes from Yellowstone

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

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: pugscoffee dateemotional 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!

Death and the Minutemen in The Badlands

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

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 usual.  
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 waist.
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.

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Esteban Writes from the Mackinac Bridge

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Last week felt like our trip had not officially started, as we were been waiting for our final piece of equipment to arrive.  Which means we were going around in circles around West Michigan, waiting for it to arrive. It’s a solar panel! And we think it has enough wattage to give us sustainable power through several days of off-the-grid camping. Our trip is in a big part motivated by sustainability, so we’re excited to use it. 
While waiting, we decided to spend the weekend at Silver Lake Dunes, as my father-in-law has a cottage there. Most of Autumn’s family came, including Felton, my brother-in-law’s dog, who baptized the place by running out of the car, right into the central part of the living room, and taking a shit in front of everyone. Yeah, Felton is a… special dog.
On saturday we left our camper there and drove back to Muskegon, to meet with two of our closest friends, Beth & David, who were on their way back to Wisconsin via Lake Michigan ferry. We had dinner at a place that had an “award winning” soup. Just like that, in quotation marks. The soup was basically liquified cheddar, and it was “good.” We then walked through Pere Marquette park, a beautiful beach on the lake. We hadn’t seen each other in a while but it was as if no days had pass. I’ve grown to love them in a special way, as their relationship, their curiosity, and their itinerant life reminds me of ourselves.
“Special things happen when we’re together,” I say as we watch the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. What a cliché, to feel emotional over a sunset, but what can I tell you, it was a pretty good one. Now I’m convinced I’m not the kind of person that would cry over a sunset, and I didn’t. But I could have if I would’ve allowed it.
We head back to Silver lake, and on Sunday we walked in the dunes. Several sand dunes surround Lake Michigan and Silver lake, and it’s such a powerful landscape. While walking there I told my niece Hannah, queen of the eye-roll, about the Star Wars composer who came to Silver Lake, and it was here where he felt inspired to write the Darth Vader theme song.
She knew it was a set up so she just looked at me, already annoyed.
“Yeah, apparently he pointed at the landscape and went ‘dune, dune, dune, dune-dune-dune, dune-dune-dune!'”
Both Autumn and her were not impressed with my ¨award winning” comedy.

Then we headed out to Manistee National Forest, and arrived at Condon lake, a small camping site where we camped for free. And this was a big part of our plan: to live in shared land they belongs to you, me, and Woody Guthrie. That night I finally reorganized the car while Aut prepared dinner. When she called me in we set a table with spaghetti, a side salad, and wine, and that tiny table in the middle of the silence of an isolated forest was suddenly home. That dinner was more powerful than a sunset, apparently, because I cried.  

Not everything is overwhelming beauty. A couple days later we slept in the parking lot of Camping World, an RV store by the side of an intersection in a town called Houghton Lake. Instead of birds chirping we were woken up by a delivery truck backing up right next to us at 7 am. That morning, in the store lounge, we had a conversation with an older couple from Alabama, who after a friendly introductory chat asked me if I was illegal. She made some pretty strong comments about immigration. My first instinct was to respond aggressively, and show how upset I was. But this woman was legitimately curious about my opinion so I calmly expressed the importance of immigration, and when she talked about assimilation and people speaking English I talked about the multicultural background of the people that have been living there long before the United States was founded. “That’s a good perspective” she said, and while I doubt 15 minutes of conversation in the lounge of Camping World of Houghton Lake was enough to make her go back to Alabama to let all friends and family know how mistaken they are, I felt proud to have had a conversation that may have helped someone understand a new point of view. Whenever I think of people like her, hardcore conservatives with deep held beliefs against immigration, I try to remember that for the most part there’s no ill will in them. The majority of them are not intrinsically hateful. We just live in different realities, and the moral convictions that were imposed onto her are different than the ones that were imposed on me. Their isolation from urban areas with more immigration limits their understanding of other spaces, and it’s good to have opportunities to share experiences with others. Reaching out to the other side with empathy and compassion is the only way to build a healthy society. Hard to do it though, as sometimes with those comments my mind just wants to go to the dark side (queue the Darth Vader dune song).

We then spent two days in Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Forest, where the weather was rainy. Which meant spending a lot of time together in our little house. We made it work by pretending we live in a normally sized apartment, so when I needed something I would yell to the other side of the house. We had an awesome hike through the woods that lead to a dramatic view of lake Michigan. Aut saw a really cool bird and got so excited she hurt my arm.
Yesterday we had dinner at Petoskey, an artsy, touristy little town, where we splurged with dinner, a brewery visit, and incredible gelato. And then slept in another parking lot, this time in a casino.
We have crossed the Mackinaw bridge today, so we’re officially in Michigan’s UP! Next week we’re taking a break while I fly to San Francisco for 5 days, because I got a couple of gigs with a company called “Comedy Central”? Never heard of it. I should be writing for these gigs, but haven’t had much time. My mind is focused on this trip!

Up next:
Saint Ignace
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Marquette, MI
And San Francisco!

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If you want, reply to the letter and let me know if you have questions, comments, or insults. Thanks for reading this. Love you all!


Esteban Writes from Central Michigan

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Hey, welcome to my newsletter! Thanks for trusting me with your email address. Expect updates from places I’m visiting, profiles of people I’ll meet on the road, and lots of lots of spam, as I’ll be selling your personal information to the highest bidder.
Last weekend we had to fit everything we decided to keep in a Toyota Highlander, which was not an easy task. So I would like to take a moment to thank the people that stopped at our garage sale, the St. Vinnies thrift shop for being located so close to our house, and my younger self for all those years of Tetris. I don’t know if there’s something deep in our primal instincts but packing that car made me feel like the monkey that throws the bone at the end of the first act of 2001:A Space Odyssey (except the bone was packed under the seat along with the toolbox).
We left Madison on Sunday, after paying tribute to the city that saw us change so much. I performed at the club that weekend, so they put us in a hotel for our last day. We suddenly turned into tourists, walking down State St., standing at the center of the Capitol and looking up, eating some spicy cheese bread… It helped us assimilate we were leaving, which still feels surreal. We drove out crying like babies, listening to a playlist methodically engineered to squeeze every teardrop possible. Songs included “Two of Us” by the Beatles, “This will be Our Year” by the Zombies, and “It’s Time to Move On” by Tom Petty.
We’re currently near Lansing, MI. If you don’t know where that is, ask someone from Michigan. They’ll pull their palm up, near your face, and point at the exact location, showing you precisely how annoying they can be. I’m among those people right now! My family in law live here, and we’ve come to drop our stuff and get last minute arrangements done in order to hit the road. Love them all. We’re having some family time before we head out. So so far our journey has felt like a family visit.
However we are getting things done and getting ready! We’ve already had some unexpected stuff happening: 400 miles of uneventful travel only to get to our storage site, try to open our camper, and breaking the key inside the lock. If you’re ever in the area, hit up Ionia Lock and Key, and ask for John. He’s a sweet, lanky, redheaded man who came from the pastoral highlands of Scotland to live in rural Central Michigan because he fell in love with this place. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
But we have already visited some interesting places! Yesterday for example we started our trip right by visiting the breathtaking wilderness of a DMV. A lush place filled with untamed noises, with some menacing creatures that came too close to us even though you’re not supposed to feed them. Just what we signed up for: a place to sit and do nothing for hours.
Coming up:
A weekend in Silver Lake Sand Dunes
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
A drive back to pick up a solar panel
And finally I need to fly to San Francisco at the end of the month to perform there for Comedy Central (!). I’ll be performing at a comedy festival called Clusterfest, and I’ll appear on a Comedy Central TV show. Yeah someone there screwed up so I get to go.

I feel there’s more I should be sharing but right now I’m at my brother in law’s and we just bought a dozen donuts so I have priorities. Also, wow, really impressed you made it this far.

Thanks again for taking a moment to go through your spam folder and reading this. Love you all.