Aaron Rosenblatt. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006 Could I really be longing for the less-than-72 hours I spent in the "Show Me" state? Not. A. Chance. But still, for a state in the middle of Jesusland, it's not so bad. Or at least, Missouri's Columbia wasn't so bad. While it may be true that the Continental Divide has become the western edge of the boredom barrier, I did make note of some interesting observations. First off, when you're zipping along at 80 miles an hour, slowing to 60 felt like the equivalent of jumping from a Concord to a Sopwith Camel. Gravity kicks in, my body was forcibly pushed against the seat and yet the change in velocity only adds 10 or 15 minutes to the trip. Travelling changes your perception of things, and not always in the way you'd expect. Secondly, just as the Big Box Stores have ostensibly turned America in one giant shopping mall, other cultural forces also have been at work. Laramie, Wyoming, home to the University of WY, turned out to be surprisingly similar to Columbia, MO, home to the University of MO and my brother's first foray into the exciting world of graduate-level education. Both have a plethora of coffee shops with free wireless broadband access; both are in the middle of nowhere. Young people infest both at the same times of year, leaving both desolate during the retardedly hot months, and in both, I bet, drinking beer is considered a viable alternative to paying your heating bill. (This was born out by the $2 happy hour draughts Aaaron and I found in Columbia.) Finally, both have a growing number of trendy-style eateries that serve three-dollar hamburgers for triple their value housed in complexes that generally abuse architectural Art Deco. If you have to be stuck in Missouri between Kansas City and St. Louis, though, you could pick worse places than Columbia. Driving there from Omaha along Interstates 29 and 70, there were three kinds of billboards: a small minority were for "Black Cat Fireworks," but most harkened the reader to attend to either "Jesus," who is clearly in desperate need of even more advertising, and the rest for "Passion's Adult Superstores." The Jesus boards and the Passion boards were in about equal percentage, which indicated to me that while people in Middle Missouri might get off and feel guilty, maybe even at the same time sadly, they generally were less interested in blowing things up. Columbia was a college town, no doubt about it. Besides the beer and the movie theater showing cheap first-run flicks while serving up large pints of, yes, draught beer, there was also a Target in town. Usually, this is apropos of nothing, except that the target apparently came in to provide - get this - an alternative to the three Wal-Marts already with Columbia in their clutches. There wasn't much else, unless you're interested in studying Americana in action or the struggles of a Blue Town in a Red State. The photo above is also relevent to not much, except the subject, my brother, was the reason I was driving to Missouri in the first place. The glasses, the hat, the moustache, it all reminded me of the Beastie Boys video for their song, "Sabotage," so I threw a blue filter on the photo. You can almost hear the sirens wailing past on the freeway. Still, reminiiscing about 1990s nostalgia for the 70s couldn't get the contrast of billboards on I-70 out of my head. There, on the great middle road bisecting middle America, the Black Cat Fireworks signs provided about as effective a buffer between the Jesus signs and the Passion signs as a child psychologist during a messy divorce. It all gave me a burning sense of jamais vu, the sense that you've never experienced something before. I found myself desperately wishing for something as interesting as the old Burma Shave billboards, even though I'm too young to remember seeing them in person. Those were quintessential Americana, the advertising equivalent of baseball, jazz or comic books.
Socialist propaganda, a painted advertisement protesting Big Cola, Tamil Nadu, India. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006 In light of the recent controversy in India over whether or not pesticides are an approved additive in their sodas, I've decided that my first photo from there should be topical. Many things surprised me during my two-plus months on the sub-continent; please search through the India category on this blog for a more in-depth explanation. I'm sure you'll find it entertaining, if not agreeable. However, throughout many of the states I visited and specifically Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, Socialist advertising was nearly ubiquitous. Notorious, too, since it's well-known that the strength of the common worker can easily bring the morning traffic in Calcutta - sorry, Kolkata - to a stand-still. I pass no judgment on this, and in light of the declining power of unions in America, perhaps the Indians are on to something. It's scary to note that since 1980 - oh, geez, who was it that was elected president that year? Ray-gun or something? - the average corporate executive makes around $140 per hour more than the common worker. Goooood-bye, middle class!
Sword-swallower on the South Gate Promenade, Melbourne. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2005 This photo is, in Australian parlance, a busker that I encountered one evening. Sidewalk entertainers would be a dime a dozen in Melbourne, except that there is no single word in Australian English that means "10-cent piece". I felt quite bad for her. Just after she had unpacked her sword and informational bib - I'm sorry, her "Anatomical Informational Apron" - the light mist turned to a light rain and the one or two passers-by that were half-watching her scurried away. She finished her act as a friend from Japan who had relocated back home to Melbourne and I watched, slightly embarrassed and slightly amused that we were the only ones there.
Advertisement near the Virgin Mary statue, Pine Bluffs, WY. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006 There are still places in America where you can find an empty stretch of road with no signs of life, civilization or even a Dairy Queen. For better or for worse, though, Interstate 80 between Nebraska and the Pacific Ocean is no longer one of them. Even on the most remote stretches of the nearly 2000 mile drive from San Francisco to Columbia, Missouri, my brother and I encountered things that do not just happen in nature, no matter much you trust the National Enquirer. The huge statue of the Virgin Mary was intentionally sought out, but it didn't have to be: at what looked to be 30 or 40 feet tall, it was visible from the freeway. This chance meeting of two city slickers and one enormous hunk of granite (or poured concrete, it was hard to tell) was planned, although we are not Catholics. Before leaving, we consulted the ever-useful Roadside America website and discovered a few bits of odd Americana that were along our route. This giant Mary was one of them. We were not expecting the Main Mary, though, to be surrounded by two dozen smaller Marys. That was an added bonus. The giant bits of statuary in Asia tend to be major tourist attractions, but this was in the middle of nowhere. Except "nowhere" had clearly become somewhere. On the other side of the dirt road that bordered the statues there was a mostly-empty trailer park, and a sign was posted right beside the central statue. As you can see in the photo, it read, "Bricks for Sale." It's highly unlikely that whomever was selling those bricks decided to stick the sign where nobody would see it, so I was left to conclude that this was a place where either people who need bricks go, or locals go, because the likelihood of a random tourist needing bricks on his cross-country drive is, well, low. Generally, when I pack for long roadtrips, I buy my bricks at home. That way there're no problems with repacking the car to get that last extra slab that was hiding behind the wheel well in under the seat. So the Virgin had company beyond her sisters, which was comforting. But it led me to realize that fewer and fewer places in America are places of solitude. We still have our national parks and wildernesses, although the current occupying force in the White House is making that less and less certain, but by and large the major roadsides are covered with us. Several roadside gas stations sported the same "Fat Dog" logo, topped by a scary sentence: You Are Nowhere. And yes, compared to 42nd St. in New York, yeah, some Fat Dog convenience store/gas pump combo sure seems like nowhere. But cars were flying by at 80 or 90 miles an hour, with regularity, and there was air conditioning and cold drinks and minor car repair equipment. Coffee was cheap. This "nowhere" sure seemed like somewhere compared to the nowheres I had just been stuck in, barely months before. Indian roads covered in potholes and dust, with no pavement to be seen and certainly no caffeine to be had, that was nowhere. A Chinese muddy track, blocked by a rockslide, a bulldozer, more than 30 long-distance sleeper buses and no village for 50 kilometers on either side, that was nowhere. Everybody might have their own personal nowhere; mine was definitely not I-80.
Ricky's Cafe, Banglamphu, Bangkok. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2005 The first photo from my trip comes from what became one of the best places my Financial and Menu Adviser and I discovered to hang out in Bangkok. I don't remember if this photo is from the first time that we stepped foot into Ricky's, by accident when we couldn't find a smoothie stand, but the memory of the place has become as important to my idea of Bangkok as anything else. Ricky's is a respite, a haven of Western breakfasts, some with Thai twists and even some authentic Thai food. It is a gaijin hangout, a place for frustrated farangs to sit back against the teak panelling and spread the broadsheet Bangkok Times wide as a mug of steaming coffee dampens the newsprint from underneath. It's decorated in a 1920s/1930s Shanghai style, and the slightly creepy woman on the poster that is the focus of this photo pretty much sums up the vibe of the place. I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to present these photos, except that it will be one at a time and I'll try to maintain some kind of linear order to how they occurred; the first country I visited was Thailand and so this is a photo from those first two weeks. Next up will probably be something from Australia, and so on. I must confess that as I quickly flipped through the photos from the trip, organizing the 4550 of them into folders marked by date and location, that the later ones are of a much higher quality than the earlier ones. Something changed in both the technical and artistic sides of how I shoot, I think towards the end of being in India, that becomes readily apparent by the time I reached China. Similarly, the earlier blog entries were not written the same as the later ones, but with the photos it's a less subtle contrast. I hope you enjoy them, and please feel free to leave comments, thoughts and even criticisms. (Although I do reserve the right to banish flamers.)
Heading east from Winnemucca. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006 Four years ago, when I drove out of Boston, I made a point of checking out Metaphor, the Tree of Utah. It's one of the many large-scale oddities that dot our landscape, providing a veneer of culture where none exists except in the frozen yoghurt. Heading back the other way, to help drive my brother to Missouri for graduate school, I remembered something else: Metaphor might be the Tree of Utah, but methane was definitely the Smell of Utah. The pong of methane infested my brother's car's vent system within 30 minutes of entering Utah and wouldn't release its stinking grip until we were on the edge of Salt Lake City. That leg of the ride was painful, not only because of the smell but because we kept making fart jokes at each other. Maturity goes out the window when you're trapped in a metal box hurtling through time at 80 miles an hour that just reeks of then inside of a cow's butt. We should've expected something bad to happen. Bad Things happen in Utah, and our first indication that something was amiss was that border crossing. It was the American version of the Thai-Cambodia border, where the level of civilization and infrastructure on the Thai side appears to be about 57 years ahead of their Cambodian neighbors. West Wendover, the last town heading east on Interstate 80 out of Nevada, looks at night to be Vegas in miniature. The road goes up a long, steepish hill and as you come down on the other side, you twist around the side of another mountain and then, for all intents and purposes, you can turn off your headlights and get out your sunglasses. The neon lights in West Wendover, population 4720 as of the 2000 census, were more suited to a city 10 times its size. Casinos and bars and truck stops and RV parks as far as the eye could see - which, if you haven't figured out by now, was quite far because of the ridiculous amount of light pollution. Decadent West Wendover quickly became dead Wendover at the border. The change would've been shocking, except that that kind of ultra-convservative lack of life and joie de vivre is what Utah is culturally famous for. Not only that, but physically the two Wendovers were symbolic of the two states that hosted them. Where West Wendover was all neon and modern life, I could see only one street from the freeway that was illuminated. This, at only 11 p.m. If you'd ever wondered why the aliens landed in Nevada, instead of Utah, just look at what the two states have to offer. In Nevada, you get legalized prostitution and gambling. In Utah, you get snow and mountains. Besides, what kind of nutcase tourist board thought up polygamy? More than one wife? No thanks! Metaphor, the Tree of Utah. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2002 Nevada, of course, had an entirely different set of smells. The electric charge of the air as a summer storm geared up had a freshness to it that smelled clean and crisp, but was probably just the creosote cooling down. More than anything else, the overwhelming, nose-hair singeing amonia that almost made my eyes water in the Elko casino where Brother Aaron and I stopped to gamble away my last $20. Luck, however, was with us that time, and we broke even on the electric "pokies" as the Aussies call them. ("Pokies" are those stupid gambling machines where you drop your money in and poke a button to watch it dissipate into the ether.) Despite leaving San Francisco at 9 a.m., we didn't get to the California-Nevada border until three. There was a two-hour traffic jam about 50 miles east of the city, and it didn't let up until we were almost at Sacramento. The differences between Asia and America stood out for me there, as well. In Asia, you'd never find a traffic jam with only one lone person in the car. Four, maybe, but six or 10 were more likely. Yet so many of those people stuck between Albany and Davis were driving solo. The only benefit of hitting the Sierra Nevada, the mountains that run the border between California and Nevada, the final resting place of the Donner Party, was that in the afternoon, the scents of the sun-warmed trees mix with the clean mountain air in the most intoxicating way. Memories of childhood vacations to the mountains blended with pre-adolescent weeks at summer camp and were topped off by more recent excursions, all bounded by that warm California oak and Ponderosa pine. It all came rushing at me, much as an 18-wheeler did as it stopped short. I saw it in time, and stopped short with no casualties and only a smigden of rubber left on the road. There were, in fact, no injuries of any kind on this trip, no small feat for those who know my brother and I. As kids, we couldn't get along even if other people's lives depended on it - let alone our own. I was the kind of older brother who would tell Aaron that the Challenger explosion was his fault. I did not, however, actually do that, but I did other things of equal caliber. Strangely, bizarrely, both of us have always felt that we should get along even if we couldn't. So not only was the drive not a pressure cooker frothing over with tension, we actually spent most of it talking to each other, without a single stinking frothing incident to be seen.