Miscellaneous Musings: EZG in the US Part IV
In case you missed it, here is part I!
Since someone asked – I did not tweak the colors or anything in the pictures, just tried to crop folks who did not want their likeness on the internet.
All righty, that out of the way, let’s begin!
I have already gushed and rambled on about the vast inspiration and consolation I drew from deserts while in the US – how the sheer width, the grand vastness and beauty of the desolations provided a sense of an enlightened perspective hard to convey with mere words.
Said perspective was infinitely expanded when we arrived, after a long drive, at the Petrified Forest national park. Situated in the midst of nowhere, it sported several characteristics I immensely enjoyed. First of all, the relatively remote location and subdued publicity the national park receives meant that there were few other tourists – to be more precise, there was a distinct absence of the annoying, constantly babbling and screaming type of tourist that seems to be afraid of silence of contemplation.
More important, however, would be the beauty this place offered and its transcendent quality: The massive logs of petrified wood, impressive on their own, shone like gigantic gems in the blazing sun – and once you settled, stopped gawking, you could just stand there – and hear the wind whipping over the sand and shrubs, continuing, unimpressed by human presence, the grand work that unearthed these wonderful monuments.
More than that, this place, by virtue of its tangible temporality, added a chronological sense of context to the sheer vastness of the landscape – Each and every one of these massive trees had seen more years than we could ever fathom and conceivably grasp, their existence measured in million years, when our feeble minds can scarcely grasp the vast time-frame of a millennium. Standing there, amidst this gorgeous and blazing product of our planet, amid this impressive, mind-blowing openness, confronted with the sheer endlessness of our world, I was frankly dumbstruck and none of my futile words to describe the impact of this place can come close to describing what I have witnessed there.
Never before have I had such a tangible, gorgeous metaphor as a place to represent my world-view. Some of you may know that I am an atheist; that does not mean I begrudge anyone his or her religion. I will not belittle anyone and I will in fact defend you and your beliefs from attack, provided said beliefs do not promote ignorance, hatred, the restriction of rights of others or a proper education. In fact, it is my conviction that religions can provide a tremendous amount of solace, comfort and support, and I believe that they serve an important role in the context of our species’ evolution.
Usually, it’s not the religion that’s at fault, but rather the institutions and people that use it to their own malicious ends. Similarly, considering the observer effect, I am not disinclined towards anyone sending good vibes or prayers my way. While I don’t subscribe to the common misconception of the observer effect being based on a conscious mind, I do believe in human behavior being complex and determined by a myriad of factors beyond our current state of knowledge – the more positive one’s reception in the world, the higher is the chance that, by some way, one is treated well. You could call it a collective unconscious karma, if you’re spiritually inclined. This does not change, alas, that I don’t have a believer’s bone in body. What I’m trying to say is, in Julian Barnes’ immortal words “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”
Where am I going with this? At one point, I came to hold the conviction that basically all is futile and bereft of any global meaning in the grand scale of things – but where most people would consider this nihilism (and they’d be correct to an extent), my conclusions drawn from this epiphany vastly diverged from the depression usually associated with such a world-view. You see, to me, it was a matter of perspective: This may relativize anything I ever do or achieve into meaninglessness, but so will it eliminate all the pain and suffering I may experience or unintentionally cause.
If you ever found yourself in a similar mindset, looking at everything that way may provide solace – I certainly hope so. Just know that this realization does not exempt anyone from establishing an ethical context, a proper perspective. Anyways, in the petrified forest, amid the murmuring wind, in this vastness of both spatial and chronological proportions, these massive, multi-colored gleaming trees represented to me the perfect image for the beauty of the vastness, of one’s existence as not even a fraction of the grand eye in the sky. The wonderful gleam of what was once plant-material made me contemplate all of us being stardust, eternal, reconfigured in some way and ultimately, beautiful.
It is my fervent belief that the one reason this park is not better known, lies in the inability or unwillingness to stop. Be silent. And think. If anything, I was both sad and relieved that we couldn’t spend a night there – if you added the vast, starry sky to the fray, I may have never wanted to leave the place. Still, this is as close to a religious experience as I’m liable to get and it is my ardent hope that I managed to properly convey that to you. Past gorgeous and multi-colored rock-formations in the painted desert, we drove on – towards Albuquerque.
Why? Well, to get off my pseudo-philosophical soapbox, the reason is quite profane: I like Breaking Bad. A lot. There. Profane. Mundane. When we arrived in Albuquerque in the night, our place to stay was nice and the next day, we checked out the *STILL* tourist-swamped old town and did our own private sightseeing tour. It’s amazing – if there is anything Americans have perfected, it’s making money out of something. The whole Breaking Bad-tourism-industry is pretty hardcore. It did leave me with a sour taste in my mouth, though – Walter White’s house is privately owned and the poor people had to put up signs, locks, etc. to keep people from throwing pizzas on the roof. Not cool. On the plus-side, I found a great little bookstore, which was run by an 83-year-old gentleman, with whom I talked for about 2 hours. I also got a respectable and well-researched book on Diné mythology, including, but not limited to the Diné Bahane’. Oh, and in a comic book store there, I finally found about half of the missing Savage Sword of Conan books that were pretty much my sidequest for the trip!
But we only had one day planned for the city, so we ended up leaving after a long day – to drive towards Santa Fe. To give you an update on our planning and where it colossally failed: We grossly overestimated the price of gasoline. I mean, seriously – gas in the US is dirt cheap. Even cheaper than we figured it would be. And the cars go a lot longer on one tank. At the beginning of our trip, we were pretty paranoid regarding the tank and the vast stretches of road we’d have to cover – that vanished pretty soon. A full tank for the massive car we had clocked in at around $40. That is ridiculous from my perspective. That’s what you pay for half a tank of a car of the size of a Mini-Cooper here. If you’d fill up a car of this size in Germany, you’d pay €100+. Euros, mind you.
So that would have been a great help to our shoestring budget…but, alas, there was this other aspect which we grossly underestimated: Places to sleep are ridiculously expensive. First, we told ourselves that this was just California…but the longer we drove, the more states we saw, the sooner did we realize that we would never find a good place to sleep for less than $100 a night, not via AirBnB, not in motels. Call me naive, but in Europe, you can find nice, minimalist places to stay for €40. So yeah, our budget was crashing fast. Hence, we decided to sleep in a motel in Santa Fe – not the cheapest, but a relatively cheap one.
Big frickin’ mistake. When we arrived, we saw some folks in the parking lot, sitting around, shuffling like the walking dead. We were tired, so we went to the room. It had metal grating on the windows. Indentations in the walls, which looked like the result of blunt instruments. The night was defined by police sirens every couple of minutes. The wall below one of our windows had a bullet removed from it. (I really wished I had failed my Perception-check there.) My girl-friend was pretty much panicked all night, but we had no options. I am not an easily scared person – in fact, I am afraid of abstract things, much more so than tangible ones. That evening was tough on even me. When I went outside, one time, to have a final smoke that evening, a guy came over to me and asked for one and I was glad I had one – broken teeth, meth sores…it looks like we had ended up in junkie-ville. Amazing.
We got up at 4 AM and got the hell outta dodge, towards the city – which did not really make up for the night. The breakfast was nice, but for the first time in the US, I felt distinctly unwelcome there. Everyone kept eyeing us as though we were some psychos. The shops were all incredibly overpriced and there seemed to be no one there who could afford the goods – I did not see a single customer in all the shops we visited. What I did see, however, was an open office, where a muscular, bald man with huge golden rings was wearing a black suit, while resolutely talking to someone – he looked basically like Wilson Fisk IRL. Perhaps I was sensitized by the night, but the selling point, the “being somewhat like Mexico” didn’t impress me either – having been to Mexico, it felt like a ripoff. On the plus-side, I managed to get even more Conan-comics and had almost completed my collection. I am cognizant that Santa Fe is bound to have some amazing places and I don’t judge the city for what I’ve seen there, but more so than the horrible night, the treatment we received there was, at least compared to literally EVERYWHERE ELSE in the US, very unwelcoming.
When we left the city, it was only noon, so to give you an inclination of what I mean: We drove towards the South and, in the middle of nowhere, found a gas station that looked like it came straight out of the 40s/50s. The people inside were obviously friends all, chatting on an old sofa. This is NOT meant as a disparaging remark or slur, but from dust-covered clothes to accents and cars, they were obviously hardcore rednecks. My girl-friend was pretty afraid of them, but I’ve always held the conviction that just being open-minded opens a lot of doors – and since I was absolutely puzzled on how to operate the gas station (turns out you had to press a portion that had no button or anything like that!), I asked. And oh boy, were these awesome folks – kind-hearted, open, nice and helpful. In my semi-sleep-deprived brain, I forgot to close the tank and one of them drove after us and told us. Now THAT is doing the right thing. Really amazing folks. If, by coincidence, some of you read this – my hat’s off to you. Never judge a book by its cover. That would never, in a million years, happen in Germany.
Similarly, when we finally arrived in Alamogordo, the folks there were once again courteous, kind and open – and from there on, we had to check out the next National Monument on our list: White Sands. I wasn’t even aware of its EXISTENCE until I started researching…and oh boy. It is, once again, one of the places that literally smite you with their beauty. A vast area of white dunes of gypsum crystals, balm to bare feet (at least when not fluid-drenched – then, they become hard) – you see, gypsum is water-soluble, but the Tularosa Basin containing it is enclosed, preventing the gypsum from draining.
Honestly, i can do only so much. If you really want to realize the beauty of this gorgeous white desert, do a quick google image search. This place looks, quite literally, out of this world. When Joshua Tree was how my kid brain thought Mars would look like, then it similarly had visions of stars even further away, where strange plants rose from endless, soft white dunes. If you’re writing for anything fantastic or scifi-related and want to witness something truly inspiring, go there. Once again, the vastness of the horizon is intimidating and exhilarating, as white, bleached earless lizards scramble on the dunes.
And if you want some fun, take a plastic saucer, wax it and slide down the dunes. It actually works and can add some additional enjoyment, while you walk over this transcendent landscape. Like Iceland’s black sands mirrored, the whole atmosphere here seems almost like the diametrical opposite – like two sides of the same amazing coin. How beautiful is this? Well, I’ve got a 360°-photography of the place on my phone. Just taking it out alleviates any stress I feel and makes me almost feel the soothing breeze, the clouds passing by. Oh, and guess what – the place becomes even more beautiful in the evening and night, at least when the sky’s not too cloudy.
Why? The light of moon and stars illuminates the white desert and generates a surreal panorama that completely takes you off of planet earth. This was, you guessed it, once again a place that stunned me, one I need to revisit in the future. This is a phenomenal gem. I didn’t find any glass from the trinity site for sale anywhere, but still – there are few experiences as mind-blowingly transcendent as this one. And yes, I am aware that I’m throwing superlative upon superlative around – but honestly, I don’t get why this is not better known – in Europe, it’s practically unknown and in spite of being unique IN THE WHOLE WORLD, it isn’t one of the well-publicized American natural treasures either. Wandering on these dunes, feeling the breeze and the silky-smooth sand beneath my feet, I experienced pure joy.
The next day, however, would feature one of the longest drives of the whole trip – over 600 miles in a day, from Alamogordo to Denton, Texas, where I was scheduled to meet up with one of my friends and long-time supporters. Oh boy. This drive was per se one thing – boring. But instead of describing the endless hours (we arrived pretty late and I’m glad, Chad managed to still meet us!), let me go on a brief tangent regarding driving culture in the US. People drive, as a whole, very passively and considerate. Heck, even in San Francisco and L.A., I never felt unfomfortable or stressed while behind the wheel. The roads in the US are HUGE and the option to use the breakdown lanes are huge. Heck, on some roads, you can comfortable fit two cars per lane! That puts the “Oh yeah, I drove 6 hours to see my friend!” statements by Americans into perspective. For my US-readers: Driving in Europe is NOT like that, particularly not in Germany. Speed limits exist, but are routinely and grossly ignored. If you drive according to speed limits on some roads, it’ll only be a matter of time before someone starts honking or tries to overtake you. And Munich or Berlin, traffic-wise, are infinitely more stressful than aforementioned US-metropolises – you’ll take longer in the US to get through these juggernauts, but at least people tend to drive considerately and not like psychos.
Well, that’s what I thought. When we crossed the Texan border, something happened. And people started driving like Germans. Speed limits? Exist, but let’s ignore them. Construction sites? Utterly confusing. Up until this point, I was overtaken exactly ONCE in a risky manner during our whole trip. And only because I wanted to guy to drive past. You basically had to force the guys to drive past. Not so in Texas, no siree! Our stay in Denton was amazing, though: The hospitality, friendliness and amazing gifts I received blew my mind: Chad, once you’re reading this – I’m so humbled and happy to count you among my friends. You taking us to this amazing used-book-store, to the candy store…everything was great. Thank you! And we *WILL* meet again! I will come again to the US!
Now, our plan was to go to Austin on the next day, so when we said goodbye to my friend, we began driving. Well. We encountered the most atrocious, nerve-grating, mind-numbing and utterly soul-crushing gridlock I have ever endured. No movement for ages. Nothing happens. When we finally reached an exit ramp after more than6 hours and less than 20 miles progress…it turned out to be just a loop towards a construction site…that led straight back into the gridlock from hell. Oh, and our gas was running low. After 8 hours, we were hungry and tired and finally managed to get off the damn highway. Thoroughly frustrated, I thought I could drive the roads towards our stop for the night, idyllic Wimberley. Hahaha. It is here that my nerves started to fail me. People kept driving at obscene speeds on curving roads that had no median strip. I was utterly exhausted when we finally arrived and fell asleep straight away. Wimberley, while nice, did turn out to be geared more towards senior citizens, so off we went to Galveston – after all, New Orleans would be the final destination of our trip and we’d have a nice thematic connection there!
On our way, we also engaged in one of the culinary highlights of our trip: Lockhart. Oh my gosh. If any of you who met me at Gencon remember one thing in a culinary context, it’ll be the crazy Kraut gushing on and on about how glorious the barbecue is in the US and how you can’t get decent ribs in Germany. Well, I have NEVER EVER SEEN A PROPER RIB before. If you can find good ribs around here, it’s babyback ribs. In Lockhart, I had this HUGE chunk of MEAT. Delicious, amazing meat. Better yet: An array of hot sauces to properly spice things up. People gave us the strange eye first, but once I started mixing the naga jolokia with habanero sauces for a more versatile kick, we immediately had conversation topics – which brings me to another point. People had basically told me several horror stories about Texans. These, at least as far as I’m concerned, proved contrary to my experiences. If anything, the people seem to be a hard breed, but extremely cordial once you get around to talk to them properly.
One example: My girl-friend is really into scented candles and, much like all goods, the US has a vast array you can’t get hereabouts. When we stopped at one shop, we kept talking to the very kind lady there – and in the end, she gave us her MASSIVE employee discount. Just because we had a nice talk. I don’t know if that’s a completely strange occurrence, but I encountered similar generosity multiple times during our trip Something like that will never, ever happen in Europe. You can count yourself lucky if they let you keep the change. Seriously. It’d be a once-in-a-year-occurrence, tops. Getting a free 60%-discount? Never gonna happen. Galveston wasn’t too remarkable as far as I’m concerned – but the inexpensive and eccentric pseudo-Victorian house there, where we even got smores and had a firepit, was a nice way of regenerating one’s nerves.
On the next day, we were off to Louisiana – and basically everyone whom we told about our final destination was fear-mongering regarding New Orleans. I was pretty positive that would not be an issue, but I was more skeptical regarding the back country. If you, at least around here, hear about “hardcore, crazy Christians” and “reddest-or-the-red-we-don’t-like-folks-like-you-round-here”-stereotypes, it’s this state we think about. That being said: We crossed the border…and people suddenly stopped driving like Texans…Hmm…perhaps that’s due to so many German families in Texas? No idea. Anyways, driving over the massive highways of Louisiana was an experience in and of itself: Raised above the endless bayou, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of this land.
Our only stop before New Orleans would be Nottoway plantation, since my girl-friend wanted to stay at least once in one. And let me tell you – the guide was amazing. The same cannot be said, alas, about the food. We figured we’d go for a good, proper dinner to soak in the landscape. The restaurant was overpriced, my meat was overcooked and dry and not worth a single buck – back to back with Lockhart’s culinary delights, that represented a stark disappointment. While reserved, people were also quite friendly, in spite of us being two goths.
After checking out several plantations en route, we finally arrived in New Orleans. At this point, however, pretty much everyone had told us how ostensibly dangerous the place was, which proved to be a constant stressor for my girl-friend, one I could not really alleviate and one that is not in any way grounded in any real experience. Okay, it is kind of understandable – we had a really amazing place in North Rampart street, which used to have a bad reputation. That being said, there is one cardinal rule in New Orleans: “Don’t be a dick.” It’s simple as that.
Now New Orleans would have not been half as amazing without George “Loki” Williams. In case you were not aware of that – he is not only a gifted author of RPG-supplements, he also hails from one of the city’s oldest families, is a tour guide and has a sheer endless and encyclopedic knowledge of both the city’s history, both public and private and its mythology: He is also an amazing gentleman and scholar who redefined hospitality, pointing us towards amazing places to dine on our by then none-existent budget. New Orleans is great. If you’re even remotely extroverted, if you love walking through the streets while glorious music lines the alleys, if you love breathing in a sense of thoroughly unique culture, then this city will steal your heart. Occult bookstores on every corner, including academic books by proper scholars on mythology (as opposed to the standard fare), amazing hot sauces, the best seafood I ever had for almost-fast-food-prices…
New Orleans is glorious and polarizing – you either get it, or you don’t. In my best Kyle McLachlan-impression: “Damn good coffee” as well – the best I had outside of Vienna. There is color and culture everywhere, from the bars to the musicians. In every part of the French corner, history looms. Oh, and the mentality in New Orleans was similarly amazing: We for example visited a museum, where the old lady (and I mean lady – stylish, pearl-necklace, etc.) that served as cashier and curator told me about several books that really provide well-researched insight – and when I told her, our budget was depleted, she gave us free access and let me even photograph the books, telling me to get them via amazon. Where else can you walk into a diner and have the people behind the corner and in the kitchen just sing and provide clapping entertainment and good-natured ribbing? That being said, if you’re an introvert or a scaredy-cat, I can see the city being very much to take in. New Orleans feels like a gloriously anarchist counter-culture haven to me, where all kinds of art are ever-present. At this point, I’d also like to extend my sincere thanks to Desirée for showing us some gems of the city.
Still, I have never learned more in a more entertaining manner than in George “Loki” Williams’ tours. You see, I have taken a lot of tourist tours in cities like Venice, Prague, etc. – they either end up force-feeding you tourist-legends and semi-true crap or end up as horribly dry, but accurate. George’s tours entertained us from start to finish and clearly distinguished fact and fiction, history and mythology. Oh, and have I mentioned the “Tree of Life” (Étienne de Boray Oak)? The fact that I actually saw an alligator in a Bayou excursion organized for us? From the delightfully twisted LaLaurie-legends to voodoo and the murder museum, a sense of the both lighthearted and macabre, of old world mixing with the new, of cultures fusing, suffused the whole city. It is an absolute and total shame we could not spend even more time here – I am absolutely in love with this city and it made, alongside San Francisco, a phenomenal bookend to the whole trip.
(Btw.: This is the company that features George’s amazing tours!)
Now, I should write a conclusion. The US is an amazing place. At least what I’ve seen so far and I am very cognizant of the fact that I haven’t even scratched the surface. I’d gladly and happily return to every place we visited (though to Santa Fe only with a local as a guide…). The American people we encountered, for the most part, are absolutely amazing, open and hospitable. Similarly, in a land this defined by hyper-capitalism, it was refreshing to see, at least on a personal level, interactions to be this amazing, open and kind – my impressions at Gencon were pretty much confirmed during the trip. I was pretty surprised to not encounter a single negative statement or persecution for my long hair, black nails and black clothes during my stay in the supposedly intolerant areas. Then again, I’m white. Cheesy, white-bread white. That may be a reason, at least if I believe the black and native American folks I talked to. Which brings me to an interesting observation: The media has used the slogan to call the US a divided nation.
This, at least partially, seems to be true. While I did not encounter, surprisingly, any negative stereotypes regarding Germany or Germans, there are ample of negative stereotypes among Americans. Heck, even people North and South California seemed to be incapable of not ribbing the other part…and that’s state-internally. There seem to be a lot of negative things to say about one another, which, to an extent, was puzzling to me. While we have stereotypes in Europe and internal disputes (Call a Scot and Englishman or a Franconian a Bavarian and you’ll get where I’m coming from), I was pretty surprised to hear how critical Americans tend to be towards their own nation and states. Then again, to an extent, the cultural differences do exist, but they seem to be based on mentality and an intangible conglomerate of perceived values, rather than direct and glaring cultural differences. The language’s the same. The goods are the same…etc. And I’m not saying that states should give up their individual identity – it’s the United STATES for a reason…I’m just saying that I was somewhat surprised to hear this much internal negativity. More so, since, when I asked whether a person had been to X, Y, or Z, the answer, more often than not, was “no.”
Which brings me to my closing words – there is nothing that eliminates prejudice, hatred and preconceptions as quickly and thoroughly as traveling. I have not even started to scratch the surface of this thoroughly amazing nation and its mind-boggling natural and cultural treasures, of its amazing cuisines and diverse, kind people.
Ultimately, it is my hope that these travelogues perhaps inspire someone out there to take a car and drive. Soak in the vastness and beauty of this nation and appreciate all the joy of America the Beautiful – in the face of such beauty, such sheer scope, it is inconceivable to me how one can retain negativity or a narrowed perspective. One look at the rich diversity of landscape and people, when seen by an open mind that tries to rid itself of preconceptions, can by virtue of the road, ever-present perfect metaphor for the journey, see the dazzling, enriching diversity of a nation built on acceptance, tolerance and a vision worthy of its natural and cultural splendor. A nation not built on prejudice and fear, but by courage and idealism. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” – in the immortal words of Emma Lazarus.
Beyond that door lies the road, just as gleaming; the fresh air, bereft of the miasma of routine, sends its breezy wisps forth as it calls with its promises of adventure, of new impressions that are worth more than any accumulation of money. The road is beckoning. The wheel in the sky is turning and paints the world in colors most gorgeous. If you have the chance, take a breather. Drive. See. Perhaps you’ll see what I did. More likely, you’ll see different things, experience a whole different nation, have different connotations. That’s the beauty of it – the beauty of both the land and the conditio humana.
Thank you for reading these.
I remain, as always, your Endzeitgeist.
P.S.: Next time, I’ll talk about Nazis, being German and why I’m not comfortable with media exploitation of the trope.
P.P.S.: If you feel inclined to and enjoy my review and posts, please consider supporting my patreon here. It’s literally what keeps the lights on.