This is a series of paintings on paper I started in my studio late last spring. They traveled a ways with me, and this is their story. Details on the finished paintings are here.
Last summer, the Pandemic summer, at the end of June, I drove myself and my eldest son, Elliot, (20 at the time), from our home near LA to visit my family in downstate Illinois. I started this series of paintings in my studio in California, worked on them in Illinois and finished them back in California. It was about 1600 miles one way, roughly 28 hours of driving. Being a thoroughly GenZ kid, my son does not drive. It was on me to get us there. It was a mildly eventful trip. Elliot makes up for his unwillingness (not incapable; not into it) to drive by being an excellent shotgun, keeping me well amused, fed & hydrated.
My trusty baby Beluga (white 2006 Odyssey—long on years, low on miles) was packed to the gills. We removed the second row of seats and filled the space with my Elby ebike, a collapsable wagon loaded with the guts of my art studio and paintings in process, a cooler, hiking tent and pads, and incidentally, clothes to last a month. I rented a house in the town where family lives during July, so we weren’t underfoot for weeks.
Guests and fish, you know the the saying.
Our plan was to camp in obscure campgrounds to avoid potentially contagious other people, having spent a few months faithfully quarantining at home. We headed East on I-40, intending to swing by Cadillac Ranch. I had some spare spray paint, so why not? We camped the first night at a KOA on the East side of Arizona—there weren’t many options there and I wanted to make sure we at least had access to water and a bathroom.
The second day, we got to Amarillo around 2pm, it was 101º.
I parked the car on the frontage road bordering Cadillac Ranch, like you do, and we took our wee collection of spray cans to indulge in some sanctioned graffito. Elliot, who seems pretty impervious to temperature generally, was wearing sweatpants and a tee shirt. Did I mention it was hot? We did our bit, which was almost immediately overpainted by the next group, and got back into the Beluga. That’s when the climate diverter on the driver’s side decided to stubbornly affix itself in the position that shoots air directly from the engine compartment. Not just warm air. HOT.
Fortunately, I had practically my entire studio in the wagon behind us, so I pulled out some painter’s tape, scissors, and various plastic bag bits and covered up all driver vents, redirecting the ones on Elliot’s side and all the vents in the back toward me. Good enough.
We drove to our planned overnight camping area, a lovely state park on the East edge of Texas, Lake McClellan. It was a few miles off the freeway, but turned out to be a prettier than it expected when I had checked it from satellite photos. Naturally, none of the facilities were open, irksome, but workable. In my trip plan I had not factored in that farther North, the sun stays up later than in LA. Also, it was humid, which I am no longer used to. I figured I’d fall asleep eventually, so we put up the tent, ate the dinner we brought and had a lie down. About 20 minutes into relaxing, we could hear motor bikes fire up off in the distance, the little reedy whine ones. After 10 more minutes, they started getting closer. And closer. Sigh. I wasn’t going to wait and see how close they were coming, they were already too loud. We packed up, and I thought I’d drive till I couldn’t anymore, and we will sleep at a rest stop or something.
I got a second wind, apparently, because I drove us across Oklahoma. That wasn’t the plan, but honestly, the roads in Oklahoma were under construction, and so confusingly marked that I was grateful to be driving on them after midnight when I mostly had them to myself. Even Elliot, who to his credit stayed alert as long as we were moving, wondered if maybe Oklahoma actually hated drivers and was trying to confound the process intentionally. We turned North through Tulsa, which had even more poorly marked construction, and made our way to a few hours of sleep at a rest stop outside Joplin, Missouri around 4am. That was an 18 hour driving day. Whee!
After a few hours of meh sleep in the seat—why don’t rest stops have space for tents?—I still thought we might make it to our 3rd night destination, some BLM (bureau of land management) property in Missouri. We swung by a Starbucks in Joplin that morning, hoping to have a small treat with the legal stimulant. They were not equipped for customers at 6am, but were very sweet about it—it was their first day open after shutting down in March. This jaunt off the freeway is notable because it was my first experience driving in a diverging diamond intersection. It’s pretty crazy, and I would have thought it was a local idiosyncrasy, except Elliot got very excited and had a shocking amount of detailed information about the thing at the tip of his tongue. I’m not sure what is weirder, that this design is more than typically efficient at moving a lot of cars quickly, that Missouri has such an advanced intersection, or that Elliot knows so much about it in spite of not even driving.
We drove for an hour or so and then I realized I really was going to need more sleep. I exited the freeway somewhere in Missouri and we drove around a town near the freeway till I found a charmingly verdant area near a church parking lot off a minor country road. It was blissfully quiet (not a cemetery, I promise). We whipped out the tent, which is pretty quick to assemble, and I had a couple hours of solid horizontal shut-eye. Elliot kept watch, in case someone cared we were there. (Which, of course, someone did, but I didn’t hear it so he handled it.) I woke up just as large drops of rain started to make a slow entrance, perfect timing. It was a lovely nap. We ended up driving the five hours to my parent’s house instead of trying to overnight in Missouri. It was a day early for my house rental, but parents always have space, yeah? We arrived in a deluge, my dad opened up one side of their garage, so I was able to pull the Beluga in and shut the door behind us. Perfect!
Elliot and I moved into our lovely old home rental the next afternoon. A two-story that was built in the early 1900’s, it has fabulous character, a delightful owner, and so much space I felt a little guilty. For a few nights we pulled in my child the second, Miles, (19), who has been attending Knox College and was quarantining at my sister’s house nearby. I hadn’t seen him in person since January. It was nice to have both boys to cuddle, even if they are ostensibly adults.
During the trip, Elliot and I listened to audio books. I like non-fiction mostly, and Elliot does not, so he listens to headphones. Except the book that took us nearly the whole way East was Midnight in Chernobyl, and it was positively riveting for both of us. Really. Worth a look. We as a species narrowly avoided losing use of a good part of the planet there. I had no idea. Once we got into our rental house, we had access to the HBO drama Chernobyl, which seemed serendipitous, so Elliot and I watched the heck out of that, too. It was fascinating and horrifying. Amazing, heroic people stuck in unimaginable circumstances wrought by the dumbest, most craven bureaucratic fuckery. On the positive side, once in our rental house, Miles obliged us to watch practically the entire oeuvre of animated JoJo videos. Those are wild.
My sister has a giant art studio in an old building in the center of town, one of those buildings that have 12′ ceilings and an elevator with the scissor inside door. Her studio is on the second floor, and my wagonload of art supplies fit perfectly in the elevator. She had an area set up for me to use, and we had a great month painting and hanging out. I might have even turned her on to the KCRW Eclectic 24 stream, or, as she says, weird Kimberly music. I continued working on these paintings, in entirely different light, with new experiences in my head. It was lovely. I gave the Beluga a much deserved rest and mostly rode my Elby around town, though it was overkill for the flat of Illinois, it was still fun. The Elby fit in the elevator, too. Sweet!
A plus of having access to my dad’s garage is that I also had access to dad tools. During the trip East, Elliot had been texting updates to the family thread. Within about 10 minutes of getting word of the Beluga’s a/c issue, my brother Kevin in NC, who can fix anything and gets paid pretty well to do it, found a YouTube video demonstrating the fix. For $5 of fancy schmoo and an hour or so of yoga contortions under the dash, I was able to unstick the servo that was causing the problem.
Just like old times.
Aside from having a great time painting and interacting with family for a month—my dad is getting really good at soft-boiled eggs—it was a pretty uneventful visit. Elliot noted, with vehemence, the utter lack of decent donuts in the wee burg, with the most scathing criticism aimed at the blighted offering from the local dunkin’ donuts, which we tossed nearly immediately. When you don’t have donuts very often, its fair to be very picky about their quality when you do. (A little-known fact: Los Angeles county has more donut shops per capita than anywhere else in the US.) On the plus side, there is an excellent gyro joint, a lovely wine bar I could not really take advantage of (Pandemic. Blergh.), and people I love, of course. Oh, and a neat alpaca farm.
Elliot, Miles, and their cousins V & S also had an adventure working a similar job to the detasseling I did as a kid in Illinois. Pioneer seeds were ecstatic to hire anyone to work in their corn hybridization program for a couple weeks, it was a neat opportunity for LA kids who would otherwise be glued to video screens to get grubby. The job involved applying hybrid pollen to corn silks & bagging them, then removing the previous day’s bags, and repeating it the next day. The job paid pretty well for unskilled labor, and the kids came up with the name “corn fluffing” to describe the process. (Double entendre for everyone!) My niece reported that my dudes were chattering away about various manga and anime titles they had read lately, and that the other guys in the field asked her what exactly they were even talking about. So there are some regional differences. I gotta say, there were a lot more health and safety considerations for them than we ever had—and that is good. They got fancy hats, ATV rides, water bottles, gloves, breaks. In the 70’s they just loaded us into a big truck and left us in a field for the day. Smart kids brought hats. (I got sunburnt.)
At the end of our month, we packed up the art, the studio, the clothes, the bike, said our goodbyes and headed West on I-70 for new scenery on the road home. Managed to be in the wrong lane to pay tolls in Kansas, but wouldn’t you know, I got a bill in the mail a week later. We stayed at KOA campgrounds because it was just easier and I did not relish more surprise motor bikes at the end of the day. It was hot, being summer, but that was fine, temps went down by the end of the day. Had lunch in Colorado on top of the rockies on day two, where we pootled around in the cool mountains till it was a bearable temperature in Grand Junction, the location of our campsite.
Day 3 the plan was to cut through Arches National Monument and camp outside Escalante, hitting lots of Utah pretty views. Elliot wanted to see an arch that was sort of offroading adjacent at Arches, in that the road was not paved and in places fairly iffy and fraught with potential to high-center the Beluga. We pootled around in the deserty wilderness (my happy place) for a couple hours and then made it back to a main road, whereupon Elliot remarked I had probably put the Beluga through a few years equivalence to the desert scouting adventures hubs had put it through, but in one day. (I’m gifted.) We stopped at a couple of picturesque spots and took pictures, meaning, I parked, turned off the Beluga, got out and walked around a bit. This is relevant. It was about 110º outside, so we didn’t walk much. To be honest, backroading in that situation was really dumb, I wasn’t really thinking about it. At least the a/c was working. We had a lot of water, but it would have been very dangerous to break down in that area. Do not do that.
We popped down to the Arches visitor center to buy Elliot a park t-shirt and refill our water bottles. And then. The Beluga. Would not. Start. At. All. Nothing. I’m old enough to have had my share of non-starting accompanied by various noises, clicks or whirrs. This was new. Inscrutable. I called AAA, which I am very fortunate to have (Towanda!). Called hubs, who arranged a hotel and found a repair shop for us while we waited for the tow truck from Moab. Turns out, Moab is less than 4 miles from the visitors center, so the tow actually fell within the 5-mile free limit. Luck! There was a bit of foofarow about where Elliot and I would ride, because covid rules meant we could not ride in the tow cab, but the driver let us ride in the Beluga, on the back bed of the tow truck. It was like having a private sightseeing bus. (I really am easily amused.)
We dropped the Beluga off at the repair shop hubs found remotely, and the tow driver kindly lent his wife and her boss F-250 (!) to drive us to our hotel, about a mile away. The people were all covid safe and very kind. I was so grateful to have hubs do the looking up vendors from the comfort of our home office in LA, it was much less stressful than trying to do that on my phone in the heat. Did I mention it was 110º? The next morning Elliot and I walked to the repair shop from the hotel, after indulging in nearby overpriced boutique donuts (they were pretty good). We noticed there are a lot of Jeeps. In fact, I think Moab is about the only place I’ve ever been where Jeeps are the perfect vehicle. Otherwise, they’re kind of overkill and uncomfortably angular. It gets hot early in Moab. We arrived at the repair shop sweaty and 3rd in line.
By then, hubs and I (& Kevin) had figured out it was a hot start/old starter issue, so I was hopeful that in the cool of the morning I might be able to start the Beluga myself and be no worse for wear as long as I didn’t turn the engine off again. No luck. The fella running the shop did manage to start it by applying extra juice from a starter battery plus the battery in the Beluga (which was new). Whew. That saved us a couple days waiting for repairs, but now we were over 700 miles from home with a car we could not turn off till we got there. No biggie. I like to drive (obviously). So we drove. I wrapped a tee shirt around the steering column to prevent me from turning the car off out of habit when we got gas—so old my Beluga still has a key. Utah is beautiful country; we skipped Escalante, went South on I-15, cutting a corner of Arizona and a lot of Nevada, including Las Vegas, which wasn’t too bad at rush hour.
We stopped at Alien Jerky in Baker (115º!), California, so Elliot could spend some of his wages while I took a nap out in the still running Beluga. I am not one of those people who sits running the a/c in the car, ever. I would rather be hot and feel a breeze, so this was a novel experience. Needs must, at least I parked in the shade. As we were headed West, finally on our very own 210 to Pasadena, the sun was setting, there were 5 lanes of traffic, my “normal.” Elliot said, “See, that is how a sunset is supposed to look, orange and smoggy, with power lines and palm trees, like god intended.” He’s funny. We finally pulled into the garage, and Elliot took a short video of me turning off the engine, home again.