Thursday, September 28, 2006


For Katie

We asked for input on what we should photograph on our way. Our friend Katie was the only one who responded to us. She wanted to see a car with both Jesus-related and Democrat paraphernalia, a Delorean and Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap.

We've been on the lookout for all these things. So far we've only found one. So here it is, Katie. Thanks for the comments.

Gin-u-wine PBR on tap at The Grail, one of the sleaziest (read: cement gargoyles out front, bad rap music bumping inside, four patrons, one chunky girl beer-bonging it while standing on the bar) Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.


Another round in Seattle

It’s our last day in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, and it feels like it’s our last day in a safe harbor. We’ve been lucky so far, we have had friends all over the western side of the country, and so far, we have only had to spend two nights in a motel since we left over two weeks ago. So now it feels like we’re about to take off on a true adventure, one with out a safety net of our friends and their generous offers of laundry services and wireless Internet.

But it's time to backtrack a bit, since I have been so neglectful of this poor blog.

Seattle: Part Deux, September 20, 2006

Jeremy and I woke up late once again and, wouldn't you know it, we missed the ferry. Not wanting to waste another chunk of the day waiting for the next one to come at 3:30 p.m., we decided to brave the freeway and parking circus and drove to Seattle. On the way over, there were helpful little signs of the Space Needle and other landmarks to guide us to our destination. Luckily, our two goals were in the same spot The Space Needle and the Experience Music Project.

The EMP, in short, looks like an architectural joke, or perhaps six artists who couldn’t decide on a central theme for the building. But its chaotic nature seems to conjoin nicely with the musical theme, after all, isn’t chaotic music more interesting?

Another amusing thing about the museum was it shared the building with a science fiction museum that loudly and proudly played the haunting music to the X-Files. There were also flags for an art exhibit that had such obscure statements like "Liechtenstein Vs. Monet." How do artists, dead ones at that, duel may you ask? I have no idea. I just wanted to see the music exhibit.

Inside was a detailed explanation of the evolution of rap and hip hop. It defined both forms of music, which have become synonymous over time. Rap: a rapid form of lyrical speech. Hip Hop: a combination of musical forms including rap, scratching, percussion, etc. There were voyeuristic photographs of people, such as the late '70s rap group Fantastic 5, practicing their dance moves and poses in their living room before a live performance.

There was also an exhibit on the evolution of guitars, which Jeremy drooled over, as well as the guitar Eric Clapton had played to perform “Layla” with on the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album.

One of the larger displays was dedicated to local boy hero Jimi Hendrix. The legend of Hendrix was not lost on me. While I was exploring the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman two years ago, I came to learn of the ghostly image of the man on a cement wall on campus. Squinting at it, you could actually make out the eyes, nose and afro of Hendrix. As rumor had it, it was an old concert poster which had gotten wet and stained the cement decades ago. I also remember my short time as a music major, when the teacher told us that Hendrix actually had a four-inch thumb, and could manipulate the sound of a guitar that few others could replicate, just because of the sheer size of his hands. What I hadn’t realized was how young he was when he died. He was only 27. When I was 15 and just starting to get into music, I thought 27 wasn’t a completely unreasonable age to die. But now I’m 25, and I have accomplished nowhere near what Hendrix did, and probably never will. I have to wonder what other musical landscapes he would have explored had he lived to a retirement age.

The EMP also had a great costume display with outfits from Sonny and Cher, members of B-Unit, Elton John, Michael Jackson and dozens of others.

After the EMP we went to the Space Needle, and scoffed at the price to ride to the top: $14. How do they justify the cost you may ask? They don’t. The ride is short and the flags meant to entertain tourists while they wait are pun heavy and poorly written. There were more typos than the average alternative weekly. And not just the flags, the wall displays with the condensed history of the Space Needle (which was once the tallest building in the country, and is now only the seventh tallest in Seattle) were cut off literally in midsentence. However through all the gibberish, I did learn the Space Needle was built for the World's Fair in 1962, and that one of the advertising slogans was that it was a “Restaurant in the Sky.” Well the campaign worked and the Space Needle paid itself off in a matter of months. This fact only made me even more pissed off about forking over $14 for an elevator ride.

While we were up there, a young couple smiled and laughed as their 2-year-old child began screaming their head off. Slightly horrified by the situation and inwardly disgusted by our immediate reaction, we fled the indoors for the frigid outer ring and looked at the views, which included the EMP.

After hitting the touristy section of Seattle, we stumbled upon a section of town called Uptown. It was a lovely downtown area with more Thai restaurants than I have ever seen in a square mile. And it had a great record store called Easy Street Records, which just so happen to have a live show when we walked in. The band was New Found Glory and they were playing an acoustic show as a warm up for their upcoming tour for their album that had been released the day before. NFG was a little whiny for my taste, but the free show reminded me of the days of going to Tower Records, or some other record store in Sacramento to listen to the underage shows. Oh to be 15 again.

After the show, it was a slow drive back to Port Orchard, and a satisfying night of sleep, because the next day, we were to hit Ellensburg and Walla Walla.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Where Banjo lived and where Wolfman died

We headed out of Washington on September 24, headed to Coeur D’Alene, Id. and my friend C., where we found death and beauty in equal measures.

C. lived in Chico and Paradise for a long time, attending Chico State University for his business and finance degree, but he was raised in various places in Idaho. He used to tell us all these stories about the rugged, rural lifestyle, like doing e-brake 360s on icy driveways in pickup trucks. I had never been to Idaho, so I could only imagine what any of these stories actually looked like.

But finally we had arrived. After trekking across the part of eastern Washington that looks suspiciously like California’s central valley...

...we crossed the border and began to see the thick strands of towering pines, the immense, glassy lakes and huge, smoky hills.

The other thing we immediately began to see were housing developments. Farmland is being consumed at a rapid rate by huge, square colonies of homogeneous homes and scraggly deciduous saplings. This is a land tamed by loggers and farmers, where everybody hunts, where people own huge, lifted pickups and two quad runners just for that purpose. Still, somehow, the architects dictate that the ideal community is something like Levittown on steroids—flat tracts, square streets, tiny backyards. If anything is going to tame Idaho, it’s the housing. As we drove through Coeur D’Alene and its neighboring burgs, C. pointed out the potato and wheat fields that the farmers no longer own, cultivated by the developers until they feel like paving them over; the lumber mill quietly awaiting demolition to make way for more three-bedroom Shangri-Las.

This is a land where they race riding lawnmowers (that episode of "King of the Hill" is grounded in reality), where each town has its own amateur stock car league, where muzzleloader season leads into bowhunting season, which leads into rifle hunting season.

And they hate Californians. The last decade has seen a tremendous influx of the West Coasters seeking a more relaxed rural life (or perhaps just a decent price on a home larger than a breadbox).

“Lots of them, if they see you have a California license plate, will flip you off,” C. told us, glad that he got Idaho plates on his new car.

Moreover, Idaho is a conservative bastion, rife with George Bush bumper stickers. Likely they see Californians as liberal invaders.

Nonetheless, the Californians are coming—and millionaires from all around. Coeur D’Alene is refashioning itself into an upper-end resort town. It already boasts the longest floating boardwalk in the world—3,300 feet—on the shore of Lake Coeur D’Alene, where multi-hundred-thousand-dollar powerboats float tantalizingly close.

High-rise condominiums are shooting up downtown, and along a golf course with a legendary floating green, one developer is building two towering condo buildings which will offer units for $6 million apiece along with an agreement to pay an annual $160,000 membership fee for the course.

They’re numbers that boggle my mind. Obviously I don’t think like a millionaire, but the thought of spending more than the annual income of an upper-middle-class family so some teenager can open a fancy gate to let me onto a giant lawn makes me cringe. I will admit it: I don’t know the true nature of extravagance, but I still think I could put that $160,000 to better use each year.

Before we get to the Idaho wilderness, I should explain that 85 percent of C.'s stories involve death, murder, disfiguration, or some combination of the three. As part of his Coeur D'Alene tour, he showed us the Denny's where in 2005, authorities caught up with Joseph Edward Duncan III, who allegedly murdered a mother, a father and one of their sons before kidnapping their other son and daughter.

"He's right in there," C. said that day when we drove past the Kootenai County Public Safety Building, "in a holding cell awaiting trial."

"What's the holdup?" Val asked.

"They're trying to get an unbiased jury together," C. said, "which is hard, because everybody's heard of it. It was out as an Amber Alert when he kidnapped that girl. In fact, if you look around on the cars here, everyone's got a bumper sticker that says 'Kill Duncan.' That's what it's all about."

None of us said anything for a minute.

"He's going to die," C. said.

"He deserves to," I said.

"Yeah, but the thing is, he's not going to get a fair trial here."

"So why don't they move the trial?" Val asked.

"Nobody cares," C. said. "He knows what he did, and he didn't ask for it to be moved. He doesn't care, either."

After Monday’s tour of Coeur D’Alene, on Tuesday we drove north to explore a wilder Idaho where C. spent his early years. Highway 95 took us up across Lake Pen d’Oreille, a massive, cold lake deep enough for the Navy to allegedly test submarines.

In Sanpoint we saw the Litehouse Dressing Bleu Cheese Factory. C. told us how the famous dressing company got its start as a lakefront restaurant before its owners chose to focus just on the condiments.

We headed farther north, out past the towns with supermarkets and into country where the boomingest business is ranching and custom butchering. Out here the primary product seems to be old trucks. Every yard, lot and quarry is full of them.

The land here is beautiful, nestled between towering hills and the Cabinet Mountains, bordering lakes and valleys, all clear and pristine. But it's not fancy living.C. summed it up, classified ad-style: "Beautiful doublewide, on 100 acres, lakeside view. Cinder blocks for your car included."

And we hadn't even reached Clark Fork yet, the dusty little town where C. attended high school. On our way into town we passed a squat stone cabin with a tin roof flying a tattered Confederate flag.

"See that?" C. said. "That's where a former Hell's Angel named Dirty Don lives." Dirty Don, it seems, shot his wife's lover in a bar called Out of Bounds.

"We always called it Out of Bullets," C. said. Ironic.

C. also went to school with Dirty Don's children. DD's son, Banjo (that's not a nickname), dropped out of high school when he was a freshman. Now, C. explained, he drives around town in a huge pickup sporting a thousand-pound homemade wooden bumper with the words "fuck you" painted on it.

That kind of omnidirectional defiance and posturing was starting to make sense to me. The wilderness out here is unbelievably immense, a constant reminder of how small and frail we actually are. The toughness, the violence, the fixation on explosives C. told me about, all suggest the need to be heard and feared.

As a teenager, C. and his friends like to make acetylene bombs using the welding gas, oxygen and garbage bags.

"You had to walk real carefully with it, because any static spark could set it off," he said. "Then you'd light the fuse and run like hell, because if it went off when you're too close, it could destroy your eardrums."
It's an attempt to be big against the inconceivable bigness of the wilderness. You're big, you're bad. You make the mountains ring with your sound. You make tourists cringe when they see your truck.

Clark Fork is a small, remote town. C. remembers one incident that brought everyone together.

"This guy went missing in the woods, and the entire town went out to search for him," C. said. "We did a grid search of this entire mountain. The whole football team went out there. My dad was on his weekend, and he spent days up there. Finally, after six days, they found him."

"Alive?" Val asked?

"Nah," C. said. "He tripped, fell off a cliff and landed on his head."

As we continued on, C. told us we were driving on one of the most dangerous highways in the country. As we passed homemade cross after homemade cross, I saw what he meant. One of the most notable we saw was nestled along the base of a jutting cliff. It was an ankh placed in memory of "WOLFMAN."

Death was even more abundant in Montana, where the state evidently erects a small white cross on a post for each person who died in an accident on the highway. We passed these with alarming frequency, counting seven little crosses in one particularly deadly mile.

“When we were little, we used to count these instead of slugbugs,” C. said, “since there’s no VW Beetles out here.”

What northern Idaho and Montana both have is an almost sickening abundance of breathtaking rugged vistas here. I could photograph every bend in the road. But then we’d never get to whatever sight we’re actually traveling for. I think I ought to have a more sophisticated camera. I think I should have taken photography courses so I might know how to exploit the riches pouring through my viewfinder. But as it stands, I have limited time, limited equipment and limited knowledge. Bear with us, and maybe the thought that it’s Val or me behind the shutter will compensate for the lack of originality or the iffy composition.

We drove to see the Ross Creek Cedars, an incongruous forest of the ancient trees amid the pines.

C. remembered visiting them as an elementary school student.

"John Bidwell must have been here," he said.

"Was Bidwell a big Cedar Guy?" I asked.

"No, but he planted every non-native plant under the sun."

After we wandered around in the forest and took a bunch of totally artistic pictures that all turned out like blurred crap, we got back in the car and drove up to what C. called the swinging bridge. This turned out to be Kootenai Falls, a breathtaking view of the Kootenai River along the railroad tracks.

As a bonus, we got to watch a pair of kayakers fight the current and dodge their way through the foam, howling like wild men the whole time.

We followed the kayakers downriver, walking on a trail along the cliffside until we came to the swinging bridge C. was talking about. It was a cable suspension bridge spanning the sheer cliffsides of the Kootenai. As we approached, we noticed a sign that said "5 persons maximum." Not exactly encouraging. I hoped Val, C. and I weighed less than the theoretical persons the engineers had calculated for.

We did.

After walking back across (nervous the whole time about one of us tripping and sending us teetering over the waist-high fencing), we began the drive back to Coeur D'Alene, counting the tiny roadside crosses in the fading light.


Don't litter in Washington

We're in Idaho now, about to light out toward Yellowstone. Before we get to our impressions of the Gem State, there's one last thing about Washington.

Several times we encountered signs along the freeway with this menacing message: “LITTER AND IT WILL HURT.” These weren’t billboards. They were official Washington State road signs making unclear promises about the consequences for tossing a Burger King wrapper out the window.

“Maybe the sign was designed by environmentalists, and they didn’t realize the last part got cut off,” Val said. “‘Litter and it will hurt the earth.’”

“Or maybe the state is run by the mafia,” I said.

Turns out it’s actually a focus group-tested campaign to reach the people who do litter. The sad truth is that they found the best way to do it is to emphasize the penalty: hefty fines for those who get reported and caught. So think twice before you toss that cigarette out the window on I-90, you sociopath. It could cost you lots of money.

Next up: IDAHO!

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Philosophical Fish Mongers

September 23, 2006

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Walla Walla, Wash., trying to figure out once again how I can catch up with this blog. It seems every night we return to our home base (whichever friend or motel room that may be) from a day of adventures, I’m too tired to actually recount them in a literary fashion.

Luckily, Washington seems to be one of the most plugged-in Internet states I’ve ever visited. This may change, since we have roughly a dozen states to go, but for now, I’m reveling in the convenience of having three wireless Internet connections to choose from in one sitting area. So yes, we’re making this a low-key day and catching up on the blog.

Walla Walla. The name rolls around my tongue like a jawbreaker I don’t have the heart to bite down on. All I knew of the city was it had a college (three, as I later learned) and was known for a sweet type of onion that can only grow in this city. For some reason, the soil content has not been replicated in other areas, and so the onions turn from sweet to almost ordinary onions if in the wrong soil. But I digress…

There is a local record store here called Hot Poop. This is not a typo. According to a newspaper article about the store from 2003, the store has been in Walla Walla since the ’70s and the name is commonly mistaken for the 29-second Frank Zappa song. It is in fact a play on the term for new music, “hot pop,” which according to the owner, can quickly turn into "hot poop." The awnings by the stairs to the second story are covered with autographed photos of artists such as James Brown, Xzibit, Sound Garden and Nikki Six of Motley Crue. They all seemed to revel in writing “Thanks for the support Hot Poop,” especially Danny Elfman on the Oingo Boingo photo, whose loopy scrawling handwriting is as distinctive as the musical scores he has written for movies and TV shows since the group disbanded (the most well known being The Simpsons).

I will now go back a few steps on our trip, since, of all places, Seattle should not be ignored.

September 19, 2006

Is this it? I thought as I stood in front of the Pike Street Fish Market in Seattle. Where were the flying fish? Where were the hysterical customers waiting to get their fix of fresh fish? Instead there were a bunch of idle tourists, apparently thinking the same thing I was thinking.

It was clear that this was not a local fish market anymore. There was even a self-help book supposedly written by the fishmongers. The sign claimed that for $11.95, my life could be improved exponentially with the philosophies of a fishmonger. How did it get to this point?


Jeremy and I had woken up characteristically late at A. and W.’s home in Port Orchard, Wash., immediately regretting being as lazy as we are since becoming unemployed almost two months ago.

W. mapped out their usual plan for exploring the city of Seattle: catch the ferry and walk immediately to the downtown area of the market place. It took almost 40 minutes to drive to the port itself and an hour on the ferry to cross to Seattle.

Somehow I had imagined Port Orchard being right below Seattle, but apparently it was more like leaving Paradise to visit Sacramento: not a long trip, but not the most convenient thing to do.

When the sturdy ferry lumbered to the station in Seattle, it was already 4:30 p.m. I knew this was going to be a two-trip endeavor to see the entire city. After breathing in the damp air and feeling the chill through our coats, we immediately realized why Seattle was known for being populated by coffee drinkers. We wanted a cup…immediately. But instead, we had to find food, or else I would have turned into an incomprehensible babbling idiot.

I let Jeremy, with his far superior sense of direction, guide our way through the downtown area and directly to hole-in-the-wall food establishments. My blood sugar was crashing so rapidly I could have scarfed down a Noah’s bagel in 3 minutes and collapsed into a happy food coma. Instead, we went to Jasmine Thai Moroccan, a fusion restaurant of sorts where it appeared the husband was Moroccan and his wife was Thai. Although it was deemed a fusion restaurant by several media reviews, they appeared to have only two Moroccan dishes and the rest were Thai. More like food separatism really, but judging by the curry dishes, it was satisfying nonetheless.

After we finished our meals, we wandered around the market with other tourists. There was a coffee shop called Local Flavor that immediately triggered a stream of snarky comments in my mind.

“Local Flavor…voted most popular coffee shop by tourists”

“Local Flavor… you may remember us from such travel guides as Lonely Planet…”

“Local Flavor… sit down and see a real Seattleite!”

I’ll be honest, I didn’t take the time to ask the patrons where they were from or check their IDs. I was basing this assessment on the almost bewildered looks of some of the patrons, who looked beyond the average age of hipster coffeehouse residents, and the incessant people watching. Walking by, I felt like people were wondering, “Is she a Seattleite?” I’ll equate it with picking out a toupee from a crowd.

There were also of course plenty of Starbuck’s, the most popular coffee shop on the planet. But Seattle is also home of the flagship shop. The first. The one that has the original emblem of a two-tailed mermaid with sagging breasts: a signature look that hasn’t been homogenized and put through focus groups for the caffienated. We didn’t go in. But we did like many other tourists did, and took a picture.


Back at the Fish Market, I was getting frustrated about standing around apparently waiting for nothing, surrounded by tourists. I even looked for some sort of sign for show times. Could this really have turned into a staged performance? Only done when fish came to the market or someone ordered a fish? I had to know.

“Excuse me,” I said to a fishmonger who appeared to be in his mid-20s. “When is the fish throwing?”

“You gotta camera?”

“Yeah,” I said as I dug into the abyss that is my cargo purse.

He told me to stand just diagonally from him and he dug his hands into the crushed ice and grabbed the fresh fish, solid with cold, and flung it into the ready hands of his fellow fish monger comrade with butcher paper waiting.

There were yelps, there was singing, this was exactly what I had wanted to see since I saw it on the intro to The Real World: Seattle.

The tourists’ cameras began to flash.

“Look, there they go,” said a mother to her child.

The camera wasn’t fast enough. I was desperately hoping they weren’t going to stop before I could get the setting right, when suddenly I saw a fish flying right at me. It was like what I heard from photographers about the protection behind the lens: how they used the camera as a shield or filter for all the atrocities they record. But this was not carnage or even bullets flying near my person. This was a 25-pound frozen fish aimed at the camera lens and more importantly, my head behind it.

Jeremy and I barely turned to the right and the fish went whizzing by my left ear and landed on the ground with a lofty puff. Polyester. It was a god damn stuffed fish.

“HEEEEEYYYYY!” the fishmongers yelled in triumph and their tip jars were filled. Another tourist took the bait.

I couldn’t stop laughing.

I kept laughing as more tourists began gathering around to see the commotion.

“When’s it going to happen?” said a 5-year-old to his mother who had just arrived.

“I guess we’re going to have to wait till someone else buys a fish,” she said.


Grapes, onions and the rural life

September 22:

We’re just outside Walla Walla now, after being delayed in our departure from Port Orchard.
We took my close friends W. and A. out to lunch Thursday in gratitude for letting us stay with them. They suggested a very nice sandwich shop, where Val had an unfortunate allergic reaction to the nuts in the pear chutney (is there something I don’t know about chutney?). We spent the rest of the day recovering.
By nightfall we were on the road, though. I figured there was no way we would make it to Walla Walla before crashing for the night, so I planned on getting us to Ellensburg, about halfway there.
Beaker snarled up the winding Highway 18 in third gear, passing semis unable to reach 60 mph. It had rained the last few days, but this night it was clear, and the evaporating puddles created clinging rafts of steam just above the roadway. With the thick forest obscuring any ambient light [pollution], things got very eerie.
We finally stopped to eat “dinner” in Cle Elum (looks like some half-assed anagram for something), a town near the summit. It was 9:30, but it felt like 2 a.m. We found a Burger King and sat down to eat. We were the only non-drive-thru patrons. For the rest of the night it would feel as if we were alone in a tarnished fast-food world, reluctant patrons of a vast, surprisingly uncomfortable hospitality machine designed for the massive clans in vans who were all by now in $150-a-night motel rooms they reserved two weeks ago.
I hit the gas as we hit the downhill grade, trying to get to Ellensburg before 11 p.m.
We made it, but only to find the town consisted of two highway offramps and about four hotels, all of which were crammed with gargantuan trucks, buses and station wagons.
“WELCOME CONTRACTORS AND SURVEYORS ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE,” all the marquees in town read. There were white F-250s in every parking lot to prove it, and no single-bed rooms left in the Comfort Inn. The clerk offered us a smoking suite, which we wrinkled our noses at. We finally settled on a local motel, there for 35 years according to the clerk at the neighboring Holiday Inn Express, paying a reduced $72 AAA rate for a room down the longest goddamn hall I have ever seen outside of The Shining. I thought we were going to get lost.

I was anxious to get out of town the next morning. The overpriced hotel room with the tiny TV and no wireless Internet left a bad taste in my mouth. We checked out and looked around. All I saw was offramp sprawl on either side of us. I hear Ellensburg has a beautiful college campus, but I’m less than impressed with the part of town we saw.
We decided to eat in Yakima, just about 40 miles down Interstate 90 from Ellensburg. We drove through hills spotted with scrub brush, past what the map indicated was a military firing zone, and downhill to a plain checked with farmland.
According to its Web site, Yakima is a city of 70,000. They must live underground. All we saw were run-down, single-story residential neighborhoods and a few fast food joints and car dealerships.
And the entire town appeared to have shown up for the Central Washington State Fair. The line of cars waiting to turn left along the choked avenues bordering the fair stretched a good half mile or more. Nearby residents were charging as much for parking space on their lawns—$5— as we would have paid to park near the Space Needle. We did not go to the Yakima Fair.
After we found an Arby’s and had lunch, it was time to get gas. We drove down a street lined with squat buildings selling tractors, used cars and various pawned items, but couldn’t find a single gas station.
“Where the hell do people get gas in this town?” I said.
“Maybe they don’t use gas,” Val said. “Maybe the whole town runs on used cooking oil or something.
“You mean BioDiesel?” I said, looking at the pawn shops and vacant storefronts, remembering the hairy back of a NASCAR hat-wearing man whose thrift-bought Nautica shirt was riding up as he arose from his booth at the Arby’s. “This does not look like a town that cares about BioDiesel.”
Val nodded. “This is a town built on grease,” she said. Then we found the sign leading back to the interstate. We found a gas station, refueled, and on our way out, Val pulled partly into an intersection but didn’t turn left before the light went red. As we sat there waiting for the light to turn again, she pointed to a small black object at the top of the light post.
“Look. It’s one of those traffic cameras,” she said as I wondered whether Big Brother cared if our front wheels were over the crosswalk. I expect to have nightmares about getting recalled to Yakima for traffic court.

After lunch today (and the accompanying feeling of resignation to fast food lunches, both for expediency and economics), we realize perhaps our readership would benefit from a series of restaurant reviews.

The Burger King in Cle Elum was eerie and disappointing. Granted, we ate there half an hour before closing time, but the Swiss & Mushroom Black Angus Burger I ordered was small, skimpy on the mushrooms and lacking crucial pizzazz.
I guess it didn’t matter much, since it felt a little bit like we had stumbled into a restaurant preserved from the apocalypse by its remote forest location. I can’t imagine it would be very easy to enjoy even the choicest BK Black Angus Burger if it was served to you by a hissing albino vampire.
Two stars (one given for a friendly teenage attendant who had to mop the entire floor while we ate).

The Arby’s in Yakima, on the other hand, was surprisingly serene. We ate there at roughly 12:30 p.m., and the place was nearly empty (due, I suspect, to the orgiastic frenzy of the fair). They were offering a “select 5 for $5.95” deal, which I opted for. I got three Arby’s melts, curly fries and a soda. It brought me back to the days when a trip to Chico with my dad would end with us at the Arby’s there, ordering 10 sandwiches during their “5 for $5” deals, dad cringing when the pimply cashier leaned out the window and asked him what kind of sauce he wanted (calling it “horseradish sauce” was generally not specific enough a request to get the “Horsey” sauce we favored).
The restaurants also have some new kind of three-pepper sauce that goes great with curly fries and their roast beef sandwiches. While we ate, one of the cashiers came by with a basket of mints and offered them to us. Truly an extra gesture of classiness.
And classiness can only be a good thing from a restaurant whose idea of menu diversity comes largely from drenching pressed beef slices with nacho cheese.
Val looked at her beef melt sandwich suspiciously and said, “this cheese is a little much, even for me.” She loves nacho cheese.
So, class points for the mints and the bottomless sauce dispensers, trash points for the nacho cheese strategy. All in all, three stars.


We arrived in Walla Walla after 4 p.m. and immediately drove to the winery where Val’s friend L. works. We passed scads of sweet onion farms. As Val has told me, the Walla Walla region is the only place where these sweet onions will grow, so it’s become a regional specialty.
But now another specialty is threatening to eclipse the town’s bulby heritage: . There are now more than 70 wineries in the immediate area, up from around 40 just a few years ago. And like the wineries, who offer wine tasting and who see visitors come from as far as Tennessee to try the bottles, Walla Walla itself is beginning to skew upscale.
The downtown area has been nicely renovated. Its historic brick buildings boast an increasing number of boutiques. The chocolate store sells $12 boxes of wine-flavored jelly candies.
But things are much the same as decades past in the fields outside of town. L. lives with her boyfriend and his children in a small house on 10 acres of farmland. They’re starting to raise animals: chickens, pigeons, several cows, four pigs and a horse.

They’re also into stock car racing. Up on ramps in the driveway was a battered Buick of indeterminate age. L. said they got it for free from an acquaintance; they plan to race it in October.

Val took one look and said, “Oh my god, is that moss growing on the rear window sill?”

“This is as clean as I’ve seen it,” L. replied. “You should have seen it when we picked it up.”
She took us around the side of their shop and pointed to the racecar graveyard, a cluster of decaying American coupes from the ’70s and ’80s in the tall yellow grass.

She told us she had been behind the wheel of the latest addition to the wreckage—the car’s rear axle had snapped in the middle of a race.
Later, as the sun set, she took us out to meet the cows and the horse.
“I just love the cows,” L. said. “I never thought I would, but they’re such sweethearts.” She took us out to where the bovines were grazing, her two dogs racing figure-8s around us. True to her description, the cows were friendly, docile animals who sniffed and licked our outstretched hands and then gently nudged our legs with their heads in a bid to get their necks scratched.
V., the teenage daughter of L.’s boyfriend, also came out with us to try to grab the horse. The tall, quiet girl looked a little peculiar in big black galoshes, but as soon as I had dodged my third cow pie, I realized why she wore them.
The horse was finicky and would not be caught. After it bucked past us a few times, V. gave up on the idea.
“Hey, maybe you could show them the trick with the cow,” L. suggested. V. didn’t hesitate. She walked up behind the black and white animal, took five running steps and leaped onto its back. Dik, the most personable of the family’s herd, hardly looked up from his tuft of grass. Then for a moment everyone was silent and still. I was treated to the quixotic silhouette of a lanky, six-foot-tall figure atop a cow, framed by the sunset.
“The only problem is he won’t move,” V. said from her perch.
As we walked back to the house, I asked L. if she had grown up on a farm.
“Oh no,” she said. “I grew up in Sacramento, with big buildings and lots of neighbors. I never thought I’d wind up here.”
She was attending college in Chico when her parents moved to Walla Walla. She met her boyfriend there while visiting them and soon moved up.
“The rural life was mine to choose,” she said, “and I love it.”

2 a.m.

We’re blazing down a Washington backroad at 85 mph, chasing after a pickup driven by M., the boyfriend of L., one of Val’s college friends. We’re actually driving L.’s truck, too, for complicated logistical reasons. The little GMC S-15 has plenty of pep, which is good, because we’re chasing a V-8 Silverado with a prison guard on painkillers behind the wheel.
We’re chasing him because he knows the way home and we don’t. It was fine following him on surface streets, since stop signs kept him fairly close, but out here in the boonies, stop signs are scarce. From a previous trip in the daylight, we know these roads are desolate, surrounded by cow pastures and lined with mailboxes so far away from their residences that L. said “people drive four-wheelers to get their mail.”
L.’s boyfriend is on painkillers because he may have broken his elbow. He doesn’t really know. He went to the hospital to get it checked, they gave him a prescription and wrapped it in an ACE bandage, told him to take it easy. He drove from the hospital to meet us out at the bars in Walla Walla, determined not to miss a Friday night with his circle of friends from the correctional facility.
M. managed to pull away from us at the last stop sign, flooring it and racing ahead while I looked both ways before proceeding. Now, as I race to catch up, his taillights disappear. It’s completely dark ahead of the S-15 now, but I know he hasn’t crashed. He’s just gone stealth mode, burning asphalt at 85 with no lights. He knows these roads. I just hope we’re close to their home and no cows are out for a witching-hour constitutional.
We found out M. had hurt himself just a few minutes before we went out to the bars. L. called him and muttered a few shocked words.
M. has had his share of accidents—many broken bones from recreational mishaps. Once, L. explained, he was riding a dirt bike in a field. It flipped and landed on him, breaking his collarbone.
“He was kind of beat up because the bike landed on him and he was afraid he might be bleeding internally, so he decided to take himself to the hospital,” L. said. “But his kids had all gathered at the fence to watch him, so he had to get up and raise his hand to show he was OK. Only he couldn’t raise his hand all the way because of the injury. He told them he had to go to town to get some bread and went to the hospital.”
Another time, L. said, M. had carved her name with a chainsaw in a tree trunk while out cutting firewood. He then cut himself a crude bench in the wood. But something went wrong when he set the chainsaw down, and it cut his knee open. L. likes to joke that the local hospital has a special room for him.
This time, however, the injury was work related. Since L. said M. usually doesn’t like to talk about his experiences at work, we didn’t ask. When we got home, though, he saw my laptop and asked what I was doing. I told him we were working on a blog.
“No more secrets,” he said, and explained to us what happened. More or less. It was some kind of prison scuffle in which he reportedly was defending another guard.
“I bashed the head of a murderer,” M. said, his eyes wide. “He was a convicted murderer. Brought my elbow down on top of his head like this.” He flexed his bicep and dropped his arm in pantomime. “They gave me some medicine and an ACE bandage. I don’t even get any extra pay.”
He sat down on the couch and looked at us, our gear spread out on the coffee table, mattress in the middle of the living room.
“You guys want to write your history, you should stay a week,” he said. “That’s enough time for us to have some history.”

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Cheese, snake cam and staying in character

We just spent the day in Seattle, so naturally I am hopped up on coffee, and what better thing to do with my caffeinated fingers than continue playing catch-up with the blog?

I'll take you back in time now to our visit of the Tillamook Creamery/ Cheese Factory in Tillamook, Ore.--that's right, the very cheese you use to make your quesadillas or place grandly on your BBQ burgers. (None of that cellophane wrapped fake cheese, thankyouverymuch.)

It's a self guided tour with an intro video that shows how the multiple dairy farmers (over 50!) in Tillamook County must wear several hats as a dairy farmer (mechanic, veterinarian and businessman!). Apparently when people first started moving to Tillamook, they realized their cows' milk started getting sweeter. Why this is, I don't know. The video never explained that. My guess is it had something to do with the weather. Anyways, sweeter milk equaled better cheese and Tillamook County began to dominate all the cheese-tasting contests in the area.

A replica of the Morning Star with Jeremy

And with a good product comes commerce, and the ship Morning Star was born to transport the cheese throughout the northwest, because trucking was too expensive and hazardous for the cheese.

Sadly, the tour wasn't nearly as fun as I had hoped. There were no viewings of milk being poured into vats mixed with the bacteria or whatever it is to make milk curd, and I couldn't see the curds get taken out of the whey and get pressed into loaves before being set on a refrigerated shelf to age like in the video. Instead, we got to see cheese getting sliced and packaged--the scraps of which, I suspect, were used for the free taste-testing line.

We were fortunate enough to be walking next to a group who appeared to be friends of one of the workers there, who evidently gave them a tour and explanations on why the pepper jack cheese wasn't processed by hand (the workers got itchy eyes) and why we couldn't see the cheese get sliced into sandwich-size slabs separated by wax paper or shredded (that's all done in California and Ohio).

To top it all off, we ate some Tillamook ice cream (that's right, they make great ice cream too) and drove back to Di's place in Vancouver, literally chasing rainbows due to the rain and sunshine.

Snakes on a Plane, Snakes on a Train, Snakes going Insane!
We finally did it. We watched the godawful movie Snakes on a Plane starring Samuel L. Jackson and the actress who played Carol Hathaway on E.R.
But we did it in style.
We went to the Baghadad theater in Portland which is a prime example of the restoration efforts of McMenamins, a brewery that decided to actually help out its community by turning old buildings into viable contributors of local commerce while also preserving the aesthetic and history of the buildings.

The secret of restoring a movie theater:
Step 1: Show second-round movies for cheap. The ones that other theaters dropped a few weeks ago in favor of a new money maker.
Step 2: Make the inside of the theater comfy by adding tables so people can eat their movie theater food without having to worry about balancing everything on their knees.
Step3: Sell pizza.
Step 4: Sell beer.

I only wish the El Rey in Chico, Calif. had done something like this to keep it from closing. Office space does not do the theater justice.

Anyways the cheers, groans and moans from theatergoers were magnified by the alcohol, and Snakes on a Plane was fantastic for the sheer spectacle of over-the-top cheesiness. Among my favorite scenes were the snake cam shots, which looked like night-vision goggles seen through the eyes of a cat on LSD. Craptacular. And in case you were wondering, we have no pictures of the theater because we were trying to blend in with the hipsters of Portland.

Next up: I'll get to Washington, I swear!

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Moving out of a comfort zone.

Not caught up, but still trying.
It's been almost a week since leaving the county that has been my home for seven years, and it's slowly feeling less like a vacation and more of journey.
Sorry about the delay on blogs from the Farewell Tour, but it's been a bit chaotic and sleep deprived time for us, so I'll catch you up on recent musings and events for now.

Eureka, California
We spent the first night at my friend 'Sunshine's' house in Eureka with her fiance and his son. It took several days for me to fully realize that my good friend was essentially a parental figure.
"Wow. You're a Mommy," I said as she grasped the toddler around her neck.
"I know. I'm so sober," she said.
We had lunch at the Lost Coast Brewery, which was covered with kitschy decorations, the most grotesque being a stuffed black widow approximately the size of an eight-legged Great Dane. The glorified furry pinata was rigged to the door, lowering itself ominously over unsuspecting patrons entering the dining room. Strangely enough, the rope wasn't long enough to scare the customers. Instead it just kept creeping out our table, which was a few feet away from the entrance. The spider's languid bobbing motion triggered the primal urge in me to run away from dark, furry objects.
And of course, the toddler wasn't even fazed by the motion.

Life on the northern coast of California seems extremely relaxing. Part of it might be the high unemployment rate. (As we've recently learned, it's easy to be lazy when you don't have to get up for work in the morning.) According to Sunshine and her fiance, Eureka is in one of those cycles where the cost of living is so low that it attracts the unemployed or unemployable. However there still seems to be room for strippers, since there are only two at the club downtown, and according to our hosts, they took their vacations at the same time. And think about it: what's a strip club without the strippers? Just a club with cheap juice, dim lighting and a bunch of disappointed men.

I could see why Eureka appealed to my formerly Chicoan friends; everything was in walking distance, the people were extremely nice and the downtown had a lot of character. Instead of headache-inducing fluorescent lights lining the streets, glowing lamps gave the streets both a classic and modern feel.

And most importantly, I didn't feel like I was being dominated by corporate America, unlike some areas like Tulare, CA, which gave me the synthetic creeps--a town that didn't understand the concept of a restaurant that doesn't have a national headquarters.

Ashland & Medford, Oregon
I had mixed feelings about crossing the line from California into Oregon. I was excited that we had finally crossed a state line, but I also felt like that we were entering enemy territory.

The first hint I had of a rivalry of sorts between California and Oregon, came from my high school history teacher who indelicately said "California should just bowl over Oregon and make it a giant suburb for California." This was a teacher. No wonder Oregonians hate us.

Anyways, we decided to catch a play at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, but we decided to try to beat the system and got a motel room in Medford, where the economy wasn't as strong the the room rates were cheaper.

The last time I had been to the Shakespeare Festival was in middle school, and my most distinct memory of that trip was daring John the Canadian to bang his head as hard as he could against the fiberglass "rock" wall of the outdoor theater. I swear the actors did a double take when John actually smashed his noggin into the wall, causing a weird rippling vibration effect to the surrounding seats.

We were much calmer this trip and watched a play called "Intimate Apparel," which, appropriately enough, involved a woman trying to make it in New York City. I'll refrain from giving a review of the play since this is a blog and not a freaking review site, but I will say I enjoyed myself and yes, it did involve lingerie.

I was nervous at first about going to the theater in jeans (my travel jeans, no less). But everyone else was casual. Except of course for the middle school children dressed in their plaid and khaki uniforms. I wondered if any of them would be willing to smash their head in a theater on a dare.

Let the gas game begin!
On our way back to Medford, we stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank and came across our first anxiety-ridden task: Do we tip the gas attendant for filling the tank up? Something we'd be willing to do ourselves if the law allowed.

After two minutes of standing around outside the car waiting for someone from the seemingly abondoned but unlocked gas station to appear, a shaggy-haired gas attendant wearing shorts and a T-shirt came out to dutifully fill the tank.

"So are you heading to California?" he asked.
"Just left there actually," Jeremy said. "We're heading to New York and visiting some friends along the way."

It was an explanation that has gotten so well oiled in my mind, I feel like it'll slip out of my mouth at the mere probing of how my day was going.

"So why is there a law against people pumping their own gas here?" I asked.
"I think it's some law to keep jobs out there for the people," Shaggy Hair Guy said. He also gave a brief explanation that even though there is no sales tax, the citizens of Oregon get screwed over with a hefty property tax. I asked how long the law had been in effect and the shaggy hair guy said it was around as long as he remembered.

Shaggy hair guy had just gotten back to Oregon after spending six months in Hawaii. Before that he spent a few years by Lake Almanor in California. I was getting curious about this guy's life and why he returned to the land of high property taxes when the tank finally topped off and Jeremy and I stood there in an awkward dance of "To tip or not to tip." In the end, Jeremy gave him a handful of change, mostly silver from what I could see, and we were back on our way to the cheap motel room.

The next day we had to stop for gas en route to Portland. This time there was an organized system with one gas attendant swiping cards and filling up the tanks for four stations each. Twelve stations with six attendants total. It was almost hypnotic how our gas station attendant, a portly woman in her 40s, could gracefully weave her way through the tubes to fill the thirsty vehicles. Jeremy tipped her a dollar and she seemed surprised but happy with the tip.

I had to wonder if being a gas station attendant was a career or an in-between job. Was it the equivalent of working at Wal-Mart or being a small-time methamphetamine dealer in other states? An undesirable, but safe bet for work?

It wasn't until we met up with my friend "Di" and some of her friends in Portland that we were told they don't usually tip the gas station attendants.
"Well I guess those two were the lucky ones," Jeremy said.

Living across state lines and beating the system.
Even though Di technically lived in Washington, in the town of Vancouver, the closest metropolitan city was across state lines in Portland.
"I can do my shopping in Portland with no sales tax and live in Vancouver for the low property tax rate and cheap rent," Di says.

Even though the commute was less than 30 minutes, Di said she still had the urge to move to Portland because there wasn't as much to do at night in Vancouver.

Walking around the Hawthorne area of Portland, something Di had said earlier rang loud in my head. She had mentioned a friend saying that the girls in Chico all look the same. At first I dismissed this comment as one that came from a man who only saw pretty blondes in short skirts because those were the only ones that registered on his radar, but walking around Portland I began to see what he meant.
There were was an Asian girl in slouchy boots and prairie skirt, a striking brunette wearing leggings under short gym shorts and a laid-back African American girl wearing loose jeans with her hair pulled back in a puff.
There wasn't the usual California sheen of glittery makeup and shiny lip gloss, and there were no sets of best friends wearing the same outfit in different colors with similar haircuts. I must admit, it was a nice change.

Next Edition: "Snakes on a Plane" for cheap, the proliferation of Sex Shops and a historical reenactment.


A little input, please

We're in Port Orchard now, just south of Seattle. We've been driving and photographing for the last week (and putting off updating the blog). I've got some pictures, but not nearly enough. Here's a giant mechanical Paul Bunyan located at the Trees of Mystery on Highway 101 just south of the Oregon border.

Val whipped Beaker into the parking lot when she spotted the giant animatronic display, jumped out of the car with the camera. Then it started talking to people at its feet.

"Don't be afraid, little girl," it said to one cowering tot. Fifty feet away, Val and I were scared and drove away.

With such a huge world out there, I realize we need some direction, so I turn to you, dear readers. What should we photograph? Comment on this blog entry and tell us some of the roadside things you might want to see. Tell us if there's anything in the northern states between Washington and New York we should visit.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Hunting chupacabra in the high desert

August 17:

We’re standing on an empty road in the hills outside Tehachapi. It’s after midnight and the only lights come from the odd little A-frame in the ranch compound below us and the weird neon blue strobes coming from the forests of gargantuan wind turbines in the distance. The monolithic windmills closer to the compound have no strobe beacons. Their silhouettes tower over Heaven Ranch, blades crying eerily through the night.

We’re about to cross the road and climb a hill toward what our companions are calling an old abandoned slaughterhouse, but we’ve paused because the daughter of Rowdy Roddy Piper is getting second thoughts about leaving the relative safety of the ranch.

I find this a little strange, since she has been vocal about her outdoorsy life in Oregon, but given the reason she’s here at this small compound in the high desert, it makes sense that everyone is a little on edge.

They’re filming a horror movie. Tonight we’re hunting el chupacabra.

Val’s friend is making jokes that since the two of us are the most recent arrivals, we haven’t bonded with the “audience” yet and will be the first two disemboweled by the beast. The Piper’s daughter, a healthy-looking blonde girl of about 20, is remembering all the ghost stories the crew has been telling—about the man who committed suicide in the mobile home where Val and I will sleep tonight, about the little girl who long ago drowned in the gully below the compound when a flash flood tore through the hills and half-buried the graveyard of stolen, stripped cars; how the director once saw her and ordered her to help carry out some equipment, thinking she was his own young daughter.

Her companion, a young man with an enigmatic accent and a movie role, is trying to exploit this as we stumble over a barb-wire fence and weave carefully around the larger tufts of scrub where we’re convinced nests of rattlesnakes slumber.

Val’s other friend, J., mentions mountain lions, and all of a sudden giant cats are dueling it out with venomous snakes in my brain for terror primacy. I shine my flashlight carefully in front of Val’s feet, sure that at any moment I will see a shape that won’t register in my mind as a paw or a slithering tail until after everyone else has started screaming.

Cows graze on these hills, but we see none of them, only dried cow pies. This only increases my puma suspicions. Suddenly Val’s friend lets out a piercing scream and we hear feet shuffling in the loose dirt ahead. The events of the evening suddenly take on a fatal tone as I wonder who should have been leading the group, if we should have been out here with more flashlights, if I should have evaluated the circumstances before we left and been a wet blanket.

Then we hear Val’s friend cursing J. out for scaring her. We press on up the hill, climb over another fence and find a decrepit metal Quonset hut. We peer into it, “Blair Witch” style, to find there’s nothing there—no furniture, no floor, no graffiti. It’s truly empty. Next to the hut we find two decaying cattle trailers. They’re round-roofed wooden things, and they look like the abandoned wagons from a down-on-its-luck carnival.

Compelling scenery for a horror movie, but thorough investigation reveals no traces of any kind of human—or vampiric—occupation. This is the high desert.


Val and I arrived at the ranch a few hours earlier after driving from Butte County. The opening leg of our West Coast farewell tour would take us to San Diego, but Val’s best friend, working 16-hour days on the set in Tehachapi, told her she would have a few days off. We diverted there to visit her, not sure if we would stay at the set or the nearest hotel, not sure how near the nearest hotel would be.

I had been chugging caffeinated soda since we left Paradise at 2 p.m. By the time we got to Bakersfield and had dinner, I had switched to the backup: an 11-ounce can of Starbucks iced coffee we picked up in Sacramento. I was jittery and alienated. I was watching things happen through a tunnel. I no longer had to blink.

This was my first real road-trip experience as a licensed driver. My family had driven to San Luis Obispo occasionally when I was a child, but staring vacantly out a passenger window is a far cry from avoiding dually pickups with horse trailers and desperately trying to navigate a landscape seemingly forsaken by helpful road signs.

We had been driving for five or six hours before we stopped to refuel at a settlement that seemed to be nothing more than gas stations. Walking around the car and staring at the outline of the sun obscured by the pervasive haze, I already felt like I was a different person in a different land. Nobody lived here. None of the people milling into the AM-PM/Jack In The Box did, either. This is the anonymity of being elsewhere bound. Though there’s not a lot of hostility or malice in these situations, I doubt it’s because everybody’s really that benign. It’s likely a matter of conserving energy: getting to the destination is the priority, and after six hours in the car, you can’t spare much for hassling some other guy over a spot in the line to buy gasoline and Slim Jims. The fact that everybody on I-5 seems to drive interchangeable minivans and Chevy Tahoes doesn’t help that faceless feeling.

We got done with dinner knowing we were close, not knowing we would have to wind our way up a stupefyingly steep Highway 58 before we got to Tehachapi. I left the restaurant feeling a little like a victim of Convenience Store America for the day’s intake of calories and fat. Fearing obesity (and yes, being a stereotypical brand-obsessed, franchise-hound American), I am reluctant to live on the standard roadside diet of fast food and Cokes, but without a careful strategy (or the patience and focus to search out a supermarket after a hard day’s drive), this is the cuisine available. I like fast food enough to know it’s going to be a fight to keep from adopting these eating habits long term.

So up Highway 58 in the early darkness, flat at first, but then climbing and winding, the pink-orange glow of Bakersfield disappearing among the hills. We were surrounded by 18-wheelers gasping up the grade. I don’t know why such a grueling route is so traveled by cargo trucks, but they far outnumber the cars when the sun goes down. They’re in both lanes, some with hazard lights flashing, some flooring it, grinding those gears to get past the slower rigs.

Beaker has a four-speed automatic transmission. To climb hills, I try to keep the speed and the RPMs up to prevent it from downshifting. I don’t like the high drone of third gear, but this was a nightmare of a climb, up from the valley to 3,000 feet. Between the grade and the constant obstacle of trucks passing trucks at 30 mph, we took it in third.

Then, finally, the small town of Tehachapi. We passed through it and into the windmill hills, off to a road where Heaven Ranch is the first sign of civilization. Val’s friend got permission for us to sleep at the compound, so we drove through the tall wrought-iron arch and parked in the dirt, amid a smattering of mobile homes, travel trailers, trucks, and the well-landscaped A-frame.

She showed us our sleeping accommodations, a bedroom inside a mobile home on the outskirts of the compound. She shrieked when she opened the door and a mouse waddled away from the wastebasket in the living room. The dead man’s cat would probably take care of it, but she’s allergic to cats and keeps it outside.

Later, after meeting filmmaking mastermind David Heavener, hearing him sing a bluesy song about necrophilia, and then the chupacabra hunt, we bedded down and I started to write:

Three mattresses, all stolen from the same motel, no box springs, stacked together, are a bed. The trailer park princess and the pea.

We’re lying on a queen-size air mattress on the floor of a mobile home. It’s 3 a.m.—perfect time to be awake on the floor of a mobile.

The mobile is part of a small complex near Tehachapi, surrounded by the giant three-blade wind turbines that look friendly by day and ghostly by night. In this mouse-infested house—and several other trailers and homes—sleeps an entire film crew.

The complex is on a hillside speckled with scrub and debris. The buildings are similarly cluttered—old furniture, broken TVs, stairs to nowhere, stolen road signs. These things seem equally haphazard and yet they all seem like they could appear in the string of low-budget films that spew from the home-brew studio and its feverishly driven proprietor.

David lives in the A-frame house on the property.

A seemingly ageless, “been there” kind of guy, he writes, directs, stars in, scores and produces his films. He is also a martial arts expert and a Christian music recording artist.

Like the man himself, the house extends far past its humble exterior. As his films and ambitions have dictated, David has built on to the house, creating an M.C. Escher-esque labyrinth of white doors, arbitrarily shaped rooms and staircases to nowhere. A studio exists adjacent to this house, festooned with David’s movie posters and filled with used set pieces. Outside he has built a pond from an underground spring, presumably to expand his shooting locations.

His films are made in six weeks and then distributed by a major video store chain. “Straight to video,” a term synonymous in some circles with “factory second” or “thrift store,” is in this case the deliberate objective. Make a film for $10,000. Sell it to the video stores for between $50,000 and $250,000. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But it can be hard to repeatedly churn out movies on the cheap. Most actors crave meaty roles in tightly written scripts. And they want to be paid. Most crew members hate their jobs because they’re really paying their dues on the road to a director’s chair. And they want to be paid.

The more you develop your crew, the more compensation they expect. They expecxt to work in higher quality productions, too.

David manages to keep his costs down in several ways. First, he owns his own studio. Second, he doesn’t’ have to pay anyone for screenplays—he does it himself. Third, his actors perform double duty behind the camera as assistant directors, script readers and craft services.

Fourth and most importantly, he doesn’t pay them for either role.

David has harnessed the informational power of the Internet. Because of this, he gets his cast for free.

Experience has always been a hot commodity in moviemaking, a business in which untold numbers of projects go unfinished because they run out of funds or their creative leaders part ways or their creators just lose interest. Having a verifiable film credit to your name is like a merit badge, a permanent association with a project which, even if it tanked, actually saw the light of day. A film credit is an endorsement. While this has always been so, verifying it was much more difficult before the Internet. The Internet Movie Database stores information on nearly every movie ever made (and officially distributed). Even straight-to-video movies show up there. David should know. He’s got more than 25 entries.

While the Internet is a lure to fresh talent, David also finds it a useful medium for revenue. He advertises for crew on, but he also gets the chance to select potential cast members when people sign up for his $75 acting seminars (“Wrote, directed and starred in over 25 films!”), held in his private studio.

Apart from the cast, everything gets recycled—set pieces, wardrobe, locations—with no room for perfectionism. David has his house rebuilt for each shoot. Amateur actors perform their best while trying to keep the shambolic production afloat, compromises piled atop compromises like so many mattresses, until there’s 100 minutes of movie. But it gets done.

Somebody must rent these films. The distribution contracts don’t pay David for units rented, of course, but people must rent the movies for the stores to keep paying him for his product. And don’t tell me it’s a bunch of irony-minded twentysomethings looking to play “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” I don’t believe that’s the target audience.

When they reach the shelves, some shell-shocked consumer must reach out a numb hand and grab the drab jewel case. The thing is, we exist in a branded world. Brands define our culture. We feel more comfortable with name-brand soda, name-brand cereal, even the name-brand electronics that play our entertainment.

And certainly our celebrities are brands, with their own marketing schemes and demographic appeal. So who is left anywhere who would earnestly consume these generic products? For the same price as a recognizable brand, who would take this off the shelf?

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