Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
1. It may not be much, photographically, but this photo has a soft place in my soul. It’s from Utah in 1998. The vignetting is from some ancient Nikon lens I had at the time and the grain is from whatever film I was using. Probably Kodak 100 Royal Gold, although it doesn’t quite have that Royal Gold look to it.
Either way, it’s a photo of the Mighty Wagoneer, my first car, and I stopped to take it after gassing up at Green River, Utah and before heading down the road to the Maze District, in Canyonlands National Park. This is no ordinary place, the Maze District, and my friend, Peggy J, and I were about to venture into what felt like another planet.
The Hanksville sign is most likely why I stopped, though. Those who know me know that I have a peculiar fascination with the town founded by Ebenezer Hanks. It’s a remote crossroads and if you’re in Hanksville, you’re either on the way to or from someplace fascinating. Anyway, I could go on about Hanksville, but I won’t here. I’ll save that for the sequel.
Suffice to say that this Wagoneer was loaded to the brim. You cannot see through the tinted rear glass, but it was a living pile of clothes and camping gear and food and lost items from earlier in the trip. Slung underneath was the custom, 34 gallon gas tank, made by Aero-Tanks, Inc, of San Bernadino, California, which I had had trucked across country and which the shipping company almost did not surrender to the mechanic I had hired because he had stiffed them on some previous deal. I ended up paying the freight and the tank was installed and I had it gassed up as far as you could fill it. That filler tube was brimming.
In hindsight, I’m amazed that I trusted my safety and sanity to that vehicle, as it usually broke down at least once on every trip and we were heading over 100 miles down a rocky track. If you break down out there, your car can sometimes become part of the landscape.
That did not happen, though, and we went on to glory and red dust camping of the finest sort.
2. Lone Pine, California – 2001.
Why does it seem like I always had more time in the past? Twenty years ago, I was bemoaning how I did not have as much spare time as I did in my 20s. 10 Years ago, I was going on about how I had so much more time to read and do stuff in my 30s. Now, I look back on my 40s and think “How come I had so much time to go soak out west?” Have my priorities changed? Is it just the inexorable cycle of age and the diminishing lifespan mortality continuum conundrum? Could I just be losing my memory?
Either way, I look at this photo and think of how often my friend, Paul S, and I soaked those hot springs up and down US 395 in California for a ten year span, from the mid 90’s to the mid 00’s. We soaked a lot in Nevada, Idaho and Oregon the, as well, but every trip found as, at some point, gunning and and down 395 on the way to some place where we could slide our butts into some hot water and watch the mountains just sit there and do their thing.
This shot came from Lone Pine on a night when we were hauling ass somewhere. I know that because we never stay or stayed Lone Pine, for some reason and, since this sign is lit up and it’s dark as hell, it must mean we were late and on the road. Yet, I still had time to stop and take a photo. This means nothing, of course. The photo is the only thing that counts here.
Well, maybe not. I think of Lone Pine and their semi-sanctioned motto – “Gateway to Death Valley” – and I think of that long road into Saline Valley, of Lizard Lee, Saline’s curator for many years now, of that gas station where I never linger. There’s another motel in Lone Pine – the name of it escapes me now – and they have a very old, but well-kept sign. For some reason, I have not been able to get a good photo of it yet. That’s as good a reason as any to head on back.
3. Gerlach, Nevada – 2000
Grumpy’s Texaco, before it changed signs and became Grumpy’s Shell.
Actually, “Grumpy” is nowhere to be found on any of the signage, but that’s what it’s called by the denizens of Gerlach. Grumpy is the man you most and least want to see, driving out to meet you in his tow truck, if you’re stuck on the playa after a rain.
I actually had a low-level vendetta with him for a few years. He was unaware of this, of course. It began when I pulled in for gas one day and asked him a question about something. As with most good vendettas, I have long-since forgotten what the question was or what the response was that raised such umbrage in my, but I do remember that he said something offhanded and I instantly took offense. Unfortunately, there are few other options for gas up there, but there was the station in Empire, only 7 miles away, and I made a point of topping off there every time I went to Gerlach for the next few years. Of course, I eventually broke down and got gas again one day from Grumpy. Perhaps I had to. Perhaps Empire was closed. Either way, he was pleasant as can be and I let bygones be bygones. The truth is, I had let him rent space in my head for a long time and he was oblivious to it. I took this shot while staying at Bruno’s Motel one night. That’s worth a long dissertation one day.
4. Arco, Idaho – 1998
This place has been destroyed, I believe. I did not see it the last time I passed through Arco, in 2010 or so. I’m glad I blew a frame of Kodak Royal Gold 100 on it – maybe it was 400 – on that trip way back when. Arco was the first town to be lit by a nuclear power plant – dawn of the Atomic Age type thing – back in the late 40’s. My bet is the projectors in this place – already abandoned by the 90’s – felt the juice that came from that reactor down the road. They are still proud of their atomic heritage up in Arco.
5. Mojave Desert – 1999
I took this photo and believe I remember where it was – not more than an hour east of Barstow, although I could be wrong – yet I have not been able to find it again for 15 years. It could be that it tumbled into the desert, turned to dust, and that’s the end of the story. I’m thinking, though, that I must not be looking hard enough. It could be that they turned it into luxury condominiums, as they have done to every building in Greenwich Village, but that’s highly unlikely. In fact, that’s just a bad joke that comes from bitterness at what’s happened to my old neighborhood. We could actually ust a good club for sportsmen here in old Gotham. Can you just imagine what that mug must have looked like when all the lights lit up? I wonder if the blinked at all? I wonder what the menu was like? I wonder where that sign is now?
6. Southern Arizona – 2001
There’s a stretch of U.S. 60 that goes from I-10 to Wickenberg, Arizona. Along a very small section of this stretch is a collection of old motels that are now privately occupied. I still am hesitant when shooting these places, as they are private homes. Aside from any moral scruples I may have – and I do have a few – there is also the fear factor. A motel owner is much less likely to chase after me with a gun than somebody who sees me aiming a camera at his house. At the same time, though, I count on the idea that these people are used to a small segment of the population finding their preserved signs interesting. They are aware of it and, hopefully, tolerant of a few curious photographers who just happen to stop for a minute, pop out, take their shot, and go. Still, you can never take anything for granted in this life. I hope to make it by the remains of the Saguaro Motel again one day. Maybe I’ll stop and talk to the people who live there.
7. Tonopah, Nevada – 2009
Old Chevy dealership. Somebody has since bought the building. I spotted him in May, when I was passing through Tonopah. I remember when it was for sale and thinking “I wish I could buy that place.” What a base of operations it would make. Of course, it is inTonopah, but I could handle that. I don’t think my girlfriend could, but she would be in the majority. Tonopah is not for everyone. This place is also almost across the street from the Clown Motel, which I once had an irrational fear of, but I have worked through that and come to see the Clown as an amazing place, operated by a fascinating man of real integrity. Tonopah has a supermarket and a few gas stations. It’s close to a ton of major league natural hot springs. It has a mining museum. It may be a bit of a drive to a big city, but isn’t that kind of a bonus?
8. Lee Vining, California – 1999
From the days when I’d pull into a town late, then go down the strip, setting up a tripod and a film camera, taking shots for half an hour before I found a room. I’m a little bit lazier now. I still haven’t stayed here. That night, I ended up at the Gateway Motel – as in the gateway to Yosemite – and it was an odd place, rooms out back, some strange, small social hall facing the parking lot. Maybe “social hall” is too strong a term. How about “small gathering in a garage?” The owner was nice, though, and played a Les Paul, or so he told me, and that’s partly why I ended up trusting him with my sleep that night.
9. Eastern Montana – 2005
The sky is gray cause there were big wildfires as I was passing through. Of course, it’s that time of day when you could take a great shot of a puddle. When it’s just before dusk and the sunlight is going sideways, it’s hard to take a bad photo. I remember this one sadly, as I was leaving the west when I took it, gearing up for a long, fast haul back to New York via the northern route. While it’s always good to head home, there’s no anticipation or mystery, as there is when I’m heading west. I wonder if those feelings would be reversed if I lived in the west and headed east for a road trip. I doubt it.
10. Virginia – 2013
Highway Sign Detail. Of course, moments after I took this photo, my “Check Engine” light came on and caused me enough nervous consternation to change the course of my day. Why do I get so worried about mechanical objects? They always get fixed, yet I still fret about them. Granted, I did have to get us through 500 miles of semi-hostile territory before we would cross the Hudson to that small island off the coast of America. Granted, I had the engine code read at an Auto-Zone and they told me it was the fuel sending unit. Granted, the van functioned perfectly fine for the remainder of the trip home. And granted, Ford fixed the “problem” for me when I got home. Yes, all that being said, I should have worried less about it. Worrying is a total and complete waste of life. Of course, my ancestors invented worry beads, so perhaps there’s a genetic component to all of this. I wish I had stopped and bought some peanuts, but I was too worried at the time.
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