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…
Rock Springs, Wyoming – 2006. This was the first place I ever spent the night with Elko. We had each had a loaded day. I had started out in Winnemucca. He had arrived from another dimension or another galaxy, possibly both. After all the trials of the day, we just wanted to hunker down and get to know each other. I had planned to sack out in the new boom town of Green River, Wyoming but due to said oil boom, every last motel room in town was booked. The one place I found that wasn’t booked not only wanted an exorbitant rate for their filthy room, but they would not allow dogs. The desk clerk looked out her dirty window, somehow saw through the tinted glass of my Toyota Tacoma’s cab and spotted Elko standing triumphantly on top of the ice chest, upon which she turned to me and said “We can’t take your little friend.” I asked her if she knew of any other places in town with rooms and she was kind enough space a second of her busy time and say “About 7 miles down the highway, there’s a place at the exit. Try them.” I could tell a long story about that first night and the kindly old woman who welcomed us at the Springs Motel, but I’ll do that some other time.
Key Largo, Florida. Sometimes, when you’re on the road, you finish eating whatever you’re eating – engine running, mentally planning which way you’re going to turn when you get out of whatever parking lot you landed in – you put the van in “Drive,” slowly ease out into the flow of traffic that will take you to the highway, liftoff, life beyond wherever your head is currently rotting. And, at that moment, you’ll notice something you like. At least, that’s the way it often works with me. Perhaps, I need to be stopped for my perception engine to re-engage. This is sounding dangerously like a pot-induced term paper, but the important thing I need to remember is that 1) I’m stone-cold sober, and 2) I understand what I’m saying, even if nobody else does. Anyway, I start out and suddenly notice something and then I have to stop, pull out my camera and take a shot. It’s often not what I want to do at that moment, as I’m usually itching to get back on the road, and I must remind myself that life is not a race, even if it can seem that way. Anyway, I just liked the way these two awnings looked, especially next to each other.
There is a line between shooting old stuff, decayed stuff, even ruins – and shooting stuff that’s falling in on itself or so overgrown that you can’t tell what it is anymore, as was the case with an amazing billboard I recently saw in South Carolina, but which was so overgrown that it looks like a Jackson Pollack. Still, I’ll post that at some point, just out of abstract interest. When I saw THIS, though, on a back road in Georgia, I had to stop. Even though the building was just beams and rafters and the glass neon tubing is obscured by vines, a heart-shaped sign that says “Georgia Girl Drive In” is just too special to pass by. Had “Te Te’s Take Out,” a few miles down the road, not been so stuck in a dark stand of trees, I would have gotten that, as well. Something about the South…
The Hotel Monte Vista, in Flagstaff. I know nothing more of the place than that, one night I was passing through Flagstaff on my way somewhere, probably East, but it could have been any other point on the compass, and I saw this sign from the corner of my eye. Since it was 1999, before the day of hand-held night shots – or before I got lazy, depending on how you see it – I pulled out my tripod and took a few shots, bracketing the exposure time a bit. It has sat around in my pile of photos ever since, that pile slowly growing higher out by the old tree stump. One person was once smitten by and and asked for a copy. That’s about it. Still, something always grabs me from this photo, this sign. When I just went to confirm that it was Flagstaff and that it wasn’t my head playing tricks on me, the first search hits returned links on how it is supposedly haunted. Is that a marketing ploy? Will some places stop at nothing in order to drum up business? I’ll bet there actually is a large enough pool of interested parties to sustain a ghost tourism economy. Either way, the sign certainly has some spirit to it. Flagstaff, itself, always seems cold and snowy. It’s the elevation. It’s a lesser, but still significant crossroads for me. If I’m not passing through, I’m usually stopping there to shop on my way north, towards the Grand Canyon.
This was one of those little lawn sculptural elements that you occasionally find around motel signs. In this case, I’m not sure whether it was part of the original design or was added later. Does it matter? I like what people come up with when they have some time on their hands and nobody telling them what they should do. This is in or very close to Key Largo, Florida.
The El Bambi. I’m sure I am not the only one to have shot this sign. If I were not feeling so tired and lazy now, I’d go and confirm this for myself, but I’ll bet any cursory image search of google or flickr would reveal other shots of the immortal El Bambi. No matter. It was a special moment for me and that’s good enough. I have not had a chance to tag and organize my massive cache of scanned negatives, but at least I can post some shots here along the way. This was probably Kodak Royal Gold 400, judging from the grain.
Fu Star Grocery – Liquor, Cigarettes, Candy, Soda, Ice Cream, Hot Drink – and a pink pony with a yellow mane. I love a crooked security gate as much as I love the red and yellow signs you see so much of in New York’s Chinatown, where I have been shooting a ton lately while my girlfriend does yoga in a studio on the Lower East Side. I have driven my car and ridden my bike a lot through East Chinatown, but you really don’t get the best shots unless you’re on foot, tromping it, humping it, getting a sore neck and shoulder from hauling that camera bag around. Then, just when you least expect it, you turn the corner and see something beautiful. Or ugly. Or both at the same time.
This is one on of my favorite signs, one of my favorite places, and one of my favorite memory holes – the Lariat Motel, in Fallon, Nevada. I have already written a lot about the Lariat and hope to consolidate it all one day, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that it transported me to another dimension. The Lariat was not only a true time capsule of decor and service, but I used to feel that it was some kind of cosmic portal, as well. It gave me a thrill to know that I’d be pulling into Fallon at night, pulling up at the office parking spot, seeing the old man’s ancient gold Buick, and then waiting for him to lurk out of his living room, behind the front desk, to check me in. Imagine the horror and sadness I felt the day I pulled into Fallon for gas and saw that the place was gone. He had died and his son had almost immediately had the place pulled down. It was a vacant lot with one small remnant of the sign remaining and “For Sale” sign posted. I was told by the women across the street – the ones who owned the curio shop – that he had donated the sign to the City of Fallon. I wonder where it is now? The old man was so proud of his sign.
Remnants of a once-proud strip, between 13th and 14th Streets on 8th Avenue.
I used to go by the Lumber Store here every other day, on my way home from work, and collect scraps – really nice clear pine pieces and oak trim – and then bring them home and keep them for small projects. This was in the 80′s and I was married and there were other problems with life at the time. Eventually, a lot of wood piled up and my wife – long since my ex-wife – would scream “ENOUGH WOOD…NO MORE WOOD.” It was a family operation and there was always drama at the Lumber Store. The saw guy was named Lenny and he, unlike many saw guys, had somehow retained all of his fingers. I could go on, but I’ll save it for another day. This pizza place and deli, though, remain, unlike many of the other small businesses in the far west of Greenwich Village, which has long since given up the ghost to the super rich, who don’t seem to need delicatessens, and tourists, who don’t seem to need anything but high-end fashion stores. The only concession to real residents has been the incredible increase in super discount drugstores and small bank branches which, I am convinced, are a massive, international money-laundering scheme.
U.S. Route 395 runs the length of California, from top to bottom, and then continues northward to greater glory and Oregon, It’s a well-used road and you can often find truckers, hunters, vacationers, and pilgrims of all sorts going somewhere, usually fast, sometimes slowly. When I am on 395, it usually means I’m soaking or on my way to soak or see something interesting. I’m usually quite happy to be there.This stretch is below the military base town and overnight oasis of Ridgecrest and above the junction with California Route 58, the Barstow Bakersfield Highway, a desert crossroads that goes by a few different names. Anyway, these high tension line towers follow the road for a long time, essentially making it a power line road, but that’s a bit of an insult to a major US highway, isn’t it? Either way, I like the harshness and geometry of the towers and the desert country, even if they do introduce some hideous man-made ugliness into the picture.
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