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Diary: This American Road, Tucumcari

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If Gallup exemplifies the struggling Route 66 town, Tucumcari exemplifies the kind that has simply laid down. We pulled in off the 40 to check out an expresso bar with an airplane permanently parked next to it that my dad told us about, but between there and the freeway exit we passed many more dilapidated, abandoned, or collapsed buildings than structurally or economically sound ones. The plane has stayed in place and the espresso bar still stands, built into the end of one of Tucumcari’s just-hanging-on motels (though lord knows what kind of white-trash crimes were occurring in them even as we passed), but it had closed for the day, as every day, at 11:00 a.m. “That must be check-out time,” Jae said — and why bother holding out hope for customers after that?

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Besides the occasional motel, the still-operational establishments on Tucumcari’s stretch of Route 66 include a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall and — by far the busiest spot in town — Rockin’ Y’s Roadhouse, where we bought restroom privileges by stopping in for a couple of fried hard-shell tacos and scoops of ice cream. We ate quickly, since I couldn’t wait to get back out on the street and take some pictures. Though I like a good dead mall as as anyone (mostly out of hope that anything other than a mall will replace them), I don’t really count myself as a ruin-porn enthusiast. Still, who could resist the haunting specter of this modern-day ghost town?

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Wide patches of barren land surround most of Tucumcari’s empty buildings, so you can just drive right up to most of them and snap away. Actually, I should qualify that statement, since some of the ones we drove right up to we found not quite empty, glimpsing through open doors and broken windows the telltale random stockpiles of a squat. But we saw neither hide nor hair of the squatters themselves, and so felt like the only humans alive for miles. With Route 66’s glory days sixty years behind it, barely even saw any other moving cars.

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Having geared up in recent years to leave the United States, I’ve more and more frequently explained my departure by comparing aspects of this country (especially its infrastructure) to the third world — unfavorably. The crumbling desolation of Tucumcari might at first seem like yet another glaring signal of the de-developed America in which we find ourselves, but I haven’t even seen anyplace like it in the third world itself. In Latin America or southeast Asia, a town like this would be full of people — poor, for sure, probably even poorer than the people of Tucumcari, but in sufficient numbers and possessed of enough of an improvisational spirit to keep the place looking alive.

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If this trip has taught me anything important about America so far, it’s taught me, viscerally, about the country’s sheer size. A Korean friend of mine perpetually entertains a fantasy about driving through North Dakota — always North Dakota — with nothing on either side of her for miles and miles (or rather, kilometers and kilometers), I would guess for no reason other than that she’d have a hard time doing the same in Korea. Indeed, I’ve found that in America, you might easily spend two or three hours just trying to get through the blank expanse between one hamlet and another. And given how much space lies between them, some of those hamlets just get forgotten.

Diary: This American Road, Albuquerque

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Even just 800 miles into this trip, I don’t care if I never see another “unspoiled” landscape again. Spend enough hours driving through rolling hills or dry scrub or big skies or whatever, and you — or at least I — start to long for any sign of civilization, no matter how unpromising, even just a billboard telling you you’re going to hell. And so I met the modest Albuquerque skyline, the pyramidical tops of the Albuquerque Plaza towers jutting stubbily but distinctively into the air, with something like rapture. Finally, back in a city — maybe only the 34th largest in America, but a city nonetheless!

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There we stayed in what I consider one of America’s truly, fascinatingly generic spaces: a Holiday Inn Express. I’ve only stayed in about a dozen Holiday Inn Expresses in my time, but even that has led me to expect that, when you stand inside one, you stand in no particular neighborhood, no particular city, and indeed no particular country: you stand in a Platonic hotel realm, standardized to perfection. The Holiday Inn Express realizes, to bring it back to A Single Man, George’s vision of America, in which a “hotel room isn’t a room in a hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period. There is only one: The Room. And it’s a symbol — an advertisement in three dimensions, if you like — for our way of life. And what’s our way of life? A building code which demands certain measurements, certain utilities and the use of certain apt materials; no more and no less. Everything else you’ve got to supply for yourself.”

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And so, despite spending two nights in Albuquerque’s Holiday Inn Express, I perhaps spent even less time in Albuquerque than I thought. I often laugh at those New York Times “36 Hours in…” travel guides, but the country-crossing exigencies of this trip put me in a psychological position where I’d kill for 36 hours in one city. But their “36 Hours in Albuquerque” didn’t include what, for me, ranks as a destination of paramount importance: Burt’s Tiki Lounge, which Thrillist’s guide to the tiki bars of America describes as “like stepping into a TGI Friday’s that married a dive bar in Oahu, then wandered off into the desert to raise their weird kids.” Alas, my desperate need for such a dive went unfulfilled; we turned up at 8:30, when every reliable source said they’d open in the evening, but its doors stayed locked, its neon stayed unlit. The on-the-ground impression I take from New Mexico’s largest city thus amounts to not much more than brightly colored freeways and metal sculptures of various desert creatures real and imaginary.

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But we got a much more vivid impression from the air by taking the Sandia Peak Tramway, which offers a fifteen-minute ride up a cable to a restaurant from whose vantage you can take in a full nine percent of the state of New Mexico while drinking margaritas. (IF YOU GO, as the travel articles would put it, don’t forget to order them in plastic cups so you can take them out to the deck.) This being the 21st century, a great many of the tram’s riders held their phones to the window as we ascended. I had my camera too, but I couldn’t figure out a non-obvious shot to take, so I just waited until the sun went down and the lights came on, snapping the kind of shot from the tramway’s boarding platform that almost never works. But this time it worked.

Diary: This American Road, Gallup

krazy kat transgression

Living in southern California, one gets to Arizona every now and then, but to get to New Mexico requires something like volition — which means I certainly hadn’t set foot in New Mexico before. Nor had I ever actually driven over the California-Arizona border, the point at which the landscape goes all Krazy Kat. Having read collections of that strip over and over again in childhood (I got deep into prewar newspaper comics for a while there, which seemed to speak to me of a better, more nonsensical time), I remembered that George Herriman drew a great deal of aesthetic inspiration from the American southwest, but I’d forgotten that its setting of Coconino County takes its name from an actual county in western Arizona.

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But New Mexico looks even more Coconino County than Coconino County. After what felt like a few hours of admiring the landscape, we made our first New Mexican stop in Gallup, a town along Route 66. Those on the Krazy Kat tour of the southwest — or, indeed, anyone with a certain idea of America — will want to spent some time attempting to get their kicks on Route 66, but all I’ve seen of it suggest that few kicks remain to be had. Countless other observers of American life have said this better, but most towns serviced primarily by the withered bloodstreams of the railroads or the old U.S. Highway System, rather than the mighty arteries of the Interstate Highway System, have become towns on life support.

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And so at least half of Gallup’s businesses along Route 66 have permanently shuttered, some of them what looks like decades ago. Of those that remain, many have posted loud “BUYING PIÑONS” notices in their windows. Piñons, it turns out, are nuts that grow on local pine trees, and though a surprisingly robust economy appears to have grown around them, nothing about it strikes me as a good sign. But just a block or two off the forlorn Main Street of America, we found a café in continuous operation since 1970 that gave us a heartening dose of New Mexican cuisine. And by New Mexican cuisine, I mean one comestible above all: the sopaipilla.

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I first learned about sopaipillas from Adam Cadre’s novel Ready, Okay!, whose protagonist delivers what I recall as a rapturous monologue in praise of their deliciousness. Still, it took me years to actually try one since, at the time, something about the spelling — particularly that “I” in the middle — struck me as unnecessary, show-offy. But these lightly fried, unsweetened pillows of steam-filled dough have nothing excessive about them, and despite the importance of cutting back on one’s food intake while on the road, I find myself able to put away two or three of them at a sitting without even realizing it. Some of this gluttony I put down to a simple when-in-Rome enjoyment of place and the culinary culture thereof. Some of it I explain away as a desire to put a little more money into a local economy clearly in dire need of it. And besides, where am I going to get a decent sopaipilla in Seoul?

Diary: This American Road, Flagstaff

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The impetus for this road trip across America came from my dad’s move across America, from Huntington Beach to Raleigh. He’s driving the moving truck full of the last load of boxes, furniture, and such, and we’re driving his newly purchased Kia Sorento. I’ll probably have driven more in these two weeks than I’ve driven in the past decade, or than I will drive in the next decade — after this, I won’t want to drive for about a decade — and my perpetual out-of-touchness with the driving experience keeps me astonished whenever I see, much less use, the features built standard into automobiles these days. I mean, you don’t even need keys anymore!


These days, one hears a lot about the approaching debut of self-driving cars on the market, but I sense that non-self-driving cars are themselves asymptotically approaching the condition of the self-driving car. I sense it with special strength while rolling down Interstate 40 at a both climate- and cruise-controlled 85 miles per hour, glancing at the navigation system’s screen every few hours in order to find out where to exit next. When it displays that, it even assembles a reasonable graphical approximation of the scenery outside the windows, images reminiscent of the backgrounds in Sega’s OutRun, the very first video game I ever owned (albeit in a conversion for a Radio Shack PC clone).

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I always liked that OutRun‘s creator Yu Suzuki insisted on describing it not as a racing game, but as a “driving game.” Now, 25 years later, it feels like all those hours I spent playing it in the basement have paid off, since the essential tasks of this real-live driving experience differ not at all from those of the driving game: go forward, occasionally choose which way at a fork in the road, get to the next destination on time, and try not to run into other cars. But in real life, I have a much more appealing lady in the passenger’s seat (though the way the Outrun girl would point accusatorially at the driver after each and every crash — or really, the way adults laughed when they saw it — told me all I needed to know about male-female relations in this world), and we passed today not into some pixelated Japanese fantasy of a Californian beach or alpine Mitteleuropa, but Flagstaff, Arizona.

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Going to Arizona after a string of sweltering days even in California seems like a bad Idea, I realize, but Flagstaff, due to its high altitude and maybe some other environmental factors I’m not going to look into, gets cold, at least at night. And what better way to pre-emptively warm up than drinks at my coffee cocktail spot of choice in town, the Flagstaff Coffee Company? Actually, it ranks as my coffee cocktail spot of choice in any town, since I’ve never encountered anyplace else that specializes in mixing coffee and alcohol, especially not in at least eighteen different configurations. I went with the classic Irish coffee (which I suppose I could have had in Los Angeles, where we live four miles from The House of Irish Coffee), but Jae got an ideal last-minute suggestion of an off-menu item from some regular sitting nearby that involved matcha, whiskey, and almond milk.

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After night fell and the Flagstaff chill set in, we ascended to the Lowell Observatory and saw the city from above as we waited in line to look through the telescope in the 120-year-old observatory building once used by Percival Lowell himself (and now standing mere feet from his mausoleum). One of the complex’s warmer indoor exhibits devoted to Lowell’s life and discoveries displayed an 1883 photo of him in a group of Koreans. “Lowell’s past before becoming an astronomer is also rather interesting, as he lived in in Japan for a number of years in the 1880s and 1890s, before returning home for good in 1893,” writes (past Notebook on Cities and Culture guest) Matt VanVolkenburg. “In 1883 he was invited to accompany Korea’s first trade mission to the US,” on which trip he posed for the picture in question.

percival lowell koreans

“Upon returning to Korea in late 1883, he stayed several months in Korea, where he witnessed the 1884 coup d’etat, which he wrote about in the November 1886 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (which can be found here). He also took a number of photos of Korea at that time, which can be found here (click’ search’). Lowell also published Choson, Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea in 1886, as well as a number of books on Japan, such as The Soul of the Far East and Noto: an Unexplained Corner of Japan.” And so, 7,250 feet above sea level, I seem to have paid inadvertent tribute to one of my predecessors.

Diary: This American Road, Barstow

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The second phase of our farewell tour of America (if a Cher-style farewell tour, with little pretense of actual long-term retirement and plans for future performance more or less already locked in) has begun. The first phase took us north, up the West Coast from Los Angeles to Alameda, Ashland, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and back down through Eugene, Sunnyvale, and Santa Barbara. This much more ambitious phase has us crossing the U.S. of A in the other direction, starting from Huntington Beach and ending up, theoretically, in Raleigh, North Carolina — coast to coast. First stop: Barstow, a town I (as I assume many do) know only from the first line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

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With or without the drugs, I do get the sense that Barstow, now as then, serves primarily as a waypoint to Vegas, the fork in the road at which you must choose whether you really want to commit to the Sin City experience. Part of that came from the all-foreigner crowd around me in the breakfast room offered by our lodging for the night, one of many such establishments along what looked like Barstow’s motel mile: the silent young Germans, the gregarious old Brits. (Actually, I observed the highest level of gregariousness in the motel’s Indian owner, who told of his life’s previous chapter in Johannesburg and had probably insisted on the place’s most memorable touch, each and every room’s towels having been folded into little elephants.)

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Even before launching into this ultimate American experience, I came up with a theory about the homeland of which I’ll soon take leave: America, as I see it, mashes up the forbiddingly eccentric with the frictionlessly generic. Part of that impression comes from the folksy roadside attractions that captivate so many visiting non-Americans (In these two weeks, I will live Wim Wenders’ dream). Another part comes from my favorite passage of my favorite Los Angeles novel, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, whose English expat protagonist berates his countrymen for failing to understand how America has “reduced the things of the material plane to mere symbolic conveniences,” and that “until the material plane has been defined and relegated to its proper place, the mind can’t ever be truly free.”

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We Americans, he says, “sleep in symbolic bedrooms, eat symbolic meals, are symbolically entertained and that terrifies them” — those “groveling little materialist” Europeans” — “fills them with fury and loathing because they can never understand it.” Experiencing America therefore means experiencing its generic spaces, and as we headed toward not Las Vegas but Flagstaff, Arizona, we experienced one of its finest: In-N-Out Burger, a reassuringly guaranteed presence alongside southern California’s freeways. We’d meant to end our last road trip with a protein-style hamburger and animal-style cheeseburger, but it didn’t happen, and so with a protein-style hamburger and animal-style cheeseburger our latest road trip begins.

See me introduce Blade Runner and talk dystopia in San Francisco on November 6th

The second annual San Francisco Urban Film Festival happens this November from the 3rd through the 8th, taking as its theme the idea of going “beyond dystopia.” In line with that, they’re screening Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, whose vision of 2019 Los Angeles has, for nearly 35 years, endured as a vision of the urban future. Its crowded streets and Babel of languages beneath constant rain and the glow of skyscraper video screens once stood for dystopia itself, but might Blade Runner urbanism still have something to teach our cities, San Francisco included?

I’ll appear at the screening, in any case, to talk about just that, giving a presentation to introduce the film and doing a Q&A with professor Pedro Lange-Churion afterward. You can find all the details here and follow the San Francisco Urban Film Festival on Twitter @SFUrbanFilmFest. And if you’d like a piece of preparatory viewing before you come, might I suggest my City in Cinema video on Blade Runner?

The Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Amelia Gray

Colin Marshall talks with Amelia Gray, author of AM/PM, Museum of the Weird, Threats, and the new short story collection Gutshot, which showcases her writing at its most grotesque, its most hypernormal, its most speculative, and its most darkly funny. The book offers a portrait of her very own America, a country populated by Greyhound bus riders, compulsive vomiters, Camaro IROC-Z drivers, cruelly fetishistic conscious-consuming vegans, and victims of every sort of personality disorder.

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, download it on iTunes.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: the Bonaventure Hotel

What building most clearly signifies Los Angeles? In a built environment with few easily legible architectural icons, the Bonaventure Hotel has come to stand for the city as no other building does. Since opening in 1976, John C. Portman Jr.’s quintet of reflective cylindrical towers atop a stark concrete base has played in urban Los Angeles films not just an incidental if striking piece of background detail, but a piece of visual shorthand for Los Angeles (or its destruction), an ominous space for illicit dealings, a stop on or pathway for a chase, a convergence point for a final showdown, or even a part of completely different cities or realities. And like Los Angeles itself, filmmakers frequently exploit certain of the Bonaventure’s features, or even invent ones that don’t exist, while ignoring its other qualities entirely.

The video essays of “Los Angeles, the City in Cinema” examine the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — just like the city itself.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: James Sie and Sungyoon Choi

Colin Marshall talks with James Sie, voice actor, onscreen actor, and author of a new debut novel, Still Life Las Vegas. This alienated young artist’s coming-of-age story in the decidedly non-glamorous part of Sin City weaves together Greek myth, family myth, and Liberace, doing so with not just text but graphic-novel sections as well. Sungyoon Choi, the artist behind those sections, also joins in on the conversation.

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, download it on iTunes.

Where Is the City of the Future?: The 21 Candidates for City of the Future, Revealed

As you may know, for every $2000 we raise on Byline, the “Where is the City of the Future?” project will grow to involve another potential city of the future. The first $2000 will result on a report on Los Angeles; the second $2000, a report on Seoul. But from that point on, I’ll do all the project’s subsequent in-depth, multimedia travel-cultural-urbanistic explorations on cities of the supporters’ choosing.

First, I’ll head out to any cities named by individual supporters who have pledged the top reward amount. (If you’ve got a particular city you’d really like to see involved, that might be the path for you.) After that, I’ll put it to a vote each time. Today, I present to you the master list of Pacific Rim cities this project might cover, including all those for which you’ll have the opportunity to cast your vote if you support “Where Is the City of the Future?” at the $40 level or higher:

Los Angeles, USA
San Francisco, USA
Seattle, USA
Honolulu, USA
Lima, Peru
Santiago, Chile
Vancouver, Canada
Sydney, Australia
Melbourne, Australia
Auckland, New Zealand
Wellington, New Zealand
Tokyo, Japan
Osaka, Japan
Seoul, South Korea
Busan, South Korea
Shanghai, China
Beijing, China
Taipei, Taiwan
Hong Kong
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Jakarta, Indonesia
Bangkok, Thailand
Manila, Philippines
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Perhaps this list includes a favorite city of yours. Perhaps it includes your hometown. Or perhaps it just includes a few Pacific Rim metropolises about which you’ve been curious. If we raise $10,000, we can cover five of them; if we raise $26,000, we can cover half of them; if we raise $52,000, we can cover all of them.

Support “Where Is the City of the Future?” in its remaining 42 days of fundraising, and you’ll bring us all closer to learning just what each of these cities has to teach us in the 21st century — the urban century. For more information, head on over to the project’s page on Byline.