Road Trip 2018: The Final Blog

All road trips come to an end. The end, of course, not as arriving home (that’s a beginning) but rather the point at which the adventures end, and the grind of getting back home starts. No sense documenting endless road food and Best Western Motel art.

However, before that grind began, on March 16, Jer and I traveled south of Tucson to the Mission San Xavier del Bac, located on a broad plain, formerly desert, now well-watered farmland, in the middle of the Tohono O’odham reservation.

This is said to be one of the finest, perhaps the finest, example of Spanish Baroque church architecture in the US. It is astonishing to see as it is now, appearing like a mirage off Interstate 19 in the midst of farming lands and a tiny community. Imagine it as it must have appeared to the earlier peoples of the area, the Tohono O’odham and other indigenous Indians, the ranchers and gold seekers, the Anglo settlers, who saw it against the great blue sky, a great white vision in the middle of the Sonoran desert.

The mission was founded in 1692, and the church is believed to have been finished, by Tohono O’odham workers, in 1797. A long time ago.

This White Dove of the Desert, as it is sometimes called, is now a working parish, with a school run by nuns, who live in the convent that joins the church. It’s tightly allied with the reservation people, who attend its services and maintain its beauties. The Tohono O’odham conduct their own rituals as well as joining the Catholic rituals, and their presence is clearly important to the church. Along with a permanent building in which they sell their wares, the Tohono O’odham host Wa:k Pow Wows and other events near the Mission buildings. While we were there, we saw temporary structures on the church grounds that looked like places for outdoor vending for a Pow Wow scheduled for that weekend.

The white Moorish exterior of the church is joined to a traditional Catholic floor plan decorated in the Baroque manner, when church decor was at its most bountiful.

I found it a wonder of design and dramatic light. I was struck by how my personal experience of the Mojave desert was focused on the spare, strikingly lit forms and minimalist shapes of the Experimental Living Cabin, while here the experience is on a richness of surfaces in which every detail is meaningful and overflowing.

Until electricity lit these walls, only candles, and sparse natural light would have brought out the details in the paintings and friezes and statues — the very opposite of the Cabin where all was lit and plain. I found myself marveling at how a spare work like the Experimental Living Cabin could evoke meanings by being attached so closely to the bare Mojave desert and sky, while this long-lived pilgrimage church evoked meaning through just the opposite — loaded with visuals, meanings, and art, to be marveled at by those whose existences were formed by desert and sky. Perhaps my luminous moments were a product of a life filled with stuff, while the abundance of imagery and art, even the magic of many candles, illuminated marvels to the permanent inhabitants of the desert outside.

The Mission of San Xavier del Bac has had 4 sovereign nation flags raised over it: Spanish, Mexican, US, and Tohono O’odham. It also reflects the influence of the Moors in Spain, and reaches many contemporary travelers who may not be Catholic or Tohono O’odham, but who can find meaning in this kind of art and life.

And so Jer and I make our way to Portland Oregon, a space and place totally different from either the Mojave bathed in moonlight or the Mission San Xavier del Bac encrusted with the stories and art of hundreds of years ago.

Our road trip — complete.


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Kitt Peak Observatory

along the road

visitor center

woman and telescopes

one telescope

Above are a series of views of parts of the Kitt Peak National Observatory,  which we visited on our way from Gila Bend to Tucson.  The complex of buildings and equipment lie at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level at the end of a winding 12-mile road off Arizona Route 86 east of Sells, Arizona, in the Tohono O’odham Nation. The visitor center of the complex includes a museum filled with images, explanations, charts, maps, videos, and a large number of devices and displays that illuminate aspects of astronomy and astrophysics. (The more STEM background you have, the more interesting this museum is apt to be.) It’s possible to sign up for guided tours of the complex, but we didn’t have time. Too bad, because on our own we took in only a tiny fraction of what was available.  — Jer


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Road Trip 2018: Organ Pipe National Monument

The reason for stopping in Gila Bend and taking the time to check out its local character, (as Jer depicted in his blog) was that Gila Bend is the gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The organ pipe cacti are unlike the saguaros, and yet they are clearly cousins. Maybe they are like Jer and me, me kind of sprawling, Jer straight and clean-lined.

You see the saguaro in the center dwarfed by the organ pipe on the left. Actually the saguaro generally get much taller than the organ pipe cacti, which are extremely sensitive to cold. But the organ pipe’s sprawling nature is a visual counterpoint to the solemn and somewhat judgmental saguaros.

Jer and I took a 1.2 mile hike up a ridge above a camp ground just to prove we could still stumble over rocks in the desert. The views, of course, were phenomenal, no trees in the way, and the cactus along the ridge line was delicious.

The Sonoran Desert is my favorite, even if I did just spend a great deal of light-and-space time in the Mojave. These cacti and things like the ocotillo and paloverde trees are good reasons why:

Contrast that to the bare plains around the Experimental Living Cabin: a fitting difference.


(PS: The tiny hamlet of Ajo — which has a couple of gas stations and an IGA grocery store — is much closer to Organ Pipe than Gila Bend. If you need lodging or are just driving down Rt 85, I’d recommend checking out Ajo; I rather wished we had stayed there. Ajo is a copper town, but has managed to stay separate from the humongous hole and its tailings. Its white town square with esplanades and Spanish style churches and its old school-turned-art center are enticing. Take your own water, as I would be leary of the town water (Gila Bend’s was undrinkable), but for a good place to wander in after a day of driving and hiking in the National Monument, I highly recommend checking out Ajo.)

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Space Age Lodge

space age lodge

We once stayed at the Atomic Inn in Beatty, Nevada. This time it was the Space Age Lodge in Gila Bend, Arizona. The lodge features structures resembling flying saucers, and its rooms are decorated with images of astronauts and rocket launches. Somehow this meshes perfectly with the palm trees, cacti, and desert shrubs.

space age at dusk

space age at dusk 2

— Jer

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The Blue Orb

I’m still in Joshua Tree, with photos and mind at any rate, while Jer has moved on down the road apiece. Up the hill from the AZ West Planar Pavilions were some desert tracks. At the end of one we came upon this sign:

In this area of the desert, you never know what dangers you might find just across the road, and we were stopped for a minute — until we saw “Security By Julia.” Oh.

The High Desert Test Site art installations are notorious for their irreverence.

It was Jer who first sighted the art on the hill beyond the “warning” sign.

  The photos, of the same orb, give some sense of the context in which this weird and beautiful blue object can be seen.

It is a total departure in sensibility from the Planar Pavilions, just down the hill. But as a gesture to both the sky and the rocks out of which it appears, it is perfect. I never did decide whether it was a mirror or an orb. Whichever, it remains another moment in my Joshua Tree Experiment of life.


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Gila Bend

Gila Bend, a small town along Interstate 8 southeast of Phoenix, lies on a sharp bend in the Gila River. Its school complex seemed quite nice to us. Some of the covered parking areas near school buildings doubled as solar collectors.

solar panels

The school mascot is the gila monster. I would love to play for a team called the Monsters.

gila bend monsters

On the other side of town is a busy railroad track along which stands an enormous water tower that looks like something from the imagination of H. G. Wells.

water tank

— Jer

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Road Trip 2018: Experimental Living Cabin — Conclusions

Dear Reader,

I forgot to mention the bowls. The bowls are important symbols, physical manifestations of Zittel’s philosophy.

In  2016 she said:  “I believe that you need to have only one garment per season, and you don’t need any dishes other than bowls, and a 30-inch-wide bed is the perfect width—anything more just takes up room and is unnecessary. … I … wanted to explore how it felt to be unquestioningly immersed in a position. At this point in my life, though, it’s impossible for me to believe in anything so fully anymore…. I’m making more abstract and open-ended living environments, though these are still things people can use in day-to-day living. ” (Quoted from an interview by Thea Ballard in Blouinartinfo)

Just as the counter is also the stove is also the table is also the working space, the bowls are also plates, saucers, mugs, wine glasses, and cups for tea. One conclusion I arrived at from my immersive experience is that the bowls worked for all those functions and were particularly effective for tea and wine. However, they seemed not to work for peanut butter and crackers:

Was this important to my ongoing search for knowledge? Well, yes. There’s a comfort in clasping a warm cup of tea or a cold glass of wine in two hands, and a kind of glee in having only one dish to wash after dinner. On the other hand, kiwi juice and triscuits really don’t quite get together easily in a bowl, and spreading peanut butter onto Melba toast in a bowl is inappropriate spatially. Round and flat squashed together. Doesn’t work. And so I conclude that my roundness and the planar flatness sometimes work badly together — my bottom gets tired. Some things just interfere, functionally and aesthetically, with one another. Like chains and planar constructions.

That’s quite personal, of course, but another personal element, perhaps shared more widely, is my “piling” temperament. I’m a person whose piles of stuff, the thing that I use most often and love most dearly, must be kept close at hand. I’m messy. I want my camera beside me so as not to miss the light-catching photo. I want my writing and sketch books nearby so I can grab one when a thought occurs. I want three books, not one, on hand in case I get bored with another that I’m reading. And of course, I want my art materials with me at all times, because you never know when inspiration will strike. And my tea, for the break that comes when I surface from reading or chaining. And  food, snacks, or lunch or dinner, has to be accessible. And so, the lovely surfaces and clean lines become June’s space, functional, but a mess.

Once, a long time ago, I imagined I would do better; I could do better. Jer is a one-book reader, with each book put back before the next is begun. His tea-cup is washed and put into the dish drainer after he finishes his tea, which he does as soon after it cools enough to be drunk. His camera is in the case which is in the closet. His note pads are on his desk in his office, with a pen beside them, and each pad has its own use. Coats in the coat closet, shirts in the shirt closet, pens in the pen holder — it’s clear that some people do not live like I do, even when they reside together. But what I also have come to understand is that I don’t want to reform. I am not going to reform. I’m not even sure that for me, eliminating the mess would qualify as reform. Like my hair, the mess around me needs tamed, not changed.

But that puts me out of synch with this living art space. If I made an art space, I would not want it interfered with with other people’s Kleenex and notebooks and camera lenses. I wouldn’t want half drunk cups of tea evaporating on the counter or books splayed open while the reader went on a walking junket.

So I doubt I’ll be making livable art spaces or even living in them, much. Only the composting toilet is efficient and aesthetic under my reign and that’s because I don’t spend much time there. Oddly, though, I don’t mind that particular space of the Experimental Life. It reminds me of my animal nature, which I’ve always sort of believed in anyway.

But if I’m an animal, I’m one with a big swishing tale and the grace of a half-grown puppy. Not only did I smash the tall lamp globe, but I also managed to break one of the sturdy candle containers. I woke up one morning feeling exuberant and flung the covers back. They caught the candle holder, deposited by the bed the night before, and, bother, it cracked into ten pieces. At least it wasn’t smashed like the globe.

So, alas, along with my untidiness, I seem to overflow my spaces. To the detriment of what’s in them. This I try to contain in other people’s houses, and in my own I’ve grown to forgive the occasional broken object. As has Jer, who loves me.

Other conclusions: brushing one’s teeth and preparing for bed by candle light is difficult. Things disappear right under one’s eyes. It’s hard to see how much tooth paste has gone on the brush. The Kindle can be found only with the obnoxious, too bright, flashlight. And when dark comes at 6:30 — well, one begins to understand the traditions of oral societies. So much time to fill before the yawns set in. For a while, I found nighttime disconcerting, disorienting. I couldn’t find the light switch; I had to go to bed because sitting in the dark got to be boring.

But — and this is a real turnabout — with an early bedtime, night becomes a kinder friendlier space. I found I didn’t mind getting up and wandering around in the moonlight. I tried taking photos then, with this sort of result:

and this: somewhat better:

So, I didn’t get any decent nighttime photos. I didn’t care. For a person who has always thought waking up at night to be an ‘orror, a terrible sign of too much coffee or too much thinking or too much evil living, discovering that it could simply be a pleasant, even rapturous, time of day was a true revelation. And a welcome one.

Speaking of rapturous times: I had moments when I knew beauty existed (whatever beauty is). They were luminous times, moments  that came while I was sitting, maybe with the bowl of tea or wine or maybe just with a string of wire dangling in my hands, generally between 6 and 11 AM or just at twilight. The day’s beginning or the day’s end. I loved those moments and those lengths of time. They were beyond expectation; they came when least thought about, least desired even.

And I did not much like the time between 11 and 3, when I wanted to talk to someone, to chat on FB, to smile at a passing stranger. No one ever passed the cabin or even drove by on the dusty roads. Jer and I texted regularly at 4 but I did not want to break my isolation before then, if only out of stubbornness. And by 4, the deepest part of the slow day had already passed, so I could mention being lonely without making him jump in the car and bail me out.

It was good to be lonely. I would pick up a derelict chain and straighten it out. Or sit on the stool with my chin on my palm and think derelict thoughts. No one asked me what was wrong or if I needed something. I was just a point in space, a bit of dust, derelict like the rest of the valley, and without any more care than it had. And so that time told me something. Not something I didn’t know before, but now I felt it as a palm in the fist or a bit of wire in the hand. A tactile something to accompany a derelict thought. A silence that not interrupted by machines: no humming refrigerators; no humans speech. I had no music; no podcasts, no noise except an occasional distant jet. Once I heard a dog bark and ravens sometimes took noisy note of my daylight wanderings.  I didn’t miss noise — I reveled in the silence, which was always a part of the luminous moment.


For photos of Zittel’s  Planar Configurations (the elements of the cabin’s interior) click domus

Here’s a good interview with Andrea Zittel done by Laila Pedro at the Brooklyn Rail

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