Nevada Day 1- Double Negatives, Domes, and Dive Bars
Today started with breakfast with my uncle Dave and my cousin Siobhan. We had a nice little meal at home, and then Siobhan and I went out to get coffee. Siobhan had recently gotten her license and she wanted to prove to me she was a better driver than our cousin James, which is admittedly a very low bar to clear. She did a great job driving, and we went to a place called Coo Coo’s Gourmet Coffee Cafe. It was a cute 50s style diner, and even though it was still in Henderson, everything was Vegas sized with absolutely massive cups of coffee. It was real good too.
After coffee, Siobhan drove us back home. She had other plans for the day, so after a quick car switch I was on my way for the day’s adventures. My first stop was the massive earth work sculpture, Double Negative by Michael Heizer. The piece is located high up on Mormon Mesa near Overton, and getting there you drive through a little bit of the beautiful Lake Meade National Recreation Area (Lake Meade, being the largest man-made lake in the country, having been created by the Hoover Dam). Finding the art piece can be difficult because it’s all pure mesa, dirt roads, rocks, and all. It’s a terrible drive, but the vistas are incredible. Before I go to the main artwork, I was very to find out that another artist/prankster had placed a small row boat at the very top of the mesa, just about as far from any water as it could possibly be. There’s no indication at all of how the boat got there, nor who may have put it there, but It was a beautiful easter egg after a treacherous drive.
After some aimless wandering around the mesa, I finally stumbled into Double Negative. It can be quite easy to miss, because it’s a subtle piece of massive minimalism. The piece makes the grammatical phrase of its title literal by consisting of two huge trenched cut into the mesa on opposite sides of a natural canyon, thus consisting of two forms of negative space, the natural and the man-made. While the piece is uncommon for a sculpture because the art work is what is not there as opposed to what is, it’s sheer size and scope makes it one of the most impressive empty spaces I’ve ever seen. The trenches clock in at 1,500 feet long (including the canyon in the middle), 50 feet deep, and 30 feet wide, and it is estimated that to make them 240,000 tons of rock had to be removed. I talked to some people in the town nearby while I was trying to find the piece and they said they didn’t really “get it”, but for me I thought it was a really neat trick of the eye to be staring across a canyon and suddenly have a gap in the horizon. The fact that the two trenches also so neatly line up when you look down one headlong despite being over 1000 feet away was very impressive. I dunno about any higher themes, but the more I looked at it, the more I thought it was really powerful just being surrounded all that natural beauty yet still being draw to this almost imperceptible absence. It really wasn’t like any sculpture I’d seen before.
I also thought it was pretty cool that because it’s so big, it’s not particularly fragile so you can just walk right up to the trenches. Seeing the actual cuts in the hard rock and how mostly uniform they are (give or take some natural erosion over the years, since the piece has been here since 1970!), it gives you a greater sense of what a difficult physical undertaking it must have been to make this. The cut also gives a pretty neat cross section of the different layers of the canyon, giving you a literal inside look at rock formation that you might normally never get to see.
While I was researching Double Negative, I also found some aerial shots of it, that I really think capture just how impressive it is better than I can:
While the artist, Michael Heizer, deserves a lot of credit, I think some credit has to be given to just how raw and naturally beautiful the area is in its own right.
After soaking in the art, I descended from the Mesa and moved to my next stop of the day, The Lost City Museum. The museum is an important collection of artifacts from the Anasazi people who had a rich and complex civilization dating back at least as far as 8000 BC in nearby Pueblo Grande de Nevada. Unfortunately when the Hoover Dam was built flooding from Lake Meade destroyed many of these archeological sites and it’s impossible to know just how many items and buildings of historical and cultural significance were destroyed. The Museum saved as much as it could, but its a sad reminder of the unintended cost of progress, and also the indifference toward Native Cultures because while I’m sure there were always going to be consequences with building the dam, it doesn’t seem like they even considered trying to not flood those sites.
As unfortunate as the circumstances surrounding the museum were, the actual collection was pretty spectacular. Things started out with a bang with a restored Pueblo pithouse. What looks like a small mound in the sand was actually a subterranean housing unit tribes used during the winter months. The structures were made out of mud and clay with wooden poles supporting the roof. It was simple but could be built relatively quickly and could trap heat in the winter and be cool and shady on warmer days. It was also shockingly sturdy, holding up under the way of all us tourists walking up to peek down the chimney at the inside. Apparently the areas that got destroyed in the flooding included a city of interconnected pit-houses and above ground adobe house, the largest of which had a 100 rooms! It must have been incredible.
inside the museum, the first room consisted of displays of various artifacts from the daily lives of the Anasazi people. Many of these artifacts were practical bits of craftsmanship, such as water jugs, tools, and arrowheads. I’m always impressed at how much problem solving and creativity went into designing and building things in pre-technological ages, and some of the materials, especially with the arrowheads, had real lustrous qualities to them. For me at least, the displays really came alive with the more inherently artistic items such as some of the clay pots, baskets, pipes, and jewelry. Even when these artifacts had a practical purpose as well, you really felt like their was a sense of showing-off what the artist could do with all the intricate and complex designs. I was particularly impressed by basketry with animal designs woven into them and some more relatively contemporary pottery by the Hopi artist Nampeyo.
Some pieces were not actually from the Lost City, but more general displays of Native American life and artifacts. Some highlights here for me included: a map of Nevada made up entirely of different rocks and minerals native to the regions, an impressively tiny basket, and my old favorites, Kachina figures. While the Kachina figures are part of Hopi culture, a people native to what is now mostly Arizona, they were included in this museum because they were commercialized and frequently sold in gift shops across the country as general “Indian” figurines with little consideration for the cultural significance they might hold. It was cool of the museum to address ideas of commercializing Native identity, especially since at various point in their own history they were not immune to it, including some wild advertisements aimed at attracting European visitors claiming that the inhabitants of the lost city had all been 7 feet tall.
The other large gallery in the museum showcased a recreation of the archeological dig sites that initially uncovered the Lost City. This gave a really cool insight into the process and work that goes in to collecting and maintaining such potentially ancient artifacts. Along the walls surrounding the faux dig site were letters from various explorers, curators, and government officials, tracing the timeline of the first discovery to the creation of the museum. My favorite part of this exhibit was the recreations of all the different housing types they unearthed ranging from the almost entirely underground to the entirely aboveground. I was so impressed and blown away with how much architectural variety there was. Such ingenuity, so long ago!
On the way home, I drove through Valley of Fire State Park. The park is named after the fiery red sandstone rock formations that jut out of the ground in all manner of crazy shapes and sizes. The park looks so much like something out of another planet that it has actually been used in both Star Trek and Total Recall as the exterior for alien worlds (I’m talking the Arnold Schwarzenegger Total Recall which is somehow much stupider AND much better than the more recent version because like all Paul Verhoeven movies it has the uncanny blend of brilliant satire, downright dumb dialogue, and incredible visuals. Highly recommend.) It was one of the most incredibly scenic drives I’ve ever been on, and multiple times I had to pull over just to really get a good look at everything for myself but I don’t think words can really do it justice:
My favorite thing in the park were a series of rock formations called Beehives, because of their honeycomb like structures. These knocked my socks off, because they look so much like beehives and so intricately designed that it’s insane to me that they’re not actually sculptures but just something that happened by chance based off wind, rock placement, and erosion. Nature is a strange and incredible thing sometimes. One warning though, if you find any honey inside these beehives, better just leave it alone.
I also have to give the park credit for having one of the cleverest welcome signs:
After all that naturing, I finally ventured into Las Vegas proper for some very very good coffee at a cozy vaguely Area 51-inspired coffeeshop tucked into a strip mall in Henderson called Mothership Coffee Roasters. They beam up a strong and tasty brew, and because the Vegas area is in general sort of dominated by chains, they’re also really one of only a few specialty coffee shops in the surrounding area that focuses primarily on coffee as opposed to breakfast more broadly. It was a welcome surprise, and I hope they catch on.
After fueling up brain with caffeine, I fueled up my belly with some good Mexican food at local staple, Juan’s Flaming Fajitas and Cantina. The place had a really fun and bustling vibe, and I got there for happy hour so the food and drinks were a very nice price indeed. I got delicious guava margarita which perfectly balanced being sweet, salty, and filled with tequila. And the 12oz cocktail was only $4! Understandably, I was in pretty high spirits when my food arrived. While they’re known for their sizzling fajitas, which I had to admit looked pretty good, I went for breadth over depth and got their house sampler. The platter came with nachos, quesadillas, and crispy chicken taquitos, with generous sides of grilled veggies, guacamole, and sour cream. It was a cheesy crunchy smorgasbord, and everything was fantastic. Vegas might do everything a little bit to excess but when it comes to food like this I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.
After dinner, I had some time to kill before my open mic, so I did it in one of my absolute favorite ways possible: Classic Pinball! Vegas is home to The Pinball Hall of Fame which claims to be the largest public collection of classic and vintage pinball machines in the world. I think the Pinball museum in Asbury Park must be pretty close, but their wall to wall collection was truly impressive. Besides pathways, there was hardly any square inch in the small rented out space that wasn’t occupied with those flashing lights and silver balls. I thought the funniest machine was a Johnny Mnemonic one, because I can’t imagine people thinking a movie starring Keanu Reeves and featuring a heroin-addicted talking dolphin (no joke) would have such appeal among the kids to warrant that level of merchandizing. They didn’t have my old rival Elvira Scared Stiff, but I got completely addicted to a new machine I’d never seen before called Monster Bash. The goal of this very silly pinball machine was to help each of the classic Universal Studios monsters form a rock band by first getting each member and then getting all their instruments. I came very close but alas the Mummy proved to be my white whale. Again I’m not sure why anyone really thought to make this, but it was a campy good time that ate up positively all the quarters I’d been saving for parking meters.
After leaving my pinball fugue state, I ventured to the open mic which was in possibly the most wonderfully bluntly named venue I’ve ever seen:
The bar endearingly lived up to the name with a thick cloud of smoke, virtual slot machines at the bar, and dangerously cheap beers. It was a lot of fun, and while it didn’t pack in a huge crowd of comedy viewers but I think that’s too be expected on a Monday night in a Dive Bar. What crowd was there was pretty solid though, and more importantly the other comics were really funny and fun to hang out with. In a stroke of luck, one of the nicest and funniest guys there, Ryan Bourassa, happened to also be an East Coast transplant. He was from New Hampshire, but had performed a lot in Boston so we knew a lot of the same people and spent some time reminiscing which was really nice
My personal favorite comic of the night was the host Randall “Crabmeat” Thompson because he had a real great anarchic energy. Like he was clearly a strong joke writer, but he would do intentionally cheesy or weird bits (i.e. “Martin Luther King Jr. sounds like a sandwich from Wendy’s”) and just try to pull them off with pure charisma, almost always sticking the landing. As a host he leaned into the diviness of the Dive Bar and kept everything very loose and low stakes. I think the most inspired and strange bit he did was an extended bit using his hand as a puppet named Handy. They did a few very classic style set-up punch lines like “What do you call a distilled rabbit? Hopscotch” but then when he asked Handy what he did that day he started going on an angry racist rant, which Randall ended by saying “I’m so sorry everyone, he’s my alt-right hand” It was surreal, shocking, and really funny.
Ryan Bourassa- There’s a lot of hate in the world. I think we could solve racism if we got all the racists together and told them racism is gay. Then we’d just tell the homophobia is math.
Vincent (didn’t catch the last name) - I know I like animals because if I saw a person wrapped in plastic I wouldn’t help them.
Sally Jordan - It’s so easy to get a weed card in Vegas. I told them I had SIDS.
For my set, I also just tried to lean into the dive bar feel and just kept it to pretty short bits and my more relatively dirty material. I did fine, but not great with the crowd, but the other comics were more supportive and positive about it, so I still counted it as a win. Overall it was really nice start to the week.
Favorite Random Sightings: Side Dump (not the most appealing business name); Nacho Daddy (more fun)
Regional Observations: There’s a local chain of gas stations called Terrible’s. This never didn’t amuse me the whole week I was here.
Albums Listened To: Skat-Dat-Dee-Dat: The Spirt of Satch by Dr. John (the good doctor and an all-start cast pay tribute to Louie Armstrong); Skelethon by Aesop Rock (very cool production); Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis (a sprawling mix of Jazz and classical that was pretty unheard of it when it came out, and was equal parts a new creative step forward for Miles and Gil Evans and a not so thinly veiled ploy at making a jazz album that could be easily marketed to old white people)
People’s Favorite Jokes:
A young boy was visiting his sick grandfather at the hospital. Every time the grandfather spoke the boy would crane his neck to look into the old man’s throat. Eventually the old man asked why he kept doing this, and the boy replied, “I’m looking for the frog.”
“What frog?” the old man asked.
“The frog that lives in your throat”
The old man laughed, and said “There’s no frog that lives in my throat”
The boy looked disappointed and said “Aww man, mom said if you croaked we’d go to Disney”
Songs of the Day:
Bonus Video Because More people need to know about the Total Recall audio commentary done by Governator himself: