NV Day 7/ CA Day 0- Outdoor Art, Oddball Houses, and Old Friends
Today I bid a heartfelt farewell to my family and Nevada. My aunt and uncle loaded me up with snacks to get me to California (I think they were intended to last the rest of the trip, but not all of them made it through the day).
After my goodbyes, I swung by Perk Up Coffee Shop to start my travel day perked up. I got an iced red eye which is a coffee with a couple shots of espresso for extra perk. The barista warned me “It’s pretty strong” to which I replied “I’m driving to LA”. He laughed and said, “Well then you’re gonna need it!”. It was good and very strong as promised, and I liked joking around with the Barista. He wasn’t kidding either as it’s normally a minimum three hour drive, but with the stops I was planning on taking along the way it was going to be at least 5.
My first stop was to see a gorgeously weird outdoor sculpture just outside of Vegas called Seven Magic Mountains. These seven 30-foot fluorescently colored totem poles were stacked and painted by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, using locally sourced boulders that give the towers their unique irregular shapes that seem to defy physics every second they remain upright. Each mountain’s unique set of colors struck the perfect tone between being garish and beautiful. They really did look magical since they were natural enough that they didn’t look man-made, but so colorful that they didn’t look natural either like they just sort of sprung up out of the earth. You could also just walk right up to them which made them extra impressive when you could see just how small you are in comparison. Not a bad way to say goodbye to Vegas.
After the magic mountains, I made my way to Californ-y. Even though I had crossed state lines, I was still quite a long way from the City of Angels, because, and I don’t want to speak too hyperbolically here, California’s a pretty big state. I started by driving through Mojave Desert which had real raw and rugged beauty to it, like it looks the same today as it did for the first Native Americans to live there or the first Westerners to go out panning for gold. It also just seemed to go on forever, so I can imagine people being here and just having no clue how close they were to lush forests and oceans elsewhere in the state.
Through Mojave I made my way through Joshua Tree National Park. I didn’t actually stop to see the titular trees except from afar, probably because at the time I didn’t realize how unique and rare they are (The Mojave is the only region in the world where they grow!) and I had my head so sent on getting to the next destination. Sadly in the time I am writing this as opposed to when I was actually there the government shut down has led to this particular park struggling to stay open and some of these weird beautiful trees are getting cut down without anyone to protect them. It’s a sad and somber reminder of how valuable the National Parks Service actually is in keeping endangered lands and species alive for the next generations to enjoy and learn from. In honor of that I did want to include some cool Joshua tree photos even though I didn’t personally take them. It also gives a nice idea of just how scenic a lot of the driving was even though it usually gets glossed over in my writing, since driving and photography at the same time is generally frowned upon.
My destination within the park was Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Art Museum, an expansive open air museum covering 2.5 acres of desert and featuring the works of one of America’s most important outsider (in this case literally) artists. Purifoy is notable for being the first African-American student to graduate from CalArts at, and he is credited with doing a lot to further African-American consciousness within the fine arts world as well as legitimizing works made from “junk” materials and not housed in traditional museum gallery spaces. Besides his desert museum, notable non-traditional locales he utilized include downtown Watts just after the riots (in his most famous installation 66 Signs of Neon, cataloged here), student centers, and even prisons. He was a fascinating man and artist, and I was very happy to tromp around in his creations. Because he used almost exclusively found materials, a lot of the pieces weren’t particularly aesthetic but they were frequently thought provoking and very impressive in their construction, size, and creativity. I loved that right away you are kept on your toes by a greeting sign that plays a neat trick on your brain. Look down at the picture below. You probably read the words as “Welcome” but if you look at it again, it doesn’t actually say that or anything but your brain still fills in the blank of what it expects to see. It’s a really Willy Wonka tumble of a piece to start things off in a wonderfully disorientating way.
The museum featured over 20 pieces from Purifoy’s oeuvre. Some are very small, and some are the size of houses that visitors can actually go into and inspect. There is a roughness to their assembled nature that Purifoy says was inspired by the starkness of the landscape, and the pieces are very much tied to their environment. A neat feature of them being outside is that the tone of the pieces is largely set by the weather, as the same piece that can appear pretty whimsical in the sunlight might look oddly menacing on a cloudy day. I caught the museum on a cloudy day, but not too cloudy, so everything had a slight tinge of menace but the lightness in many of the pieces still shone through. While it would be hard to call a lot of the art “beautiful” in a traditional sense, there was something very triumphant in the way they made something big and bold out of scraps and junk. Some of the unusual materials Purifoy utilized included bowling balls (a weird recurring theme of my travels), scrap metal, sinks, toilets, charcoal, and barbed wire. Some pieces were totally abstract while others actually took on familiar forms like carousel (with an oddly human face-looking doorway), a theater, a train set, and even a Newton’s cradle of bowling balls.
My favorite pieces included: the monumental bowling ball topped White House; a piece made of wheels, windows, driftwood, and bicycles called No Contest that makes me think of an uneven scale but also just looks really neat; and lastly what might be the least romantic heart ever assembled out of carefully stacked toilets. Maybe it’s not a heart, it could just be an arch, but I see a heart when I look at which very likely says more about me than it does about the artist.
My found art train kept a-rolling with my next stop. As I ventured out of the desert and into the much more suburban Palm Springs, I paid a visit to the house of Kenny Irwin Jr., AKA Robo Lights! Kenny has spent the past 30 odd years assembling recycled electronics to turn his house into a Sci-Fi Christmas bonanza, imagining a vaguely dystopian North Pole run by robots. The multi-colored robots come in all shapes and sizes, with the tallest reaching an impressive 50 ft. high! Santa and his elves also make for numerous guest appearances, as well as a few aliens just for good measure. Understandably, the place really comes alive during the holiday season when all the Christmas lights all over the place light up the winter night’s sky, but it is open just about year round by appointment to mosey through the weird artistic visions. Unfortunately I didn’t know to make an appointment ahead of time, but Irwin’s vision was so expansive that just doing a walk around the perimeter gives you a glimpse of many of the wonders within his imagination.
All of Irwin’s work were impressive feats of creativity and craftsman, but my personal favorite was Sant’as metallic battle slay being led by a flying shark with a candy cane in its mouth. I don’t know what makes someone think of something like this, but I’m sure glad they were able to turn it into a reality.
After the Robo Lights, I re-upped on my coffee at a local Palm Springs chain called Koffi. I can see why the misspelled cafe caught on enough to open up multiple locations, because it was really good coffee in a nice cozy setting. Re-energized I set out for my next destination.
The one thing I couldn’t figure out while I was in Palm Springs, is where do you think the name comes from?
The next spot was near and dear to my heart, as it was featured in the road-trip classic Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure: The Cabazon Dinosaurs. Created by artist Claude Bell. Dinny and Mr. Rex, a apatosaurus and tyrannosaur respectively, stand as kitschy sentinels overlooking the California highway. Dinny clocks in at 150 ft. long while his more formal friend is 85 feet tall, and just like in Pee-Wee both dinosaurs are hollow for visitors to walk around in (or run away from a waitress’ jealous boyfriend in). I went inside Dinny, who houses a small souvenir shop featuring lots of dinosaur toys and merchandise as well as photographs from the museum’s storied past including a brief ownership by Christian Fundamentalist group who used the dinosaurs to teach people about how dinosaurs were a myth and creationism was the one true path. That’s a real Trojan horse use of a perfectly lovable roadside attraction.
Mr. Rex was unfortunately not available to walk around in for free, and visitors could pay a small admission fee that included access to a small museum about dinosaurs, an interactive replica of fossil dig, and of course a climb up into the good sir’s gaping maw. Alas, maybe next time.
Just across from the dinosaurs was one of the largest wind farms I’ve ever seen, extending all the way up to the horizon. I really don’t see why some people dislike these so much. I think they look neat and sort of space-ship-y so I always get excited to see them. Plus they’re objectively prettier than oil drills.
From there, it was a straight shot to La-La Land (though with much less random singing and dancing in the streets than the movies had led me to believe). LA traffic would prove to be a formidable foe later in the week, but whether it was because it was Sunday or because Coachella was happening (which probably diverted the tourists from the big city), today at least I had a pretty easy time getting into LA.
I checked into my hostel for the night, and then I was off to meet my friend Sam Clark for dinner. Sam and I did improv together in college, and he was one of my first comedy friends at Harvard who always encouraged me to be as silly as I could be. After college, he moved out to LA where he started up on the stand-up grind while taking various odd jobs as a tutor and writer’s assistant. He worked his butt off and rightfully started gaining steam, getting better stand up gigs, landing a job writing for the Netflix show Magic for Humans, co-running a monthly stand up showcase, and now soon to be featured on an Amazon Prime stand-up showcase! He’s a big goofball, and he’s been incredibly good to me and inspiring so I was so happy to see him, and I continually root for his successes.
My hostel was near Koreatown, so Sam suggested we get BBQ at a place called Oo-Kook Korean BBQ. It was a snazzy place, with a built in grill right in the table and we feasted on every kind of meat with the occasional veggie and noodle dish thrown in for good measure. It was an amazing meal, and it was so good to see my funny friend again. We caught up about his work and my travels, shared new jokes, and basically just laughed for almost two hours. It was a perfect welcome to LA, and while I already had a hostel book Sam offered me a couch later in the week so it would not be the last we’d see of one another.
After dinner I went back to my hostel, where I got to fall asleep to the sonorous sounds a Russian man having night terrors. He would make some awful shrieking noise, another Russian man would wake him up by saying “You are so weird, Dmitri! Stop this!”, there would be a moment of peace, and then the whole cycle would begin again. Hollywood, baby!
Favorite Random Sightings: Select Kid’s Pediatric Therapy (just for select kids); a little kid wearing a t-shirt saying “Can’t Stop This”; Combat Barber (very intense); Bread Lounge; Chicken Warriors; Yummy Monster (the best kind of monster)
Regional Observation: Both Nevada and California have some of the most expensive gas in the country, and boy did I have to use a bit of it today.
Albums Listened To: Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune by Stray Bullets (great Boston punk band); Slugcology 101 by Doug & the Slugs (the band that did the theme song for Norm Macdonald’s short lived anti-sitcom); A Small Affair in Ohio by Tom Waits (a wonder recently released intimate live show from 1977)
People’s Favorite Joke:
“I’ve been working on a joke about Paul Revere being really smug but it’s just not there yet” (one of the weirder answers I got but a sign that I’m nearer to LA and droves of unemployed screenwriters)
Nevada Superlatives (Or more accurately Southern NV since I missed out on Reno and Carson City):
Favorite Coffee: Mothership Coffee Roasters in Henderson
Favorite Bar: ReBar in Las Vegas
Favorite Beer: JJ’s Imperial Stout by Joseph James Brewing Company
Favorite Restaurant: Carson Kitchen in Las Vegas
Favorite Casino: The Venetian
Favorite Attraction: The Mob Museum in Vegas (though the Goldwell Open Air Museum is a close second)
Favorite Open Mic: ReBar (maybe a little biased since I won a gift card there)
General Impression of the Las Vegas Comedy Scene: Pleasantly and surprisingly tight knit for such a big city, I thought there was good supportive community in the Vegas scene with lots of opportunities for stage time. Audiences vary a bit more than on average, because I think there’s more tourists than actual Vegas residents and they don’t necessarily seek out entertainment outside of the casinos, but some nights you might be surprised. The plus side of the casinos drawing people away from open mics, is that they always need openers so if you get past the open mic stage in Vegas there’s pretty nice odds of getting some very solid gigs. One weird observation I never mentioned in the earlier post is that for whatever reason, the word “faggot” was said a lot more frequently in Vegas than in other scenes. It wasn’t used maliciously since the scene is very queer friendly (lots of stages are shared with drag performers) but I think it’s just a bit of anti-PC envelope pushing. That’s not particularly uncommon in and of itself, but I think there’s something to the fact that Nevada outside of Vegas is still very much a largely conservative state so the reason that word in particular isn’t filtered out more is either because A. flamboyant comedy types are more often called that word and thus feel some more entitlement to be able to reclaim it B. audiences don’t react as negatively to the word as they would in a more stereotypically liberal state (because really the biggest reason a comic won’t do something is if it doesn’t get a laugh) or C. some combo of the two. I don’t really know what it means, and I still had a great time in Vegas but it was something I ended up thinking about a bit.
Songs of the Day:
Bonus Shout Out to my Buddy: