This is the second part of a multi-part series. For the first part in the series, click here.
Here’s a photo I took of my car on the third day of the pandemic:
Somewhere near the continental divide, I sat alone atop a walkable mountain and ran through the facts: I am from the desert. In fourth grade theater I portrayed the bounty hunter who murdered Wild Bill Hickock during a card game; my grandfather sold saddles; one of my earliest childhood traumas involved sitting on a cactus. The spines felt eternal. I do not, however, consider myself a Desert Man. The Desert Men I know are a loose brotherhood. They collect bones and argue beneath uncorrupted starlight, whiskey-drunk in cots. They can pinpoint the ravine, one in a thousand on El Camino Del Diablo, where Edward Abbey is buried. The photographers among them are able to transform dusty boulders, with their cameras, into entities primordial and all-knowing.
I experimented a bit while in photo college, attending a few group sojourns into the Sonoran. I wore a big hat, lugged a camera out there on a tripod, playacted tough in crags. None of it suited me. The scenery was ecstatic, but I ruined my clothes and the boulders in my pictures never became anything besides boulders. I prefer the cold topography of suburban parking lots, where the planet is no less mysterious but you can get an iced tea. Strange then, down there in whatever valley on an unmarked dirt road was my froggy little Subaru. There I was on the mountain. My lord.
As supermarket lines around the country began to bottleneck I had driven obstinately west out of Texas toward Pie Town. A rough couple of years found me disconnected from my surroundings and searching for joy in art. I was determined to discover what would happen if I began again. So at the end of February, using my surprise role as a photography conference portfolio reviewer as motivation, I took a terribly-timed leap of faith and moved my whole apartment into a storage unit. I had vague yet promising plans back east. Right before I set out, during a brief stay in a stranger’s guest house, the pandemic appeared and quickly laid waste to my agenda. Nobody could bear the idea of my potential viral load existing on their couch. I turned inward, and either my optimistic side or my hyperactive flight mechanism took over; this was an opportunity! I would take to the highway and fulfill my long-standing desire to drive between Pie Town, New Mexico and Cookietown, Oklahoma. There were pictures to make along the way. You see, I like jokes. A Great Depression-style photo essay, but centered on dusty waypoints named for sweet treats; it seemed like a fine joke. Anything for a jumpstart. I figured I could wait out this coronavirus thing with a week on the road.
Pie Town had been photographed by Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration in 1940, so there was precedent. The town got its name a hundred years ago because somebody there baked pies, and I had found it by accident as a sleep-deprived teenager on a previous and long-misremembered microadventure. According to the scant information I could find online, Cookietown was a ghost town named for a former general store owner who gave cookies to children. Magnetic stuff.
Upon arrival in Pie Town I realized it was by chance March 14. 3/14, Pi Day. A large crowd had assembled at Pie-O-Neer Pies to eat pie. As I remember them, they were of various ages, but all wearing tie dye. The wardrobe probably had to do with it being Pi Day and not with the encroaching pandemic. I don’t know. I imagine they all showed up in tandem on those big motorcycles that don’t seem like they could ever fall over, even in a hurricane. Fun seekers. I mingled into the rabble and got a slice of red chili chocolate pie, which was very good.
Pi Day was appropriately big at Pie-O-Neer, and crowd control was deemed necessary. There was this doorman, an edible marijuana salesman who had volunteered last-minute. He was a hearty, chit-chatty guy wearing a black backwards baseball cap, safety goggles, and surgical mask down under his chin. I remember him as being a handsome, Superman or PE teacher type, but he looks weird in one underexposed photograph. As I recall, he told me he had sped down from his weed factory in Oklahoma to enforce a hand sanitizer policy and bleach down tables between customers. After suggesting I follow him on Instagram and watching to make sure I obliged, he darted off to spritz down another booth just deserted by a pair of the tie-dyed revelers. A video the man had shot of himself driving to Pie Town played on my phone. This was important. His only purpose was to indicate a massive hiccup in the continuum. I knew, because he existed, that this whole covid thing was serious. More than in my canceled work and accommodations, more than from panicked podcasts, I felt from his presence that it would not be over soon.
After ordering and scarfing a second slice of pie, I went for a walk to clear my head. At this point I was chased by a scary dog. It came out from behind a water tank and I actually had to run. When I thought I might die, the dog lost interest.
Then I found my car and drove miles back east into the windy Plains of San Agustin. A park ranger barred me from the visitor’s center at the Very Large Array, which is the sea of monumental satellite dishes that star as alien-finders in the movie Contact. This was not the right time to be galavanting out to points unknown, to Cookietown. I was at a loss, and kept driving mindless increments down the road. In my back seat was a bottle of olive oil, which I started drizzling on stray roadside objects whenever I stopped. Terrible pictures were made of the messes. When the known world has flown completely out the window, additional layers of nonsense can provide a form of salvation. Or at least a salve. Even if it’s crap, at least it’s action. I purchased bags of sliced bread and cheese from a gas station clerk in Magdalena, who seemed as suspicious of my miasma as I was of his. At the back of a cemetery I noticed a dirt road going off into the mountains. I took it.
I was out there for the next four days. The road either sucked or wasn’t a road. I barely remember anything that happened:
There was no rush, not really. There were windmills. I recall sending scattered text messages, some of which may have been desperate. What was happening in the world, and was I any longer a part of it? Here was quiet, dirt, and sky. Reclining in the back of my car one slow afternoon with some cows, I ruminated on the Desert Men that I knew. They would have been more prepared. My gas station cheese was getting weird. The Desert Men were probably setting up camp in southern Arizona right at that moment, flush with cans of hominy and ice-chest meats. Shotguns and loyal dogs. They had been minted for the end of the world. Perhaps the apocalyptic angels that they found in their photographs had finally broken loose from the rock.
Maybe Subarus are good cars — I drove through terrible washes and over peaks without much issue, laughing, saying “ah!,” thinking about how I had no choice. At the other end of the path I discovered the same highway I’d turned off at the cemetery in Magdalena. Google Maps says I was on Forest Road 354, a roughly 50-mile dogleg that connects US-60 to itself in the most inconvenient way possible. Once back on pavement I sped toward Texas, where friends had found me a stray bed in a vacant house. A week later I was splashing bleach on the seats and dashboard of a U-Haul, moving boxes out of storage and into a new apartment. My black pants turned orange. The mattress got upstairs even though I was alone. I remember thinking I might never make it to Cookietown. Next thing I knew, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the news congratulating HEB on the success of their curbside pickup system, or something.