Eschscholzia californica

The past couple of months put me through the wringer somewhat, nearly crushing me under the one-two boots of February and March. The first brought unanticipated money trouble, the second an avalanche of work. They marched on and trampled me fairly well, leaving me physically and mentally exhausted, which in turn left me vulnerable to things in my head I typically can keep at bay much more easily. I came home from work countless times feeling as though I’d been beaten up, but still could not sleep well. Stress over paying bills and staying afloat became fixations, and I didn’t eat all that well for a while, both because stress had been robbed me of my appetite, as it often does, and because I simply couldn’t afford to. The older I get, the harder it becomes for me to accept the precariousness of my situation, as though age is any sort of qualification for stability.

But: they passed. I’m getting by, though of course nothing in my life is ever truly stable. The most exhausting and demanding of the work is over, at least for now. I’m not covered in (quite so many) bruises now.

Normally, I’m the sort of anxiety-ridden cynic who thinks, if I go somewhere unusual on one of my days off (not very typical in itself): “It would take days for anyone to realize I’m gone,” were I to just disappear. I live a small life, and apart from those who pay me to be somewhere specific at predetermined times, my presence (or absence) affects very few. So, I went away for a while.

I drove further out of town than I have — within the state — for any other reason than visiting my home town. I told no one that I was going anywhere, let alone where or when. I didn’t know if there would be any phone service once I reached my destination for anyone to reach me, but had no expectation that anyone would try, so I didn’t think twice about it. I had no plan, and simply stayed until it felt like time to drive home. I knew the fields would be full of my favorite flower in bloom, I had never been there, and I wanted to see them. I grew up a Girl Scout in Southern California; I know how to dress for and tackle hiking through rattlesnake country in the hot, dry sun. I wandered around alone until my legs grew tired. Fortunately, almost in tune with the turning of the month, my mind had finally eased. I felt able to be open and fully relaxed. And so, I drove.

I’ve always harbored a secret desire to someday take a road trip somewhere, though circumstances — an old car I can’t afford to risk, and inability to leave work for anywhere near long enough to get very far — have always deemed it impossible. But this much, I could do. Growing up in California, you can easily forget how massive it is, though that shouldn’t be possible; that you can fit entire European countries into it, with room to spare. I’ve lived here 30 years, but have seen relatively little of it. I’d never been out to Antelope Valley, either, where I ended up yesterday.

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Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

The Poppy Reserve was lovely — fields upon fields carpeted with my favorite flower; they began to peek at me from the roadside in patches over seven miles before I even reached the turnoff into the park… those silken petals that almost appear permanently wet, were you to touch them. They are a particular shade of slightly reddish-yellowish-orange that makes them unmistakable from any other blossom. How unbearably nerdy, for the state flower to be one’s favorite… And yet.

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Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

I could have pulled over well ahead of my destination, as many others had, and still come upon thousands of the bright blossoms with miles to go, but I wanted to pay my respects and dues to the park properly (will state parks even survive this horror show of an administration?). If I hadn’t made the full drive, besides, I’d have missed the creaking metal signs and tinkling glass of the antiques yards, the crooked wood and sleepy-eyed cows of the small farm, the nearly blinding, rippling, almost mirage-like glare of the photovoltaic power stations.

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Farm, Antelope Valley (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

I lost count of how often I pulled over to the shoulder to take another moment alone, another photograph, or five. That particularly satisfying sound of gravel crunching under my boots as I hoofed my way beneath the looming pylons and gently humming power lines; the near-silence of so much open space so (mostly) devoid of people, everything wiped away by the wind but the birds. The gusts were so strong they roared in my ears, made me glad I was alone; I couldn’t have heard anyone else speak, anyway. It pushed any last negative thought or remnant of sadness I might still be worrying away at like a pearl cleanly out of my head, as though it could blow straight through my ears, my brain not there at all. Though I ended up feeling almost more cleansed and enchanted by the drive than anything else, to my surprise.

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Antiques at the Barn, Antelope Valley (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

There is a palette to a California highway — its dusty browns, forest green signs, chaparral brush, and small riots of wildflower color. It was easier to recognize yesterday, driving a highway (the 14) I’d never put tread to before, feeling it lock into place among all the others I’ve driven so many times in the past. It is warm — all the colors I can’t pull off wearing as clothing — and in its wide open expanses, announces itself as both recognizably “Americana,” and yet slightly separate from it in its sprawling beauty and characteristic touches. All of America has shared, iconic imagery — roads that appear to stretch on forever, hills and valleys, rivers and rocks — but California’s particular little fingerprints jump out to me more clearly when observing them through a windshield, from the road.

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Antiques at the Barn, Antelope Valley (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

I can’t recall the last time I saw so much green in the hills, after all these rains. Of course, having grown up here, I know they may be a portent of a catastrophic fire season as the year grows hot and dry; how easily all that green can turn to kindling… a child’s nightmares in this state are filled with fire and earthquakes shaking homes to dust and ash. But you see, too, how we move our precious water around — the runoff  lanes carved sharply into the hillsides like veins, pipes sloping down from faraway water towers; now and then, the shock appearance of a full reservoir, that unexpected blue nearly tricking the eyes. The abandoned gas stations and junk cars left to rust; the long haul trucks sharing the road with you (a baffling concept to my Swiss father, whose homeland subsists almost entirely on transport by train); how the wind can seem to bully your car across lane markers in the open trenches, reminding you of your smallness. The dark mountains, knobbly and delicate in their slopes down to their valleys, like an old woman’s fingers; the single houses built precariously on high hilltops, little me wondering if they were lonely, so high and alone above all the others; the messages spelled out, helicopter-font-size, in bleached rocks amid the dark brush. Outlet malls and noise walls; Joshua trees and still-black old scars from burned out acres scorched in prior seasons; windmills turning lazily in the breeze. The sheer rock faces, whole mountains seeming cleaved clean through for the road to push still onward, the scrub brush still stubbornly growing through at sideways angles; crooked white wooden crosses staking old memory and loss along the sides of the highway. Pockets of bare new houses being built everywhere you can imagine (building always building, California will build itself to death); nearly every house that dusty, nondescript, unfortunate salmon color. Here and there the hawks and crows diving and scavenging, wheeling through the sky, a single startling puff of bright white cloud in the otherwise uninterrupted painfully blue ceiling of the world.

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Pylons and power lines, Antelope Valley (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

California looks like this to me, and even in driving over one hundred miles through a part of it that was new to me, it remains forever familiar even in its newness. I passed an abandoned prison, with its lonely guard towers looming over only shadows, fences weeping rusted barb wire, and chased the sun home.

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I drive off in my car

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1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass (Hollywood)

I may not be doing a damn thing when it comes to actively shooting the photo series I’ve been talking and talking about shooting for easily three years now, but I do spend quite a lot of time thinking about things that I recognize are elements connected to what it might eventually become; what I want most for it to somehow express. (If I ever turn thought into action, of course, as the caveat goes. As an engine myself running almost entirely on varying types and degrees of anxiety, this is one of the greatest hurdles of my life, no matter which problem of non-action you apply it to. Choose any one thing: if I have not done it, I am vibrating silently in anxiety over both it, and the 500 invented reasons why I have yet to do it.) Maybe I’m simply doubtful I could ever, at this point, create work that could even begin to communicate such a concept. Moving from concept to execution: the bane of my existence.

I think about it when I’m sitting at stop lights, inevitably, because the idea first arrived in my mind while watching strangers doing the very same thing. I think about it because, in my ideal world of action, I should be somewhere out on the sidewalk, capturing it, rather than participating in it. I think about it when I watch people pull into the gas station I always use from the wrong direction; they’re operating from within the bubble I want to document. I think about it when I’m doing the very private things in my own car I want to catch strangers doing: singing… crying. Particularly the latter, though I usually save that for nighttime, when other drivers can’t really see into other cars. I think about it a lot.

Aimless driving is one of those many things, too. It’s something I’ve engaged in ever since I was able to drive, once I finally had a car of my own (as two years passed between the two). In my hometown, it was an easy habit to engage in, both because I was largely miserable, and because there is nowhere to go there. I would simply get into the car, usually when my mother was already asleep (i.e. any time after 9PM), and drive. Typically north, but always along the coast. I would do it simultaneously very aware of having nowhere to go, and not caring. Gas was much cheaper when this habit formed, but I still do it now. Being as desperately broke as I am (and apparently will forever be) cannot stop me from doing it even now, as long as there is gas in the car already. I don’t even attempt to justify it to myself, both because I know this isn’t possible, and also because it’s the rare thing in my life about which I could give a fuck regarding its justification to myself.

I was aimlessly driving around just last night, which was a poor choice; it was a Friday night, in and around Hollywood; peak traffic time for those with actual lives who have concrete destinations and plans to get to and from, which felt both annoying and exclusionary. When I do this, in a city as large and busy as this one, I typically allow traffic to direct me, because there is nothing else to decide where I will go, or which route I will take to get there and back. If the roads are not so packed, though, I’ve found that I sometimes will — without meaning to, of course — dissociate slightly, here and there. I will lose focus on where I am, and what I am doing. I will follow blurred head- or taillights more closely than more immediate indicators. I put absurd trust into my sense of where exactly on the road I am, simply because I have learned over many years that I can. (My mother would kill me, if she knew.) I have good instincts in a car — mainly thanks to the manner in which I was taught to operate one, and my generally good reflexes — and am not overly concerned about my control over the vehicle, but at the same time, I’m rather amazed I’ve never gotten into an accident; my concentration is not at 100%, any time that I am doing this, because I am going nowhere.

This ever-developing project inevitably came to mind again last night, because it is mostly about the strange space we enter into when we are inside cars, and how deeply they alter our behavior. They become protective bubbles we feel we have absurdly more control over than we actually do (and this doesn’t even take into account the thousands of other drivers, even less predictable than ourselves, we are sharing those roads with); these bizarre, heavy, sharp, mechanical, deadly extensions of ourselves. Or rather, we behave and feel as though this is what they are.

People often express outrage, dismay, and helpless confusion as to why and how it is that human beings treat automobile accident fatalities — which occur in astronomical numbers — so casually, but I am sure all these psychological elements are a part of that. We accept that cars can kill us — are more statistically likely to kill us than any other entirely separate entity or object we regularly engage with, by far — almost casually, because some part of us sees them as an extension of our bodies. We feel protective of them, react to traffic transgressions as personal slights; gas and brake pedals can feel like extensions of our legs, the turning wheels a greater reach of our hands steering them. (This is, when you examine it closely, something like a shared lucid state of all drivers, flirting a bit with mild insanity.) Maybe we associate cars and driving so deeply with escape because merely driving one is skirting more closely to death than just about any other activity we ever participate in on a regular basis. Of course a car can kill you; cancer can kill you, too. It feels more akin to that than an outside element acting upon us, as with homicide, which we react to with far more visceral horror. Until, of course — potentially, likely when you least expect it — they fold in onto you like a metallic accordion — because you are just a small, soft animal, precariously housed in a glass and metal cage full of gasoline several times your size — crushing you to death.

I think about these things while driving around, rather than about where I am going, sometimes slightly dissociating, all the time.

Day for Night

Certain winter nights with the right amount of moisture and fog in the Los Angeles air mean it almost feels warm, even when you find yourself dressed in at least three layers to keep the chill out of your bones. The low hanging clouds refract the city lights in all directions in a soft, fiery-toned magenta glow, like a diffuse filter in a photographer’s studio, throwing the iconic palm trees into permanent, postcard perfect silhouette.

I walk a slightly longer path home from work in this season, crossing the street an extra time and back to share the same side as the Christmas tree lot that crops up every year above the otherwise abandoned lot that once housed a gas station, leaking tanks still crumbling beneath our feet. Here in Hollywood, the trees are almost suspiciously symmetrical, standing ready in the setting sun to take rides on the roofs of cars tied down with twine, to grace the living rooms of the fanciest, brightest homes. As a child, though, I always grew unreasonably attached to the weirdest trees of them all — the sadder and more lopsided the better — just like Charlie Brown; once, when I was four or five years old, according to my mother, I apparently was on the verge of tears at the idea of leaving behind a particularly funny-looking tree, convinced no one else would take it home, that it would be lonely if we left it behind.

I drove around for hours tonight, presumably on the hunt for a silly little item, though not all that concerned with actually finding it. I migrated between three different locations of the same chain, none of which had it (though apparently any one of them should have), and wasn’t particularly bothered with the failure of the quest. In a more negative mood, I would definitely have described it as a waste of gas, considering the quest took me from Glendale, to Burbank, back to my old neighborhood in Van Nuys, and back home again, with little else to show for the miles clocked.

The legions of holiday lights strung out among houses and apartment buildings certainly helped; I found myself smiling alone in my car passing them by, in some areas not able to look in enough directions at once to take them all in. Holiday lights have been a lifelong beloved sight for me, ever since my earliest days of my father teetering up on the rickety metal ladder outside the house I grew up in, swearing to himself as he nailed them along the eaves of the house and above the garage door; the two little bulbs of a special type he would leave for last, carefully switching out our white front porch lights for one red, and one green. In a city this size, you see all kinds; the McMansions, professionally strung up to an almost gaudy degree, though still impressive in a way that makes me smile, too, sometimes two across the same street, brightly one-upping each other. My favorites though are always in the smaller neighborhoods; quirkier, more haphazard and multi-colored displays across so many more little homes, sweetly defiant little twinkling points of light shining from a single apartment balcony on the upper floor of an otherwise dark facade looming in the night.

Taking a detour through my old neighborhood, the first I lived in in this city, tugged slightly at me; my throat tightened a bit, recalling the particular feeling of making certain long drives to and from it during my first winter… of what was happening to me, my heart, my life, back then; how it can somehow, already, feel so long ago, even now.