I woke up in a hotel room in Las Vegas, the sun high in the sky, ready for my early-morning coffee, the casino almost deserted. Walking around the city hunting for food, I still had in mind the immensity of the Grand Canyon I had visited a day before. It's nuances, shades, shadows, my boyfriend in flip-flops hiking down the canyon and the hulk-like elk that almost 'attacked' our bus. That was the first breathtaking pit stop on a road trip across the United States.
"Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road." ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road.
All Photographs (c) Bibbi Abruzzini
A Different Side of Las Vegas
If there was one word to describe Las Vegas, that would be 'extreme'. Yet, what interested me the most of this so-called 'Sin City', were not the mega gigantic hotels, the American replica of my beloved Venetian canals or the eclectic entertainment biz. I took all of that for granted. I explored a different side of the city: that of community centers, antiques shops and street artists. Over a cup of coffee I found myself talking about Latin America with writer and four-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Kim MacQuarrie. I spent most of my time clapping hands to the rhythm of music, watching street performers finding their audience in Las Vegas' Strip. Before leaving the city I visited the Serenity Club, a membership based clubhouse that rents meeting space to 12 - Step Recovery based Organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Here, I met Mike, a former alcoholic from the East Coast who now found his true calling in "giving back and helping others".
Driving on the highway towards California, I stopped at one of Nevada's legal brothels. I rang the bell and was greeted by the manager, a blond woman in her 40s. I explained that I was not looking for sex. The place looked like a well-decorated apartment, very clean, full of Star Trek and other space tales-related objects. The light was dim; there was a bar, a souvenir vitrine with sex toys and a pole. I was given a choice between three different workers, whose task was to show me around. I picked Jenny (name changed), a tall and proud Afro-American woman in her late 20s from Missouri. As she gave me a tour of the different rooms, from those offering couple massages to sadomasochism, she told me that she considers herself "a free soul" and that her dream is to "see the world" as soon as she puts enough money aside.
'Naked and Afraid"
As I hopped back into the car and started rolling, my boyfriend told me that the landscape looked like the deserts of Afghanistan where he worked for four years as a civilian contractor. We stopped at Rhyolite, a ghost town near the eastern edge of Death Valley. Interesting here is the work of Belgian artist Albert Szukalski who created in 1984 his sculpture The Last Supper, which became part of the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture park near the entrance to the ghost town. After this suspense slash horror-movie setting, we sat at a coffee place in Beatty, while the owner watched the original version of the movie Mad Max, had a dozen of bottles of beer - yet treated us like kings.
Our car run out of gas in the middle of the White Mountains close to Big Pine and it was getting dark. Two gentlemen gave us a ride to the nearest gas station and a cartoonist by passion and EMT at the local fire department by profession drove us back to the stranded car. She would not accept any money for it. On day four, after a full night spent watching 'Naked and Afraid', we drove across beautiful Yosemite.
San Francisco and Surroundings
Living in Nepal for five years made me meet some wonderful souls. One of them is Ilina who hosted us in Berkley, acted as our personal tourist guide and unveiled some of the best sides of San Francisco. In Haight-Ashbury for example we talked to some neo-hippies turned drug dealers to understand what drives them to ramble across the United States, ahead of watching the NBA finals in China Town. Before getting tipsy at a wine tasting in Mendocino County, I took the opportunity to visit an Indian reservation after hearing about their plans to start developing their own pot farm. Reports suggest that the Pinoleville marijuana plantation could be the first large-scale medical pot cultivation and distribution enterprise on tribal land in California, if not the country. What makes the news headline-worthy is that the farm will be along the highway for everyone to see it. In Mendocino County opinions are mixed. If some believe that it will push out illegal plantations and "the mob", others, natives in particular, are asking whom will the farm actually benefit.
After a great swim in the icy waters of Huntington Beach and an amazing sunset around the Salton Sea, I finally reached Slab City. I first heard of this campsite in the Sonoran Desert in 2009, after briefly meeting Gianfranco Rosi, an Italian filmmaker who recently won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival with his latest movie Sacro GRA. At the time I was working for an independent film festival in Paris and got the chance to watch his documentary 'Below Sea Level'. It was about an abandoned Naval base northeast of San Diego, where residents were living in makeshift buses, old trailers and piles of rubble. Since then, I've always wanted to step foot in this post-apocalyptic cyberpunk settlement, part hippy commune, part no man's land.
We got there during the Saturday night Talent show held at "The Range" managed by William Ammon, who goes by "Builder Bill". Sofas were displayed in front of the stage; a kid was dancing while a woman with a mask was performing with a hula-hoop. A parade of dogs was following a shorthaired woman called Pixie who wrote "To Love and to Be Loved" with chalk on the ground. A group of old men was smoking, gradually melting into the sofas. I started talking to Cornelius Vango, a female bass player and artist who takes care of the Slab City Lizard Tree Library.
After a sleepless night under the stars I woke up to visit the popular Salvation Mountain, a nearby artwork and tourist attraction, and the East Jesus Art Collective, which operates an artist residency and sculpture garden at the edge of Slab City. Over the years the place has witnessed a surge in popularity after appearing in movies such as 'Into the Wild'. Rumors say that it will feature in the 2016 The Bad Batch, a dystopian love story set in a community of cannibals. I was told that Keanu Reeves and a bunch of other actors recently visited Slab City. This place is known as being populated by addicts, but once you spend some time here you will find yourself talking about racial issues in the US, religion, Monsanto and what motivates the roughly 200 people who call Slab City home year-round to live here, although temperatures can be as high as 120 degrees. Some come to this desert town penniless. Others are "self-destructive and drug addicts," a resident told me. Many are living off the grid, struggling to become self-sufficient, fueled by the vision of building an alternative to modern society. If you've got the chance to embark on a road trip this summer do it! Because "traveling," as the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta would say, "it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." Some more pictures of the road trip below.