The amazing true tale of the 1995 Art Car Caravan to Houston!
by Rick McKinney
“I had a dream that night. Harrod, Ron, Mr. & Mrs. Northrup and I sailed outward through space to some parallel world where all cars were art cars and we were the mad monarchs of the mode. We drove in my dream across Milky Way highways of Comets and Dusters and Quasars where Dennis Hopper sat atop a deep-space chopper blowing by Richard Bach’s biplane in the carpool air-corridor fast lane to the McDonald’s on Romulon 4, 27 Gagillion served! It was Planet Art Car with Harrod Blank as Undisputed King of the Wild Wheels Anti-world. Here, police dressed in the Mardi Gras garb of car artist Chuck Alston from the “Wild Wheels” film, and Chuck was himself their chief, piloting a born-again Cosmic Ray Deflection Car and giving tickets to anyone caught driving a normal, boring car.”
It’s a Monday night and I’m standing in some eerie East Phoenix neighborhood asking a frightening-looking blonde kid with a pistol in a shoulder holster if he’ll give me a lift to the auto parts store down the street to purchase a new battery for my art car, Duke, dead in a Circle K parking lot. The sun is soon to set. I’ve driven over a 1000 miles straight in one day on the I-10 and Myk, my passenger, is telling me in his entirely impractical zen idiot savant way to calm down BUT I CAN’T CALM DOWN! I’m hoping it is just the battery. Could be worse. The prospect of having to abandon my art car is making me crazy!
Duke is a car with a soul, one of a rare breed of Art Cars, and you don’t leave your art car for dead without losing a part of yourself. God! In East Phoenix, of all places! I’d rather leave Myk here than leave my buddy Duke to die in Phoenix. I’ve known Duke longer. So begins the tale. In East Phoenix. It has to, for such journeys must begin with the question of an inopportune end: will my car make it there and back? And if it doesn’t, am I prepared to say goodbye?
I must confess that I had once thought that if Duke croaked, I would torch him at sunset in some desolate stretch of desert, take pictures, drink myself silly and weep in my beer until the other caravaners carried me off and took me with them. I mean, what choice would I have? Starving artist.. no money for repairs or a tow, no triple A, no nuthin.
Nothing but an imperative: get the car home.
I’m about to relate the experience that led to this imperative, that led me to understand that I was far more attached to my car than I thought. This is the story of the road trip that changed a life. It’s the story of the Great American Gen-X Novel four-chapters-shy of completion. It’s about the check in the mail, the redefinition of family, and eleven creatively-endowed automobiles on the road to Houston and art history.
It’s also about the ill-wisdom of illegal ferret trading, the hitchhiker with bad vibes, new uses for climbing gear, engine-baked potatoes, Hunter Thompson fantasies, ex-girlfriends in foreign ports, the practicality of car-driving hippies (gypsies), cops on camera and the psychiatry of the Camera Van, and folk art fantasmic on the I-10. It’s about two weeks on the road with first ten, fifteen, then twenty eccentrics rolling, rambling, wobbling through desert towns and Texas spring blooming fields of wildflower color in a dozen cars bound for automotive glory.
This is the story of Harrod Blank’s West Coast Caravan to Houston. Though I wrote it just after returning home in April of 1995, the sensations and spirit, the characters and magical moments of that journey remain so vibrant in my otherwise cloudy memory that it could have been yesterday.
JUICE Magazine out of Berkeley had promised me $500 for the story, but failed to ever publish it. On its first draft, it totaled 40 pages of mad road ramblings. Crunched down several times since for several different media, the story got shorter and more stilted with every editing and never did see publication. Well, hooray for the Web. This is the tale as it was meant to be told, the whole truth, all versions thereof, with plenty of style and imagination mixed in.
More than your average road trip, the 1995 West Coast Caravan will, I believe, go down in history as the best, the first of its kind, the most magical and anecdotal of caravans in what will no doubt become a blending trend in the heretofore separate worlds of art and the automobile. The players, the cars, the melding of minds, the filming, the weather, the wonder, and in the case of my then-topless ride, the wind. (I’ve since built a roof.)
As a final introductory note, the 1995 Caravan came at a strange time for me. I was deeply into the work of my first novel, spending ten or twelve hours a day in a fictional world of my creation. This, together with my novel’s use of parallel world theory, undoubtedly lent my experience of the caravan a special other-worldly glow, like I was never very sure that any of it was real! And if it was, did the so-called normal world still exist outside our Art Car realm? With all that in mind, I encourage you to read the ensuing tale not as yesterday’s news but as something very real and alive and quite possibly happening right now in some parallel Art Car world, circa 1995. Enjoy!
Duke, my colorful road buddy, my fondest four-fendered friend. Typewriter hood-ornament, rubber ducky with Barbie doll arms, a trail of blue smoke at every stoplight. A public graffiti car, Duke’s body is swaddled in a dozen or so layers of multi-colored house paint, bullhorns, Barbie doll heads and plastic cowboys and indians. His eviscerated dash is filled with everything from beach stones and nude trolls to my cub scout uniform pins and patches, and pistol ammo casings stuck in a lava bed of hardened spray foam insulation. Duke is a 1976 Ford Granada with a soul, one of a rare breed of art cars lending relaxed smiles to the hurry-up-and-wait freeway faces of America.
Picture this: It’s a Wednesday in mid-April in a snowstorm sixty road miles and 6,000 feet up from Palm Springs. I’m sweating in long johns, jeans and a down jacket as I shovel, repeatedly, parallel paths in the snow for the sake of four bald tires and their struggle to move my art car sixty feet up a slight grade to the freedom of a paved street. It takes a lot of imagination to shovel snow to move a car filled with snow and pine needles to the street and think, “Whippee! In a few days, my feet won’t be soaked and cold. In a few days, this car without a windshield or a single roadworthy tire, this car adorned with faded house paint, this car that’s been sitting for eight months untuned or cared for is going on the road 3500 miles round trip to Houston, Texas with a dozen other wild cars and I’m gonna get a sun tan! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAA!” A lot of imagination.
A few weeks before the plotted departure date of April 19, I had started to feel stupid, having invited first one, then two, then half a dozen friends to accompany me on the road to Houston in Duke and still I had no co-pilot. Friend A couldn’t afford the trip, Friend B couldn’t take that much time off work, Friend C said I was nuts to think Duke would make it to Houston and back, and the person I would most like to join me on the road was three weeks from graduating college and couldn’t miss that much school.
My computer had just died, only a few chapters shy of a finished novel, and all these friends with pc’s they use about as often as their Exercycles claimed to suddenly need their computers for something more than decorative furniture. So one day I’m over at the home of this guy Bruce Endres, a guy who hardly knows me, listening as he performs last rites on my smoked laptop, and suddenly he unplugs his own pc and hands it to me, saying, “I never use it. Here, finish your novel.” Wow.
So Bruce, I decide, is an angel among men, among charlatan friends and family who claim to love and care but when called upon to show their cards shrink away like witches under a leaky rain gutter. “Bruce,” I said, “none of a dozen people who claim to be my friends could part with their pc’s for me. My mother wouldn’t risk stretching her credit to help me buy a new computer, something about her debt ratio being too high. But you did! YOU ARE A GOD!” And somewhere in that day’s conversation, I mentioned offhandedly to Bruce that I was going on a journey soon that might interest him, a good bet for “Adventure of a Lifetime” status, a road trip to Houston with a bunch of wildly painted cars. It was just an offhand mention.
And dammit if Bruce wasn’t off to the paint store the next morning, painting and preparing his VW van to make the trip to Houston with me and Harrod and the gang. I love Bruce. Due to the busy nature of the trip and my own scattershot foreshortened attention span, I can’t say I knew Bruce much better at the end of the trip than before. But I loved him instantly, because he gave without hesitation and he had the courage to hit the road with nothing but a book of food stamps and a few dollars. Bruce and his daughters Jessica and Amanda were to make the whole trip from our town near Palm Springs to Houston and back on a handful of Monopoly money and Jessy’s violin talent. Wow.
We spent our first night at The Clubhouse, a warehouse in some bad part of Los Angeles following an art car fund raiser party put on by the L.A. Cacophony Society. In the planning stages, this had worried me, what with my car having no roof. Street-people gravitate toward Duke’s chaotic colors and cozy confines. A homeless guy actually set up house in Duke during an overnight stay once in San Francisco’s Haight. But I need not have worried about the L.A. location, what with the high iron gates, barbed-wire and gun turret-fortified compound they had us parked in.
This was my first time meeting other art car artists after some four years in Duke feeling like the only freak on the road. I was excited at first, awed into admiration of Ron Dolce’s Glass Quilt and thrilled to meet Harrod after much correspondence. I wowed at the sight of Michael Gump’s Frozen Bug and ooh’ed and ahh’ed at a flame-shooting, espresso-making cast iron vehicle of sorts, though neither were to join us the following day. But then it got late and it became apparent that the only place to sleep was the back seat of my car. The hundred-odd L.A. culture buds and cocktail-apron actors that had come to see the Art Cars had gone, leaving our seedling circus caravan to fend for ourselves in the festive detritus of the post-party night.
I awakened hungover and dehydrated and craving a Cherry Slurpee at four in the morning. I could, however, discover no way out of the compound nor into the locked warehouse where there was a bathroom. For a small-bladdered, claustrophobic, light-sleeper from the mountains, my first night out on what would otherwise be a fantastic journey, was basically hell. I spent the pre-dawn hours scrunched painfully in the back seat of my car, vibed-out by the brain-baking buzz of the high voltage power station next door and freaked by the far off tink-tink tinkle of urban gunfire.
The next morning brought hope. A kind and helpful cacophonist set me up with a broken down old CB radio. Though it failed to transmit my voice, I could at least monitor the banter of the caravan. Breakfast was at the L.A.-famous Pantry downtown. Thanks to door proceeds from the party, Harrod picked up breakfast for the whole caravan crew. This was to be a common occurrence throughout the journey, with earnings from various appearances along the route buying meals or accommodations for all. A real boon for the broke, which I imagine many all of us were.
Idling at a red curb awaiting the departure of the group, I’d quickly moved at the sight of a meter reader approaching in my rear view mirror. When I got home two weeks later, I discovered a $55 parking ticket in my mailbox from that day! I couldn’t believe it. L.A. you whore! L.A. with all her badge-wielding boys playing the role of pimp enforcers. Only a place as self-possessed as L.A. would ticket you for pulling out.
That afternoon, the art cars assembled about 100 miles east in Cabazon, CA, for a photo shoot by the dinosaurs of “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure” and other films. In Harrod’s group-shot by the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the line-up thus far featured:
The Camera Van.. Harrod Blank, 32, filmmaker, Berkeley, CA; Alexis Spottswood, 26, substitute teacher & waitress, New York; Dan Lohaus, 24, Camera Van team member & “guitar wanker,” Berkeley, CA, set to spend Summer of `95 sleeping on gravel or in the van, drove truck around looking for cameras for Harrod, loves silicone, thinks Harrod hired him when he realized toxicity of all the chemicals used on the van; Chris Weiser, 27, quit job to come on trip, Berkeley, CA; and Neil Rubbert, 26, occupation unknown.
The Grape.. Charles Hunt, 31, plasterer, Simi Valley, CA; Natalie Berry, 32, mother of two, “Charles got suckered into taking me.” The Rainbow Bus.. musician Bruce “Swami” Endres, 42, and his daughters Amanda, 12, and Jessica, 10, Idyllwild, CA.
The Coltmobile.. (driving for creator Ron Snow) carpenter & mechanic Jimmy “Saint James under the hood” Skinner, 45, Portland, Oregon, gave his time free of charge as caravan mechanic.
The Glass Quilt, a.k.a. Marble Madness.. Ron Dolce “That’s dole-chey, as in La Dolce Vita, that means sweet. I’m really a prick, but I happened to get a good last name,” 52, artist, Oakland, CA. “I never had a real job, spent 23 years moving furniture. It’s hard physical work but good money and you get lotsa good stuff, like silicone which they can’t take because its flammable, so I take it. The ‘Oak Town’ homies call my car tight and double tight. It used to be fresh, live, chill, rad and now its tight.
And of course, my car..
My crew included myself and my copilot Myk Loutzenhiser, artist, 20, Idyllwild, CA. I’m 28 and career conflicted.
I’m a writer. At least I thought I was that safe and sunny day under the T-rex amongst new friends. One year later, long after my novel “Catcher in the Sky” is finished and accepted for publication and I’ve had months and months to revel in the confidence of a Writer-On-His-Way-To-Fame-And-Fortune!, the publisher will bankrupt and my mentor will die. I’ll turn 30 and then 31. My Saturn Return will hit me like a 9mm slug into a TV set. I’ll lose all faith in the written word, move to Oregon, hit rock bottom, and just days after the first Art Car West Fest in San Francisco, I’ll check into a mental hospital and be main-lining Prozac just to get out of bed once a day.
But heh! That’s another other story, right? Right.
I don’t know why, but those two dinosaurs at Cabazon and the million or so silver windmills whoop-whoop-whooping in the high winds between there and Palm Springs have always entranced me. I wrote about the dinosaurs and the windmills in my novel:
“Dust devils of aberrant sound perused the singer’s efforts, drafts of white noise made mystical in the dense atmosphere of the setting sun, the already apparent night stars, and two, life-size dinosaurs. It was an August desert oven world where nothing organic moved in the deadly heat and a thousand white and silver windmills whipped languid parabolas, distorted by distance, distorting the singer’s voice, gurgling graceful blues guitar like a child’s voice humming behind a floor fan, hot summer night in the deep south. Between the Dinosaur Diner and Joshua Tree Monument stood regiment after regiment of such windmills. Soldiers of the desert winds. The spectators of Edder’s impromptu dinosaur mouth performance that night regarded a sea of spinning silver blades in the distance to the north. As the MTV helicopter snuck down on the crowd from Tiara Mountain and the freeway behind them to the south, 400 north facing eyes could have sworn they saw the windmills marching closer, getting louder, closing in for the kill.”
And inspired by the gathering of Art Cars that day at Cabazon, I would later write Harrod and friends into the book as well:
“The MTV camera people arrived by helicopter, having heard about the traffic fiasco on Tiara Mountain. Filming from the chopper, they captured scenes from the craziness. Swooping down Interstate 10 past Bowling Alley to the Dinosaur Diner on a tip from local radio station KDUH, they caught a massive tailgate party underway. In a wagon train formation around the notorious, life-size brontosaurus and T-rex sat two dozen colorful cars, Duke’s brethren art automobiles, gathered together in caravan by young filmmaker Blank Canvas. Known to his friends as ‘Chickenman Canvas’ due to his penchant for prancing around and screeching like a chicken, young Blank drove a VW bug covered in colorful slogans, spinning sunflowers, skulls, coins and chicken memorabilia. And the other cars ran the gamut of automotive eccentricity: a shark car; a road-kill, scrap-metal and bones car; a camera-covered van; a Toyota decked out in baby dolls and broom brushes; a Chevy Malibu with a living lawn.”
That night the caravan crashed in Gila Bend, Arizona. And I mean crashed. I, for one, was dead tired after a sleepless night and two mad days in preparation and on the road. And from the way we all zonked out littered higgilty-piggilty about the grounds of some RV park, it appeared that all were exhausted.
The following morning Jim Skinner helped me divine the cause of Duke’s first complaint: a sort of sluggishness and tendency to stall when cold. “Go and buy yourself a new set of spark plugs,” he said, and I did and voila! Vroom! Vroom! Already, I felt a measure of security that I had never known on a road trip, like no matter what might go wrong with my car, I wouldn’t be left stranded and clueless by the side of the road. At least Jim would know what the problem was, even if he couldn’t fix it.
It amazes me still how instantaneous came the sense of family. An art car family! These were eccentrics like me, hippies, gypsies. And it takes a certain strain of hippie to maintain an old American car, to afford gas and repairs, to go on the road for any length of time. The term gypsy actually tells it better. Road gypsy seems to say “practical, self-sufficient transient.” That was us. That is us. A family of road artists. And it’s magic.
I think of the story of The Coltmobile, the car Jim was driving along with his copilot Lizzy. Creator Ron Snow glued model horses onto his car as a form of therapy while in Alcoholics Anonymous over the past 20 years. Apparently Ron couldn’t make it this year, so brave Jim rose to the occasion. His seemed a scary job at times. The 10-foot tall wobbling tower of over a thousand blue horses seemed sure roll with the force of every passing semi.
On the flip side of size and extravagance would be Ron Dolce’s 1969 Volkswagen Marble Madness. It is one of the smaller and more subtle Art Cars, but to my mind it is the most beautiful. Its exterior is comprised solely of marbles and stained glass, what Ron eloquently calls, “frozen watercolor.” Ron is the old wise man of the trip, a hoary nut with a sardonic, “get-out-of-my-face-I-just-woke-up” look permanently carved into his mug. He and Jim are the lone elders of an otherwise GenX crew.
We hit it off well, Ron and I, becoming fast friends by my third day out, although he says that at first he didn’t like my car at all. This came as no great surprise from a guy who admits to being a prick. Haha. I look at Ron’s car and I see Sistine Chapel; I look at my car and I see L.A. freeway overpass. What makes my car unique is the sheer number and variety of people who have scribbled on, painted, graffitied, and autographed it over the years. What makes Ron’s car special is, well.. just look at it!
The real pricks were the wait staff at 100 East Congress in Tucson, our destination later that day. A restaurant called The Grill where our troupe, suddenly over a dozen strong, were told we could eat for free in exchange for the promotional value of our appearance. Meeting us there when we arrived were the Land Yacht, Jeff Carlock’s Zebra Truck, three from Bisbee, Arizona including The Doll Car, The Funk Ambulance and Love 23, and several others not intent on the trip to Texas, but just turned out for the day.
Face it, wherever we go, a crowd forms. It’s good for business. However, it seems some members of the caravan failed to tip the wait staff adequately (though a later tally swore to across-the-board tipping) and the hired help turned nasty. By the time I sat down to eat later in the day, my waiter had at least four orders of fried zucchini up his ass. I asked him his name and he snarled something about his fifth amendment rights and “what is this a fucking interrogation?”
Free food and drinks for the caravan somehow wound up costing me twenty bucks at The Grill in Tucson. When I paid the bill at the register, the waitress taking my money spoke loudly over her shoulder to my waiter, saying, “Stick around for the arrival of the flea circus later on.”
It was weird. Ours is a measure of freedom unacceptable to some people, a bold, public display of creativity. They were jealous. C’est la vie.
The energy on the street, however, was great. There were loads of people milling about the cars and many art car artists I hadn’t yet met. I got to see true roadside hucksterism at work for the first time watching Harrod, Dan and Chris hawk Art Car Calendars, books, postcards and video copies of ‘Wild Wheels’ out of The Camera Van. It was exciting to see, and I rushed off to develop a roll of shots Harrod had taken of Duke that day so that I, too, would have something to sell. Years before I had discovered for myself the excitement of making money from my art. And back then it was hardly even art! Just a few layers of multi-colored mix-n-match paint. I didn’t even have anything tangible to sell. But there I was, stranded at a scenic turnout on Highway 1 in Big Sur with no money for gas, turning Duke into cash by inviting people to paint on him for a small donation. I documented that trip in a piece titled On The Road With Duke. Now today, watching Harrod wheel and deal for the Art Car world, well.. it’s nothing short of amazing.
Harrod Blank. Typing his name, I think of the lyrics of a song by the band Heavy Vegetable that say, “All my heroes are crazy, bored people with nothing better to do with their own lives.” It fits my impression of Harrod well, a serendipitous infusion of slacker wisdom into my contemplation of a man who, though human, seems to take on a more mythic status with every passing art car gathering. For what this 32-year old has done in that crazy-bored-nothing-better-to-do-space existent in us all, is astounding.
In that dead zone that lingers maliciously between brilliant self-creation and succumbing to shitty jobs like selling ties at K-mart, Harrod Blank has back-flipped out of boredom and into brilliance, lending validation and unity to a lonesome bunch of one-in-a-million artists who, before the film “Wild Wheels,” probably thought themselves a few cards short of a full deck. Or, in the case of Ron Dolce, a few marbles short of madness.
That day in Tucson I met Kathleen Pearson and Phillip & Colleen Estrada and their daughter Gypsy, all Bisbee people who I would come to know and love when I moved there later the next year. Kathleen was driving Love 23, her 1983 Ford LTD Station Wagon painted pink and covered inside and out with some 5,000 plastic figurines. An artist, Kathleen’s entire world, I would later learn, is as object-encrusted and colorful as her car. And the same goes for artists Phillip, 33, Colleen, 28, and Gypsy, 2. Their 74 Toyota Corolla Doll Car with over 200,000 miles to its name serves as a kind of showplace of one of Phillip’s primary art forms, dolls painted and hung on crosses and brooms.
It would stand to reason, I guess, that most art car people would be artists. However, I had had my art car for half a decade and never thought of myself as an artist until meeting the likes of Kathleen, Harrod and the Estradas. Witnessing their artistic confidence and the extent of possibilities for ‘enhancing’ one’s car, I determined at once that Duke would no longer suffer long periods of neglect following the ebb and flow of my creative self-esteem, but would from here on out blossom like a bouquet of steel flowers, its push-rod pistils and independent suspension stamen driving it skyward, stunning the interstate world!
For what is a car if not moving art? And further fancified and fanticized, it becomes a freeway fanfaronade for all to see, a priceless, one of a kind, classic work of art! An art car is a Picasso with a drive shaft, a fuel-injected Van Gogh, a motorized Matisse, an internal combustion Gauguin, a Salvador Dali with independent suspension, disk brakes and a T-top roof.
It was the top down all the way to Texas for Myk and I in the Duke. That night the now-swollen caravan headed out of town and up into the valley of the Saguaro. Snaking through Saguaro National Monument outside Tucson around midnight, it soon became clear that the caravan was hopelessly lost. ‘Who cares?’ I thought. Part of a small nation of art cars, I felt safe, indestructible, indivisible with liberty and ample buzz for all.
Finally resigned to not finding the campground, Harrod led us into a turnout somewhere in the darkness of the park and we disembarked for the night. There were people romping through the cactus, howls and hoots. Visions of scorpions kept me moored to the massive blue tarp laid out for general crashing purposes.
In the morning there was the brilliant blue sky above, cacti all around and Charles Hunt brewing coffee over a Sterno fire on the hood of The Grape. I haven’t said much yet about Charles, perhaps because he’s kinda difficult to describe. Charles Hunt is a beast, of sorts, a scary looking dude with a scary looking car. On the basis of outward appearances, Charles and his car go together like most pet owner’s and their pets. German shepherd-like people have German shepherds; poodle-like people have poodles. But beneath his crusty exterior, Charles is a softy. The Grape, on the other hand, doesn’t have a soft spot in it, so far as I can tell. A 64 Comet, the Grape is pure skeletal steel, driftwood, detritus and decomposition. It’s bones and bombast, bullet holes and rusted bells. It’s a thing from Hell. And it’s beautiful. But its Sterno coffee production wasn’t enough to sate everyone, so we went on a coffee run in The Land Yacht.
What can I say about Eric Lamb except that a ride in the crow’s nest of his towering Land Yacht through Saguaro to a tiny diner in the desert for coffee was one wild ride.
If you’ve never sailed the cacti and tumbleweed sea in a luxury yacht, well.. I recommend it highly. This massive white Cadillac done up like a yacht gives true meaning to the automotive pejorative, “It drives like a boat.” An Art Car joke: Why did the Land Yacht drive to Michigan? To anchor in Ann Arbor.
That morning was the first and last I would see of Eric Lamb. Impatient with the caravan’s snail-like pace, he would run on ahead of us toward Texas, although come to think of it I don’t recall ever seeing him in Houston.
That morning, activity abounded in the saguaro. There was an acoustic jam on the tailgate of a truck and introductions to yet more new additions to the crew. There was a group of the women doing yoga in a desert wash across the road. Then came the obligatory visit from the cops mid-morning. “All your vehicles will be cited if not moved immediately! You are not in a designated parking area.” There wasn’t another sign of human life for miles and miles and yet we’ve gotta move. You can always rely on the politzei to call an end to unscheduled and un-permitted fun.
On the road again, and we’re really a mob now. Joining the many art cars at this point was 33-year-old film-maker and Harrod-amigo David Silberberg and his crew in Jack Splat, the spartanly decorated sixties model Caddy with oxidized maroon paint. The only discernible decor on this topless Caddy were a couple of clumps of oven-fired ceramic goo swirled in red, pink and gray puke-like colors and splattered across the trunk. Had I studied the clumps and their precise location on the car and tried to gauge their relation to the car’s name, I might have figured out the mysterious meaning without having to ask. But I did ask. And the answer? Think Jack Kennedy, Cadillac, Dallas..
Members of David’s camera crew included set-designer & actor Jeff Vance, 33, and Oakland cinematographer, social revolutionary, biophysicist, baker, and actor Frances Nkara, 29. From here on out, the Jack Splat crew would film our every movement, though mostly focusing on the antics of their film’s focal point, Harrod Blank. In Houston at journey’s end, Frances would tell me that they had shot 4000 feet of film in our one week on the road.
On the freeway outside Willcox, Arizona, I spied a hitchhiker. Caught up in the euphoria of the caravan, I made a snap decision and picked him up. It was a decision I would quickly come to regret. From my journal:
“Now we’ve got Israel in the car, some hispanic kid with bleached-blonde hair. Says he’s hitchin’ to Galveston and after a while of being in his not-so-hot vibes, my heart sinks as I realize Galveston’s past Houston and the kid wants to go all the way with us. A stop at The Thing for trinket shopping. The kid doesn’t feel right. I ask Myk to hang by the car to watch the CD boom box, move the car closer in to where several caravan members are loitering outside the store. Back on the road, the kid is creep city. I sense danger in his weasel voice and semi-psychotic banter and realize that by bringing him along I have endangered not only Myk and I but the whole caravan. The idea of having him camp with us is too much as I envision highway robbery, murder, whatever. I go to work figuring out how to lose him without pissing him off, for indeed if he is psychotic we’re in trouble.”
That day after sunset the caravan docks at a giant truck stop on the east end of El Paso to refuel and eat. I somehow convince Israel that this is as far as I can take him, somehow, that is, without him knifing me. He’s clever though, and halfway through dinner I find out that he’s gotten in with someone else in the caravan! Zebra Truck Jeff probably thought the guy was with us, as little as we all know each other. I quickly correct the mistake, and everyone in the caravan is relieved as Jeff retracts his offer and Israel gets left behind. On the road late that night, I felt a twinge of guilt thinking how paranoid I’d acted. ‘Hell,’ I thought, ‘maybe I had the kid all wrong.’
Ten days later, I’ll be home in California reading an article on twentysomethings wanted by the FBI and leap out of my skin at a photo of Enrique Moreno Casas, 27, cop killer, swearing the kid I’m lookin’ at is Israel, my ill-vibed hitcher.
Tired of driving and thirsty for a vodka and grapefruit, I deferred the driving of Duke to Myk and hopped inside The Camera Van for a stint at passenger travel and a cocktail. All I recall for certain is that somewhere just west of Sierra Blanca, Texas, I was forced to chuck three-quarters of a liter of Absolut out the window when Harrod panicked on approaching a well-lit vegetable quarantine station. Bang! Absolut zero. From groovy greyhound to grapefruit grey, and a gross waste of pricey, medium-grade vodka. It was the old molotov-cocktail-out-the-window thing, and it apparently damn near blew Ronnie off the road. I had tied on a healthy buzz before that panicky prohibition, so details of the rest of the night are vague at best. The vodka eviction was the only casualty of the trip for me, but just a harbinger of things to come for Harrod.
That night we rolled into Sierra Blanca, a tiny nowhere town quite by itself in the long stretch of I-10 between El Paso and Ft. Stockton. We secured a couple of motel rooms and shared beds to cut down on the cost. Somehow I wound up sleeping with Rotten Ronnie. What didn’t seem all that odd to me at the time became a subject of much joking around the next day.
At some point, Philo and Joanne Northrup had joined us in the Truck in Flux, a movable, evolving shrine to Elastic Symbolism. They had had transmission trouble way back before the L.A. overnight, and had taken awhile to catch up. Philo would later take on the task of organizing the next two art car caravans, no small task. And together with Harrod, he would launch the highly successful Art Car West Fest.
The next morning, we lingered awhile in the seemingly near-abandoned downtown stretch of Sierra Blanca. A reporter from the diminutive local paper came to take our pictures and interview some of the drivers, and townsfolk started coming out of nowhere to get a closer look at the cars. The people of Sierra Blanca were very friendly and our unplanned stop in their town created a bit of art car folklore. In the coming years Sierra Blanca would become an important stop on every caravan. It was as if the town held luck for us, or we for it, and the townspeople sent us away with gifts of praise, talisman like antlers and skulls for The Grape and The Funk Ambulance. Sierra Blanca added to our story, a story made up of many stories of the people and events of the coming days.
Like the story of artists Tim Johnson, 25, and Gretchen Baer, 31, drivers of the 1973 Olds 98 alternately known as The Funk Ambulance and Soul Patrol. Also from Bisbee, this couple will have moved back East and built an art boat by the time I got to Arizona, but I’ll never forget witnessing Tim’s mastery of manifold-baked potatoes, literally the process of baking potatoes on the engine of their mobile disco.
It was the Quantum Reality of the Art Car in America, and that day cinched it for me with fourteen crazy cars rolling stoned and happy together in the Texas sun, and me, driving sitting up on my headrest and steering with my toes, ‘good-visuals’ for David’s documentary film.
We were a micro-universe in a land of shinier, more fuel efficient automobiles. Throughout the journey, I had the feeling that nothing like this was going on anywhere else on the Planet. We are special, I thought. We are magic, a snapshot epiphany in A (for Art Car) Major, adagio, the slow trickling dance of a rainbow caterpillar of cars at fifty in the slow lane. Sunshine eternal and smiles as the fire of life, of shared experience ignites and burns bright in the body caravan!
It was the whole enchilada. Everything and anything. Just pick an image. Like Jack Splat, Jeff Vance’s ancient Cadillac convertible zooming by with Frances Nkara behind the massive movie camera and Kennedy’s brains strewn across the trunk in ceramic sardonic wit. Like the Sierra Blanca skull people, or the Elvis impersonator, or the motel toilet from the night before that you couldn’t sit on straight because it was too close to the facing wall. Like Annie-get-your-gun buck naked out the window in the fast lane on I-10.
Tick! Tick! Tick! Every second it was something, some freeze-frame moment of pure joy, of people awake and alive on the road in April in America.
Annie-get-your-gun is 24-year-old Annie St. John, a spirited young lady who manages her own line of clothing, but who was sighted somewhere in western Texas in no clothing at all. Traveling with her boyfriend, 26-year-old musician David Myers Pugh, Annie and some of the caravan’s other lovely ladies got naked for a morale-boosting caravan drive-by streaking. Yee-hah!
Flashback: I’m standing in the shadow of the Funk Ambulance outside the glare of an El Paso gas station’s island ambiance attempting to drop my shorts and jump into a pair of jeans for the evening drop in temperature. But privacy just ain’t to be had. There are four state troopers milling about the caravan ahead of me and an endless stream of curious Texans circling our Art Car wagon train like shark scouts and road kill vultures. What am I thinking? My friends and I virtually scream “Carnival!” everywhere we go. Our vehicles are a visual cacophony. When we roll in for fuel stops, attendants rub their eyes and swear to cut down on the No-Doze. Grinning cops pose for Polaroids by our cars and puff out their chests for Harrod’s camcorder. It’s no wonder then, that I can’t get my pants on at 11 p.m. in the relatively discreet corner of a gas station lot.
That evening, we were somewhere west of Johnson City, Texas when the lead members of the caravan passed right beneath a gigantic highway sign for our turnoff, Route 290 to Fredericksburg, and we blindly followed along. Annie was driving Duke for me, and I was in the passenger seat not paying any attention to the road. It was after midnight and we were freezing our asses off in Duke. With no roof, the night wind at sixty miles per hour is more than cold. Annie said she thought maybe we had missed the exit, but we we’re enjoying each other’s company and without a working CB in Duke we had no choice but to follow the leader.
Meanwhile, Rainbow, Marble and Jack Splat were way back, a point in their favor, for when they reached the turnoff they assumed that was the way we had gone. They soon learned from the CB banter that we’d gone astray, and apparently Harrod figured it out about then, too. It’s hardly worth mentioning the incident except that it amounted to some twenty miles out of the way, which for Annie and ice-cube-me was painful. That, and it made me sit up and pay attention, which allowed me to witness what happened next.
Lyndon B. Johnson State Park. It was foggy as hell when suddenly “Thwack!” Harrod hit a deer, sending a shower of thrift store cameras across the road. Bambi ate a dozen Polaroids for a midnight snack, thrashing the grillwork of The Camera Van.
Somebody said, “Jeez, if it weren’t for all the cameras, imagine the damage to the grill!” I had a sneaking suspicion Harrod would have fed the deer the entire transmission rather than blow sixty-some odd pieces of an intricate camera puzzle to smithereens.
Skirting the headlight glare of a dozen art cars parked higgelty-piggelty along the roadside, the ghost of LBJ lurked in the darkness and not one car drove by. Tarzan Tim and Charles Hunt canvassed the nearby tall grass in search of the dead deer. The victim was described as a four-legged woodland creature with flashbulb eyes. Bambi the Terminator: half-android, half-Polaroid.
“This calls for a beer! Anyone wanna drink with me?” Yeah, I said to the wrecked Harrod at the scene of the crime on a lonesome stretch of Texas highway. But Alexis and a few other well-intentioned fun-spoiling watchdogs would have none of it. They tore the beer from the distraught Harrod’s hands and escorted us all back to our chariots for the now-adrenaline buzzed last leg to Fredericksburg.
There were pledges to return for Bambi in the morning, to skin the damn animal and mount it’s lens-encrusted head on the grill of the Camera Van. It was said that Harrod should craft a loincloth from its pelt to be worn on special occasions, primal moments when the blood of the art car artist rages in the beastly engine like rocket fuel, and the mutant and wonderfully-warped reality of Road Art howls out of hoarse lungs like fire from the throat of an over-primed carburetor! But no one ever went back.
Gas station, Fredericksburg. “Look, I just hit a deer,’ Harrod exclaimed. “There’s camera fragments all over the road back there.” A posse of local cops has turned out to welcome us to town. Annie and I thought we were in the lead as we rolled into town, but it appears that Jack Splat has been pulled over up ahead in what looks like a roadblock full of flashing yellow lights and of course the familiar blue and red of the cops. Thankfully, the cops are friendly and give us directions to a rest stop down the road. It’s free, they say, and we can sleep there. But mob ruled and suddenly we we’re at a motel a half a mile back haggling over who was getting the beds and who got the floor or was tenting it outside in the grass.
And of course, a battle ensued. Mostly it was between The Grape and Love 23. I say it thus because by now we were all referring to each other by our vehicular names. In the battle for bed space, however, a few other choice names were used. I asked someone the time. It was 2 a.m. There was an empty pool at the motel, and I was just tired enough to climb down in there and go to sleep if the bed battle wasn’t settled soon.
The killing of the deer had effected a strange shift in all of us. We were getting testy, over-tired and road weary. But morale was at an all-time high. There was wild energy afoot, that no mere fatigue-addled fray could dispel. We were edgy, pumped, and starting with Harrod, we were starting to get a little batty. Sure I was so tired I couldn’t see straight, but I had to admit with this group, on this trip, the feeling of being part of something great seemed to erase the need for sleep. I thought, only in the mundane workaday world is regular sleep a necessity. Out here on the edge we survive on coffee, adrenaline, gas fumes and transmission oil. We run rough yet determined liked an old car. Fatigue-slumps and thrill-induced rushes jangle our brains like the behavior of a moody carburetor, stalling at high revs from a clogged fuel filter.
At last I got a bed, again doubling up with Marble. But sleep, I was soon to learn, was as yet a ways off. For in the room with Philo, Joanne, Ron and I came Harrod with his camcorder and a bottle of some high grade tequila, Anejo or Hornitos it was.
Harrod is tall. He must be all of nine feet or so, and that night from my vantage point in bed, he appeared very tall indeed. When someone as tall as Harrod gets hammered, he whips in the wind like a too-tall gumby or a whip antenna. It was Harrod’s night to get weird and flexible. He was so close to my face with the camcorder several times that I could hear the soft whirring of the autofocus over the din of the equally mad crazies, Joanne, Philo, and Ron, laughing uproariously at Harrod’s antics. The lens would rests for a moment on the tip of my nose, then be gone as Harrod pivoted, swirled, and rocked on his tequila-lubricated hip bone. Doing a sort of torso twist, he rocked like a crane above a city, happy as a lark and shouting ‘Don’t YOU JUST FUCKING LOVE IT, RONNIE?’ whereupon he climbed in bed with Marble and me and we all laughed and drank and swore vengeance on Bambi come morning.
Then in came Charles to give us the low-down on the injustice of bed distribution between the women, insofar as his girl Natalie not getting a bed when Kathleen did. It was all the more madness, Harrod of course getting the whole thing on video. Poor Charles spun himself out and joined in the drinking. And somewhere in the shouting over deer and bed-divvying, a half a bottle of tequila disappeared and Harrod swayed ever-more precariously like the high horse on the Coltmobile, a very tall man bending like a cartoon.
I had a dream that night. Harrod, Ron, Mr. & Mrs. Northrup and I sailed outward through space to some parallel world where all cars were art cars and we were the mad monarchs of the mode. We drove in my dream across Milky Way highways of Comets and Dusters and Quasars where Dennis Hopper sat atop a deep-space chopper blowing by Richard Bach’s biplane in the carpool air-corridor fast lane to the McDonald’s on Romulon 4, 27 Gagillion served! It was Planet Art Car with Harrod Blank as Undisputed King of the Wild Wheels Anti-world. Here, police dressed in the Mardi Gras garb of car artist Chuck Alston from the “Wild Wheels” film, and Chuck was himself their chief, piloting a born-again Cosmic Ray Deflection Car and giving tickets to anyone caught driving a normal, boring car.
“But no! Wait! This cannot be! A world where everyone is weird like me. I would not, could not have this be, that everyone drive identically! We’re artists! Madmen! Not graffiti gods! God forbid we become fashionable, too! Eek! Eek! It’s the plight of the Star-belly Sneeches all over again! I have erred! How absurd! In a world where everyone drove a car like Duke, I should have to go normal, I should have to puke.”
I awoke again to a midday sun plunging through the motel room’s open door to greet us, garrulous loving child the sun. Out the door I stumbled with an audible grog, audible to the boom mic hanging overhead, David’s crew rolling camera to catch first sight of the car artist spilling from hibernation. Whether or not a car artist sees his shadow is purported to have some effect on the weather ahead. It hasn’t rained or snowed on us yet. It would be Austin that day, and Houston the next. Yet I sensed already that the events of The Orange Show, though fun, wouldn’t even touch the exhilaration of the road trip that got us there.
There would be no weather to speak of until early May. In the first days of May, when all the cameras and most of the cars were gone, straggling members of the caravan, the die-hard, hoary remnant zealots, would run naked together in the desert in hail and boiling gumbo thunderstorms, abandoning their cars, their morals –their tethers to the jet set plain world of workaday worries unraveling, disappearing into the mists of Avalon, the wind, the rain, the lightning flashing on mad bright white teethy grins– Marble Madness, Elastic Symbolism, crazed caravaners, the Lost Tribe dancing in the desert night. I would hear about this second or third hand, having returned to California in haste. But I would see it all in colorful art car spiritual clarity, pick it up on the instinctual Internet of my imagination. For by then I would know these people well. These were my people. Putting a slight spin on that Christian camp song I learned long ago, “We are one in the art car spirit, we are one in the Lord of the Road..”
The last entry in my road journal to Houston reads:
We push on, the road ahead bowing down in awed reverence before us. Brilliant flowers spring to technicolor life ahead of us as we thrust forth a vibrational bow wave of purples, yellows, oranges and reds. Annie St. John stands in Duke’s passenger seat, her split pea green scarf sailing in the warm Texas spring wind. Annie is Joan of Arc in a combat helmet, a Tipparillo cigar perched upon her gracious grin. Annie smiles and laughs constantly. She is the ultimate co-pilot and passenger, and Duke bounces giddily along, a day-old helium-filled Mylar balloon, an astronaut on the surface of the moon, too heavy to fly but still dancing on the buoyancy of Annie’s infectious laughter.
© Rick McKinney 2013