In the spring of 2012, I planned a two-week Road trip through the Four Corners area—partly to research a book I was writing about westerns, but mainly to visit some places that I just had to see for myself. Just before I left, my friend Ben sent me a gift package: a collection of CDs that would serve as soundtrack for the journey. As a result, I discovered some of my favorite music of the 2000s while simultaneously discovering some of the most awe-inspiring sites in the American West. In my mind, the two are now inseparable. When I hear specific songs, I picture the landscapes that were rolling by when I heard those tunes for the first time, and I am overcome with a kind of pure emotion—something that goes beyond simple description, and hovers in the present moment with the all-pervasive majesty of the desert sky. I can’t share the full experience… but I can share the sights and sounds, in the hope that some of the magic conveys.
Two albums carried me from Los Angeles through the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas. The first was Coastal Grooves by Blood Orange. The album title says it all. Blood Orange’s electronic grooves are perfect for a sunny day drive with the windows rolled down. Ditto the Gentle Stream album by Swedish pop band The Amazing, which has a folksier, more laid-back quality but with the same kind of flow.
They say that long-distance driving changes the frequency of a person’s brain waves, putting the mind into a relaxed but creative alpha state, which explains how these tunes got burned into my subconscious so quickly. I wasn’t just driving, I was daydreaming.
Just south of St. George, Utah, there is a stretch of highway 15 that winds through a brightly-colored slot canyon. It gives you the sense that you are entering a completely new country. It was here that I first heard listened to The War on Drugs, an indie rock band from Philadelphia. I exited the highway in St. George and made my way to Snow Canyon State Park while listening—really listening—to the band's album Slave Ambient. In my mind, it sounded like a Bob Dylan pop album crossbred with shoegaze acoustics (guitar washes, heavy feedback, etc.). For me, it was the perfect combination for the place and time.
The red rocks of Snow Canyon are mostly sandstone, crafted by wind and years. When the late afternoon sun hits them, they seem to radiate light from within. The music resonated with the same flared intensity. I’m reminded of something filmmaker John Huston said about his film The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean: “It has a big spirit. The wind blows through it. Adown the corridors of time.” A grandiose pronouncement, for sure, but one that any romantic can understand.
I passed through Zion National Park and spent a couple of days in the Kanab area. I remember listening to the first few tracks of the Battles album Gloss Drop on the winding roads above and over Zion. The funky industrial tune “Futura” was playing as I drove though a long mountain tunnel that had windows carved out of the rock. I rolled the car windows down and let the beats echo off of ancient stone.
On the way to Kanab, I found a strange underground bar that boasted an impressive collection of dinosaur fossils and footprints, as well as an entire room filled with exotic iridescent rocks. (I later learned from a local paleontologist that dinosaur tracks are still being found in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument… which gave me the feeling that I was really wandering into uncharted territory.) I tried The Beach Boys: The Smile Sessions, figuring that the psychedelic sounds would match the setting, but the listening experience was jarring (too many stops and starts), so I switched to Megafaun’s self-titled album when I got back on the road.
I was still listening to the folksy blues of Megafaun as I drove up a desolate road to the reputed site of the old Gunsmoke set. It was a long, straight, flat road toward white-rock mountains and I was the only one out there… so I drove fast, hypnotized by the wall of sound at the end of “Get Right,” then lulled into a state of serenity by the sweetly silent “Hope You Know.” The transition between these two songs is so perfect that I never want to listen to them separately.
A few days later, I was in Page, Arizona. I had planned a boat tour to Rainbow Bridge off of Lake Powell, but I arrived early and had some time to kill. I don’t remember how I learned about Antelope Canyon… but, dear God, I'm glad I did. These slot canyons exist on Navajo land, and the only way to see them is to take a guided tour. My tour guide started pointingout rock formations that looked like faces and animals, illuminated by visionary colors. After that, I saw everything differently—not just in the canyons, but everywhere I went for the duration of my trip. In Antelope Canyon, I even saw a premonition of things to come: a rock formation that looked exactly like the landscape of Monument Valley at dawn.
This was also the day that I discovered the band Neon Indian. I picked their album Era Extran(y)a out of my bundle of CDs because the name was fitting—and their exotic electronica was a perfect match for the day's scenery. The next morning, I got up before dawn to drive out to Lake Powell. As I was crossing over a massive gorge on the edge of town, “Heart: Decay” emerged from my speakers. As the sun began to crest the horizon, transforming the shadows around me into red and orange fire, “Fallout”began. The grandeur of places and timing like this can make anyone believe in destiny.
By this point in the trip, I felt like I had been completely emptied out. I no longer had any expectations, because my wildest expectations had already been completely overwhelmed. I was just floating through the experience, letting every little thing wash over me. As I got closer and closer to Monument Valley, I felt like I was being guided. I’m not a particularly religious person, but it’s hard to shake off such impressions when they come to you.
Once again, I found myself on a seemingly endless road. I felt like the only person in the world, listening to relics of a bygone civilization—in this case, Phantogram and Uh Huh Her. When I hit Kayenta, I switched to M83.
What can I say about Monument Valley? Best to say nothing and let M83 do the talking. The tracks that really made an impression on me at the time were “Run into Flowers,” “Noise” and “Beauties Can Die” (from the album Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts) along with “Intro,” “Wait,” “Raconte-Moi Une Historie,” “Echoes of Mine,” and especially “Soon, My Friend” (from the album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming).
I was still listening to M83—though I had now moved onto the album Saturdays=Youth—when I left Monument Valley and headed north into the Rockies, toward Telluride. “We Own the Sky” was playing as I saw the first snowclouds. The sun was gone by the time “Highway of Endless Dreams” started. Snow flurries were falling as “Dark Moves of Love” flooded my mind. Halfway through “Midnight Souls Still Remain,” I had to pull over to the side of the road and write something down.
For months, I had been working on a comic book series called To Hell You Ride, and that was one of my many reasons for making this trip into the desert. The story was set in the mountain town of Telluride, and I had never been to Telluride. Now here I was, a few minutes away from my destination, and I suddenly came up with the exact words to express the central theme of the story. (For those who have read To Hell You Ride, they are the words that Two-Dogs says to Mary at the beginning of issue 5.)
I’ll say it again: I’m not a particularly religious person… but I have an open mind, and sometimes it gets filled with things that I know did not originate there. The subtle flux of that final M83 song had something to do with it.
Frankly, after everything that had happened on my road trip, Telluride was a bit underwhelming. In the story I was writing, the town represents “the end of the road”—and that’s kind of how it felt. As it happened, I had arrived in Telluride a few days after the end of ski season, so the place was empty and desolate. Most of the stores and restaurants were closed. That was perfect for the story I was writing, but also kind of unsettling.
That night, I woke up in my hotel room to complete darkness. For some reason, the power had gone out and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It was like waking up blind. I was staying in a big hotel room and I had to feel my way along a long wall toward my travel bag, so that I could retrieve my cell phone for light. For those few minutes, I was out of the world. I couldn’t see or hear anything. (This is doubly disconcerting for someone who lives in the heart of Los Angeles, and thus neverexperiences total silence or darkness.) After I checked my phone and confirmed that (a) I was still in my hotel room and (b) the world was still turning, I managed to go back to sleep. I have no idea what caused the power to fail, but it was back on in the morning.
I left Telluride before sunrise, and resumed my musical journey. I passed through the idyllic farming communities on the high plateau of Iron Springs, listening to Grizzly Bear (which didn’t fit the mood), St. Vincent (still not quite right…) and Wilco. The Making Mirrors album by the Australian singer-songwriter Gotye got things back on track. The opening song, “Easy Way Out,” does more in 2 minutes than most pop songs can do in five or six. “Eyes Wide Open” is a perfect driving tune. “Giving Me a Chance” is a perfect b-side reflection. This was also the first time I’d heard the song “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Like everyone else, I would eventually become tired of hearing that song played ad nauseum on every radio station and in every karaoke bar… but, for the moment, I loved it. It made me feel like I could drive all day.
Which, in fact, I did. I left Telluride around 6am, made a long detour through Moab, then hit the highway back toward Los Angeles. I planned to stop and spend the night in Cedar City, Utah. Then I planned to stop in Vegas. Then I decided, the hell with it, why night drive all the way through to Los Angeles so I could see my wife and sleep in my own bed? So I played out the “b-side” of my trip in one ridiculously long day, covering approximately 900 miles and exhausting the rest of my CD collection.
I fell in love with the Real Estate album Days and the self-titled Widowspeak album (which reminded me a lot of Mazzy Star), then went back to The War on Drugs. I tried listening to Vangelis’s Soil Festivities in the home stretch, but it was making my eyelids heavy so I switched to Megafaun. Somewhere around Baker, I stopped and got a really big cup of coffee, then started driving again with all the windows down and the stereo at full volume to keep me awake. When “Scorned” came on, I was utterly entranced by the sound of that loud and lonely harmonica echoing off of the starry night sky.
Some time ago, I read an article claiming that 80% of Americans have never seen or recognized the Milky Way. I can’t believe that. I don’t want to believe that. I stared up at the stars, feeling completely awestruck, until the light pollution of L.A. drowned most of them out -- bringing me back down to earth.
Now, when I want to remember that experience, I play a mix tape of songs from my 2012 road trip. I suppose I could also get back on the road and re-trace my steps, but I know I will never be able to repeat the perfect timing, or the perfect combination of new sense experiences. Next time, I’ll need new destinations and new songs. For the time being, here’s my Trail Mix…