Trip update, part 4

Report from a surprisingly really nice motel in Jetmore, Kansas (Pictures forthcoming; not a good enough internet connection it seems?):

San Diego was a great stop. When I arrived downtown the first person I noticed was dressed head to toe like Spiderman. I laughed knowingly, happy to be back in the big city with all its eccentricities – of course there’d be a guy in costume in broad daylight. But then I realized there were more and more people walking around in costume, more than could be assumed to exist naturally, even in the downtown of a major city. But then I saw the numerous banners welcoming Comic Con to San Diego and saw that most shops and restaurants had comic-themed specials and sales. Even the high-end art gallery and an imported rug store had discounts for attendees. I liked the idea of a Ninja Turtle going in and seeing a hand-woven, $2000 8×10 rug he just couldn’t pass up.

Anyway, I was in town to visit Kathi Diamant, a professor at San Diego State University and Kafka scholar/treasure hunter. She is the author of Kafka’s Last Love, a biography of Kafka’s last love Dora Diamant, who up until DIamant’s book, was known only in the context of Kafka’s life. He basically died in her arms, but her story continued long after she shared the best year of Kafka’s life. It is filled with intrigue and escapes and sorrow and is extremely interesting in its own right. Kathi Diamant is also the founder and head of the Kafka Project, a confederation of Kafka scholars and other researchers searching for a cache of Kafka’s letters and diaries confiscated by the Gestapo in the early thirties. If it still exists, the cache is full of letters and diaries that have never been seen before. Every scrap of paper Kafka ever scribbled or doodled on has been published and studied billions of times – new letters and diaries (and the possibility of new fiction) makes this cache essentially priceless. Diamant is currently working with other scholars and institutions in Germany to gain access to a few recently-discovered bunkers filled floor to ceiling with material confiscated by the Gestapo, as painstakingly slow as it might be to sort out. Kathi Diamant was gracious enough to have me over to talk to her about her work. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing her archives of photos and letters and diaries and transcripts, but it was unbelievably fun to talk to somebody about something you both know a lot about but not a lot of other people do. I realized that I heard names from Kafka’s life spoken aloud that I’d never said or heard aloud myself – I’d been reading about them for years but wasn’t ever able to nerd-out to the degree I wanted. I finally got to do so and could have continued to do so all day, but I do have enough tact to recognize I was a guest and so I made sure I didn’t overstay my welcome.

I left San Diego to go to LA and promptly hit the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced. LA traffic is legendary for good reason. It took me no less than four hours to drive 121 miles. It was almost worth the aggravation just to see such horrible traffic firsthand, but this (very minor) appreciation would end as soon as I was abruptly stopped again after driving unhindered for forty-five seconds and thinking that traffic had abated. But I made it to LA without incident and was overjoyed at seeing two friends I hadn’t seen in what we realized was seven years. The reunion was a long time coming, and we picked up right where we left off. A couple days later, I saw another friend I had seen in equally as long. A reunion with a third friend who I hadn’t seen in five years didn’t come together, but I’m happy to come back. (Plus my secret desire to see a celebrity was fulfilled – what up William H. Macy!)

After a few days of catching up and hiking and eating, I visited the LA84 Foundation. Despite the usual economic disaster that seems to afflict every city that hosts the Olympics, LA made off with huge profits and used them to start the LA84 Foundation, a group that provides sports equipment and opportunities to kids and coaching seminars, etc. to adults. They also have the biggest library of sports books in the country, ranging from Mankind’s autobiography to tens of thousands of volumes on golf to books that were in turn written using the resources in LA84’s library. One of these latter books is a compendium of California high school track meet statistics from the beginning of the twentieth century through 2006. One of the authors/researchers is Bill Peck, and he happened to be in the library when I was there. We sat and talked for what turned into a couple of hours. He was at work gathering stats for another volume. He had a legal pad filled with tiny but incredibly neat sets of numbers, and said that he and his friends wrote these books as a labor of love for themselves and other fans of track and field. I told him I was from Ohio, and he told me about a runner from Baldwin Wallace that was a personal hero of his. So personal was the runner’s dedication to the sport that Mr. Peck started crying as he told me how the runner trained in a city that didn’t even have any paved roads. This particular story aside, it was very touching to see why this book task was undertaken – track was an immensely important part of Mr. Peck’s life, spiritually and physically, and he wanted to transmit this transcendental love not just for future historians but in honor of the work and dedication shown by thousands of unsung high school students.

Las Vegas was next. I drove through the desert and saw the city on the horizon. Bizarre oasis! But I realized as I got closer that merely two buildings does not a Las Vegas make – it was a town called Primm with its own casinos and the sudden appearance of tall buildings made me think I’d arrived. It did seem remarkably less flashy than I expected (can’t you see it from space?) and a second city tricked me a second time for the same reason. Finally I saw the actual, inimitable, real Las Vegas and I raced to my hotel eager to see what all the fuss was about. As soon as I walked outside I was in the thick of it, staying as I was at the Riviera (huge hotel rooms are only like $20 a night!), on the north end of the strip. It was much less sleazy than I had been imagining (at least at first glance) but it was hard to wrap my mind around a place in which almost everything is open 24/7/365 and is full-speed ahead for most of it to boot. The atmosphere of the strip is that of an exaggerated mall – people go to Vegas to get wealthy, and what is the best thing anyone with money can do with it? Spend it on expensive shit to prove how much money you have. (The 24/7 party atmosphere is less obnoxious to me than the overwhelming, gale-force message that you are better if you are richer.) Accordingly, hotels house casinos and high-end shops, which is in fact why I was there. Bauman Rare Books is a bookseller specializing in rare and first edition books. Bauman’s is in the mall in the Palazzo casino, and almost nothing in the store is less than a couple thousand dollars. I actually saw the single most expensive object I’ve ever seen in my life (barring a house or the errant sports care) – a first edition of the Federalist priced at a modest $260,000.

On the other end of the spectrum, I went to old Las Vegas. The contrast is like Disneyworld vs. a state fair – you go for the same reason but with much different results. Old Vegas seems a little less focused on manifestations of wealth and more the fun of just being there and being able to gamble and drink on the street. Once I conquered a buffet (not quite as classy as the buffets on the Strip – 11 different food stations vs. 8) I really wanted to see that pyramid building (the Luxor), so I went back to the Strip. It turned out that it was on the opposite end from where I was staying, so I got the full Vegas experience, walking from one end of the strip to the other and back at midnight. So many people, the brightest lights you’ll ever see, every building an immense spectacle, every place and everyone immune to the hours and routines kept by the rest of the world – there is nowhere else in the world that looks and feels like this, and certainly not all day of every day. So strange. I also went to a gambler’s superstore – a bookstore carrying nothing but books on gambling and gaming bought a store selling cards and tables and chips and combined the two. One end of the store is all books – books about the mafia and “myths that CONTINUE to destroy a player’s bankroll” and books on the psychology of tells, BINGO strategies, and my personal favorite, ancient numerology and how it can be applied for success at the horse track.)

And finally, I was most recently in Durango, Colorado after Las Vegas. I stopped by the Strater Hotel to check out room 222, aka the Louis L’Amour room. The famous western author used to hole up there because the music coming from the saloon downstairs kept him inspired. The Strater touts its history as a speakeasy and a brothel and it struck me how much we seem to romanticize old school Madams and brothels, especially during Prohibition. It’s like we collectively join the fight to outwit the Man – everyone loves a good circumvention of irrational laws and Madams/brothels symbolize when this was a national pastime. I can’t tell how I feel about this – it’s a strange sort of respect, but that doesn’t change how everybody treats prostitutes today like they are garbage. In any case, the Louis L’Amour room was booked (and cost $217/night anyway) so I wasn’t able to even peek my head in. I did see some amorous housekeepers, though, and I tiptoed away and let them gaze into each other’s eyes and kiss in peace.

Durango is one of those nice vacation towns catering to tourists who like to buy nylon hiking pants and expensive local art and patronize restaurants serving ‘libations.’ As such, it can be expected that in a town with surfeit antique shops and coffee shops there will be a used book store as well. I found at least two, and Southwest Booktrader had the most amount of books I’ve ever seen in a single room, bookstore or not. I’ve seen some pretty packed bookstores – it’s almost a point of pride to clutter the aisles with dusty books – but I’d never seen any where with floor-to-ceiling stacks going at least three rows deep. A sign asked visitors to ‘please leave the stacks in the condition you found them’ and I couldn’t tell if it was because there was some obscure system of organization I hadn’t noticed or if it was for a patron’s own safety. There was obviously something for everyone if you could find it – one guy yelled “Hey! They got books on crystals!” outside to his waiting girlfriend and I found a signed, first-edition copy of the Happy Isles of Oceana by Paul Theroux. The books were irritatingly a little expensive for used books so I didn’t grab that copy, though I’ll probably regret it later if only because it would be kind of cool to have that personal connection to one of my favorite authors.

My host in Durango took me to hang out with her friends, one of whom was a fire-dancer and the other a musician with whom she played flute and accordion and guitar. I was privy to one of their practices, and the eerie, beautiful folk they played made a lot of sense as the sonic counterpart of their many occult tattoos. My first night, I found myself in the deep woods at night with strangers. It was late and pitch black and nobody knew I was there, but I could sense that nothing malevolent was afoot. My new friends disavowed the ignorant perception that they were “hippies” just because they talked about the vibrating harmony of the earth and stars and life – I was not to be a sacrifice in the forest but another person, another lifeforce with whom this harmony and these celestial connections could be celebrated.

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