In the Blogs

Denver, Colorado: (Photo: Tim Murphy)Denver, Colorado: (Photo: Tim Murphy)

Someone Walked: The National Park Service doesn't mess around when it comes to terrifying signage. Serious question, though: Why is the one adult in this scene walking away completely unfazed by the screams of his children? (Photo: Tim Murphy).Someone Walked: The National Park Service doesn't mess around when it comes to terrifying signage. Meanwhile, why does the one adult in this scene seem totally unfazed by the screams of these poor children? (Photo: Tim Murphy).Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming—Back on the planet Earth where I was raised, I'd never given much credence to the notion that the Yellowstone Supervolcano was part of a New World Order plot to exterminate two-thirds of the world's population, bring about the Messiah, and restore large swaths of the continent to their original wilderness state. Then I discovered the Internet:

"The Illuminati may be planning to use the destructive nature of the Yellowstone Super Volcano as their major tool to accomplish their coveted 'Re-wilding' project."

I guess Lady Gaga was just a decoy. Fortunately, there's a whole community of independent Internet researchers who have committed themselves to constant vigilance of all things supervolcano—they monitor seismographic charts, earthquake patterns in the shape of a "Y" (Yellowstone has a calling card, apparently) in the western part of the continent, and the National Park Service's Old Faithful webcam (which you can, and absolutely should, do as well). Rest assured that, should things start to get hairy, you'll be able to plan accordingly and move somewhere remote like Montan—oh. Oh.

The Town That Didn't Fail: Searchlight, Nevada—Harry Reid's hometown (Photo: Tim Murphy).The Town That Didn't Fail: Searchlight, Nevada is the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It's also debating—passionately—a plan to install wind turbines just outside of town. My personal favorite suggestion: "please camoflage with blue!!!" Get on it, guys (Photo: Tim Murphy).

Another Palm Springs: The Salton Sea is not for everyone (Photo: Tim Murphy).Another Palm Springs: The Salton Sea is not for everyone (Photo: Tim Murphy).Bombay Beach, California—At the far corner of the Ski Inn on Avenue A, in the only juice joint in a town too small, even, for its own polling station, two-hundred and thirty-nine feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean—an elevation that's low enough for long enough that Navy pilots will from time to time buzz overhead just to tell their buddies they took a dip below sea level—George Cannon, 90, is talking about his fears.

"I'm glad I'm not a young person right now," he says, emphatically, looking up from a glass of Franzia. He'll say this many times over the course of a few hours. The reasons are myriad—there's the recession, no, depression, which he frets will take us years to get out of. There's China, which is just sitting there waiting to become the second wheel to a world war. And there's the Mayan apocalypse, which is slated to arrive sometime in 2012, by which point he will gladly be gone* and we'll be stuck dealing with whatever the heck it is that's even supposed to happen. Not that he isn't content with his life—"If I could go back, I'd like things to happen as they did; the good times outnumbered the bad." Just glad he's not my age is all.

George has a piece of shrapnel, picked up in Burma during the War, on the inside of his right bicep, visible to the eye as a brown dot. He went in for an MRI once ("those M things"), and was kept in the chamber for, by his estimate, 300 hours, because the doctor forgot to take that into account. It also sets off metal detectors, although he can usually escape detention. His darts game has hit a rough patch recently, but all told, he has taken his years well; the desert has a way of making everyone, 8 to 80, look 65.

Lead There be Light: Leonard Knight, 79, began building Salvation Mountain at the entrance to Slab City in 1986 (Photo: Tim Murphy).Lead There be Light: Leonard Knight, 79, began building Salvation Mountain, outside Niland, California, in 1986. I'd hesitate to call anything made from gallons of paint "green" except in a strictly colorful sense, but Knight does get creative, constructing "trees" out of stacked tires, adobe, and large sticks. Mostly, though, the place is about getting the message out: God = Love. In recent years, Knight's legend has grown with appearances in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," and the John Waters-narrated documentary, "Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea" (Photo: Tim Murphy).

(Photo: Tim Murphy)(Photo: Tim MurphyBonus photo below the jump!

Greetings, Earthships

Taos, New Mexico—Before I can talk to Ariel Bui, I have to wait in line. A young woman, with a dusty blue scarf wrapped around her neck to keep still the flies, is inquiring about work. This isn't exactly the best time, and it's not exactly standard operating procedure, as far as job searches go, but she has a few good reasons not to take no for an answer: She just hitchhiked down from Colorado this morning and has nowhere to go from here—no place to stay, not even a contact—so this had better turn into something positive; and she has an idea: She's heard about the Earthships.

This, according to Ariel, is a pretty common occurence at the Earthship community. "I wouldn't say, like, every day, but maybe once every couple of weeks we'll get people who say 'I want to work.'"

"I think it's fascinating. It shows a different type of dedication when someone just wants to do it. There's stigma sometimes when interns do the work and don't get paid," she says. "But it really is a learning experience. You pay to go to college!"

For the uninitiated, Earthships are the brainchild of a rogue architect named Michael Reynolds, who's been building them since the 1970s. They rely heavily on a few core ingredients: Tires, packed with earth, form the thicker walls; glass bottles and tin cans (also filled with earth) help provide insulation, and depending on how creative you're feeling, an aesthetic touch. Mud and straw, concrete, and papercrete (recycled paper pulp mixed with cement) do most of the rest of the work. The windows are key, too, since a good earthship should also be naturally climate controlled.

Taos, New Mexico—Architect Michael Reynolds uses bottles, cans, and old tires to insulate his "Earthship" houses (Photo: Tim Murphy).Taos, New Mexico—Architect Michael Reynolds uses bottles, cans, and old tires to insulate his "Earthship" houses (Photo: Tim Murphy).

Pilgrims: Lake Itasca, Minnesota (Photo: Tim Murphy).Pilgrims: Headwaters of the Mississippi, Lake Itasca, Minnesota (Photo: Tim Murphy).We're nowhere near the Mississippi River right now. But NPR's Robert Krulwich has dug up this absolutely bonkers map, from the 1940s, which captures the migration of the river through all its jumps and cut-offs and channels. Basically, what you'll see is that the Mississippi bears a striking resemblance to the Flying Spaghetti Monster—and more seriously, that the entire map of the central United States is a relatively recent (and fragile) phenomenon.

New Madrid, Missouri, for instance, is across the river from the old New Madrid, Missouri, and, were it not for the Army Corps of Engineers, wouldn't be across the river from anything, because there's a natural cutoff further downstream; Huck Finn's Jackson Island is probably gone; in Louisiana, the Old River control system is the only thing keeping the Atchafalaya from capturing most of the Mississippi's water and relocating the mouth of the big river west to Morgan City.

Anyways, check it out.

Marfa, Texas—Kaki Auftengarten's story starts off like so many other lamentations of small-town claustrophobia. "When I was 17 years old, there were no hip thirty-somethings living here. When you graduated from school, unless you had babies, you left."

So she did. Kaki left Marfa to go to college in Lubbock and then saw what else was out there—she hit Europe and Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, and then a funny thing happened: She came home. As she tells it, she was in Chinatown in San Francisco, with a good friend from college, when things started to feel weird.

"I just thought, 'Fuck, why would anyone want to live like this? I don't want to stand around for anything, I don't want to talk to all these people!'"

So she came back to Marfa, where she could ride her bike to wherever she needed to be in just a few minutes, and which, at this point, had attracted a crowd of youngish hip people and a few retirees to boot. Not that everyone liked it. "There are a lot of people who don't live here anymore," she says, a list that included her parents, who sold their house in town to a couple of guys from Manhattan. "My dad is a cowboy-boots-and-spurs, old-time type; I think he still has kind of a hard time dealing with two gay men moving into his house."

But Kaki really loves the place; her face lights up when she's talking and she's emphatic about her reclaimed hometown. "You don't have to be an artist to live in Marfa," she says.