Can you ever really claim a landscape as your own? Perhaps, I think––but only for a brief blip.
I come back to this question often while living out of a van for a month with Brad (my co-driver, boyfriend, photographer, and travel companion) as we drive across the American South.
At times, it’s as if the car is at a standstill, like cars in old movies, as the mountains and desert zoom past, deciding what will happen to us. —Emma Cohen
April 18th - 19th
Coming from Toronto in mid-April, we leave an ice-gelled terrain and can’t get to heat quick enough.
In Nashville, it’s finally thawing, and we sleep in the backyard of an internet friend who seems, to me, a quintessential embodiment of Nashville, despite her Boston roots (She lives in a yellow house in East Nashville, works for a record label, and has picked up a Southern lilt.) What could be more ‘Nashville’ than the sonic?
Every city is home to two versions of itself––the version that exists in the cultural consciousness, and the version that exists for those who live there. The former, for Nashville, seems to reside downtown: the roads are ready to hold the weight of bicycle-powered trolleys that seat up to 10 drunk women sipping from curly straws while pedaling and shouting. Honky-tonk proudly oozes from a bar every few steps but feels cinematic when paired with the slow burn of neon. Later, in East Nashville, we eat deep fried avocado tacos under hot, colored lights.
Through this thickened chaos of partygoers, Brad and I meet a homeless woman who is selling what appears to be a reputable newspaper, but turns out to be some sort of Christian propaganda paper. Nashville’s new law, she says, makes pandering illegal, and in this new capitalist horror story, the homeless have been provided these newspapers by the church to “sell,” since they can no longer ask for change.
April 20th - 26th
I go to a 24-hour diner to do work one day and keep returning like I’m a local; developing temporary habits feels semi-luxurious, like slipping into a new, silky skin.
There are no skies in Atlanta, only thick ceilings made of tree branches.
The downtown looks to me like any other downtown, but the outskirts are lush and quiet, like the inside of a gothic dream. I go to a 24-hour diner to do work one day and keep returning like I’m a local; developing temporary habits feels semi-luxurious, like slipping into a new, silky skin. The food is just okay, but at least no one bothers you in a diner.
Every day, I drive by at least three car crashes. Travel makes patterns seem intentional, and I briefly wonder if Atlanta is cursed.
When you’re visiting a new place, there are few instances when you get the sense that you’ve actually stepped into an authentic moment in the life of the city you’re in—that you’re not looking into it or projecting onto the landscape, not sweeping through, but actually existing inside of it. On our last night in Atlanta, I capture this feeling in a bar that’s low like a bungalow, and spilling with people who look like there’s nowhere else they’d rather be. The band that plays all night is scraggly and strangely charming, with long hair and seventies-style hats, and keeps stopping mid-song to make sure no one on the dance floor is falling over. I later find out the lead singer goes by the name ‘Mudcat.’
On the drive through Alabama, the marquee signs outside of churches appear like billboards, getting more aggressive as we go along.
As we move further south, the signs read less like wholesome religious sentiments and more like pious advertisements: “Are you Rapture Ready?” and “Where do You Want to Spend Eternity?” I, of course, have no answers to either question, but I think I would maybe be okay with spending eternity on the road, because all I concentrate on here is what’s right in front of me.
Montgomery feels heavy under the weight of its history. An older couple sitting on a street corner recommends we go to Chris’s hot dogs for lunch, a hundred-year-old establishment. Our waiter looks like a cherub who’s all grown up (around our age, in his twenties and moon-faced). He’s wearing the kind of shirt you buy at a gift shop, with a wolf howling snout-up in front of the moon.
April 28th - 29th
I can tell Austin has more secrets than I can crack in a day.
All the palm trees are dead in Texas.
Palm trees are too plastic, too infused with the cheesiness of vacationing to thrive in this Western ghostland. In Austin, we make the mistake of trusting someone who tells us to drink on Sixth Street, and end up in a tourist trap. Digging our way out, we find a bar with taxidermy pufferfish, and I learn how to play pool.
Austin is Richard Linklater’s town, and, to my delight, has Dazed and Confused written all over it. It’s a city I could imagine myself living in, yet I find it hard to visit. We make a good attempt, eating more tacos, drinking more margaritas on the rocks, contemplating buying cowboy boots from vintage stores. Still, I can tell Austin has more secrets than I can crack in a day.
Between Austin and Marfa, we stop for the night in Menard County.
Nowhere Texas is spooky-stormy. It’s set against a backdrop of flowering cacti, where rattlesnakes threaten. We’re easily spotted as outsiders. Everyone warns us to be careful: the man next to us at the gas pump, the woman at the dollar store where we pick up bread and tampons, the guy who pulls over to make sure we’re okay when we’re parked on the side of the road, while Brad takes pictures of roadkill.
We pull into an RV park to cook dinner and sleep, and find ourselves next to a trailer where two older men sit, one on a tractor, one on a motorcycle. Both wear cowboy hats and hold beers, while a rooster runs around their feet. They tell us their names are Bob and Bill—they’re retired cowboys turned widowed nomads—and they turn out to be great history teachers. Bob tells us that, on the land where we sit, Jim Bowie, a frontiersman who died in the Alamo, found silver mines. Cannons and swords are dredged up from the river across from us. Once, he says, the Kabashee tribe fought the Spaniards and killed five of their priests, sending the last one back to them as a warning.
Bob’s a master of mythology, the first kind being the history of this land, the second kind the history of this RV park. He tells us about the Mexican band that throws parties every summer here, the Australian couple he gave his Texan silver belt buckle to, the Patsy Cline impersonator who cooked up steaks all summer in the middle of the RV park, singing and performing and feeding visitors. Looking around the quiet RV park where everyone is minding their own business, you’d never know about them. Before we go, he gives us two walking sticks carved from cedar and, upon learning I’m a writer, gives me four of his library books. “This is the only way I’m getting into heaven,” he says, “by being kind.”
April 30 - May 1st
Marfa is planted smack in the center of the desert, and it’s small enough to feel like a secret. We walk the whole town.
In the ‘80s, minimalist artist Donald Judd began installing his work here, and other artists followed suit. Dotted with pastel stucco houses and agave, the town sits roughly 100 miles from the Mexican border.
One night, we visit the Lost Horse Saloon, and I’m stung by a bee on the shoulder, in the place where my flesh peeks out from my checkered top. I sit for the rest of the night with an ice pack from the bartender, watching a solo man playing guitar. Aside from Brad and I, the bar’s mostly empty, filled with friends sharing cigarettes. The next day, we walk around town and see all of them again: the musician getting coffee, the bartender working in a vintage store, our fellow patrons from last night grabbing lunch.
In front of the famed Prada Marfa, a man asks us to take photos of him and his dog, with a red helium balloon for his mother’s birthday. They can hardly stand still, the wind’s so strong. After, we drive out of town, toward the wildfires, dust devils kicking up on both sides of the road.
After, we drive out of town, toward the wildfires, dust devils kicking up on both sides of the road.
Las Vegas, Nevada
May 5 - 7th
The Vegas heat is full of day-after secrets and sunshades and palms (of both the tree and the hand variety). It’s an alien party planet puking up neon. We park on the sixth floor of a parking garage downtown, so we’re close to what we came here for: a chance to witness decadence and indulgence, turned up to ten.
What do we find? Threads of light, cars toting huge ads for “girls who want to meet you,” wedding chapels with sweethearts and tacky lace, bail bonds. It seems impossible to imagine anyone living in Vegas; that there are elementary schools and doctors offices here. The city lends itself far too well to the fantastical: egg yolk and vodka, stunt men and daredevils, green cocktails, light-up showgirls, kids on hoverboards, strippers mid-mall restricted in busking circles, superhero costumes, oysters on ice, all-you-can-eat buffets, homeless people holding signs that read “Fuck Off! Leave Vegas!”, magicians on the street, diamonds dripping, and constant references to Frank Sinatra.
If it’s consistency, albeit chaotic consistency, you seek, then Vegas is the place to find it.
Throughout our travels, it stands out as the most obvious example of a city whose cultural landscape shapes those who populate it. It’s almost comforting, in its bonkers dependability.
In the morning, as we drive out to the mountains, and leave the plastic heat behind us, a film of sensory memory surrounds us—as there is anytime you leave a landscape. ★
Emma Cohen is a writer and Creative Writing student at Concordia University, living between Montreal and Toronto. Her writing has appeared or is upcoming in The Void Magazine, Sophomore Magazine, Metatron's OMEGA, and Cosmonauts Avenue. She is also the editor of art and lit mag Plasma Dolphin.