Two weeks ago when I made my last blog post I was visiting friends and family in New Jersey. Since then, I have flown back to Los Angeles and become reacquainted with life on the west coast. Airplanes -- and maybe some of you will agree with me -- are not my preferred method of travel. I like to drive. Maybe that's why I don't mind living in LA. I'm comfortable in a car. It helps that I am consumed by wanderlust. I enjoy long drives to nowhere in particular. In fact, on two (and a half!) separate occasions I've been fortunate enough to drive cross-country. I always feel like Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh when I take a lengthy solo drive, and no, it's not because I get so lost people claim I've disappeared, or because my baby was stolen out of his crib back in East Amwell, NJ. I don't even have a baby! My feelings of kinship to those travelers are based on the strong senses of excitement and discovery that overwhelm me when I'm trapped in my horseless carriage for hours on end with nobody to talk to but my little cassette tape recorder.
One of my favorite activities while driving is to stray from the beaten path and find weird nooks to explore. I often bring along my camera and MiniDisc recorder to document sights and sounds. I am particularly fond of field recordings, and while I am by no means a Nonesuch Explorer-quality anthropologist or sound archivist, I like to think that every once in a while I accidentally record something that is pretty cool. On the last cross-country drive I made (late 2007), my schedule was loose, so I brought my recording gear and decided to find some weird locations in which to record the natural sounds of the world around me.
My recording setup is really simple. I use a Sony MZ-R90 MiniDisc recorder, and a pair of Sound Professionals SP-TFB-2HT in-ear binaural microphones, which capture true fidelity sound in absolutely startling ways. Everything is caught in true stereo, so when you listen you can re-hear every detail as if you are present in the recording. Those microphones are the coolest audio-related purchase I've ever made. They especially make more...uh, "clandestine" recordings simple, as they look just like iPod earbuds. The mics have also held up much better than my MiniDisc recorder, which has long since died. I had to buy a new one just to transfer these audio files. Oh well, now that I've got a new MD, I'm ready to return to the wilds (of LA?) and obtain new sounds.
Now, for your listening enjoyment, I'd like to present you all with a series of my field recordings. As previously stated, I'm a novice, so you might hear me scratching at my ear as the occasional insect zips past, but there are still pretty moments and brief audio gems sprinkled throughout. As the contestants on Top Chef like to say before a plebeian samples on of their a culinary creations, "Please enjoy!"
Note: For optimal effect, listen with headphones!
01. Battle Of Carthage: At A Standstill (MP3) - In Cartage, Missouri, at the site of a historic Civil War battle (Wikipedia), I stop and listen to the sounds birds, insects, and distant trains. I had tried unsuccessfully two years earlier to find this site (where the Confederacy won their first battle), but the road signs in the area are awfully tricky, and I wound up in a rail yard. This time around, two years older and wiser, I found the area with little trouble. It was all very peaceful until some other tourists rolled up in their RV.
02. Battle Of Carthage: Creekside (MP3) - There is a small creek that runs through the area. I sat by it for a few minutes listening to more birds, trains, and the natural sounds of the creek. It was very relaxing. I would not recommend listening to this if you are currently fighting the urge to use the bathroom. The site is near a local county road, so you can still hear a few cars and trucks passing in the distance. The cutting out at the end of the track is an early sign of my MD recorder's impending demise. Do not adjust your speakers.
03. Battle Of Carthage: Conversation With A Treasure Hunter (MP3) - As I prepare to leave the battleground, I notice a figure moving in the distance. Upon closer inspection, I realize he is waving a metal detector back and forth over the ground. I decide to strike up a conversation with him. I ask how his wand works (hey-o!), and listen excitedly as he receives a "hit" and digs up a -- oh hell, I don't want to spoil the surprise for you. Yes, I know, I know...I need to hone my interviewing skills.
04. Cherokee Trading Post: Walkin' 'Round (MP3) - Somewhere on the road in Oklahoma I come upon a Cherokee Trading Post which boasts a real live buffalo! Having only ever seen a buffalo way off in the distance while driving through South Dakota, I think it would be really neat to see one close-up...in captivity. I am going to be stopping for a few minutes anyway, so I take the recorder/microphones and walk around the trading post, trying to sidle up to people mid-conversation. At one point I accidentally bump into a wind chime display and nearly knock the thing over. That part sounds amazing.
05. The Storm Outside Amarillo, Texas (MP3) - There is a horrible thunderstorm moving through the Texas panhandle, and it will leave a soggy mess in its wake. Driving into town, whatever local talk station I am listening to suddenly switches to an all-points weather bulletin, which is somehow prerecorded. The sky is a putrid yellow/green. Everything the voices say seems cheery until the male voice begins the hazardous weather outlook. I do not encounter any hail. The following morning, as I make my way out of town, I stop to visit Cadillac Ranch. Oh man, if you're ever given the option of walking across a farm that has just taken a beating from a thunderstorm, pass on the opportunity. Trudging through the mud to those awesomely spray-painted cars is like skating across a rink of cow shit. In hindsight, I wish I would have remembered to record the cows, because they followed me wherever I walked. Alas, I was up to my ankles in their feces so I was selfishly trying not to fall and ruin my clothes and personal belongings.
06. Train Yard: Tucumcari, New Mexico (MP3) - Switching over from I-40W (or any major highway) to Route 66 is always a good plan, if only because half of the towns you pass through look like Dresden (after the bombing, duh). I could share an entire book's worth of photographs detailing dilapidated buildings, ransacked homes, and empty streets. Tucumcari is a veritable ghost town. I drive to a local rail yard (Southern Pacific Train Depot) and sit on the hood of my car for a few minutes, hoping to hear something other than the cars zooming past on I-40, but oh well. The trains move slowly and my short attention span forces me to move before one arrives.
07. Deserted Main Street: Tucumcari (MP3) - It seemed like every business on this street is boarded up or shuttered or padlocked. I don't think I am there on a Sunday, which would be the only rational explanation for why I don't encounter a single other soul during my brief stay in Tucumcari. I stand in front of the Federal Building, around the corner from the Masonic Temple, and I think maybe one car passes me. The other sounds are all bleeding through from the highway. A sad aside: apparently one month after I was standing beneath it, a fire burned the Federal Building and the Princess Theater. You can read all about it on the town's Wikipedia page if you so desire.
08. Empty Lot: Santa Rosa, New Mexico (MP3) - For this one, my notes say "I found an empty lot and recorded more audio," so I don't know precisely the origins of this one. Santa Rosa, New Mexico is another town situated on Historic Route 66. It's where the epic train scene from John Ford's (via John Steinbeck) The Grapes Of Wrath was filmed. While there, I venture further off the path to find the Santa Rosa Dam and Lake. I never quite locate Blue Hole (a sinkhole formed in the limestone bedrock that filled with water and became a popular dive destination), but I do find some good, albeit windy, places to capture natural sounds.
09. Wind, Water, Distant Voices: Santa Rosa (MP3) - Sitting on the shore of the lake, I am treated to the sounds of the water, a whole lot of wind whipping around me, and -- off in the distance -- a father and son chatting with one another. Someday, someone might slow this track down and add a load of reverb to create an epic oceanic-drone piece in the vein of Aidan Baker or Troum. Until then, if you've ever been frustrated while talking to someone on a cell phone when it is windy, you'll hate this masterpiece of modern field recording.
10. Father Son Fishing: Santa Rosa (MP3) - The title says it all, really. The father and his son are standing on an old dock fishing together. The son says, "I wish some fish would come out," and then you can sort of hear them casting their lines into the lake. The father offers some advice to his son, and all the while I'm standing there like a creepy pervert with a pair of headphones in his ears. I'm happy they didn't take notice of me. They just kept on with their conversation and their fishing, while the weirdo with the headphones stood at the edge of the dock listening to everything they said. Wouldn't David Fanshawe or David W. Ames be proud? (Answer: No, they'd be utterly embarrassed by my ineptitude).
11. The Rickety Dock, The Sad End: Santa Rosa (MP3) - Alas, with my trip coming to an end (in less than twenty-four hours I'd be in Los Angeles), my last recording of this trip captures me, the lone traveler, sitting on my own rickety dock, contemplating the sad end of my trip. You can almost hear me wishing that I had more time to see more, hear more and learn more. In a moment of pure brilliance, I could have run off to the Mazatec Mountains and recorded some ancient mushroom ceremonies like Gordon and Valentine Wasson. Instead, I took the easy way out and continued on to California. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Listening back to these brief snippets of my past has once again filled me with that urge to move. If I didn't have a job right now the urge to walk out the front door and disappear for a few weeks might just overtake me and force me to do something impulsive. It has happened before. I hope I don't have to wait too long for it to happen again. I look forward to it, and when the time comes I will embrace it. For now though, I have to fight the urge just a little bit longer.
Feel free to share your own weird tales of solo travels in the comments section. If you've dabbled in the fine art of field recording (and haven't massacred it like I have), please share your own recordings or clips. If we can't be out on the road right now, at the very least we can live vicariously through one another.