Hangovers, Petroglyphs, Love and Drifting in North America – Chapter 1

About a year ago I was sitting at the University Club in WA having a beer with some archaeologists when one of them started talking about a field trip they had planned in the US. After a while they seemed to notice me for the first time across the table, and said, “Oh Staf, would you like to come?”

I said Sure, Why Not?

The trip was supposed to happen in last November. It got postponed. Then it was supposed to happen in April. Postponed again, and I started to feel like it was never going to actually happen. This was around the time that a few cool opportunities had come my way, and been suddenly cancelled. I wasn’t getting much work, and I was feeling pretty low about it. I was actually starting to think of getting a regular full time job.

I pretty much gave up hope that it was going to happen at all, and resolved not to keep myself on hold for something that might not eventuate. But finally it did come around, and here I am, in San Francisco, on a subway train bound for the airport to pick up my mate Owen. Ive been here for a month already, which is just crazy to think.

Its interesting to think, that the only reason Im here is that I was available. I keep my life so commitment free so that I can grab opportunities like these when they come up. This also has bad sides I guess, but more on that later.

So I packed up all my stuff (I mean everything) into my van. Not wanting to lose my place in my beautiful share house in the forest, I frantically found someone to rent my room for 7 weeks. All that was left was to catch the bus up to Brisbane, and fly off to Las Vegas Airport.

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Now that forest is in Byron Bay, this beachside hippy town in Australia where I recently moved. A lot of people rock bold styles over there, and as I have gotten more and more into playing music and performing again I have thought why the hell not myself, and acquired, among other things, a top hat. I had a moment of dread before leaving for the trip that I was going to have to step back into my old conservative self, and play a kind of safer version of myself, to be professional. This gave me such a feeling of dread, that I was going to have to put my new found joy of self expression on hold, that I resolved to not bottle myself up, but instead wear that damn top hat all the way. So landing in LAX and going through US immigration and customs, Im standing there in this bloody top hat attracting all kinds of attention.

Well Ill tell you one thing, I have never breezed through customs so fast in my life. The guy just asked politely to see what was under my hat, I tipped it with a flourish, and was out the door with both of us laughing.

At Las Vegas airport, I waited for my colleague to arrive by the baggage carousel. In their infinite wisdom the travel agent had booked us on different airlines, at different times, but due to a series of fuckups and delays, it turned out that we arrived a mere 20 minutes apart!  This was however long enough for a good looking middle-aged lady, mystified by the hat, to come up and ask for my phone number… That truly was a magic hat. Sadly, its gone now, lost somewhere in Vegas, but more on that later…

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We stayed one night in Vegas before heading out to the field, jet lagged. Pretty funny actually, for a couple of archaeologists, we stayed at the Luxor Hotel, a kitsch rendition of Egyptian opulence: this was the view from my window! We only had time for a steak dinner, a quick walk down the strip, then a well deserved sleep after 18 hours or something of travelling.

Next day we ran around Vegas, getting confused by driving on the wrong sides of streets, trying to find a way to power our electronic equipment while in the remote desert, and finally meeting up with the Whitleys, our American hosts for the first half of the field trip. Dave Whitley is something of an international rock art expert, and Tammy is an archaeologist for the BLM, on whose land we were surveying. Following Dave’s huge V12 truck, we headed out of Vegas with relief, a place of sin and ego that I felt no urge to return to…

(but of course, would…)

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Ahead of us was a gruelling 16 days of fieldwork with no break. To break the monotony though, we had a changing team, and changing accommodation scenarios. First up, we staying in the comparative opulence of the Alamo Inn, a highwayside motel in the ‘town’ of the same name.

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The first of many quintessential American experiences, the Alamo In was a good enough place to rest up after a hard days work. I did feel a bit like we were in some classic American movie, especially when I saw my room which looked like a potential murder scene. First thing I did was check under the bed…

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We spent the days in an area about 30mins drive away from the creepy Inn, walking around the landscape looking for ancient engravings on the rock. Most of these were of animals that are rare in the landscape now, most notably the Bighorn Sheep, which came to America via Siberia during the last ice age. Yep, thats how these animals came to populate North America, they walked from Siberia. And thousands of years later, became so important to Native Americans that they engraved their likeness on rocks throughout this desert. One theory goes that the sheep were important because they had an uncanny ability to predict rainfall, and so were used as prehistoric weathermen. Follow the sheep and you won’t run out of water!

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The rest of the art was more mysterious, interesting, and difficult to interpret. My favourites were the human figures with patterned bodies and bizarre headdresses. These are most probably representations of shamans with individual tunic designs that were derived from drug induced trances. Some of the human figures were holding spear throwers, technology that was replaced in North America around 1500 years ago, so we knows these engravings are at least that old. Strange geometric designs whose meanings are lost were also prevalent. Anticlockwise spirals were common. One theory is that these represent a power concentrating device, as the dust storms in the northern hemisphere also spin anticlockwise and are an important part of Native American beliefs. That being said, it is so difficult to know what things meant to people so long ago with any certainty! I found this frustrating to be honest, it is one thing to go out and photograph and measure these things, but another thing entirely to know what they mean.

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Despite my frustrations with the nature of truth itself, It was quite enjoyable work. It was also deliciously tiring. Hard slog, out in the heat, and jet lagged as hell, so that every day after lunch I would want to find a tree to sleep under. Of course I couldn’t, so I starting bringing out energy drinks to try and pick myself up – they didn’t work. It did help though when I stopped eating massive steaks of marinated tri-tip beef for lunch though… turns out you need a fair bit of your resources just to digest that stuff! Delicious though.

Some of the best parts were just driving through the landscape.

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We had a few changes of crew during the trip, and had a couple of great young archaeologists come to help us out. Also to break the routine, halfway through we moved to a different area, left the creepy comfort of the Alamo Inn, and set up a bush camp amongst the joshua trees.

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This was more my scene. I put my tent pretty far away from everyone, as I usually do, but was pleased to find my closest neighbour was a pretty girl with a deck of cards. Days again consisted of hard work, but nights were now sitting around a campfire, playing guitars and ukeleles, and drinking too much! I feel so good out in the bush. I feel so much more at home. Most importantly, the social anxiety that I often find crippling hardly ever rears its head. The first night we sat around the fire, and passed a bottle of good whiskey around. Hanging with these cool as hell American archaeologists, one guy had been to burning man for the last 12 years and had plenty of stories, another had spent 2 years in Afghanistan in the army. Another had an excellent ukelele and taught me a few chords, and my tent neighbour was a pleasure to sit close to by the fire. What a dream!

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At the end of the day it was my job to download all of the days data from our various electronic devices, build it all into a database, generate photo logs, and slowly build up a map of the art we had found. I really love the challenge of doing high tech stuff in remote environments, and Im good at it too. It’s a great thing to have to opportunity to do something you’re good at, what luck! One day I got the opportunity to stay back at camp alone and wrap up all the data stuff. Well, i got it all done pretty quickly and took a long break walking around the desert landscape completely naked, except for flip-flops.

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But all good things must come to an end, and the survey started to wrap up. Back to the city! Unfortunately, this long break from my anxiety had developed into a slight arrogance: a dangerous thing to take to Vegas… Its funny, I am coming to see that Im quite a cyclical person, I go through periods of being confident, then over confident, then feeling shit about myself. I guess the way forward is to be able to observe my moods from an external perspective and put the brakes on before things get out of control. But if I did that, then I wouldn’t have half of the stories that I have. I am glad to have survived this far though, grateful.

So we broke camp, backed up all the data and photos, and followed the portable shitter out of the desert and back to Vegas.

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3 thoughts on “Hangovers, Petroglyphs, Love and Drifting in North America – Chapter 1

  1. Love reading your blog Stafford what a adventure you are having I can see a book coming..Maisie & Max XX you must get another Hat!!

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