I worried on day 3 that I had made a terrible mistake. The adrenaline from the first leg of the trip left me around Gilbert, California, just as the scent of garlic fields replaced the eucalyptus. There were lots of RVs with bicycles mounted on the backs. The wheels of the bikes circled lazily in front of me, like pinwheels on a faint breeze, and I found myself falling into a Caligari-esque hypnotic trance (if Dr. Caligari had had a recreational vehicle). I also hit my first traffic, and inched along from just north of Santa Barbara clear in to Los Angeles (with a welcome break to see a friend at a packed-to-the-rafters In-N-Out Burger in Newbury Park. I was in California! It was a must!). But I found my second wind after studying the backs of my eyelids for a few moments in my hotel room on Santa Monica Boulevard, and ventured out for an early dinner with yet more old friends. We sat outside and I had my first occasion—in over a year—to utter the words: “the sun is hot on the back of my neck.” Also: did you know that serving a grown-up woman an ice cream float of housemade yuzu soda, vanilla ice cream, and vodka will make her giggle like a small child after 3 days of being mostly alone?
Truth be told, it would have been a straighter shot to Arkansas (my ultimate destination, my home) to go diagonally across the country and skip California altogether. Two things impelled me: 1) the prospect of picking up a travel partner, Chad, who would get a kick out of doing road trippy things with me; 2) the desire to see something my dad had always talked about: the La Brea Tar Pits. Once I penciled LA into the route, I added the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA with a set of college friends (California’s state motto should be: “California! State of Large Concentration of Jenifer’s Friends!”).
The Tar Pits were freaky. There were large fenced off areas with bubbling tar, but more concerning were the various spots where tar was just starting to rise to the surface, some with makeshift fencing, some as yet unmarked.
I worried that no one had really accounted for the unpredictability of the tar when LACMA was built and that one day soon I would hear the news that the whole complex had been swallowed up—artsy hipsters now lodged cheek-by-jowl with saber-tooth tiger and mastodon remains, but the subterranean resting place at least adorned with incredible art. And a gift shop.
Chad and I pranced around the grounds and then I met my friends for the Turrell tour. Cue record player needle scratching across a record: my reaction to the Turrell experience was unpredicted.“Key Lime” is evidently the color of grief. Going into that exhibit, the marker suggested to the viewer that one should allow at least 5 minutes with the work. I shuffled along in the darkness, hand on the wall to keep my bearings, and found the bench where I was supposed to sit.
It was quiet, cool, dark, and—within seconds—I started to cry. I have no explanation. It’s not as if I haven’t been immersed in darkness since my father died, but the light installation in front made this darkness so much blacker, so much more velvety, enveloping, visceral. No one could see me. I couldn’t see myself. I was unobservable, even to me, and—completely outside of time and space and reason—the tears bubbled up like the tar underneath me, sticky and inescapable.