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This winter I decided to forgo the usual trendy hotspots - Club Med, South Beach, Goa - and took my vacation somewhere entirely more glamorous, somewhere befitting my upwardly mobile status, not to mention my finances. So I went to Death Valley. Yes, that's correct. I spent New Year's Eve, as well as the few days beforehand, in the California desert, in that peculiar type of terrain where the days are hot and the nights are cold. Let me emphasize this point. The days are hot, and the nights are FUCKING COLD AS SHIT. I'm not talking 30's or 40's here, I'm talking tens and, if you're lucky, twenties. It was so cold at night that if you were away from the fire for more than a few minutes you'd literally start to freeze up and harden like some kind of statue, like Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back, or Al Gore post-coitus. Like that exactly.

No, I kid. I exaggerate. It wasn't quite that bad. But it was cold. So cold that the first night I thought I really did have hypothermia, that I was dying, that it was too late for me because we were in the middle of the fucking desert and there were no hospitals, no ambulances, no doctors, no nothing. The only reason I knew I wasn't going to die was that I couldn't, not in Death Valley. That would be too...obvious. If it was called Life Valley, perhaps, or Healthy Valley or something, then maybe. I refuse to die without some semblance of irony.

But before my bitching gets out of hand, I would like to point out that I had a wonderful time. In lieu of what most of my friends did for New Year's Eve, paying ridiculous amounts of money to pile into over-crowded clubs, or, even worse, going to the same bars they always went to, thus relegating the evening to a somewhat louder and more inebriated Saturday night, I know I made the right decision.

The thing is, I don't exactly know why, but I really care about New Year's Eve. I care where I am, what I'm doing, who I'm with. I put an exorbitant amount of pressure on myself to have a good time, and go to extreme lengths to make sure this happens. Thus Death Valley. All my best New Year's were in other places - New Orleans, Miami, Eilat. Last year I stayed in New York, and, frankly, it sucked. So I needed to get the hell out of here. I flew out to San Francisco about a week before the 31st, giving myself plenty of time to get all the camping equipment, food and supplies I needed. I also hit some bars and clubs. What's so amazing about that city is that, compared to New York, it's like Kindergarten. It's like a dress rehearsal for the real world, probably because everyone is so nice and laid-back. I mean, every single person, from the yuppies in the clubs to the homeboys on the corners are watered-down and cartoonish compared to their New York counterparts. It's easy to feel like a big shot, whether you deserve it or not (no comments please).

My friend Mr. Bel-Beavis de Voe and I rented a truck and Digital Dan the Man rented a SUV, and nine of us piled our crap in them and caravanned down to the desert. While Death Valley is only an hour or so outside of L.A., there are no direct routes, so we ended up first going north and east, to Reno, and then south again. So of course we stopped in a casino. We rolled into the biggest one we could find, this tremendous neon green thing that looked like Oz. Walking around that monstrosity was amazingly fun, particularly because everyone in the entire place stared at us like we were a bunch of freaks, which we were. For some reason we all were wearing tremendous fuzzy hats, and certain individual flourishes - pink dreadlocks, funky sunglasses, furry pimp coats - made us all that much more unusual.

Some woman at a restaurant asked us, "What is it, hat day?"

I replied, "You bet it is. And I really like yours, although it's more of a mask than a hat. Where do you buy one of those things anyway?"

"One of what?" she asked.

"A butt ugly mask."

No, I didn't say that. I wish I had though. The next night the casino was featuring the musical stylings of the one and only Huey Lewis and the News, and I begged everyone to stay over so we could see the show, but no one shared my enthusiasm. I guess it isn't hip to be square.

Instead, we drove for a few more hours and stayed in a hotel in a little town called Bishop, and the next morning drove into Death Valley. The 40 mile road of dirt and rocks took over two hours to traverse, and when we finally reached our destination we were greeted with a vision. There, in the middle of fucking nowhere, between tremendous mountains and miles of land and sky, was a little, private community, noticeable only by a large metal bat sculpture on a pole and palm trees. Yes, palm trees. Around the hot springs had been planted a large ring of them, further perfecting the mirage-like aesthetic of the place.

Did I forget to mention the hot springs? Well duh. That was the whole point of the trip, the entire reason to be there in the first place, the only thing that made the cold bearable. You'd be freezing your buttocks off, then ease into one of the pools and all of a sudden you'd be hot as hell, sweating even, sinking into a utopia-like womb of warmth and relaxation. It was really quite incredible to be sitting around in below-freezing temperatures and to feel perfectly at ease. Add to this the view, the view of an entire sky lit up with every single fucking star imaginable, plus half the planets, plus every minute or so a star falling out of the sky like, like...one of God's tears (no, too cheesy). Okay, like a skydiver on fire (no, too bizarre). Okay then, like a radioactive piece of pigeon shit (perfect!).

Oh yeah - plus you're naked. So get this, you're totally naked, perhaps with some rubbing going on with one or more naked people, sitting there in these relaxing springs with the entire cosmos above your head like some primordial game of Lite Brite, maybe drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette, or maybe you've already popped some E or had some liquid and there's now definitely some rubbing going on, also possibly some stroking, some fondling, then a gulp of beer, drag of cigarette, more stroking and....shit, I miss it already.

That was my first night in the place. After pulling in and joining our happy, freaky camping compatriots, setting up our tents and whatnot, it immediately became pitch black dark. And cold. We lit a fire and sat around it, twenty or thirty of us, passing around joints and wine and whiskey, some people playing the drums and a variety of other instruments - clarinets, trumpets, guitars - everyone singing or banging on something or talking or just taking it all in. Then off to the hot springs, where the afore-mentioned bliss happened. Those hours soaking were some of the best I've had in a long time. That was until I got out.

Sitting around, hot as shit, then immediately entering into cold, cold air and wind, coupled with being really drunk and stoned, is not fun. It also does something strange to the system. My friend and I felt like we had been dosed, or Rufied, and were barely able to make it back to the campsite. The best thing seemed to just go to bed, or at least to get inside somewhere remotely warm, but this proved impossible. The tent I had borrowed was a summer tent, complete with this kind of perforation that, while it was nice to be able to see the stars, did very little to keep the wind out. There was also no canopy, and the tarp I attached on top kept blowing over in the wind. We tried to use one sleeping bag as a mattress and the other as a blanket, but this didn't do much to keep us warm. Plus, she kept hogging the larger section of the bag, as well as most of the pad that kept the rocks from poking at your back, so I was extremely uncomfortable.

Then the hypothermia started setting in, and something had to change. So we both got into one sleeping bag, and even though this was kind of fun, I couldn't get my upper body inside the thing, and the dying-feeling was returning. I pictured my soul floating up above the tent, looking down at me sandwiched into a sleeping bag with another person, marveling at how retarded I was to try and sleep in a perforated tent with wet hair in below-freezing conditions. I was embarrassed for myself, that I had let myself down by succumbing to such a stupid death, so I decided to make another change. I chose life. We ended up getting into our separate sleeping bags, and even though she took mine, which was a really nice sub-zero bag, and I took hers, which was like being wrapped in a paper bag, I fell right asleep. Of course, by this time it was practically daylight anyway, but I didn't care. I was just glad to be getting some semblance of rest, and, of course, not to be fucking dead.

Over the next few days, I did little more than sit around the fire, sit around in the hot springs and drink. And eat. I also spent a good deal of time naked, as did everyone else. While I had never before done such a thing, even having gone to nude beaches where I kept my boxers on, this time it felt completely natural and not strange in the slightest. And seeing my friends naked, my cute, sexy friends, wasn't really a big deal. Although, a definite plus of the trip was that I accumulated like months of masturbation material, which will certainly come in handy if I ever hit a dry spell (I'm kidding. I am so kidding. Seriously kidding).

All week we had been doing these fake countdowns, just to fuck with people, someone yelling out: "10, 9, 8, 7..." and all of us joining in at the top of our lungs, culminating of course in "Happy New Year!" But when the actual time came, there was no countdown. I'm not sure if no one had a watch, or if everyone was too fucked-up to notice, but all of a sudden it was 2001 and we were hugging and kissing and screaming like mad. And even though nothing had changed, that the numerical transition was as arbitrary as, say, the career of Tom Cruise (I mean, is he a good actor? Has he made the right choices? Who can say for sure?), it was why we had gone out there in the first place, and we celebrated appropriately.

There was a tremendous bonfire lit up by the hot springs, and everyone who was camping in the valley had gathered around it. Some time before midnight we marched down there, in a loose parade formation, all of us in weird costumes and hats and playing drums or various instruments or singing or all of the above. The funny thing was that, once we arrived at the fire, where maybe 70 or 80 people were circled around it - or more, I don't recall as I was quite fucked up - we were once again stared at. There were actual naked people dancing around the fire and everyone was staring at us like we were the strangest things they'd ever seen. I was wearing a Santa Claus suit with a Britney Spears sticker on the hat, and these guys were looking at me with these open-mouthed statements as if I was Satan or Jeffrey Dahmer or Al Gore post-coitus or something. It was great.

I vaguely recall someone asking if I had made any resolutions, how I thought the new year was going to turn out, what the beginning of the real millennium meant to me. My reply was to scream like a little girl, having just accidentally burned myself with my cigarette, and then to whimper uncontrollably after missing my mouth entirely with a bottle of champagne and having it pour down my chest. "Did that answer your question?"

The next day I refused to do anything and sat around in the sun, drinking Bloody Mary's and eating lots and lots of red meat. It was fucking fantastic. The following day we packed up all our stuff and left, our entire posse tearing through the desert and the hilly, winding California roads, all the way back to San Francisco. While I had an amazing time, and wouldn't have traded it for anything - even the cold and near-death - that night, sleeping in an actual bed, an incredibly soft, comfy bed - the most comfortable in San Francisco, I've been told - was exactly what I needed.

Maybe we need to do things that test us once in a while, even if just to appreciate the little things, like comfortable bedding and central heating. Maybe we need to suffer just a bit, so we won't take for granted all we have in our lives, never forget how lucky we are. Or maybe we simply need to get the hell out occasionally, tear ourselves away from our tedious daily routines and fuck shit up.

Either way, I learned a lot from this trip, particularly from the beautiful freaks I camped with. These people are the real thing, and it's nice to know that, despite the pervasive conservative atmosphere that has blanketed the country, artists either getting pushed around or selling out left and right, everyone so afraid to be freaky, people walking around in these little cocoons Matrix-style, that some real creativity and openness exists. Maybe San Fran has the right idea after all.

But we could still kick their ass.

Happy New Year.

Email Russ: [email protected]

Santa Photo by Gavin


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[email protected] | January2001 | Issue 10