Welcome to Terrible’s

May 1, 2024

Dear Animal,

As you may recall, I work in a lot of different media– snow and ice, water, moss – but my new medium is road. Moving to the foothills of Colorado has upped my driving game considerably, I have a 16-year-old, so I am a driving instructor and my youngest goes to a special school; I am the school bus driver. This adds up to two hours a day on mountain roads in a vintage EV. So, yeah, roads are the black ribbon that ties up my life here. The Rocky Mountains are the spine of the continent, and I imagine that makes me a 4-wheeled chiropractor for a landmass. I drive and the nation feels a little less terrible. 

And, I hope that this medium speaks to you, ‘cause hey,  no one is nowhere. Person and place are inexorably intertwined. This was the whole premise of our making those 18 years, Animal,  a deep engagement between people and place. And, if you are reading this, you are parked on the planet, you are somewhere. If you are somewhere and you want to be somewhere else, take a road. 

Even this story is a broken black road to follow, so buckle up, and I promise, I’ll take you there. 

It is with this kind of bravado that I found myself headed to LA to look at film schools for my kid, and somehow found myself at home in places I had never been before.  Impossible? Maybe, but then that has always been our forte, Animal. Let us go impossibly onwards. 

There are languages in which the words ‘right’ and ‘left’ do not exist. Instead of relative directions, these languages rely on cardinal direction for reference positions.  For example, aboriginal languages in Australia like Guugu Yimithirr, Kayardild, and Kuuk Thaayorre. In these languages, you might say, ‘pass the salt north-by-northwest’. I like this sensibility, because it suggests that even the smallest landscape, a tabletop, say, is related to the larger landscape painted by sun and shadow that relate to those cardinal directions. On the lower Sunshine Coast, the ocean is south, and anywhere you might find yourself, you can point it out. The relationship to ocean is ever present. Here, in Sunshine, Colorado, it is the mountains to the west and the plains to the east. My yoga teacher might say, ‘turn to the mountains’ and maybe when I really land here, I’ll know what he means. Anyway, the road we are on requires that kind of orientation, so we will dispose of right and left for the duration. And frankly, there are so many ways of trashing things in America, and so it’s easy to ditch these relative directions.  I’ll allow ‘onward’. You can thank me later. 

Because our time is short and my husband is hardcore, we leave after dinner and drive through the night. I drive the 1am to 5am shift, listening to stand-up to keep myself awake. Me, Mike Birbiglia, and Utah. My lanky son is sleeping folded in the back seat around the camping gear like some kind of adolescent origami. I let him and my husband sleep, swallowing my guffaws and French Vanilla coffee in a paper cup that says ‘I ♥️ Beaver’. 

We stop for gas and snacks.  The convenience store is called Terrible’s, and it delivers. Terrible Coffee. Terrible Snacks. A dozen artificial flavours of Terrible Doughnuts. I walk around outside. 

The Tank Pavilion signage issues a cheery invitation, “Have you ever wanted to sit inside a tank? Well now you can!” And then it lists its mission as “to promote peace”, although a terminal exclamation mark is notably missing. Staring into the tank’s muzzle from outside the fence, I’m panicked, not peaceful, that me and my family will be swallowed down that black throat of violence. Heading back to the Jeep, I find I can’t turn my back on it, so instead side-step somewhere safer. 

The road has pulled us into the desert, and I propose we stop for breakfast in Las Vegas. I drove through Vegas 30 years ago past signs urging me to “Vote Jim Beam for Mayor”. I kept the window rolled up. But this time I am with my older kid, who longs for adventure. So, breakfast in Vegas seems right. 

We pay $35 to park the car for 2 hours and walk the Strip from the fake Eiffel Tower to the fake Statue of Liberty. It’s early, so the crowds are sparse. Instead of crosswalks, we follow the Vegans and take escalators up and down the pedestrian overpasses for each intersection. We angle up towards the two-story Coke Bottle and three-story electric guitar. Back on the earth, I take pictures of the cactus growing by the side of the road. The grass is all plastic. 

Casinos have the best washrooms (CRAPS!), and while I wait, I pillage my coin purse, find a quarter, and walk up to a slot, but the only option is  a credit card. I see a fella who looks like he has been there all night, bug-eyed and buttoned into his slot. We exit down a hallway with one wall of flame, that might welcome you to hell, or a burger joint. Or this…… 

For your convenience, we have listed all the terrible on this convenient colour placard.

But, c’mon, Animal, do you see the longing here for interactive theatre? Crush a car! Flamethrower! I might just move here and make a six-act theatre show.  We could call it ‘Drive a Monster’, and, like the Tank Pavilion, it might be about the road to peace from this uniquely American starting line. I’ll be holding auditions for Earth Mover Dig anon. 

I would have liked to go in and talk to the folks behind this operation, but a teenager without breakfast quickly becomes a doorstop, so we get breakfast at a creperie at the corner that sells jelly donuts. He’s never had a custard-fill. I get mushrooms. Mushrooms are all about digestion, breaking things down, and I could use an infusion of that. 

It’s been 30 years since I lived in the U.S., and I am seeking answers to my epic question of WTF. The Vegas Strip is another road to add to the collection, one that roars through high-speed, destruction-course culture. Mores, norms, and taboos of the past are mile markers, and we are all screaming by, and the rules that held society together are not even in the rear-view mirror anymore. We are in new territory.

I leave the table where the jelly doughnut massacre is taking place and walk around, peeking into $100 Easter Eggs with small sugar worlds inside. I stand in line to buy a bag of Squid Ink Pasta which delights my noodle-loving teen. The cashier is an ancient and unassuming woman wearing a shapeless dress and a kerchief. She could have been your granny’s granny, still here and selling her Secret of Eternity instead of Easter Ovids. The till gives her trouble, and she is apologetic. I don’t mind, we chat a bit, she seems relieved that I am not demanding to see her boss. Eventually, I pass cash, my hand to hers. 

And, though her clothes might be babushka, her hands are all Strip. Maybe that is her way of digesting place, as she walks on plastic grass instead of soft moss, climbs escalators in the sun instead of mountains in the rain.  When I ask to take a picture, she says, ‘Sure, Sugar’.

I don’t want to spend this whole letter on Vegas, but it’s hard to get out. It is the belly button of US culture, the genesis and the epicenter and the wasteland. It abandoned nature, defied it. If you plant a seed of a town in glitter, you’d get Vegas. We find the car.  In the rear-view mirror, Trump Tower is swallowed by desert. We drive the monster away.

The road forgets easily, and I sleep a little in the passenger seat. When it is my turn to drive, we truck stop. I walk around outside, walk the dog in me that needs to sniff the ground. After eight months of living here, one thing I realize is the importance of the land. After all, I have a hundred generations of farmer within me and only one artist. I love my family, my husband, my friends. But more, but most of all, I love the land. I look at the earth here. 

It is land that no one loves. I’ve known for a while that my next theatre piece will restore a piece of unloved land. It’s already written in me, that piece, if I can find an ending. If a human can make Vegas, can another unmake it? Mushroom-like, can I break down a post-modern fantasia? Can theatre love a place into balance? Into a non-human eco-system? One that sustains life in the mass extinction event we are living through?

It’s time to get back in the driver’s seat. 

I nudge us south now so that we can camp the night in Joshua Tree National Park. I took my kids there in 2019 so they could experience the opposite of the lush rainforest of coastal Canada. We drove way out onto BLM land to do a goat hike.

I remember turning onto the road to get to the goat hike. That road. I told my kids, if you ever catch me sad, ever in the future, as long as I live, all you have to do is remind me of this road.

I have been waiting to visit again.

It is beloved to me, this desert, but also, Joshua Tree is terrible. The cholla cactus here will shoot needles at you to protect its water. Frankly, I’ve been through enough water scarcity these last months to appreciate the adaptation. But more terrible at our camp site that night. A windstorm sweeps through Joshua Tree at dusk, and we haven’t brought enough gear. Huddled in our tent and sleeping in our coats, we are cold and after a night of drive-sleeping, wind-sleeping doesn’t provide much rest. I wake up with a terrible migraine and move into the car, hoping for respite, but a few minutes later I shove the door and barf bile on the desert floor. So much for digestion. Violence of culture, violence of weather, violence of the road has won this round. I have one more dose of migraine medicine in my wallet, left from Canada, and my husband drives while I sleep a good long while. I wake up on a college campus in L.A.

LA is a riot of life, heavy vines of bougainvillea, lemon trees laden with fruit, and we joke that all future housing decisions will be made with citrus harvest in mind. My kid rejects one school outright on the grounds that it doesn’t have a farmer’s market on campus. I think of him as an urbanite, but perhaps his genetic code is green after all. We take in the sun-drenched urban sprawl, and cute co-eds who coo about their school being so close to Disneyland that you can study on Main Street. This does not impress us, but the facilities are another matter.… 

Childhood is premised on rebellion, and since my kid was three, he has wanted his own artistic territory . I recall his demand for his room to be painted black with black curtains and realizing in that moment that he wanted to live in a black box theatre. Effective rebellion against his site-specific parentage! I’ve watched him wander from music to sound design to screenwriting to directing to film production. He is a skilled critic (of me, as well as of film!) His short films highlight landscape but with an aesthetic informed by the random and horror. Or the horror at the random, maybe. His generation is steeped in both. 

His school choice is completely determined by place: L.A. or Vancouver or bust. Part of me wants him back in BC, where there are people who love him. But, if he is like me, he will want a landscape all his own.

Where lemons live in the sky. 

And, ah, at last the road ends. We get out. The three of us spend long hours walking by the sea after our land-locked winter. Why is it that the ocean gives me such well-being, as opposed to say, the wide winter sky of Sunshine? 

I try to stitch this sky to the sky of Colorado, to your sky, Animal, in BC. As if I could tie it all together and come up with an antidote to homesickness. I read the line of the horizon over the Pacific Ocean. No islands lying like sleeping purple puppies in the water. No wavering silhouette of Vancouver Island. Venice Beach is writ large in water. If I didn’t know better I would say that this ocean held down the rest of the world until it drown.

I think of the extravaganza of our Vegas visit and now this. Landscape acts on its inhabitants, creates culture, it is who we are is where we are. I spent many years in southern England, its fields tucked into hedgerows like so many tidy bedsheets. In comparison, the US is like a laundromat shot out of a cannon. The beauty here isn’t careful; it is chaos. 

And Canada, BC, the Sunshine Coast? How does it compare?

Watch it, Fanconi. You are going backwards again.

The parking-lot exits in Los Angeles are collared with road spikes. Drive in one way and out the other and don’t fuck that up, ‘cause if you back up, you’ll slash your tires; then you aren’t going anywhere. Road spikes are another example of the casual violence of the culture here. But it is a good reminder for onwards: you can’t drive far looking in the rear-view mirror. Roads are about the future. Memories of the past beckon, with life and landscape there. Time has road spikes too and I have spent too much time this winter flat-tired and stranded. Onwards.

We drive through Hollywood. We Google map Billie Eilish. We find signs that delight us.…

And signs that have nothing at all to say.   

The universities we visit are rich with resources: 31 editing suites, 3 live TV studios, sound stages, foley suites – it is dazzling. How fortunate one must feel as a student at a place like this; the Steven Spielberg this and the George Lucas that. Maybe art flourishes when tended by giants. I ache for my kid and the advantages I couldn’t provide as a single mom living in the sticks. His 4.0 grade point average is below par; the median GPA of those accepted here is 4.2. He is taking two more AP classes in summer school to try to get there. Excellence is bigger than it used to be. Higher. Better. Shinier. My quiet child, half boy, half cloud. How will he fare? 

We walk around, I use the Seek app to learn what all these gaudy flowers are called.  We are tourists of the future, my kid’s future. One of the schools only accepts kids into their film directing program who can articulate their senior year thesis project in the application. I think of how projects are borne in me, the naked natal state of new things. With 30 years of experience in the field, I can recognize a good idea in the fetal state, but at sixteen? It seems an absurd expectation, and I feel a flash of anger towards it all. These L.A. schools are all pressure cookers. I’d rather my kid go to school in Canada, where maybe he can fail a little, goof off, and mess around. I think that is the birthplace of good art. But then again, there is the power of rebellion and giants. 

We drive back to Colorado through an atmospheric river. It’s hard driving, and we forgo our campsite on the second night and just gun it for home.

When we left it was snowy, but when I get back, I think I can sense spring somewhere. Slightly warmer weather. More mud. The last of the snow melts from the north side of the house. There is nothing like daffodils up here in the Rockies, nothing like tulips or cherry blossoms. But, the first of the wildflowers appears, the Pasque. It is known as the prairie crocus. It’s still sub-zero at night, so this little bloom is hardy—the stem is covered in small hairs. The white interior of the flower works like a mini-solar oven, and bees sleep here. I read that, and now check every one. The to-do list of place.

I haven’t put away my parka, but one afternoon it is 27 degrees, and the kids wear shorts. We sleep with a window open and wake up when it gets down to -3 and snows. That was two days ago. Spring here is shaped like a coil; you will get there eventually but you must go round and round. 

Where I grew up, when the leaves are the size of squirrel’s ears, you plant corn. In BC, when the forsythia blooms, put in your peas. I collect these synchronicities of the wild and the cultivated. I arrived in Sunshine at the end of last summer, so the spring here is a complete unknown. After a winter of woodpeckers, I hear a robin. The hearty grass gains a degree of green. Down 2000 feet, on the plains, where my kid rides horses, I see leaves. Finally. Now, at last, I start to believe in change. 

I’m starting a garden, and because Spring is so late, I have a bit more time. It isn’t easy land. The soil is pulverized granite.  Wood for raised beds is a fire risk. Maybe I’ll do metal. Voles steal strawberries and eat roots, so a neighbour tells me to plant in old cattle water troughs. The wind whips away growth and will desiccate the soil. Water is scarce.  I don’t have a pickup truck. I repurpose enormous metal shelves from the garage that burned down in the fire of 2010. Somebody said that you can grow thimbleberries. That made me smile.

I walk around the property with a kid who grew up here. The place I want to garden used to be inside the house that burned down. He shows me the pile of rocks that was the waterfall—the waterfall was inside the house. It was built on the land where the Gold Rush town’s sheriff’s office had stood and the old jail was built into the family house. I like the idea of planting things in this story soil, planting in the jail, the justice, the family kooky enough to have a waterfall inside.  Heritage seeds.

My guide knows a lot about fruit trees. We kick at the ground as we walk around and squeeze handfuls of dirt, looking for soil structure that will hold water, looking for a spot that is still, where I can put in an orchard. We talk of the delicacy of blossoms. Only apples, ‘cause even pears are too delicate—the blossoms just blow off. We talk about swales and diverting water off the downspout of the house. We figure out that the orchard should go behind the bedroom and the chickens on the lee side of the cistern shed. Ah yes, windward and leeward are two relevant directions in the language of this place. Up high there is so much sun that north slope and south slope don’t mean much. Orient yourself to shelter from the wind. There you might be able to grow. 

As we talk, my orchard advisor admits that he wouldn’t do chickens himself because with chickens, comes the mountain lion. 

Do I want the lion?

He asks me. It’s a question, and a terrible one, I am collecting them. I don’t have a response. Answers will have to be grown from seed, and I’m just starting to till the ground. I guess it is natural to know nothing at the beginning and to start down the road. Like a good road, a garden grows only into the future. The past is some rich compost. Which brings me back to you, Animal.

I watch you on Instagram. I know there is grant writing, the quiet backstage activity of a company. As I take on the Terrible, I hope you are thriving. A gentler climate, richer soil, an advanced Spring, peace. Save me a place. And know that in all I do, I think of you.

Yours, ever,