Matej Sitar’s beautiful book of snapshots from his journey along the west coast
While at a Super 8 motel in West Virginia, I wrote this introduction for America My Way, a book of photographs by Matej Sitar, a photographer and artist living in Slovenia:
Drive with the windows down and the radio on. Scroll down midnight streets in one-stoplight towns. Head west and the country opens into a vast desert floor surrounded by mountains and forest walls like a beautiful room. I’ve driven one hundred thousand miles through America and I’ve generated at least as many words and photographs in an attempt to understand my schizophrenic nation and my place within it. At first these road trips were political and personal. In the end, I was simply addicted to the buzz of being alone in a car with strange land laid out before me. Thousands have done the same, creating a rich body of songs, books, poems, films, and images of the American road, of the allure of following the long yellow line in search of something new. This sensation is difficult to explain, like trying to describe love or fear.
When Matej Sitar sent me the proofs to his book about driving along the west coast, I recognized moments from my own travels. Dashboards and blurry trees, dead cinderblock buildings and eerie motels. His lens captures the in-between: the junked cars along an empty highway, the strange watchtowers on blank plains that speed past the window, the side of the road where you ponder the map. His Polaroids prove that the journey always eclipses the destination. I’m jealous of his trip. He drove up from the bottom of California along the Pacific Coast Highway, one of America’s greatest works of art with its ribbon of asphalt blasted into sheer cliffside with the ocean crashing below. He kept going through Vancouver into the Yukon.
The Yukon. The name alone conjures one of the loneliest places I can imagine, all that blank space on the map where the sight of a fluorescent diner or an unexpected bookshop takes on deeper significance among the dark forests and fields of snow. How do you capture that motorway rush, the excitement of behind alone behind the wheel and exploring new terrain, of momentarily merging with the automobile and setting your mind free? It may be impossible but Matej Sitar’s snapshots come very close.
You can purchase America, My Way and see more photographs here
In 1928, the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane changed its name to the Central State Hospital
They say there are secret cemeteries beneath the sprawling grounds of the Central State Hospital. They say bodies and pieces of bodies were dumped in trenches after being taken apart in the laboratory. It takes three people to perform an autopsy: someone to do the cutting, another to weigh the organs, and a third to record the results. Blood and other fluids drained through the tiled floor and ran beneath one hundred acres of landscaped gardens before spilling into the White River.
Copper has anti-bacterial properties. Northern light is the best for viewing bacteria through a microscope. There’s much to learn at the little museum in the old pathology building at the defunct hospital. Tumors, trauma, and congenital defects. Degenerative disease and inflammation. Next to a yellowing brain in a jar, a card says, “Patient never displayed peculiar behavior until he was wounded in the head during the Spanish-American war. He became childish but was able to work as a farmer until the age of seventy when he turned violent and institutional supervision became necessary.” Bottles of sulfate of ammonia, benzoic acid, smelling salts, and ‘chemicals’ line the dark wood shelves. Hanging from the walls are dozens of sepia portraits of stern men with beakers and skeletons in the background.
“The patients lived in dark inhuman conditions and spent most of their time in restraints, often manacled to the basement walls. ‘Retraining practices’ were barbaric. Inmates who never stopped screaming were ‘warehoused’ and you can still hear their screams in the tunnels and basements today. This facility is haunted.”
After decades of dithering about what to do with the mentally ill, Indiana opened the Central State Hospital for the Insane in 1848. Forty years later, it nixed ‘for the insane’ from its title and became known simply as ‘Central State’ or more often, ‘the asylum’. The 160-acre facility included massive dormitories, a pathological laboratory, a ‘sick hospital’ for the treatment of physical ailments, a farm and cannery where patients engaged in occupational therapy, an amusement hall with an auditorium, billiards, and bowling alley, a bakery, a church, a firehouse, and sprawling gardens with marble fountains and statuary.
Determined to uncover the physical cause of insanity, the doctors at Central State Hospital diligently dissected the bodies of their patients as well as any other corpses they could find, extracting spinal fluid and feeding brains through a steel machine that looked like a deli meat slicer. Bodies were scarce during an age when most people believed autopsies were a sacrilegious desecration and newspapers published hysterical headlines about ‘grave-robbing physicians’. To obtain more corpses, Central State Hospital offered free funerals following the autopsy, and the bodies were stored in a shack behind the laboratory called the ‘dead house’.
Although the intentions of the doctors were noble and even progressive for its time, the hospital was plagued by rumors of cruel treatment of the patients who were still alive. In 1870, the Governor of Indiana received a letter from a doctor who visited the facility. “The basement dungeons are dark, humid and foul,” he wrote. “They are unfit for life of any kind, filled with maniacs who raved and howled like tortured beasts for want of light and air and food and ordinary human associations and habiliments.” Lobotomies were commonplace and patients suffering from depression were thrown into ice cold baths.
“Under a grove of trees, a patient stoned another patient to death. Each night you can hear the cries and groans of the dying man coming from this area.”
By 1930, the hospital held over five thousand patients, many of whom were kept in the five mile network of tunnels that ran beneath the buildings. Some of the patients disappeared down there. There’s the story of Alvin, a patient who went missing. Shortly after the police recovered his body, a nurse discovered that a female patient was sneaking into the tunnels at night to talk with her friend, a ghost named Al. Another hospital worker heard shrieks coming from a dirt-floor room where chains and hand restraints were swinging from the walls. A nurse reported seeing a ghost dressed in a bathrobe running down the hall of the woman’s dormitory. They say you can still sometimes see robed figures running across the midnight grass, attempting to escape.
The abandoned power station at the Central State Hospital
Twice a night, maintenance workers followed the concrete stairs down into the basement of the power station to shovel out the ashes and tend to the boiler. They always went in pairs. No man would go down there alone because strange things happened. Lights flickered and cold breezes blew. The coal’s conveyor belt turned itself on and off. They often heard the shrieks of a woman or saw large shadows flitting among the cement posts. One night an employee fell asleep in the basement and a pair of ice cold hands began to choke him around the neck. He broke the grasp and flipped on the lights but nobody was there. Deep red marks ringed his neck and did not disappear for several months. In 1994, the hospital closed its doors.
“I didn’t believe in ghosts until I went to Central State one night. Just outside the power station I heard loud crying and horrible moaning, and I saw bright white lights with crying faces. I’ll never be the same after that night.”
Today the grand old power station is a shambles inside. A basketball hoop sits tipped on its side, surrounded by exploded sofas, fan blades, makeshift tables, and a smashed toilet. Towers of rusted paint cans line the walls. You can still see the old gauges measuring the boiler pressure with elegant hand-painted labels that say ‘Turbine No. 3′ and ‘Sick Hospital’. A crumpled tin sign bolted to a post says ‘No Parking Any Time’.
The old dining hall
Central State Hospital was based on the Kirkbride Plan, a mid-19th century ‘building-as-cure’ philosophy developed by Thomas Story Kirkbride, who believed that ornamental Victorian buildings surrounded by landscaped gardens and extensive farmland provided “a special apparatus for the care of lunacy.” Kirkbride’s sprawling facilities soon became too expensive to maintain, and his approach was abandoned in favor of new advances in medicine, such as lobotomies and electroshock therapy. Several Kirkbride asylums still stand today, although most are shuttered and vandalized.
Today the cutting edge of psychiatry sits across town at the Eli Lilly headquarters where they manufacture anti-depressants and other mood stabilizing pills. Who knows what kind of ghosts and rumors will circulate around pharmaceutical companies one hundred years from now. Will today’s culture of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and benzodiazepines someday be considered primitive and cruel?
“This is the darkest place in the world. No matter how many lights are used, the area remains dark and heavy. This is the natural result of the hundreds of deaths here, combined with so much psychic pain and suffering.”
Perhaps the Central State Hospital is haunted. One thing is certain: the elegantly tiled floors, vaulted ceilings, stone scrollwork, and cast iron parapets will give you chills. In March 2003, Indianapolis purchased the hospital from the state for $400,000. Ten years later, the grand old buildings continue to sit empty, collecting busted liquor bottles and cigarette butts from drunken teenagers and homeless people taking shelter for the night. And they say if you listen carefully, you can still hear the footsteps of a ghost pacing the floors of the administration building, going about his business of running the hospital.
About two miles southeast of the Salton Sea, make a right turn on Main Street and keep going until the stink of dead fish begins to fade into salt and dust. A mile or two beyond the Niland Turbine Plant, as the Santa Rosa Mountains shrink in the rearview mirror and the Chocolate Mountains loom ahead to the east, a painted concrete box appears, saying ‘Slab City. The Last Free Place. Almost There!’
Some places grab your imagination without seeing them. A few years ago I’d fall asleep thinking about Antarctica, shuddering whenever I considered its blank and endless size. Then came the Year of Lake Superior. These are the Nights of Slab City. The last free place. What better motto could a city have? I’ve been fascinated by Slab City since stumbling across a sentence describing it as a “decommissioned and uncontrolled” community of snowbirds, people living off the grid, and “people who want to be left alone.” The name itself demands attention: Slab City. Such tough and cryptic cadence that sounds like the stuff of underground pulp and purple noir, yet its etymology is straightforward, referring to the concrete slabs left behind after the Camp Dunlap Marine Training Facility closed shop at the end of World War II.
After passing the candy-colored Jesus slogans shellacked across Salvation Mountain (more on that later), a kiosk appears with a laminated sheet of paper tacked to the wall: “Welcome to Slab City, an off the grid community since 1956. This is a free campground, free as in free rent, not free as in anything goes.” Some basic rules are listed: “Violence is not okay. Trespassing is not OK. A campsite owner may be absent for a while. Do not assume that it is abandoned. California acknowledges the Castle Doctrine. We are not vigilantes. We lead by example. ‘Rights’ usually end at the beginning of someone else’s ‘rights’. This is where rights become obligations. Be aware of obligations.” Next to this constitution is a hand-drawn map that illustrates the ‘paved roads (some rough)’ and ‘dirt roads (at your own risk)’ that cut the land into parcels with names ranging from ‘Sidewinder Cove’ to ‘Builder Bill’s Place’ to ‘Poverty Flats’. Also labelled are ‘tree’ and ‘swamp’.
Slab City on the Horizon
My Slab City dreams looked like a land of unbelievable zen where wind-battered American mystics sat cross-legged in the sand, meditating before their yurts and herb gardens. Sometimes I dreamt Mad Max dreams, fistfights between desperate renegades dressed in roadkill furs, their faces illuminated by endless tire fires with electric Kool-Aid flashing in their eyes. As I crunched down the gravel road towards the cluster of buses, trailers, and gigantic recreation vehicles, I soon discovered the reality of Slab City is, of course, the neutral sum of both visions: pleasant and practical with mild hints of anarchy and moments of generosity we rarely see.
I saw trailers with all kinds of figurines and jewels glued to the sides. Flags of all kinds: Jolly Rogers, POW MIA, rainbows, American, Canadian. Painted messages saying ‘love everybody’ and ‘no trespassing’ and ‘the sun works’. Walls made of tires, fences made of soda bottles and beer cans. The dusty sign for an makeshift internet café said “We Remember Freedom” and across the sandy road sat a library whose hand-painted sign said ‘Open 24/7’ and it was very open: a maze of bookshelves covered by a few sheets of plastic and canvas, its aisles of sandy Encyclopedia Britannicas, Michael Crichton novels, and Thoreau (of course) opening onto the endless Sonoran desert.
Slab City’s Library
Driving around, I felt uneasy snapping photographs because the phrase ‘people who want to be left alone’ still echoed in my head. Yet I was fascinated and curious, which left me in a bind: I’m shy and I like to be left alone, and here was a society of people who ostensibly wanted the same, so who should I talk to? No matter, it was quiet that Wednesday afternoon in Slab City, save for the occasional sound of a radio or stray peal of laughter in a distant trailer. There were no rowdy bonfire parties or meditating yogis. I only passed two people: 1) a wild-haired leather-jacketed man frozen in 1968 walking his dachshund, who also wore a little leather jacket; and 2) a crisp man in a melon polo passing in front of the Living Water Mission, a trailer church painted sky blue. Both men gave polite nods and carried on.
I tuned my dial to Slab Radio, 96.3 FM, where Jimi Hendrix was wrapping up ‘Voodoo Child’ which gave way to the Stones doing ‘Brown Sugar’ and then a crackly antique bluegrass song about going home. Heading out of Slab City, a sign said ‘Reality Ahead’ and as I turned back onto Highway 111, the radio signal immediately blurred into static, as if I’d imagined the whole thing. But I drove north comforted, knowing there’s at least one place in the world for me and anybody else.
I stand in an Econolodge parking lot in the dead of night, bronzed by the glow of the Walmart and McDonalds logos across the street. Sodium lights burn in the chilly dark and the only sound is the highway, which sounds like the sea. An hour ago I stood in line at the Gas ‘n Go behind a furious man yelling that the cashier only gave him three Powerball tickets when he should’ve gotten four. I bowed my head and thought about patience and chance. The manager had to intervene. Near pump number nine, a woman in the passenger seat of a jumbo pick-up truck wiped away her tears. She caught me watching her and I looked away. I flipped on the news and learned that we’re still arguing about whether guns kill people and kicking around new ways to ruin the poor.
Standing in the grass near every highway ramp, there’s a man holding a cardboard sign. Sometimes it says veteran, sometimes it says father, it always says hungry. I give him a dollar. I try to do this every day, but I know that it’s nothing. I hate these moments when my nation not only looks ugly and mean, but it feels like a mirror. I stand in the parking lot and think about what to do next.