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« In Which Henri Takes Us Back »

On Location


We lived near Vasquez Rocks for a while. Do you have a place like this? To me, it was an obvious choice for elementary school field trips, for post-midterm hikes. One day we arrived at the gate and there was a guard. “They are filming on the premises,” he explained. We turned around, tires stirring up dust. It was easy, up until that point, to believe that the daily function of Hollywood was as fictional as the fictions it propagated.

Southern California Octobers are fiery. The blaze is on the other side of the freeway, people say to reassure themselves, even though vehicle fires have been known to melt overpasses. Paramount opened up the set to visitors during the filming of a Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman episode. We wanted to take a Canadian cousin to see it, but the road was closed due to fire.

“Did you ever meet someone famous?” asked the French in school courtyards, chewing forbidden gum.

I am waiting for the day when they will extract Vasquez Rocks, like the bandit for which it was named. They’ll throw that boulder bouquet south to frame some distant red carpet. Just kidding, they’ll say, it’s been a cardboard backdrop all along.

We never met a movie star. We visited a tiny Dutch grocery store in the valley to buy spices for Indonesian fried rice and also dark chocolate hagelslag. The Honda Accord my mother drove we named Henri. “Where’s Henri?” we’d cry, perusing parking lots. Other people’s mothers thought we’d lost a sibling. When El Nino passed through, we went out nonetheless in the early afternoon, walking single-file shortest to tallest (I was in the back) across flooded sidewalks in bright yellow Mickey Mouse rain ponchos. We were on the front page of the local newspaper.

“Where have I seen you before?” Compartmentalization is key to survival. The illusion is broken when we sit through the credits. It’s a big joke now to see Vasquez in anything, which is why the characters in New Girl spent almost the entirety of the first season’s finale among the rocks. Irony begets irony. Zooey Deschanel fights off a coyote; I don’t remember the circumstances. Vasquez Rocks is to Hollywood what the inside of Monica’s apartment is to New York City. It’s a location for key moments, for outdoor voices.

Vasquez Rocks is a goldmine. Not literally, although I think one of my childhood excursions involved a metal detector. It is possible that I am confusing this with an episode of Star Trek. I’d like to see a short video chronicling all the films that have taken place at Vasquez using nothing but iconic props, wigs, facial expressions, and the rocks. I’d like to act in this, perhaps even direct it. There is no other way I could conceivably link the cultural Vasquez Rocks to the Vasquez Rocks of my youth.

As a child, I did not watch as much television as my peers. I don’t think I missed as much in popular culture as I missed in opportunities to connect with other people. But doesn’t that seem shallow? My mother was (is?) a Trekkie. My brother and I were obliged to follow suit. We watched it purely for the marvelous cliffhangers. If the cliffhanger involved someone actually hanging off Kirk’s Rock, we got extra points.

We lived on the edge, in a cul-de-sac with two other houses. The air conditioning frequently let out in the summer. When my father opened the breaker, a giant brown spider was stretched out over the switches. My mother found dead black widows in the washing machine with our clean clothes. We celebrated our neighbor’s bat mitzvah, played with a cat who couldn’t jump straight after a brick fell on its head. Watering the plants in the backyard, Mom stepped over a baby rattlesnake three times before hearing its warning. Safely inside the house, we watched it coil in on itself, flick its tongue. Its siblings curled around the tires of my father’s yellow Dodge van, hid in the deep grass. Death by shovel.

“Don’t go outside without shoes,” Mom warned, as if the rubber flipflops we lived in would deter venomous fangs. It was easy to believe that going outside would result in someone’s death. More often, we just came home sunburned, intensely dehydrated.

Near the spot where we parked our bikes my brother drowned an ant colony with a garden hose. Three baby birds fell out of a nest in the big oak out front, Dad wouldn’t let us look. When I was invited to go hiking on location in Vasquez, I wore ballet flats. I didn’t own socks or the shoes to go with them until I moved to Chicago.

Two weeks ago I looked out the train window at the snow on the sidewalk. I was between the Southport and Belmont stops where the Brown line curves away from Roscoe Street and begins shadowing Sheffield Avenue to the east. This snow was as unmarked as the 2013 page for January, pure, excited powder. I took a long second look and fished in my bag for forgotten gloves. Wait, it’s October. Early October. I’d still been running in the mornings, crossing my arms across my chest as I walked a half mile to warm up my muscles. I’d seen my breath three times. Five other times it had been too windy to focus on anything except walking from Washington and Wells to my office in the West Loop, resolving with every unseasonal shiver not to take the second train until there is snow on the ground. Long stretches of 100 degree weather turns the blood thin. Snow?

“They must be filming something,” said the man next to me when we stopped at Belmont, while other commuters wedged into the train.

I had not even considered it. To me, the transplant, Chicago is a cold city. It is a winter city. Other seasons occur but all tend towards winter, as if preparing for a legendary play. White powder, check. Chapped lips, check. Winter sends her love. Postcards, ice. My mother asked if I’d bought long underwear, but it’s still October. The whole year is spent stocking the larders for hibernation. It’s a precious naivete, but even the natives will talk about the weather in the elevator. Rite of passage, like buying a thicker coat, a second pair of boots, warmer socks — socks at all. They’re more expensive than you might imagine.

Earthquakes ended almost as soon I realized I was experiencing one. We came to California immediately after the ‘94 Northridge quake, like we were hungry for gold a century too late. On the 405, two of our sofa cushions blew out from under the ropes holding them to the pickup. We returned later with Henri to retrieve them, the slow-moving traffic a gift for slow-moving eyes. Mom washed the cushions and put them back on the sofa.

Henri took us back to the Pacific Northwest a couple of times. On the Grapevine, he came dangerously close to overheating. Mom explained that her father used to place bottles of cold water in the engine to prevent this, then turned off the air conditioning and rolled down all the windows. The roar of the big rigs shifting down on the grade was deafening. Burnt rubber, tired brakes. Mom sat hunched forward in her seat, shirt plastered to her back with sweat. We didn’t sit easy until we were in Oregon.

Vasquez Rocks is visible from the CA-14 freeway, and it makes me think: aren't most things visible from this vantage point in Southern California? Henri barrelled in one direction or another, and we observed, as if we were standing on a moving sidewalk in an airport as images and lights flashed above our heads. I picked up the habit of being quiet in the car, watching for  familiar landmarks to predict the ending of the show.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Meredith Goldstein. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here

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