Wednesday, May 30, 2018

On the Road Again, Chapter 9

Strangers meet in Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return bathroom.

Our own Santa Fe Trail

leads to strange worlds,

reunion with a dear friend

The path of our road trip has been defined, in part, by seeing old friends, and the big turn south and east from the San Francisco area was really about getting to Santa Fe. That’s home to a friend dating back a bit over 40 years, Parris McBride.

She doesn’t spend much time with email, and isn’t on Facebook, but she knew we might turn up on her doorstep this week. Having not heard back from my latest email message, we pulled up in front of her home that we last visited about 12 years ago. 

In one respect, the timing wasn’t great – just half an hour earlier, she had received word of the death of a dear friend back east, science fiction editor and writer Gardner Dozois. And she was awaiting the return of her husband George, who had been away working on and off for a few months. So we sat in their TV room, chatting for an hour, finding out about how our respective families and mutual friends were doing.

In an odd sort of way, Parris played a role in my marriage to Bonnie. She was among a cast of characters living in my eight-bedroom Baltimore townhouse known as “Toad Hall” back in the late 1970s. I was interested in her, but she introduced me to her best friend, who eventually became my second ex-wife (but we’re still friends!) just in time for Bonnie – a neighbor early in my first marriage – to turn up again. It’s part of the string of circumstance that against enormous odds creates futures.

They’ve both been busy for close to a decade, since George hit it big in the literary and television world… you’ve probably heard of him, George R.R. Martin. Before his Game of Thrones books and the HBO series based on it, George was not widely known – even in Santa Fe. Now he is a considerable part of the local economy.

A new project is the Stagecoach Foundation. As Parris explained it, a wealthy, terminally-ill Santa Fe businessman donated the office building that had housed his former company to George to “do something.” George, in meeting with the millionaire, found he was living in the house on Stagecoach Lane formerly owned by his late friend and fellow science fiction/fantasy writer Roger Zelazny (who for several years lived in the Baltimore area). Hence the name of the foundation, established last year.

The building is used as low-cost office space for film and TV productions being made in Santa Fe and across New Mexico, and training and job development in the industry for young people – particularly in underserved and native populations. The project is making up for government cutbacks to subsidies for filmmaking projects under the state’s current Republican administration. And Parris has gotten involved in politics, supporting a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the upcoming primary election.

Bonnie sitting in an alternative reality kitchen at Meow Wolf.
Another aspect of George’s local impact is called Meow Wolf. It is an interactive immersion into a fantasy world created by an artist collective in a long-vacant bowling alley that George purchased for the project and renovated. He calls himself their landlord. Meow Wolf took two years to build, and in its second year of operation has become one of New Mexico’s top tourist attractions. An expectation of perhaps 30,000 visitors in the first year in reality became 400,000.  (And there’s a possibility, George said, for Meow Wolf installations in Denver and Las Vegas.)
Entering a Meow Wolf portal

On Memorial Day, we arrived about noon to find a line nearly half a block long – and that was for people who, like us, had purchased tickets online ($23 for out-of-state seniors). There was a slightly longer line for those buying tickets at the door. A Meow Wolf staffer said it would have been worse had we arrived at the 10 a.m. opening time, because the line then was more than twice as long.

Meow Wolf is sort of a multi-dimensional, other-worldly, family-friendly fun house that takes hours, or even days, to explore. There is inside the huge former bowling alley an entire house whose fictional family, and even the children’s hamster, had vanished, and visitors can search for clues to their disappearance in letters, scraps of notes, physical evidence of all sorts. 

I may have found the missing hamster.
The house has hidden passages leading to other rooms and other worlds, in what seemed a strange cross between the TV series “Stranger Things” and the movie “Beetlejuice.” And for an extra dollar, you can buy 3-D glasses to enhance the experience in many areas of the maze.

 You can climb through the door of a refrigerator in the kitchen, or disappear down a narrow slide through the door of a clothes dryer. And, if you like, interact with strangers.

There was a passageway I saw from an upper-level platform, but Bonnie called me away to look at something else. Then I couldn’t find my passageway. I’d lost it, or imagined it. But I really think it was there. I’m not crazy! 

In the room of eyeballs, only a few are human.
Rooms lead to other rooms, corridors, adventures and distractions. Play a Theremin by stroking or moving through red laser beams. Lie back in a room of giant eyeballs (not all of them human). Sit in a green room absorbing the sound of an electronic hum. Take a nap on the bed in a child’s room, maybe even coax a stranger to join you there. Play percussion on the bones of a mastodon. It gets weird. It’s a high-tech “choose your own adventure” in which you are unlikely to find an ending, except for exhaustion from imagination and sensory overload.

Bonnie felt the exhaustion after five hours of wandering, but I had to see one more room – the arcade, with an assortment of video games and, in a back corner, one of my favorite pinball machines, Attack from Mars, which I last played in a bar we found in Anchorage, Alaska, about this time last year.

But we had to leave – in need of a little relaxation before meeting Parris and George for dinner. We had a feast at an Asian fusion restaurant that was terrific, and talked some more about our lives, friends, and business. 

George R.R. Martin and Parris McBride
I was curious about what George viewed as a key turning point in his life, that in the ensuing decades brought him fame and fortune. He had earned a master’s degree, with honors, in journalism from Northwestern University, but despite a hundred applications could not land a newspaper job. He was even turned down for a job in the comic book industry. But then he sold several short stories, and turned to writing science fiction. He’s also taught writing and journalism at a Catholic girls’ college in the Midwest.

A few years after our last visit, the dragons hatched. The Game of Thrones book series got noticed, books became best-sellers, and HBO’s series rocketed into pop culture. I remember seeing George on TV a couple of years ago at the Emmy Awards, where an usher handed him a typewriter – a gentle jab as fans were clamoring for him to finish the next book in the series. On stage, parody icon Weird Al Yankovic was singing to the tune of the “Thrones” theme music, “write it faster, write it faster.” George looked strangely at the typewriter in his lap, as if some alien device had fallen there from the sky.

I had to know whether that was planned or spontaneous. Parris said she had stepped out to the theater lobby for a break and missed it. And George, who had been sitting a few seats into the row, suspected something was up when he was moved to a spot on the aisle. In the back of his mind was the thought that he might have won an Emmy. Instead, it was a little humorous mockery.
Emmy and Dragon

But he’s got a few of the pretty statuettes, one of them standing on a table in the hallway entrance at home next to a sculpture of a three-headed dragon.

In his wildest dreams, George said, he could not have imagined the extent of his success. But with it has come demands on his time, meetings to discuss future TV projects, business ventures and other projects, and the pressure to spin out the rest of the Westeros story. It’s nearly summer in Santa Fe, and the world wants the winter emerging letter by letter, line by line, from George’s fingertips.

I didn’t ask the question of when winter is coming. 

Me, trying out Game of Thrones pinball
Instead, after dinner, Parris drove us up the street to a house they had bought for guest space (in addition to a third house across the street used as an office). She introduced us to their limited edition Game of Thrones pinball machine. The theme music plays, and character voices are heard as flippers launch the silver balls into a compelling electronic wonderland.

Next chapter: Homeward bound

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