The Continental Pt. 10: Walking with Angels
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
Driving into Las Vegas at night was a real rush. Our golden girl shone in this setting; she was born to be there. Grand hotels were reflected in her generous hood, neon signs screamed for attention in her rearview mirrors, and beams of light poured in through the sunroof. We pulled our classic car into the parking lot of Circus Circus. Though we were worn out, the scene was energizing, and we played slot machines under flying trapeze artists until the wee hours.
Neither of us had been to Vegas, and for Niklas and I, a lighting designer and graphic designer respectively, it was an amalgam of visual stimulation: fifties style typography, old school neon and flashing bulbs, retro graphics, competing casinos with grand chandeliers, colorful signage and contemporary instillations. We walked through The Monte Carlo and the Ceasars Palace and took photos of a miniature Eiffel Tower and a mock New York skyline.
The first night was spectacular, the second surreal, and the third just so-so. Beyond the flashy facades the casinos were beginning to all look alike, and along with the stale smoke, desperation hung in the air. The sounds of slot machines rang in my ears and they were impossible to get away from. Behind the glitter and the glamour, I looked at the faces of the women in the sequined gowns; they wore frozen smiles and had sad eyes. Most of the characters looked down on their luck. I felt for them, gambling alone in the middle of the day in dark rooms with no windows—when the sun was shining outside.
Vegas gets old fast, like the people who work there. For Niklas and I it was already beginning to feel like forced fun.
It was time to move on to what felt like the heart of our trip: camping at Zion National Park, then to the Grand Canyon for a night, and finally driving through the Painted Desert to Flagstaff.
During the drive into Utah, I couldn’t put my camera down; the landscape grew more gorgeous with each mile. I would pick up my iPhone, snap a few pictures, and turn it off only to turn it on again thirty seconds later and repeat the process. Like someone stuck in a loop—someone possessed—this continued for about five hours.
We arrived in Zion National Park in time to set up a tent, perfectly placed at the base of a cliff, and take a cruise through the canyon at sunset. In the golden hour our creamy car matched the cliffs; the sandstone walls and peaks glowed in pinks, beiges and golds. In such stark contrast to the lights of Sin City, this natural light made Vegas a dim memory.
The next day we chose to hike Angel’s Landing, a four hour hike that cautions those with vertigo. While I enjoy a challenge, I did get a bit uncomfortable when they announced on the tram loudspeaker as they dropped us off that each year people die on this hike. I thought that was TMI, and the timing was off, putting that thought—a real downer—into my head right as we started out.
But walking on those cliffs, becoming part of the canyon with its richly colored rock, was moving. The shift in perspective was magical: seeing something from afar and then being in it, touching the cool stone, feeling its texture.
Nearing the top of the ridge, the trail got narrower and rather than a drop off to death on just one side, it was on both sides. Someone had kindly installed a chain that you grip for balance, and a few steps later I noticed the trail had all but disappeared from under me. Now it was simply a chain on the side of a cliff.
I could go no further. I became panicky and frozen and decided to sit where I was standing. Still surrounded by nothingness, my sweaty palms gripped the chain. The fact that Niklas continued on was giving me what felt like a series of small heart attacks.
But even so it was a high unlike any other—and it became a highlight of our trip.
We drove to the Grand Canyon at night in order to give the Continental a little relief from the intense heat, checking in to the most charming cabin just after midnight, taking the last room they had. In daylight we saw that we were surrounded by pines and as we drove further the landscape was rather non-descript—we could have been anywhere. Until we suddenly dead-ended and found ourselves standing together on the massive canyon’s edge.
That’s the thing about a canyon, you just can’t see it coming. Much more dramatic than a mountain, canyons surprise you, and then expose themselves to you entirely. And this one was grand! The scale and beauty were overwhelming; its width almost incomprehensible. There were canyons inside the canyon, angles upon angles, all cracks and crevices as far as the eye could see.
The only time I’d been to the Grand Canyon I was sixteen traveling with my family on a road trip when I thought I was too old for road trips. My sister and I had been arguing and we both had our noses in books; my parents had to demand us out of the car. I took a quick look, admitted it was pretty, and got back to my book in less than five minutes.
I had thought I was too old but in fact I was entirely too young.
This time I took it in. We took our time, driving to two different lookout points and hiking to the Angel’s Window. We seemed to be surrounded by angels lately, not only in the vistas, but in the VIP treatment, first getting the best tent plot and then securing the last cabin.
Looping south through Arizona was visual overload—I wanted to fully retain it and absorb it. Driving through the Painted Desert was indeed like entering a painting with almost infinite visibility and layer upon layer of color like brushstrokes: the oranges and pinks of the desert floor, the yellows and moss greens of the tumbleweed and scrub. I have painted with oils and it brought to mind my supply list in Painting 101 in college.
I recalled that the best oil paints were made directly from nature, probably from the very sand and minerals at which I was staring: raw sienna, burnt umber, cadmium orange, yellow ochre, and cobalt blue. They were more expensive, because no matter what our technological capabilities, those colors cannot be synthetically reproduced. They are forever more vivid and the color will hold.
So someone gathers these minerals from the desert for others to create a painting—perhaps of the desert itself—to try and capture its richness, its likeness. But even a photo, the most exact replication, does not. I didn’t want that drive to end because I knew no matter how many photos Niklas took, they would never do it justice. Seeing an image of a shell or a rock is not like seeing the actual thing and it’s certainly not like holding a shell or a rock in your hand. At that moment I wished that every human being could see what I was seeing.
Unlike excessiveness in Las Vegas, excessiveness in nature is profound. It will clear your head and it will stir your soul. It will heal your wounds and it will speak to you in ways you’ll wish you could remember until the end of time. And when you see that photo years later you will try your hardest to imagine the real thing.
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Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Ducts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.