Thursday, September 19, 2013

Albuquerque Breaks into the Zeitgeist Thanks to Breaking Bad

I knew it would only be a matter of time before I was forced to blog about Breaking Bad.  Filmed at Albuquerque Studios, the Emmy-winning, universally revered television show is all any Burqueno (aka Albuquerque resident) has been able to talk about since the final eight episodes began airing six weeks ago.  Now that the end is near, everyone here seems to be having a collective epiphany, followed by an intoxicating surge of pride, about how pivotal the show has been for Albuquerque – economically, of course, but also in other intangible ways that are harder to quantify but impossible to ignore.  Even the show’s producers realize this, leading them to buy a bunch of billboards to thank Albuquerque for “the great chemistry.”  I, for one, had a nearly choked-up reaction to this gesture. 

To put it simply, AMC’s runaway hit has put Albuquerque – an underrated city of 1 million that many Americans can’t spell and a surprising number think is located in Mexico – on the map, both geographically and psychologically.  (Case in point:  A recent Entertainment Weekly cover story on the show listed Albuquerque as a stand-alone city name, like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles.)  The fact that the gritty, underdog, crime-laced backdrop of Albuquerque plays such an important role in the plausability of Walt’s story makes it a place that has genuinely rooted in the minds of fans both in the US and abroad.  Yes, abroad!  What’s been truly shocking is the number of international visitors – particularly Japanese – who now vacation in Albuquerque because of their fascination with Breaking Bad.  They’re everywhere, taking photos of seedy locations and venturing into desolate parts of the city that would never otherwise be part of the “tourist trail.”

At first, they were finding these locations from the show on their own and recreating scenes by throwing pizza boxes on top of Walt’s house. Then The Candy Lady in Old Town began selling them the same blue candy she supplied for the show as a souvenir - soon followed by the Heisenberg hat.  And the ABQ Trolley Company began offering its wildly popular Breaking Bad trolley tour.  And the City of Albuquerque added a self-guided Breaking Bad tour on its tourism website.  And Routes Rentals started its bicycling tour.  And Rebel Donuts created its blue crackle donut.  And Marble Brewery introduced its limited edition beers, Walt’s White Lie and Heisenberg’s Dark, and began hosting viewing parties every Sunday, while The Supper Truck started selling Los Pollos Hermanos-inspired chicken and wings.  And Great Face & Body rolled out its blue crystal bath products and cooking classes for "Blue Sky" candy.  And on and on and on.  

Rebel Donut's "Blue Sky" Donut, Inspired by Breaking Bad

While the city may have been a tad slow to catch on and cash in, let’s just say the press has also seemed to jump on this phenomenon last-minute as well, with more Breaking Bad travel articles in the past two months than I could count.  Among them: Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, CNN and USA Today.  Clearly, Breaking Bad fever is at dangerous levels everywhere.  But for Burquenos, we’ve become hopelessly addicted to the notoriety, to the success of the show and to the global relevance it’s given us.  At least for two more weeks.

I recently gave in to the undertow by signing us up for Routes Rentals' three-hour Biking Bad tour, which included locations ranging from Walt and Jesse’s homes to Tuco’s headquarters to Hank’s DEA office.  Led by guides who were gushing megafans themselves (no one can hide it at this point, as Talking Bad’s weekly celebrity “super fan” demonstrates), the tour took us to the locations of unforgettable past scenes (such as the barren lot where a child on a bike became a murderer), as well as very recent ones, including the plaza where Walt waited on a bench in vain for Jesse to arrive for a meet-up.  That one was especially eerie, as the scene was still incredibly fresh, and I could just imagine Jesse walking away in a panic.

The downtown plaza where Walt asked Jesse to meet him - only to have Jesse get spooked and walk away.

The tour let me see my adopted city thorough the eyes of a giddy tourist and led me into unknown areas both quaint and sketchy.  I then got my final gratification when the most recent episode – during the flashback – showed Walt pitching the idea of a day trip to the Turquoise Trail, Tinkertown and Madrid to Skyler.  As an East Mountainer who lives close to all three, it’s exactly what I'd do with visiting friends, making me feel one with Walt in a way that was both exciting and disconcerting.

Whether the Breaking Bad tourism juggernaut can be sustained, it’s hard to say.  But there’s one big potential bright spot – the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk as the strip mall personal injury attorney* who reluctantly enabled Walt’s deepening criminal activity, was recently picked up by AMC.  No word yet on where it will film, but I will spit out my Chai tea if it turns out to be anywhere other than Albuquerque.  Local entertainment website One Headlight Ink even conducted a poll recently about whether the slimy yet shrewd Saul Goodman will be portrayed as a graduate of the University of New Mexico (UNM) law school, which has the unfortunate distinction of facing a severe drop in applications in recent years.   But you gotta admit – it sounds just about right, doesn’t it? 

*Reportedly, the Saul Goodman character was based on Ron Bell, a real-life personal injury and DUI attorney in Albuquerque who has kitschy promotional billboards all over the city.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Secret Sandstone Caves of New Mexico

In fall 2011, my partner Kevin was working on a film called Blaze You Out.  One of the scenes took place in a carved sandstone cave located near Espanola, New Mexico, that is known as The Tree Cave.  Kevin took a bunch of photos of this amazing cave – one of which we blew up on canvas and have hanging in our dining room – and he also got the opportunity to talk briefly with Robert “Ra” Paulette, the artist who’d singlehandedly sculpted the cave out of soft, naturally occurring sandstone.  Ra shared how this was one of several caves he’d created in Northern New Mexico as a labor of love and a gift to his fellow New Mexicans.  He sees them as wilderness sanctuaries that can help modern humans connect with their innate emotions.

It’s a little hard to understand how a cave could do that unless you see one of Ra’s creations for yourself, which is exactly what I did last weekend.  After much build-up, we finally took a day trip to see The Tree Cave along with two friends.  One was a friend who’d inquired about the photo in our dining room and expressed a keen desire to visit the cave.  Another was a friend who grew up in Taos and was the only person thus far who had recognized the photo in our home and was familiar with The Tree Cave.  So the four of us headed out on our mission to experience or revisit this awe-inspiring work of art that’s unmarked, hidden and known only to those who, well, know. 

Hiking up to the cave from the road, you are surrounded on all sides by regal sandstone formations, all jagged and crumbling.  It becomes quite clear how Ra picked this spot, as the creamy-colored sandstone is incredibly soft and malleable.  (That’s what allowed him to dig out the cave, which he does all by himself until he gets tired.  Then, as he told Kevin, he gets some folks to help him cart away the excess sand.)  The first sign of something unusual is a cluster of skylights in the hillside far above, which illuminate the cave with light and shadows.  Then you see the long, narrow entrance, and after passing through, find yourself in a massive chamber with a huge “tree trunk” column in the center.  The ceiling is so high (20+ feet?) that you have the feeling – and acoustics – of a cathedral. 

But it’s really what’s on those ceilings and walls that I find hardest to describe (and thus I refer you to the photos).   Creeping tree branches are carved in fluid patterns and interlaced with hearts and flowers, the two secondary motifs of the cave.  There are also a number of carved benches and seating alcoves, allowing you to sit down or step into a more intimate space for reflection.  Wall niches occur throughout and have been decorated with candles and offerings from visitors, including rocks, flower petals, movie tickets and rosaries.  One has also been claimed by a resident bird for her nest. 

Sitting in one of the recessed benches, I noticed that my voice was magnified within the niche, despite talking in a whisper.  This is one of the many atmospheric elements of the cave, like its cool air and the way the skylights highlight various carvings as the sun moves.  Looking around, I felt the tree branches started to look more and more like the ribbing on the interior of a human’s intestines.  Perhaps this was because I felt enveloped in this magical experience.  Looking at the myriad hearts carved into the gritty walls, it felt like I was inside “the lower intestine of love.”  Unlike other art that you look at and witness, this is art you can walk around in, touch, live and breathe. Upon stepping back outside of it, you can't help but be transformed.  You walk out into the hot, bright day marveling at mankind’s potential to be truly loving and giving.

Now, I’m sure that makes me sound like a real new age New Mexican, but it’s proof that Ra’s goal of creating surprising emotions and thoughts with his caves is not that far-fetched.  The Tree Cave is a very, very special place, and I am humbled that I was able to experience it.  I’ve since learned more about Ra Paulette in an oral history I found online.  Surprisingly, however, this was one of only 10 results in my Google search for information about him.  (The only major media coverage I found was an LATimes article from the 90s.)  He is a professed hermit, and it seems he likes it that way. 

Initially, before I visited, I wondered why Ra didn’t lead tours or charge admission to the caves he’d spent years creating (for example, two to three years per cave), but now I understand how antithetical that idea is to his artistic philosophy.  He no more owns the caves than the private or public land they were built on.  They belong to New Mexico, and I only hope that future owners of the land will continue to honor that.