A Scouting Life: Go West, Young Man

February 9, 2010 | Sam Hutchins

It was time to head out west. So far our film had some good elements lining up. We knew Norah’s character would start in New York, work west to either Cleveland or Detroit, then down to Memphis. These were all good, distinct locations. Each offered a very different look and feel. Each had enough resonance to provide ample opportunity for stories to grow out of them. From Memphis (and northern Mississippi, possibly) the next logical step was west. This is true not only geographically, but in terms of plot development as well. As the story progressed the character’s world needs to open up. It felt right.

On our earlier trip we had discovered a great diner in New Mexico, the Ranch View. It was deserted, and we had not been able to gain access. The place wasn’t totally derelict, though, so we were hoping to get in. Some telephone sleuthery had turned up an owner who sounded a little flaky, but then so does everyone in New Mexico. I can’t be sure, but I think the words “antisocial loner” can be found in the state motto.

Aside from having a great, desert bleached look to the diner itself, it sat in a very favorable layout for photography. The building was on the very edge of Vaughn, New Mexico, separating the town from the high desert. If you photographed it looking away from town it appeared to be completely isolated, but we still had some close by infrastructure to rely on that would be hidden from camera. Even on a smaller film like this you need to house, feed and entertain the crew. There was also a small motel behind the diner that could make a good filming location or work as crew lodging in a pinch.

Vaughn was a decent sized town, at least by “town in the middle of the desert” standards. In places like that a population of 600 is considered the big city. Vaughn was initially created as a settlement to support a Southern Pacific railroad depot. When the Eastern Railroad of New Mexico expanded and crossed the Southern Pacific in Vaughn the city topped out its population at just under 1,000 people. That was in the early 1920’s, but it had steadily held its current size for a few decades. It sits a bit southeast of Albuquerque.

Throughout our scouting trips our M.O. had been to drive everywhere. We didn’t always know exactly what we were looking for, and time on the open road provides opportunity for unexpected discoveries. Faced with the prospect of crossing Texas again, however, we chose to change our methods. To a man we hated that fucking state, and decided to break form and hop a flight to bypass it. Life is too short to spend any more of it in that hellhole.

I hate that a hotel in Albuquerque can be familiar, but it was the third time I’d stayed in this one on this film alone. We had a pretty awful, overpriced meal in the old part of town. Awful as the meal was, it did take place in one of the old mission buildings from the original settlement that grew into Albuquerque. What balls it must have taken to push that far into the unknown. I don’t think anything in modern life can really compare to the experience. The frontier is long gone. The adventurous ones amongst us still find ways to test themselves but nothing comes close to the leap of faith the pioneers made.

We spent an hour in the morning exploring the city but there was not much to recommend it. After a second hour (much to my annoyance) searching for a Starbucks we hit the open road. I’ve seen it before, but it’s still revelatory every time I leave a city out west. Civilization vanishes so abruptly that you are in the wilderness before you know it. I wonder what it’s like to be that guy living in the last house on the edge of town. Do you prefer the more comforting view, looking back in at the lights of downtown, or do you look out the other window at the wide-open spaces? What happens when someone builds a house on the open side of your lot? Are you sad that you lose the view, or relieved that the Coyotes have someplace else to scavenge before getting to your place? Of course one’s mind only works like this under a big open sky. As the land opened up around us, we would soon start having deep conversations and revealing our souls to one another.

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