Editor’s Note: In issue #46 of Big RED, Jason Dean wrote about a lecture by the collaborative eTeam and “International Airport Montello” project. After that piece was published, Dean became a part of the project, and in issue #48 he published the first part of his travelogue, describing the activities leading up to the “International Airport Montello” project. Here, he presents the second part of the travelogue, and his version of the event.
September 14th: I woke up in the middle of the night after some last minute work on the t-shirts and hats I was working on for the gift shop at the airport. I was leaving a huge mess of sewing and ironing behind. I went downstairs to get in a car service to the airport, it was way too early to deal with the long subway ride and I didn’t want to miss the flight, as appropriate as that seemed.
I landed in Salt Lake and called Anthony, the curatorial assistant from AIG, to reassure myself this was really happening. He told me that Laura, another passenger, was on my flight also and we met just outside baggage and talked for a minute before Anthony and Hajoe pulled up in the official shuttle van.
I left with Hajoe and we drove through the desert and then the salt flats for miles and miles. Hajoe told me that in some places the salt was 3 feet thick and that it compacted to provide a perfect surface for land speed records. Off in the distance I could see the trails of dust the cars were kicking up, and on the side of the road people had written messages with rocks in the blinding white salt, like tiny earthworks.
Eventually we ended up in Wendover, Nevada, just past the Utah border and literally 100 feet past the state line were two casinos. We stopped to get some coffee and continue to the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). Hajoe told me they had first gotten to know this area through participating in their residency program. The space was on the edge of a former military airbase that was still used for charter planes. This is where the passengers would arrive the next day.
We packed up signs and some tools, and went to go find a hardware store. I was still a little overwhelmed and trying to figure out exactly Montello was going to be like. The starkness, the distances, the lack of trees.
Eventually a lone sign “Welcome to Montello and the Cowboy Bar” came into view. A white billboard with cutout plywood letters painted black. Hajoe said he something to add to the sign and we should go back and figure out a way to put it up.
Montello was out of the way of the normal trucking routes, but was used because they could avoid weigh-ins and regulations. It had started as a railroad town because of the steep grades of train routes through Nevada; additional engines from Montello were needed to push the miles of boxcars up and over the mountains.
We pulled into the motel parking lot. It was exactly like the pictures. I met Kristen, another airport employee, from San Francisco, who had arrived that day with full prosthetic makeup of some kind of a rash on her face. I had forgotten about her section on the website, talking about the adverse effects of suddenly being able to channel bingo numbers and politely tried not to notice until I was sure that it was all a part of this alternate universe. I guess it all had already started. She was going to be running a mobile bingo game from her car.
Back at the ‘Welcome to Montello’ sign on the highway we found some wooden palettes and propped them up against the sign. Hajoe climbed up, while we desperately tried to hold the box together, while he grabbed a rotting beam. Eventually he rolled out the ‘airport’ part on the sign and we walked back to take a look at our work.
“Do you want to go out to the airport?” Hajoe asked, and we drove out to put up the sign on the runway I had seen at the gallery talk. The runway was intersected by the access road and continued on past us into the desert. A few holes later in the packed dry desert, we lowered the sign down at least a couple of feet, just to make sure it would still be standing when we brought everyone out for coffee. We filled the holes with rocks and hoped for the best. It was strange to be in this iconic image, this sign announcing the airport to the cows off in the distance and the occasional bird flying by. It made me think about this compulsion to change the environment, to leave a mark like that and think it should last forever. I thought we should be pouring concrete and leave it for future generations to wonder what kind of airport it must have been. ETeam seemed to reject this idea, it seemed to be meant as a transient event, immediately lost to memory and mythologized, experienced by the people who were a part of it.
We drove back to the center of town and set up the gift shop in the deli/grocery gas station. Hajoe asked the owner of the store if we could put out a table and some signs for the visitors. I put out the couple of shirts and hats I made along with the others and Red, from the Skyview Club Restaurant, who had met us there, helped label the merchandise with the store price gun. The film crew documenting the project arrived and they were also supposed to be waiting for their next flight, on their way to film something else. Since they were here they figured they better come back with a story. We were all supposed to go up to the Skyview Club for dinner, so we all piled into various vehicles and headed off far into the opposite direction from the airport. All the cameras were rolling, the film crew drove by on the left side, shooting Hajoe interviewing us inside the van periodically jumping out and running far out in front to get footage of us driving by, kicking up dust.
The Skyview was an oasis in the desert, a circle of lounge chairs and tables and in the middle, a little rectangle fire pit for cowboy coffee, brewed over an open flame. Red’s wife Darla was behind an enormous grill and started handing out plates, I figured we would have barbeque food for sure, hamburgers and hot dogs, but this was an amazing spread of grilled shrimp and vegetables, pasta salads, and roast. Everybody gathered around to eat as the sun went down. I could easily see why this all was so attractive, it’s hard, but you’re rewarded constantly by everything around you. Red talked about his recent project: figuring out how to live ‘off the grid’ and writing a book about the experience. The restroom was a door propped up in the sand blocking a hole in the ground. We made a note to warn the passengers the next day, as they might want to use the airport bathrooms (the motel), before they headed out to the Skyview. Soon it was pitch black and pretty cold. Kristen broke out the bingo cards and an antenna, which helped her to receive the number transmissions more clearly. Squinting in the dark, hunched over bingo cards and tiny solar lights we marked the numbers with rocks.
Where I grew up, a small town in upstate New York, it seemed like the entire town knew there was an outsider at the gas station in a few minutes, and they would be watching, suspicious. Surprisingly, I hadn’t felt this at all. I had to keep telling myself Hajoe and Franzy have been coming here for a few years, they have done so much groundwork, spending time with everyone, there was so much more to the airport than the signs and shuttle vans.
I woke up and joined Anthony for the drive back to Wendover where we met up with Hajoe and Franzy to watch for the incoming plane. In the parking lot we were joined by University of Utah art history professor Monty Paret with his wife and their 2 children, and from there on in, their story was they had missed their connecting flight and ended up in the Montello International Airport with the other passengers, part of the layover. They would leave their car in the parking lot and take the shuttle along with the other passengers.
Hajoe climbed to the top of an old control tower on the edge of the runway to film the landing. I was getting a little nervous, these were the actual passengers, and everything was going to start when they stepped off the airplane. I didn’t want to change something, to interfere with someone’s idea of the project. I was worried I would slip up or break character. I tried to remember our plan, the route back to Montello, what things of note to point out to the passengers. I was an employee here, this was my job. It wasn’t necessarily acting, my biggest fear, I was just working at the airport… I remembered digging holes and carrying luggage.
The plane landed and taxied over to the control tower. Franzy had given me a metal detector to perform airport security duties also. I tried to remember the security procedures from two days before. I found a section of open fencing where the passengers could form a line and I could check pockets and purses for the inevitable metal, and then ‘search’ the bag, and allow them to pass.
Anthony and I put the passengers luggage into the van and started out towards Montello and began our tour. The Nevada state line, the casinos, and the point at the top of a mountain ridge where you could watch your phone turn back an hour because of the time zone change. The trains, mining, the salt flats. I was there only a day, but as an airport employee I had spent a lot of time in this area. We got a text message from Hajoe to pull into the parking lot at the cowboy bar, and Doctor Ron would be waiting with an important announcement about their flight. Doctor Ron was the airport manager and took his role very seriously, immediately putting me to work looking after the passengers and announcing the situation to the stranded passengers.
“To make the layover a little more pleasant we have arranged a complimentary brunch at the Skyview Club for everyone,” and they headed out for the long, slow drive to Red’s far into the desert.
I had met Henry J, the airport preacher, briefly earlier and he pulled up with a trailer hitched to a pickup with grills, tables and chairs piled on the back. He called me over and said to meet up with him when I had a chance, come down the street to his house to get supplies for the coffee shop we’d be setting up at the runway. This would be the next stop for the passengers, after a quick tour of the town. I walked down to his house and he invited me in for some coffee, not just any coffee, this was Yuban, a brand that they had recently changed, but apparently he had stockpiled the last original cans which contained 100% Columbian coffee. This was the good stuff. There was an entire tray of fresh cinnamon rolls on the counter and that’s when it hit me, how else would I have ever met this person who had just invited me into his house and really made me feel welcome. I could have passed through this part of the country and never thought twice about this house off the side of the road. It felt like I was at a friends house, except out the back window there was nothing for miles except a mountain range just off the back deck. This is what the airport was about, this connection between strangers brought together by sheer willpower to make something exist. The airport exists. Everyone believes in it.
I snapped out of it and put the coffee cup in the sink. We put the baked goods into an RV and I got into the pickup. The wind was blowing harder and harder. You didn’t need a weather report, all you had to do was look off in the distance and watch it getting closer. I couldn’t even open the pickup door once we got there, the wind was literally closing it back on me. Sarah, or SAirah, Henry J’s niece, and her son helped tie streamers to the chairs and I went off to go find some rocks for the tablecloth, an essential part of outdoor picnicking in the desert. We re-parked the trucks in an attempt to create some kind of barrier, and it worked as long as the wind didn’t shift, it seemed to be coming from every direction.
Another Montello resident, Eric arrived, and he seemed to be excited doing anything. From somewhere in his truck he pulled out a construction vest, and helped us set up, promising later we’d have a beer at the Cowboy bar.
All of a sudden it was a blur of people, the passengers arriving all at once, the coffee was inhaled, muffins and cinnamon rolls. I looked over to see SAirah sweeping around the tables with a ‘Juan’s coffee shop’ apron on. More trucks and cars pulled up along the runway. I would turn around to take a few pictures for a second and people kept multiplying. Kristen drove around this scene continuing to call out numbers on an amplifier out her passenger window. Franzy had a white backdrop to take passport photos as part of new security procedures. Eric willingly took over photo background support duties and made sure to get every last participant on film. This was a scene of complete madness, the wind, Henry J pouring coffee, the camera crew filming passport photography, people talking about what bingo number had just been called. I stood there just trying to appreciate it.
All of a sudden a plane was spotted and Hajoe immediately began passing out flags in an attempt to signal a possible connecting flight. We formed two lines on either side of the runway and waited for instructions and then began waving in unison with Hajoe, standing down at the other end of the runway. Eric ran up and down the line with a windsock that threatened to blow out of his hands. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, it was perfectly natural for us to be simultaneously signaling with orange flags looking into the bright sky.
Eventually, Henry J and I packed up again and drove over to the cowboy bar parking lot to set up a barbeque in front of the bar. Inside the residents had brought trays and trays of food to be judged in the cook-off. When I finally got a chance to go inside there was a giant plane shaped cake which had ‘IAM’ in frosting down the side. I was told it had won first prize. For most of the night I was in front while Darla supervised the cooking. A few cowboys showed up on their horses and proceeded to ride right into the front door of the bar. The whole town was there, spilling out onto the front porch, eating and drinking. Anthony drove up with the shuttle van, and Dr. Ron announced amazingly there was a small window of good weather and the connecting flight would be leaving immediately. We all said our goodbyes and the passengers took their last photos and got into the shuttle.
We spent the rest of the night there, after Hajoe and Anthony returned, talking about the new discoveries that happened every time they visited, a poster from an album recorded in the 70’s by one of the resident’s had surfaced, and we unrolled it on the bar in amazement. Hajoe said it seemed everywhere you turned someone in Montello had an incredible story. At one point I found myself talking to a retired police chief from Wendover who had moved to Montello a few years ago. He restored World War II jeeps, complete with machine guns. He joked about crashing the party on the runway, like some kind of military strike. But it still would have been perfect, the situation that day, anything could have happened, it would have just been part of the plan.
We slept in a little the next morning and went for breakfast with the camera crew. Hajoe and Franzy went off to the airport for a final interview, where they told us later it had started to snow. Kristen was driving back to San Francisco and we went back to our rooms to pack. We uneventfully left, saying goodbye to Montello, loading our own luggage onto the shuttle van.
‘Of course I forgot my key’, I realized sitting in the airport parking lot returning the van. I vowed to write a letter on airport stationary and drop it in the mail as soon as I got to Brooklyn to somehow prolong the experience. Maybe someone would hang it up on the store bulletin board. Maybe Henry J or Red would see it and remember. I’ll never be able to look at airports the same way again, they have forever been changed, and the Salt Lake City Airport seemed like an extension of the project. Everyone playing out their roles according to the script, a big show for my benefit, every baggage person, every sign, a potential piece of work, and isn’t that what art does? It can change ideas of how we interact with each other and how we exist in the world. I didn’t know how I was going to explain it all.
“International Airport Montello” by eTeam occurred September 16 – 17, 2006 in Montello, NV.
All images are courtesy of the author.
View more photos from the International Airport Montello at Mr. Dean’s Flickr page.