Saturday, April 9, 2016

Seeing Dinosaurs In Real Life

As a kid, I was obsessed with two things: dinosaurs and video games.

When "The Wizard" came out in 1989, it gave every kid the wish fulfillment they so desired: running away from home, discovering you were a secret Nintendo prodigy and dating an attractive, older girl. There are no male children of the 80's who didn't see this movie and have it leave an indelible mark on their psyche.

On top of all of those amazing things, the end of the movie features the main characters piling into a gigantic dinosaur in the middle of the desert for a moment of familial reconciliation. I remember it being a genuinely touching scene and it has always stuck with me.

There were a couple things I took away from this film. One, that there are Super Mario Brothers 3 game tournaments. Two, that a gigantic, full-sized Apatosaurus sculpture exists in real life somewhere in the deserts of California. And YOU CAN GO INSIDE. I always wanted to visit, but pre-internet, I had no idea how. No IMDb, no Wikipedia. So, it sat in the back of my mind: one day, I'd see them.

I am in the process of putting together a short film. It takes place in a barren landscape so I've been driving all over Southern California to location scout. I moved to LA with the dream of directing and editing feature films. That was seven and a half years ago. While I have put together small projects, comedy shorts and commercials, I have yet to truly do the thing I set out here to do. In 2011, I hit rock bottom financially. I was steadily sliding into debt. I came out of it, and to condense 7.5 years into one sentence: this is the first project that I've put together at the highest level of quality, both technical and artistic, that I can muster. It is deeply important to me. It represents everything.

So anyway, I need to find this billboard in the middle of nowhere and decided I would drive towards the Salton Sea, which is a failed resort town next to a brine lake where fish die and dry out on the shores. I saw many things. Relative wastelands with languidly spinning windmills, dilapidated towns, border stops, Salvation Mountain. On my way back, I saw a sign for a place called Cabazon.

Salvation Mountain

It sounded familiar to me. Then in the distance, I saw towering silhouettes. When I got closer, my eyes got wider, as I realized: this was the spot. These were the dinosaurs I had always dreamed of seeing.

I pulled off the freeway exit a little more recklessly than I should have which brought the massive Apatosaurus into full scale. It absolutely dwarfed my car. As I cruised past its massive, tree trunk feet, I caught a glimpse of the T-Rex, standing erect and at full snarl at the other end of the parking lot. I parked and watched people take goofy pictures, hugging the dinosaurs' legs, pretending to run scared.

I got out of the car and the warm desert air engulfed me. I squinted as I looked up at the 3 story T-Rex. I walked up close to it and imagined what it would have been like to see one of these creatures moving in real life and how small I felt next to them and what a different world it once was. I saw that there were signs, like bread crumbs, leading into a T-Rex adventure park. Dino digs! Animatronic creatures! Panning for fossils! Huge foam dinosaur heads adorned the buildings and entrances, snarling forever.

It was clearly a tourist trap. And not a super cheap one at that. A family of 4 saw the prices. They winced, turned and walked away. I had the unique privilege of being the only adult dude who was paying to see an attraction that was CLEARLY for children. 

There were some cool dinosaur sculptures that were mostly one color, all detail seemingly washed away by the elements. There were also some errant lions and alligators that seemed to be filling space, arranged like you'd see in a Sky Mall or around a pond in someone's backyard. There were some ambient jungle sounds as well. Even young me would have been a little sad at the sight. Once I reached the end of the park, I saw that there was a ramp leading up to the haunch of the T-Rex. There was a door attached. You could go inside.

This gets semi-explained shortly.
I gingerly made my way through the entrance, initially not sure if I was breaking any rules. To my right was a series of panels basically debunking modern scientific theories of dinosaurs and saying they still exist. I remember hearing this, that Cabazon was now run by Christians, so this was their way of sneaking some religious propaganda into the park.

Are dinosaurs really extinct? Yes.

I climbed the steps, there were three flights, and found myself in the skull of a T-Rex, looking out over Cabazon through razor sharp teeth. I sat there for a moment and I thought about how young me would have absolutely been flipping his shit. And because of that, some small part of me started flipping its shit. I was in the mouth of a T-Rex, with a view of where the final scene of The Wizard takes place. Nostalgia washed over me as the shoddily attached plastic dust protector covering the teeth flapped in the wind next to my head. Eventually I had my fill and headed back to the parking lot.

I got into the car, the wind whipping around me. The door clapped shut and then the world was suddenly muted. I pulled away, past the Burger King and the T-Rex and the Apatosaurus.

I drove in silence for a while, the rolling hills and tufts of desert grass passing by. I noticed that I didn't need music, that I preferred the silence. I noted that my neck, which normally feels tight and strained, felt loose and light. I wasn't sure if it was just the comedown from the 5 hour energy drink earlier or that I was just tired, but in that moment I felt more relaxed and at ease that I have in years. It was like I was on drugs or muscle relaxants, but I still felt alert and aware. I didn't need to sleep, I just felt open and free from anxiety.

When I finally got home I collapsed onto my bed. I thought about the day, about finding the dinosaurs of Cabazon, about feeling confident in the location I found, and then I started to cry. For a good 10 minutes I just cried. Not exactly sadness, not exactly joy, nothing that I could put my finger on, but I sobbed.

I imagined how excited young me would have been to see and do what I did today. I remembered the dreams I had of being a paleontologist. Even the simplicity of being able to drive myself, of having the freedom that being an adult brings. I imagined how happy it all would have made me. I thought about the things that I unabashedly loved as a child, without anyone's approval or permission, whether it was drawing, video games or dinosaurs. I thought about how sad it was that my own dreams had been influenced by fear, that I stopped drawing because I felt like I wasn't good enough. I cried for all the things I dreamed about doing and abandoned. I felt a release that I was chasing my dreams now, on my own terms, with people that I know and love and I acknowledged how amazing it felt. I wondered why I didn't do it sooner.

I wish that I could wrap this up and bring it back to The Wizard or the dinosaurs. I don't want to editorialize too much. This was just a brief, beautiful moment I experienced that I will remember for a long time.