All of the pieces in the ESCAPE photography exhibition are linked with escape and the different experiences we have had with escaping and escapism. Here is the gripping back story to a series of photographs by Philippa Gedge that are being featured in the exhibition we hope you enjoy it and come and see the haunting photographs that accompany this story of Escape at The Tabernacle, Notting Hill, London. 18 – 23June.
“I had gone to Las Vegas for New Year’s eve 2010 and having spent a week drinking marguerites amongst the neon lights and dollar hungry casino dwellers I needed some fresh air and so headed east to canyon country.
The interstate takes you most of the way to the Grand Canyon in less than four hours but I was desperate to see part of Route 66 and so took a detour on the old highway. My rented Jeep Grand Cherokee, large enough for a family of seven with a dog and luggage was the ultimate ride for this type of country. I felt at peace, safe and free and a million miles from my fast-paced Notting Hill life.
Very few travel on Route 66, it’s mostly farmers and sight-seers and at dusk a bit of an eery place to hang out so I pushed on towards the canyons taking notes of the places I would stop on the way back. There were so many things to see and for my camera to record and even though the light and landscape was spectacular I didn’t fancy being out there in the dark.
My few days at the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley were wonderful, calm, ‘me-time’ days. I walked for miles, down cliff faces to the canyon floor and up again, I drove and drove until I was forced to cross state lines, realised a fondness for Country music, chewed cinnamon flavour gum, ate doughnuts and drank Dr Pepper. I spent my evenings soaking in hot tubs and drinking America’s answer to beer, it was heaven and I didn’t want it to end.
I left canyon country a day earlier than I needed to because I remembered an interesting place along Route 66 outside a tiny town called Peach Springs that I was drawn to and thought I might have lunch at. I left my hot tub hotel early to soak up the sights of the journey and gave myself time to find the place I’d seen. In the guide book it promised me the world’s weirdest hotel room, a giant dinosaur, heated outdoor pool, vintage cars in faided disrepair and caverns over 65 million years old: I had to see all of this if only to take some photos. I had been dragging my heels, stopping at every opportunity to take another photograph and time was pushing on, once again dusk was almost upon me and I was still at least two hours outside of Vegas.
I arrived at the Grand Canyon Caverns as the subterranean caverns were closing for the day, I pulled into the vast car park in my vast car just as the final tour was leaving and I watched them pull out west along Route 66. There was no one around. Even the tour guide seemed to have disappeared. I chose a spot as close to the motel entrance as I could and locked the car doors. All I could hear was a faint radio playing, the wind whistling through a flag pole and what sounded like a sign squeaking somewhere back and forth in the breeze. I suddenly felt very alone and wasn’t sure that this place was such a good idea after all.
As I stepped through the double door, under the neon ‘Entrance’ sign and passed the old juke box a dog came bounding up to me in greeting and as I knelt down to say hello a young woman’s head appeared, rather suddenly, from beneath the counter. Her names was Chloe and she seemed overly happy to see me. My enquiry for something to eat wasn’t successful but I was told that if I waited a few hours the kitchen would be open and I could eat then. The shop however did sell crisps and drinks and I was welcome to look around and choose something there for my onward journey. As I walked around the small, museum-like shop we talked and I told her I was on my way home. She invited me to take some photos if I liked, many did and she didn’t mind at all. This place was extraordinary. The museum-like shop did actually filter into a museum; rooms packed to the rafters with Route 66 memorabilia and retro toys and tins, old records, neon signs, Elvis photographs, Dolly Parton cut-outs, it was incredible and I got lost in the incredible array of paraphernalia for what felt like only five minutes. Once back at the till I realised that almost an hour had passed and as dusk fell I should probably enquire about staying. The guide book had boasted the world’s weirdest hotel room so this could be fun!
I opted for a run-of-the-mill motel room in block B. It seems both blocks A and C had rooms available but the staff slept in A and there were thirty archaeologist students from New York in C and so B was all mine. Considering there are twenty rooms in each block there was definitely room at the inn on this cold, dark January night. I must just add that I was reluctant to stay in this rather empty, rather eerie, strange place but being two hours outside Vegas and having driven five already I was tired and needed some sleep. Vegas offered very little I hadn’t seen before and this was an experience, so I took it.
Once checked into my room, and knowing I would have to leave early to catch my flight home in the morning, I grabbed my camera for one last look at this odd place I had stumbled upon. The motel appeared to be literally in the middle of nowhere. The plastic dinosaur guarding the entrance apparently suggested how old the caverns were and the vintage vehicles were inspiration for the recent Pixar film Cars. An old school bus turned into a café in the summer and the old filling station a prop for tourists and vintage enthusiasts. With no one around and the light fading I felt like I was on the set of a film. If someone has suddenly shouted ‘action’ I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, it was surreal and like nowhere I’d ever been before. Tumble weed drifted across the car park (not a word of a lie) and coyotes cried out in the distance. You couldn’t make this stuff up!
It was starting to chill and I so I directed my attention inside. To the right of the old jukebox in reception I had spotted a narrow door through which you could see twinkling lights and so I headed there. The door opened up into a large room, far larger than the outside wall had suggested, and with it’s black and white checked flooring gave off a kind of Alice in Wonderland feel. At the far end of the still and quiet room was what appeared to be pinball machines (so this was the twinkling lights) stacked up in a pile against the wall. The space in front was completely clear and clean enough to see my reflection in. I walked towards the twinkling lights when suddenly a voice came from inside the stack, “Nancy, faster, faster!” it hollered. I jumped out of my skin. One of the machines lept into life, music played, voices came from everywhere, lights flashed. “Ronald, turn right!”. On closer inspection I noticed that one of the machines was themed with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, retro indeed.
My heart now racing I made my way towards the door when another voice, calmer this time, and closer interrupted my fast exit and asked me if I wanted to see anything else. This time it was a man called Ron, manager of the Caverns and apparent spy! Seems he’d seen me come into the room and just wanted to make sure I wasn’t lost. Totally freaked out I told him I was trying to find the restaurant and turned once again to go. “You won’t find any food there yet ma’am. I’m the chef! Infact I’m just about everything here: reception, maid, security, janitor, chef, you name it, I does it!”. “And Chloe?” I asked. “Oh she’s gone for the night. It’s just you, me, the archaeologist students and the ghosts ma’am.”. “Ghosts!” I exclaimed, ready to get straight in the car. “Oh they’re harmless, and they mostly live down in the caves anyways. You’ll be just fine and if you’re not I’ll be just a few doors down from your room and you can holler if you need me.” This was bad. My imagination was running wild: on the one hand this guy was just being helpful and accommodating, but on the other I was a woman alone, in the middle of the Nevada desert, along a dusty old road.
All I wanted to do was sleep and get this night over with. What appeared to be a good idea in daylight was fast becoming a real life nightmare and I was scared. My room was freezing, the wall mounted heater was broken and so I called reception. I made a hot chocolate with some powder that I’m sure said cocoa but the packet was so worn that it could have been anything. As the kettle roared into life I heard a knock at the door. I opened the curtain before answering and saw Ron standing outside with four heaters. I let him in and he plugged them in for me. The door was thrown wide open and despite the howling wind I wasn’t going to shut it with him inside.
As he fiddled with the heater we talked about my trip and what I was doing here alone. I told him that my boyfriend was joining me later, he was flying in from LA. My story seemed to convince but his knowing glance suggested that he could sense I was just scared. The heater was broken but despite the open door, by now the room was heating up and I said I didn’t want to move to another so we covered it with plastic bags to stop the draft wafting in from the outside. I said goodnight and thanked him but as he turned to leave he suggested I take a hot shower. He went on to explain that the steam from the shower would help to heat the room even more and the water was boiling hot so it was worth a go. I agreed and let him out, thanking him again.
After he had gone I pushed a chair against the door and closed the windows. I decided that it was a good idea to have a hot shower, it would calm my nerves and as he said, would also heat the room. As the hot steamy water rained down on me I felt well again, and despite being ravenous was happy to have stayed if only for the photographs I had taken that day and the experience of having survived the eeriest place I had stayed in.
I clambered out of the high-topped bath and grabbed my towel. I dried myself off and hurriedly put my pyjamas on to keep warm but just as the steam was starting to clear something at the top of the mirror caught my eye. I had taken my contact lenses out and so I shuffled closer to it. There, in bold, capital writing, right at the top of the large mirror, written in the steam was,
Frozen to the bathroom tiles I was paralyzed. Not able or even wanting to move for fear of bumping into the poltergeist, or worse, seeing that Ron was still in the room waiting for me it took a good minute for me to edge my way towards the bedroom. I was petrified at what I might find outside of the bathroom and so slowly, inch by inch I peaked around the wall partition into the room. My bed was untouched, my bag remained packed, the chair was still up against the door knob and the window shut. As I knelt down to look under the bed, prepared (all but physically) to find a ghostly shape or knife wielding janitor, a thought went through my mind. If this was my time to go then so be it, there was nothing I could do to save myself against a ghost and the best self defence move I knew was a slap across the face and perhaps a television on the head and a not-long-since boiled kettle so I actually had three weapons.
Once satisifed that nothing was lurking under the bed I made the decision to stay the night and leave at dawn. Whether on the road or in this room, if my number was up it didn’t matter where I was, the grim reaper would find me. And so I dressed myself from pyjamas to jeans and jumper and even shoes. I packed everything but the car keys which I stuffed under my pillow and with heaters now off so that I could hear anyone approaching, I got into bed. I set the alarm and slept. To this day I don’t know how I slept but having rationalised that I wasn’t ever going to wake up I gave in and shut my eyes. I said my goodbyes to my family and I drifted off to sleep.
At 5am I woke with a start. I was alive! I had survived the night. All I needed to do now was open the motel room door and throw myself into the Jeep. As much as this was another heart thumping prospect I knew I had to get out of here and having survived the night I was determined to get out alive now. I had backed the Jeep right up to the door the previous day (I must have had a sixth sense about this, why else would you get to within spitting distance of your front door?) and before I had even removed the chair I had unlocked the car and it’s boot. Hurriedly I kicked the chair away, unlocked the door and with bags and cameras in tow walked free from my cell and straight into the boot of the Jeep! As I slammed the enormous door shut behind me I didn’t look back. I scrambled over the back seats and into the driving seat and with my lights still off I started the engine and sped out of the car park leaving dust and tumble weed in my wake. I didn’t care who I woke I was free.
I didn’t look in my rear view mirror until I joined the interstate for fear of who may be following me and I stopped only once when I remembered that I had hidden my passport in my wash bag and there was every chance I had left that in the room. Thankfully, the powers that be had intervened and despite me having complete memory loss of the seconds after seeing ‘HELP ME’ had sub-consciously instructed me to pickup the wash bag and put it in the suitcase.
I reluctantly returned the Jeep and made my way to the airport. It wasn’t until I got into the departure lounge and was replaying the story in my mind that I realised firstly how lucky I was to be alive (insert drama queen here) and that with a bit of Vaseline and as a good PR stunt for ghost hunters, this may well have been a trick. The steam conversation, the ghost stories, it all added up. But to this day the whole experience petrifies me and I haven’t even recounted the ghostly reflection in the checked floor…