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July 15, 2021

In this issue: Wow, People Sure Hate National Parks | Pass the Pepto, I'm Going to the Buffet! | Media Sommelier: The Fine Art of Celebrity Schadenfreude

THE U.S. NATIONAL PARK Service has long been the subject of criticism — from your run-of-the-mill government agency gripes, to more serious calls for restorative justice. Amber Share’s contribution adds some levity to this tradition. A designer by trade, Share began combining 1-star reviews of national parks with her own original illustrations of iconic landscapes to create mock posters. In 2019, she started posting them to an Instagram account called Subpar Parks, and now she’s written a book of the same name.

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Back in her Raleigh, North Carolina, home following a month-long visit to public lands in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah, Share talked to Desert Companion about her love of the desert and how Subpar Parks came to be.

Apologies in advance for asking the question artists hate to be asked, but how did you get the idea for Subpar Parks?
There was a lot that built up to the moment when it came together. I’m a hiker, backpacker, and love to be outside as much as possible. I was looking for a way to incorporate more outdoors into my illustration work, and I was looking for a side job to keep me busy and growing as an illustrator. I didn’t want to just draw the parks, because that’s been done by so many amazing illustrators, and I didn’t think I had anything to add that would stand out. I’m also generally a pretty witty or sarcastic person, so finding a humorous way was top of my list. And then I just happened to get on Reddit one day and see where someone had posted a link to all these 1-star reviews of national parks, and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do.

You’re a designer by trade. What did you do professionally before Subpar Parks?
My major was advertising, and I did graphic design and art as a minor, so I was drawn to creative advertising. I realized what I actually liked was the design side of it, so I moved in that direction. I had been working as a staff graphic designer and living in D.C., but my job didn’t give me the creative outlet I wanted, so I started doing hand-lettering and calligraphy, and that evolved into my getting back into illustration, something I’d done in college. As a graphic designer, you don’t get to do that much; it’s more digital. So, that became my hobby, a creative outlet on the side. Subpar Parks was an outgrowth of that.

Stylistically, how do you describe Subpar Parks?
Definitely, they’re a bit retro and intentionally simplistic. I think, especially with the more recognizable spots, it’s fun to see how much I can simplify something and still get people to recognize it.

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I also describe them as neutral. In the world of outdoor photography, sometimes what’s presented on the screen isn’t what you see in person. And I think that’s part of the disappointment for these people (who give 1-star reviews). They see photographers’ best photos, and then they get there and they’re like, “Oh.” So, I kept the illustrations neutral. I didn’t want them to be misleading about how the places are. I purposely wasn’t trying to say anything other than, “This is what it looks like, and this is what someone said about it.”

The book includes illustrations for 77 parks. How many of those have you actually visited?
I don’t super keep track of it. I’d love to visit them all, but I’m not one of those people who counts stamps on her park passport. I think about a third, but a lot of those I went to when I was really young, and didn’t experience them the way I would now, as an adult. … So, maybe I’ve been to a park or driven through it, but I still want to go back and visit it more.

The book includes Great Basin National Park, which is Nev ada’s only one, along with several within driving distance of Las Vegas — Bryce Canyon, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Zion. Have you been to all those?
Yep, all except Death Valley.

Which one was the most fun to draw and write about?
Also Death Valley. That one always makes my husband giggle. And that’s also one where I did a composed shot, kind of zoomed in on a sand dune with a dark color scheme, to capture the spirit of the quote (“Ugliest place I’ve ever seen”).

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You take advantage of the book format to add a page or two o f history, nature, and trivia about the parks you’ve illustrated. Did one of the more local parks stand out in your research as particularly interesting?
That’s a tough question. Maybe Bryce, maybe Death Valley. There’s so much you could say about any one park. Each one has its own book. But the ones I like the best are where I was able to hit on the geography, Indigenous history, and overall cultural significance. The ones where I was able to dip into every pot, those became my favorite, because they tell the most complete and accurate story. With those I was able to do that a bit more.

Speaking of Indigenous history, groups such as Indigenous Women Hike have been calling on Instagram influencers to go further than just doing land acknowledgements of the places they photograph. They want reparations, such as a portion of those influencers’ proceeds going to the tribes whose ancestral lands are pictured. In your book’s General Tips for Park Visits section, you encourage readers to educate themselves about an area’s Indigenous history, be respectful of sacred sites, and support local tribes, and you provide resources to help. Is that enough?
I could always do more. My body of work is all the parks — it spans across every tribe and every nation, so it was impossible for me to figure out a way to divide up the donations across all of them. So, what I do is, I rotate my donations. I donate to a lot of causes related to the parks, including the National Parks Conservation Association, but also nonprofits focused on diversifying the parks, making them more inclusive, and Indigenous causes. And when I visit an area, I support Native businesses. I do make a conscious effort, but there’s always room to improve.

As far as land acknowledgements go, rather than do generic land acknowledgements, which can feel performative rather than actually educating people — just checking a box or listing the tribes and groups that have ties without making an authentic connection — I wanted to motivate people, pique their interest, and let them know the information is important to learn. So, with some, I tried to tell the history. But for all of them, I wanted to let people know those stories are out there and need to be remembered.

A lot of the writing includes your personal perspective from in-person visits. Based on that, it seems you’ve visited many of the parks in the Southwest. Do you have a preference for these landscapes?
That is my favorite region. Those parks in particular shine a bit more in the book, because of that. Even when I was a kid and we road-tripped across the U.S., the desert was the place I found the most interesting. I felt like it called to me a little bit. There’s something about it that feels very peaceful. I think now it’s widely accepted that it’s a beautiful place, but there are a lot of people out there who still don’t know it. It’s where I want to be when I have the time. … I joke with my friends that I’m a lizard, and I need the sun and heat to survive.

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RECENT NEWS THAT some Las Vegas buffets will remain closed — even as the resort community moves toward business as usual — has generated more than its share of end-of-an-era stories. It’s hard to blame people for waxing caloric about the over-the-top, all-you-can-eat experience. You can find buffets elsewhere, but no place has done them quite like Las Vegas. After reading a couple recent articles on the subject, I sighed and thought of all the times when, as a young reporter, I’d rush from the newspaper office to Station Casinos to plow through the Feast Buffet line once — or maybe twice. This was back when everything I ate didn’t immediately translate into pounds gained and blood pressure increased. (Perhaps you remember, back when high cholesterol was what the old guys had and you never imagined there would come a day you’d be grateful Pepto-Bismol was invented.)

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The buffet has become such a burnished symbol of anything-goes Las Vegas that it’s easy to forget it started as a glorified freebie for late-night gamblers seeking an excuse to keep playing. Through the years, buffets were marketed as loss leaders by casinos to increase traffic flow, and they’ve worked well even as Las Vegas has reinvented itself.

I was born and raised in Henderson, and that meant my first buffet experience was far off the Strip at the Swanky Club on the Boulder

Highway (right). It was not a buffet, precisely, but a “smorgasbord.” It was a small trolley — a glorified salad bar, really — compared to the Strip’s great buffet trains, but I reveled in the very idea of eating as many cheese and salami slices as I could hold. Ah, smorgasbord, you filled my childhood dreams with flights of gastronomic fancy.

The first big-league buffet I recall eating on the Strip was at the old Castaways. It was an audacious scene, always, with a crowd of, shall we say, low-rollers lining up to load their plates. And of course, no local can get “Tomorrow the diet, today the great buffet” out of their heads, a sign that early television advertising has a lasting impact. The Castaways has been gone for years, but I still remember that jingle.

Although “chuck wagon buffets” have been a part of the casino loss-leader game from the early 1950s (at right, a postcard depicting the Flamingo’s

Chuck Wagon Buffet), Las Vegas entered a kind of buffet heyday in the 1970s and really took off, as I recall, when Steve Wynn turned the Golden Nugget buffet into something akin to a gourmet experience. I’ll never forget my dear Aunt Nancy wrapping up a dozen eclairs in her napkin and jamming them into her purse, very ladylike. When she caught my stare, Aunt Nancy replied, “It’s all-you-can eat, Johnny. I’ll eat these later. They won’t mind.”

But times and tastes change. Buffets have morphed from gluttonous bargains to more eclectic fare — with prices to match. Given the COVID-19 nightmare we’re struggling to awaken from, it’s easy to understand why some are predicting the demise of the mile-long, self-serve grub train. But don’t count on it. Despite recent news of closures — with some buffets going permanently dark — the Vegas buffet is alive and well. Caesars Palace has reopened the Bacchanal Buffet, and the MGM reopened its popular Grand Buffet in May.

Still, two decidedly old-school buffets will always make me smile. For me, no brief remembrance is complete without a bow to Circus Circus and its food line featuring the enormous “Plate o’ Plenty,” which I recall being the circumference of a steering wheel. The food was so-so, but the size of the plate gave you a certain license to load up. Some people still managed to overload the Plate o’ Plenty. (I count myself among the guilty.)

The other was the Showboat Buffet, which on most days offered a standard lineup at a good price. It was never the best buffet in town. For a while, however, the Showboat had a Friday night all-you-can-eat lobster buffet that generated a line out the door. The Showboat was known best for its prolific bowling lanes, which attracted tournaments from across the country and even held PBA events. For a while, though, it was famous for its all-you-can-eat lobster buffet. People arrived hours ahead of time — and stayed until being shoved out the door. People ate lobsters with both hands. Security was standing by. (And paramedics, I presume.) Patrons ate so many of the boiled crustaceans that it’s a wonder Green Peace didn’t picket the place.

Those were the days. Why, I need to take a swig of Pepto just thinking about it.

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1. CELEBRITY FAUX PAS were the most satisfying schadenfreude binge of 2020 ... sorry Tiger King. From Ellen comparing self-isolation in her coastal palace to “ being in prison” to Gal Gadot leading a star-studded but nonetheless painfully awkward virtual sing-along of “ Imagine,” many of these cringe-worthy moments have been put to canvas by painter Isaac Peifer. Peifer chats with NYLON to discuss his memetic portraits that have gone viral in their own right, and which are currently on exhibition ( Cringe: Portraits from the Pandemic) in New York City. Peifer reflects on the early-COVID internet, saying, “We’d look to these technologies to find some sense of solidarity or community, and one of the ways we did manage to find this was to participate in this carnival of ridicule that would happen.”

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The interview speaks to many points from an earlier pandemic thinkpiece that grabbed my attention, Amanda Hess’s “ Celebrity Culture Is Burning.” While Hess, in March 2020, found hope in celebs such as Anthony Hopkins and Britney Spears, who have a “charming” internet presence, Peifer believes the pandemic cemented a new era of celebrity: the era of celebrity villains. “People are rejecting this idea of celebrities being good pure role models,” the painter says, “and now that celebrities have become villains in the culture, villainy is part of what people aspire towards in a sort of irreverent way.” Is each stroke of Peifer’s brush a strike to sharpen a guillotine blade against Blue Checks and the 1%? No, Peifer is refreshingly unserious about his art, but he does have some compelling thoughts on virality, wealth, and the medium of portraiture.

2. On second thought, those proverbial guillotines might not be a bad idea. In a report for New York Magazine, Alissa Walker covers Venice Beach’s “NIMBYs” who are fighting a $75 million affordable housing project in their neighborhood. Walker lets locals lead the story, relying on firsthand accounts from Venice residents, charity workers, and a city council member who spent many nights sleeping on the beach himself during a period of houselessness. At times, this piece reads as an oral history of a neighborhood, tracking how an insouciant surftown devolved into an enclave for wealthy bohemian posers. At other times, Venetians are handed the mic and offer critical insight on gentrification and affordable housing.

The tensions in Venice Beach are not confined to the sandy locale. The city of Las Vegas passed an unhoused camping ban in 2019 and has seen the cost of housing inflate over the past months. The conversations Walker captures here may echo ones in your own neighborhood.

3. Keeping in line with the NIMBYs’ settler ethos, let’s turn to another corner of the American West. Christian Wallace’s “ The Resurrection of Bass Reeves” for Texas Monthly sets out to answer the question: Was the Lone Ranger Black? While that premise itself — which Wallace explores through a biography of Black U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves — is fascinating, what kept me engaged with this long read was how it expands into a prescient study on Black men working in criminal justice and how they navigate their relationships to their workplaces. Wallace writes of Reeves, who was enslaved by an Arkansas farmer, “The silver star that adorned his uniform was the same badge worn by the U.S. Marshals as they were enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, which, only a few years earlier, could have cost Reeves his freedom and his life.” The narrative shifts to today, where Baridi Nkokheli, an erstwhile Bass impersonator and educator, recounts his father’s traumatic time with the LAPD, where his father served until his untimely death.

Moreover, Wallace demystifies the mythic West, and the de-John-Wayne-ified setting we’re left with is surprisingly hopeful and diverse. Wallace writes, “One of the most commonly cited statistics is that during the golden age of the cattle drives (1865–1890), at least one in four cowboys was Black. But even that underplays the historical truth: that the West was a vibrant, racially fluid place.” For a time, Black families and luminaries like Booker T. Washington flocked to Oklahoma, newly minted in unionhood, with the hopes of shaping it into a beacon for Black culture. Having
commemorated the 100 th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre last month, we know how this Western ends — or at least where the plot is now. As Wallace observes, “One of the sad paradoxes of the West is that, as the frontier became more settled, it actually became less safe for Black residents.” Come for the cowboys, stay for the cultural critique.  

4. Much like Bass Reeves, you probably don’t know Alexis Nowicki’s name, but there’s a good chance you know her fictional counterpart. In 2017, then-MFA student Kristen Roupenian landed a book deal after her New Yorker short story “ Cat Person” went viral. A piece of literary fiction going viral? That’s astounding enough, but the story behind the story is even wilder.

This week, Nowicki penned “‘ Cat Person’ and Me’” for Slate. Nowicki writes that she received a barrage of texts the day “Cat Person” launched a million tweets and thinkpieces. “‘Is this about you?’ the text messages read. ‘Did you write this under a pen name? Did Charles?’ My stomach dropped,” she remembers. What ensues is best read firsthand, not summarized. The questions Nowicki raises about agency and autofiction have set literary Twitter ablaze, so if you’d like some hotter takes, then wade into that dumpster fire at your own risk. Nick Barnette

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Photos and art: Buffet headline photo: Shutterstock/suriyachan; Swanky Club, Chuck Wagon Buffet: courtesy UNLV Special Collections; Amber Share and Subpar Parks images: courtesy Amber Share

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