As some of you know, I am in love with America and road tripping through strange/bad lands. One day I plan on taking the Trans-Mongolian railway from Beijing, through Russia to St Petersburg (wearing only a floor length fur coat and thigh high boots.) But for now I battle my urges to become the girlfriend of a biker and gamble my life on a motorcycle. I do have a vintage Harley singlet with cat eyes on the front, which could have done some loops around Vegas…
In fact, I did wear it in Vegas, which as far as I’m concerned, should be crushed to the ground by the dinosaurs they ought to have let free from Jurassic Park, which is probably a more interesting theme-park, at least with a little more adrenaline running around. See Vegas once, and leave before your foot gets stuck in quick-sand. The demons at the bottom of that hole will suck your brains out.
On a less deadly note, the following is from a new Perth magazine called Silver. It arrived like a good traveller on news stands yesterday. I think it is only available in the Wild West. The Silver Dollar Inn was the name of a Wyoming saloon we went to on this road trip. So, such is a fitting name for the magazine that carries the article I penned for the lovely people there. Enjoy! To end, I offer you some of my favourite Cowboy Wisdom: “Don’t worry about bitin’ off more’n you can chew; your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger’n you think.”
“Always take a good look at what you’re about to eat. It’s not so important to know what it is, but it’s sure crucial to know what it was.”
“Don’t squat with your spurs on.”
If your eyes are being punished, click on the images a few times to enlarge the print, or see the story in plain text below.
“Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance”
(Quotes are from the Cowboy’s Way, a great place to learn Cowboy know-how, such as how to stop a saddle from squeaking…)
FULL ROAD TRIPPINESS:
“It all began with Uma Thurman’s thumbs and a broken breakfast bowl. We were in New York when my sister and I saw a film by Gus Van Sant called Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and watching Uma’s elongated thumbs hail planes from the open roads of America, we fell in love with the idea of doing the same. In the tradition of other like-minded hunters like Thelma and Louise, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Keroac we flew to Los Angeles three days later, Gemma learnt to drive, I worked from a small room at Hotel California, we packed our things, and the morning we were almost ready to leave, broke a breakfast bowl full of milk in our haste to escape Santa Monica.
That broken bowl will forever be burnt into my memory as a symbol of what needed to be cracked open in order for us to break out. The tension to escape was tangible. Gemma was clad in leather and a fedora, me in a beret and aviators. All the rubble of daily mess was cleared away by our ejection from the writhing pit of the concrete city. All we needed was ourselves, something to travel in and the road. The car we took was a gold 4WD Chevrolet, and we filled it with all the comforts we were used to: a gigantic road map, a lead to attach Ipods, a GPS navigator in case the map was thrown out the window in frustration, a guitar, a small drum, three suitcases, a black Amex and a tank full of petrol.
We hit the road at 80 miles an hour following the white lines of jet streams in the sky as we followed Highway One North toward Big Sur, Monterey, and San Francisco. Highway One is a long stretch of curving road that hugs the Californian coast all the way north. The area known as Big Sur is renowned as being a place that has forever attracted nomadic hunter-gatherers; both in times gone and still today. Three Native American Tribes were apparently the first inhabitants of the area – the Ohlone, Salinan and Esselen, the latter of which lends it name now to a popular retreat formerly known as Big Sur Hot Springs. The Esalen Institute lies high on a cliff, and opens its natural springs in the middle of the night for travelers who aren’t enrolled in the institute’s programs.
My sister and I visited the baths pumped with hot sulfur rich water when the stars were set heavily in the sky. The baths are set on the edge of an ocean cliff, and look out toward a dark sea and sky whose horizons are indistinguishable by their dissolution into each other. I’ve since discovered that Hunter S. Thompson had in fact once been a security guard at the springs for 8 months in 1961. Jack Kerouac also passed through, and having stayed for just three days in a log cabin, was so impressed he wrote a novel called Big Sur based on his time there.
During the next few days we stayed in motels furnished in true American style. We ate oatmeal and drank watery black coffee, which by the end of the trip we held a certain fondness for. A friend from Los Angeles hitched a ride as far as San Francisco, and let us in on many of the hidden treasures of this route. We scaled tucked-away waterfalls off the side of the road, deserted beaches and rocky outcrops accessible only by cliff faces dotted with signs that read ‘DANGER, STAY BACK’. After passing through Clint Eastwood’s Monterey (he is Governor of the small seaside town), we eventually reached San Francisco, marvelling that Arnold Schwartzenegger and Clint Eastwood were now California’s keepers.
We pulled up to San Francisco after so much time by the sea, and slept for one night at a friend’s apartment by a rooftop graced with a garden of poppies, snowpeas and hummingbirds. That night we drove past bonfire lit beaches and the Haight-Ashbury; where so many seekers had gravitated in the 1960s. Henry Miller tells of a story about a bohemian traveller knocking on his door in Big Sur, looking for ‘the cult of sex and anarchy”. He didn’t find it in Big Sur, and I’m sure promptly kept searching until he hit the Haight.
After climbing the highest reaches of San Francisco’s hilltops, we found a dive bar near Chinatown with scuba suits on the walls. I noticed a weathered old man selling paintings, and a young man playing guitar to his friends gathered haphazardly on stools around him. However most of the things we saw in the cities couldn’t compare to being back on the road. In fact, it wasn’t the destinations we cared about, it was hurtling down empty highways with each other through desert stretches strewn with spinifex and our extraordinarily loud music. The best things we saw were in passing. Once while driving through an extensive sandy stretch, I saw a sign notifying drivers that to the left was a ‘Big Sandy Recreation Area’. Another time, while negotiating the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, a sign at the edge of the raging rapids read ‘In Case of Flood, Climb to Safety’. I thought that was comforting.
But before Colorado, Californian redwoods gave way to the gray Nevada desert. I was pulled over a few times. The cops are exactly like the ones in the movies. My sister and I grinned in the direction of his aviators, and eventually, after a few questions he relaxed and told us in a very fatherly way where we should stay that night. He pointed us towards Reno, tipped his hat and strutted back down the gravel to the flashing car. We drove on for a good hour, trying to find the casino-infected town. But the signs kept taking us in loops down the same road, and the same border guard. I began to think it was an invisible city, something you had to fall into rabbit holes to get to. The border towns were haunting. Old red barns with their rooves caved in; campervans and children’s toys strewn on gravelly dirt. There was no grass, and no trees. Eventually we saw the faraway glimmers of Reno (“The Biggest Little City in the World”) looming on the freeway horizon.
Reno greeted us with promises of prime ribs, wedding vows, limousines and gold digging. I thought nothing had really changed since the gold rush of yesteryear. People were still panning for gold that was hidden beneath the ground; only this time the ground was covered in casino carpet. The machines were the only thing making noises. Gemma and I wandered with smiles agape as we drank in the magnificent strokes of American money that lined the whole building. The contrast was surreal, between the bleakness of the desert, and this den of cherries, coins and jackpots. There was certainly a lot of distance between.
We spent the night in Reno, and sped on the next morning, this time destined for Wyoming, via Idaho. My sister asked a cashier in a gigantic WalMart why the small town needed this many packages and products? It was odd seeing a whole wall of freezer space dedicated to cookie dough. The frozen food section lit up like a catwalk as we strode along it. The way the world spends its money can be strange. The cashier shrugged his shoulders, and went on conversing with my sister. She asked him what cowboys do, and if there were any Dude Ranches around here? He told us cowboys drove big cars around town, and drank beer. Soon I would be sitting with a young cowboy of the digital age in Wyoming asking him how one goes about seducing a cowboy such as his friend. Thelma & Louise fever had definitely kicked in.
The desert gave way to the mountains of Wyoming in a way I’ve never seen before: It was bizarre to see snow in sand, and a frozen river set in the desert. We reached Wyoming just as the road we were taking to Jackson Hole became all but obliterated by a passing snow storm. I drove down a thin road with snow crawling up its edges as the blizzard swept past the windscreen as I listened to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. Nothing could be seen 4 feet ahead, nor 4 foot right, nor left, nor behind either. We were a gold bullet flying through a storm in a snow field.
The storm passed over as we made our way higher. Jackson Hole was our destination, and it was nestled behind a big mountain, dotted with bears and pine trees. I had read a story back in California called The Hunter’s Wife, and I couldn’t stop thinking about a passage where the woman buries her hand in a felled log, through snow and fur, to feel the hibernating warmth of a still bear. When we reached the Ranch we were staying at, I wasn’t surprised to see scratch marks up the tree bark. Perhaps a bear? Perhaps an elk?
The log cabin was down a winding gravel path bordered by snow, past a big red barn and white owls. We spent three days here. It was pure seclusion, like cotton wool. The moon was more pregnant than ever and we stayed up late, sat on the porch, walked (fell) through the snow, tipped fresh ice out of our boots. The afternoon we were to leave, we visited what looked like the town’s oldest pub. It had the biggest animal head I’ve ever seen on the wall near the fireplace: a bison. We sat at the bar and then left the bar. It was pretty intimidating trying to field glares from the mustachioed men drinking beer nearby. We retired to a table and ordered a buffalo burger to share. It was so good we ordered another.
We raced a desert train through the south of Wyoming. The train was going just as fast as us, and like wild horses by the road side, it had a rugged grace. The sun set, and the desert carved up as we found our way to Colorado. Gemma and I had become better at reading each other by this stage, not only the road map. We grinned and giggled our way through Colorado, visiting a town high in the Rockies where we found more buffalo meat, beer drinkers and ice-creameries than you could poke a gear stick at. Soon we’d stream through more moonlit nights and hit New Mexico.
The way the landscape changes in North America is unrivaled to anything that occurs in Australia. Going through seven states in two weeks, Gemma and I felt like we’d done a world tour. But where Northern California was Greece and Colorado a kind of Switzerland, New Mexico was Mexico. We were shaken by the presence of a bear on the premises of our motel the night before (“just put your hands in the air, and walk backwards”, the clerk had told us), so we checked ourselves into a spa called Ten Thousand Waves structured like a Japanese bath house. The masseuse definitely exorcised some desert demons out of me.
Arizona was a blur, mainly because we drove through Monument Valley in darkness. But we did manage to avoid driving straight into the Grand Canyon. It is a gigantic gash in the ground, many more acres deeper and wider than you can contemplate. But the strange thing was that no one was genuinely impressed. I wonder if cinema has done that. Gemma and I thought it looked like a studio backdrop. In fact, it was so surreal we broke the quiet silence with our exclaiming.
In six hours we would reach Las Vegas. I felt myself suctioned into it like a vacuum, and was sure the cars on the other side of the dark freeway were being spat out with the same force. We pulled up to The Bellagio hotel and were nice to the bell boys, the hotel clerks, the porters. I noticed they were all taken aback by the fact we were so unusually pleasant. Gemma put one coin in a slot machine in Las Vegas, and was promptly kicked out for being underage. The next morning we ate our french toast obligingly, and drank what we thought might be our last few cups of bad American coffee. The car was filled with petrol one last time before we reentered California, at a gas station whose cashier had a 4 foot rifle leaning up against the wall behind her. I ripped open my chewing gum and turned to face the desert gale that was sweeping spinifex and doves through the air, and thought I really do love this big, bad country.
At the airport back to Australia, Gemma looked me in the eye and with a swift hug and reminder not to cry too much, she pulled away as our trolleys took opposite directions: Hers laden with drums and guitar, mine with elk leather and eagle feathers. As I pulled into the aisle towards home, I watched Gemma’s motorcycle jacket and black dusty hat disappear down the hallway filled with rashes of people, her head bobbing along, striding fast, not turning back.”