Saturday, 20 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 14






It feels strange to be back in San Francisco after our week on the road. It is hard to know how to approach things. We have planned our day in advance – we are to return to Haight-Ashbury so Nathan can purchase a lap-steel guitar and I can peruse the stock at Amoeba Records – but when you’ve an early flight the next day it’s hard to make the most of a situation like this.
            We puzzle over which is the best route to take to Haight and decide to walk to town and catch what we can from there. We board a bus headed in the general direction, but it only takes us so far. It is very hot – too hot to be loitering for unsubstantiated buses, so we walk from somewhere near Mission to our intended destination. It’s a bothersome journey up steep hills, but we find our way to Haight-Ashbury and go about our business there – Nathan purchases his lap-steel (after some deliberation) and I buy a couple or records: Weird War's If You Can't Beat 'Em, Bite 'Em and Marriage on the Rocks by The Amboy Dukes. (Incidentally, the next time I see Max will be when Weird War play live at the Metro in London. Whereas I will have fully recovered from my American caper in the intervening period, Max will still be in remission after a particularly brutal climax to his journey that culminated in his trip to New York.)
The weight of Nathan’s newly acquired instrument demands that we get a taxi back to our hostel.

It’s a quiet evening, although maybe not as measured as it should be given we’ve ordered a taxi to take us to the airport for 6:00 the following morning. We sink a few beers in Vesuvio, and another in the bar where John Lennon’s cinema-going buddy accosted us, grab a pizza and head back to the common room of the Green Tortoise. There we will end up talking politics with a savvy American until one o’clock in the morning, hanging on to the last fragments of a trip we never want to end.


Friday, 19 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 13







Nathan and I are due to fly back to San Francisco today, whilst Max and Charlie plan on staying in Vegas for a few more before they catch their bus to L.A. We head over to their new motel as a collective and share a final meal together – it’s a poignant moment. We then walk on down to Fremont Street whereupon Nathan and I wave down a cab. It has been an honour to have been part of Max and Charlie's American Adventure and I don’t really want it to be over. We bid each other farewell in a very British fashion and Nathan and I are on our way to the airport.
Not before we've stopped off at some warehouse along the way, so Nathan can check out the price of lap-steel guitars. I don't have a problem with this but the music emporium in question lies alongside a major freeway, and I’m left to ponder the impending difficulty of hailing a second cab while Nathan pores over musical instruments.
And so it turns out to be. When Nathan’s done talking with hairy musicians, we end up at a major junction trying to ascertain which side of the road we need to be, with no apparent pedestrian crossing with which to execute our chosen manoeuvre. We do persuade a taxi to stop for us, but it pulls in on the opposite side of the road and it takes us some while to negotiate the crossing to reach it. But we do, and my nascent fear that we might miss our flight soon dissipates.






By the time we land in San Francisco it is dark. The flight only took an hour, but the boarding and disembarking, and the train and the walk back to the Green Tortoise, wipe out the remains of the day. There is just enough time for a final fling down at Delirium, but it proves to be hard work. To liven things up a bit I order in a round of tequila. Nathan reciprocates with another, but it is the proverbial straw and I end up throwing up in the toilets. Apt.


Thursday, 18 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 12







Las Vegas grew from auspicious beginnings, a stop-off point for people travelling to Los Angeles, which ensured a station was built there when the railroad was extended manifestly west toward California. The reason why people paused there was because of the availability of water – an oasis in an otherwise arid landscape. Indeed, Las Vegas literally means 'The Meadows' in Spanish.
Fate was again kind to its inhabitants, this time during the great depression when the nearby construction of the Hoover Dam, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the efflorescent gambling industry provided employment in a country that was short of it. Growth stalled slightly during the Second World War, although the location of Nellis Air Force Base nearby provided a captive audience throughout the conflict and the period immediately after.
Perhaps more significantly the seeds for the Las Vegas we know today were sown when local hotelier Tommy Hull built the El Rancho Casino in 1941, what we might fairly presume to be the blueprint for the casino/hotel hybrid that has come to symbolise Nevada's most decadent of settlements. The style back then was for mock Western-style constructions, but these were soon superseded by the Miami influenced ‘carpet joints’ that prevail to this day.
            Back then, of course, The Strip didn't even exist. Downtown Vegas was where the action was, before they built New York New York, Luxor, Circus Circus, Excalibur, and all the rest. There’s still plenty of action to be had in Downtown Vegas but it’s been re-branded as the ‘Fremont Street Experience’. You may have seen this thoroughfare in the Bond film Diamonds are Forever, whereupon Sean Connery is chased all around it in a fast car. This would not be possible now as the area has been pedestrianised and covered over with a cylindrical metal roof. The whole thing resembles the Bentalls Centre in Kingston, but on acid: lights flash relentlessly and the place won't shut up for a second. It is a 24 hour city in a very literal sense. You could lose days and nights here, should you choose to stay indoors, which is perfectly possible given the level of amenity.

Our breakfast handsomely reflects the opulence of our surroundings. I have the steak and mashed potato, which comes with a free side-salad, a dressing of my choosing, and endless beverage refills, which in this case means plenty of juice and coffee.
            I say breakfast but it’s really lunch. We slept in late to prepare ourselves for what has been earmarked as our final fling – our last night of collective revelry before we go our separate ways. That it is to take place in Las Vegas is fitting.
            Mid-afternoon and we’re strolling about downtown, soaking up the vibe. Max and Charlie are keen to play at cards – El Cortez will do. They throw in $20 each for a session of Blackjack, and it’s not long before Nathan and I are digging into our wallets too.
An officious looking gentleman strolls over to see how we’re doing. I get the feeling that he’s somewhat suspicious of us. I'm actually on a bit of a role – I used to play Pontoon for jellybeans with my Grandmother and Aunt – and we’ all taking advantage of the free cans of beer that are routinely thrown our way.
            Max and Nathan are out of luck, Charlie has doubled his money, but I'm the real winner today: I'm leaving with $80 – $60 more than I went in with. Buoyed by the experience we go for a drink to celebrate.






We head back to our motel to freshen up. I have preserved a clean shirt for this night alone – a subtle plaid number which I like to think Chris Hillman (of The Byrds) might have rocked back in the day.
Our first destination is Circus Circus, a place of notorious mayhem, but by the time we get there the show’s over and the whole place looks more like the vestibule of some suburban bowling alley, alive with nothing more than video games and one-armed bandits.
So we head back to The Frontier to catch up on our drinking and settle down for almost an hour with a lounge act called 'The Fortunes'. They play all the favourites: Dock of The Bay, Knock on Wood, Chain Gang. Their between song banter discloses this triumvirate of manhood to be from Coventry, England. They moved to Vegas some time ago. The accomplishment of their act is testament to this.
Not feeling as drunk as we’d like, we head back to Gilley’s. It’s the same sort of crowd as before, although they've got a mechanical rodeo bull set up tonight. Max and I are both game, and give it a decent go, I think.
It’s an odd crowd that gathers in Gilley’s. They don’t strike us as your high-city rollers, or out-of-town types: it seems more a locals’ hangout. A sort of wild-west theme pervades. There are people wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots, and there is line-dancing… to techno?! In the name of transatlantic relations, I ask a random local if I can try on his hat. He says no, and in a manner that suggests that I shouldn't have dared even ask.
We see the rest of the evening out at Gilley’s. Unless you’re really into gambling – or maybe hard drugs – there doesn't seem to be an awful lot to do in Las Vegas. Nothing to beat Delirium, at least…


Wednesday, 17 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 11







‘Good Morning, Max. Breakfast room in 25 minutes.’
‘Bastards.’

My limited experience of American motels has led me to deduce that their exterior mostly betrays the interior. From the outside they often look how one might expect, stuck in a pleasing 1970s time warp which fits in with the whole road trip experience very nicely. But when you actually step inside these rooms the décor can be surprisingly quaint. They're kitted out like your Grandmother’s. That is to say that everything is very tidy, floral patterns are ubiquitous and there are plenty of little things, like doilies and brass door knobs, that give it an oddly European feel.
Our motel in Santa Barbara is no exception. The breakfast area wouldn't look out of place in an English bed & breakfast. We know this because despite sleeping until gone 9:00 in the morning, none of us are in any shape to do anything until we've at least had something to eat – even if that’s only an apple.
Max is particularly damaged. I knock on his and Charlie’s door. No answer. I shout that they need to wake up, that we have to get to Vegas and we’re already running late. Max comes to the door, opens it – eyes squinted and his hair a complete mess, his form completely ravaged – and then quickly closes it again. It is to be expected. We didn't even go straight to bed when we finally regrouped back at the motel. Those who aren't feeling so bad are probably still drunk, and our driver, Nathan, fits too easily into this category.
Actually, it’s a real effort to eat anything at breakfast, although they've not laid on a very inspiring spread. So we will stop at the garage to stock up on water and potato chips. We shall also keep the roof up for a while because there’s the potential for hitting some serious traffic as we negotiate our way through Los Angeles, and we need to be able to control the temperature and stave off loud noise, bad air.
It is 10:30 by the time we’re ready to go – more than two hours later than we scheduled for – although that’s quite a good recovery considering our condition.





Driving through LA to the sounds of The Byrds (Younger than Yesterday), HOLLYWOOD visible on the hillside, it's all perfectly chimeric. The thermometer is showing 30°C. It's not even noon. Fortunately the Beast's air conditioning takes it in its stride. The traffic is heavy but flows steadily, and we make our way through the milieu of Los Angeles in reasonable time. After that the road adopts a long but shallow rake all the way to the edge of the desert. The soil glares a bright white but visually softens once we've reached the summit of Glen Helen Regional Park.
The Mojave Desert doesn't seem as quintessentially desert-like when you drive through it, but my photographs show otherwise – perhaps the traffic detracts from the wilderness when you’re actually there. We’re just over halfway and there’s about 150 miles of driving still to do. We stop at Lenwood on the fringes of Barstow, at Denny’s for some serious food. These irregular eating habits are playing havoc with my digestive symptom, but I feel a whole lot better after my ample portions.
The Tony Blair-appreciating Marine in Monterrey had warned to book accommodation in advance for our trip to Las Vegas, but we’re only just getting around to it. Charlie’s phoning numbers from a local newspaper, without much success. He makes about 10 calls before he finally find a downtown motel – the Bridger Inn –  with room for all of us, corroborating the ineluctable appeal the Marine assured us Vegas has for the American looking to cut lose for a few days, regardless of the time of year or day of the week.






Taking into account the hour we took for lunch, the journey to Las Vegas’s periphery has taken us a full seven hours. Downtown Las Vegas is located north of The Strip, so it’s almost 7.00 p.m. by the time we've found our motel. The process of booking-in seems to take forever. The woman who works reception is in no great hurry – you’d think she was stoned or something – and there’s a large party to check in ahead of us. She studiously pores over everybody’s passport, cracking jokes if she spots an opportunity. The atrium’s piled high with these people’s luggage and there’s nowhere to sit. Max is seething. Nathan has almost lost his mind; he’s standing out on the pavement in a driving-induced stupor, bashing an empty plastic bottle against the side of his head, a demented grin writ large across his face.
Meanwhile, the return of our vehicle is now overdue and I'm given the unenviable task of phoning ahead to tell them that we will be there as soon as our receptionist decides she’s done with her comedy routine. The woman at the car-hire place is laying it on thick, explaining that she’ll need to charge an extra day’s rental if we’re late returning our vehicle, which we shall shortly be. I'm not so worried about that but I am concerned that, in establishing how much that extra cost should be, our rental scam will be blown apart. I fancy, though, that she’s not quite grasping the nature of our predicament: “No, we’re already IN Vegas – we’re just tied up at the motel. We shouldn't be more than about half an hour.” She finally understands me: “Oh, you’re here in Vegas NOW? Why didn't you say, honey?”

An hour has passed and we almost have to force Nathan back into the car. He tells us his concentration is shot to pieces and the only way he can make it to the airport, where the car needs to be deposited, is by relying on us completely for directions. This seems fair and to start with goes very well. However, at the first major intersection this system shows signs of breaking down. It takes ages for him to commit to making a right turn, hounded from every angle by aggressive drivers sounding a concerto of horns. On the approach to Highway 15, the car collectively indicates to its driver that he needs to turn left. Nathan immediately turns the car left. An explosion of panic reels him back in before the possibility of meeting another vehicle head-on becomes a distinct reality. Now we have the measure of just how mashed Nathan really is. We continue to provide instructions for the rest of the journey, making sure not to give him too much forward notice in case he ends up driving us over the edge of a fly-over or into a brick wall.
We reach the airport without further incident – now about an hour and a half later than agreed – only to find that the aviation authorities have devised some sort of navigational test. Signs directing us to our terminus, when slavishly adhered to, lead us out of the airport and back toward the freeway. We turn around and try again. The same thing happens, only this time Charlie succeeds in identifying where we went wrong. On our third pass we find the correct turning, and thus the point of deposit. Then finally some luck: the keys are returned without further ado, and no money is asked for. The severely depleted fuel tank isn't even checked.
Except now we've got to wait half an hour for a bus to get us back to the motel. Let’s get a cab.

We enter the MGM Grand looking for food and drink. We find a bar and order a round of beers. No sooner have we sat down to sip at them and the stage above the bar erupts into a vulgar explosion of music and dance. The lead singer starts warbling and prancing all around us, and if you're quick you can catch your dumbfounded faces, relayed as they are onto the big screen above the stage, as the cameraman follows this jester’s every move. Actual lions are trussed up in a faux-jungle landscape just across the concourse. We drink our beers quickly, find a food hall of sorts, eat pizza, and then get the hell out of there.
The more time you spend wandering around Las Vegas the more apparent its seediness becomes. It’s not the kitsch aspects that strike you – that's blatantly apparent the moment you arrive – but its grimy underbelly. Flyers for strip joints lay scattered all about you, groups of drunken kids make a racket, anybody and everybody whoops around the blackjack table. Many of the smaller casinos which open up onto the street offer bottled beer for a dollar, or free vodka slush puppies – anything to get you through their door.
We each buy a large can of beer from a supermarket and wander down the main drag, drinking them openly – you couldn't do that in San Francisco. We pass the most audacious fountain display you will ever see (this is Lake Bellagio). We stand there and watch this aquatic revue go through its routine at least three times. This is Vegas all over. There is nothing inherently impressive about what you are seeing aside from its scale, but  that is enough, and we stand there transfixed.
After walking for another mile or so, we give in and dive into a random casino. Max gets stuck into a game of roulette while I pick up the free drinks. When Max decides to attend to the calling of nature I deputise for him and, without knowing what the hell I'm doing, win him 20 dollars in the process.
Next up is Gilley’s, which promises naked mud wrestling. By the time we've entered this dubious spectacle is over, but we stay anyway because the beer is cheap. We’re exhausted so don’t take full advantage of this, but as with the night before we make some effort to keep things going back at our motel.


Tuesday, 16 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 10







I'm up early. I take advantage of the fact and write a few postcards, post them, and look around town for a travel agent. It has been decided that it makes good sense for Nathan and I to fly back from Las Vegas to San Francisco, as opposed to riding a bus. It is for the same reason that we deigned not to drive from straight from Yosemite to Las Vegas: Death Valley stands in our way (there may be a way around it but it would be a long an arduous passage and we don’t have the time). I find a travel agent, make enquiries and then walk back to the hotel to confirm these arrangements with Nathan. The flight will cost us a little over $90 each, to be paid for on my credit card.
            Back at the motel and my hangover is starting to kick in. The others are in a similar state of befuddlement and to exacerbate matters it is shaping up to be another very hot day. We return our keys and climb aboard The Beast, which is almost on fire, but then realise we’re missing something. Where’s our liquor? What did we do with our stash? Who had it last? Flashbacks to the night before, in our room where we carried on partying until the early hours. A picture forms in my mind, a revelation that we placed our cache in one of the drawers for safekeeping. The owner of the motel has since gone to lunch, so we plead with one of the cleaners to let us back into our room so we can search for what it is we have left behind. She acquiesces, and after much frantic searching we finally find what we’re looking for.
            By the time we've returned to the travel agents I'm feeling really rather sick. The lady who takes my booking is very helpful, which makes me all the more aware of how awful I must appear. If she can smell last night’s booze, she does a good job of not letting on, but the whole procedure takes far too long. I find myself distracted by the waste paper basket down by the side of the desk, possibly because I can envisage using it for something entirely inappropriate.

The local mart, somewhere near the slip road that will take us onto the Cabrillo Highway, is a wonderful place to be. It is a large supermarket with plenty of room for manoeuvre, is air-conditioned, has a comprehensive selection of potato chips, fruits and soft drinks that shall make our journey that little more comfortable. Needless to say, we’re running late.
“Think I'll pack it in, and buy a pick-up, take it down to L.A. Find a place to call my own, and try to fix up, start a brand new day,” sings Neil Young, as we kick things off with his album Harvest. We don’t actually know where we’re travelling to, it very much depends on how much mileage our sole driver, Nathan, thinks he can handle. He’s already warned us that he doesn't really fancy driving another 250 plus miles (it was just under 200 from San Francisco to Yosemite) but will see how he feels. At the very least, we would like to make it as far as Bakersfield, although Santa Barbara would be preferable. (There’s not really very much between them but at the time we imagined Bakersfield to be a lot closer.) If we’re really pushed then there’s always Santa Maria, although that would leave us with a very long haul to Vegas. But hey, we've got an open-top car and miles of Pacific road ahead of us, which is something to savour.
It's a great old drive. Refractions of light flicker off the Pacific Ocean blue, and the sun warms us the whole way. The Byrds, The Beatles and The Beach Boys provide our soundtrack: it’s as if heaven has fallen upon the earth in the form of the open road and the right sort of music. We stop somewhere to eat and ask Nathan how he’s holding up. Not too badly – he likes the winding roads because they keep him focussed. We are making good time so we decide to press on as far as Santa Barbara.
The last 50 or so miles, after Highway 1/the Cabrillo Highway peels off from its coast-hugging tract, aren't quite so much fun. At one point the road takes us into a depression and a horrible mist descends upon us, freezing us to our bones. We've had no reason to put the roof up and now it’s too late to do anything about it. But we actually make our destination before it is dark, and find a motel – opposite Pershing Park – without too much bother, and are standing on the waterfront in time to watch the sun set.






We know that tomorrow is going to be the hardest day’s driving yet – something like 350 miles, bypassing Los Angeles and then on through the Mojave Desert toward Las Vegas – so we’re going to have an early night. In the meantime there’s enough left of the day to see a little of what Santa Barbara is all about. Just as soon as we've washed our smalls in the sink – laundry has become problematic.
We find an Irish bar somewhere on or off State Street. We consume French-fries and force down a beer. It must be getting to us because nobody’s suggesting we eat anything more than this (although it’s probably no more than three hours since we stopped off for lunch on the drive down). We try another bar – possibly the Wildcat on Ortega – which is a slight improvement. A couple of more beers later and the consensus is that we’ll call it a day.
Charlie and I are talking our way down State Street, and Max and Nathan are following behind doing the same. “Charlie, James!” They have stopped following behind. A bar has been observed that shows some potential, called ‘Qs’ or something. I am wary, as is Charlie, but we defer to the wishes of our driver, who’s on the lookout for bars with a high female body count. Not that he has designs on following up on anything, but he’d at least like to take a look.
The place is heaving. It’s a ‘student night’, and students in America – and especially Santa Barbara, it appears – can afford to drink whenever they want. There is a yard out back which is even busier. We engage with the locals and people keep going to the bar and it gets quite messy and we don’t leave until quite late. When we finally do, Charlie suddenly recedes into the night, Max is seen chasing two girls down the high street, Nathan is stuffing his face with the food he’s found from somewhere, and I'm doing press-ups on the side-walk. It has been agreed we need to be up for eight in the morning.


Monday, 15 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 9







I have slept well, and maybe even made inroads into the sleep deficit that has been building up over the past week. If it wasn’t for Nathan I might have gotten completely on top of it. He’s been very active this morning, doing nothing much in particular, exiting then entering the room again and fiddling with the curtains in a concerted effort to get us all out of bed. Resistance is futile, so I commandeer the shower before the thought occurs to either Max or Charlie.
            I can see the thinking behind Nathan’s provocation. What a place to find oneself. Yosemite National Park is truly beautiful, the sun is shining and there air is pure – an opportunity not to be missed. Bring on breakfast.
            The ‘Three Brothers’ baguette is the culinary highlight of my trip thus far. We all indulge but each employ subtle variations on the theme, such is the nature of the Three Brothers experience. The numerical value of this delight refers to the three meats involved: ham, salami and pepperoni. You can then choose your style of bread, the salad contents, the sort of cheese you’d like, and your condiments. This, coupled with a cup of coffee, is the perfect way to start a day playing in the great outdoors.
            We estimate that we have about three hours to spare to survey our environment. It has been decided that our next destination shall be Monterey, a distance of over 250 miles and something like 5 hours away. In terms of getting closer to Las Vegas this journey will not make massive inroads. However, it should be a more pleasant driving experience, taking us toward Big Sur and along the Pacific coast thereafter, before we are then required to head inland in the direction of Vegas itself.
            It’s the perfect time of year to visit Yosemite. Our difficulty in procuring lodgings the previous night had nothing to do with an influx of visitors: there simply weren't the rooms ready and waiting. Fresh snow lies piled up against the side of the roads, proof that Curry Village is still in the process of preparing itself for the tourists that are sure to descend before the month’s end. We are to be freed from the commercial permutations that would ordinarily tarnish this most tranquil of settings, and only occasionally pass visitors on our three hour hike through the valley.
            It would be nice to stay another night. In hindsight, we should have left San Francisco a day earlier – maybe even two. As it stands, we need to have the car back in Vegas for Wednesday, and it is now Monday. There is no margin for spontaneity.
Before we leave there is the small matter of ‘gas’ to deal with. It can be procured locally but is slightly frowned upon: it is kept mainly for the vehicles that tend the area. We are made very aware of this by the local garage attendant who goes on to explain that the price of petrol is significantly higher than it would ordinarily be – hence the warning signs on the drive in – to deter people from buying it here. But we’re on holiday and couldn't really care less about this extra expense; we’re just relieved we can buy enough fuel to get us on our way. Moreover, compared to the cost of such things back in our own country this elevated tariff still seems rather reasonable, as evinced by the manner in which Max deals out the dollar bills. Our nonchalance is not lost on the attendant and he appears slightly irritated that his lecture as fallen on such indifferent ears. (We’re only permitted enough petrol to get us on the road and as far as the next gas station, where we will stop and fill our tank to its brim.)






We’re on the road again. We don’t necessarily want to be, but we are. It is a long drive through pleasant countryside, pretty uneventful save for an innocent encounter with a policeman curious to know what we’re doing pulled over by the roadside about two hours south-west of Yosemite. “Are you okay boys? I'm curious to know why you’re pulled up by the roadside here, in the middle of nowhere,” says the grey-haired, moustachioed gentleman of the law. “Just stretching our legs, officer.”
In fact, we've stopped for a cigarette break and to reorganise the contents of our boot, which is mostly filled with crates of beer and things. It’s hard to tell if he minds, or whether our English accents nullify any latent suspicion, but he takes us at our word and is quickly on his way.
It’s an epic journey along Highway 140 and we pass through a number of faceless towns – Merced, Los Banos – stopping just the once to purchase victuals to tide us over. It is dark when we finally run into Monterey. After stopping off at roadside diner, we find a motel and then walk down to the quayside in search of somewhere to drink.
There doesn't seem to be much going on in Monterey tonight. The only bar displaying even a modicum of life is some English themed ‘pub’ down on the quay, which actually turns out to be quite animated. Copies of the satirical publication The Onion are pasted to the walls of the toilet, there is a wide selection of beers, and the locals are very communicative. We end up in conversation with a US Marine who thinks that, “Tony Blair’s got balls, man!” Despite his misplaced admiration for our Prime Minister, this military man is polite, articulate and good company.
Perhaps because we've spent much of the day sitting down, we find the time and the energy to get almost as drunk as we were in Delirium and stumble back through the empty streets of Monterey in high spirits.







Sunday, 14 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 8







Despite leaving Vesuvio at a relatively early hour, we spent some time socialising with the traveller types back at the Green Tortoise, and it left us feeling a little bit dazed and confused. In the morning, Charlie and I took refuge in the common room – with coffee, Gatorade and crisps – while Max and Nathan went to pick up the car.
            It was Sunday and Nathan and I would be returning on the following Friday via an as yet undetermined means of transportation. For Max and Charlie, there would be no coming back – Los Angeles would be their next destination, before they crossed from west to east for a final fling in New York City.

Max and Nathan pull up outside of the Green Tortoise in a silver Chrysler Sebring convertible. What vehicle is this? Not only could our contact at the car-hire plant be counted on for our erroneous exchange-rate based discount, but for a mere $100 in cash, he’s somehow allowed us to upgrade. The car that we were supposed to be hiring hadn’t really done it for Nathan and Max, but they were resigned to it anyway. Max had then observed the Chrysler being cleaned after being returned by its previous hirer and asked how much extra it would cost to charter this formidable beast. $100 apparently, which must be some sort of mistake – or a deal done on the side perhaps? Who cares, we've got just the thing in which to drive to Las Vegas.
            Our Chrysler Sebring – here on in referred to as ‘The Beast’ – has an external ambient temperature gauge, and it tells us it’s touching 30°C outside. Not that we notice: we've got the roof down, and the back-draft is keeping us cool.
            Within less than a mile of crossing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and we've taken a wrong turn – suddenly we’re in Oakland itself. The surrounding buildings are low-rise in aspect, which suggests we might be in some kind of down-town scenario. The sound of gospel music emanating from various churches also gives this impression. To the less religiously inclined denizens of Oakland, I fear we might look out of place – white skinned, driving a silver convertible with the sounds of the sixties blaring from its speakers. We think we know in which general direction we need to be travelling but we’re not presently driving in it. To rectify this we elect to take a U-turn in the nearest parking lot – the one occupied by a division of Afro-American youths in typical ‘street’ attire. Traffic lights then dictate we pause at its exit.
One of these youths saunters over. Is he armed, I think? Probably. What’s his gun of choice: a revolver, a shotgun, or something semi-automatic? I don’t mean to stereotype but my teenage years spent incessantly listening to Hip Hop has primed me for this.
            Sensing that we might be lost, the gentleman asks us if we need guidance. We tell him that we want to get back on Highway 580 and he duly obliges with directions. His council is both accurate and charmingly delivered, and the occupants of the shiny Sebring feel a mixture of relief and guilt; relief that we haven’t been mugged – or worse – and guilt for ever thinking that it might have been the case.
Oakland comfortably behind us and the topography starts to level out (around Tracy, possibly). To ensure an early start we skipped breakfast and are now in dire need of sustenance. We pull into a roadside Kentucky Fried Chicken and reaffirm with its employees that we’re heading in the right direction – the direction of Yosemite National Park. We are, and any residual uncertainty is obliterated by the military-like precision the proprietor of Kentucky brings to bear in sketching out the best route on our roadmap of California.
Contrary to global opinion, Americans are not as overbearingly arrogant as we sometimes perceive them to be. Indeed, they are a friendly people who like nothing more than to engage with those who have made the effort to come and wonder at their fair and pleasant land. They are proud of their country and appreciate its natural charm. As far as they’re concerned they’re simply telling it like it is. When an American says to you that Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth it’s not out of hubris, it’s because they genuinely believe this to be the case (even if they have never set a foot outside their own country).
When lunch is finished we visit the garage next door and stock up on much beer. This turns out to be a bizarre experience. The petrol station is run by a family who emigrated here from the UK. That in itself is not overly surprising (although, given the remoteness of our location, it is slightly). What really strikes us as weird is the fact that they’re from Hounslow. Nathan hails from Feltham, just down the road, and he, Max and I have all spent varying amounts of time renting accommodation in Hounslow itself. Nathan and I currently live in Isleworth, in fact, not 15 minutes walk from Hounslow Town Centre.
You’d have thought somebody had died. On being told of our residential circumstance, these economic migrants, who moved here for the sake of their children, so they tell us, are plunged into well of wistful nostalgia for the old country. They want to know everything current that’s going on in Hounslow and would probably be very willing to take us in for the night to hear all about it. “We’d love to stop and chat but we really must get a move on.” They make us promise to stop by on our return from Yosemite, and we don’t have the heart to tell them that we don’t yet know whether or not we’ll be coming back this way, and that the chances are we won’t. It’s scene of almost hysterical bathos.






As is the way with such things, when we finally start gaining some altitude the temperature begins to fall, so much so that we’re inclined to pull over to the side of the road and put the roof up on our air-conditioned beast.
Meanwhile, Nathan has asked us to keep an eye on the petrol gauge. We've been warned that refuelling facilities in Yosemite are scarce, and the journey is covering more ground than we anticipated. A sign is passed that states ominously ‘Last Chance for Gas’, but peering over at the gauge it looks like there's still a good half tank of petrol left. We can also sense it’s starting to get a bit dark and would like to reach our destination before nightfall.
But Nathan is concerned and wonders why none of us are similarly anxious. It finally dawns on him that Max, Charlie and I have erroneously been taking our fuel readings from the temperature gauge. We don’t quite run out of gas but it is dark when we arrive, and we’re lucky to find accommodation too. Indeed, we will all have to share a room, and within that room will have to share double beds.
There is a bus that makes the short journey to Yosemite Lodge – the only facility currently open where we can settle down for a meal and drink a few beers. It’s like a Wetherspoon pub on a Tuesday afternoon, but with a wider demographic. There’s no time to make a night of it and we’d rather be outside anyhow. We decide to walk back to Curry Village, where our lodgings are, to take in the serene delight of unadulterated night sky.
Depending on who you ask, bears are either not a threat at all or are very much a present danger and should be guarded against at all times. Such conflicting advice makes for just the right level of trepidation when walking back through Yosemite at 11:00 at night. We pause for a while in the woods to gain a fuller appreciation of our physical isolation. When we've had enough of that, Charlie and Nathan prepare for bed, while Max and I decide to drink another beer out on our veranda and wonder at a silence only occasionally disrupted by a distant thunder-like sound. We ponder this mysterious sonance for a while and theorise that it can only be the reverberations of huge slabs of winter ice crashing down scree ridden slopes. It is spring and the ice is melting.


Saturday, 13 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 7






Our last day in San Francisco – as a group, at least – and one of our number suggests walking up to the Golden Gate Bridge, that unmistakable icon which so defines this imperious city. Charlie’s out, we think on account of his hangover, although Max suggests he might be in need of his own company after over a month with very little of it.
The North Beach area of San Francisco looks out towards Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. The waterfront has a slightly faux-old world feel on one hand, and is a bit tacky on the other. But the area is clean and the air is fresh, which, combined with a few slices of pizza, sets us up nicely for our long walk to The Bridge. It’s about five miles in all, and we take rest in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts along the way.
On reaching the bridge we attempt to cross over it. I don’t like heights particularly, but I give it a go. Unfortunately I find myself consumed, quite literally, with a vertiginous sense of being off-balance and am forced to beat my retreat. Max and Nathan make it almost halfway before feeling slightly wobbly and decide on turning back themselves.

We fancy an air of sophistication tonight – no more spontaneous trips to Delirium. The consensus is to eat Italian, and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. Calamari, veal, bottles of fine wine, hunks of crusty bread dipped into olive oil and balsamic vinegar – it really hits the spot.
Satiated, we go for a couple of beers in Vesuvio, but we've had enough – for now – and we do the sensible thing and go home for an early night, our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to pick up that car without too much last-minute bother.






Friday, 12 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 6






Two consecutive nights of mild(ish) drinking have done wonders for my appetite, but it will take more than an Italian B.M.T.® to satiate me today. It is Nathan’s turn to feel jaded, so I spend about an hour alone in the common room, drinking coffee and stuffing my face with ‘Sea Salt & Malt Vinegar’ Kettle chips, waiting to see what the others feel like doing. Turns out that Max and Charlie are similarly voracious, and they’re also all very keen on taking a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).
            The weather’s still holding its own as we descend into the bowels of San Francisco, through Belden Place and toward Market Street, where all the high-street retailers and familiar fast-food outlets ply their trade. We hesitate ridiculously before settling for something we assume the locals might go for. We are not disappointed. The place resembles some pre-war hotel lobby, with high ceilings and shabby oil paintings. The clientele appear slightly downtrodden, the food is suitably greasy. And then off to the SFMOMA.
            I shan’t going into any great detail – the point of galleries and museums is to interact with them on a personal level – but the SFMOMA is worth the trip. The building itself is quite interesting, and the contents too. I was particularly impressed by Mark Rothko’s ‘No. 14’, a powerful canvas of blue and orange that sort of glows at you. Its impact surprised me, and when viewed from an angle it possesses the ability to disorient.






On our return to the hostel we discover the staff are laying on a free spread. It’s basic fare – a sort of vegetarian spaghetti bolognaise – but probably the most nutritional thing I’ve eaten all week. What’s more it’s free.
We then relocate to Vesuvio for the first drink of the day, followed by some random ‘Irish’ hostelry around the corner. Where next? We decide that we’ve probably exhausted ‘the strip’ on Broadway and so hail cab to take us to Haight-Ashbury to touch base with Mad Phil in the hope that he might provide us with inspiration.
It’s alarmingly quiet back at Haight – it is Friday – but Mad Phil’s female companion reckons that Lower Haight is where it’s all at. Another cab and... nothing. What was that woman talking about? We get chatting to an English bouncer, but he seems as nonplussed as we are. Oh well, there’s always Delirium. We wave down another cab, and when we arrive the place is jumping.
On Fridays a self-confessed Anglophile spins an eclectic mix of Punk, Garage and New Wave; he will even play ‘Terry Waite Sez’ by The Fall on my behest. It is here that I discover the joys of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers for the first time. Alongside that there’s a bit of DEVO, some Talking Heads, possibly Gang of Four, certainly The Cramps, some Sex Pistols too, and a load of other choice tunes wholly befitting of the environment. We proceed to get just as smashed as we were on our previous visit, Max narrowly avoiding a fight along the way. I’d tell you more about it if I could only remember.






Thursday, 11 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 5






Max and Charlie had stopped by the Green Tortoise on their way home last night to see if they might be better off joining me and Nathan there. They decided that they were, if only out of practical necessity, although I think they dug the vibe too. The plan from the outset had been to try and orchestrate some sort of road-trip, and such plans would be easier to formulate, and thus act upon, if we were all staying at the same location.
Max and Charlie’s American Odyssey was to last in excess of two months and would culminate in a trip to New York, from where they would fly home. They had already been to New Orleans, for Mardi Gras – were Max was briefly incarcerated for unspecified drunken behaviour – and had spent time in both Dallas and Houston. Now they were in San Francisco with us, as had been arranged, and there was the distinct possibility of them hooking up with more friends in L.A. in a couple of weeks’ time. It was inconceivable spending the whole fortnight in San Francisco, and we had vague ideas of driving to Las Vegas anyway.
Besides all of that, the Green Tortoise was cheaper than their Mission digs. Max and Charlie, by all accounts, were already facing financial difficulties, so it made good sense.

Our friends arrive and we gather in the common room to devise plans. Everything is dependent on us being able to hire a vehicle. If we can then we’d like to be on the road before Sunday. We contrive a number of possible routes, scribbled down in the back pages of whatever book it is Nathan’s reading (it was something old and with a nautical theme about it). The most logical outcome that presents itself is to finish up in Las Vegas, from where Charlie and Max can catch a bus to Los Angeles and Nathan and I can do the same back to San Francisco, or maybe even fly. In-between, we can make a stop in Yosemite National Park, and maybe Bakersfield or Barstow. All this is dependent on us finding somewhere that allows us to hire a car where the driver doesn't have to be signatory, for it has materialised that Charlie doesn't drive either. To this end we exploit the free internet facilities at the Green Tortoise and make a speculative on-line booking at an establishment fairly near to us. The next step is for two of us – Max and Nathan volunteer – to follow up on our booking and see if it reaps any reward.
            In the meantime Charlie’s feeling a bit weary and I'm feeling very hungry. I welcome the return of my appetite because it’s been stifled of late on account of the excessive drinking we've been doing. I decide to tag along with Nathan and Max for a while so I can get some pictures of them hanging about Chinatown – it’s a suitable location for doing this – and then find a Subway, whilst they proceed with the mission in hand. It doesn't take long to find a Subway and it does the job. I then wander aimlessly about the area for an hour, before returning to the Green Tortoise with nothing particular in mind.
            Charlie’s in the common room and feels rejuvenated, so much so that he’s up for a drink. There’s no sign of Max or Nathan so I take him to Café Greco, although I opt for a coffee rather than a beer.
            Back at the Green Tortoise and Nathan and Max have cautious cause for optimism. Not only do they think we've found somewhere that will take cash but they suspect there’s been some sort of financial confusion that could well work in our favour. As British subjects, we declared ourselves as such when making our on-line reservation. Because of this, when Max and Nathan had shown up at the car-hire establishment and quoted the on-line booking reference, the amount we were to be charged was listed on the company’s on-line booking system in pounds, rather than dollars. But this wasn't realised by whoever it was who dealt with my colleagues, probably on account of them turning up in person. So as it stands not only have we secured a vehicle but it is to be charged for at just over half the amount it’s supposed to be. Nothing has been signed or paid for yet so we will need to wait and see if this guy’s credulity can be relied upon. Whatever the outcome we have procured a vehicle, and it’s a weight off all our shoulders.






Nathan is convinced that there must be some sort of classier scene than the one found on Broadway and Mission, so we decide to walk down to the Financial District and mix it up with the city folk. We try Harrington’s, which showed potential when Nathan and I stopped by there yesterday, but it’s not really happening. We order some food regardless – a couple of plates of putrefied chicken wings between us – and then hail a cab to take us some place else.
We’d picked up a flyer in Delirium for a club that is supposed to play sixties tunes, but when we get there the place is completely lacking in atmosphere or patronage. We command our taxi to proceed to SoMa (South of Market) instead. I don’t know how or why, but I think we end up in the Tenderloin (the two districts border each other). Wherever we are exactly, it feels much more ‘downtown’ than Dolores or Haight-Ashbury, although this could purely be down to the time of day. Certainly, there’s rough and readiness to the surrounding infrastructure, although the bar we end up drinking in seems sophisticated enough: exposed concrete walls, red lighting, an array of cocktails on offer.
But it’s still not really happening for us and we end up retreating early to the Green Tortoise common room, listening to music, interacting with the guests and the people who work there, and drinking take-outs from the local liquor store.

Wednesday, 10 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 4







I would have rather awoke at the Astoria. Instead, I find myself in an eight-man dormitory, hot, bothered, hungover. Then I remember that I am camera-less and the means by which I can retrieve my Lomo LC-A has been facilitated by me being here.
            I don’t mind hostels actually, and have generally found the standard of cleanliness in them to be of a reasonably high standard. This is most welcome when one needs to go about the business of laving and evacuating, which after last night’s carousing is at the top of my list of things to do. I notify Nathan of my intentions and we agree to reconvene in the common room.
            When we booked into the Green Tortoise just yesterday I suppose we’d anticipated spending more time here than we did – I assumed we’d return from Haight-Ashbury, kick back for a bit, freshen up, and then go out again. This didn’t happen so now’s my chance to have a proper look around. Yes, I think I like it here: people sitting around reading, making their breakfast, drinking coffee, and smoking – it’s all very civilised.
            Despite last night’s roistering we had the presence of mind to arrange a time and meeting place with our Mission based buddies: 12:00 a.m. at the bottom end of Chinatown. Nathan and I are a little late, but nobody minds. We all look frightful, and feel it too. In this respect the shade of the Financial District is a good place to be; although it’s nice to feel the warmth of the sun, its glare is too severe right now.
I pick up a free local paper from one of those archetypally American street dispensaries in attempt to follow up on the seaside dispute we witnessed yesterday.

‘Deadly Gang Fight at Ocean Beach: An unusually steamy day at Ocean Beach turned deadly on Tuesday afternoon when a man was killed and another injured as gangs clashed at the parking lot between The Great Highway and the beach.
            Police received a 3 p.m. call that two men were hurt during a brawl between Fulton and Lincoln streets, at the Great Highway. When police arrived they found one victim dead and another wounded. It was still unclear whether the victims had been shot or stabbed…’

The article went on to describe the casualties as being Hispanic males aged between 20 and 25 years, but did not establish what might have been the cause of this altercation.

Charlie has with him a handheld digital camera and our crapulence does not stop us from making use of it, albeit in a frivolous and very random manner. Bored with the tall buildings and the lack of anywhere appetising to eat, we decide to walk up to Fisherman’s Wharf. My hangover’s a stubborn little malady so I buy myself some grilled prawns, while the others indulge in the greasiest fare they can find.
            After pondering over the sea lions and a possible trip to Alcatraz, we concur that it’s probably time to go and pick up my camera. I offer to do so alone but everyone is very supportive, although they don’t very much fancy the bus ride. No bother, we’ll get a cab.
            The taxi driver is a friendly kind of guy, real talkative. We tell him how pleasantly surprised we are by the weather and he tells us it’s real unusual for it to be so hot at this time of year. “It’s real unusual for it to be hot like this at this time of the year,” he tells us. “Any of you guys play golf?” The taxi driver has been to Scotland, like many golf-loving Americans are want do, and he loved it there – the whiskey especially.
            And talking of booze, we may as well pause for a drink while we’re here. For starters, we need to thank the people at Delirium for holding onto my camera. That aside, it is only way we’re ever going to get shot of our hangovers. We stay for two and then go our separate ways.
On the walk back Nathan and I stop off in a thrift store (which I vow to return to but never do), then for a quick drink in a place called Harrington’s (a faux-Irish bar in the Financial district), and finally for something to eat, in McDonalds of all places, which will do for our dinner.






The ensuing night is a relatively quiet one. Max and Charlie come to meet us in the Italian Quarter, we take them to Vesuvio and then Fuse before acquainting ourselves with a few other bars along the strip. They don’t seem to offer much in the way of entertainment, these other bars, but maybe that’s because it’s the middle of the week.
The highlight of the evening is being gate-crashed by some large fellow whose opening gambit is: “It’s 1972 and I’m with John Lennon,” in a cinema apparently, although he doesn’t really expand on this. Next he asks Max if he’s related to Keith Moon, whilst simultaneously handing me a business card for some restaurant called La Flange. Shortly after he’s ejected from the establishment by the door staff, and then falls over comically on the sidewalk. Apparently he’s quite the pest around these parts.