Tuesday, 19 June 2012

I've Been Through the Desert on a Horse with No Name - Part 2

I’ve always felt that the first day on the road is always the best. The day feels like a lifetime, every hour like a year. When every stop for “gas” is an incredible new experience, every fleeting conversation a lifelong friendship, and every glimpse of the sunshine, the mountains or the open road is magnified so greatly that you can’t help but take it to the grave with you.

This was one of those days, when the freedom is overwhelming and the road promises infinite possibilities ahead.

I took the 15 to Barstow, the road edged with golden hills.

The cars gradually thinned out.

At one point, cresting a valley, I watched a freight train snaking off into the mountains, the tops of its carriages shining silver in the desert sun. It must’ve been hundreds of carriages long and in my mind it seemed it would stretch from one end of England to the other. But this wasn’t England. It was the “Wild West”.

I was trying to stay true to historic Route 66 and followed a few “Business Loops” that claimed to be parts of it, but I quickly realised this was a futile endeavour. These roads had less in common with old 66 than the freeway they leached off of. Nothing but red lights and stop signs; exhaust fumes and useless tat, I decided that the best way to replicate my Route 66 fantasies was to get back on the open road. Sometimes you have to accept that history is history. Things end, people die and the world is always changing. I buried Route 66 for a while. Besides, there’s nothing I hate more than red lights.

I turned onto the 40, while most of the traffic continued on the 15 to Las Vegas. A sign said “Wilmington, North Carolina – 2554 Miles”. The 40 crosses pretty much the entire continent, so I was surprised to see that right now it was just a two-laner, with nothing but the occasional cross-country trucker to pass. I’d never known traffic (or the lack of it) like this back home. For long stretches of miles at a time it was just me and the bike out there.

The road rolled out, straight as a rule, into the horizon. I would strain my eyes to fix on something far ahead, a pylon perhaps, wavering in the heat, and then try to measure the distance. Forty kilometres later I would pass that lonesome pylon and fix on another. For the first time in my life, I realised, there wasn’t anything obstructing my sight except its own fallacies and limitations, and the curvature of the earth. The road was there, up ahead, I just couldn’t see it all.

Tiny mountains in the distance promised a different landscape to come, but they were still a long way away. The appeared blue for the hundreds of miles of sky between them and I.

There were times when the road appeared to be flooded, but the tarmac unfolded before me as always, the silver sheen dispersing before I arrived at it. The heat plays tricks with your mind, and these are the kinds of optical illusions that led ancient travellers to their doom.

The further I rode from the coastal climate of LA, the hotter and drier it got. The hot winds made my forehead ache and I stopped often to swig from the canteen. It made me laugh that I was just going to carry a little plastic bottle with some water in it. David was right, it would have melted and boiled away by now. I’d pull over amidst the parched earth and check the map. Beneath the unchecked sun, amidst the enormous expanse of sky and the silent landscape, I felt a million miles away from society. I kicked dust. I gazed in all directions. I let my mind wander. The distant rattle of a rattle snake, or was it some kind of cricket, and the soft rustling of dry grasses began to come through the silence. It’s strange thing loneliness. It can come on you in the biggest cities in the world, when you’re crammed in an elevator, a queue, stuck in traffic. But out here, when you realise you don’t have to impress anybody or anything like that, loneliness is the last thing on your mind. I was really happy.

God I’ve done a lot of thinking today. I’ve seen a lot of blown out tyres too. That’s another thing you rarely see in England.

Back on the road, moving on again as always, I caught sight of an oasis ahead. A mirage? In the middle of the desert sat the town of Needles, which appeared to be made up of green fields and emanating a blue glow. As I got closer I saw it wasn’t a mirage, but the Colorado River, brilliantly blue and marking the border between California and Arizona. There was a marina. Jet Skis raced up and down. It was unreal. Perhaps it was still a mirage.

Next I got off at Topock, onto what I was about to discover is the faithful heart of Route 66. The road to Oatman was the most beautiful I’d ever ridden. The bright blue sky is broken by the sharp line of the mountains, whose soft purple hue slopes and blends into browns, yellows and greens. You get a sense of the way the world is made. You feel it’s age, something I’d never felt before in England. Here, the earth is laid open, bare. It is nature. Pure and harsh. Incomprehensibly  complex yet somehow also the simplest thing in the world.

With scorched face and parched mouth I rode on.

The road twists into the rocky hills and you begin to come upon slowly rusting vehicles, collapsed shacks, “burros” standing idle in the road, holding up traffic. Then you’re in Oatman – a little old gold rush town all dried up but for tourists. There were plenty of other cycles in town and I wondered what it would be like after dark when the old saloons came alive. To its credit, for a tourist attraction Oatman hadn’t lost much of its authenticity or ghost-town charm at all. But I guess being in the middle of the desert’ll do that.

On the way out of Oatman there were none of the tight hairpins that had made the road in so invigorating, but this was a blessing though, as it meant I could put some miles behind me, feel the breeze on my face, and enjoy the long sweeping bends.

It was about now I realised I was no-longer carrying the bag of snacks Lee’s girlfriend had packed for me. It must be sitting out in the desert somewhere.

There didn’t seem to be anything too exciting to do in Kingman, Arizona and Tourist Information was just closing, but the guy strongly recommended Williams. I saw Mr D’s – one of the few authentic diners still on 66 (I’d seen it on TV sometime) – and got a bite there before setting out again. Once again the road was all but empty. My shadow struck out before me like an arrow; deadly straight and the proof, if I needed any, that I was heading directly East.

The road passes through the Hualapai Indian Reservation, where I stopped and picked up a postcard with all the Indian Nations on a map for 27c. The moment you cross into the reservation there is greenery in abundance. This is most likely a coincidence, as the closer you get to Flagstaff generally, the more trees there are, but at the time it struck me as notable.

I fuelled up in Seligman and made Williams by sunset. I found a campsite and got the tent up before it got to dark. It was about one and a half miles to “downtown” but I thought I’d take a short cut along the side road to avoid walking on the highway in pitch dark…except that the side road seemed to be leading away and what I thought was a joining road into town was actually a train track and what I thought was the town was actually a line of empty train carriages, waiting idly under lamps. In the middle of nowhere I cut along a dirt track towards the trains, crossed two train tracks, scaled a slope of rubble, negotiated two more tracks, descended into an irrigation trench only to emerge on the other side and find myself in town. Like I said…shortcut.

There was some live music playing somewhere and a horse drawn cart just like the guy in Kingman had promised. I went in a bar, ordered a beer and was about to start writing about the day when I got caught up talking to this guy:

“The GRAND CANYON! The COLORS! The first time, I saw it, I CRIED! THAT’s something.” At first I thought he’d got heat stroke in the Canyon and then had one too many beers, but it was soon clear that he was crazy. I’m no stranger to people like this. I seem to attract them somehow. Maybe it’s to be expected riding a motorcycle around in the small town American night. Sometimes I catch myself being one of them.

This guy was here by himself, from Detroit (which he hated because of the “GANGS and the DRUGS and the IMMIGRANTS!”) and wanted me to know how the Canyon had changed him. “I went BACK [waves hand wildly in the air] to the SAME PLACES! That I went before, and I WALKed like a MAN, where before I’d crawled like a WORM! THAT’S SOMETHING. That Canyon CHANGED ME! I mean I cried the first time I saw it. I actually CRIED!” At this he did actually start to cry and I don’t think it was about the Canyon. He wished it had changed him, because he was so unhappy with who he was. But unfortunately for him, there are no such quick fixes in this life. His Canyon experience would never help him, because he was lying to himself.

I was in there listening to him for hours, with the barmaid – “Barbs” – laughing at me all the while. I just sat there, listening like a sap while he wouldn’t let me get a word in edgeways, too polite or something to tell him what he actually needed to hear. That’s always the way in this world – it’s the people in the most need of friends who have the personalities that drive them away.

In the end I decided I’d had enough of crazies for one night and wanted my precious loneliness back. I paid up and left.

The walk back along the highway took no time at all.

Everything has to come to an end sooner or later, and today was no exception. Exhausted and exhilarated, I lay down in the tent. In sleep my brain would frantically strive to make sense of all these new memories and experiences, to organise them, chronologically and categorically, so that upon waking up I’d be a changed man, thinking rationally once again. Tomorrow it would hit home that this was my life for the immediate future, but for now, as I drifted off, I allowed myself to enjoy the confusion and the chaos.

It’s the few days like these that make life worth living.

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