Thursday, 19 July 2012

I've Been through the Desert on a Horse with No Name - Part 3

As I crashed down onto the creaky motel bed I felt a million worlds away from the Californian coast, where I’d been staying for almost two weeks and which I'd left behind me only two days before. (Little did I know that it would be a year until I’d stop anywhere for that long again).

I lay face up on the bed, almost paralysed with fatigue and listening to the endless freight trains go screaming by in the New Mexico night. Like wailing banshees, the sound seems to get under your skin, into your head.

Then silence.

Just the desert winds. And the thoughts in my head. I wondered if I could go on like this; riding incessantly for months, taking in so much, on the back of a motorcycle, alone. After everything I wrote yesterday, I’m already starting to crave company. I have friends out here in the States – we were all together in Japan – and I find my mind bending more and more towards them, wherever they are on the other side of this desert.

I’m in Gallup. This motel cost me $20 (an offer I wouldn’t find again for a very long time…which says everything about Gallup that you need to know for the moment).


This morning I broke camp at 11 after a terrible night’s sleep and got fuel and breakfast at the Iron Horse Saloon (I’d seen it the night before and the name had wrung some distant bell in my memory. Some old biker had once recommended it to me, but who?)(It wasn’t until I reached the east Coast that I came across the Iron Horse Saloon at Ormond Beach and all became clear.)

On the TV above the bar, Fox News told us that Mexico was planning to sue the state of Arizona for their new immigration law. The barmaid was nice enough but it was too early in the morning for a racist spill. I heard a guy say “we need to get Obama out! He’s not doin’ anythin’ good for this country” to a round of consent.

I took the 64 up to Mather’s Point through the scorched plains. When I got to the Grand Canyon I had to admit that my crazy friend from last night had a point. Despite all my cynicism about tourist attractions, the Canyon really was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. As with all such things, the initial shock soon wears off as your understanding of the world changes a little to include this amazing new thing, but I never could have got it without seeing it for myself. I mean, when somebody says “oh, there’s a canyon in America that’s over a mile deep” that’s just words. But when you get there and stand on the edge and look into the abyss, it finally becomes real – something these words, or a Google image, could never replicate.

I walked some of the Rim Trail then sat and contemplated it from a precarious ledge that jutted out,  with nothing beneath it for hundreds of feet, and seemed to stare out to the other side. Some things are just worth $12.

The 180 to Flagstaff is an impressive road. The Kaibab forest gives way to the even greater Coconing Forest, where great, ancient firs tower high on either side of the road, which twists and turns towards a patch of mountains. At first the bends took me off guard as I’d gotten used to roads that ran straight as a needle for hundreds of miles, but soon I was taking great pleasure in the experience of throwing myself into the rolling bends. (Months later, in Canada, I would have this conversation with fellow motorcyclist and author, Ted Bishop, who admitted the same phenomenon in his book, Riding with Rilke. He told me he actually thought he’d forgotten how to lean the bike and turn a corner. It’s one of those things you have to do to understand.)

The road reaches an elevation of 8046 (feet above sea-level, I suppose) which explained the welcome cool air.

Shortly after Flagstaff, old 66 more or less disappears for good (little stretches of it curl all the way to Chicago) and you’re forced back onto the 40. By now the landscape had flattened out completely into sandy yellow plains stretching out to the horizon. I’d heard about this modern day ghost town called Two Guns but had just about given up on finding it out here in the open expanse when I saw an exit for it.

I came off the freeway and there it was: “2 Guns”…a real ghost town! I parked up in the middle of the street, because there was no way anyone else was coming through here anytime soon. I took a look around. There were a few buildings, half built then deserted, then trashed. A gas station that had been torn apart, the floor littered with broken glass, truck tires, pieces of the plaster-board wall, empty, upturned cabinets. Under the desert sun I took a stroll up the dust track. There was even a swimming pool, empty of water, full of shit and covered in graffiti. It would have made a nice skate bowl, I thought, and I’m sure at one time it did. This might explain the graffiti and the damage. But who had been here? I looked around the desert. Hundreds of miles with nothing on the horizon but plains of dust. Kids from the reservation or some nearby AZ city must’ve driven up here, perhaps. Whoever they were, there was no sign of them now.
I took shelter from the sun in one of the buildings. Huge holes torn out of the walls blazed white and made everything inside difficult to see. Boards and broken glass crunched underfoot. Buckled sheets of tin echoed out into the desert.

Still, the 40 didn’t seem like a bad place to put a gas station, especially this section – there certainly wasn’t any competition. So what happened? Why did they just stop building? Whatever the case, I guess I’d never find out. I got back on the bike and rode off.

(Okay, just wikipedia’d it. Two Guns was originally Canyon Diablo, a notorious railroad stop that began life as the end of the road. When a bridge was found to be too small for the canyon, the building of the railroad was delayed by several months. In this time a town sprang up, but with no lawmen around, it quickly became a lawless place – a stopping point for outlaws, prostitutes and the like. Its main street – named "Hell Street" instead – soon consisted of two eateries, a grocery store, a dry goods store, an 14 saloons, 10 gambling houses and 4 brothels. There were also tents, temporary shelters and “shotgun houses”. The first marshal was sworn in at 3pm and buried 8pm the same day. Five more followed. None lasted more than a month. All died by violent means. Within the decade the makeshift cemetery had 35 graves – all gunfighters and the like. Herman Wolfe, a trading post owner, was the first to die of natural means and his grave (no. 36) can still be seen. Obviously I missed that. Wow! Now that’s Wild West! The town soon fell into decline and boasted little more than a Navajo trading post until the building of Route 66 when Two Guns was born. However, as we know, Two Guns soon suffered the same fate. I guess it’s a fated spot…the middle of the desert.)

I came off the 40 again at Winslow, AZ to get my photo taken (badly) at the “Standin’ on a Corner…” Corner. It was just too bright. A team of workmen on the crossroads were constantly sweeping and blowing the sand out of the street. I was starting to feel weak, so when I got to Holbrook I stopped for some much needed food and water in Joe and Angies. They have a giant mural on their outside wall depicting a map of Route 66, but then, so do a lot of places on 66.

“The Mother Road”

“America’s Main Street”

Anyhow, they do some fine Mexican food. I was so hungry I devoured the complimentary basket of tortilla chips, despite the hot sauce burning hell out of my mouth. I pounded ice-cold water after water, followed by a delicious meal of enchiladas…and a pot sour cream to cool off my tongue afterwards.

In a gas station I saw a sign for Native American dancing…tonight, so I asked the attendant about it. Turned out it was in a little park just across the street so I decided to stay and watch it.

I was the footwork that interested me. The shawls fanned out in the wind to the intoxicating beat of the drums. The dancers cast long shadows across the grass as the sun set behind the trees. A girl of 17 danced a beautiful healing dance. An old guy dressed in the traditional Northern dress, covered with feathers and skins, performed a warrior’s dance. Then they all formed a circle and all the onlookers joined in a friendship dance.

It was about this time that I decided to make a move.

I rode in the darkness for a hundred miles until I reached Gallup. A cold wind would hit sporadically, sending chills through my body. The night sky came down over the great expanse like the lid of a tired eye. I knew the desert was still out there. I just couldn’t see it. If I thought the desert could be lonely and desolate by day, I hadn’t begun to comprehend what it would feel like by night.

I arrived just before midnight and rode down the mainstreet looking for a cheap motel. All the places seemed to be owned by Natives and I found one as cheap as 20 bucks. So that’s where I stayed, eating my first Sonic (I was in New Mexico now).

…I lay face up on the bed, almost paralysed with fatigue and listening to the endless freight trains go screaming by in the New Mexico night. Like wailing banshees, the sound seems to get under your skin, into your head.

Then silence.

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