Leave the coast for the Wild West.
Yeah, yeah, the California coast, the surf, the hip, the long clean beaches, the San Diego corner then a bit congested and obviously clean, we’re really out to see the other America, the west, the south-western deserts, the spit and whistle, where nobody goes, where the coyotes duck and the roadrunners run down their prey, watch out for tarantulas and rattlesnakes, we want grasp the open spaces of America, stay away from hip vogue breweries, overpriced fish and chips, we now want greasy cheap burgers, where pure Bud Light is an old cowboy’s only libido.
After the Belly-Up, still in Solana, the Star Bucks, mornings while I try so many times without success to reboot my computer and figure whether I need a new machine straight away; I mean it has been a shattered piece of crap ever since it came down with the cart in Rome... I force the nerd inside back in its genie bottle and we drive slightly north then east the 78. The Wild West starts immediately. We keep going, past Julian, sun sets early at 5 while we shop in Borrego Springs, Rosarita refried beans from the can to be had cold, Salsa Mexicana, Guacamole, Extra Sharp Tillamook Cheddar Cheese, pickled jalapenos and corn tortillas, they had run out of flour ones; our staples now that we’re in the West...
In the US I am finally on my first desert drive, in lime light the scarce vegetation, cactus and scrub and some near-by ridge rush by, slow down, I want to see this, we camp soon after, a sandy track right, slightly up-hill; how I wish I had my Mercedes van, the Chevy van is called gladiator, but not for its off-road capabilities.
So there we have our desert meal, Christina prepares her famous cold tortilla rolls/wraps; the Rosarita bean spread is the thing; nutritious, healthy, between delicious and cat food, the trick is to toss in hot jalapenos peppers, fools the brain. The Rosarita beans would remain on the daily menu, also a delight with nacho chips, but never again without a beer, a beer really just helps. We talk till 10, are up at 6 before sunrise, we climb the stony slopes of the hill to the east while slowly the ball of fire goes up, sheds light on the scrub and ocotillo around, a huge rabbit seeks flight in the very last moment.
The desert is revealed in all its beauty, I am stunned, also anticipate what might come, can’t wait to enter Joshua Tree.
So what is the American West? Is it where the cross-roads paper cup coffee becomes really watery, even the extra-caffeine complemented brands?
We have passed the first desert plateau, dropped down on Salton City, the salt lake below sea level greets with a lot of haze, reminds of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. Another junction, and there is Mecca, California, even the names now become strange, yes reminds me that I would want to see Bagdad, Arizona, "Out of Rosenheim/Bagdad Cafe" (wiki) one of those never forget movies play there, love the sound track too.
This is the West, desolate, abandoned, hot, and glistering! Who knows where the road leads us too. Orocopia Mountains Wilderness says a sign, rugged, dramatic; the San Andreas Fault runs through here somewhere, shaped the mounts around, when is the next earth quake?
Shortly after we enter Joshua Tree National Park.
In 1987 I was back after almost 3 months in the Syrian desert; my second such experience after 3 months in Algeria’s Hassi Messaoud the year before, I had worked as an equipment operator for Weatherford an American oil service company. 1987 came out the album of the albums, U2’s The Joshua Tree. Till date after listening 1000 times, its magic has not worn off.
"And you give yourself away" – With or Without You, U2, The Joshua Tree (wiki).
It is also as I remember it this, U2’s, coming to terms with America, a reason also why I am here, resolve a love/hate ambivalence in the face of some rubbish love-it-or-leave-it disseminations. In a lifetime everybody has to make this journey, find/discover America for himself.
Joshua Tree is a plant (wiki), Yucca brevifolia, a Yucca palm, Joshua Tree is also the name of the National Park which comprises two distinct ecosystems, the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert (wiki). Joshua Trees grow in the higher, slightly drier and cooler Mojave Desert, Cholla Cactus grow in the Colorado Desert, so simple.
We are glad this is already winter time, summers must be hellish hot here, so in the morning opt for a short hike up Ryan mountain, the view amazes, the haze though sets in quickly. Before midday a short drive spills us out at the north-western edge of the park and we drop down to Palm Springs - for lunch and who knows what we expected here, Chinese food cheap, simple and delicious in the late heat of the basin and we climb back up north. Well yes, Palm Springs is almost as interesting as watching TV.
On the edge of the Mojave desert, a Marine and hippie story.
In collaboration with Christina
We reach Twentynine Palms, evening falls, this is Wednesday 17th, we find the only pub, a billiard and music/dj/mc pub, over 4 Sierra Nevadas we talk to two Marines, 29 Palms is home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, the largest base of this kind (wiki).
It happens when the music is loud and we escape to the darker, a bit quieter area in the back. The only free table is alongside the one where two young men sit, in their twenties, military style haircuts, lager in hand. We say hello, and sure enough, they are Marines.
Where we’re from they ask? The music is still loud and I can’t get that. Christina kind of does the whole talking, replies Austria and Ecuador. "Are there many blacks in Austria?" I am not getting it and Christina has difficulties hearing, he repeats "are there many niggers in Austria?" she is taken aback by his remark, refuses the answer, baffled, manages a "Yes, of course there are." "Well, we are full of them in Texas… lazy ass robbers," he says and after a while, "we are Marines, been to Afghanistan and Iraq." Christina finds her speech, "So there are no blacks in the Marine Corps, or what? You have a problem with skin color?" "There are!" he pauses, a strained look on his face. It’s their night-out; one of them goes to get some shots - for them. We share names, though we forget theirs quickly, they probably ours, one is from Colorado, let’s call him Ryan and he has decided to re-enlist, the other, call him Andrew, from Texas.
Andrew boasts "I joined the Marines to learn how to kill someone, I like to kill people" wryly he smiles, he’s now decided to get paid big bucks to keep on doing what he knows best, fly drones for a private company in Iraq or Afghanistan. "The best job I could ask for, 2 months on, 2 months off." There is an awkward silence. "So what was it like?" Christina asks. "Well, Afghanistan was a lot harder than Iraq which was fucking easy man in comparison. But we shouldn't even be in Afghanistan. They don't need us there. They can manage without us and you may not believe this, but Taliban really care for their people. Karzai is corrupt and his brother is the biggest drug lord in the country." "Oh - really, was that after he became president?" naively asked. "No, for decades before!"
I get more S. Nevada Pale Ales for us; when I come back the subject has changed to US constitution, history and politics and of course the right to bear fire arms (Second Amendment, Bill of Rights). I am astounded about especially the Texan’s pretty good knowledge in certain areas. Of course, he believes it is right. "Texas is the only state that can constitutionally secede from the nation, and if it does, I’ll be there to defend her. Washington is so disconnected from what is going on!"
And then he really starts "here people are afraid of guns, when I put a gun on the table people shriek; unloaded and the fools shriek" - a pause for us and him, "in Texas all is different; in Texas you can carry an assault rifle without even a registration." And a bit later Ryan adds "In the end, it really doesn't matter if you register a gun or not. Only fools get caught." "Why?" we ask again, in the clouds "Well, if you really want to kill someone you just change the barrel and no one can trace you. You can purchase a barrel anywhere, no trace what so ever." This is getting sick.
Changing subject Christina tells them she was also once living in hard conditions, when she joined the Peace Corps, slept in a Berber house, no heating in winter. Andrew looks at Ryan, and Ryan looks at Andrew, and under his breath she hears him say "She's a fucking hippie!" Ryan goes to the bar, comes back; then argues with Andrew "what do you want with them? They’re fucking idiots".
For our last beer we sit alone, someone’s turned up the music; we cannot understand our own words anymore, are tired anyway and head back to the truck. I am not so irritated, care just so much, what talk can I expect with men trained to kill? They weren’t just repeating official shit, rather have developed their own thoughts on world politics, the course of the US, they weren’t stupid. Christina’s head though keeps turning a lot longer; here she met two very dangerous men, who have killed and fought in wars, who know how to kill without feeling remorse, who ironically fly under the radar of any kind of surveillance/patriot act, spying or no fly list.
The next day I cut my hair – is pure coincidence, I swear, had planned that for a while, I mean we are planning Las Vegas soon, but Christina just can’t hold back hinting that I cut it just like the Marines, that I am undergoing some kind of unconscious male bonding?!? Anyway, I agree with them on one thing, she is a freaking hippie... and yes even if I was American I would never join the Peace Corps, but this is another story.
We leave 29Palms, drive the Mojave desert, its desolation and beauty, America’s incarnation of holy vastness and expanse, roads go damn straight till the horizon, past salt lakes in the basins, past the wasted shoes art installation near Roy’s Café on Route 66, past Kelso dunes and ghost town turned tourist attraction, past Dumont dunes when sun sets to Shoshone where we enter Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley (wiki, NP-site), this is what I always wanted to do. Up a range and down into the basin of Badwater, the depression is America's hottest, driest and lowest point, reaches 86m below sea level, baking hot, beyond 50°C in summer. A pair of coyote meat us as we turn around a corner, not shy at all they seem to be waiting here for "clients". Later we walk the Golden Canyon Trail, in its back there is a cliff named Red Cathedral, some late light diffused by the strong haze lights up the rocks and marbles and brings out the golden. Night in Furnace Creek.
Next morning we leave the depression and the basin at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells we go west take the Emigrant Canyon Road, climb up to Aguereberry Point (1960m) then to Wildrose, past the charcoal kilns to Mahogany Flat (2479m) the Badwater depression is deep below, the ranges that surround the basins are islands of life in the desert, with forests and mammals, I spot a male dear, again not shy at all. The altitude at this time of the year makes it freezing cold, chilly strong winds blow in dark snow clouds, if winter and heavy snowstorms catch us here we might get stuck for days, I think and we drive down the Panamint Ranges, then light comes out before sunset. Night in Panamint Springs.
We take further west up the ranges and down to Lone Pine, we are now so really close to the US’s highest point outside Alaska, Mt. Whitney, it’s is all snow and cold and clouds around here, all roads to the north require chains. I would never want to go into snow with the G20 van. It starts snowing again as we turn back to Death Valley, in our back black clouds fall down the slopes of the great Mt. Whitney. This is how it is, the snow falls where the ranges tower high, no precipitation ever reaches the Death Valley. Back in Death Valley, all is desert dry and sunny, a beautiful day for a late walk in the Mosaic Canyon, narrow washed out marble cliffs rise high before the gorge opens to an arena of red and golden cliffs. A crow circles high, we sit down till sun disappears behind the rim.
The day is not over, we pass the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the haze from two days ago is gone, we drive a bit north on Scotty’s Castle Road, follow the Death Valley, the slopes remind me of Cappadocia in Turkey, earlier this year. Then, when a full moon goes up we leave the NP for Nevada, the Silver State and an altogether different adventure.
Las Vegas, baby!
Enter Nevada, the world has changed. In puritan America now Shady Lady Finger, Angel Lady Range lure the unaware, whatever these particular places are, maybe not exactly, or maybe a funny place for a drink but not this time, brothels are perfectly legal in the countryside in Nevada. In Beatty I get a first impression of what shabby country casino hotels look like, badly dressed men, tennis shoes, smoking huge cigars, out of the movies with cowboy hat and all, just cling to the slot machine and keep smoking. The all plastic tiny buffet section stashed in the back tells you face it man you don’t come for food here.
A mile down the road more central Sourdough Saloon serves cheap burgers. At the bar we sit in between the town’s old folk, all have the obligatory Bud Light bottle in front, all man wear cowboy or baseball hats, the ladies are between 45 and 80, most drag on their cigarettes as if we’re still in the 70s. Time stood still here a long time ago, the drafts are all out of order, the bottled beer selection is impressive, Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Light, Coors, Coors Light, Rolling Rock, Sam Adams Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Fat Tire Amber. Sam Adams Lager will do for me and my fatty burger; prices have dropped to a half since the Death Valley tourist traps.
Further south is Las Vegas, VEGAS BABY! If you’ve never been here, you must come, to experience the surreal, the Disneyworld for adults. We eat well in the outskirts where a thriving Asian community lives, works and eats: Pho Little Saigon, Krung Siam Kung Fu and others. Vietnamese, Thai every day, always freshly cooked in fresh spices and herbs, healthy vegetables and tender meat. Why is American cuisine all Burgers (the one thing I love), greasy pizza, macaroni and cheese (sounds too horrible for me who refuses pasta in Italy)? Glad we found this all-Asian corner of Las Vegas.
There is a Starbucks near-by, to do some work during the day. This is the 24th of November, one month to go till Christmas. They have started playing Christmas Carols right after Thanks Giving, the Starbucks employees still can sing along Bing Crosby and John Lennon; what will it be like in two weeks time? So this is Christmas!
At night, yes at night we wander the casino route, from one to the other, playing pennies on slot machines. Drinks are free, while you sit and play, we figured that out quickly, drink and play and some days we drink for free, earning back what we lose. Hey this is Vegas Baby, VEGAS BABY!