Day 15. AZ: baking, blistering, baffling, bruising

by Kevin May

I was effectively still on Mountain Time and so had little difficulty getting straight up when my wristwatch alarm sounded at 7.40 am. I went downstairs where the house was still silent, and sat down and read. Ten minutes later Adam and Rebecca appeared, not from their bedroom as I had expected, but bounding in through the back door. They had been for their morning run. They liked to do 7 or 8 miles at the beginning of each day explained Adam, in a way that suggested their daily exercise quota didn’t always stop there. The reason they went to bed no later than ten was because they liked to be up by five. His view on life was that the most productive hours of the day were between five and eleven in the morning. It was one philosophy I suppose, but more suited to the desert than it was to rain-swept Blighty.

Adam volunteered some friends of his in Jackson WY and Boston MA, with whom he was sure I could stay. I’d never met either of them, but it sounded great. I was learning that the biggest financial burden was accommodation and the biggest time burden was finding out where to go and how to meet people. Having somewhere already lined up to stay the night solved all these problems (witness the previous evening), and so the prospect of additional hosts had to be a bonus.

While Adam went to finish his preparations for a class he had at eleven, I reorganized all my baggage in the car. It was a mess and the newspapers in particular were starting to get all over the place. I borrowed (in a permanent kind of way) a cardboard box from the garage into which I stuck the papers, and cleared out another bag just for souvenirs. So far I had managed to get something distinctive from each state.

It was going to be another hot day. The gauge on the thermometer in the garden went up to 140°F and the mercury, albeit in direct sunlight, was already bursting out the top of it. Although the idea of wearing anything other than shorts seemed anathema at that point, I had come with only one pair of long trousers and wanted to get some jeans while I was still in cowboy country. Adam directed me to the Western Warehouse where I would be certain to be able to get hold of some ranching Wranglers, and I bade them farewell.

With my newly purchased jeans stowed safely in the back of my newly organized trunk, I was soon heading out of Tucson and west on the Ajo Way. The scenery was like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon. This was desert by terrain not just temperature. Everywhere was dirty yellow with very little sign of life beyond a few scrub bushes and a sea of cacti. These were not the same species as I’d seen elsewhere, they actually looked like the cacti of my childhood imaginings. They all had the central cylinder with arms that jutted out and turned upwards at right angles. They almost looked like an army of little green men flexing their biceps. Well, from a distance perhaps.

The wind was strong and was buffeting the car. It felt like there might be something wrong with the steering, as the car seemed to be pulling to the left. Although I didn’t know much about how cars worked, I did understand that such a pull could result in uneven tyre-wear, which in turn could result in blowouts. I didn’t much fancy this eventuality, especially out here in the desert, and just prayed that it was only the gale that was the source of the problem.

If the winds were causing me difficulties, the same couldn’t be said for the Native American I saw hitchhiking. With a nonchalance that could only be admired, he was standing on the side of the road thumbing a lift while simultaneously taking a piss. He wasn’t even being particularly discreet about it, and seemed to be relishing the play of his glistening yellow ticker-tape in the wind.

The most barren parts of the United States are good for little else than designation as Indian reservations, and so it came as little surprise when a sign told me that I was entering the Tohono O’Odham Nation a few miles before I reached Sells. I was intrigued about the next place on my itinerary, the curiously titled town of Why. Its name was substantially less of a mystery once I’d passed through it, a town of little point in the middle of nowhere.

The film-set experience continued when I arrived at Ajo and found an idyllic Mexican square with palm trees, all manner of shops and two restaurants. Unfortunately, one was closed for the summer – no reason given – and the other was being renovated. I pressed on to Gila Bend, which described itself as “home to 1700 friendly people and 5 old crabs”. The sun continued to blaze as I passed a sign instructing all cars to use headlights day and night. I soon appreciated the reason. It was so bright that the only way that you could spot oncoming traffic from any sort of distance was from the glimmer of the headlights. The rest of any car just got lost in the heat-haze.

The sunshine was also playing havoc with my hands. What had started as dryness had now developed into full-blown blisters, and it had reached the stage where I could barely bend any of my fingers. It had taken me a couple of days to figure out that the cause of this problem was the sun. I had been putting sun lotion on the exposed parts of my arms and legs, but it hadn’t occurred to me to put it on my fingers even though their position atop the steering wheel meant that they were exposed to a more constant stream of rays than any other part of me. The skin was now cracking and proving to be quite painful. I’d noticed that people I met had stopped offering to shake hands.

Around 6.30 pm, I reached the Californian state line and Parker. Well done. I wasn’t due to cross into the Golden State until the next day. Instead, I followed the Colorado River north. This was another rich part of the country and perched along the canyon edge – still evident at this stage of the river – were the weekend homes of the elite.

The scenery was more breathtaking stuff. My goal was Lake Havasu City, modern day home of the original London Bridge that was shipped over in the late 60s and reconstructed brick by brick. It had taken from 1968 until 1971 to complete the project. As suspected there was very little to the place apart from the bridge and the lake. The town itself was only founded in 1964.

Some cheap-looking motels lurked on the outskirts as I approached the bright lights of the town, but I wanted to venture in until I could see the bridge. I guessed it wouldn’t be difficult to find and it wasn’t. It ran from the mainland on to an island in the middle of the lake, and encrusted around the nearside end was a complex from Olde Englande with words on every sign suffixed by a gratuitously additional e or two.

I found a room at the Bridge View Motel and was soon checking in. As I walked from reception to my room, I noticed a couple cavorting in the outdoor pool. It looked as if they had no clothes on. Admittedly it was after dark, but it was only about 8.30 pm. I dumped my stuff, made a quick call to leave a message for my friend Bobby whom I was hoping to stay with in LA the next night, hid my wallet and passport, and decided to go and see the bridge.

On my way out, I went to check the pool. Yep. They were definitely naked, and it looked as if he was giving her some interesting swimming instruction. To get back to the complex, I had to walk across a dark and deserted stretch of unbuilt wasteland. The only light came from the fast food parking lot 400 yards yonder. It was the first time that I had felt consciously unsafe out on the streets, but I reached the other side after some pretty brisk walking.

The Visitors’ Center wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Tower of London. It was closed, but it led the way to the London Bridge Brewery. I went in and ordered a beer. It was a large place, with the capacity for certainly a couple of hundred people, but there were only about a dozen in that night and most of them were in the upstairs section. The barman was in his twenties and had a moustache and a mullet haircut. A thirty-something woman with the air of a failed country singer sat on a stool at the end of the bar. She looked as if she might be the barman’s girlfriend.

A plaque on the wall with the Arms of the City of London commemorated the opening of the bridge by the Lord Mayor, the alderman Sir Peter Studd, on 9th October 1971. It didn’t mention anything about him chortling to himself all the way back to Heathrow afterwards though. With a briefcase full of cash.

I tried to preoccupy myself with re-reading time and again the menu of the various beers brewed on site while I finished off my pint. Country woman asked me what I was drinking and I told her that I was on IPA. She said that she preferred the lager and promptly left to go to the bathroom. The barman asked where I was from and he looked neither surprised nor pleased when I told him. I got the impression that the folks of Lake Havasu get a bit pissed off with cocky Brits in general, and Londoners in particular, coming over and having a laugh at them and their bridge.

I wandered down to the lakeshore and under one of the arches of the bridge. I couldn’t figure out what it was but I had to admit there was something very English-feeling about this place. It wasn’t the number of curiosity shops or anything like that, but the architecture. For a place that was founded less than forty years ago, they had made a better stab at creating an authentic traditional English look than most towns of that era in England itself. I wanted to dislike the whole set up but instead I felt curiously warm towards it. Perhaps I was slowly becoming American.

To save myself the hike around by the main highway, I cut through a hotel and scrambled up a grassy bank to get to Slainee’s, a beer and food hostelry that I had passed earlier in the car. It was considerably more alive than the other joint, and was focused on serving the local population with a thick diet of sport. TV sets were everywhere, and pool tables and other games.

Near to me four blokes with bigger muscles in their arms than I had in my thighs were playing a kind of table football game, only it was based on ice hockey. It was intensely competitive and the upshot was that a fight broke out between two of them who were on the same (losing) side. In the general commotion the table itself got squashed and broken. Two employees came and carried the table away, very much looking as if they’d seen it all before. The muscle boys left, but not until after they’d finished their beers.

I was sat by the bar trying not to meet anyone’s eyeline and so focused on the TV. On one set in front of me was a game of baseball and on the other American football. I tried to follow what was going on, but with very little success. I nervously glanced around to see what else was happening and noticed a tennis match being played on a set just behind me. It was the men’s semi-final of the American Open. Glad to have found a sport that I understood, I craned my neck round and watched the closing moments of a very exciting match.

After a few minutes I had that uncomfortable sense that I was being stared at and saw that another table of beefcakes were gawping at me as if I were sick in the head. My aura of machismo would evidently have been better served if I’d been sitting there wearing make-up and women’s underwear, so I decided that it was time to leave. If I had to end up getting my head kicked in on this trip, I wanted it to be for doing something a touch more daring than “liking tennis”.

Back in my room, the light on my phone told me that I had a message, which I rang to retrieve. It wasn’t an automated voicemail system as I expected, but a live person who wanted to know what I wanted. I explained that I thought there was a message for me. “Oh yeah” he replied, “Bobby rang and said that he’d see you tomorrow”. There was something refreshing about the brevity, and it was a relief to know that I would have company and guidance for my night in America’s largest urban sprawl.