Day 24. WY/UT: Armageddon, cigarettes, teasing barmaids, exposed underwear

by Kevin May

There was no way that I’d have found my way back to civilization by myself, so I followed John’s car when he left for work. I gratefully gasped in my first cigarette for over 14 hours, for some reason being careful to hold it below the level of the windscreen so that John didn’t see it and disapprove of me.

Suddenly he lurched into a lay-by and jumped out of the car. He came running back to me and said we were about to pass a spot where there had been a forest fire and that he’d flash his hazards and I should look left. That would be nice, I coughed, blowing smoke into his face.

The hazards flashed at the appropriate time and I saw the charred line along the mountainside where the fire had reached. Five minutes later, at some lights, John’s door opened and he stuck his turned-around head out. I wound down my window in time to hear him shout “Osprey” at me. I looked in the sky and couldn’t see a thing. Perhaps it was some sort of curious Masonic farewell greeting or something, because at the next turning he disappeared and I was on my own.

The discussion on the radio was about how long it was going to be until even affectionate jokes could be made at the expense of New York City again. Someone said that the city needed that, and America needed NYC to be like that. It was like a loud-mouthed and boisterous uncle or brother-in-law who had been laid low. However much he got on your nerves, there was a yearning to see him bounce back to being his former bumptious self. It was certainly preferable to him remaining the shadow of the former person that you once knew.

As it was, nobody was making any jokes. It seemed that everyone was trying to leave the city instead. One guy said that if he owned a car then he would be gone. It was only the difficulty of hiring a vehicle or getting hold of a train ticket that had kept him in the Big Apple.

One of the things that had been bothering me most since the events of September 11th was the tendency of the radio’s religious broadcasters to interpret them as somehow related to biblical apocalypses. This was accompanied by a nigh on smugness of the “I told you so” variety – as if what had happened were the natural and divinely ordained consequence of the moral disorder in the country – and even a slight hint of celebration that the age of the Final Order was at last about to be ushered in.

To my mind, there was indeed a connection between apocalyptic literature and these events but not quite the one that many people seemed to be making. The earliest apocalypses could be dated to the period around the Exile of Israel in the Old Testament era. At the time, there had been two prevailing views of God among the Jews, one that saw Him as the perfectly just and supreme ruler of the whole universe, and another which saw Him in a reciprocal relationship with Israel where He was their (local) God and they were His righteous and chosen people.

Until the crisis of the Exile, the incompatibility of these two views had never been an issue. In the wake of the disaster that the Exile to Babylon proved to be, the notion of righteous suffering to be followed by vindication (as part of a pre-ordained divine plan) emerged to provide some of the answer to the reality of defeat for a people who believed themselves to enjoy sacrosanct favor and protection from the Almighty.

The relevance of all this to the present situation was (it could be argued) that America pre-September 11th had a similar view of its position in the world to the one held by pre-Exilic Israel. The USA viewed itself as pre-eminent in the known world (now even including reaches beyond this planet) and sincerely believed that this was, if not by divine ordination, then at least as a result of being most good and most right. The corollary of this perception of pre-eminence was an expectation of inviolability.

The dissolution of such an illusion required an explanation in the minds of ordinary people, and you could see that happening all over the place. Whether it was President Bush telling the country that it was because the terrorists hated freedom, or Michael Savage blaming it on liberal intellectuals, or zealous preachers talking about adultery and abortion, or just the man in the street deciding that he now hated all people of Asian origin, it was the same thing. It was a clutching at straws to make sense of nasty events in one’s own terms rather than from the perspective of the perpetrators. And that’s precisely what apocalyptic literature did also.

It was only a half-baked theory, but I was soon to have the chance to test it out. Approaching Grover, I pulled off at the Star Valley rest area for a break. I took the opportunity to reorganize the growing chaos in my trunk and, as I was sorting through the mayhem, a woman came up to me and asked if I were a traveler.

Glancing around to see how many permanent residents of the rest area there were, I said that I was but that it was a rather grandiose way of putting it. She laughed and introduced herself as Cindy. Although she was pleasant enough, five minutes of banality later it had reached the stage in the conversation where I just wanted to say goodbye and be left alone.

She obviously sensed this and pulled a copy of The Watchtower and Awake! from her handbag. Having more than a passing familiarity with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I beat her to the punch and said that I was already quite au fait with these publications and didn’t really want them. It didn’t mean to be as rude as it probably sounded, but I pointed out that I had quite enough junk in my car as it was.

Without breaking her smile, she checked that I was sure, especially in the light of the recent events, which showed that what they had been saying for a long while was now coming true. It was at this point that I felt obliged to outline my particular theory, which I finished off by telling her that I’d been to Armageddon – the Mount of Megiddo – and that it was about the size of two football pitches.

I had no idea what effect my sermon had on her as she remained smiling throughout. Something happened though because at the end of my speech, she downgraded her offer of two magazines for one much smaller leaflet entitled Life in a Peaceful New World. It seemed almost ironic that on the day when I was steeling myself to enter the Mormon state of Utah that I got nabbed unawares by a Jehovah’s Witness. Still, it had given me the chance to practice reciting my piece for when the inevitable missionary assaults came my way over the next day or two.

What had the promise of an intelligent discussion was taking place on the radio. A calm voice seemed at last to be putting things into proper perspective: “The problem here is not with Islam, or Arabs or people of color. This is not a war on Islam. It is not even a war on terrorism. It’s a war on fanaticism.” I found myself nodding at the perspicacity. The same voice continued: “And the sooner that people realize that all fanaticism that is not founded in Holy Scripture is wrong, the better.” Cut to furrowing of brow and shaking of head in disbelief.

My route was taking me dangerously close to the Idaho state line, but my map clearly showed that WY 89 cut south to US 30 before we got there. I passed a sign saying “Welcome to Idaho”, and then something about potatoes. I was horrified, but it was at that point that I realized that I was going to attempt to complete the trip. I was back to being bothered about petty ephemera like not re-entering the same state twice. It took me less than 3 miles and five minutes to be back in Wyoming, and for that entire time I only looked east so as to see as little as possible of my unplanned visit.

John had suggested stopping in Kemmerer, because it was where the first ever J C Penney store could be found. Indeed it was one of the first things that I saw as I pulled into town. There was a place called As You Like It opposite with tables outside, at one of which a bloke was sat reading a paper and smoking a cigarette.

I got out of the car and went to have a look to check that it was a café. I asked the smoker if it was open and whether they were serving lunch. He smiled and said that yes he was, and then added that he’d not expected that accent when he’d seen the Carolina plates.

Over soup, he introduced himself as Richard and told me that there were three things worth knowing about Kemmerer. The first was the J C Penney thing, the second was that it had the largest working open face coal mine in the US and the third was that it was the fossil fish capital of the world. I told him that I hadn’t known either of these two latter points.

An old man came in and had some soup (it was the only thing on the menu). He started talking about September 11th but said little beyond bemoaning how terrible it all was and how there would be no short, sharp resolution. He reckoned ten years would be a conservative estimate.

Meanwhile, the owner was rummaging around behind the counter and when I went to pay he produced a carrier bag and gave it to me. He told me that it contained a J C Penney mug, a lump of coal and a piece of fossil fish. The cumulative value of these presents may not have been much, but it was more than the four bucks that my lunch had cost and it was one of the sweetest gestures that I had come across so far anywhere.

An important thing to know about Mormons is that they don’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. In fact, I don’t think they smoke anything. I figured that I might need to stock up on booze and cigs before I reached Utah, where I was due to endure two nights.

There was still Evanston to  go before I reached the state line, and the size of type on my map suggested that it was a town of some substance. This proved not to be the case, and I drove around looking for an off license but to no avail. I even tried the pharmacy but ended up with nothing but some gift-wrap and sticky tape. It looked like I was going to have to make my three remaining beers and 18 cigarettes last through both Saturday and Sunday night. It promised to be a riot.

Dejected I hit the Interstate and headed west. Five miles over the state line, a huge warehouse loomed up on the opposite side of the road. Red letters on its roof proudly declared “Utah State Liquor Store”. It was impossible to cross over to it, and I wasn’t sure whether this was some sort of concession to visitors like the dollar shops in pre-1989 Eastern Europe. But at least it meant that it was theoretically possible to get a drink in the Mormon state.

I pulled off at a gas station at the Park City exit and filled up. To my overwhelming joy, when I went to pay I found not the usual supermarket but a temple to alcohol and nicotine. Apart from taking payment for gas, all they seemed to sell was booze and smokes. Magic. I bought enough of each to have seen Peter Cook through a fortnight and went happily on my way.

I had no details of anywhere to stay in Park City, so it was good for once to be arriving early enough to catch the Visitors’ Center before it closed. As I got out of the car, I heard and felt a rip in my nether regions. My capacious (by British standards) buttocks had worn through my short-trousers leaving my undergarments visible to any Mormon who happened to be passing.

I wasn’t sure whether kecks-exposure was against Utahn law, but I wasn’t prepared to take the chance. I hurriedly grabbed a sweatshirt from the boot and tied it around my waist, giving temporary relief to my embarrassment.

The Washington School Inn had an (expensive) room, which I reserved. It was less than five minutes down the road and right in the middle of town. Once settled, I went for a walk to size up the place, see what souvenirs were on offer and get some new shorts.

It was another rich and fashionable town. Apart from the Mormon Family Welcome Center and the man walking down the road with an owl on his shoulder, there was nothing to mark it out as any different.

With newly purchased shorts, I returned to the hotel to make the most of the luxury that I’d shelled out for. I washed some socks and T-shirts in the basin, cracked open a can of beer and gazed at the space atop the cabinet where the TV might have been if the room had had one. Of course, it was a no smoking room but that didn’t really matter. I was getting well used to such restrictions. To spice things up, I wrapped some presents instead.

Although the town boasted a number of bars and pubs they were all open only to members, which seemed to fly in the face of the very concept of pub. I asked the man on the door at one of them whether there was anywhere that the general public could get a drink and he explained that anyone could go into any bar provided they joined.  At that particular establishment, which curiously was called The Bar with No Name, guest membership was available for $5 for the evening.

There were two striking and unusual things about the inside of the bar, specifically about the people there. Firstly, they were all very young and very beautiful. Secondly, they were all very inebriated. In my experience to date, both these things were very hard to find in America, at least in the same place. It was also the first time since Tuesday that I had heard people laughing.

Wandering barmaids were plying drinks on anyone who hesitated even for a moment. These girls were disturbing Lolita characters, with long blonde hair, full make up, and birth certificates from the late 1980s. Their clothing was modest in volume if not in style, leaving very little to the imagination.

They wafted up and coquettishly whispered invitations for more beer in your ear. I was on my third pint without even thinking. I thought of taking a photo of one of them, but concluded that I’d probably be arrested when I got back and took the film in to Boots to be developed.

So far, Utah had stymied all my expectations of it. For the good of my blood pressure, I decided to go and get something to eat. Even though it was Saturday night, most places were closing by the time I got there. I finally found somewhere called the Claim Jumper Restaurant, which was above the Claim Jumper Pub (private members only).

They were about to close, but offered me a seat and served me hurriedly. Within twenty minutes, I was out on the porch having a cigarette and watching the numerous drunks staggering up and down the hill. My waitress had shown signs of no religious inclinations beyond Trappism and, when no invitation to be admitted to the pub after the meal was forthcoming, neither was a tip from me.

As I walked down on to the street, a woman in front of me stopped and looked at me. She was mid-thirties, with cropped peroxided hair and under her coat she was wearing one of those dresses with buttons all the way up the front. Most of the buttons had come undone, giving full view to her black knicks and bra but she seemed largely oblivious to this. In fact, she seemed largely oblivious to most things, and after a further moment’s hesitation continued her high-heeled stagger down the hill past me.

Swedish people have a bad reputation in Denmark for being drunkards. They have strict alcohol laws in Sweden but when they come over to Copenhagen they go for it and, being unaccustomed to booze, get out of control very quickly. I could only assume that a similar thing was happening here, and that Park City was some sort of oasis in the alcohol desert of the surrounding state.

Whatever the explanation, it was an odd feeling going to bed in America knowing that I was one of the most sober people in town.

Half way there. Cumulative mileage: 9597

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