Thankfully the grunts and moans from next door had stopped by the time I took to the porch for my early morning cigarette, but they were soon superseded by something even more intrusive and disturbing.
The silence was broken by a whirring klaxon, of the sort that I had only ever heard before on WWII films during air raids. My initial reaction was to worry that it had something to do with “America’s New War”.
My fears were soon abated by some action that looked like a color version of a Charlie Chaplin film. An old man, dressed in shorts, sandals and a T-shirt, came running as fast as he could – his legs were going like the clappers but he was only moving about the speed that I walk – across the car park.
He scurried over to a yellow truck on the far side of the lot opposite where I was smoking and proceeded to pull hoses, Wellington boots, and all sorts of other stuff out of the cab. He then took his sandals off and struggled to pull a pair of big rubber trousers over his shorts. It looked like something off the Generation Game. Then he yanked a pair of wellies on and tore off his jumper. On the back of his T-shirt, it read “San Juan County Fire Fighters”.
After he’d collected up most of the stuff and thrown it into the cab he roared off in the truck, which turned out to be a fire engine. He got to the road and had to reverse back. He’d left some hoses on the bonnet of one of the cars near to where he’d got changed. When I went in for breakfast I learned from the woman on reception that there had been a storm in the night and a bolt of lightning had hit an oil terminal near to Aneth.
The fire had been spotted by some kids on a passing school bus that morning, and was still raging. All fire hands in the county had been called to the scene. She explained carefully to me that the way they had to deal with the situation was to smother the flames with foam. You could have blown me down with a feather.
I had to drive through Aneth on my way out to Colorado, but I couldn’t see anything by the time I got there. Ten miles down the road I was entering Colorado, and five after that I was technically back in New Mexico. I didn’t take this as breaking my re-entering a state rule as it was the only way to visit the Four Corners Monument. It’s the one place in America where four different states meet, but to get there you had to approach from either Arizona or Colorado and the entrance itself was in New Mexico. There was a physical spot where the intersection was adjudged to be located and it was positioned on a small dais next to which was a raised pulpit for taking photos.
I did all the usual stuff. I put my hand and then my backside on the spot, just to make sure that my body had been in all four states at one time. I took several pictures and then I walked around the dais through all four states. I was parked in New Mexico but there were market stalls in Utah and Arizona.
It was still early on and the traders from the Ute Reservation were only just setting up shop, but there were some interesting hand-made knick-knacks to look at. I would have liked to buy one of the bows and some of the flint-tipped arrows, but I expected that in the current climate I might have had difficulty persuading security to let me on the aeroplane home with them.
It transpired that George W was now showing an 84% approval rating in the polls, the fourth highest score ever behind FDR, Harry Truman and his father. The three higher scores had all been achieved at times of military conflict. Everyone had happily forgotten that he’d spent 42% of the first six months of his Presidency on vacation.
The road took me into Colorado proper and the deep red barren wilderness gave way to the greens, yellows and reds of the mountains in late summer bloom. I followed the highway to Cortez, a town clearly showing signs of Native American influence and reverence for whomever it was who’d invented the pedestrian crossing.
A sign in a gas station forecourt suggested that Pepsi was stepping up the pressure in its battle with Coke. It appeared to have trademarked the line “The joy of cola”. Eh? Maybe they’d run a competition to come up with the most shit slogan imaginable and this had been the winner. I’m no copywriter but even I thought I could beat that. How about “It’s fizzy and tastes quite nice” or “Pepsi. So good I ate the can”? It was hard to believe some people made a living doing that stuff.
By the time I reached Ouray, it had started to rain. I wandered up and down the street and most places were shut. A sign in one window read “Closed for reflection. Hope to open later this week.” I needed to change some Travellers’ Checks and so I went to the Citizens’ State Bank, only to find it teeming with old people.
They were gathered round a table by the tills, drinking tea and eating cake. I stood at the back, assuming that at least some of them must have been waiting to be served (although they formed more of a huddle than a queue), and dreading the prospect of tea drinking and cake eating as a compulsory preliminary to doing business.
It soon became clear that none of them were there for anything other than what they could put in their mouths, and so I approached the till. The woman seemed quite taken aback that someone wanted to carry out a banking transaction. Despite the fact that I was clearly disconcerted, the woman didn’t throw any light on what was going on. Perhaps it was just part of their standard pensioner customer service programme.
It was a shame not to have met anyone who was up for a chat. In the new atmosphere that pervaded since September 11th, conversations had come more easily. Everyone had discovered a renewed sense of common cause, a communion that even strangers were invited to join in. The participation of outsiders could give affirmation to the sound reasoning at the foundation of the emotional turmoil that was being felt. I had just been unlucky to have hit Ouray on Citizens’ Cake Morning.
There was little to do or see on the road apart from drinking in the mountain scenery. A combination of the temperature at those altitudes and the continuing rain meant that I wasn’t keen to stop and get out of the car much.
The discussion on the radio turned to the subject of US culpability. The point being made was that arguably since 1948, and certainly since 1967, the US had been running the Middle East after the fashion of a colony, and therefore had provoked the recent attacks from a subjugated sovereign people who just wanted to assert their autonomy. It ran against most of what I had heard to date, but at least that argument was being considered.
The worst time to arrive in an American provincial town by yourself is 5.30 pm. It’s the dead hour when all the shops have closed and nothing has yet opened for the evening. I pulled into Salida at 5.29 pm. My guidebook had made it sound idyllic: turn-of-the-century, snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear streams, wildflower-covered slopes, bright yellow aspens etc but it seemed nowhere near that Elysian.
It wasn’t helped by the drizzle, but it reminded me of Wednesday afternoons where I grew up, when everything shut early. I went to recce some of the B&Bs suggested in the book. One of them didn’t look like it was still in business and the only other one I could find looked desperate. From the street I could see through the large plate glass window into the lounge where five or six old people were staring gormlessly into space. It appeared to be a hospice for the terminally ill.
I took a northern loop up via Johnson Village. I fancied visiting Cripple Creek, supposedly a real Wild West mining town, but it involved a gamble. It was 18 miles off the main highway and, literally, on the road to nowhere. Daringly, I steeled myself and turned right at Florissant. The road was narrow, poorly maintained and there was no light from anywhere apart from the several oncoming vehicles that I met along the way. It was very heavy going and, by the time I got towards the end of it I was far from keen to attempt a return journey that night.
Every hotel in town appeared to be a casino. It was like Las Vegas without the style. The first two places I tried were just casinos, despite the word “hotel” above their entrances. In the third place, I asked one of the punters and was directed to the reception at the back where I learned that they had a room for $110. I asked if there were any cheaper options in town and was directed over the road.
This place at least had a separate entrance at the side of the casino. I pressed the bell marked “hotel” and a woman’s voice came over the speaker and told me to hold on. After a couple of minutes, she opened the door wearing a dressing gown and slippers. She said she had a room for $54, but that she “didn’t take no credit cards”. I asked if she took Travellers’ Checks. No. Cash only. I thanked her and went on my way.
My one last hope was the nearby town of Victor. I knew nothing of the place, apart from the fact that its only onward connection to civilization was down an unpaved mountain road that was treacherous in daytime let alone after dark. It was effectively a town at the end of a 25-mile dead end road.
No lights could be seen in the windows of any of the buildings in the street that I first drove up. I didn’t take this as a good sign and so I was very relieved to see an arrow with the word “hotel” at the fourth corner. The place it referred to was imaginatively called the Victor Hotel, and looked enormous. It was beyond belief that it could ever be full in a town like this. The annual total of visitors probably struggled to get in to double figures.
Inside there was little sign of life. I saw one man who asked me what I wanted and when I told him I needed a room, scurried up the stairs in panic. Some minutes later, I heard a gruff voice coming down the corridor. He seemed angry about something and greeted me brusquely. He was a large man, but not fat in the American sense. His face was round with a small moustache and he was bald on top.
As soon as I spoke, he asked me what part of England I was from. His accent was non-American and when I asked him the same question, he said he came originally from Yugoslavia. He asked me whether I liked soccer. I said that I did and he told me that he used to play for Red Star Beograd when he was in the army. He was called Pavel but he didn’t give me his surname, so I had no way of investigating whether he was bullshitting.
He told me that he had lived in America for fifteen years and then returned to Europe. He claimed to have lived and worked in every country in the European Union. He’d returned to the US six years ago and bought this hotel, which seemed an extraordinary thing to have done from a whole number of perspectives.
More than twenty years living in this country had not done much for his spoken English. I asked him whether there was anything in town that would still be open and he reassured me that there were lots. He suggested that I went to a bar that was just across the road and pointed through the window at it.
As soon as I had been given my room key, he was off again. He called back down the corridor that I was an interesting young man and he looked forward to having a good conversation with me over breakfast the next morning.
My room was on the top floor and was large and breezy. The windows ran almost the entire height of the room, but only had blinds on the lower portion and these were blowing in the draught. I sat on the bed and thought it was going to collapse. It squeaked with every slight movement. I checked under it to find legs that were made of bamboo not much thicker than a pencil. The bathroom was bereft of towels. I had noticed a linen cupboard down the corridor, so I went and fetched my own. There was something very Marie Celeste about this whole deal.
It was time to go and investigate the “lots” going on in town that Pavel had referred to. The bar across the road was appropriately named It’s Some Place Else.
Inside was particularly dingy, with eight or nine locals either playing pool or listening to the jukebox. The barmaid was a stunning beauty and seemed out of place in this joint. I surmised her name was Laura. At the bar were three women, less good looking but all with perfectly manicured painted nails and waist-length hair. A teenager was watching TV by herself. She was the only person in there under the age of thirty.
The loud music didn’t help any prospective conversation, but I was occasionally able to earwig the women to my left. They weren’t saying much, but I managed to catch Laura talking about some people who had come down from Denver and had been surprised to find out that they did have schools in Victor. Not much love was lost for these city slickers.
At the end of the bar was the kitchen area, which looked more suited for changing the oil of a car than for preparing food for human consumption. Laura chopped up an onion, dropped half of it on the floor and then threw it in the pot regardless. No doubt she had a pair of redneck underpants through which to strain it before serving. A scrap of grubby paper was taped to a pillar by the bar, optimistically proclaiming “Goulash and a roll. $4.95 while it lasts”.
The vat into which the soiled ingredients kept on getting chucked was more like a cauldron, and probably could have fed the 5000. In the three hours that I was in the bar, I didn’t see anyone eat a mouthful of food, but perhaps they were expecting a rush after midnight. I was nowhere near hungry enough to order anything myself.
I was running low on cigarettes and asked Laura if they sold them. She apologized that they only had GPC. I said that I’d try a pack. They were incredible. Forget nicotine patches or hypnotherapy, anyone wanting to give up smoking should try a couple of these. On the first drag you can feel your temples pulsate. On the second, your skull and thoracic cavity feel as if they’ve been filled with a thick, acidic soup. And less than sixty seconds later you are left with an overwhelming nausea that dizzies you into a stupor. I’ve never known anything like it, and had to put the cigarette out after those first couple of puffs.
One of the pool players came over to put his arm round his girl and squelched her left bosom. He was an odd-looking character who didn’t subscribe to the usual American obsession with dental health. Either that, or he was practising early for Hallowe’en. This guy didn’t just have English teeth, he had Greek teeth.
He’d just put a record on the jukebox and wanted to dance. He’d had a few beers and was swaying, and the girls were laughing at him. When That’s Amore came on the jukebox, he staggered over and put his arm around me and asked if I’d seen the film Moonstruck.
I nodded apprehensively and he went over to put another track on. I don’t know if it was from the film also, but I couldn’t remember ever hearing it before. He came over to me and asked me if I’d sing along with him. I had to confess that I didn’t know the words.
Just as I was leaving, three or four guys had turned up to swell the numbers. Each was wearing an oversized Stetson. As I got up from my stool, I could hear them begin a conversation about the Middle East. They were musing about the inevitable victory and what it would be like “owning a country” on the other side of the world.
Back in the hotel, the juddering windows and the squeaking bedstead ensured that I was still awake some time later when everyone finally left the bar. The sounds of retching suggested that, even in Victor, at least one person had had a very good night.