A 2001 drive around the 48 states in 48 days

Tag: vomit

Day 26. UT/CO: fire, old timers, casinos, vomit

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and moans from next door had stopped by the time I took to the porch for my early morning cigarette, but they were soon superseded by something even more intrusive and disturbing.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.

Day 17. CA/NV: smog, slog, aliens, beer

It was in a shocking state that I woke the following morning at 7.20. The booze fairy had definitely visited during the night, nicked all my money, thrown my clothes around the room and done something highly unpleasant in my mouth. As a matter of urgency, I went to clean my teeth and then wake Bobby. We were midway through the first half already.

Fortunately it was a short hike, a straight road and, with most of LA still sensibly tucked up in bed, we were at the Cock & Bull English Pub as the whistle blew for half-time. It was already 1-1. We settled down in the darkness and ordered coffee. I was going to take full advantage of the American tradition of that everlasting cup. It proved to be a fairly dull second half with no further goals and the bar cleared out on the final whistle.

The drive out of LA was as unpleasant as it was long. California has enough miles of road to circle the globe three times, and most of them seemed to converge here. Motorway status highways intersected at short regular intervals with the result that traffic was constantly cutting across lanes in both directions. The fact that all other road users around me saw me as some sort of confused hick from South Carolina and seemed to be making special efforts to make my life unpleasant didn’t help.

Soon the yellow smog that enveloped LA was in my rear view mirror and normal visibility had been regained. I motored steadily out into the central Mojave desert towards the Nevada state line. I awarded my first prize for absurd town names to Zzyzx along the way.

Bobby had laughed when I told him that I was only going to spend an hour in Las Vegas. It seemed no more risible than only spending an hour in a lot of the places that I’d skimped on so far, but I saw his point. If I’d not visited before, I probably would have planned to spend the night. On my previous tour, I had done the “lose $100 in ten minutes” routine (you really do lose $100 in ten minutes) and this time I had a very specific and, hopefully, more sensible plan. My book on things eccentric in America told of a café where a rollercoaster-type ride wound in and around the diners. This sounded like something worth seeing and so I set my sights on the Sahara Hotel.

Las Vegas is an assault on the senses. Driving down the main strip, I felt bombarded by sounds and colors and this was at four in the afternoon. People flocked everywhere, desperate to find another outlet in which to piss their hard earned cash out of the window. In the streets, complimentary buses vied with each other to whisk potential customers off to their lairs. Misshapen hotels loomed large over the street on both sides, each trying to outdo the next.

By the time that I had driven the length of the Strip, I felt drunk again from this sensory overload. Well, not so much drunk as nauseated. At the far end I found the Sahara Hotel and pulled into the car park. I looked at my watch and gave myself an hour.

I walked through the casino which was packed with gray-faced automata, feeding bucket-load after bucket-load of coins into the banks of fruit machines. Did they know that there was sunshine outside? Did they know what time it was, or even the day of the week? Bodies hunched over the card tables gave the impression that they weren’t so much early for Saturday night but still here trying to claw back some losses from Friday night. At the far end of the casino I saw the café and the signs to the ride. I paid my $8 and joined the queue. I put my valuables and loose change in a locker as directed and climbed aboard.

The guy next to me asked if I minded him screaming. I didn’t have time to reply. The carriage shot forward with a whiplash jolt and fell vertically for a few seconds. I could just take in that we were now outside. We climbed, fell, and loop-the-looped before being shot upwards and held there perpendicular to the earth. After a few moments, we tumbled backwards and it became clear that we were now going to do the ride backwards.

As we docked back at base, the screamer asked the attendant how many times we had to do it. He was told that you got one more ride for your money but that he could get out now if he wanted. He took that option and I took advantage of being released from the restrainers and hopped out too. I felt that I was going to throw up really rather badly.

I was back in my car an hour and ten minutes after I’d left it (which had proved to be about an hour and nine minutes too long). In my enthusiasm to speed away, I missed my turning and so took the long way round through the very desolate Moapa River Indian Reservation. Now that was one place where I did not want to break down.

It was pitch black by the time I reached the junction with the Extraterrestrial Highway to Rachel. I picked my way cautiously through the darkness of the open range until in the distance I saw the flashing red, blue and green lights of a spaceship.

Television programmes have been made about the Little Ale-e-inn. It’s the only place to stay in Rachel, the nearest town to Area 51. Depending upon your point of view, Area 51 is either part of the top secret military installation officially known as the Nellis Air Force Range, or it is where the remains of the spaceship that crashed at Roswell in 1947 were taken and has been conducting some sort of exchange programme with space aliens ever since.

I didn’t want to pre-judge the situation, but it seemed unlikely that the extremes of the space alien conspiracy theory were plausible. Ignoring the coincidence that the aliens happened to choose somewhere conveniently remote and in the USA (we have to assume it was their choice and not ours), two things still bothered me.

Firstly, these aliens must have come from way beyond our solar system. To have come that distance makes them pretty sophisticated. In evolutionary terms, it makes them superior to us. Being in such a position of superiority and having made all that effort, it seemed improbable that they would not destroy any primary rival species that they met on their travels (just as European explorers killed huge numbers of aboriginal peoples when they encountered them). They surely wouldn’t have become so advanced without being at least a little ruthless.

Secondly, on the unlikely assumption that their mission were peaceable, what had they been doing in Area 51 all this time? Having foot massages, eating doughnuts and watching HBO? You would have thought that by now they might at least have liked to be shown around the planet a bit.

All that aside, I was quite prepared to believe that there could be a lot more to the whole UFO thing than a couple of crazed anoraks in a bivouac with a pair of binoculars and a Kodak Instamatic. It seemed more than possible that a government agency might know more about what was going on than was generally made public. I was at least prepared to believe that UFOs could exist, although I was broadly uncommitted on the subject. My reasons for staying at Rachel were more to do with light-hearted inquisitiveness than with serious enquiry.

This was just as well, or I might have taken a degree of offense when I arrived at the Little Ale-e-inn. They had not done a lot to add gravity to the cause. Along with the flashing spaceship in the car park, there was an “Earthlings Welcome” sign with a cartoon of the Roswell alien. The site was a collection of pre-fab huts and inside the main one, the room had been divided into three parts: a restaurant area, a bar, and a shop selling some of the most unimaginable tat. Bright neon strip lighting throughout did not help the atmosphere.

With its lighting and clientele, the bar felt more like a truckers’ stop. I asked for a beer, and went for a look around the souvenir section. I overheard the barman giving a couple instructions how to get to Area 51. I had assumed that it was a walk to the fence at the end of the Inn’s compound, and that I’d be able to take a photograph of the warning signs and be off in the morning. I checked with the barman who got out a leaflet that explained it was a 20-mile drive back down the highway to the Black Mailbox and then a further 15 miles on unmade roads to the entrance to Area 51. The leaflet also made the point, in capital letters, that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you trespass beyond the perimeter or you will DEFINITELY be arrested. The fine for a first offense was cited as $600.

A woman in her fifties was sat down at the bar and had smiled at me a number of times whenever we had caught each other’s eyes. She took this opportunity to break the conversational ice. When she found out that I was from London and travelling around America by myself, she shuffled her stool up towards me enthusiastically.

She had come from a memorial service in Tonopah that day and was a bit squiffy. Her name was Jo Ann, and she had one of those kind maternal faces. She and her husband were staying the night before going home to Las Vegas the next day. She came from Illinois, but they had now lived in Nevada for thirty years and loved it.

I asked her if she knew how many people lived in Rachel and she reckoned it would be about 102. Another guy at the bar thought that it was more like 150. There was now a woman serving behind the bar who interrupted and said that there were 68. A small argument ensued and the woman behind the bar pulled a scrap of paper out of her apron pocket and started reciting the numbers in each individual family. “We counted ‘em up the other day. There’s definitely 68.” Game set and match. There was obviously not much to do to pass the time in Rachel, whatever the population.

An extraordinary looking man walked into the bar. He had a huge handlebar moustache and looked like he was going to a fancy dress party as a cowboy. He wore a large white Stetson, a techni-coloured waistcoat, a crisply ironed white linen shirt, tight jeans and pimply cowboy boots. He came over to us and Jo Ann introduced him as Jim, her husband. He’d clearly had a few drinks too.

“Oh Jim, this is Kevin. It’s wonderful. He’s going around all the 48 states in 48 days.”

“Oh you are, are you? Where’s your airplane partner?”

I explained that I was doing it by road. Jim asked if that were possible and wondered whether I had contacted the Guinness Book of Records. He said that he’d buy me a beer, but only if I promised him that I would keep a receipt from every state to prove to the folk at Guinness that I had achieved the feat in the specified time. It seemed an easy commitment to make, and my beer arrived.

Jim was in full swing and wanted to know what I did for a living. He thought it was fantastic that I had just given up my job and gone off and done this trip, and bought me another beer. I’d only had a couple of sips from the first one. He asked me how come I’d ended up in a place as small as Rachel and I told him that it was more interesting to go to small towns because large cities are so alike all over the western world. As he bought me yet another beer, I pointed out that I’d been in LA the night before and had spent the evening with a load of Brits.

“No sirree, you don’t want to be doing that. You want to meet real cowboys, with a real hat and a nice bib and a proper vest and linen shirt and jeans and no underwear and a gun in his pocket and real ostrich boots.” He was evidently talking about himself. I asked him what he meant by ostrich boots and he pointed to his feet and told me that real cowboys had boots made out of ostrich and that his pair had cost him $1500.

He wanted to know if I owned a gun. I said that I didn’t. He asked me if I liked going hunting and fishing. I said that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for either in central London. He seemed surprised and bought me another beer to go alongside the second and third that I hadn’t opened yet.

He told me that he wanted me to send him a Christmas card, “and a nice one too, mind you”. He said that if I gave him my address, he’d send one to me with a picture of a cowboy on it. He was willing to pay for it in advance and pushed a ten-dollar bill across the bar to me. I told him that he didn’t need to pay me and we exchanged addresses. He had two places, a ranch with a few acres in Alamo and a house in Las Vegas. He said he’d love it if I could come and see the ranch because it had a lot of history and the previous owners had left behind some old wagons that were mighty interesting. He knew that I didn’t have much time and probably couldn’t do it on this visit, but he hoped that I would come back and stay with him and Jo Ann one day.

There was another guy sitting at the bar next to Jo Ann, who had been listening in. Jo Ann brought him into the conversation and introduced him to me as Hank.

“Hier ist eine schöne Ecke. Essen Sie gern Erdbeere zum Frühstück?”

I looked at Hank plaintively.

“Sorry. Don’t you understand German? I was sure that you were German. You speak English with such a German accent.”

I assured him that I wasn’t German and that it was the first time that that particular mistake had been made. He went back to his beer in a bit of a sulk. Soon Jim and Jo Ann were wilting and ready to go to bed. Before they left, we agreed to meet up over breakfast. And Jim got me one more beer in. Once they were gone, I had to ask the barman for a box so that I could carry my haul back to the room. I’d save the rest for another evening – I needed to be up early for an unanticipated extra 70 miles in search of any aliens who might want to come out and play.