The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, #romance, America, California, Life, love, San Francisco, Travel

Part VII

Love is a Gambler

Muggy Hong Kong nights had by now turned to weeks yet her visage held fast in my mind’s eye. She was the high front that hung in the air, which felt like salvation when the actual skies over Hong Kong are notoriously leaden during summer. Hers was a face that brought belief to a notorious non-believer. In spite of having the novelty of a new idol to light nightly votive candles to, that didn’t change the awkward fact that I found myself 6,000 miles away, and that big old ocean wasn’t getting any narrower.

It was probably here in this neutron star of a city-state – still under benign British rule – that my life tag of misfit really became me. I didn’t fit into colonial life. I struggled to get a foothold on the whirligig. All of Britain’s far-flung colonies it was Hong Kong that came closest to ant colony. Standing tall amidst a crowd or peering out of a tenth-floor window the world at street level was a restless mass. Throngs of black-haired people assumed the awesome choreography of a super-organism. They all seemed to follow a pheromone trail to and from the work shift, which apparently never really knew a time for clocking in and clocking out. The gaps between shoulders were scarcely broad enough to slot a sheet of paper in between. You stole your breath then plunged into the streets there. You didn’t amble along the pavement; rather you were swept away by a human current, one stirred into eddies and froth by seven million deadlines and seven million appointments all simultaneously happening. The streets of Kowloon were tributaries of a larger river of humanity, but that river was not the type to empty lazily into the sea. It was frenetic. It was breathless. But it wasn’t me. Nor for me. Frankly, I couldn’t stand the place. All it served to do was remind me of how attractive the San Francisco lifestyle was by comparison.

After a month or so, I received a reply to my card, a greetings card which i addressed, for want of any other address, to the Traveller’s Hostel, Market Street, San Francisco. That opening gambit – the picture card scribbled with a bit of frivolity underlain with real intent – was a crucial one, because naturally you don’t know how a person who was wrapped around you koala-fashion not six weeks before might react now that time zones have intervened. People are funny in that regard. Playing it cool, of course, I merely threw out a suggestion that I, well you know, come back for a long overdue, erm, reunion. Her reply was a bit scattergun. In it she sounded the warning bells. In fact, reading it, I thought her one-page letter so frantically paced that you’d think she was writing it while on the lam with the cops breathing down her neck. In reality, that’s exactly what was happening in her mind. She was spooked that the feds were homing in on the ‘plantation’ she was tending up in that Jerusalem for monotheistic growers: Humboldt County, Northern California. It was ’94 and Reagan’s War on Drugs in this era was not a Philadelphia-based music band, but a real Dr Strangelove effort to rid America of its fave dessert: narcotics. Federal agencies were in balls deep infiltrating growers in the Northern part of the Golden State where a superabundance of conifers (and even the odd redwood) proved the perfect camouflage for a field of glistening kind bud. Helicopters carrying DEA enforcers swooped low over fields, aggravating freedom-loving planters who responded in kind firing off peppershot from pump-action shotguns. This covert war on America by America was deadly serious and, it would appear, she was in the thick of it. Or, if not a kingpin, then certainly on the fringes clipping top-quality bud and housesitting a motormouth of an African Grey parrot right there in a woodland warzone. As for the letter she sent, I couldn’t make head nor tail of its true intentions, so I left it suspended while I went back to work on Hong Kong Island, clearing half-empty beer glasses from tables full of pantomime characters all of whom had recently rolled into town in fine fettle only to end up rolling out of our madhouse of a cocktail bar the worse for wear.

I think I wrote again toward the end of summer. I was still determined. Undeterred I pressed ahead with my plans to finish up in Hong Kong early November and from there spend a month backpacking around Sumatra before catching the long hau back east across the North Pacific. I must have heard from her one more time as I distinctly recall her saying she was checking out on a one-way ticket in the second week of December. Her dalliance with the USA was coming to an end before she could succumb to more mischief in the pines of Northern California. I had a wafer-thin window in which to act. So I booked Sumatra from the 4th November to the 4th December before catching an onward flight via Seoul on the 6th December, arriving in San Francisco on the same day. She had not a clue of my flight path, but hey ho! the best reunions are often through disbelieving eyes. And anyway, I couldn’t face a Dear John from across the ocean. I hate being dissuaded from acting on impulse by a sensible girl who is emotionally-engineered to dampen the wanton ardour that burns in the male of the species. Sometimes you gotta go out on a limb for the things worth grabbing.

It was cold when I arrived on America’s West Coast. The sky was its cobalt self, but the air was dry and the chill wind sucked from the snowcaps of the Sierras off to the East. All those months in the sub-tropics had ill-equipped both wardrobe and bones to take the brunt of the chill far less a rebuttal from a girl whose affections I must’ve craved.

In a rerun of a film I featured in not six months ago, I stepped back into that Hostel foyer to be greeted by the same barefooted lady who ran the show back in summer. ‘I remember you’, she said. ‘Is xxxxx staying here?’ I enquired. This she affirmed, adding that that i had come a very long way to see someone who was hours away from a one-way ticket home.

I asked where my girl might be at this hour. ‘Probably next door at the bar,’ the barefooted lady answered.

That she was still on this continent, in this town, camped under this roof, was good enough for me. I dumped my bags in my dorm and headed for the bar, for what I’d hoped would be a pleasant shock, a reunion worthy of a Hollywood ending. I was only partly right.

She was there, unlike any other just as I remembered her, like the lady at the desk said she would be. Her recognition of me was slightly more delayed. But when the penny finally did drop, it was as if a ghost had sashayed into the bar, sat down next to her, and said in a recognisable voice, ‘Yeah, I know I look off-colour. I don’t need reminding. So, remember the you of six months ago? I do. In fact I liked the taste so much I came back for seconds. So, remember the feeling we, um, shared? Well I’ve ghosted in here, gatecrashed your life, if you like, to invite you back into that moment.

Well, what d’ya say? ‘

She kept probing me, asking me: ‘Did you really fly 6,000 miles after all this time, on the off-chance that you would find me? Did you really fly all that way just for me?’ Yes, and yes. It all sounded promising. And then the tingle of broken glass. Kshhhh! ‘I didn’t think you would come back.’

I didn’t think you would come back? As in you weren’t meant to come back? Who in their right mind does that? To the outsider a phrase like that reverberates the sound of ‘you went away and so (by the laws of average) I met someone else.

‘I met someone else during summer,’ she shrugged. ‘I mean, people say things in the heat of the moment, don’t they? When you said let’s meet again I didn’t take it literally.’

Well, me for one. I was keen. I had vowed to see her again. It was a covenant I made with myself, and I tried hard not to break covenants, least of all with self. Sitting next to her you could almost hear this internal dialogue she was having. It could have been a convocation of voices all furiously debating in her mind how to respond to a disruptive, if by no means unpleasant, element suddenly busting in on a settled plan of existence. My reappearance on the scene was evidently provoking something deep in her psyche. She was about to close this chapter when who should turn up but the plot twist.

Past is future and future past. You can get a fleeting mention in one chapter, a more fleshed out role in later ones. You can trump all odds and win the girl. Or you can end up a lousy loser in love.

‘I have a boyfriend,’ she said. ‘He’s in the Israeli army.’

‘Oh, I see.’ lousy loser it is then. I’ll get my coat, shall I?

‘He’s downstairs at the moment. Thing is, he doesn’t like the British.’

‘We’ll get along then.’

Pinned onto the horns of a dilemma, that’s where she was. I offered to leave, disguising well my impending heartache. Sang-froid can protect a man whose blood runs too hot for too long for the wrong girl. I told her it was worth the 10,000 mile detour just to share a drink with her. She stopped me. Don’t leave! I need to work this through in my mind.

The following day was her last after years in California. We spent some down time together during the day, but the evening was not ours to get all entwined about. She said she owed it to him to spend a final night together. I didn’t overreact. And anyway, she said, this is my final night with him, and you’ll be seeing more of me in future.

I sat outside my room in the corridor that evening. Diagonally down the hall was her dorm. I could hear them from behind the door. He couldn’t have been savvy about this interloper who had re-entered her life. I felt disconsolate. Many months and thousands and thousands of miles for this: to have her tantalisingly within my grasp only to be separated by this fucking dingy corridor, his blissful ignorance of my existence, and her doing the honourable thing. But what was this olive branch she extended, saying tonight would be the last night he would ever spend with her?

I must have sat in that corridor all night alone eavesdropping on the laughter and mirth going on behind her door. My head sagged; a tear or two shed. Solitude is the handmaiden of self-pity, I’ll tell you. My instinct was that love was a gamble and my gamble had not paid off. I don’t know why anyone would compound their state of unrequited love by doing a Romeo and cowering under the proverbial balcony while just above Juliet gets jiggy with another fella. Then again, she had said she needed that time with him as it would be her farewell to him (and I don’t mean Juliet) . Was my presence a trigger for that? I couldn’t begin to second guess a woman of such complexity as this one. At that age without much prior experience, I probably couldn’t second guess a woman with straw between her ears far less a smart one.

The following morning as she was readying to leave on journey that would signify the end of her American period, she knocked on my door. My reaction to seeing her was stilted. I still felt bruised that she had chosen to burn the candle with him the night before while I languished in the corridor alone, my mind imagining what they were up to. She said that she was leaving, but that she had made a choice. What choice? I wondered.

‘I choose you..’

Me?

She was going to write to him and tell him it would never have worked between them. Once that was over, we would once again be free to continue where we had started off in that summer of ’94.

‘I’m going back to Argentina now. But there will be a next time for us. I’ll meet you in England in the summertime.’

And lo! She did. Six months later I pulled up outside York railway station and there she was rested up against her blue backpack, book in hand. Six months of pure South American sunlight had coppered her skin. Hair dark as night and fringed and nothing like the English girls whose hair was all too mousy brown. It had been a year since that first encounter, and there would be many more to savour in the coming years. Having myself left on my big trip from practically there one year before, seeing her there outside York Railway Station completed a beautiful circle made of endless corners.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, China, Hong Kong, Life, love, Meaning, San Francisco, thoughts, Travel

Part VI

The Going

Travelling the better part of 7,000 miles only to fall in love is not something that happens everyday. Where X marks the spot right where the heart is, when you find treasure you’re supposed to keep it. That’s the whole point, right? Trouble was, I was booked on a flight to KaiTak Airport, Hong Kong, the day of the ’94 World Cup Final, which by my reckoning was two weeks away. So, it begged the question, how does a guy pack twenty-one years of holding back that lovin’ feeling into two weeks of consolidated passion’? More’s the point, how does a lovestruck Romeo duck out of his promise to board that plane with his best friend? After all, that was always the plan. We stopped short of a blood handshake, but nevertheless a mate’s word is his bond. It was an irrevocable decision that only a selfish, lovelorn bastard would go back on. We boys were betrothed in the sense that we vowed to go to Hong Kong together come what may. Batman can’t take on Gotham without his sidekick, Robin. But who was who and which was which? Was I his sidekick, or he mine?

We would hit the ground running in the continental United States before jetting west 6,000 miles across the Pacific to integrate into the Sinitic world of strange vocal tones and even stranger aromas. Still a British colony, we’d flounce through Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport like colonial masters of old, waving that black post-imperial passport whilst speaking the queen’s own. Immediately thereafter we’d walk into a well-paid position by virtue of the power vested in each of us as crown subjects, beneficiaries of masterful British naval blockades of the Opium Wars against a decrepit Qing Dynasty, circa 1840. We’d save our easily-earned Hong Kong dollars before moving on to the sweat-spangled delights of Indonesia.

Except, she walked into my life in a down-at-heel bar in San Francisco. That wasn’t part of the bargain.

The more time I spent with her, the more I had to borrow from from elsewhere to keep spending on her. I was free-falling into a love that knew no ground. I was helpless and powerless and as I divested that ego-protecting power away from me and into her, I reckoned I had never been so upwardly mobile as then.

It was the little things that stayed with me. The minutiae that had me swooning over her every move. She invited my friend and I to her shared house on Webster St, off Haight Ashbury. An old Victorian clapboard house, an American icon, she rented the front room. We sat down in there on an old mattress lain over a stained redwood floor. She played a cassette of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. As the opening bars of In the Light came on, she passed me a joint made with Humboldt County kind bud. Two puffs and I was floored. Pretending there was nothing amiss, I picked up one of her art pens and clumsily proceeded to snap the nib, letting black ink soak into the desk on which was laid out the makings of an impressive illustration that depicted the fantasy world of the Shire. If the sketch was supposed to be England, it was like no England i had ever seen. On her bureau, an illustrated book of H.R. Giger. He was the creator of xenomorphs, hideous hybrids – part man, part praying mantis – that would go on to inspire Ridley Scott to make the Alien look, well, more alien. Xeno, i knew, meant foreign in Greek. And morph meaning shape/form. In a roomful of outsiders all cast together, who was the real xenomorph among us now?

Next thing I was coming around from a brief bout of unconsciousness. So wipeout strong was the joint, she had fallen into the arms of Morpheus, too, her head at my feet, my head at hers. Topping and tailing, we could have been coochy-coo twins. I noticed the fit was right. No superfluous limbs splayed over the mattress edge. Some things interlock while other things, try as we might, just don’t fit right. Geometry had sealed our fate and no amount of cramped bed space was going to stop us from – excuse the cliche – fusing together as one. I watched her sleep for a moment. I studied her perfect black eyebrows until seeing her eyes open i tried wrenching my gaze away. But it was no use. Her dark eyes were fixed on me. And that as they say, was that.

How was I going elude my obligations and cancel that onward flight? California was beginning to grow on me and i don’t mean like a callus. I was falling in love not just with her, but with the final frontier of the great American trek, too. There is light throughout the world, unevenly distributed. But this was the first time I bathed in a daylight so pure. No, in that moment, sharing an old crumpled mattress under a bay window on the first floor of an old Victorian house off Haight Ashbury, I resolved to give this infatuation time to deepen. I had to find an excuse not to go without alienating my best friend in the process. I tried to empathise, to put myself in his shoes. What if it were him welching on a deal and not me? Would i resent the love that had found him? Would I have boarded that onward flight to Taipei, then HK without him, flush with the confidence that at the tender age of 22 years and 40 days I could face the enormity of falling on my feet in such an expanse of plain weirdness that was the Chinese hemisphere? Doubtful. With that sense of obligation that solidifies where friendships are at stake, I knew i had to make that 16hr flight west across the impossibly wide Pacific with him, my friend, and not stay with her, my lover to be.

Question remained: how would i find her again now i had resolved to lose her? Remember, this was the age of airmail letters, postcards and the telephone locutorio/cabin. Leaving meant leaving, unlike today where we never really go anywhere other than into a virtual world contained on the screen of a small electronic device that fits snugly into the back pocket of a pair of jeans. Airmail letters signified something deeply profound and deeply, deeply thoughtful; more of a complex whale song than a simple tweet. Anyone who can cast their minds back to that antediluvian world of cursive calligraphy , exotic forwarding addresses, and that personal signature of saliva on the back of the affixed stamp will understand how so. Trouble was, she had no forwarding address and nor did I. Not even a dedicated carrier pigeon with a sixth sense would do. For all intents and purposes, boarding that one-way flight across the Pacific I might as well have been boarding the Mars Express on a never-to-return voyage.

The plane lifting into the endless blue, ahead nothing but deep, black ocean. A moat as wide as any. As i turned to look through the aircraft porthole at the crimped, golden hillsides of California beneath me recede, I turned to my friend for something, support maybe. But his head was reclined backwards and his eyes were closed in quiet contemplation. I saw in him that he was already at his destination, whereas me I had not left my place of departure, and nor would i for months to come. Unwilling as I am to declare it: I really did leave my heart in San Francisco. In the words of Paul Simon, I walked off to look for America. And what did I find at the end of the rainbow? For the first time in life, a true romance cut tragically short.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, adventure, advneture, America, backpacking, California, love, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, travelogue, United States

Pt V

Headed For the ‘Frisco Bay

You see it there in the distance for the first time as you head over the Bay Bridge from Oakland side. Atop a hill on the bay peninsular, San Francisco’s architecture heaps tightly together like the sweepings from some colossal brush. It could be the Emerald City and California the land of Oz. Me, the Tin Man and my travelling companion the Lion. We’re both finding courage on this the first big trip of our lives. To do so, we’ll both need hearts. Mine is to give away but no takers there have been. At the ripe old age of twenty-two years and twenty-two days I’m not giving up quite yet. And in a funny way, I’ve had this weird premonition for some years now that my true love I would find there in San Francisco, at the end of the rainbow. Owning a heart big enough to burst is easy to know when it is pulsating under your ribcage night and day. Unlike the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz I had not come in search of a heart to feel with. I had come, rather, to give it away to the right donor. Then again, maybe this flood of emotion was brought on by the sight of the Emerald City on the hill. After three and a half thousand miles we had reached the end of the rainbow and I could not decide whether the emotional prize was elation for having done it, or disappointment that we would never again be able to embark on this roadtrip for the first time.

It was ’94 and the World Cup was in full flow. England were strangely absent. My beloved Scotland banished to the Gulag of footballing hurt. Every neutral’s favourites, Brazil, were camped, gloriously yellow, in Pasadena, while their arch rivals, the Argentinians, were kicking up a fuss on the other side of the country not a million miles from where we started our long transcontinental drive. On the first night in ‘Frisco, once checked in to the Travellers’ Hostel on Market St we decided to hit the bar next door. Argentina were live on air against a resurgent Romania with captain Hagi spearheading the boys from Bucharest. This Mundial was Maradona’s swansong and the little Talisman from the dirt poor villas of Buenos Aires wasn’t leaving the pitch without being made to. He was absent, mired in cocaine-dusted shame, but in that baron that street in San Francisco I could see that his replacement looked very promising. She was far better looking than him for starters. Wearing the famous albiceleste shirt of pale blue and white stripes, I saw her at the bar crowded by men who it seemed also rated her passing skills. When the final whistle blew, her team had been dumped out of the World Cup. A national humiliation, beaten by the upstarts from Eastern Europe. A man seated at the bar smiled, enchanted, as she stormed past and out the door. Even with a face like thunder I could tell that this one had the allure to raise a thousand ships. She was like nothing i had ever seen. She was part feral, part Bond-girl, part-Hippie. The hair reached to the small of her back It was cut (but not by a stylist) into a thick, raven-coloured fringe. She was tall-ish. Her eyebrows were black and perfect as if painted on. She was slim. Her body’s curvatures were exactly what my primitive mind had identified as Level 5: Near Perfection. Yet there was something tomboyish about her, too. As she took her leave with dramatic flourish, I stood and stared at this incredible specimen and thought, this girl’s got fire inside.

And so the story of love goes…The following day, her ire mellowed very possibly by whatever was responsible for the aromatic fragrance lingering in the air and in her chocolate brown eyes, she clocked my presence. Even to a debutante like me, I sensed the pull exerted by her eyes on mine. Is this attraction? It couldn’t be. Exotic creatures, universally considered as objects of desire, did not desire me. I was lanky, stuck physiologically at age fifteen. I was no Lothario. And most of all, i had absolutely zero confidence in my abilities to hook any fish, far less the big ones. I wasn’t attractive to girls, in my occluded mind. I had no idea how to exit the friend zone; how to make them want me. In the days that followed, a great lesson was delivered on the doorstep of my manhood: that you don’t need to do a damned thing other than be yourself. Love the skin you are in. Don’t try too hard, nor not at all. Stay in the game, but whatever you do, do not be desperate to stay come what may. Let the lady lead, and know that a million years of evolution gave women the executive role in the game of courtship. They decide if the flirting proceeds further; not us men. We are, it turns out, rather incidental in all this. Keep up the witty repartee. Put skin in the game, but don’t flay yourself alive for the lure of a kiss.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, Travel, United States

Pt IV

California, I’m Coming Home.

Mono Lake lies far from the major urban centres of America’s most powerful and populous state, California. Economists reckon that standing alone on the world stage California would be nudging Britain for the fifth spot in the league of wealthiest nations. But unlike Britain with its Lake District, Mono Lake is no Lake Windermere. It’s mono, and not stereo lake, for a reason. Unlike the collegiate system of lakes dotting England’s northern Lake District, this ancient body of water is geology’s orphan. Isolated in a parched landscape, with no outlet for water to either drain and replenish, the lake long ago turned to bicarbonate of soda. What would the Lake District’s very own poet-laureate, William Wordsworth, have made of Mono Lake had he been there during a lifetime that coincided with one of the greatest movements of humanity in search of treasure without the traditional mayhem, piracy, plunder and pillage: the California Gold Rush of 1849? I’ll tell you what he would’ve done. He would have wandered lonely as a cloud, imitating the desert sky above, until standing there on the lake’s edge he would have muttered to himself – and I mean himself for there would have been no one around for miles and miles – what in God’s name is this i see before me? For once, words fail me.

Once Wordsworth had beheld these alien surroundings he would have shifted his emphasis. From aghast to agog, he would have repeated the sentiment that living in England’s Lake District had instilled in him: that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her. But it’s hard to love nature’s jagged edges. Romantic love of nature here is forsaken. Here on Highway 395, Eastern California, nature is elemental. Here the planet is as troubled as a teenager. Lifted, folded, exposed, hidden, the geology of Mono Lake is akin to that little blister on the skin of the Earth that, to heal itself, seeps clear serum from deep in the interior. Up from the deep interior superheated water fills the lake, changing the water chemistry and that of the rocks on which the lake rests. Not unlike what you see in the Apennines of Italy, cracks in the mantle let groundwater settle down deep before being pressurised by geothermal heat and pushed up to the surface where it does something to the limestone, spewing out carbonates that form towers of tufa in the centre of the lake. You’d think you were on top of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the mud volcano in East Africa. To look at it, you’d think Mono Lake was a volcanic caldera with whiteish scabrous deposits revealing its true Hadean nature broiling away beneath waters that above it appear so innocuous.

It is here we decide to remain for a couple of days. Finding a hostel not too far away, we sense magic in the air. Dave, the guy who lives in an annexe beside the hostel, quickly establishes his credentials as the most sardonic Californian you’ve never met. I’m thinking he’s learned the ropes from spending too much time in Northern pubs until he tells us he’s never been to Britain. Why then the phlegmatic humour? What comes out your mouth is too dark, too barbed, to be Californian with all that floodlit optimism that doesn’t lend itself well to cynicism. The enigma, which is Dave, then decides to take us to the lake for a hot bath.

Once there in nature’s open-air spa we form a circle of cynics. Dave says bathers have been scalded to death by moving all of 6-feet into what they thought was a harmless wet and warm zone when in fact the lake had undetectable hotspots where the water gushes up at over 70 degrees celsius, very possibly higher. I stay rooted to the spot afraid of turning my already burned skin into a whole new level of heat damage. Never before have i bathed in geothermal springs. The experience is unforgettable as it is unforgivable. The sun comes on like a thousand-watt bulb in a cubby hole. The sky is deeply blue. Not a single cloud wanders by high over. Never before have I felt nature burning me from beneath as from above. I have found home away from a home that failed to feel like a home. As my life will one day end, I know for a fact I’m going to like California. Sitting there in an open-air jacuzzi ringed by mountains the thought hits me: I feel good here. After waiting a lifetime to visit, the reality exceeds the expectations. And that doesn’t happen with everywhere we dream of travelling to. This state might just be golden, after all.

With the soda rinsed off our radiant bodies it’s time to move ever west to the world’s best-situated city, San Francisco. But not before climbing up and over America’s last barrier of rock and permafrost: the Sierra Nevadas. ‘Frisco is a Mecca for the godless. It’s where Steve McQueen just about drove his 1968 Ford Mustang off the brow of a hill and into the stratosphere. It’s where Dirty Harry cleaned the mean streets of limping serial killers. It’s where the Age of Aquarius was first entered. In short, it’s where the West ends and new promises begin. And for that reason alone it was worth the pilgrimage.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, environment, Travel

Pt III

United Across the Great Divide.

All the way to Reno……

…….I was looking to segue from the last instalment into this one after a hefty hiatus of eighteen months. Once the mothballs had settled I should have known that life lays down markers everywhere only to let the individual decide to see them for what they are or else ignore them for what they’re not. This ‘gift’ came wrapped in an R.E.M. song title. How does one get from Denver to San Francisco in a story without travelling a thousand rugged miles in words? Answer: one cheats by picking a song title which says it all. Hey now, all the way to Reno. If you’re old enough or urbane enough to be listening to REM, you’ll know the number.

All that my memories will reveal to me about the long bitumen from Colorado to beautiful California was that the I25 in Denver led due north to Cheyenne, the state capital of Wyoming. We must have doubled back from our pioneer hut in the Rockies to Denver knowing that to reach central California expeditiously we would be better suited to heading north to Cheyenne before taking a sharp left onto the I80 through the prairie lands of southern Wyoming. The car delivery operator gave us only fourteen days to cross the continent. Adding that failure to present ourselves and their car at our destination in Sacramento might result in an FBI warrant being issued in our names, was enough to keep us from digressing too much en route. No sacrilege on the road to the Sacrament, that was the mantra.

Southern Wyoming, I remember chiefly as being the gateway to the world’s oldest designated National Park. We even spotted roadsigns denoting so. For Yellowstone turn north. But turn we did not, in spite of temptation that Jesus could have empathised with. The detour would have added days to the trip, and quite possibly – in our callow minds – brought us into the FBI’s ambit alongside Colombian cartel lords, the Unibomber, and a splendid array of serial killers.

West we drove through a sea of yellowing grass stuck to hills filed down by the Earth’s master carpenter, time. Through Rawlins, Rock Springs and Evanston, and onward we hardly stopped even after crossing state lines into Utah. At Salt Lake City on the southeast shores of the Great Salt Lake we kept on the I80. The city of the Latter-Day Saints sat there piously wedged between a mountain ridges running north-south. I thought it was befitting of a religious colony of New World Christian non-conformists that they found their new Nazareth in a place so far removed by distance from the Holy land yet so near in terms of the harsh semi-desert terrain upon which Christ built his broad church. They choose one helluva place to settle into unorthodoxy. The Wasatch to the east and north; the Oquirrh to the west, both ranges rising from the valley floor, pushed up until their ridges cut the arid air. In the midst of untrammelled wilderness emerged over time a city as different from any other in the Continental United States that anyone could imagine. So improbable it would end up cemented there but that was the pioneer spirit of the brutal nineteenth century. Those religious zealots with the pioneer spirit welling up in their eyes, they must’ve marched in unison over forest, river prairie and mountain until stopping there with the Rockies towering either side of them they said, this is far enough.

Outside of SLC a vast salt flat shimmers on the horizon. The I80 slices through it, a gesture of unflappable self-confidence by American civil engineers of the mid-20th century. Then again, what else could they have done? Reroute the highway around the imposing site of a salt desert? Nah. Signs offering fuel and food warn of shortages ahead. No fuel beyond here for 100 miles. You get the idea. The heat was phenomenal, yet you wouldn’t have known it, so dry was the atmosphere. The skin burned without telling so. A gasp of air was all it took to singe whatever lines the windpipe. This is mirage country. The flats, where water once abounded, were now desiccated. Salt crystals is all that withstood the heat until turning the world white this bed of minerals reflected the sunlight back but the sunlight wouldn’t bounce back in a straight line. It swayed and wobbled instead, hence the hazy reality of looking through and beyond a salt desert. The trucks ahead looked for all the world as if shimmering through a wormhole, all pulled and stretched out of their normal dimensions, somehow levitating over a roiling sea of salt. The gum i had been chewing on melted onto the windscreen after a failed attempt at flicking out the gobbet of gum going at 60mph. That’s what i recall most: the sight of chewing gum turning to liquid on the outside windscreen, dripping down until realising it would take an ice storm to remove that careless blemish from this car.

And so the road went on. Straight as an arrow it cut through the dazzling flats until leaving them the mountains once again took us into their fold. But by then we had left one state and entered yet another, this time Nevada. Meaning ‘snowy’ in Spanish, Nevada was too baked by this ferocious summer to offer up snowflakes. But it mattered not. By now we had crossed the Great Diving Range and now could say confidently of ourselves, we have made it to the West, to Pacific Time. I don’t remember crossing Nevada on the I80 to Reno, the state capital. It was up and down, though that’s for sure. And because of plate tectonics, the ridges formed N-S, therefore when travelling west you go over every last buckle in the Earth’s crust. On the outskirts of Reno I sensed California was close. Roadsigns affirming such were all the evidence I needed to back my claims. The town itself looked like so many others en route: a pitstop; a temporary settlement in the most unlikely of places that found permanent status on account of the fact that wave after wave after wave of new world hopefuls had kept passing through on their way to the promised land of California only to get waylaid for long enough to put down some odd manner of roots.

It was at Reno we turned off the I80. Knowing we had time before the FBI were called in, we decided to take the back roads into California. Unbeknownst to us, this deviation into the magnificent unknown would meanaling delightful acquaintance with one of America’s truly great roads: Highway 395. Forget Route 66 or even Highway 61, this was the road that would leave an indelible mark on me, so much so that twenty-three years later i would return alone to do the whole thing again. This road had fable written all over it. Had a young a precocious Bob Dylan driven it before making Highway 61 Revisited, we would never have had Highway 61 Revisited.

Highway 395, if you didn’t already know, runs from Carson City near Lake Tahoe all the way to San Bernardino, east of L.A. It runs parallel with the backside of the Sierra Nevadas where grows the Giant Sequoia tree and in between there and the White Mountains where grows the ancient Bristlecone Pine. Between them are vast geographical features that battle the heat and the cold and the light and the dark. The heavens make Wagnerian cloud operas over this gap between two mountain ranges, such is the drama nature cooks up. It’s no coincidence that Edwards Airforce Base lies amid all this scale and all this splendour. Neither is it a surprise that Edwards Airforce Base is where the space shuttle would come into land. To slow from 17,500 mph to 200 you need acres of space to land, you need light to sight the shuttle as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and you need high pressure, and lots of it, to mellow the bumps. Highway 395 and its back yard had it all. And smack bang in the midst of that lay Mono Lake, whose chemistry was most unusual, whose size was monumental, whose ambience was strange and beguiling.

The Biden Factor and Brexit

America, Brexit, Britain, British Isles, England, EU, europe, global polity, globalisation, Great Britain, human development, Ireland, Libertarianism, Political Culture, Politics, Uncategorized

With the appointment of Joe Biden as President-Elect, the geopolitical map is being refashioned faster than the previous lines can be fuzzily drawn. While the world fixes on the monumental domestic consequences of this change of governance, it’s the international fallout which offers a more tantalising glimpse into how events will unfold across a world still largely shaped by US hegemony. The deceit, the revanchist, and the delusion-laden doctrine of Brexit and Trumpism are interchangeable for all intents and purposes, so now Trump’s populist exercise in self-adoration has been sidelined from central policy, what gives for a Brexit endgame which has leaned so heavily, albeit slyly, on the Orange Emperor’s blessing? What now that a seventy-eight year-old multilateralist with Irish blood flowing through his ageing veins will be stepping into the breach?

The prospects for a unilateralist Brexit have changed with the jettisoning of Donald Trump from power. That much is clear, in spite of Downing St’s cageyness. The days of English hubris are numbered. For four years Donald Trump provided cover for a buccaneering Brexit model that mirrored his natural state of chaos, but to what extent will his unceremonious removal change the rules of the negotiating game? Will Johnson set new policy parameters on Britain’s relationship with Europe seeing that his moral cheerleader, Trump, will find his rambling Tweets no longer carry the gravity they once did?

Here is how the Tories are now in check. As the whole world except Trump already knows, gone is the uber-advocate of self-determinism to be replaced by Biden, whose political instincts favour heavily the re-normalisation of relations with the EU into a strategic alliance to counter the growing might of China and her minions. His will be a continuation of Obama-era foreign policy by other means. In point of fact, the means might actually be not so different than the Obama years, which is telling because Britain’s long autopsy on Brexit has been done under the aegis of Trump’s nativist brand of US Republicanism. The fallout of the referendum has been acutely felt almost entirely during Trump’s four years in office. Britain henceforth finds itself in uncharted territory. She can no longer break treaties and trample on good faith with her ridiculous exigencies that find their bloody-minded roots in that self-same feeling of exceptionalism that ran like a golden thread through Trump’s nationalist platform. When he is not putting out spot fires back home, Biden will restore a multilateral basis to international relations. Damage limitation will be his modus operandi of foreign policy. After four years in a whacked-out wilderness, the US needs to return to the family of nations to aid in the restructuring of the global political order to something like its former self, which ran broadly along ideological lines (democracy or autocracy; rogue or reliable). It will do this not by making unreasonable demands or by threatening to storm off if if doesn’t get its own way, rather by rejoining multilateralist efforts to stem 21st century global threats and influence opportunities. Brexit represents an existential threat to the sanctity of union with a democratic coalition from Lisbon to Athens, and so Biden will push even harder against the radicals in the Tory party – Britain’s own GOP – who represent a radical element that see personal gain in free-trade libertarianism. To Biden, Brexit is Trumpite foreign policy in another guise.

For a start, Joe Biden is a proud Irish-American. He’s a straight talker who one imagines stands baffled at the waffle that trips off Johnson’s tongue. He’s already said it himself, Brexit ain’t gonna jeopardise the Irish Peace Process come what may. The problem is, sovereign independent nations tend to draw up hard borders in the face of larger sovereign blocs. Switzerland is an exception but for geographical and historical reasons which Britain cannot and must not try to emulate. As yet, there is no fixed solution to the problem of what to do and how to act when faced with a land border between a newly independent Britain and a long-standing EU member, the Irish Republic. They tried sketching an invisible line through the Irish Sea until fools in the cabinet belatedly realised that Northern Ireland would be effectively annexed to the European Union. Dismemberment of the 300 year-old Union was not what the Tory Brexiteers spearheaded by Gove and Johnson had in mind. Their answer was to breach International law rewriting the Withdrawal Agreement, a fact not lost on Biden who would routinely wince at Trump’s cavalier approach to ripping up treaties willy-nilly. What must he think about the bungling involved in Brexit then?

The new Washington administration will seek to consolidate ties with Berlin and Paris, while holding a special place in the President-Elect’s heart for the Emerald Isle. This volte-face in US policy places Britain out on a limb. Her ostracism from an emerging global consensus will be even harder felt exactly at a time when the long warm-up is over and the UK finally has to go it alone. The EU will be bolstered by the results of the most bitterly-fought US Election in living memory. Downing Street will be frantically revising its options, in other words scrambling to ingratiate itself with the new Democratic administration before Biden hardens his pro-EU/Irish stance even more. Much as they try to sell a rebranded Brexit to Biden/Harris, they will fail as all salesman do when they try plugging a crap product. Fact-fudging, policy backtracking and cringeworthy obsequiousness to rising foreign powers on the part of the Tory government will come to characterise the next twelve months of what is turning out to be a rudderless leadership, a busted flush of a governing class that set out on their decade-long crusade to degrade future prospects for the average Briton, while still managing to impress half the nation by sounding off like a bunch off privileged blowhards egging on the school rugby team that faces imminent relegation to lower leagues.

Brexit is not going to wash with Biden, and rightly so. The present vision of it is pure mirage full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Sound faintly familiar to the incumbent president who refuses to leave office without a fight, or at least a 9-hole playoff on one of his soon-to-be-liquidated golf courses? He too loved a good la-dee-da that, like Brexit, had plenty of chorus but no verse.

The presidential inauguration is set for the third week of January. This roughly corresponds with the end of the Withdrawal Agreement and the start of the Brexit reality. Politics is that game with no winners, but a game nonetheless. Johnson plots his next move vis-a-vis Brussels with renewed caution. He does not want to be caught offside on the wrong side of history as the rearguard floods forward out of defence. It’s not Britain he fears for more than it is himself and his own political extinction. He is another pompous discard waiting to happen. He is another controversial court jester in a new age of conciliatory politics. But Johnson has come too far with Brexit not to want to avoid seeing it turn out like that DIY barbecue set that a ham-fisted Homer Simpson tried to assemble. You remember The Simpson’s episode right? The unrecognisable jumble of cement, bricks and grille that ended up feted by the critics as a postmodern masterpiece, propelling Homer from backyard flunky to darling of the Springfield art world. Brexit might be postmodern but in its present format (and one senses in every possible format) it ain’t no masterpiece. Artless Boris might well botch it, but unlike Homer he won’t be anyone’s darling, least of all the art world. He’ll end up another poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.

As for that free-trade agreement with the US you’ve been angling for? That one just slipped down Joe and Kamala’s priority list.

Watch out, Boris, Joe is coming and he’s wearing green and gold. To quote an Irish poet who must have felt, in his day, the pernicious influence of his Anglo-Saxon neighbours across the sea, tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Yes, We Can(al)!

#adventure, America, boats, England, Life, Uncategorized

When Barak Obama took the slogan, YES, WE CAN!, on campaign with him back during the 2008 elections, his growing sect of admirers took it up with gusto. Ennobled by the creed of optimism – a finite resource even in America – they chanted these three simple words with all the might they could muster. We’ll huff and puff and blow the Bush house down, that was the gist of it. We’ll relight hope from the embers of pointless war. We’ll do right in the place of wrong. We’ll patch together the broken pieces and live like we always promised ourselves we would. 

It was in the spirit of regeneration that I too took up this mantra from the ruins of Obama’s America. Now remember what his legacy brought. He talked a good game, but on leaving found that Yes, We Can! meant Yes, we can replace you with a bankrupted huckster from Queens, New York with a mouth to match his attitude. Not wanting to go down this road, I wanted my regeneration to bring an altogether more wholesome – as opposed to ‘whoresome’ – legacy. And so it was, I decided I would embrace the alternative life of the canal. I spent big on a big river boat and docked it on a 250 year-old canal set deep in the Somerset downs. This was going to be my Obama 2008 campaign moment.

The parallels certainly exist, if only you choose to see them. Like Obama’s predecessor, I too got embroiled in a Middle Eastern adventure, involving the expenditure of an awful lot of money with the aim of coming away with even more. To breathe Obama’s fresh air, first i had to choke on Bush’s dust. This I did, and by the time I had coughed up the last of it, the time had come to begin anew, to see the world through reopened eyes. My 5-year incursion into the oil-rich sands was over without a single shot being fired (although many a shot was downed in the booze-soaked atmosphere of the place). Back on Civvy St, somewhere in pre-Brexit Britain, the post-conflict settlement was up for grabs. Europe seemed like the kingdom beyond the wall by now, unfriendly, but only insofar as any former friend would be if you kept hurling insults at them from across the bows. The burgundy British passport, now both unofficially diminished in stature and narrowed in scope, was about the last official document one wanted with a post-2016 life on the Continent beckoning. And so it was that a set of reduced options made the next phase a little less fraught with the kind of complications we once had, confronted was we were with not just one but 28 countries to potentially set up home in. 

High in the Spanish sierras the decision was made.  Near the flanks of the Mulhacen, Spain’s tallest mountain, the YES was injected into WE CAN(AL). There and there alone, I decided to buy that shell of a riverboat and in it create a space fit for the ages. Having taken receipt of her, in all her graphite grey sleek beauty, i spent the next six months showering in a wheat field while fitting her out on dry land. She, the boat (for we ascribe boats with a feminine gender in English, for feminine equals fair, and the British do have the historical hots for vessels that float), sat on blocks in a field of swaying grass. As spring took hold, the stalks grew higher and the ears of wheat fatter, until the grass brushed the underside of the hull. With 90% of the work complete, and the largest 10% you’ve ever seen not quite complete, I had 700 ft/sq of spanking new boat trucked down on the motorway in the most surreal cruise I’ve ever witnessed.

She was lowered into the river Avon at Keynsham, near Bristol. Six long months like a fish out of water, and the transformation to fish in water was a thing to behold. It was as if the riverboat had never been out of its element. Now sitting stout and proud in its element, the voyage to its new mooring on the other side of Bath was going to be a maiden voyage, and one that would hopefully match Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech for majesty. Yes, we can! Um, well, in actual fact, no we can’t. There’s no way I can handle this stocky beast on those narrow waterways. Upshot: a river pilot was hastily arranged and my first officer status firmly established from the outset. Once through the locks of Bath, the Widcombe flight featuring the so-called Coffin, a 25ft drop into lock abyss, we emerged at the east end of town, navigating our way with particular attention paid to the fact that, contrary to the canal in my mind’s eye, this stretch of waterway was no wider in parts that the boat itself. At least in Apocalypse Now, the riverboat they used in pursuit of the renegade Colonel Kurtz plied a width wide enough to give them a fighting chance once the rogue arrows starting flying from the riverbank. Here, if Kurtz’s militia men had wanted they could have put down their bows and arrows and simply stepped aboard to conduct their rampage. 

She, the boat with the dead man’s complexion, has found a home under an ash tree. This fact is noteworthy as one of the main reasons for spending six months fitting her out on dry land was that her interior is lined with approx. 1.6kms of timber, mainly American ash. The emerald ash borer might be devastating America’s once mighty ash forests, but the little bastard fell short of laying its larvae in these buffed and beautiful planks. Since finding a permanent mooring, she doesn’t venture far. More like an apartment on water with the ultimate view, really. The traffic is constant and the logistics of untethering these mooring ropes too fraught and complex until the canal settles in for a lonesome winter. Tentatively, i proclaim, YES WE CANAL!. But this, being a radical departure from all previous incarnations, is going to split into one of two ways: adapting to this unique way of life; or, failing in that task, not adapting, and moving back onto the land, with all its concomitant problems, not least the soullessness of the modern urban plan. Then again, there’s always the remote likelihood that our British passports will amount to much again; will open doors as opposed to closing them. I mean, look at U.S. politics, when Obama vacated the White House in 2017, he left a door open for someone else to walk into. Disbelieving, they said, ‘your administration couldn’t pave the way for someone like Trump’, to which he replied, ‘Yes, we can!’

Anything’s possible, even on the canal.

 

 

A Bear Necessity

#adventure, America, Britain, California, forest, giant trees, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, nature, Psychology, redwoods, Reflections, trees, Uncategorized, United States

In Disney’s Jungle Book, Baloo sung that Bear Necessities were simple. But who was Baloo trying to kid, other than a clueless Mowgli? There is nothing simple, psychologically-speaking, about what a bear necessitates. When you are deep in the back country of, say, North America, what the bear necessitates in the human mind is a whole lot of panic and angst. Yet, is the anxiety that the wild things exert on the fragile human – the same human who is primordially at home and at the same time disturbingly out of place in her ancestral canopy home – confined to the prospect of coming upon an irate mother bear? Or are anxieties little knots made into strings we wear around our necks through life? The Inca people had their quipu, or talking knots, to record the particulars of their life. Equally, do postmodern humans have this string of knots in their psyche (or possibly even lodged their panic-rising breast) where something angst-inducing must reside just to remind us of our all-too humanness?

Walking through these American woods in all their dizzying expanse, I used to think that’s where the nagging feeling of anxiety permeated, and it was there that we urbanites would add another string to our quipu of worries. Streetwise and untroubled, enter the forest alone. Once there, duly adorn the knotted string around the neck. Venture ever deeper in and feel as the string pulls heavier on the neck. Watch as our quipu of worries keeps adding knots to its length with every snap of bone-dry twig. With each falling shadow forming grasping arms from tree limbs, feel our own limbs stiffen as another knot miraculously appears on the anxiety string. Stare into the multidimensional wall – for that is what the forest is when you are in it – and feel unease as is stares back at you. They say it’s the people roaming the woods you need to worry about in America, and not the black bears. And yet, fear being irrational – and that fear extends to fear of cougars, too – we don’t see it that way. We see the ancient brain kick into gear, the one that offers only binary choice: fight or flight. The subconscious gallery of wild, wicked animals, whom we used to prey on when we were not busy running from them, revolves at a pace matched only by the quickening of the human heart. But, it might not be as simple as bear panic anxiety existing only in the deepest reaches of the American woodlands. Fear of what’s in them-there woods might be a bare necessity for us in order to function out here in the societies we made from the ruins of the mesolithic world of cave bears, sabre tooth cats, and aurochs. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Bears don’t instil fear in the woods; fear instills fear because anxiety is what we had to nurse just to leave that wild world behind to become the worrywarts we did.

Later, I told others i was suffering a newly-diagnosed condition: bear panic anxiety. I even slept in the car out there in the woods lest i end up a snack wrapped in tent canvas. Others laughed mockingly, never stopping to think about how their own predatory instincts would dissolve in the midst of aloneness in a vast sea of trunks. When i returned to the American West the following year, i traded experience for caution. The anxiety held firm as it had the year before, as it had when i was young and terrified of the deep. And then, leaving it again to rejoin my tamed world, I realised that anxiety is a shapeshifting form within each of us that needs filling with something, anything that is, unless we happen to have trained the mind to excise those knotted worry beads from deep within our psyche into our fingertips where we may toy with them and master them. And what triggered that realisation? It was going to live on a riverboat that hammered the point home. Now, instead of feeling bear panic anxiety in America, i was growing demented from feeling boat panic anxiety. Boats and bears? Is this merely alliteration disguised as a tenuous link? Tame English canals versus American wilderness? Well, the connection is not as stretched as you might think. The boat, built long and wide and stocky for a river, was squeezed into a narrow, shallow and popular canal in a picturesque corner of olde England. For every holiday boat that inched past mine (and they were legion, depressingly so), the same set of psychological conditions i felt in the American wilderness came back to haunt me. In short, the inbuilt worry space was occupied again. The canal seemed to grow narrower and the passing boaters more intrusive. Wave after wave of prying eyes, faces moving past the portholes so close I could plant a kiss on them. For every time i raised my head above the parapet, another narrowboat would come into view. Privacy on short notice; another holidaymaker enjoying me as a caged novelty item. Anxiety filled the space the bear had hibernated in. Panic rose in the breast and i thought to myself, Here we go again. Not another one! It’s gonna hit. No way can it pass.’  How can the mind be stilled when the water on which the riverboat sits is rippling with excitement at yet another boat brushing millimetres by?

Bear and boats, Inca knots recording the state of our psychology, and of course worry beads. I know now why Muslims the world over run the beads between their thumb and forefinger. While the rest of us internalise ours, those carefree Muslims have externalised theirs. They’ve taken each knot of anxiety and locked it in an onyx bead where these worries can be controlled in those all-conquering fingers. The bear might thankfully still live in the woods where it belongs. The boats still squeeze between the shrinking width of the canals. And you? Where does your anxiety live? Or have you managed banish the knots into your fingers where they don’t loom so large?

 

 

 

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

#adventure, America, California, Landscapes, mountains, philosophy, Reflections, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, Uncategorized, United States

Part II

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

At Baltimore you are good to go. You are in fact as good as gone, for lying at the edge of Maryland’s biggest town is the east end of the I-70, one of America’s five 2,000 mile-plus interstate arteries. Hit the road, Jack. And don’t you come back no more. Whether Ray Charles ever found himself in Fort Cove, Utah, at the west terminus of this mind-boggling belt of bitumen, I cannot say. What I can assert with the certainty of shared memories is that it took us sweeping past its exit signs, diners, and moving landscapes all of a quarter century ago, though for all the imprinting my optical nerve did, it might as well have been last week. It’s true, we each remember events in different ways: some episodic like your 8th birthday gift of a puppy but not your 9th; others by associating that pilgrimage to Varanasi with pungent odours of incense and burning flesh on charcoal; and me, it’s majorly in Kodachrome and sometimes Ilford B&W that I sense a past with me in it. My memories can be 35mm or medium format. Sometimes the ISO is low and the pictures of bygone years well defined, while other times the light was low, the ISO high and the memory grainy.

I’m not deluded enough to think that this was the definitive road trip. Yeah, it certainly followed in the tyre tracks of beatniks and explorers who did it the long, slow spiritual way. Still, there are more logistically challenging transcontinental road trips out there. Mine was by no means the first – for the Romans were doing road trips 2,000 years ago on surfaces they had laid expressly for that purpose – nor the best – for London to Kathmandu or the Alaska to Tierra del Fuego overlander on the Pan-American Highway takes a lot of beating. That said, by whichever means (and there are many highways connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific) the Trans-America is travel’s answer to a pair of Levi 501s – original and stone-washed.

The road undulates at first, cutting a swathe past tasteless roadside attractions (like tufts of commercial hoarding growing high for the sunlight of your attention) and past tasteful wooded landscape lying peacefully beyond those pesky pit-stops and hoardings that much of the world now sees fit to emulate. The knolls of this eastern route are made of spruce and oak, hemlock and hickory. What I was saying about that photographic memory doesn’t apply to eastern America’s partially cloaked surfaces. When you cannot see the wood for the trees, identifying a hickory from a hemlock takes on a vertical challenge. But I know that, unlike the island of my birth, the American continent knows its fair share of trees extending away into yesterday. That much I do remember from my first great road trip all of nearly a quarter century ago.

The houses you see abutting the highway are not predominantly brick like ours. The residential architecture comes in different shapes and sizes, but I do think there’s more than a bit of Dutch and German influence in those lateral clapboards. Old world, but not English in influence as the structures of New England attest to.

The I-25 runs west out of Pennsylvania and that swirling nexus of a turnpike is the point of origin. West she blows, crumbling ever more through Maryland near to where the old Mason-Dixie line forms a Caesarian scar under all that concrete and vegetation.

That modern America had a traumatic birth is no exaggeration. The embryo grew subdivided in the womb of the New World. The two fetuses, one Union and the other Confederate, grew too large to either share the same womb or to be born by natural birth. Battles (such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) were staged around these parts for the soul of a young nation chosen by the Almighty to dwell in a land where Native American spirits were everywhere and old. This nation of epic roads might think it has matured beyond the attrition of civil war, that it has healed its deep rifts, but the divided states of America is kidding itself if it really believes it has.

Maryland is a slip of a state. We leave her as we found her: ambling past at 55 mph. On the road to somewhere, some places are merely waypoints while others are curiosities worthy of scrutiny. The industrial east, dotted with its established settlements of Europeans who made the Atlantic crossing, for the most part in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is all well and fine and handsomely endowed in many a place, but when San Francisco is the endgame of a short game, this is one quarter you don’t want to go into overtime.

Did we even stop in Indiana? As I remember it, I blinked in the passenger seat and there it was in a scene from Never the Mark Twain Shall Meet: the bridge on the River Mississippi. Jesse James and his band of brigands roamed the heartlands, earning sympathy as they robbed and plundered their way to ignominy, and him a bullet in the back of the head by the coward Robert Ford.

The state in July is hot and swampy and full of biting insects. The man at the trailer park, the owner most likely, warmed to us in that ‘hands across the water’ fashion. It was said by the man himself beaming with pride that he visited England in the age of B&W while serving as a G.I. in Germany (but probably not sharing a bunk with Elvis, who was there too). Though it was many years ago, he remembered old Albion fondly. The guy, by now he must have been sixty at a pinch, flew back across the pond (as anglophile Americans and Amerophile Englanders like affectionately to call that gargantuan body of thrashing, grey water that’s anything but pond-like) in a rickety old DC-8, which in all fairness was probably fresh off the production line in 1960-sum when he flew in it. We’re talking about the early days of transatlantic air travel as an alternative to second-class on ocean liners for the common folk. This commercial aircraft, so ballerina-light compared with the later Boeing 747, was kicked around like an old tin can somewhere high over Greenland he said. How did he know he was over Greenland? Well, That plane was shunted around so much by that old devil turbulence that it almost ended up on its side. It was then, face pressed against the porthole he was able to get a good view of the white world beneath.

Paralysed by fear, he reckoned none of those two hundred-odd passengers aboard thought they’d make it home at all far less in time for dinner. They’d come to land alright, he was sure, but not in the manner that airline passengers have become accustomed to, and nor in the manner that any self-respecting mortal would ever hope for. That’s the thing about the trauma of near-death experience. Like your faithful hound it’ll never leave your side no matter what. Keep feeding that long, long time ago event with tidbits of vivid recollection and Rex the long-haired ‘I almost died’ will keep lying forever at the feet of the survivor.

The Mississippi cuts the nation in half vertically as the Mason-Dixie line cuts her longways across her abdomen and then sideways politically-speaking. Although the river meanders under way more than one, perhaps the most visible bridge in St Louis is not one at all. Rather, it’s an arch, high as it is symbolic of westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Put there to bridge two nations – one almost an eagle and the other a puny fledgling – the Gateway Arch in St Louis is a fitting reminder that for bridges to be built and formidable barriers to be spanned, first the far side has to be conquered. And to do that, the first peoples, such as the Dakota tribe, had to be pushed back until they could be pushed no more for there was no corner to push them into other than a lousy reservation. By crossing that river whose tongue-tying spelling was recited, never to be forgotten, by generations of Scottish schoolchildren, the St Louis bridge over the mighty M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i spans two rather distinct hemispheres: one, the long-settled East; the other, the endless plains, mountains, deserts, canyons, badlands, and forests of the West.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would turn in their fictional graves to know that these whirlpool waters of the Mississippi no longer add up to a whole lot of natural barrier. Gone is the obligatory river boat crossing with its tillerman, a nineteenth century Charon who’d take you across the Styx to the underworld that was the little-known Frontier, and for only nickels and dimes that dead men wore to cover their eyes to the dazzling light of western settlement. But the world is lost to the mystique that once shrouded it. Modern transport has made a mockery of distance, shrinking everything but itself.

On the great plains the sky weighs down the land and lays down the land. A gap-fill of blue ether over green corn, restless air over restful earth. The cornfields of Kansas open up before us. Black clouds gather overhead, chasing us west across the interstate highway that crosses the plains. Cumulo-thunderheads the size of English counties send bolts of lightning down to strike indiscriminately at hapless heads of wheat, barley and corn that sway hypnotically, and when it gusts, frenziedly, in that sea of ripening ears. At time like these, the sky hates the earth, wanting only to show who is boss.

We skirt the peripheries of Kansas City where man-size droplets of rain finally catch up with the traffic. Day turns to night. The downpour is torrential. I’ve seen this kind of rain in the tropics and where el Niño was to blame, not expecting it here. When the whole world awaits you for the first time, who’s to say what to expect?

The land is a sea of wheat and soya, barley and rape seed. To call these agricultural lands a patchwork of ‘fields’ can be misleading. When does a field become to large in area to remain a field? The highways, in another sense, are shipping lanes. You can tell from the way they all run through the unbroken expanse, unlike old England and France where roads and lanes enclose fields, forming boundaries at the limit of where some farmer Joe’s smallholding meets some other farmer’s.

Many folks are mistaken to think that the state of Colorado, lying due west of Kansas, is all ski resorts and Aspen trees bedecked with virgin snow. Much of the east of the state, and we are talking a fair dollop of land, is essentially a flat extension of the great plains of Kansas whence we came. Some way short of alpine, farmed to fuck and featureless, one could be forgiven for thinking that the cloud bank you see on the far side of the flatlands at the limit of a distant horizon is actually a bank of clouds and not the outline of the Rocky Mountains, which it turns out in fact to be.

You want natural barriers of the kind no longer afforded you by the mighty Mississippi and the plains of Kansas? Then look no further than the fake mirage at the end of the visible horizon. Like the Himalaya when you’re gazing north from the Indian Terai, the Rockies loom higher and harder as the traveller approaches along Interstate 70.

Never bowled over by annual membership of the mile-high club, I always fancied myself taking a day pass for the mile-high city, Denver. What they don’t see is that the height and elegance of youth all too often succumbs to the flabby girth of age. Viz. Denver was a mile high from the moment it was born, but these days, being that bit older, with a metropolitan population of about three million, it has to be more than a mile wide, too. Keep the day pass, around the waistline we go. That’s the trouble with road tripping: stopping for anytime can be a drag. What lies beyond has got to be better than what lies near. Isn’t that the whole point of monotheism?

We head up into the mountains near Arapaho, where the carpet reeks of pine needles dying to be let out by water that hasn’t seeped through since winter’s end, where the sloping roof peaks punch little holes in a sky of ice blue, where Native Americans are sadly gone leaving the victorious cowboys to ride on steeds whose clop-clopping rings throughout the cloaked valleys. The air is thinner up here. Sound travels faster and further than its maker could ever hope for. It’s pretty up here, a first gulp of the great West as I imagined the West to be from old Hollywood films I used to watch with my Scottish grandfather.

In a cabin in the woods (how much more quintessentially North American can you get?) we meet a father and son from Houston, Texas. The old guy sports the tapered beard ripped off Custer’s chin as a spoil of war after Crazy Horse got him at Little Bighorn in 1876. He wears boots fit for a regal cowboy. He slings those long blue denim legs over the balustrade of the cabin’s verandah as leisurely as a saddle on a hitching post. Cuban heels perched on the beam, toes pointing at the Dog star on a Rocky Mountain night spangling with American stars. He speaks of things you don’t normally associate with boot-heeled Texans, like his love for yachting and the storm in the Gulf of Mexico that near as damn buried him, boots n all, in Davy Jones’ Locker. The rest of the conversation is gone to seed, not surprisingly, as our encounter happened twenty-five years ago, and the old guy himself, unlike his impressive outline in my mind, is likely dead and gone, too.

The I-70 keeps on West from Denver through a series of national forests, then Grand Junction that might not be so grand but indubitably is a junction. Thenceforth the road runs onward to Utah where it runs out of itself around Fishlake National Forest. From Baltimore at its inception to its death (or maybe its rebirth) in Western Utah, the I-70 blazes a trail about that of the distance between Edinburgh and Istanbul. Woe betide the crew charged with the maintenance upkeep on that stretch of tarmac! It is in Denver, however, we bid it fare-thee-well. It’s time to hitch a ride on another highway north then west to California.

Five Corners of Love

America, Cities, People, Reflections, roadtrip, Travel, United States

FIVE CORNERS OF LOVE

The First Corner 

 

 

The United States, 1994: Trippin’ the Love Fantastic.

 

Part I

O.J. & D.C.

 

 

      O.J. tailed by a slow cavalcade of black & white flashing red. The few hogging the bar whose eyes were not glued to the TV screen overhead, they were craning necks and waving greenbacks on tiptoes to get served. The nation’s most notoriously sluggish motorized pursuit of a wanted man airing nationwide in this surreal drama starring a beloved former athlete-cum-film actor who happened to have African blood in his veins, who happened to have Caucasian blood on his hands, though this is something he shall subsequently deny. The year is 1994 and the United States still grapples with the question of race. Since black motorist Rodney King was beaten by law enforcement for the crime of being black, a cauldron of ethnic tension has simmered away. The overwhelmingly white crowd in this bar-grill root for America’s Most Wanted, not because he is a likely a murderer, but because he is O.J. Simpson, beloved former athlete-cum-film actor.

The whole scene unfolds in slow motion on TV while this bar opposite the old Ford Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot down by anarchist and actor John Wilkes Booth some 131 years earlier (an avoidable death in a later age when paramedics would know how to keep gunshot victims alive), thrums with Washington’s beltway civil servants still wearing their work apparel.

I think it was a midweek evening when I made this one solitary trip there. So many years ago now that the view has lived healthily inside my eidetic memory. We had flown in on this the inaugural day of our round-the-world trip, my oldest friend and I. It was my first time on a continent other than the old one (not that all seven are not siblings born within a geological year of one another), and for all I cared, the America I was laying wide eyes on was a pristine one. The bar ‘n’ grill might have been rocking and Pilgrim Fathers dead for over three hundred years, but there was I nevertheless discovering the new world.

The low-speed hustle by half of the LAPD (a kind of entourage of reluctant jailers) in pursuit of O.J. Simpson was making headlines round the globe that day. Down the road from Congress and Capitol Hill, the boys from the State Department and the girls from Defense couldn’t get enough of it.

‘Go, O.J.! Go!’ they chanted. Beer swilling in one hand, clenched fist punching the smoky air with the other. This was pure America, boorish and good-natured as you like.  

‘We’ll have what they’re having, please.’

‘Can you provide your I.D. first?

‘But…’ we protested to the server, ‘…we’re not even twenty-one. We are twenty-two.’

This little flourish was bound to catch him unawares.

‘I don’t much care if you’re forty-seven and looking great for your age. I’m still gonna need to see that I.D. before we serve you a drop. Sorry, sir!’

So we marched back, my friend and I, to that hostel down the way, picked up our passports and marched back there triumphant. This moment, we imagined quite openly, would be our rites of passage.

Age verified, we could now join the throng around the TV, all wiling O.J. to outrun the police going 8 mph.

’Two JDs n coke, if you please.’

Humphrey Bogart eat your heart out. Where better than the swankiest saloon in DC to affect that Hollywood swagger, other than Hollywood itself, one supposes?

Neatly, consummately, he pours.

‘There you go, boys.’

We asked how much and he replied such and such, and such and such is precisely what we handed him. And that was the first, but by no means the last, cultural faux pas I owned up to in my long and chequered career in travelling the world.

The error of our ways soon became apparent at the next round.

‘Why won’t you serve us? We brought our passports after all.’

Snubbed by the only man in the packed bar in demand other than O.J. (but for entirely different reasons), my good friend and I got somewhat chippy with him.

‘Why won’t you serve us?’

‘Because I make minimum wage and you didn’t so much as tip me a red cent last time round.’

‘I didn’t think we had to.’

‘You didn’t think at all,’ he said. ‘You’re in the United States. In this land a bartender lives on tips, not on his wits.’

‘But we’re British,’ we answered, somewhat meaninglessly.

‘All the more reason then,’ he quipped.

Intrigued to find out what that reason was, I forced the issue and he said something about redcoats and razing Washington to the ground in 1812. Payback time.

‘Will $5 do?’

Plucking it from my hand, this bartender had our back for the rest of the evening, starting with the whisky we watched him pour halfway up a Tom Collins glass.

O.J. had had the police aplenty on his back that evening, tailing this Ford Bronco down an LA freeway to the astonishment of a watching world, though that didn’t stop the good time boys in the bar-n-grill by the Old Ford Theatre in DC from whooping him on to freedom. Never saw a black man in America so feted, though the rowdy crowd might have been cheering on the ensuing police for all I knew nor cared.