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Friday, 24 September 2010

Crossing the Sierras

We drove over the Sierras to Yosemite: A very bald statement and rightly so. The Sierras are beyond my descriptive powers. Some say man’s brain is reaching the point beyond which science can go no further. Our mammalian brain, evolved from millennia on the African plains, will no longer be able to conceive the questions to be asked as our limits approach. And without questions there'll be answers beyond us. Across the Sierras my mammalian brain was reduced to a trancelike state absorbing image after image, each more powerful than the rest and none of it remembered.

We rendezvoused with another Aventours group at Lake Mono. Their tour guide was a friend of Gregs. It was also his birthday, so buckets of water and shaving foam seemed almost obligatory. This was what our mammalian brains, evolved from millennia on the African plains, were designed for, and we went for it like a bunch of chimps on speed.

Walking round Lake Mono

Afterwards I had one of those leisurely talks with Karen and Sheri Roberts – the kind that signify nothing and evaporate in the brain. It was a very hot day.

We reached Yosemite at night and had to put up our tents in the dark. No problem. We were a well oiled machine. Later that night I talked to Candy, a vibrant, bustling secretary, originally from Yorkshire but working in Stockholm. I was intrigued. No one’s called Candy in Yorkshire. Maybe that’s why she went to Stockholm.

Later still I spent a happy fifteen dollars on whiskey sours, talking men’s talk with Ron Tillet, a cheerful Australian. He’d tried to lure Kim and Sharon out for a drink with us, but with no success, and as the evening progressed he became increasingly annoyed over his non relationship with Kim. Such is life in a small enclosed bubble with too much to drink and too many hours to think, and Kim Haslinger was beautiful.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

True Believers

That night I had a dream. It was Pink Lady again, brandishing a book. True Believers.

"What the hell is this?" I snarled.

"Right back at yer, pal," she snarled back. Her ruby lips parted baring bright and feral teeth. “I’m just telling you this is probably the best goddamned book you’re gonna read this side of the great divide. Me and my friends all like it, pal, so you better read it, see.” She stomped a stiletto on my chest just to emphasise the point, and then disappeared.

I glanced at the cover. The book looked hot but wouldn’t be out until 2010. I still had time

The Devil's Playground

July 15th-18th

Would you believe it? There was war in the camp: hostility over dishwashing. I took refuge in the swimming pool, skirted the continuing arguments to eat four barbequed ribs, and, as tensions settled, played pool. Other than the great dish-washing war and possibly because of it, I missed – according to Roland – the definitive western sunset. Compensation was sought and found in a giant tub of banana daiquiri made by Roland whilst, presumably watching the sunset. Another large tub sat alongside, in reserve. There would be little sleep in the hours to come.

At ten pm we set off, travelling through Nevada by night, drinking and Casino-hopping until dawn. We stopped off at five casinos in all and the night became progressively more wild. Not only did we have an almost endless supply of Daiquiri, each casino we visited gave us a small book of five vouchers allowing us two free drinks and three vouchers to use on a small city of fruit machines.

The whole thing demanded constitutions of iron, but somebody had to do it. By dawn exhaustion over-took us all and I collapsed in blissful sleep across two seats belonging to a Elisabeth and her friend. These were two beautiful medical students from Paris. I liked Elisabeth. She called me ‘Fuzzy-face’ because of my unshaven appearance. I imagine she called me other names that night.

We breakfasted in Reno at a Casino called the Circus. It offered thirty six course breakfasts and as much as you could eat for less than two dollars. On each table were bingo cards so you could gamble whilst you ate, and, placed discreetly between the condiments, was another message reminding you that there were starving people in the world, and exhorting you to eat sensibly.


I was dining in the devil’s playground.

I left feeling exhausted, bloated and morally confused. Much like a reader of Petronius’s ‘Satyricon’, I trudged back to the coach, resolute on staying in camp that night, go no where, and eat no more food. Ever.

Camp was in a pine forest on the shores of Lake Tahoe. We swam, slept and sunbathed, allowing our bodies to recover, our minds to catch up. Greg, our tour guide tried to organise a group dinner in Reno that night, but my stomach rebelled. Instead I stayed in camp, took photo’s of the lake and observed how friendly the woodpeckers and chipmunks were, before going to sleep. Fuzzy-face had left the building.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Gambling with Death

Thursday July 15th

At eight am we were on the road again, destination – the Great Salt Lake. We were told that this lake was second only to the Dead Sea in terms of its salt content. Things like this are good to know when confronted with such an unimpressive sight. It was a grubby, dismal, barren place and the water smelt. I paddled a good half mile into the lake – Keyton's ever-hopeful gene – but the water failed to reach much higher than my knees. Maybe I should be grateful. Much higher and I could have walked out, my cojones dried and salted. I took one final look before boarding the bus. The shoreline swarmed with millions of tiny sand-flies, souls captured by Mormons in their great genealogical quest.

Then on to The Great Salt Desert where we lunched. I hate to use the phrase coming up now. My crit partners would shoot me dead on the spot. But this was awesome, and it was here I momentarily gambled with death. I just wanted to experience utter loneliness, to see what it might be like to get totally and irrevocably lost.

I walked out into the desert.

I walked a good mile, every so often looking back to see the bus, a rapidly diminishing speck. I walked on and on until that speck could barely be seen. And then finally the point was reached where the bus couldn’t be seen at all. Here I kicked a large arrow into the ground, pointing the way back and walked a few paces farther on. Then I spun round like some demented hippy, a dervish on speed, and as suddenly stopped. I looked round, scanning sky, the blistering whiteness and savoured the silence. I stayed until I felt the first trickle of fear and then set about locating my arrow. For a minute or two I panicked, walking faster and faster, wondering where the hell the bus was: And then the welcoming speck, and the promise of bourbon. I’d lived a western dream.

Back on the bus we played cards – Sweaty Betty if I remember – with a slug of bourbon for stakes. We were heading into gambling country.

On crossing the state line into Nevada we were all given a book of vouchers entitling us to free drinks and games in a nearby casino. A most gorgeous, raven haired woman controlled the Black Jack table. She operated without expression like a beautifully efficient automaton. I’d have married her on the spot. Instead I lost dollars on a crap game I never understood. It didn’t matter. It was enough just to watch her face and that little stick of hers moving chips across a long green board.

Wells Campsite was beautiful and lush. Greg, Gary, Roland and myself drove off-site to the nearby town of Wells to buy alcohol for our nightly punch.

Wells is a crossroads in the desert, the gateway to so much endeavour and tragedy in the old west. Times change. Now there was a whole coach-load of Jewish folk in the liquor store – all from New York. Provisions bought we whiled away an hour in a small casino bar where I drank and Greg, with more experience, gambled.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Bear Lake and Salt Lake City

Wednesday July 14

Salt Lake City

I hate early starts but with Aventours and a country the size of America you had little choice. Today we had breakfast at seven and to compound the misery I was on dishwashing duty with Sharon and Kim. We had great fun but I wasn’t looking forward to eating from those plates later in the day. We were not great dish-washers.
After packing we were on the road once more, heading for Bear Lake in Utah followed by Salt Lake City.

Bear Lake was a magical lunch spot, and mercifully we didn’t need plates. I was beginning to worry about the reaction when we eventually did.

The lake itself was a beautiful turquoise and according to legend a lake monster lurked in its depths. The story originated from a compendium of sightings compiled by Joseph C Rich a leading C19th Mormon who later admitted the stories were false. An untruthful Mormon. Be still my beating heart. Still the story had traction. Other sightings followed, some describing it as a large walrus, others as a prehistoric lizard, and a few describing it as a larger than average carp. We saw nothing – though the last reported sighting was in 2004.

I think we’d have been quite happy spending the entire day at Bear Lake, swimming, diving from rocks, just messing around, but Salt Lake City beckoned.

There we toured the Temple grounds, saw a film on their founding prophet, and were invited to stroke marble-effect pillars made purely from wood. There were better ways to spend an afternoon, but there wasn’t a bar in sight.

Walking around, I felt like an extra in Stepford City – only no one had given me the diazepam. It had to be Valium. It had to be. I couldn’t figure it out. Sunshine and Valium. Everyone seemed so goddamned content with those smug little smiles that told us they knew something we didn’t. Maybe they did. I bought a Mormon bible for a dollar, but was later ripped off 11 dollars buying a T Shirt from a fresh-faced boy - with the smile.

Beneath a late afternoon sun I consumed two milk-shakes and too many ice creams watching people walk by, searching for a break in the wall of contentment.
Tourists may see that in Monmouth today, an alternative Paradise. I love it. But that Wednesday, July 14th I saw it as alien, artificial, and it gave me the creeps.

That night some of the group went bowling but having consumed too many milk products, I stayed in camp and spent the time talking to Evelyn, Daghmar, Sharon and Kim; drank bourbon, swatted mosquitoes. The only other highlight of this day was noting that Ron Tillet didn’t sleep in his tent that night. Can you imagine that? I’d become a canvas-flap-twitcher. I must have been really bored that day. I blame it on the milk.