Internet access is hard to come by in America. I presume everywhere we’ve been had wireless, but regular, reasonably priced cyber cafes are almost non existent. It’s especially impossible to find an internet access point with a headset for Skype and or an audio in, so I doubt we’ll be phoning home or podcasting anytime soon. Thankfully I brought along an aging NetMD minidisc, which I’ve been using to record our progress, so we will have some record of this journey. I’ve been keeping a notebook also, so here are some initial impressions..
The Flight over..
Mudflats of what I guess was Hudson bay, stretching into infinity, a mottles dirt brown hide of mostly land and lakes then mostly lakes and land. The only signs of human life the straight cold bones of oil pipelines.
Later, the regimented rectangles, quarries and sparse highways of the flyover farmsteads, middle America – the open expanse of the protestant dream.
Wyoming roads, roman straight, curving only around the sectioned flecks of urban conurbations, all of it to the haze of cloud and horizon, vast and thoroughly explored.
Utah mountains and deserts like the crumbling edges of gods sandbox, white desert runways and strange regimented salt flats and at last after a crooked tangle of highway…green. Green and the great still explosions of towering Cumulus and Cumulonimbus, white thick and beneficent. Closer to LA, the San Gabriel mountains are speckled poppy seed bagels interspersed with flat plains and here and there sandstone red, and soft grey and black shading and the water courses begin, great blue crooked fingers whetting the desert on either shore to a white salty skein, and in the distance the high plains rise, canyon country. A vast beauteous wasteland, from up here, no towns or roads at all.
A dusty low city, stretching out in Boulevards – Sunset, Century, Ventura, arcing back around the coast to the vast amorphous LAX, and up into Hollywood blvd and Beverley hills and the Hollywood hills overlooking the city, mansions set right against the road, carved out of the muddy hills, with clear views of the sprawl below.
Our hotel, the backpackers paradise was clean, but crowded, set off Century blvd in Inglewood, a run down Hispanic neighborhood. We met a group of Irish who’d never left the place in their three days in LA, preferring to sit by the pool and drink $14 pitchers of strawberry iced margarita. At $8 a night, and with the best French toast I’ve ever eaten, I can definitely recommend it. Our first night we walked about, feeling brave, past stores with bizarrely descriptive names like ‘Department Store’ and ‘Cheap Food’. Next day we hit Venice beach, and cycled up to Santa Monica. The boardwalk is full of tattoo parlours and boutique clothes stores and ice-cream stores. Santa Monica pier, as featured in the finale of ‘Falling Down’, is a wonderful old wooden construction, with nails jutting up through the floor and a miniature fairground, ferris wheel and amusements – it looks out onto the pacific, and little groups of Asian tourists stand taking pictures of the sea.
On the way to Hollywood we stopped in UCLA, an amazing campus, sandstone buildings surrounded by palm trees, with steps rising up Powell Library and Royce Hall, looking down onto intramural field and Drake stadium.
On Hollywood blvd we walked to the Kodak theatre and Grouman’s Chinese theatre. The boulevard is lined with the tackiest eateries and electronics stores, sex shops and tourist traps. Near by on Sunset things get more upscale, with boutiques and clubs like the infamous Viper room. Alas we didn’t get to check it out, or to sample the delights of ‘Hollywood Hooch’, instead driving up into the Hollywood hills, the sound of the BBC proms blaring, to explore neighborhoods protected by roving bands of heavily armed mercenaries, stopping only to look over the city of LA, great flat suburbs lit in rows into the distance, and streams of red and yellow highway traffic intersecting on the 405. Finally we crashed from jetlag and the heat and bright of the day, back to the Paradise for strawberry margaritas.
Next day we set out for the ruins of Watts and Compton, expecting scenes of horrific urban degradation – what we found – at 10.30am – was a set of quiet rundown neighborhoods superficially no more intimidating than Cherry Orchard or the Crumlin road. One hairy moment did occur, when we took a wrong turn in Compton, and got on a street where the right and left lane are divided by a pipe, and got our way blocked by a stopped truck – a perfect pace to ambush a pair of pasty middle class Irish ghetto tourists. We managed to fight our way out.
After the richly appointed laid back hills of Malibu on the Pacific Highway, where houses cling to hills overlooking flocks of surfers hitting the first rough waves since Long Beach, Route 1 brings you past your first trailer parks and flat grape plantations tended by Mexican immigrants.
On a map LA is surrounded by gray blotches of military bases with names like Edwards, twenty nine palms and Chocolate Mountain – perhaps it’s a coincidence that these enormous temples of military might – together amounting to more surface area than LA itself, surround the city in a semi circle, as if poised to consume it.
I’m struck again and again as we pass hoardings and imitation 50’s cafes, and new GM owned Chevrolets with retro styling, how America is a nation consuming and reconsuming the myth of itself – like a great loud advert, a curtain behind which is no wizard but only a wizened old uncle sam.
On the mountain roads of route 101 – which remind us of the ring of Kerry, sheer drops on the left and overhanging granite outcrops on the right – we stop to ascend a waterfall, a sweaty hour long hike into the deciduous frosted hills, part of a forty mile trail.
On Route 1 no hitchhikers lie in wait, and few cars overtake us or block our way, just the Doors on the stereo, the road and Monterey 67 miles into the future. Eager not to miss our check in, we speed round these sheer one eighty bends and past the quaint and welcoming wooden motels of Big Sur.
Monterey is a small city, a sort of south western Dawson’s creek, with a wide fishing boat scattered Warf, and a center of bright wooden colonial buildings and bright tall shining white Americans – many of whom look like they’ve left the local naval school for an evening on the town. We arrive at night, in the middle of an annual hot rod tournament, heavy growling automobiles crawling down Fremont street, low riders and classic Chevy’s and modified SUV’s and quirky strange combinations of all three – we watch out the window of a Japanese restaurant as blondes holler and leap at the sight of these great finned phallus’s.
On Route 1 again, after a breakfast of free pancakes in our overpriced but comfortable hostel, we’re on the road again – on the radio Christian rock blares without irony ‘I get down on my knees’ and ‘Trout fishing in America’ croon in faux Appalachian excitement ‘My hair had a party last night’.
In Santa Cruise a homeless man on crutches looking like a hobo from the 30’s holds a sign for ‘a little help’ and asks if I want him to stand in front of the wooden city sign.
We hit San Francisco, the foggy city – no one warned me – and cross the Golden Gate Bridge, the bay invisible below. We find Golden Gate Park, back across on the southern shore – $5 the poorer, and catch the last hour of a free music festival and Thai red tofu and mango juice and friendly kids from Berkley and UCLA, and Spearhead singing ‘Power to the Peaceful’ to 80,000 freaks and hippies and joyful stoned onlookers – the smell of bud and incense hanging its own comforting fog over the valley, hemmed in by trees in either side.
Our hostel in SF is horrific – special mention to the Globe – avoid – no kitchen, rooms like prison cells, tiny run down bathrooms, 2 aging PC’s with a 15 minute limit for the illusion of net access and no parking for our car which we’ll have to bounce around for the next three days. Apparently the area we walked through last night, civic street, the UN plaza and Tenderloin, was amongst the most dangerous in the city. This morning we pass a bum spitting on a small old Chinese man, yelling about immigrants, who threatens and follows us when I tell him to watch it. I’m suddenly glad of the pepper spray I picked up for five bucks on Venice Beach.