Just past Sherman’s Summit on US 395, driving east of Yosemite at seven o’clock and the sun’s setting over the melancholy prairie and the mountains. Bitter sweet memories rise with the dust haze off the highway, driving eighty feels like forty on these wide Californian roads, Josh Ritter on the stereo in a warm car with the cool blue evening light outside.
In Yosemite park you climb to Vernal Falls, a steep hike up vertiginous steps to a small ice clear lake, and hike about a thousand feet off the trail up rough scrub and granite boulder till you overlook Nevada falls and a sweet drop below.
Next day you hike eight miles uphill, bushwhacking work at eight thousand feet and up, and face the Half Dome, a great granite hemisphere which seems shorn in two so that one side overlooks Yosemite valley almost five thousand feet below. The last four hundred meters you climb with the aid of two cables, loosely hammered into the sheer rock face – cables you drag yourself up whilst other visitors on their way down swing past grinning ‘nearly there’s’, as you prepare to loose your grip and plummet. At the top you collapse, breathless for the hundred and first time that day, too empty to do more than stare into the perfectly blue sky. When finally you move, you cross to the domes northwest face, to twitter at the edge in waves of shock at what you’re doing, leaning over and further and closer to the drop, leaning with a gusty wind behind, inches from certain death.
The place is like Everest, superficially intimidating, yet often visited. To you it seems epic, like the roof of the world. Near Himalayan views in every direction somehow provide the energy to start down, sliding backward, one hand on either steel cable, rappelling without a safety. Then the decent, eight miles of scrag and step and broken dusty path, and a Tennessee racist in a home made ranger uniform ranting about ‘the blacks’, down to fresh water, stolen and no doubt parasitic, from the Vernal waterfall, and down into the sleep of the dead.
Next afternoon a detour to Bodie ghost town, the partly restored but mostly ramshackle remnants of a 19th century mining community, where you gawp at rusting model T’s and in the windows of school rooms and bars and at the mine rusting and still – the buildings far apart, standing proud against the desert and the cool unfeeling plains.
In the desert night falls, and I take over the driving. Licenses, who needs em? The road appears, post by reflective post, straights and dips and tight turns, death Vally invisible on either side. We stop the car and I walk out into the desert, to where the road disappears, and look up into the sky, still a little red from the cities ahead and behind, but alive with the streak of milky way and the dust of blinking stars which gradually develop colors.
Back in the car, we see what looks like Vegas, far ahead of schedule, and wake up suddenly, shaking and straightening our seat backs, but something strange happens. Instead of congealing into a city, the mess of lights separates as we approach, becomes buildings isolated on patches of dirt, with roofs lit as if to impersonate a place; becomes casinos large and cold, but certainly no Vegas. This is Parump, a shadow of a town, a slim satellite imitation of the city in the desert, a place at night that has no purpose, save to lurk on the outskirts of nowhere, shining a fools light into the desert.
When finally we hit ‘the real’ Vegas, at 4am, having driven 300 miles overnight, having overshot Death Valley altogether, having found no room, no cheap room anyhow, and travelled on and on, me clutching my discount travel guide like a talisman to light the way; it’s Friday night in the city, and Bike fest is on, but on our third try we find a place, ‘Motel’, clean and quiet with beds bigger than we need and a gigantic television.
Vegas is truly postmodern, the photos you take are more real than the place itself, the concrete mask of a city literally planted in the sand, even after all this time, even after the Mormon’s and the mob and a ‘restortification’ so complete that ‘Sin City’ is a trade mark, and cannot be used.
Caesar’s palace is a city onto itself – if you can stomach the kitsch marble statues, painted night skies and immaculate designer stores, the palace has a certain charm.
What’s impossible to enjoy about every Vegas casino, are the dead eyed slot junkies hunched into their one arm bandits, jacked in via credit card to one, two or even three machines at once – compulsively tapping at blinking keys like skinners rats.
In Vegas, perhaps more than anywhere in America, one experiences a bizarre deja vu – these mean dusty streets, these glittering lights, these laughing shouting carousing b boys and homies and preppy college kids – we’ve seen them all before, bigger and louder and iconographically crystallized in moving images. Vegas really is just any other city, just a sad nest of addiction and prostitution with a thin skein of plastic glamour and aspiration; an opulent pimp, the city flicks its head and shakes its swollen belly, thrusting its hips into the desert, immune to its inadequacy.
Walking down Main street (not the main street, that’s the blvd) Los Vegas on Saturday night I stumble onto Fremont street, a boulevard which stretches three blocks, enclosed up to the centre of the city. Tonight its Bike Fest – always in America such denotative names – and an Ozzy tribute band, not Ozzy as he was, but the Ozzy of today, a rambling shambles of a tribute, which is to say an accurate one, and up further on Main street this place, a bail bond internet cafe, and that is all, and pictures..They will have to wait.