At 12.30, drunk on a football shaped bucket of cheap beer, standing under the quarter mile ‘Viva Vision’ screen which roofs the ‘Freemont St Experience’, watching as it runs through an absurd patriotic audio-visual demo, to whoops and applause from the assembled bikers, I think I finally get Vegas. The city is as it must be, simultaneously safety valve for and manifestation of, America’s Christian neurosis. ‘Free’ titty bars with an $18 two drink minimum, ‘limitless’ buffets twice as expensive as advertised, slot machines offering 100% or greater payout; everywhere the promise of pleasure, everywhere the sting of deserved pain. Casino’s offer a chance for limitless wealth – synonymous in the American mind with success – success without effort, the American version of equality of opportunity. Everywhere fast foot joints pump out plastic wrapped fulfilment, with the karmic retribution of obesity and expensive, perpetual, dehumanising ill health, and all of it sold under an all singing, all dancing, loud as hell, electric vision of the American dream.
Leaving Los Vegas, the radio warns of the danger of ‘Progressive Creationists’, lefty nuts who don’t accept the literal truth of a seven day creation, dangerous ‘liberals’ who presumably don’t consider the consumption of shell fish mortally sinful. On NPR, a baseball umpire talks of paying dues in the little league, at $12k a year, as if promotion were inevitable, as if penury were a noble investment in some grand bottomless pyramid scheme. On a petrol pump in Ashfork south east of Vegas, the screen says ‘God bless and support our troops’, as the black blood of christ fills up the belly of our car.
The motel we stay at has a special rate for pets. Technically you, Buba, Conchita and Dolly could have quite the evening for $41.50 inc. tax. On the TV, blinking sleepless big screen local news, a church is being audited by the IRS for giving anti-war sermons before the first Persian Gulf distraction – seems it’s goodbye charitable status. They should build a Jesus casino here in the desert, what an apposite synthesis that would be, with dancing topless nuns, and lazarus slot machines; the lord givith and he sure as fuck taketh away.
Where Nevada is composed of sand and dust, and the crumbling hillocks of eroded mountains, Arizona is flat plain grassland, and tight wind raked Utah Juniper and Gamble Oak; the state is dotted with small bright prosperous towns with tacky industrial museums and tourist attractions. It’s roads are endless straits, their vanishing points wet mirages and the heat haze reflections of distant automobiles. As we pass Grand Canyon airport, two miles outside the park, a vast forest fire – a managed burn – billows in the distance and the trees and land turn red in the smoke filtered light.
The majority of tourists today are Japanese, not just elderly couples but punk teenagers and even a couple of brown cowled nuns of some religion – neither Shinto, nor Buddhist – I can’t identify, wandering gentiley around the interpretative centre. The hole itself, when it comes, is much as you’d expect – five thousand feet above the Colorado river at it’s base, and ten miles form South to North rim wall – you stand facing an incomprehensible gulf. The canyon rises out of igneous rock, melted and resolidified crust, up to metamorphic layers fused under enormous heat and pressure, to once living layers of sedimentary sandstone and bright angel shale, cliffs moss spotted with Pinion Pine, thriving out of near dry rock; and at top limestone, eroded like the Burren into smooth lips and darkened hollows. This network of interlinked fissures, drilled out by the Colorado river – a brown sediment rich torrent, dropping fourteen thousand feet through the swollen dome of the Colorado plateau; has been eaten out by multiple oceans and twist cracked by plate tectonics and battered by monsoon seasons and freeze thawed by freakish diurnal and seasonal temperatures, weakening its underlying layers till they collapsed to widen the fissure further on either side. Geologists estimate it’s age at six million years, but this vast tare in the skin of the earth reveals rocks up to a couple of billion years old. From where I stand I can see 94 miles along the winding peaks and troughs of the Canyon, despite pollution – as in Yosemite, sulfate particles hang a haze over more distant vistas, a weird blur to Irish eyes.
We move to Hopi point for sunset, below us the Colorado river clearly visible for the first time – thick and mucky, cutting a dirty crooked path through the canyon. It gets cold quick, my breath steaming as the sun hits the lip of the Canyon, and close by a baby boomer gloats to his wife that after global warming’s wiped us all away, this canyon will still be here, and I wonder if it will open up to swallow Arizona and the sad hot reaches of North West, and the photography nuts are out in force, yelling degrees and compass points and checking their watches, ‘Get the edge of the sunset..Did you get that? That was spiritual..That’s gonna be my computer wallpaper.’ Afterward, driving toward Phoenix, when I close my eyes I can still see the Canyon – no specific view, but an amalgam, gray coloured cliffs crocheted and wrinkled, casting blue shadows on the earth below, crinkling into infinity.
When we arrive, Phoenix Arizona is torn up by the installation of a billion dollar light rail system, one I’m told would have cost a 20th the price 30 years ago; the city centre a dead zone of corporate monoliths – Price Waterhouse Cooper, Chase Manhattan, JP Morgan; Scottsdale and Tempe the only signs of life in this second largest US sprawl.
At the hostel, a strange creepy place in a bad Latin ghetto; I talk for hours to a mysterious nomad, with degrees in psychology and philosophy, about Herman Hesse and Sam Kinison and the benefits of flossing, even after they turn out the lights and we stand in the front porch, him like an old oaken Indian, his face changing in the darkness, one moment sagacious, the next somehow wicked.