vi. Colorado: rock formations and park bench mutations
Denver. We arrived driven by freaked out Vic, in the rain, drizzle. He dropped us at the Greyhound station: always a good place to start – everybody knows where that is. And then the statutory phone call to the youth hostel; except that they have moved, the building that used to house the hostel is now entertaining the Unification Church – the Moonies. The hostel was understandably worried about this, and all over the Greyhound and Amtrak (that’s the railways – the trains are huge, long things. We drove past some trains that we estimated from our speed were about three quarters of a mile long, headed by five more diesel locos, bright yellow animals that English engines to shame) stations they had pinned notices.
The hostel was quite a way out: Denver’s a surprisingly big city. The rail tracks cut the town in two, the geography on side is different to the other: street organisation is shifted through 45 degrees. This was the case in a lot of place – Denver, San Francisco, LA and Chicago. The other side of the tracks – the wrong side – is a true phenomenon: the original streets and avenues, and then the railway came, the tracks, and then the cheap down and out side; a sudden change of atmosphere and you’re in the poor district.
We only stayed in Denver one night. We looked at the Capitol – interesting; the dome is gold-leaf covered, and the are portraits of Coloradoans around the dome.
(Christ! In the two days since I started to write this, I started – and I’m now two thirds through – “On the Road”. It is so cool! That really is Denver – Colfax Avenue, Larimer St (that’s where the Greyhound station is). I’ve been there. Kerouac took an almost identical route to us, all the way. The places, the same atmosphere – maybe time has changed it?)
Back to Denver. After the Capitol, we made our way to a village about ten miles away, through the suburbs of Denver to the edge of the Rockies: just behind the village (whose name I forget), they rise to their heights. The foothills. (We went higher later.) Our journey here was to see a factory, not the hills. With “genuine pure Rocky mountain spring water”, they make Coors beers. This kept us going throughout the States, bright red and silver cans of Coors, always around. The brewery was like any other – I remember going to a scotch distillery, years ago, and it looked just the same – although Coors have been having disputes with labour (really we shouldn’t have drunk any of the stuff at all: they’re accused of being racist, fascist, anti-women, anti-poor, exploitive, and so on; and they allegedly use asbestos filters, too. I’m sure it is all true. The chairman – Mr Coors? – is one of Reagan’s biggest sponsors). The guide who took us around the brewery had spent six months in London, working as PA to an MP, and he got us some booze – “samples” – over and above what we were supposed to get. Fairly tanked up, we headed back into downtown Denver, to catch an evening bus to Boulder; in a fairly drunken states, we missed one bus. At the Greyhound station, we saw a knife fight between two black guys, over some drugs or something. No one was hurt – it was a feint – but a couple of police cars arrived and unloaded some cops, by which time the guy with the knife had split.
Boulder was a nice liberal town; very liberal. All over the States, drivers told us we had to visit Boulder because it was such a great place – nice drug scene (!), good vibes, liberal cops. It has a large hippy community; all well and good – except that these were fake hippies, not hippies at all, not real down and out hippies: they were down but not at all out. Boulder stank of money, on campus (very well planned and constructed) and off (mainly at the Mall, a Covent Garden-like trendy place to hang out, just lay back and BE). There was a lot of pseudo-hippiedom – “I was a hippy before you were a hippy, yeah man you know I’m gonna love it up in Oregon man you know they have one every year man you know like for ten years man you know… no man, this is the first I’ve been to man they’re really freaky events you know but I was at Woodstock man and I’ve seen the movie and I’ve got the album man you know?” Verbatim. A lot of phoney philosophy – from just being (“man”) to the Moonies – and posing. Boulder was essentially middle class, maybe totally middle class. Yeah, they have a drug problem; but they get a plane load of cocaine flown in three times a week to combat it (according to a report in Time).
There were also some nice people – and beautiful people – in Boulder. We spent a lot of time there – in all, about a week, which for somewhere like Boulder was a long time. The “hippies” – also losers – slept in the hills (Boulder was on the north of the Rockies, north of Denver), and some of them were good blokes, if poseurs. There was one guy, “James” (the only one whose name I can remember), who had a mate who hung a sign around his head that read “Love and Peace. Have a free hug here”. We met James on our first evening in Boulder, and he was there at the Mall every night; he had ginger hair and a beard, and sometimes a little kid – six or seven years old – followed him. They left Boulder before us, one of the first to head to the Oregon “love-in”. We talked to him on the first night, and he struck as both as being rather shallow, and a pain; neither of us liked him. He claimed descent from Queen Victoria. Later on, during our second stay in Boulder, his friend with the “hug me” sign was picked on by three trouble makers – also hippies – who had been hanging around all evening.
The Mall was a lively place, a mock up of how it used to be. A pedestrian precinct with grass instead of tarmac, so everyone could sit on the grass, the street was occupied by expensive cafes (including the “New York Deli”, where they filmed Mork & Mindy on tv – a foul place!) and very trendy, posy shops, like Covent Garden’s new arena (I don’t know if you have been there). Rich, middle class and nauseous. In the evening, lots of acts – buskers, jugglers, magicians – and even a sword-fire eater – play in the Mall for spare change. Watching one of these acts, a clown in mime a white, white face and black costume, we noticed these three guys. There was a pregnant girl with them, fairly well gone, and they were all drunk. The clown was taking the piss out of lots of people, mimicking them, and the attention was on him, rather than these guys. They may have been bikers, they were very dirty (but so were we). We noticed them taking the piss out of the clown, walking right across the “stage” and lounging in front of the crowd, annoyed because they were ignored.
They later showed up at the other end of the mall, where “Hug Me” was, and they started bothering him; he was harmless, just there for fun; they said he owed them money. They started shoving him, and up jumped James to break it up. It developed into a fight, and James were swinging a large rucksack around his head to keep these guys at bay. “Hug Me” and a couple of the bikers were pretty cut up. After the left, the cops showed up to see what was going on. No one apart from James had done anything; hippy apathy.
Our first evening in Boulder was very interesting. We wanted a drink but none of the bars would let us in – they all had over-21 drinking laws, like Chicago. I had false ID, but G didn’t, and bluffing wasn’t easy, though we did a couple of times. So to get a drink, we asked a girl the way to an off-licence, and she took us right there: she going to buy some booze, too. The place was a huge discount liquor mart – maybe four times the size of the supermarket at home, probably more – just full of beer, wine and spirits. At very cheap prices. This girl said she’d buy our beer since there were plain clothes police waiting outside the shop to grab people like us. Having got our Coors, we returned to the Mall; the girl left us. G exclaimed undying love for her immediately she had gone – the type of woman he could marry, he said; he did this all over the place – a waitress who served us breakfast in Flagstaff, another in San Francisco.
Sitting down in the sun, we opened a can each, and noticed that no one else was drinking. Some people were smoking; a large number were posing; but no one but us was drinking.
The reason for this is that, in liberal Boulder, Co., it is illegal to drink in public. At the tables outside all those chi-chi cafes you can get as blasted as you can afford, but a can of beer on the grass two yards away and you only get busted. Towards the end of our cans, this cop strolls heavy footed across the grass and says, “Put your beer in the bin!” In our best Oxbridge accents we ask him why, tell him we’re strangers, and didn’t know, and apologise. All around are people carrying all manner of drugs; and we get busted for drinking in public. Boulder was a very hypocritical place…
Also, a very pretty place. Nice campus, where we ate very cheaply. The cooks at lunch and supper were students on vacation, and we always got chatting about England, where we’d been, where we were going – “San Francisco?” was usually their astonished reply. They gave us really big portions – everyone had a relative in England – or Dublin!
The Mall was always amusing, if for the fake philosophies, the attention of the Moonies, or the beggars and the buskers. The Moonies were a bit of a drag. G tried to convert one to Catholicism, and by his account came close to it. I could never be bothered to argue. They seemed brain-washed – seriously. They only ever approached G and me separately, and we later compared accounts: always girls, they used identical language and phrases – the conversations I had could have been the same that G had, except I refused to argue. We were also approached in LA and San Francisco, and it got to the point where I was simply going to tell the next religious freak who even looked at me to fuck off. (It turned out to be two good looking teenage girls; so I didn’t.)
The buskers were ok. One guy – part of the hippy troupe – was there a lot; he thought he was cool, but he wasn’t. It was like self-hero worship. He played all time hits – Stones, Beatles, “Stairway to Heaven”; all badly. There was another, much better busker lower down the Mall – he was very good, played lesser known and more buskable tunes, and was great fun. He came over as more sincere, not trying to be cool or anything, just trying to some money. There was a tight-rope walker who his rope between two street lights, and did a good show – simple stuff, but he had a this amazing spiel in rhyming verse. There was a guy playing a bodhran, with a haunting sound; his hands moved so fast as he played his folk songs. There were lots of bongo bands, semi-jazz stuff.
The guy who really broke us up – we just could keep straight faces – was a man who sat in a Buddhist meditation position: cross-legged lotus, his thumb and forefinger on each hand held together in a circle, his eyes half closed. In front of him on the pavement was a sign that read something like this:
See the world, see the beauty, feel love and give generously.
How could anyone take him seriously? He was fat, had a grizzly bear beard, and was middle aged – he looked like Allen Ginsberg. Still, he had a pile of money in front of him.
There was a group of hippies we saw quite a lot. Their chief – the guy who seemed to be in charge – was a nice bloke; it was him who had given us the story about the Oregon love-in for the anniversary of Woodstock, and a lot of philosophical garbage that I can’t recall – something about “doing his own thing because every one must do their own thing as long as it doesn’t interfere man you know with anyone else’s thing man you know we can all do our own things together man.”1 I didn’t really listen: he said this mainly to G, and I cut out. Even G – who said I was far too intolerant of them (probably true) – said it was a load of gibberish. Nevertheless, he was a nice bloke, and I suppose it is easy to mock.
Another couple of newcomers arrived at the same time as we did. One was from Texas, and was very annoying – a real prat – but his companion, from New York (I think) was a really nice guy. I didn’t like the Texan at all, though I can’t pinpoint why. He was always trying to sell his mate’s drugs (he didn’t have any of his own) as if to appear cool. I overheard a conversation between him, another guy and an older woman in her mid-30s (the Texan was probably younger than us), all comparing their drug experiences, each trying to outdo the other, their feats of excess getting more and more exaggerated. Tits.
I got bored and left them there
They were just dead weight to me
Farther along the road without that load2
After three days, we hitched out of Boulder, forty miles into the Rockies, to Estes Park, a national park. One lift was interesting, a fairly hippyish guy and his wife, who talked a lot of politics – mainly the forthcoming election. He was also fairly anti-Boulder, like myself.
We stayed in the youth hostel in Estes for three nights. This was supposed to be the best hostel in the world, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. The view from the hostel, over the Rockies, was breathtaking. The hostel consisted of wood cabins – it used to be a ranched – and had lots of facilities. G and I spent a lot of time playing bar football – we were roughly equal – and table tennis – G always won.3
We met some great blokes – and girls – there, too. One guy who sticks in my mind was called Ed; I can’t remember where he came from. He had been at the hostel for months. He’d been travelling a lot, all around America, and had done so for years. He may have been a Californian – he certainly knew San Francisco. He was a sort of hippy, I suppose, but there was nothing fake about him; he had a lot to say – his own philosophy, I suppose – but it seemed quite genuine and serious. He was very well read. An amazing character, possibly one of the best Americans we during our trip. He made quite an impact – he was very sage-like – he extended a feeling of wisdom. He talked to anyone; a great if weird and inexplicable guy.
We went for an all-day hike in the mountains. The scenery was utterly breathtaking. All the peaks had snow, and there were mini-glaciers at the tops of some of the valleys. This was mid-August, and it was very odd to see snow in mid summer. It is hard to describe the scenery – it was quite bleak, but so beautiful. We went with two New Zealand girls, sisters, one called Karen though I can’t remember what the other one was called. They were good fun, we got on really well together; a good laugh.
Also at the hostel were a huge load of English people; most of them dreadful. There were two guys who were Greyhounding, sleeping each night on the bus to the next town on their list. They never spent more than one day in any one town. What sort of way is that to see a country? Never seeing the countryside4, never getting a town really sussed out, never never getting properly to grips with it. Hardly meeting Americans because they’re all asleep on the bus, and you’re too knackered to talk anyway. I’m glad we hitched – we met so many people (even if half of them were queer or crazy). There was one English girl (who had a really pretty – beautiful – friend. We would have fought over her) who complained that she had hardly met any Europeans on the Greyhound; if she wanted to meet Europeans, what was she doing in America?
Getting out of Estes park was a pain. We decided the best route was west across the Rockies, to Grand Junction, then to Salt Lake City and on to San Francisco. The road to Grand Junction was the road into the National Park, and carried mainly tourist traffic. In six hours we moved maybe six miles, and probably walked half of that. That took us to the gates of the National Park, where we hoped to get a ride going all the way through to Grand Junction. We got really fed up, nothing even stopped, so we decided to hitch back to Boulder. We easily got out of the National Park – sod’s law, I suppose. In Estes Town – a real tourist trap full of gen-u-ine Indian shops – we split up so hitching would be easier. I went first and got to Boulder in about an hour. G followed, and had a harder time getting rides. By the time he got to Boulder, I had eaten; I met him by chance in the street, as he was on the way to the hostel to find me, and I was going to the Mall to look for him.
We stayed in Boulder until an arranged lift, taken off the campus lift-board, was ready to go. It was about five days. We had a drink with the woman, who was going through to Flagstaff, Arizona. Another loony, she was on a thirty day fast, to cleanse her system. Even Kerouac has one of those! Her name was Susan, and she was a bit of a drag, but she got us to Flagstaff, cheap.
vii. Get Your Kicks on Route 66.
Yes! The only way to Flagstaff – and the Grand Canyon – was by Route 66. We went through all the places in the song – Gallup, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Pueblo, Flagstaff. It was like a pilgrimage – just being on Route 66 really freaked us, it was so cool. The scenery, down Colorado into New Mexico and then to Arizona, was amazing – real desert, quite stunning.
All the towns on the road seemed the same, though: just mile after mile of MacDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and gas stations. For maybe five miles, just plastic signs to differentiate between food and petrol, and what kind of food and what kind of petrol. Every town was a string of fast food places, neon signs, all producing the same junk.
We stopped for the night in Albuquerque; G and I were a bit annoyed, as it meant another night staying somewhere we didn’t want to be, when for only four hours driving we could have made Flagstaff; it was quite early when we stopped. Still, it we couldn’t really argue – it was her van. We went to a cheap motel, and Susan booked into a room. Later, she dropped us downtown so we could eat. We later sneaked into the room, so we only paid for one.
We ate in a small place, eating steak sandwiches. We were famished, and trying to save money, so we took salads that people had finished with but not eaten. There is a lot of waste food in America – we could have lived on the scraps. There were two policemen eating there. They had huge portions, and they weren’t paying. They were friendly, though, and we chatted. People were generally friendly.
We woke early the next morning – 5.30 or so – so that we could get on the road quickly. We ate a breakfast of our staple diet – pancakes (hotcakes to the yanks) and eggs, lashings of maple syrup and butter. We caught the habit in the Boulder campus restaurant. With a big breakfast, you only need two meals a day – no lunch.
We were off by eight, and in Flagstaff by two. This was an odd place – very quiet. Albuquerque had been deserted, too, but I thought that was because it was a Sunday evening. I wandered around Flagstaff – quite a small place – whilst G crashed out in the youth hostel. In the hostel – really a very cheap hotel – we met a really good bloke from Rotherham or somewhere, called Kevin. He had saved up, taken his holiday and an extra two weeks unpaid leave and flown over. G and I had had a running argument about whether it was only middle class brats like us who could afford to travel: I disputed this, and Kevin was a prime example.
We went to a restaurant with Kevin, where, much to G and my annoyance, this English girl proceeded to pick Kevin up. Why didn’t things like that happen to us? He had told us about a girl in New Orleans who simply asked if he wanted a blowjob, since she wasn’t on the pill… I don’t think he was bullshitting, because he didn’t bat an eyelid to pull this one in the restaurant. Shit! They were going to hitch to Las Vegas together – our next stop, too – so we said we’d look them up.
In the morning, my built-in alarm woke me at 5.30; we had to catch an early bus to the Grand Canyon. G was always a pain to get going – he’d answer as if he were still asleep, and probably was. We found a breakfast joint – where G fell in love with the waitress (“Ah, but it is true love this time…”) – and caught the bus.
The canyon was so surprising, so unexpected – like all you/ have heard and seen about it amplified several times. Astounding. What else can I say? It was very brown, red and orange – all at the same time – and so deep and wide – a vast chasm. It was very shocking – it made us feel puny and insignificant. We walked a mile or two along the rim, taking it all in. Wow.
It was at the canyon that I split my jeans – the only pair I had with me. I ad packed very little, but I still over-packed. I was jumping a wall, and they went. They had been ok until Boulder, but I washed them there, and they must have been held together by dirt, because they were a lot thinner afterwards!
From the Grand Canyon, we caught another bus to Williams, about twenty miles up the road from Flagstaff, from where we hitched to Las Vegas.
standing on a corner in Williams, Arizona, such a fine sight to see
it’s a girl my lord in a flatbed ford slowing down to take a look at me5
But no, it wasn’t a girl. We waited at Williams for about an hour, beer in hand, and then we moved down the road a bit. This trick works without fail: the moment you start to move, something will stop. We tried it four times on the trip, and it worked every time.
The people that stopped weren’t a girl. They were a family of inbreds from the Pennsylvania backwoods: the grandfather – a miner for forty years, who spent his pension driving around the country, because he “ain’t never gonna go in no airplane”; his girlfriend; and his grand-daughter, who was along for the ride. They had been Pennsylvania to Texas, and were on their way to Las Vegas. From Texas, they had driven two hundred miles east on the wrong road before they noticed they were going the wrong way. They resembled the Addams Family or the Munsters – and it was a pretty nightmarish journey.6.
We made good time, though. Through the Mojave desert – real desert, very hot – we saw some poor bastard trying to hitch in that, going the other way. What cunt had put him out in the middle of the fucking desert? Mile after mile, a wilderness – no water, nothing. Across the Hoover dam, which feeds Nevada with water, and then onto Las Vegas.
1. This actually sounds very much like me, now, in 2007. Now, where did I put my time machine?
2. Neil Young – Thrasher.
3. Another story on a different continent. G taught me to play pool in a pub in Kent. Except he invented new rules every few minutes so it was impossible for me to win. And of course, I still have no idea of the rules of pool.
4. This is garbage, of course: we met these guys in the middle of the Rockies, so they saw some countryside..
5. The Eagles – Take It Easy. Uggh. Oh, and I took a little liberty with the words.
6. For some reason, I didn’t put this in the letter, but the reason that this family had picked us up was because they saw the Union Jack we were waving in an attempt to attract the anglophiles as they drove past. This was the only time that anyone stopped because of the flag. However, they stopped because they thought it was the Confederate flag – the “Southern Cross” – and they thought we were rednecks needing a ride.