“Coast to Coast”: Las Vegas to LA and beyond. Summer 1980.

viii. Fear and Loathing.

We got dropped by the monster family at a road into Vegas; we were very glad to get out of the car, even though it had been a fast ride – probably the fastest we had, more than 70mph the whole way. The grandfather, so he said, had never learned to read or write so well (we had to tell him which way to go, because of the road signs. He took a couple of wrong turnings. They also didn’t know about crossing time zones – their watches were two or three hours out with ours. Weird). We were a couple of miles from the heart of Vegas, Downtown. We had to walk in 100° heat – at 7pm – into Main St to find a place to stay. We found a brothel; $5 each per night – dirt cheap. It looked very dubious, though, but we needed all the money we had, so took it. We were pretty exhausted, and crashed for a bit with the TV on, anything on any channel. These two girls kept coming asking if they was anything they could for us.

At 9 or 10, we split and wandered into some casinos. Vegas has two main gambling areas – the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard) and Main St; these are about three or four miles apart. The Strip is upmarket – Caesar’s Palace, Silverbird, Circus Circus. Hard time big losers. Main St is down market – all glitter, but small time people – grannies; no big games. Slot machines are everywhere.

Vegas is right in the middle of the Nevada desert; nothing but desert all around. God pulled a one-armed bandit, and out fell Las Vegas.

Knowing our place in US society, and being only two minutes walk away, we chose to hit the Main St casinos. At our “hotel” we picked up some freebies – tickets for free drinks. In fact, these were being handed out in the street as we went by, too. We got drunk. The cheap casinos – though not that cheap – have names like “the Golden Goose”, and give out lots of freebies. In fact, so do the upmarket places; the idea is that they keep you waiting twenty minutes for everything – a drink, a snack, your photo, a long distance phone call (we called Michael in New York – but she was out), even breakfast, lunch and dinner (dreadful food, though); in the time you are waiting, the idea is that you put all your money in the slots: they can afford to give all this stuff away, because they make so much money from keeping you waiting.

To avoid this, we went from casino to casino, ordering drinks and snacks, and then went back to the first to receive the goods. We went around collecting our free drinks, and got pretty tipsy (the drunker you are, the more likely you are to spend. It all makes economic sense). Of course, we worked against the process: just out for free. We spent each 5¢ on a slot machine; I won 75¢ and G won 5¢. That was all; we could have lived on $1 a day, no trouble.

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The free food was pretty dreadful, so we ate in the casinos’ buffets, all you can eat for $2. Great food! The first evening, we were hungry, starving, and we went into this casino and headed straight for the buffet, and spent thirty minutes stuffing ourselves – till we were bloated and they took the food away. We were very full, a bit drunk from all the free drinks, and tired – we had had to get up a 5.30am to get to the Grand Canyon – so we went back to our brothel, put the TV on, and went to sleep.

The next day was our hottest – it hit 117°F; it also rained, somehow. We cashed in on the free offers – breakfast, rinks, hotdogs, the lot. We caught a bus downtown to the Strip. We checked out Circus Circus: that place was incredible – slot machines everywhere, a huge kids section; big tables for big money. Overkill is an understatement. Silverbird was worse – queues of people waiting to lose money. It felt so moneyed. We collected our freebie and left.

There were so many casinos in Las Vegas, only one industry (plus lots of illegal ones: free papers advertised prostitutes and “services offered”, long lists of them. There must be some very big brothels; there must be some very rich pimps. Drugs, too, of course). The place stank of money. One step beyond…

In the end, the whole thing – the grab grab of money and the obsession with wealth – got to us; we sat in the middle of the Strip, surrounded by freeways and roaring traffic, and decided to get out the next day. Vegas sapped a lot of our strength. We chose a hitching place, picked a road – to LA – and went back to our hotel.

That evening, we went around Main St, again picking up on our free drinks; we wandered into a casino, one we had been to the night before, slightly off Main St. As we waited for our drinks, this guy came up to us and asked if we spoke French – we must have looked like foreigners! G could, so we went to these French guys, one of whom had had some stuff ripped off – he’d been trying to explain that to the bloke who found us. Whilst G was trying to sort this out, this guy – a sort of high cashier, or maybe a courier, to con people into spending (he did it well, too: he really turned on the charm for some old ladies, his accent changing, everything) – chatted to me; he also got us three more rounds of drinks, and once the French had cleared off (the casino couldn’t be held responsible…), we had a long conversation with him. he had been to England, and spent some time working for some MP or other. He had also been a hippy, with Tim Leary and another acid guru – one of the big guys at the time who was now working for a Madison Avenue ad agency, trying to make the same people he lead in the 60s buy his products… The guy – yet another whose name I can’t remember – offered to put us up if we felt like hanging around in Vegas a bit more; we said we might stay on – he gave us his address and we said we’d call around the following day. We left to get some food.

We decided we would stay – we were pretty pissed off with the grossness of Vegas. By 2pm the next day, after a $1 all you can eat breakfast (for lunch), we’d been out to his flat to say we weren’t staying (it was right at the end of the Strip, just by the airport; the idea of this radical hippy from the 60s, now working in Vegas, basically getting people to spend their money, cut deep. His flat was crowded with books – several bookshelves full – booze, eight-track cartridges, copies of Playboy and more unsavoury magazines. And “High Times”. And Ginsberg poetry…) – by 2pm, we were back on the road, back on Route 66 – though it had become Highway 80 – headed for LA.

By 9pm, we were in LA. Sort of. We were picked up by this really lanky guy – he seemed over seven feet tall. He drew to a halt; we hadn’t been waiting long. he shouted to us to hurry because he didn’t want to get busted. (We were standing on the entrance ramp – legal – but hitching traffic on the freeway – illegal). A battered silver-grey coupe, this guy in it, straight to LA.

He was actually a pain, a real jerk. Both G and I thought we might have trouble with him – he seemed violent. he was really just into an ego-trip, and what he said and boasted about didn’t coincide with reality – him – at all. He kept saying “Over the top of this hill, then cruise all the way to LA at 70, no trouble.” He didn’t once go over 55… just mouth.

He was about seventeen, and he was bragging about the amount of money he’d blown – $300 in a weekend – and how badly we’d done on $7 a day… What really got us was him saying that we were fools to pay $1 for our (very good) breakfast, cos his was free – just happened to spend six times our hotel bill on his room. He was a bit crazy, if he’d really done all he claimed (like deliberately crashing bikes into cars and collecting the insurance, to such an extent that he claimed to be living off it; and being part of a Hell’s Angels hang-on group – it was an Angel’s car he said we were in; and claiming he was going to be driving to Texas once he’d collected the last of his insurance money from LA).; it went on and on – but if he had done it all, and not been such a creep and jerk – an absolute turkey – about it, he’d have been quite cool: this crazy seven foot Californian blazing from LA to Houston; but as it was, his bragging was just monotonous, annoying, and I was glad to be rid of him. He kept stopping, making phone calls – that had us worried – checking the tires, water – and booze; he kept stopping, for anything. We wanted to get going.

He dropped us at 8pm in the San Fernando valley, on the edge of LA. he had gone a very odd route to LA – he wanted to go via Bakersfield, 100 miles north of LA. He really didn’t have a clue. Uncool.

Which left us on the edge of LA at 8pm, early evening. In LA, a city over 60 miles across; everyone drives. The buses downtown – to all the address for cheap hotels – stopped running from San Fernando at 6.30pm. This left G freaking – we seemed pretty well co-ordinated about that: in potentially nasty situations, one of us would give up hope whilst the other remained sane and controlled; we took it in turns, one of us always in control. In LA – sheer lunacy – I would have been happy to sleep out under the freeway, to get up and out early the next morning. G demanded we try to find somewhere to stay. On the phone, the YMCA said they couldn’t help and told us to get lost. (We already were.) The youth hostel was sorry but full. The motel over the road was full, so we started walking down the road downtown, the motel clerk having told us that about two miles on, there were a lot more cheap motels. About five minutes later, he picked us up and drove us down there – we weren’t hitching, he’d just come off his shift and picked us up out of kindness. We checked out the motels, and went to the cheapest; I booked in, and G sneaked in. Then we went to a 24 hour supermarket, got some food and loaded up with booze – we got it without any hassle.

We were both pissed off, tired, a bit drunk. We argued about something, some minor clash, blown up by depression and exhaustion. G crashed out on the bed. The TV was on, some lousy film.

We didn’t like LA.

ix. City of Fun.

Up early, swear at G to get up – we planned to find somewhere cheap to sleep. Or: Disneyland, then an overnight bus to San Francisco. You see, we didn’t like LA.

We walked to a bus stop and could make no sense of the timetable. We hadn’t a clue where we were – what freeway it was, anything. We tried to post some postcards, but they wouldn’t take cheques. The post office had no idea about buses. Everybody in LA drives. But they can’t read maps. Finally a bus arrived; we got on it and said we were trying to get downtown. The driver told us where to change. We chatted on the bus t lots of people – an old lady who had left England before the war; a fat, ignorant guy who was really patronising (and we eventually lost). We went about 5 miles – saw the Hollywood sign – that’s it, we’ve seen LA, we can split now. We changed bus, drove another twenty five miles to Downtown. Whoopee – we’d landed with both feet again.

We found a hotel – $5 each a night. Grotty but seemingly ok. Breakfast in an Anglo-Chinese place around the corner, for the now staple breakfast – three thick pancakes, two eggs, potatoes, sausage and toast. Cheap. We went to that place every day for four days: they liked us, said hello to us in the street. Appetite satisfied, we found a post office to post our cards – a lot, all written in Vegas; I had carried one for weeks.

We then trekked around LA – the downtown area, you can even go on foot – lots of people do, even native Angelenos can walk if the mood takes them. We checked out cheap flights – New York for $99, Brussels for $150. It could have worked, too – it would have been a laugh to end up in Europe. It just didn’t work out like that…

Los Angeles: we spent four days – three nights – in this hotel, which turned out to be a doss house in disguise. We shared our room with 3,000 six legged squatters – cockroaches got everywhere, even in our luggage. And since it wasn’t until San Francisco that I developed the art of roach hunting, I didn’t even have the pleasure of killing the bastards. Just a paranoid insectophobia (entomophobia?). This was compounded by a particularly vicious mosquito; it was pretty hot – too hot for blankets (although cooler than the rest of the States; the only place we got rained on was in California), and the fucker bit us to pieces. All three nights.

We got very anxious about the place – it was foul – G demanding we walk the streets to avoid going back. I think that was a Sunday evening – it seems like we had a month of Sundays, every day seems like a Sunday. We spent the day in Santa Monica, on the beach. It was the first sunbathing we’d done since we arrived in New York – the first we’d actually lain in the sun. My top half was brown, my legs were white. I feel asleep on the beach, listening to the Who’s Next on the radio. (Californian radio was dreadful; when we drove with the seven foot bean pole, he had the radio on, tuning from station to station; all played heavy metal – Kansas, Foreigner, Heart. He loved it.) Won’t get fooled again. My legs burnt to a cinder, so raw I could hardly wear my jeans; they hurt for days.

And that night we walked around the downtown area. We had walked about anyway – but that night, all the underworld had come out to display in the moonlight. Downtown LA was pretty much a Mexican ghetto, very poor tenement blocks. Lots of knives – lots of paranoia. This night was the worst. We ate in a Mexican place, our first Mexican food – pretty good – but the guys behind the counter clearly hated us – I think the cook hated everybody, but us particularly. We were the only people eating there, but a lot of people came in for take aways. (Taco away. Ha ha.) It was just across the road from the Greyhound station; the lowest of the low, the most depressed area we went into. After the meal, which was quiet – I was pissed off (burnt), G was pissed off (pissed off), we sat reading the Washington Post and Hunter Thompson in this dingy, cheap Mexican place – we went for a long walk, up one street, down another, up the next, for ages. We went on Broadway lots. The street that had the Greyhound on it was worst, the red light, bad bar, blue movie street. Fights, blood on the pavement, drunks in the doorways, girls on the street, gangs on the corner. We went into a second hand porn shop and flicked through various fetish magazines – quite enlightening – until, after fifteen minutes corruption, the manager was eyeing us up. It was either pay up, engage in conversation – as G might have done – or go. I tend to be cowardly. We went.

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Other things about LA. We spent our first full day there going from place to place – we had a cheap tourist bus ticket, and though none of the natives seemed to know about it, there was a very good bus service. Little Japan, Little Tokyo, Mexican Town (a real honest Mexican mock up area – as it was just two years – ago). The last major train station built in America before the decline of the railways – totally empty now – a very grand building: flash, impressive – but empty.

Other places – the ghettoes (but not poor – no poverty in Chinatown, or Little Tokyo; all hidden away) were disappointing: too commercialised, Americanised, catering for tourists.

Disneyland, on the other hand, was great: it was catering for the tourists, but made no false claims: such pure forgery, pure fantasy; pure escapism. A great place, we spent the whole day there, lost in it. Amazing. Remember “West World”? That’s Disneyland one step on. Disneyland is really a glorified funfair, but so glorified. We did some amazing things – ride down the Matterhorn bobsleigh, the most impressive haunted house (full of holograms – it was so well done, technically excellent, mentally stunning, visually imaginative) – lots more, culminating in Space Mountain, a breathtaking (literally, it was forced out of us, we couldn’t breath for the speed of the car) ride – it only lasted two or three minutes but it was so FAST.

And we went to the beach, full of Californian macho men. American dreams; no brains. No girls either. Not for us, anyway. We almost went to Redondo Beach; but instead chose Venice.

And then out. LA held no real joy for me; it was a very insular, somewhat disgusting place – it is hard to explain – as if it had all the bad points of a big city, and none of the good. It is the perfect place for a megastar, depersonalized and anonymous. Moneyed at the surface, supported by a weak structure of poverty and dirt – a few diamonds in the sulphur mine, leaning on props which are rotten.

Drop the bomb.

x. If you’re going to San Francisco: let’s do the time warp. Again.

Both the journey and the place. We got a bus to Malibu on route 1 north – the coast road. Malibu was the first place it was possible to hitch from: the first open country for sixty miles. There was a guy hitching in front of us who got there after us – bastard: bad etiquette. He jinxed us; he was a creep – he spooked the cars, and then they wouldn’t stop for us, either. We didn’t mind him going first, just to get rid of him A couple of v signs in the mirror, we felt much better when he’d gone. We quickly got a lift, two French tourists in a hired car. They were going to San Francisco, but taking several days over it; by chance, we spent two days with them, It took three days for us to get to San Francisco, only four hundred miles. Most of the traffic goes inland but route 1 – up the coast – is the road: good scenery, more fun. Route 101 could have got us there in a day.

It was with these French guys – they were a good laugh, though there were quite a few language problems – that were heard one of Reagan’s speeches. (He’s just been elected prez of the US of A; it was announced yesterday.) It was dreadful: he was going on about how Vietnam was good and valiant and how “we must not shirk our past, but e proud of it” – it seemed quite horrific.

The countryside along the coast was quite amazing: very spectacular. We stopped off for food on a cliff or a bluff: clouds n the hills to our right, the Pacific on our left. It was really green. A very posy roadside café, though – for rich Californians. White punks on dope?

We drove through the day, and stopped at Moro Bay in the evening. The Frenchies were going to sleep on the beach. They wanted a good meal too, so we stopped at a roadhouse for some more chilli. G fell in love with the waitress – again. It was early, about 6pm, and we couldn’t decide what to do: carry on or not. we hitched for another hour, but got no lifts, it was just like the east coast – hitching in the middle was easier. We bought some booze (illegally) and went to find the beach. It measured about twelve feet square, so we sat and watched the boats, fat apathetic Californians and lunatic drivers, and drank our Budweiser. For some reason I got pissed off – I can’t remember why; G drank my beer.

We walked back through the town to find somewhere to crash for the night – nowhere We ended up back where we started, on the route 1 sliproad. We looked behind a supermarket: this guard dog started up – it kept going all night. To bed. It was hard, sand, uncomfortable.

At about 2am, the dog started barking again. I woke up – G was already awake – to hear this guy walking towards us, swearing – “cunt fuck cunt bastard mother fucker fucking bastard shit…” He kept this up. I grabbed my trousers, put on my shoes – getting ready to do something. He walked right past, into town, swearing. I went back to sleep – we were hidden by some bushes – and about half an hour later, he came back – still swearing. We reckoned he must have been hitching and dumped in the middle of nowhere. He freaked us quite a bit – we both thought we might have trouble, but he didn’t see us.

We woke early, and went back to the roadhouse for breakfast – pancakes and eggs – and with G lusting after the waitress, we were back on the road for nine. This car pulled up as we hit the road. It only took us five miles, but it felt good to be moving. We got another lift quickly. The place was full of hitchers, so we didn’t turn anything down. We rode on the back of a pick up truck – two rides. They were short.

Dropped off at a cross roads in the middle of nowhere. One minor road to San Francisco, the other to Fresno. It started to drizzle.

We didn’t wait long – we were lucky. Quite a posh car, fairly luxurious, took us a bit of the way, to a small hamlet on a hill. Not much traffic, we waited quite a while. There was a café on the other side of the road, and we were tempted to have another breakfast. We didn’t. Another hitcher appeared, he sat by the side of the road, jinxing us. We got pissed off. And then the French guys turned up again – thank god.

We rode with them to Big Sur. On the way up, we stopped off at Hearst Castle – as in Patti Hearst: Citizen Cane’s Xanadu, stuck up on a hill. Weird. At Big Sur, the French guys decided to go into the hills for a while – to hike. We left them at a gas station, the only place to hitch. We phoned G’s mate B, who was rumoured to be staying in Monterey (our next stop) working on a dope farm. No reply. We dried our sleeping bags in the sun – they’d got soaked the previous night. We drank the last of our beer, bought some cakes to eat in a trendy café (all the café sold) and tried B again. And then we started hitching.

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You’d imagine this might be a great place to hitch: a nice, hippy community. Well, you’d be wrong. Rich ex-hippies; and no way were they going to stop for us. We waited ages. It was strange – ostensibly hippie-ish, but really conservative.

After a couple of hours, we picked up a lift to Carmel – next door to Monterey – in this van. The guy was driving along, picking up everyone: there was a girl, a baby, and this really stoned casualty head there already. The driver was silent – he hardly said a word – and the old head – a real case – was pretty out of it too. We chatted to the girl, who we thought was with the driver and the kid. When we got out, it turned out we were wrong – she was with the case, and the child was with the driver.

From Carmel we took a bus to the emergency youth hostel in Monterey, which was right by our road. Carmel and Monterey merge. To get to the hostel, the bus went through this huge army camp: it took fifteen minutes to cross it, an enormous camp. I thought it was horrific – an area the size of Hampstead Heath, an army training ground – within an urban area.

By the time we got to the hostel – a school gym – we were both tired and very hungry: we hadn’t had lunch. The place wasn’t open yet, so we went to find some food. We chatted to these girls who were driving to San Francisco, unsubtly suggesting that they should give us a ride. G and I argued – not violently, just indecisively – about where to eat, and we eventually settled on a pizza place. We almost got thrown out because G got into a heated argument with the cook – I still don’t know why – who said what, how it started, but they both got pretty uptight. It wasn’t our most relaxed meal – and we were still hungry afterwards!

No booze: we were trying to conserve our dwindling resources (we’d been away for four weeks already, and were working on having enough for another week), so we went back to the gym. We chatted to people, and played a game of football with a couple of German guys; I really needed a shower.

The next day was our last on the road. We’d found out that B had moved to San Francisco: he was living with a college student, who he’d picked up in Carmel. His absence from Monterey meant that we’d wasted a day – we could have tried for San Francisco without staying in Monterey. As it was, it took us a whole day to get to San Francisco.

We started earlyish, after the hostel breakfast – all the bread we could eat. The two girls who had been driving north weren’t around, which was irritating since they could have got us there without any hassle. The traffic on our road was sparse. We started hitching in one place on Route 1, but it was clear nothing would stop, so we walked a mile down the road to the next entrance ramp.

We thumbed the cars on the freeway and the ramp, to no avail. A cop car came along and shouted at us through its loudhailer to get off the road. We didn’t and fortunately we were picked up just after it had passed. It as a shortish lift – they all were – an old guy driving to another town small town. He was an artichoke farmer, and he was quite interesting about what was happening in California, about farming. He was kind bloke.

We then had to wait by the road for ages. Our trick of moving worked, and we got a lift to the next town – all these short lifts. We had an early lunch at a crossroads town. Everywhere was pretty built up by now. It was a good lunch – hamburgers! – and a great little place – free coffee, a very friendly waitress; we sat there for a while. The on ramp to the road was nasty and we had to wait ages; there was a blanket growth of very squat, triangular green weeds that squelched and sprang when you walked on them. The police moved us on once, but there was nowhere to hitch from – cars were going past at 70mph, they wouldn’t stop. We had to get a bus to the next town – quite biggish, called something like Santa Cruz (there are a lot of them).

Hitching out of there was easy: we got picked up by a VW bus with three men in it. They were going surfing on this beach up towards San Francisco, so we took the lift. A curious bunch: G thought they were musicians or record execs, but their manner struck me as being nearly there but not quite – like they wanted us to think they were musicians, real cool, but they weren’t… It was a longish ride, 35 miles, and left us on the road, on a cliff, miles from anywhere. It was a lovely day, and we walked down the bluff and across a this bridge over a very deep valley – a long bridge. The trees from the gorge, running down to the sea, (we were still on the coast, of course, the huge expanse of the Pacific in front of us: next stop, Hawaii!) – the trees were below the bridge. Very luscious. We crossed to other side of the gorge, where the cars could stop for us: the road from the top of the cliff had a slight curve on it, but it was long and open, and we could be seen from the top: anything coming down could see us. The moment a car came over the top, we stuck our thumbs out. The cars came in chains, five at a time. We could see them glide down, silently, as they sped towards us; a long way off. Finally this car drew up, a really beaten up wreck. It was crammed full of rubbish and junk. The driver was a fat bearded guy. I had to clamber over rubbish to get into the back seat, and once we started, I was virtually trapped. G sat in front, trapped too since the door didn’t open. The bloke was going to buy some dope in at this dope farm, and when I heard that I started to get paranoid; G did too – Christ knows what we had let ourselves in for. A mad doped psychopath, a weird pervert – there were all these porn magazines in the rubbish in the back – and here we were, trapped. As soon as he stopped at the nursery (for dope, acid, blah blah) both G and I got out fast and went back to the road.

It was now infuriating – we were as close as twenty miles to San Francisco, but it looked like we might not make it for another day. We’d just missed the last bus from the hamlet we were at to the city, so we had to hitch. To our amazement, we got picked up by this wonderful black, big powerful Mercedes, really plush. Best car I’d ever been picked up by. The driver wasn’t going into the city, but dropped us off in a suburb of San Francisco named after some mayor. A beautiful lift.

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