Monday, 20 January 2014

Heading West - Chapter 9

Having said our emotional farewells to the others, Ian and I headed west in the direction of Colorado. Our first stop was Denver, although I remember very little about the city apart from its great location surrounded by the snow capped Rockies. Obviously nothing exciting happened there.

The excitement it seemed was reserved for our train journey through the Rockies as we headed west to Glenwood Springs. Not only were we travelling through one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world but we were also treated to an electrical storm that lasted all through the night. This was a storm like no other that I had ever witnessed, the whole sky seemed to be constantly illuminated. Our train came complete with it's own viewing car for this journey which was practically glass on three sides. This allowed us the most amazing view of two of nature’s special treats; mountains and thunder storms. I chose to stay up long into the night sitting in the viewing carriage while playing cards, drinking whisky and generally appreciating the value of life.

Back in 1989 after I returned from my first trip I'd been engrossed in Michael Palin's travel show "Around the world in 80 days." On the final leg of his trip he'd travelled across America and stopped off at a place called Glenwood Springs. Here he spent some time relaxing in a large outdoor pool of natural spring water. For some reason this form of relaxation resonated with me and I felt a great desire to see the place for myself. My time had come.

We arrived latish in the evening and booked into a youth hostel. We'd already made the decision that we would have a few beers in Glenwood Springs. The under 21ers had now left us so we were free to drink wherever we pleased. As we prepared for our evenings festivities we went into the hostel common room to see who we could meet. Hostel common rooms are a fantastic source of information for travellers. Somebody can always answer any question that you may have about the place that you're in or the places you're going to.

A group had gathered in the common room and they were all listening to an elderly lady, who we later found out was 80 years of age. The lady was positively radiating with energy, her face alive with pleasure. She was telling the story of how she was driving across America from the west coast to the east coast, in order to see her granddaughter have her first baby. The lady's husband had told her that she was crazy and refused to take her, so she had packed her things and was doing it for herself. Everybody in the common room were captivated by her story, and overflowing with respect for her.

We met a few girls in the hostel who decided to go out with us for the night. One of the girls was called Julia and the other was her travel partner whose name I have long forgotten. In a strange twist of fate Julia would get married to Ian six years later. Funny how life goes hey! At the end of our night out we were to witness the police pull over a car containing a very drunk lady who they made walk in a straight line to prove her soberness. I thought that this method of alcohol detection was a myth or just something they showed on Cagney and Lacey. We stood and watched for some time, and it proved to be an entertaining end to the evening. The woman was obviously three sheets to the wind and kept falling over.

The next day Ian and I were joined by Julia as we first bathed in the enormous outdoor hot pool and then later in some nearby Indian vapour caves. Upon reflection Julia seemed pretty reluctant to leave us, although it was six years before I found out why. I probably assumed that she fancied me at the time (only kidding Ian).

I find long train journey's fascinating in a way that I find flights not to be. You see, you jump on a plane, have a few wines, watch a movie, eat the food, fall asleep and before you know it you are there. But trains are so much more interesting. I could sit for hours, watching the changing landscape whilst sipping on my drink and reading my book. The journey from Glenwood Springs to Salt Lake City perfectly exemplified my argument. As we casually wound our way through the Rockies, with Colorado soon giving way to Utah, my smile could not have been any wider. I would even go as far as to say that this was my favourite section on our whole journey across America.

Before we knew it we were in Salt Lake City, and what a funny old place that was. Founded by Mormons in 1847 it's home to the absolutely enormous Salt Lake Temple. What struck me as being odd was the fact that there seemed to be an incredible number of sexy young girls in revealing clothing walking around the city. We were to find out that they were used by the Mormons as part of their recruitment campaign. If I hadn't been on such a tight schedule I may even have been a Mormon myself by now. Besides our lesson in the Mormon recruitment tactics, I wasn't all that enthralled by Salt Lake City.

Maybe my lack of interest was fuelled by the fact that we were heading to Seattle next. These were exciting times to be going to Seattle. A year earlier the grunge scene had exploded there with local bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam leading the way. In my head I thought that I was going to meet Kurt Cobain in a bar and spend the night chatting shite to him. But regardless of whether I met him or not, I was looking forward to soaking up the vibe of the place and maybe taking in some live music.

My first image of the city was not that great. We arrived at night and there appeared to be partying kids in stretch limos everywhere. I'd never really encountered these most obnoxious of vehicles before and I felt confused because they did not fit in with the grunge ethos at all. We needed to find ourselves a dive bar.

Somewhere along the way Ian and I met up with a Dutch guy who tagged along with us and ended up sharing a room. His name, I have long since forgotten but I recall that he was on his way to travel through Central America to South America. I was amazed that this was even an option and excited at the prospects of doing it myself some day.

Ian was shattered and decided to go home early, I, on the other hand wanted to stay out and end the night sharing a beer with Kurt Cobain. Our Dutch friend, who had just informed us that he was gay wanted a quiet night as well. As they left the bar together I blew Ian a kiss and gave him a wink (immature I know, but it wasn't my fault, I was only young and from a backwards thinking area of Lancashire). My search for Kurt lasted about another 15 minutes, I had one beer and made my way back the hotel.

The next day we did all the touristy things that people do in Seattle, Pike Place Market the Space Needle etc.  But as ever, I was more interested in soaking up the atmosphere of the place. It had a real feel of Manchester to it. What with rain and its fantastic music scene I almost felt like I was back home (minus the stretch limos of course, they were to come to Manchester much later).
On our final day, as we were leaving the city, fate was to deal us a terrible blow. We were suddenly surrounded by thousands of grunge kids who were walking with intent and appeared to have a destination in mind. My curiosity got the better of me, prompting me to stop and ask a bunch of scruffy youths where they were heading.

"Whoah dude, it's like the coolest thing ever man, Pearl Jam are playing a free concert in Magnuson Park, it's gonna be rad, dude," I was informed.

After a short discussion with Ian about the possibilities of changing our itinerary I conceded and left Seattle with my tail well and truly between my legs. By the powers of the Internet I have just done a quick search and revealed that this gig was entitled "Drop in the Park" and was indeed quite legendary. The date, September 20th 1992.

The Amtrak rail pass rather peculiarly included Vancouver, although there was no rail line to connect the city to Seattle. Instead there was an Amtrak bus that would run us into Canada. Ian and I boarded this bus around 5pm and to our surprise we were the only passengers. The driver, a friendly fellow by the name of Gerry, called us down to the front of the bus to chat to us as he drove. Before we knew it we were listening to his life story and had found out that he was a married man who had a mistress who lived in Bellingham. He also told us of his lakeside cabin which was located in a forest near to Bellingham. This was where he did his extramarital loving.

It just so happened that Bellingham was the next stop on our journey. Gerry asked us if we wouldn't mind stopping off there for a few beers. He told us that he wanted to have a quickie with his mistress and he'd be good to set off again in an hour. Ian and I were reeled in by his plan hook, line and sinker. An impromptu little side trip to a new town sounded like a lot of fun.

Bellingham turned out to be a thriving little university town and the pub that he took us to was full of students having a good time. We ordered two beers whilst Gerry went off to phone his lover. Five minutes later he returned with a smile on his face and asked us if we liked the bar. We told him that we did, which prompted him to turn around to the nearest person and ask them if they minded if we tagged along with them. He did it in such a way that it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Gerry had a magical charm that seemed to get him what he wanted.

"Hey lads, do you want to experience the excitement of Bellingham," he asked us. Before adding "this place is flooded with pussy." 
And they were the magic words "flooded with pussy." What young red blooded male could ever refuse an invitation like that?

"Don't worry about getting to Vancouver, my buddy Sanjay will be driving the bus tomorrow at the same time, he'll be able pick you up and take you there," Gerry encouraged us. It all sounded a little dodgy but if things worked out it would be a nice little diversion. Who knew, we might even get some "pussy" out of it!

We waved goodbye to Gerry and followed a group of students to a house party about a mile down the road. This was great, with our English accents we were the stars of the show. However, my low tolerance to alcohol let me down once again. One minute I was surrounded by girls and weighing up my options and the next minute I was waking up in a storage cupboard with a bladder that was about to burst. As I ran to the toilet I made a few hasty observations. It was daylight, everybody had left the party and not for the first time in my life, I had blown all my options and was therefore pussy-less.

I eventually found Ian, who to my delight was also pussy-less. This helped softened my blow. We found our rucksacks and exited the house onto a suburban street in a city that we knew nothing about. But who cared! We had all day to find the bus stop and the weather was perfect. We made our way to the university and used our time to observe all the "pussy" that we could have had the night before.

I'd be lying if I told you that we weren't anxious that Sanjay wouldn't turn up at 6 pm as planned. But Gerry was true to his word and our rendezvous went to perfection.

"Hey boys, are you Ian and Andy?" Sanjay shouted to us, before welcoming us aboard the bus with the widest of smiles. Gerry and Sanjay were possibly two of the happiest bus divers that I have ever met, and thinking about it, why wouldn't they be? A bus with no passengers and a perfect cover up for Gerry's infidelity.

Amazingly, a year later I met a girl in a bar in Australia who had also fallen victim to Gerry's charms. She'd been on the Amtrak bus travelling back from Vancouver to Seattle when Gerry invited her back to his lakeside cabin. She never went into any details about their sexual activity but from the look on her face I think that Gerry got his "pussy" that night.

Sanjay deposited us in Vancouver where we were to spend the next three days. Once again, Vancouver holds little in the form of memories for me. I remember it being a beautiful city and I remember a raccoon jumping into my small rucksack as I was about to take a photo of it in Stanley Park, but apart from that there is a giant void in my memory bank. This is a great pity because I have read so much about Vancouver and the outlying islands and it appears that I wasted my time there. Oh well, there's always the next time hey!

What we lacked in memorable events in Vancouver we made up for in our next destination of San Francisco. Ian had a friend in the city that he'd met on his kibbutz three years earlier. Junior lived in a really nice apartment with her two very gay friends whose names I have forgotten. The trio all came from Brazil and the two boys had a very Brazilian exuberance about them. One of them even worked as a go go dancer in the city. 

On our second night at Juniors I was introduced to one of her girl friends who had a pair of tits that were so large that my eyes practically abseiled down them. This big breasted beauty worked as a film director in the city. I never did find out what kind of films she made but in my head she was a porn director. I preferred to retain this fantasy. She was married to an American guy although she assured me that it was only for a green card. As we sat kissing in the corner of a reggae club in Haight Ashbury that night, the guy walked over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said "what the fuck are you doing with my wife?" He waited until I had pleaded my innocence before saying "it's alright dude I'm only joking."

An hour or so later the reggae club erupted in a frenzy of violence and everybody made for the door. As we jumped into Junior's friends car to escape the mayhem, a hail of bullets were fired and ricocheted off the ground close to our vehicle. We all dived to the car floor for cover and waited for the police to arrive. As we drove off, I turned to the rest of our posse and said "Hold on a minute, I thought that Haight Ashbury was famous for it's hippies," to which somebody replied "it is, only they've got guns these days."

San Francisco was cool though and we had Junior's Korean friend to drive us around. Our visit to Alcatraz particularly stood out as a great day. It was the first time that I'd ever walked around a museum with a headphones on listening to a recorded narrative. This seemed very futuristic to me at the time although these days it seems to be the norm.

Another first that I experienced in San Francisco was a homeless person going into a takeaway and quickly shoving a burger into his mouth without paying for it. The vagrant then ran out of the shop and tried to digest the food as fast as he could. The Chinese guy serving him, jumped on his back and repeatedly punched him whilst ordering him to spit it out. I gave the homeless guy 10 out of 10 for ingenuity but found it extremely sad the he had to resort to such desperate techniques.

Like most of America San Francisco had an awful amount of homeless people roaming the streets, and most of them seemed to have a mental illness. On our last night in the city we had to catch an early train and therefore elected to sleep rough under a staircase near to the station. This was fine until the rain started to come down really hard and we were constantly harassed by tramps. We were forced to leave the comforts of our dry staircase, not because of the overwhelming smell (although it was god-awful) but because the tramps didn't seem to recognise that we were backpackers and kept offering us their bottle of white spirit.

San Francisco’s problem with homelessness paled into insignificance compared to our next destination Los Angeles. We arrived in L.A sometime around early October, four months after some of the worst riots ever seen in American history. The riots which occurred at the end of April were in direct response to the brutal police beating of an African-American guy by the name of Rodney King. King was pulled over on a driving offence and brutally beaten by a number policemen. This was probably a common occurrence, but this time it was captured on video camera, sparking six days of racial tension. The area known as South Central took the brunt of the violence although to me that whole city looked like one giant battle zone. I've never witnessed as many people living in cardboard makeshift houses as I saw in down town L.A.

Ian and I stayed in a nice hostel with a swimming pool somewhere close to Hollywood Boulevard. The name of the hostel was Banana Bungalow and with its chalet style accommodation it felt more like a holiday resort than a hostel. We befriended an Australian guy there and then immediately wished that we hadn't when we realised that he had the most incredible stutter that we'd ever heard. I like to think of myself as a patient person but after waiting 20 minutes for him to tell me what he wanted from the bar I spent the next 2 days trying to avoid him (yes I know, I'm going straight to hell). 

On our second night Ian and I spent the night in the hostel bar with Phil, where to our dismay he entered the karaoke competition. As he headed for the stage I looked at Ian with a pained expression. Little did we know that Phil could sing like a bird and blew all his competitors off the stage without a hint of stutter. I've since found out that this is quite normal.

Anyone who has not been to Hollywood thinks that it is a glamorous place. How wrong they all are! Despite its fame, this area was an absolute run down and sleazy dump. A group of us walked down there from the hostel, and every single one of us were gob smacked by what a mess it really was. Vagrants, dealers, and general layabouts dominated every street corner. Of course, it was pretty cool to see it with such famous sights as the Walk of Fame, Mann's Chinese theatre and Capitol records but overall, back in 1992 at least, the reality of the Hollywood Boulevard area came as a complete and utter surprise.

Banana Bungalow organised a daily tour of the city which lasted from morning till evening. For $10 we were driven all over L.A, from the riot destroyed ghetto of South Central, to the homes of the rich and famous in Beverly Hills. It was quite the juxtaposition. One of the shops in South Central had a message in the window which said; "This shop will not open today because all our stock has been stolen." This seemed to add a certain reality to the memory of the recent events.

During our visit to the Farmer's Market some people in our group even managed to spot the  actor Matthew Broderick (better known as Ferris Bueller). Of all the places we saw though Venice beach stood out as being the strangest, seeing all the meat heads pumping iron at the beach side gyms was a sight to behold. A great deal of them were wearing tiny pink swimming trunks and had their white poodles waiting for them as they stood and admired their own bodies.

Later in the day we were taken to the Hollywood Bowl, a large outdoor amphitheatre which has played host to just about any famous pop performer that you can name. As we wandered around the venue it was obvious from all the rigging activity that there was going to be a concert later that evening. I asked one of the riggers if he knew who was going to be playing, and to my amazement and absolute glee he replied; "Some English dude called Morrissey." I was shell shocked, Morrissey was and still is one of my all time heroes. I had to go to this gig. But how could I get a ticket? All will be revealed.

We spent the rest of the day driving around the Hollywood Hills whilst our driver and tour guide filled us in on the local gossip, such as; "This is where Madonna runs every day accompanied by an entourage of minders." Just before dusk we were taken to the Griffith Park Observatory which was dubbed L.A's Central Park. A myriad of movie scenes had been filmed there over the years including the knife fight in "Rebel Without a Cause," which at the time was one of my favourite films. From this wonderful vantage point we stood and watched the sun go down over the city. Well as much as is possible to do in a city with so much air pollution.

On the way back to the hostel the minibus got stuck in horrendous traffic which turned out to be caused by people going to see the Morrissey concert. Police sirens were wailing, car horns were beeping and helicopters were circling with their spotlights beaming down on the ants below. As we were engulfed by the crowds it became apparent that a large percentage of them were Morrissey look-alikes complete with quiffs, fake hearing aids, national health spectacles and bunches of gladioli (just like their hero). Chants of "Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey" permeated the warm night air.

In my heart of hearts I knew that somehow I was going to get to see this concert. But I would never have guessed the manner in which this was to occur. Suddenly out of the blue two young Morrissey look-alikes, who were in obvious distress, bee lined for me and said "hey guys, you don't want to buy two Morrissey tickets for $5 each do you?" Apparently one of the guy's brother had just been involved in an horrific car accident and they had to go to the hospital to see him. As I raced to get $10 out of my wallet I could barely disguise my feelings of elation. Ian, on the other hand didn't want to go because he was tired and wanted to go back to the hostel. Fortunately I got him to change his mind, and I got to see my hero.

The concert itself was not that great but hey this was Morrissey at the Hollywood Bowl for $5; there was no arguing about how lucky I'd been. Halfway through the gig Morrissey was pulled off the stage by one of his legs and he ended up in the crowd. He returned to the stage for two minutes to give a giant rant about the idiocy of the human race before he stormed off for good. Strangely, about eight years later when I was living in Holland, I was sat watching the quiz show the "Weakest Link" when the following question was asked.

"Which British male artist sold out the Hollywood Bowl faster than anybody has ever sold it out, including Frank Sinatra and The Beatles?"

From my relaxed position on the sofa I speculatively shouted out "Morrissey," which to my absolute amazement was the correct answer. Would you credit it? I'd witnessed the fastest selling concert ever, at one of America's most famous venues, watching my favourite artist, and I'd only paid $10 for the privilege. By the way did I ever tell you what a lucky bastard I am?

Like many of the places before it I can recall very little about San Diego. If I so desired I could make an effort to find my diaries from this trip and furnish your minds with the finer details of my experiences there. But that is not what this book is all about. It is my intention to take you on a journey of all the stand out experiences of my trip. If it's details of a place that you want, may I suggest that you buy a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. A quick check on Google informs me that San Diego is famous for its zoo. I can safely tell you that we didn't visit San Diego Zoo, or any other tourist attraction in San Diego for that matter.

What stands out in my mind with great vividness about our stay in San Diego however was our choice of accommodation. In keeping up with our cheapskate tradition Ian and I scaled a three meter high wall and set up our nests on a construction site. It was perfect, surrounded on all sides by a solid fence and with plenty of machinery to hide under. What we didn't anticipate though was the night watchman. At approximately 3 am, a very bright spotlight was shone in into our faces and we were moved along. The life of a hobo was not turning out to be easy.

The main purpose of our stopover in San Diego was to visit Mexico, or Tijuana to be more precise. Just before I'd left for America I'd met up with an old classmate who had told me the story of his 21st birthday in Tijuana. His friends had allegedly blind folded him and taken him to a donkey show. For those who don't know what a donkey show is I'll only tell you this; they usually take place in a cash strapped farmers field, which is generally surrounded by grandstand style seating with a stage in the middle. The stage is normally shared by a naked lady and a donkey. I'll let you make your own assumptions about the rest.

Part of me wanted to go to a donkey show but in retrospect I am glad that we didn't. Curiosity is often best left as just that. Instead we spent the day on the beach getting absolutely obliterated on tequilas with a bunch of friendly Mexicans. That beach was a hard place to leave, the Mexican appetite for life is second to none.

Being the owner of a British passport led to a huge queue jump on the way back into America. We were whizzed past about a hundred nervous looking Mexicans straight to the front of the queue. I'd recently watched a TV programme about Mexicans running the border in San Diego and now I was able to witness it for myself. As Ian and I shopped for Levi jeans and cheap cassette tapes at retail outlet, helicopters circled overhead in their quest to catch those trying to flea from Mexico to the States. It was all quite surreal.

I thought that I knew what to expect as we approached our next destination of Las Vegas. Being a Lancashire lad I assumed that it would be like Blackpool with a few more lights and bigger fruit machines (gambling machines to the rest of the world). But as I got my first glance of the place from the viewing carriage of the train I realised that it was even more obnoxious than I could have ever imagined. For mile upon mile our train had been shrouded in darkness as we made our way across the Nevada desert, and then all of a sudden there it was in front of us, shining like some magical palace in a fairy tale. And looking like it could be solely responsible for global warming.

To be honest, I knew very little about Vegas. I knew that Elvis had starred there wearing his ridiculous jumpsuit in the seventies, and that Evil Knieval (also wearing his ridiculous jumpsuit) had jumped over Ceaser's palace on his motorbike during the same decade. Of course, I realised that people went there for quick marriages, and that a lot of money was won and lost in the casinos. What I didn't realise was that the place seemed to be enshrouded in sex. In hindsight I guess that I should have made the connection between sex and money. The main drag, or the Strip as they like to call it was littered with sex calling cards casually thrown onto the pavement. The city was blatantly not backpacker friendly, or so I thought. I was to be proved wrong.

Despite first impressions, Vegas was cheap and actually the perfect destination for backpackers.  Accommodation was cheap, food was cheap and visual entertainment was free. The casinos were all trying to outdo each other with over the top exuberance, and therefore walking down the Strip was like the greatest show on Earth.

When we were there back in Oct 1992, casinos such as Mirage, Circus Circus, and Ceasers Palace ruled the roost. I have subsequently seen people’s photos over more recent years and see that those casinos are small fish towards some of the newer and more elaborate newcomers.

We managed to find a nice motel with a swimming pool for $23 for four nights. Excluding our sleeping rough and hotel roof exploits, this was by far the cheapest accommodation that we had come across in America. In the evenings we went to the casinos and pretended to be playing the machines, in return we were given lots of free alcohol and food. In fact my advice to any homeless person is to invest in some nice clothes and then go and hang out in the casinos of Vegas. They are open 24 hours a day and if you are cunning you will be able to get fed and watered for free. I am sure that if you walk around the gambling machines checking the money slots you will find enough to keep you going for the rest of your lives.

Everything was going great guns in Vegas until our last day. Don't get me wrong, I didn't actually like the place because it stunk of greed. But as far as living a cheap existence was concerned everything was wonderful. On the morning of the last day however I dived in the shallow end of the motel swimming pool and broke my nose. The impact was so hard that I should be grateful that I didn't drown. For the next few weeks though I had to walk around with a big scar across the bridge of my nose, and for the last two decades it's been crooked.

Despite the possibility for cheap living I was happy to leave Vegas. Not only had it given me a broken nose but I was also starting to lose my faith in humanity. I sat for a while checking out the faces of the people around me and I could almost smell their greed. As I went to bed on the last night I saw an elderly lady obsessively throwing tokens into a machine. When I woke up the next morning she was still there in exactly the same position. I needed to get out of this place, and our next destination was to offer the perfect remedy.

Amazingly the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and up to a mile deep. Please take a minute to think about those statistics because they are absolutely incredible. For British people reading this, that's like driving from Newcastle to London. And there was me thinking that I could walk the canyon in a day.

We chose to view the canyon from Bright Angel, just one of the many places that it could be viewed from. Upon our arrival we did little in the form of preparation before launching ourselves into an whole day hike
. Native Indians have inhabited the canyon for thousands of years so there was a lot of cool stuff to see down there. This may have been the case, but after walking down into the canyon for what seemed like hours, and with very little water to re-hydrate our broken bodies, we never got to see any of it. As stubborn as I am, I was forced to make a decision to turn back before I joined that countless other dead things that occupied the canyon trails.

Once back at the top, the only thing that I could think about was having a shower. After being on a train for days and accumulating lots of dust from the canyon floor during our unsuccessful hike, I was left looking like something that the cat brought home. Fortunately there was a hotel up there on the ridge and after trying a few doors I was able to let myself into one of the empty rooms to enjoy a lovely hot shower. This was my first foray into break-in and entry, and I must say it felt quite good.

Once I got cleaned up I joined Ian outside on the craters edge to catch the sunset. Despite our failed hike, nothing was going to deter from this quite incredible view. Which was made even better by the fact that I felt so clean.

Our last week in America was spent split between San Francisco and L.A. We had to go back to Frisco to get our working holiday visas for Australia, and L.A was to be our departure city. We'd conquered America on very little money and we were on our way to the South Pacific. Life was about to get even better.

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