Sunday, 30 January 2011

Departures and Arrivals

I decided all these people were having a shit time, so i photographd them. There were more either side, but alas my lense was not wide enough to cover the scope of depression on the tube that morning. 
Standardly took a picture of this...
Plane interiors....

 Icelands main airport, modern, clean, empty. Nice pastries, but bad bad hotdog sauce.
 As it turns out Icelandic cows and Rizwan have much in common. 

Carparks and volcanic plains. 
 Waiting for trains on the edge of NYC.

 This was not an amish shop, the worker bees inside did not like being asked why. 

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Finding home across the Atlantic

It appears I've changed somewhat from the little boy that fell in love with Manhattan and yearned to live there for so long. Now the monolithic grey towers that stretch block after block after block with nothing but the same chain stores at their feet leave me yearning to escape this island of intense capital. 

Feeling the oppression of this giant city we took shelter in Central Park for a while to work out what to do next and decided to use the library in the Barnes & Noble bookshop to look in some New York guidebooks, something we maybe should have done before we left. After a little reading we decide Brooklyn was the place to be and off we went.
What we find just the other side of the East River is the East London of New York. The buildings here are much more human scaled, many with beautiful side paneling and box design that creates lego effect neighbourhoods.  Most every house has a stoop that brings back many moments on Gore Rd. Already this feels like home. The majority of the shops are independents and sell a variety of vintage clothes, health food and out dated vinyl to the hipsters, scensters and fashionistas that fill these happening streets. 

It would appear that its cool to be a dickhead everywhere these days... 

Nestled deep in this patchwork nonconformity is a quaint little dwelling whose use has been re-appropriated by The City Reliquary, a higgledy piggledy assortment of New Yorkian artifacts and memorabilia. Here you can learn about every lamp post design in New York since the late 1800's, see a million and one postcards of our lady liberty and climb in a back garden tree house that appears to be one of the last places in the USA where health and safety doesn't apply. 

Everywhere in-between the delicate architecture of the houses lurch half built condominiums, relics that speak to the temporary pause in the thorough gentrification of this area caused by the abrupt and deep economic downturn. Wherever they haven't started on a high rise there lies empty patches of waste land slowly acquiring wildlife, presumably awaiting the foundations of capital that befell the empty plots before them. 

Something that really distinguished Williamsburg from its East London counterparts in Shoreditch and Hackney is the lack of diversity in its population.  Everyone here is so white, and this really effects the shops and foods on offer and leaves the area feeling much less naturally evolved, but instead somewhat swooped upon by this hipster generation. American culture is extremely polarized and Williamsburg's lack of diversity I assume is a result of this dividing and boxing of society, I guess i'd hoped that it hadn't permeated every facet of the American being but, in New York at least, it seems that it has.

New York doesn't feel real, its all too easy here, too much like home, my whole time here reeks of de ja vu from my last few days in London. I even get a great shower and wash my clothes in the swanky uptown apartment we're staying in, and we've got bus tickets to DC. Feels a bit like cheating. I guess we should enjoy this comfort, there'll be plenty of though times on the road to add that touch of 'reality' my masochistic side is searching for.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Getting Started

Fairfax was nothing like i expected. We stayed out in the suburbs with a quintessentially American family, we had family meals, watched Monday night football and generally had a lovely time. We also visited the Patowmac River, a huge crevasse that cuts through the countryside, flowing 383 miles from West Virginia (a different state to Virginia, West Virginia split during the American Civil War because they didn't agree with slavery) all the way through Maryland, Virginia and Washington. We visited the Great Falls, a 76ft waterfall surrounded by towering natural rock formations creating an impressive gorge which, naturally, we decided to rappel off of...

The next leg of our journey was the hitch from Fairfax to Detroit, something the family we were staying with assured us would be much harder than we though. We'd given ourselves 2 days to make the 600mile trip, we'd found people to stay with when we arrived, we know the interstates we were going to take, we'd even begrudgingly acquired a Union Jack on the advice of our hosts to encourage people to pick us up. Everything was set, we were ready.

The first day went slower than expected,  though it ended with a great lift from a short haul trucker named Jason. He wasn't supposed to pick up hitchers and so didn't even have a seat in his cab, so we squeezed in on the floor and got ready for a few hours of numbness. He left us at a mall in Haggerstown for an hour while he finished his day so no one asked questions about us and we spent the time roaming the mall with our backpacks in a trolley, alarming and bemusing the locals is equal measure. Haggerstown is a sleepy little place, it seems like nothing ever happens and that suits everyone just fine.

 From here we got dropped off in Hanckock at the Truck Palace. Hopeful for more luck with truckers we spent some time asking people for lifts in between going into the truckstop and abusing the free coffee refills. The truckstop existed in a time bubble, not one wall had escaped woodden paneling, there were some ancient arcade machines in the corner and the whole place smelt of syrup, one of a truckers staple foods.

Failing at finding lifts and sensing a level of underlying racism from the mute responses to Rizwan's requests for rides we decided to walk to the other side of town to try and catch a ride at the entrance to the interstate. With night closing in we felt chances were dwindling as we set up on a traffic island in at attempt to capture the eyes of the optimum number of people. We were singing songs to keep our spirits up,

"Danny boy,
 The pipes, the pipes are calling..."

I wish i knew the rest of the words. We got the highest frequency of stops we'd had all day at this rdiculous hour but no one was going our way, then in the darkness on the other side of the road we saw the hunched figure of another backpacker.

"Oi! heeelloo?" Was the only greeting we could manage at this distance but this seemed to work and he came over. I was unsure of him at first, he had a harsh East Coast accent and the first words from his mouth were "hey do you guys smoke? Can i get one?". Of course we obliged and got talking, he'd come from the way we were headed and was going the way we'd come, looking for work on fishing trawlers at Virginia Beach. He had been on the road for a long time and was rife with hitch knowledge, we decided to go camp together in the luxury campsite he'd scoped, a little patch of woodland no more than 10m across, hugged on both sides by the West and East bound lanes of the I70.

The morning came with one of the best surprises you could ask for after a fairly sleepless night. Jay, ever the urban survivalist, had gone into the Super 8 Motel across the highway and returned with a bushel of breakfast treats, coffee to doughnuts and fruit, all uncertainty i had about him was gone forever. With our brains and bellies full from the fruits of Jays labour and experience we headed out again with restored vigor and it wasn't long before we were stuffing our bags into strangers cars again.

In Breezewood, yet another little town full of gas stations and fast food palaces, we got our best lift so far; a 4 our ride from the northern edge of Maryland along the toll road to Cleveland Ohio. As we got in the car Jays warning to stay away from Cleveland entered my head, fuck it, the car had a big soundsystem and leather seats, it cant be as bad as all that...

So, it turns out that its illegal to hitch hike anywhere in the state of Ohio and on top of that the diligent citizens that live here have a special penchant for calling the cops on us for having the audacity to try and leave their town. Each cop that picked us up took sympathy on us upon realisingthat we were from the UK and so drove us to the edge of their jurisdiction. After a short ride to the tollway, being removed by the police there and maybe an hour spent trying to catch a ride as the sun goes down whilst looking around for bits of woodland to camp in we get pulled up by the cops again. This time there are no more new jurisdictions for us to be moved to so the cop drives us to a service stop on the interstate, on the way we ask what happens to American hitchers who cant use ignorance as an excuse and we're told that they would just get shouted at and thrown off the road, i think of Jay and am thankful for how easy we have it.

A brief spell of being sure that we were going to be stuck forever at this service stop, some dreaming about buying a car and a really great ride with a trucker called Gerry and his dog Sam we end up just outside Toledo, 49miles from Detroit and definately stuck this time. We find some woods to camp in and get pretty freaked out by piles of leaves and bits of rubbish that our over active imaginations turn into woodland shelters for scary people. We bed down anyway and reason out that we are just being stupid, wake up fine and dandy in the morning and walk to the nearest hotel to get some free breakfast that we dedicate to Jay.

Eventually we get a ride to Detroit with an ex-navy medic, semi-pro tennis player, kung fu fighter guy called Jim who speaks with a great Michigan drawl and used to beat up Micheal Moore's brother (or cousin) Bobby at school. It was impossible to tell how many of these stories were true, was he really taught Kung Fu by Bruce Lee's best friend? It didn't matter anyway, it made the last leg of the jorney fly by and after some impressively adaptive driving to leave on the right interstate exit he drove us right to the door of our host, which was great for us beacuse everyone we'd got a ride from for the last two and a half days had given us many warnings about the dangers of Detroit...

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Put Your Hands Up For Detroit... I Love This City

The freeway looks like any other as we careen along the wide lanes that take us into Detroit. Out of the grey monotony of the interstate it hits, looming over the speeding cars, our welcome to Detroit. A huge abandoned factory 5 or 6 stories high, every window smashed and covered in graffiti, its gone before we can fully appreciate the grand emptiness of its dead space. This view is replaced by a grass verge above which we can only see the tops of the houses in one of Detroit's many residential districts, I strain to see more as my imagination builds the images of ruin and decay that lay just the other side of the mound. Maybe all we've heard of Detroit is true, maybe it really is a dying city.We get dropped off on our hosts doorstep, he didn't say it but our driver Jim clearly didn't think we were quite ready to walk the mean streets ourselves.

Our delightful new hosts hooked us up with some bikes to go see the city and it didn't take much cycling around to see that Detroit is a pretty fucked up place. Over a quarter of the houses in the central neighbourhoods are abandoned and falling apart, smashed windows, swinging doors and upturned sofas form the fabric of Detroit's streets, stripped of everything of worth and left to rot through water damage these buildings cement the feeling of decay in the bricks and mortar that built the city.

Once a bustling hub of Industry Detroit used to be the shining jewel this country's crown of capital, a glorious monument to the potential of the American Dream, a gateway to mass consumption. In its 1950's  hey day the city area had a population of 2million which has dropped to 900,000 as people escape to the sprawling suburbs which now house 4.5million residents and while many in the city centre live below the poverty line the suburbs are one of the more affluent areas of the nation. The remnants of the now disused facilities of a city once thronging with people are everywhere, the roads are in most places 6 lanes wide but are largely devoid of cars, closed schools, sports centres, shops and office buildings all signs of the vacuum left by the exodus of the population.

Trying to avoid the tourist trail (and trying to conserve our hemorrhaging bank accounts) we skipped the Motown Museum and the Detroit Institute of Art and instead headed for the towering beauty of old train station. Closed in the late 70's this building is enormous, it used to house Amtrack's HQ and served as the main train hub for Detroit, left empty for 30 years it has recently been the set for a few movie shoots and apparently photos of it adorn almost every article about Detroit's demise. It is a right of passage growing up if you live in or near detroit to go in and explore the building, so with one of our hosts as a guide and head torches in hand we climbed through a hole in the fence and made our way into the darkness. Inside lay sprawling halls, endless graffiti, a flooded basement full of old shelves and green water and a lingering sense of the grandiose air the building once had. We climbed the 20 odd floors of rickety stairs to the roof and sat with our legs over the edge and watched the city.

Zipping about on the relative comfort of our bikes it was easy to take in the aesthetic wonders of this collapsing city without experiencing any of the negative aspects that come with a city in crisis. After a few days of cycling around our early apprehension from all the anti-Detroit warnings had all but dissipated, so much so that we decided to take an experimental route home, as the sun set and magic hour set in the whole tone of the street changed. We cycled past a normal looking group of kids, maybe 17 years old, and the next we know one of them is chasing us at a speed i didn't even know people could run at, proclaiming words that will stay in my head for a while, "i gotta get all that shit". I can only assume he referred to whatever i had in my bag, which little beknownst to him was nothing. Whilst he clearly had the upper hand with regards to acceleration our current velocity and the sustained top speed of the bike was enough to carry us out of harms way, however the sense of security we had gently lulled ourselves into had gone.

Its impossible to see Detroit without very quickly becoming acutely aware of the deep poverty that plagues the city. Everywhere down and out people roam the streets, some homeless, some drunk, some hunting for crack, almost all of them had their lives pillaged by the collapse of industry and left with nothing by a system that promised so much and delivered so little. We talked with a guy who had been forced into a temporary shelter because he couldn't find work, with a thrift store owner who had taken to living in his shop and who battled with himself about whether or not to sell us weed because, despite how much he needed the money, everything he knew said it was wrong. We ate in a soup kitchen in a big underground hall in a church and I've never felt more uncomfortable, not through fear for my safety or for my belongings but fear that i wouldn't be accepted that I didn't belong. All I could think was how easy I have it and what would people think about this honky white guy in shorts and tights? Moments later however we were eating and talking with the people on our table and sharing the Halloween candy we'd been given and being genuinely impressed by the quality of the food.

The divisions between groupings of people in Detroit are huge, and my affinity with the more affluent end of this spectrum, the uni kids, the hipsters, go getters and young professionals is what left me feeling most unsure about my place. The only reason we ended up in that soup kitchen is that we were looking for an event called Soup which turned out to be in the church across the street. Soup is a weekly dinner that raises money with half of the earnings going to a neighbourhood regeneration project and the other half going to one of the community projects that presents a proposal on the night and gets voted for by the diners. Safely back in the activist ghetto, eating vegan soup and seedy bread from a local independent bakery the gaps in our society never felt so big and I so unsure of how to start bridging them.

The clouds hang low over Detroit increasing the oppressive feel of a city that already shoulders so many burdens. As the days draw to a close the long sunset lends the city's grey ceiling a beautiful orange and pink hue, an aura that speaks to the bright future so evidently on it's horizon. Detroit sits at a cross roads, with the collapse of a major city caused by the failings of capitalism looming behind it and ahead a myriad of solutions in amongst which the roots of progressive alternatives are beginning to grow. So many neighbourhoods now have community gardens, varying greatly in size, number of volunteers and food produced everywhere you can see solar tunnels, bee hives and raised beds bringing hope and some good food to people that are used to endless additives and junk food. We talked with a husband and wife duo who ran a garden just north of downtown, with no previous experience in horticulture they retired and took it on as a project and now only a year in it feeds over 100 people. They told us a story about a guy who came and took way more than his fair share of cabbage and then went a few blocks over and tried to sell them, a scheme that didn't go down well with the local community who not only refused to buy them but  chastised him for abusing the trust that is required for these projects to work. Everyone we talked to spoke of the lack of anywhere to buy food in the city, other than a couple of super markets you have to journey out to the suburbs, and its this combination of need for a viable food source and an excess of unused land that make the potential of the community garden movement in Detroit so exciting. 

Its not just gardens either. One of our hosts had helped start a community bike project called The Hub, which at the time laid claim to the title of being the only bike shop in Detroit. A few years down the line its gone through some changes and now has a shop as well as workshop and gives lessons on fixing bikes as well as having work evenings to fix up the selection of tattered old machines that people donate. They have given out or sold literally thousands of bikes and where it used to be unusual to see anyone else on a bike now its a rarity if 
you don't bump into another avid cycler. The city also has a monthly critical mass that numbers between 200 and 500 people and puts the wide largely unused roads to much better use. There are housing co-op's, a social centre collective called Trumbullplex and a surreal and morphing gallery that covers many of the houses and green space on Heidelberg Street, its inspiring to see how many people have taken up the task of improving the city and are setting about doing it for themselves. There is so much scope here to experiment with ways a city can orient itself outside the suffocating grip of industry and capital and with the mayor planning to 'Right Size' the city by cutting off all services to the most desolate neighbourhoods and force the people to relocate there is a lot of shared ground on which to find solidarity with one another. 

I wondered before i arrived if i had impossible dreams for the futures of this city. Now that I'm here is seems as though everyone had those dreams and impossible was never an issue. 

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Following The Laterals

We left Detroit with a mission directed in equal part by chance and fate. Through the surprise introduction to the acquaintance of an acquaintance in a pub on a lazy Sunday afternoon we received an invitation to stay in a town called Kalamazoo. I know right... all i can do is quote the tourist board's town motto:

"Yep, there really is a Kalamazoo"

Anyway, it was the way we were going and we'd heard that our good friend Mandy was there (or Molloy as they know her here) so it made perfect sense really. We bid fare well to our Detroitian friends and got a lift to a service stop just outside the city, excited about hitching again and being back on the road. A long 6 hours in the cold later and things weren't looking good, I don't know what it is about this particular rest stop but it seems that all the people who stop here are only going a further 5 minutes down the road to the next non-event of a town. Why do all these people feel the desperate need to stop this close to their final destination? I would wonder every time, but to analyse the mind of those who refuse to offer lifts is a futile exercise and one not even suitable for killing time between each possible ride that walks in. Somehow we'd heard that from Yipsilante the next biggish town we could board the first of a chain of buses that would take us to Kalamazoo by nightfall so, with walking the 20 miles completely out of the question, we strolled onto the freeway to wait for the cops. Before we had even put our bags down no less than two cruisers pulled up, a Sargent driving one and a rookie driving the other. We played our roles like professionals; some would argue that we had been method acting as The Stupid Englishman for a long time now but i would argue, however, that we duped them too. The pigs took the bait anyway and the Sargent ordered the rookie to drive us to Yipsilante, freedom and the Greyhound.

The Greyhound is a strange service. It’s unreasonably expensive and has a quality that does not match the cost, a situation facilitated by company's monopoly over long distance bus travel in the US. The bus station and the bus were ancient, dusty and no doubt in need of some serious repair, the buses often run at odd times and pretty slowly, but the one upside is that they always seem to go where you want to go. We got to experience a delightful fellow on the bus who managed to fall asleep with his head on the seat next to Riz and his feel on the window opposite, his body spanning the aisle halting all movement up and down the bus. Needless to say tension was high. Finally his stop came and as he got up to leave i said goodbye, he stopped, shook my hand and then mumbled to the bus "these boys my sons" and a little more chillingly as he stumbled out "if you mess with them I'll fucking kill you". I felt both more and less safe with him gone.

Kalamazoo was beige but the people great and the hospitality warm so we ended up staying for 5 days. In an attempt to adsorb the town's history we went to the museum and built racers out of KNEX for 2 hours. We drank in the oldest microbrewery west of the Rockies, we drank in the student bar, we drank a lot. Later I learnt that we had spent time in the company of the national president of the Moped Army, the hipster equivalent of the Hells Angels and an organisation which I feel too much definition would only do injustice. Sometimes we walk among giants without even realising... As always time came to leave, our host Dr. Vibha loaded us up with suture kits (just in case) and packed us in the back of her car for the journey to Chicago, sadly we never did find that elusive Mandy. We hit a freak blizzard on the way which gifted us site of our first snow covered landscape, I always forget the beauty of fresh snow and I was filled with seasonal joy and eager anticipation for the short but harsh winter to come. It was now that it really started to feel as though we were moving, despite the slow pace, we were headed west and everything was coming together.

Chicago was very brief. Vibha had a VIP link up so we went to a labyrinthine nightclub and swam in a sea of hedonism, arms and legs flailing to the 90's anthems recut and reworked into pulsing euphoria, a fix sorely needed by us rave refugees. The following day we said our sad goodbyes to Vibha who, despite the brief nature of our encounter had become a close friend and one we would miss over the coming days. We spent some time with our Armenian couch surfing host who, a few years prior, came to America to start a new life and now at only 20 lives somewhat precariously on the lamb from boarder control, working low paid jobs and living in the poorer part of town in an apartment that tries to electrocute you at every opportunity. She made killer lentil soups and spoke with equal enthusiasm about escaping war zones and knitting, I was a little in awe of her. What better place to escape your troubles than in the belly of the beast that created them.

I'm led to believe the story of Chicago goes a little like this. Sometime around the late 1800's a donkey that belonged to a lady, whose name I forget, kicked over a lantern that started a fire which burnt down much of the city. As a result the city planners found themselves at the forefront of the possibilities of modern building design and after becoming the first city to have a skyscraper Chicago's skyline quickly developed a dense mass of art deco buildings in all shapes and sizes. Dwarfed by these monuments to power and money I grew tired of existing in the shadows of their indulgence, I yearned to head south, to leave this country and see a different people a different life. We left early the next day and headed for the outskirts of the city, thumbs out and hopes high, sure that hitching wouldn't fail us this time round. A fair few hours, a long walk and two expertly selected hitch spots later we were still exactly where we started, not one stop, barely even a smile from behind the windscreen of any car. Shit. We headed back to our hosts house, tail between our legs, having resigned ourselves to getting the train cross country the following day. Waiting for the local train to take us back into Chicago we lamented the death of our hitching dreams. We felt defeated, failures on a grand scale, unable even to catch a ride across country like so many intrepid adventures before us. We scammed our way out of paying a few extra dollars for the train home to make ourselves feel better and set about rebudgeting to account for all the new travel expenditure.
It seems to be a recurrent theme in American public transport that a hefty proportion of those on board the vehicle have to be at least partially if not completely insane and definitely 100% weird. There was once a man, whose name perhaps need not be written, who said:

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro"

This mantra will serve you well on a cross country Amtrack train. To begin with you must understand that the journey from Chicago to Denver takes 18 hours and travels mainly at night thus eliminating the possibility of window distraction for the bored and restless mind; of course there is no hope of sleep. It is also worth noting Amtrack's strict policy that shoes and socks must be worn at all times, our first point of contention and a battle that would last most of the night. Can you put your shoes on please. Sure. The first crazy spotted us before the train had even departed, something in his brain must have cried fresh meat and instinctively he swooped, gripping my shoulder tightly. "Heeeeeey, what’s your name?" Mundane conversation followed made memorable only by the fact that he kept touching me, feeling my arm, "ohhhh you’re a strong one..." As he left he whispered in my ear "come find me later, I'll tell you about Jack the Ripper". We spent the next few hours avoiding the man we named Jack, intently playing chess every time he passed. Look guys can you put your shoes on please, the doors are dangerous you could lose a toe. Yeah we will. With Jack gone it was finally safe to move to the lounge car, an amazing viewing deck that looked like the future as seen from the late 70's early 80's. Two blond haired girls from somewhere in Europe played an acoustic guitar and sung in beautiful harmony filling the carriage with sweet sound. I reflected more on the end of our hitching career, it was so much more than a way of getting from A to B, it was an ideology, our steadfast commitment to free travel and adventures unbound had stumbled at the first hurdle. What could this mean for the rest of our journey? A descent into tourism, guided tours, gift shops and souvenir t-shirts? How does one get back to the margins?

With the night came Dale Luceada, striding out of the murky depths of the train, tall and balding with perfectly round frame less spectacles and conductor hat placed firmly atop his head. Chief conductor on the train he patrolled his beat like a policeman, he didn't miss a thing and he certainly had no time and no desire to engage in what was becoming an ideological debate about the necessity of shoes and socks. With Luceada on their side the conductors got organised and when they struck they did so with expert precision. We were outside smoking, trying to convince people that we were doing the whole trip without shoes (follow us at and talking about pipes with an old rockin' hippy from Wisconsin who had been feeding us Kentucky Bourbon in the lounge car. The whistle blew, all aboard was called and we moved to go inside only to be blocked by a wall of conductors. Stood shivering in the chill night air the ultimatum was clear, on with shoes or off the train. Not wanting to get stranded in the corn fields of Iowa in the middle of the night we begrudgingly agreed and boarded the train.

The brouhaha we'd caused drew the rest of the crazies to us we spent the night in the lounge car trying to out anecdote each other and debating the positives and negatives of California and Colorado's recent legalisation of medical marijuana. To try and relay the genius of this rag tag bunch would i feel be futile, as with many of these things you had to have been there and be half delirious from fatigue and claustrophobia for any of it to make as much sense as it did, there is however one story from the night that can’t be left untold. First there is John, the 20 something father of four one of them born this October and twins born this November and the reason, in fact, for his train journey. Second there is Laura-Anne a 43 year old single mum who was very drunk and very friendly. Of course it wasn't long before these eager love birds made a honeymoon trip to the toilets to consummate their opportunistic entanglement and not much longer after that were they caught by none other than Laura-Anne's mother and daughter who had teamed up to try and reign in their inebriated relative before she too was thrown off the train. Laura-Anne's daughter handled the situation well with a carefully rehearsed resignation that left me feeling more respect than pity for her and John, oh John, both the cruel villain and magnificent hero in this twisted fairy tale. I don't know if there is a Mile High Club for the train but if there is he is certainly in it, if not chairman of the board.
Colorado was nice, you know, nice like a walk in the park or that jumper you got for Christmas last year. I mean it’s not like we didn't have fun or didn't do a lot, it just felt as though nothing really happened, maybe we were there too long, though I think i was ready to leave as soon as we'd arrived. We had high hopes for Denver, our research had led us to believe that it had one of the biggest dubstep scenes in the US at the forefront of which was a weekly club night with a promising name, Submission. Americanised dubstep is a little different from that of the UK, there is a little more WAA WAA and a little less WOMP WOMP, it’s a bit faster and a touch less dark, the main difference however is that it seems to be totally acceptable for the night to end at 2am. To be fair it’s not entirely the fault of the organisers, each state has its own drinking laws and Colorado's decree that no alcohol can be sold after 2am. I'm assured this isn't as bad as some other states like the Mormon controlled Utah next door where it’s almost impossible to by booze or Pennsylvania on the East Coast where you have to get your beer from one store and your liquor from another and can only shop between midday and 7 and not on Sundays, or something like that. Either way we didn't get our dubstep fix which was sad because it would be our last opportunity and I was eager to see how the US interpreted a very British phenomenon. On a hunt for lanolin to retreat our socks (which once smelt fresh after a week of wearing but now barely lasted a day) we stumbled upon an antiques shop and made one of the most important purchases of the journey, a Dr. Grabow imported Brier pipe. We took it to the cigar and tobacco emporium where we smoked and played dominoes with the old boys while they schooled us on different types of tobacco, the art of packing a pipe and the importance of tamping.
At some point during our stay in Denver I realised we were but 100 miles from a place I'd wanted to visit since the tender age of 17 so we hopped back on the train a trundled over the Rockies towards Glenwood Springs, aiming to get from there to Woody Creek by nightfall. This time round the lounge car was full of tourists gawking at the mountains and taking pictures every 30 seconds and it was here that i decided i wouldn't be taking any pictures of the landscape in Colorado, photos never do it justice anyway. As soon as we stepped off the train we met a homeless guy who took us to the local soup kitchen where we ate the most impressive free meal I've ever had. Salad, elk chili, jacket potato (with sour cream) and cake, all accompanied by a free shop full of clothes, tinned food and bags of granola. We've met an awful lot of homeless guys on this trip, partly because of our disheveled aesthetic, me with exponentially disintegrating shorts and Riz with his plethora of plastic bags full of food, but more i think because we are much more open to engage them in conversation than most Americans. Generally their stories are all the same, they are metal workers, welders, miners and machinists, manual laborers of all kinds whose work dried up and are searching cross country for more, getting stuck in small towns here and there along the way. Why Glenwood is a place anyone would come to look for work escapes me, but here they all are eating tasty dinners in the Rockies with some out of place English folk.

We talked to everyone we met and managed to piece together from a variety of different and contrasting information that for only $4 we could get a bus all the way to Woody Creek and therefore not have to hitch in the dark and the freezing cold. We discovered pretty soon after arriving in this country that Americans are, for the most part, entirely useless at giving directions, you'd think in a place where every town is laid out in grid format a simple left right binary sequence would do the trick but no. It’s not that they don't know where things are, it’s just that they always use descriptions like go along or, a few blocks, or cross this but never in relation to any other signifiers so you end up having to interpret as you go with a lot of guesswork and a lot of luck. After much meandering around and walking up and down we found the bus stop and got on the bus only to discover that because it was out of season the bus didn't stop in Woody Creek. Without a place to stay in Glenwood we decided to take the plunge anyway and started to bundle up in our warmest clothes having resigned to walk from where ever we got off the bus. In an act of great kindness, and slightly reckless driving, the bus driver pulled up on the Interstate opposite the turning into Woody Creek and let us off with wishes of luck and warnings of the cold. We'd had assurances from a number of people that the Woody Creek Tavern would definitely be open, even this late, and we could go there to try and get our bearings. After a moderate walk with all our stuff on and getting chased for a moment by a dog we were ready for the beer and warmth offered by the Tavern, but of course it was shut. Woody Creek sits at about 7300ft (over 1 and a half miles) above sea level and at this time of year gets pretty chilly. We found what we hoped was a communal tipi and decided to sleep in there for the night finally having a chance to really test out all the subzero equipment we'd been lugging across the country. Pleasantly I was almost too hot, having developed the perfect sleeping position with just a tiny hole in the hood of the bag for breathing and the rest of me covered in fluffy down, everything from the walls of the tipi to our bottles of water froze but we were toasty. We woke in the morning and headed straight for the tavern to drink the beer we were owed from the night before. The bar oozed character, from the giant boar that sat on the roof to the walls inside covered in photos and handmade trinkets of all shapes and sizes, clearly a lot of people have a lot of love for this place, a tiny bar in a tiny town nestled somewhere in the Rockies, a strange phenomenon indeed.

Our mission, the sole reason for this freezing 2 day tangent into the mountains, was to find the house of the late Hunter S Thompson. A pilgrimage of sorts to the home of the weird, the epicentre of violence and drugs and debauchery of all kinds, an uncontrollable flame that burnt its self out years ago and we had come with hopes of seeing the last wisps of smoke as they curled off into the ether. We started out, perhaps a little naively, asking people where his house was only receiving reluctant responses and what i presume to be feigned ignorance. We had to get a little more savvy. We knew that his heavily fortified compound was close to the Woody Creek Community School so we started asking for directions to that and quickly got pointed in the right direction, a simple but effective rouse. A short walk up a hill and we found it, two towering iron Turkeys guarding the front gates along with a plethora of No Trespass signs, strange sculptures and art littered about the front garden and a big one story house in the background mysterious and alluring. We walked round the back and looked at the space in the field where HST´s Gonzo Fist cannon once stood and behind it the mountains over which his ashes were scattered. After mustering some courage we crept towards the ornately carved front door with another Gonzo Fist on it, inside were piles of tat, exactly the tat you´d expect to see American flags and strange jackets, all manner of inane objects seemingly untouched since Hunters abrupt exit. We knocked but with no answer we decided to make tracks back down the hill and onward to Grand Junction. It was a novel feeling to have achieved a goal so many years in the making but the walk back was a somewhat ambivalent one. Of course the event was an anticlimax as only these things can be, it is after all just a house, but somehow it seemed to prove the existence of so many myths that shaped those years in my life Dr. Gonzo really was real and you could feel it, you could see the detritus left in his wake, this was as good a place as any to relight the torch that guides you towards the edge where the weird play games of chicken with themselves in the hopes of reaching it without tumbling over.
Grand Junction (GJ) was quiet but nice, we rested well and ate even better. We played chess endlessly and drank coffee by the gallon chilling with the hipster community that, for a town this size and majoritivley Republican, was impressively large. We met an anarchist collective called Housing First who operated out of a little house in the Downtown area and spent their time fighting for rights for homeless people and fucking with the corrupt cops in GJ. Last year they managed to get 3 fired and caused a real stir in the local press, an impressive feat that I haven´t seen or heard about in many other places in the states. The cops here have very little appreciation for their supposed boundaries or for your rights and, unlike British police, can´t be scared off by your knowledge of the law. This coupled with their high numbers on the street and their willingness to use tasers/guns/nightsticks at any and every opportunity makes them one to avoid. The Housing First crew also do nighttime patrols when the temperature drops below 20F (about -5C) so we joined them on the first one this winter looking for people sleeping out without enough equipment and handing out coats blankets and whiskey. It seems to be quite an effective activity and since they started it last year the winter deaths of homeless people dropped from 15 to 1. To this day I still wonder how they get so much done as every time we turned up to the house in the day time everyone was nested in the basement smoking lots of weed and watching DVD´s of The Fresh Prince on TV. That’s another thing that accented much of our time in Colorado, weed. With the introduction of the medical marijuana laws everyone has weed all the time and smoked a lot and I mean everyone, from old folks to young, it’s a trend that I think will sweep many of the states pretty quickly and will lead to some interesting development on the position of drugs in American society.
We talked to the Housing First crew and were told that it was pretty easy to hitch South from here and our next goal being in that direction we decided to give it a go.

We got a lift to the sketchy edge of town called Orchard Mesa and took up position at the last gas station leaving GJ. It felt instantly familiar back on the side of the road, we put our bags down and raised our thumbs, one last try...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Finding a Groove Where Weird Energy Flows

There is only one road that runs from GJ to Durango and we were on it, cruising along in the back of a small 4x4 learning about the differences between the Army and the National Guard from a National Guard recruitment officer, our bags in the back in amongst a myriad selection of propaganda aimed at kids just out of high-school. We were back, those rouge travelers, adventures and explorers and finally, for the first time in 2 months we were headed south. Turning away from those majestic sunsets that once formed the goal at the close of our days and instead setting our sights on the waistband of the world and all the warmer weather, strange bugs and new cultures that come with crossing the equator.

For now though our immediate goal was Taos, New Mexico, transcendental meeting place for hippies of all types and home to the latest sustainable living must have, Earthships. And like i said we were hitching and it was working. Catching rides through the Rockies on the twisting and turning Red Mountain Pass was, in fact, easier than it ever had been before. At the end of the first day we caught a ride with an ex-welder who took pity on us standing on the one intersection in Ridgeway with night closing in and drove us to Ouray hot springs where we splashed about for a few hours absorbing the minerals in the naturally warm water. Following this surprise spell of indulgence we walked to the town's bowling alley, the place our new chauffeur Kevin had been whiling away the time on the two 1950's vintage lanes there, where the pins were set by hand by two boys our age with tattoos, piercing and hairstyles and where a lady sat in the corner keeping score on a type writer receipt type machine. Having had time to mull over his options and draw enthusiasm from his friends excitement over the British Boys Kevin had decided to let us spend the night at his, in the wooden house he built himself, and seeing as he was headed for Durango the next day anyway he could drive us all the way.

I awoke that morning to the hip sounds of the 60's and 70's on the radio and burgers made from an Elk Kevin had shot in the woods behind his house following a 3 day hunt. I felt reinvigorated as I sat there listening to songs I always knew but could never name, there had been a wholesale reinstatement of our adventure and of our faith in weird luck and the kindness of people to get us to our destination. We were once again free to travel the roads with nout but a vague goal and no time frame. I was ready for anything.

We got dropped off just outside Durango and trekked through a gap in the Rio Grande mountain range trespassing on a lot of land and being in constant fear of some paranoid fucker sitting on his porch, itchy finger on the hair trigger of his perfectly polished colt .45, chock full of bullets, just waiting to take advantage of Colorado's 'Make My Day' laws and shoot us dead without fear of repercussion, we were of course on his land after all. I never did find out if the actual law was called Make My Day or if it was just a colloquialism that everyone used but it fit so perfectly with a law that gives a person free reign to attack and kill someone who is in their house without their permission that I didn't even see the need to question it. At the end of this walk we reached the house of another Anarchist collective whose info we been given in GJ. We chilled for a while and smoked weed and watched cartoons, as seems to be the custom here, before heading into town to meet another friend and drink some beer.

We left early the next morning and got a ride from a guy who was putting up lost dog posters and who, as it turned out after a 30 minute trip to the casino for food, was a gambling addict. As we weaved through the maze of slot machines you could see his eyes get drawn to each one, his brain violently tearing his heart away from dropping yet another quarter into the hole. It was a sight to see, droves of pale people sitting all day in windowless rooms pouring their lives away 25cents at a time trapped inside one of the last visible remnants of indigenous culture in this country. A grim spectacle for sure. Our dog less friend dropped us in Bloomfield, a nothing town in the middle of the desert on the Northern edge of New Mexico with just one road running through the middles of a mess of chain stores and trailer parks. The state boundary was invisible but immediately we could feel the difference between Colorado and New Mexico. This was the desert, home to Sage brush and the Navajo people, the point at which every liberal weirdo who ever had to escape from where ever they were for whatever reason ended up. Sandwiched between two of the most Republican and most racist of the 50 States, Texas to the East and Arizona, where recently racial profiling of job applicants has been ok'd by law, to the West it seemed an unlikely place to find the milieu that call it home but for the people that migrate there I think all roads always led to New Mexico and that’s just how it is.

There was a fairly direct and relatively short road to Taos that looked perfect when viewed on a map so we hitched out of town only to get stuck 10 miles out in the desert where we spent the next few hours waving at vans that worked in the refinery that sat on the horizon to the East before giving up and catching a ride back into town. We later discovered that road is closed most of the year and therefore has very little traffic and even less chance of catching a ride, a little local knowledge goes a long way. Mentally preparing to camp in Bloomfield but still trying to make the most of our hitching magic hour as the light faded we managed to catch the most unusual ride. The car rolled up and its tinted windows slid down about two thirds of the way, just enough for the passengers to lean their heads out and ask if we needed a ride in exchange for gas money. We bartered a deal and exchanged $20 for a ride to Cuba, NM, $20 is actually enough for gas to do this journey 3 or maybe 4 times over but it seemed like a good deal at the time. The people in the car were Navajo through and through and two of them had Cholo (Mexican gangsta) style complete with tattoos, checkered shirts and bandanas. Naturally we were apprehensive. Crazy Horse seemed to be the leader and the most level headed of the guys, Window, his brother, was gay and very kind, he did his best to empathise with what must have been our obvious apprehension. Their sister, whose name we never did learn, drove the car well and calmly despite the two people on the front passenger seat spilling over onto the gearstick, and finally Max, a close friend to the family he loved Biggie Smalls, spent a lot of time teaching me Navajo phrases and was the most drunk of a drunk bunch. It was Max's unpredictable inebriation that left me and Riz on what could reasonably be called yellow alert. Fortunately it wasn't long until everyone calmed down and they regaled us with tales from Navajo lore and explained that having a black President in office, basically a world gone topsy turvy, was the reason for all the hurricanes and other strange happenings in the world, moments we navigated carefully with delicate questions and sometimes silence. It’s always a difficult balancing act when you discover a disagreement of this magnitude, does one choose guaranteed passage to their destination and in this instance safety or do you dash the free ride on the rocks and stand by the principles that so strongly guide the rest of your life. I'm sad to say invariably I take the former option.

Not wanting us to spend the night camping out in the cold brush in Cuba, Crazy Horse took us to his friend Ron's house where Ron agreed to let us sleep in his caravan. Before leaving and without an ounce of hesitation, clearly carefully practiced, Crazy Horse asked for another $10. I pulled out what i thought was $3 but turned out to be $8 so that’s what he got, the real reason for his concern over our temperature had become clear. The Caravan was dank, dark and very cold so in a move to avoid spending too much time in it and to put our minds at rest as to the safety of our luxury suite we went inside to introduce ourselves to Ron. What we found inside this tiny shack surrounded by old cars, beer cans and assorted bolts was pure Americana. A veritable hootenanny attended by 4 guys who could without fear of offense be called old timers, a dog who had but 4 hours prior given birth to no less than 7 puppies, more beer cans and assorted bolts and a pot of chilli made predominantly with ketchup and nachos.

Without a shadow of a doubt my favourite of the bunch was Ronnie. He had the most bucked buck teeth you ever did see, absolutely filthy overalls and he spoke with gusto about going to the Colorado River, the tone of his voice yo-yoing in perfect fashion. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect hillbilly. He was insurmountably kind to boot and tried to give us $20 for one cigarettes worth of tobacco and a few lugs on our pipe and he tried to give us his overalls for the cold nights, taking to us like the sons he never had. Tall John played the tragic role in this backwater sitcom and for me was yet another example of someone who had been abandoned by his country and like so many other downtrodden and unfortunate people has become part of its forgotten past and hidden present. John used to have it all, the American Dream, he was a fully qualified engineer, built desert race cars, had a nice house, a good car, the works. One day out cutting firewood he fell and broke his hip and had to sell everything to pay the hospital bills. Game Over. Now he lives in a house with no running water and hobbles around in constant pain because he can't afford the follow up work he needs, a scruffy folder with 5 photos inside the only remnants of his previous life. Ron, or Rotten Ron to his friends, was short and stout, he wore a denim jacket and had the grizzled face of an old bear, minus one eye which I like to think he lost in a bar fight. Generally he was pretty quiet but occasionally he'd grumble something about a hot girl on TV on offer some blunt but true wisdom along the lines of "if you can't be nice to people you don't deserve to be on this earth". Fucking Aye Ron. Last but not least there was Ray, the most normal of the bunch, the towns optician who grows copious amounts of weed as a hobby with relative impunity because his 3 brothers are judges. They had been drinking long before we arrived and doubtless still would be when we woke up (they'd just finished the 190th beer that day) so we joined in for a time and shared some stories before settling down for a slightly chilly night in the caravan.

In the morning Ray was going out for the day with his mother who had Alzheimers and was headed in our direction so he offered us a ride. In the daylight the landscape in New Mexico was breathtaking. Hot tones from orangey brown to yellow stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, flat desert interrupted by abrupt mounds, volcanic dykes forced out of the ground by the tumultuous Rio Grande rift, jutting up at sharp angles and rising to great heights standing alone silhouetted against the blue horizon. The layering of the rocks showed signs that this whole area was once underwater a fantastic juxtaposition of environments shifting and changing over millennia. We were driving at the bottom of the ocean, 1500ft up. We got dropped off in yet another tiny desert town and after a few hours of unsuccessful hitching we jumped on the train to Santa Fe a ride which turned out to be our cheapest per mile travel for the whole trip. Before the recent midterm elections New Mexico had been a Democrat state and everywhere you could see the results of spending on new public infrastructure, from the cheap train to $1 busses in Santa Fe and even nice new street signs. During the midterms the Republicans won back the state campaigning about the budget deficit left by all this spending and are now starting to cut back on a lot of these services that directly benefit many of the deeply poor people that live here.

In Santa Fe we met two travelers at the start of a month long road trip out to Vegas and back. We spent some time helping them plan their route and giving them tips on couch surfing which in turn granted us accommodation for the night in the place they were staying. It was gratifying to be the ones giving advice for once, only two months in and already we felt like kings of the road, riding high on the success of the last few days. Taking full advantage of the cheap transportation we took the bus to Taos and entered one of the most confused and meandering places on the planet. Initiating the standard routine we started talking to everyone about where to stay and what to do, we talked to a variety of washed out hippies who had clearly been too stoned for too many years, a BBQ ribs seller who wore purple sun glasses, had been sent here by God and apparently had nothing to sell and a retired music mogul from NYC who sure as hell was determined to by some of those elusive ribs. From a mess of mostly useless rambling we managed to piece together a few key things, firstly with regards to Earthships we should hunt down Mark Reynolds, the man in charge, and secondly there was a place called The Mesa on the way where we might be able to find somewhere to stay.

The Mesa is a dystopian commune of sorts, a scene straight from the reels of Mad Max. After a failed development project in the 50's the land ended up being divided up into acres and auctioned off at exceptionally low prices and even 15 years ago you could get an acre out there for a poultry $500. This led to an influx of hippies and dreamers all leaping at the chance to build their own home, a plan that from what i could see no one ever completed. Today what’s there is acres and acres of sage brush dotted with caravans, old busses and freight containers, the makeshift homes of The Mesa People. The roads are all but unusable, the police never venture out there, there is no water and no power and generally the people keep to themselves. It’s nice if you want to live a quiet, isolated and simple life well away from the grim realities of the modern world. The saddest thing for me about The Mesa is the lost potential, seemingly an almost free autonomous zone the possibilities here are many and with a little organisation and dedication a really promising alternative living project could flourish. Unfortunately this isn't the case and there are barely even neighbourhood meetings, there is just angry individuals living in proximity to other angry individuals all escaping the same woes but doing so alone.

As if it were foretold we got picked up, after only an instant of trying to hitch, by Sam a girl who lived on The Mesa with her boyfriend Mark. Sam was pretty and blonde and a fantastic alcoholic, she would drink Bloody Marys from morning til noon and then beer into the night. She used to be in the Navy and led a pretty acceptable life but she hit some sort of pre-midlife crisis and left it all behind searching for something new. What she found was Mark and he was just what was needed. Anarcho-As-Fuck, Mark new his social security number and his inmate number off by heart, he respected nothing that hadn't earned it and there were very few people left in his wake he hadn't said fuck you to and meant it, on principle more than anything else. We slept a few nights on the floor of their bus, jubilantly agreeing about things and swapping stories about how we fucked the system and smashed the state. We were basically best of friends.

Pursuing our original reason for coming to Taos we had managed to get ourselves on the workforce at the Earthship village across the road from the Mesa so we said sad goodbyes to Sam and Mark and moved into the intern accommodation. Earthships are the brainchild of renegade architect Mark Reynolds and basically are an off-grid sustainable house design that recycles rain water, treats its own sewage and grey water, grows food and uses thermal mass to maintain a stable temperature, all using savvy engineering and recycled materials. We made the long and slightly off course journey here for a few reasons most of which I think stem from my attempts to do something productive and feel a little less like I'm on a 6 month holiday. Primarily we wanted to see how this take on future living actually worked and if it presented any real answers and secondly it was a good opportunity to learn some building skills something I've been edging around doing for a good long while, also we presumed we would get a free bed and possibly even food in exchange for our work. Sadly what we found was the disappointment we had half expected and not the burgeoning utopia we had half hoped for. My biggest problem with the whole thing, if you ignore the fact that the buildings quickly loose viability as future housing solutions when you consider the amount of time intensive work that goes into them, taking 40 people 1 year of full time work to build just one house and the consequent astronomical price that gives them. If you ignore that and a few other small gripes about not actually being made from all sustainable materials (though what is?) then you are still left with the fact that this project that presents itself as the good Samaritan trying to save the world is actually Earthship Corp. and is only saving your world if you give it a whole heap of money first. Much of the way they operate is about removing autonomy and encouraging people to buy their Earthship home prepackaged, giving it as little thought as possible, just buy the ready-made water filtration system and have your plumber install it, buy the Earthship Volumes 1-3 to know what to grow in your home and buy the t-shirt too. The thing that really pushed it too far was the blatant exploitation of the interns. Interns, after going through what appears to be an intrusive and unnecessary selection process, are required to pay high rent to live in the intern accommodation which is failed Earthship that doesn't even work and is therefore freezing cold all the time. They then spend their days building an Earthship which will later become an over $100 a night hotel to garnish even more money for the cause. Due to the amount of time it takes to build one house it’s unlikely, unless you can give months and months, that you will learn much about how to actually build an Earthship, mostly interns spend a lot of time pounding tires or plastering. None of them seemed to mind much either, some were business students who saw Earthships as their career plan in their own country and the rest were slightly hippy folk who were totally into being sustainable and eating organic and had dreamed of coming here for years. They had a cultish following of Mark Reynolds, when the spoke of him they did so with wide excited eyes and would always say his full name or quote verbatim from the Earthship Volumes. We lived in the cheapest coldest place in the house, a tiny loft platform with just enough room to lay down, I learnt to plaster which I’m sure will come in handy and we learnt what we could from the Earthships that worked, and to be fair they did work well, always warm despite the blitzy winter cold some of them growing an impressive selection of food and retaining comfortable moisture levels despite the infinite dust and dryness of the desert outside. Everything here was dust, from head to toe, either desert dust or cement dust or both it was the most inhospitable environment we had experienced so far and one we tired of quickly.
Soon enough our week in Taos was up and it was time to start heading South again in time to catch our flight across Mexico. We left without paying the $15 we both owed for living in the loft, we hadn't paid to stay anywhere thus far and it didn't seem right to start now. We went back to say our final goodbyes to Sam and Mark, Mark gave me an authentic high quality cowboy hat that was too big for his head, wearing it made me feel (an look) like a fool but I had a feeling it would come in hand later so I strapped it to my bad just in case. Because Taos sits at quite a high elevation and because there are no lights out on The Mesa when you step out of Sam and Marks bus to piss on the sage brush that I both loved and hated in equal measure, you are presented with the most fantastic view of the Universe. The Milkyway stretches in a band across the sky surrounded by billions of stars and everywhere you look shooting stars race, flaring for a fleeting moment before returning to obscurity in the dark as if they had never been at all.

We travelled south, following the Rio Grande rift all the way from the bottom of the Rockies, eventually it would led us to Panama. We stopped briefly in Albuquerque where we met some delightful people, washed our clothes and caught our bus to Juarez, Mexico. A new phase of our journey about to begin.