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...


  1. "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro"
    This is just too excellent for words haha!

    I would have been so tempted to enter the house though it may well have been alarmed and with your description of the cops there, perhaps not worth the bother.

  2. haha we were boring weren't we?? But I hope you had a comfortable and pleasant stay at least. I definitely didn't move here for the city, but the adventures in the mountains for sure. Glad you were toasty warm and was able to see Hunter's place : )