Updated: Dec 10, 2019
The bike was working like you imagine a quality but restful dream. There was nothing not to like about it’s performance and everything to love about the fact it had got me to Death Valley via quite a long way around America.
Nobody bought me a coffee since leaving New York until I got to Vegas, nothing, aw well, maybe the odd command, ‘you have a good ride now,’ but what if I didn’t want to? Many people are rich in the US, they have houses, big shiny cars and to be smart enough to get all that money some say you must be dull enough to want it. I was super friendly but this time there was interest without genuine hospitality to a stranger Americans are historically warm to. Crossing their land alone was singularly the greatest difference I had now experienced in America since my first bicycle crossing as a boy. Goddamn it I still love the place!
As I hopped from side to side performing for a table of bikers I was determined to score that free coffee but didn't quite crack it. It was a game. Tell a story and see what happens. Apart from food and shelter, stories are the most important thing in the world, they feed the imagination of those who haven’t got one. They say only dead fish go with the flow so I went to Walmart to see if it was true. I wanted to get tomatoes and groceries, maybe milk and a bit of bread. Just inside the entrance there are seniors who wear tee-shirts which say “We’re Here to Help You” so I talk to them and they point me to where I need to go. The avocadoes were hard so past the aisles of canned meats I go to the deli and buy two chicken drumsticks and you think what the heck has this got to do with motor biking around the world and the answer is everything.
I am out here carving a private space to believe in the illusion of normalcy except that, when you walk around places with people in it, everything is perfectly normal but in denial land. Equally I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to be here either. So my sense of purpose was constructed at that particular moment for a need to be normal. To fit in somewhere in case I didn't fit in at home. I just didn’t want to be on my own. I didn’t want to be away from people I love. It was a hard start and in the absence of having anyone to talk to, you make do with eves-dropping on any passing chat and as a fabrication it was almost a sport. “I said frappacino with vanilla topping, extra on the cream, did you get that?” I did and no offense taken if I hear a secret. "Hey, I’m two car lengths away and I can’t cut off my ears', I wanted to join in. They were shouting and at ‘Jack in the Box’ he said ‘I want onions, jalapeños and don’t forget the friggin’ red sauce huh?’
Sure there were pretty phrases and warm expressions but it doesn’t mean anything sometimes and it should but ‘have a nice day’ and ‘you be safe out there’ were dished out like M & M’s, they’d become punctuation marks in a stream-of-conscious like meaning. Then, amazingly blog reader Greg Illes wrote to me and offered the following notion: 'imagine the moment: you're ready to separate after a brief, but empathetic, encounter. You have a deeper sense of the person with whom you're parting; you want to convey that you "feel" their space and their journey. But time is up, you're both moving in different directions; something succinct is all that there is room for. So the words become secondary. The intent has to be behind the eyes, in the heart, vibed out through an inadequate lexicon,' he went on, 'truly, some speak the words as cardboard-ish as they appear. Others, like myself, hope that the deeper intent and connection somehow propagate across the abbreviated salutation.'
I get it, but to understand this as making sense, faux concern is a literary dishevelment but excellent as a full stop in a conversation. You can’t even respond with, “yes, thanks for the warning,” because it isn’t. It’s a vital part of a generous vocabulary of thoughts and well meaning phrases that everyone says so we can all pass on by smoothly. When you overtake a car being driven by someone reading a book or applying her make-up whilst also holding a phone, a sudden swerve impact could throw you onto a tension wire-rope barrier system ripping you apart so some bits land on other peoples wind-screens. The first thought might be, ‘well heck, I’ve jus' an' gone an' dropped my make-up’ or ‘I’m glad that arm didn’t land on me.’
It's true that when you ride though on your motorcycle you overrate the capacity of people to be genuinely empathetic. Why should they possess any warmth or feeling because when you see people on the street just a car loan away from being down and out, a medical bill from having no where to live, one poor decision or copulation from a world of family pain and stress, everyone knows a childhood in a cold world has the kindness extracted out of him.
Death Valley wonderfully came and went. It's an adorable part of the USA but it snowed. Camping in the bush by a fire was a highlight of the journey among many so far. Salt Creek Canyon vied with 20 Mule Trail for historically named veracity – there was salt in the creek and mules tramped once upon a time where I now rode my bike. Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells were and still are as hot as they sound.
Sometimes there is nothing better than being on the road.
Las Vegas came and went. I rode down the strip and wanted to get off and play. Instead what few photographs I took were deleted prematurely so I rode up the 95 through the snow lined mountains, past the Shady Lady B&B and the not quite defunct ‘Wild Cats’ brothel until I got to Goldfields, a place not to be confused with Goldfields.com. At the place I was overtaken by a guy with one tooth who looked as if was about to croak in a pickup that looked mightily stressed taking a left hand corner. The other is one of the world’s largest gold mining firms. Headquartered in Johannesburg with 18,000 employees and a 2017 revenue of $US2.761 billion.
I knew where I wanted to be.
Carrie served at the Dinky Diner a few blocks back and I went in from the cold. It was 5690ft from her small step to sea level and apart from the road everything was covered in snow. She held my hands and warmed them in hers. We had only just met. She was small with the kindest of countenances, sweet and warm. In a Jane Austin novel plain people are usually kind but this was an impressive woman who’d brought up her four children and was grandmother to 18 and what she lacked in height she made up with a brave face and noble chest. This woman was a gorgeous person.
Mercifully she was covered with an apron streaked with bacon fat, which would have had better days as a smell when heated, but my hands were now warming. She kept me close and told me how Virgil and Wyatt Earp lived yonder and walked me over by an old gas fire and pointed to a small saloon on an old map of the city. “My hands are warm now,” I said and her job now done she had to get on so directed me down the hill where I waited at the next intersection by a house that said #1 Main Street. I parked diagonally opposite a house covered in road signs and memorabilia and when I knocked on the door out stepped a character from Hollywood.
In 2010 the census-recorded population of Goldfield was 268. Between 1903 and 1940 the mines in the area produced more than $86 million at then current prices, worked by a population that at it’s height achieved 20,000 people. Virgil Earp was hired as sheriff in 1905 dying of pneumonia after six months of poor health. His brother Wyatt left Goldfield shortly after and in 1923 a moonshine still explosion burnt down most of the town’s inflammable buildings leaving a space for characters like Mark, Carrie and One-Toothed Burt to fall into.
Up the road in Tonopah I checked into the hostel part of the more superior and historic Mizpah Hotel. The front of desk man was called Jae and he gave me a courtesy room and meal because he was inspired by my journey and I couldn't thank him enough. The old warmth of the US of A was beginning to shine through. After my meal I wondered back to my room across a parking lot a foot deep in snow.
The next day I rode in sub zero temperatures to a northern farming town called Fernley. Snow had turned to rain and Nevada was in the grip of a dirty freezing day so I stayed put for a day amusing myself with fast internet. There is a type of psychology where you shout the first word that comes to mind, which is random and unplanned. When you type into a search engine the first thing that comes into your head, the secondary action of typing deletes the spontaneity because there is a process being thought through. Just then and based on the most common image processed by my brain all day was the size of the people living here. An estimated 160 million American citizens are overweight or actually obese. Three-quarters of men and 60% of women are not a normal weight. The World Health Organisation defines obesity as abnormal fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. As of 2018, 39.1% of American people are statistically thought to be obese and 7.7% are morbidly obese being 100 pounds greater in size than they should be. So from ‘food-growth-USA-economy’ my search engine spits back Amazon reporting sales of Bariatric size incontinence diapers now topping a million every single month. Everything around the weight of an average American person is a growth industry. At stores across the country it’s a similar story. ‘Calling on Jennifer, could you come to the till please, we’ve run out of large bloke-sized diapers and could you bring some over?’ Someone at the till is as embarrassed as hell and as far as I am aware, the shop I frequent, Family Dollar, do not, thank God, stock this item; and also, everything in the shop is not a dollar. Pressing buttons, their financial reports appeared showing in 2016 30,500 stores turning over $33.8 billion. Admittedly profits are down a tad but the only competitors are Dollar General and Dollar Tree who own this little upstart so it’s profit / loss analysis is relevant only on paper and is still a magnet for people who want cheap stuff. In Cornton, Indiana a Dollar store opened in 2014 and a disgruntled resident said, “I knew it would put our property values in the crapper and that it would bring in a certain clientele that I don’t think anybody around here wants to see.” A person called Kitchener was responding to questions and when asked what type of clientele she meant, Kitchener said “Oh you know what I mean.” There is no data available yet to look into the claims that property values have plummeted as a result of this kind of store opening but what she said next about increased foot traffic on the Main Street took me by surprise, “there’s just people everywhere now. I see dozens of senior citizens walking to and from Family Dollar with bags of food and it makes me sick. Drive a car and quit cluttering up the sidewalks.”
“Small fries, coke, no wait, upgrade that to a meal deal, sauce?” McDonalds. Food and fuel. The American consumption. “Yer cold on that bike huh? Ya picked the best time of the year right, ha!” Every fuel station operative I passed by thought they were funny. When I was younger people would take me home and feed me but as you get older they’re scared you’ll not make the toilet in time and have to be polite about the mess. There was nothing left at Ridgecrest so down the 135 past the Searles Mineral Works at Trona where they processed mined Borax and potash, whole half streets were raised to the ground. Burnt timbers of houses had fallen away next to those which had just crumbled. As if in another world, pretty picket fences partnered the dilapidation like a row of bad teeth with a healthy one in what was now a gap. One day poor parts of Nevada compare with the riches of California but amongst the riches and magnificence, here it was like an illness had stripped the town bare.
If you like the writing try:
'Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man' Vol 1
“I only had the undivided attention of my father for an hour once
a week in the park, at night at least he told me bedtime stories
about a woodcutter venturing into the forest only to be assailed by
a beautiful maiden. There was never any resolution to his story
and my enquiring mind was often troubled by his inability to create
closure. It is odd how such things lodge in your memory only to sift
back into your senses in a different way many years later. It was
easy to relate to the beautiful woman - who probably wanted
rescuing - and the knapsack of cheese and wine he talked about
made perfect sense to a young boy already subconsciously
planning his escape. “
'Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man' Vol 2
"The relatives on my father’s side were a solid if uniformly uninspiring bunch. Instead of having a cousin who excavated gold in the Yukon or walked across the Gobi collecting dinosaur bones, Grandpa Fred had a shop like his dad, as did my own father for much of his life. If I could have squeezed one scintilla of scandal or interest from the Sanders’ lineage it would have been revelationary. Instead it would be merciful to let the boringness of my ancestry remain a mystery. It was irksome to be ordinary; it was vapid and there was nowhere other than monotony in which to hide. My ordinariness was like a shadow in blackness, it was like two streams converging where you lose the join, it was how you imagine a song being sung by someone who cannot sing. Hobbled in oblivion it was like watching my spirit dissolve … and as a quantum arm on the twig-like branches of our thinly-leaved family tree, we didn’t even have the spunk to be obscure."