Wednesday, 17 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 11







‘Good Morning, Max. Breakfast room in 25 minutes.’
‘Bastards.’

My limited experience of American motels has led me to deduce that their exterior mostly betrays the interior. From the outside they often look how one might expect, stuck in a pleasing 1970s time warp which fits in with the whole road trip experience very nicely. But when you actually step inside these rooms the décor can be surprisingly quaint. They're kitted out like your Grandmother’s. That is to say that everything is very tidy, floral patterns are ubiquitous and there are plenty of little things, like doilies and brass door knobs, that give it an oddly European feel.
Our motel in Santa Barbara is no exception. The breakfast area wouldn't look out of place in an English bed & breakfast. We know this because despite sleeping until gone 9:00 in the morning, none of us are in any shape to do anything until we've at least had something to eat – even if that’s only an apple.
Max is particularly damaged. I knock on his and Charlie’s door. No answer. I shout that they need to wake up, that we have to get to Vegas and we’re already running late. Max comes to the door, opens it – eyes squinted and his hair a complete mess, his form completely ravaged – and then quickly closes it again. It is to be expected. We didn't even go straight to bed when we finally regrouped back at the motel. Those who aren't feeling so bad are probably still drunk, and our driver, Nathan, fits too easily into this category.
Actually, it’s a real effort to eat anything at breakfast, although they've not laid on a very inspiring spread. So we will stop at the garage to stock up on water and potato chips. We shall also keep the roof up for a while because there’s the potential for hitting some serious traffic as we negotiate our way through Los Angeles, and we need to be able to control the temperature and stave off loud noise, bad air.
It is 10:30 by the time we’re ready to go – more than two hours later than we scheduled for – although that’s quite a good recovery considering our condition.





Driving through LA to the sounds of The Byrds (Younger than Yesterday), HOLLYWOOD visible on the hillside, it's all perfectly chimeric. The thermometer is showing 30°C. It's not even noon. Fortunately the Beast's air conditioning takes it in its stride. The traffic is heavy but flows steadily, and we make our way through the milieu of Los Angeles in reasonable time. After that the road adopts a long but shallow rake all the way to the edge of the desert. The soil glares a bright white but visually softens once we've reached the summit of Glen Helen Regional Park.
The Mojave Desert doesn't seem as quintessentially desert-like when you drive through it, but my photographs show otherwise – perhaps the traffic detracts from the wilderness when you’re actually there. We’re just over halfway and there’s about 150 miles of driving still to do. We stop at Lenwood on the fringes of Barstow, at Denny’s for some serious food. These irregular eating habits are playing havoc with my digestive symptom, but I feel a whole lot better after my ample portions.
The Tony Blair-appreciating Marine in Monterrey had warned to book accommodation in advance for our trip to Las Vegas, but we’re only just getting around to it. Charlie’s phoning numbers from a local newspaper, without much success. He makes about 10 calls before he finally find a downtown motel – the Bridger Inn –  with room for all of us, corroborating the ineluctable appeal the Marine assured us Vegas has for the American looking to cut lose for a few days, regardless of the time of year or day of the week.






Taking into account the hour we took for lunch, the journey to Las Vegas’s periphery has taken us a full seven hours. Downtown Las Vegas is located north of The Strip, so it’s almost 7.00 p.m. by the time we've found our motel. The process of booking-in seems to take forever. The woman who works reception is in no great hurry – you’d think she was stoned or something – and there’s a large party to check in ahead of us. She studiously pores over everybody’s passport, cracking jokes if she spots an opportunity. The atrium’s piled high with these people’s luggage and there’s nowhere to sit. Max is seething. Nathan has almost lost his mind; he’s standing out on the pavement in a driving-induced stupor, bashing an empty plastic bottle against the side of his head, a demented grin writ large across his face.
Meanwhile, the return of our vehicle is now overdue and I'm given the unenviable task of phoning ahead to tell them that we will be there as soon as our receptionist decides she’s done with her comedy routine. The woman at the car-hire place is laying it on thick, explaining that she’ll need to charge an extra day’s rental if we’re late returning our vehicle, which we shall shortly be. I'm not so worried about that but I am concerned that, in establishing how much that extra cost should be, our rental scam will be blown apart. I fancy, though, that she’s not quite grasping the nature of our predicament: “No, we’re already IN Vegas – we’re just tied up at the motel. We shouldn't be more than about half an hour.” She finally understands me: “Oh, you’re here in Vegas NOW? Why didn't you say, honey?”

An hour has passed and we almost have to force Nathan back into the car. He tells us his concentration is shot to pieces and the only way he can make it to the airport, where the car needs to be deposited, is by relying on us completely for directions. This seems fair and to start with goes very well. However, at the first major intersection this system shows signs of breaking down. It takes ages for him to commit to making a right turn, hounded from every angle by aggressive drivers sounding a concerto of horns. On the approach to Highway 15, the car collectively indicates to its driver that he needs to turn left. Nathan immediately turns the car left. An explosion of panic reels him back in before the possibility of meeting another vehicle head-on becomes a distinct reality. Now we have the measure of just how mashed Nathan really is. We continue to provide instructions for the rest of the journey, making sure not to give him too much forward notice in case he ends up driving us over the edge of a fly-over or into a brick wall.
We reach the airport without further incident – now about an hour and a half later than agreed – only to find that the aviation authorities have devised some sort of navigational test. Signs directing us to our terminus, when slavishly adhered to, lead us out of the airport and back toward the freeway. We turn around and try again. The same thing happens, only this time Charlie succeeds in identifying where we went wrong. On our third pass we find the correct turning, and thus the point of deposit. Then finally some luck: the keys are returned without further ado, and no money is asked for. The severely depleted fuel tank isn't even checked.
Except now we've got to wait half an hour for a bus to get us back to the motel. Let’s get a cab.

We enter the MGM Grand looking for food and drink. We find a bar and order a round of beers. No sooner have we sat down to sip at them and the stage above the bar erupts into a vulgar explosion of music and dance. The lead singer starts warbling and prancing all around us, and if you're quick you can catch your dumbfounded faces, relayed as they are onto the big screen above the stage, as the cameraman follows this jester’s every move. Actual lions are trussed up in a faux-jungle landscape just across the concourse. We drink our beers quickly, find a food hall of sorts, eat pizza, and then get the hell out of there.
The more time you spend wandering around Las Vegas the more apparent its seediness becomes. It’s not the kitsch aspects that strike you – that's blatantly apparent the moment you arrive – but its grimy underbelly. Flyers for strip joints lay scattered all about you, groups of drunken kids make a racket, anybody and everybody whoops around the blackjack table. Many of the smaller casinos which open up onto the street offer bottled beer for a dollar, or free vodka slush puppies – anything to get you through their door.
We each buy a large can of beer from a supermarket and wander down the main drag, drinking them openly – you couldn't do that in San Francisco. We pass the most audacious fountain display you will ever see (this is Lake Bellagio). We stand there and watch this aquatic revue go through its routine at least three times. This is Vegas all over. There is nothing inherently impressive about what you are seeing aside from its scale, but  that is enough, and we stand there transfixed.
After walking for another mile or so, we give in and dive into a random casino. Max gets stuck into a game of roulette while I pick up the free drinks. When Max decides to attend to the calling of nature I deputise for him and, without knowing what the hell I'm doing, win him 20 dollars in the process.
Next up is Gilley’s, which promises naked mud wrestling. By the time we've entered this dubious spectacle is over, but we stay anyway because the beer is cheap. We’re exhausted so don’t take full advantage of this, but as with the night before we make some effort to keep things going back at our motel.


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