2000 Miles Worth of Fannying About

2014-03-09 09.31.59

Kaboom, fuck yeah music, etc etc etc… No, sorry. No music today. Alright, maybe some, but not much.

As you’ve probably guessed, this blog is going to be an erratic place to be for the next few weeks, until I have finished driving first myself, then Meursault and then myself and Mrs. Toad around America.

In theory, I was supposed to fly to Phoenix last Friday with half of Meursault to collect an RV to use as a tour van for SXSW and their subsequent US tour. In theory. One long series of utterly avoidable fuckups later, and I am here by myself while they are back in Edinburgh cancelling early shows and hoping they can get out in time for Thursday’s Aster Foundation day party, which it fortunately looks like they now can.

All of which leaves me in America with and RV and four days to kill.

(This is going to be long. Really long. If you’re of the TL;DR persuasion then it’s best avoided, I think. But then if you’ve ever actually used ‘TL;DR’, then seriously, fucking grow up you fucking imbecile. Seriously though, this is too long. Don’t read.)

Anyhow, yes, an RV, America and a handful of awesome compilation CDs I made just before I flew out, of course. I seem to be chronically incapable of avoiding an all-nighter before flying to the States, but the CDs I was frantically burning at 5am the morning I left have been one hundred percent worth it. But more of that later, in subsequent podcasts!

Basically though, once I’d collected the RV (fuck me they’re fucking huge!) and driven around Phoenix collecting amps and drumkits the band had arranged for me to buy from Craigslist because it was cheaper than renting a backline, I ended up at 4pm on Friday in a strange city, with the band not arriving until Wednesday at the earliest, and no plans whatsoever. As Mel Gibson would say: FREEEEE-DOMMMMMM!

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So what, then? I dunno. A lot of the decisions were made by Mrs. Toad. She was absolutely fucking adamant that I visit the Hoover Dam (above), and the Grand Canyon. I knew Monument Valley was vaguely in the area too (erm, yep, America is biiig, and ‘vaguely in the area’ means something different here to what it means back home) and I really wanted to see that, so some vague sort of plan was hatched.

Having collected all the amps and the drum kit by 4pm on Saturday I was running out of time, to a degree, so I decided to just burn straight up North towards Boulder City which is right by the Hoover Dam. Getting used to manoevering that massive fucking lump of an RV took a wee while, but before long I was bashing on up the I-93 towards Las Vegas.

The landscape was bleak as hell, but stunning nevertheless, which I suppose sums up most of the miles I have driven since: rocky scrub, punctuated by cacti further South, and distinctly funny-looking Joshua Trees the further North I went. I know some people see driving as a chore, and others are just plain tired by it but I don’t find that at all, honestly.

Especially when you’re in a patently foreign environment everything out the windows is fascinating, from the flora and fauna, to the architecture, urban planning, road sign design and even the driving habits of other people. I always prefer a B-road, but even on an interstate there are a thousand interesting little things which help you build a picture of the people whose land you’re driving through, and I never tire of it.

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So for all Saturday was about getting my shit together and burning North, there was still some fun to be had. I booked a crappy hotel for the night of my arrival, and when I finally checked in I wandered across the road to a rather sketchy-looking sports bar to use their internet connection, watch the baseball and have a burger.

As seems to be inevitable when you’re sat alone in a place like this I ended up being adopted by a group of lads who had come down to Phoenix to watch the Chicago Cubs at Spring training. This is baseball chat, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get it, but they were rather amazed that I very much did, and so they adopted me, we did shots, there was much clapping on the back and Mary Poppinsing and I went to my bed very much three sheets to the wind.

Fucking Americans.

Anyhow, after covering as much ground as I could on Saturday, Sunday was where actually doing cool stuff began. I am always a bit tentative with this, which I know is odd for someone who was raised moving around the world and being taken to cool places by his parents, but it takes me a while to properly embrace marching up to awesome stuff with everyone else and staring at it for a bit – never mind taking photos.

The Hoover Dam was a good first step though. Due to the number of miles I had to cover, I eschewed the tour which takes you deep down inside, in favour of wandering along the adjacent bridge and taking a couple of quick snaps. Lazy tourism at its most shallow. Ah well, fuck it.

I’d been warned about the drive up to the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon, but apart from rattling a massive fuck-off RV down 20 miles of unfinished, rocky road, the bigger shock was some of the towns I drove through on the way there. Dolan Springs, for example, was barely a town, more a loose scattering of mobile homes and semi-permanent housing with a couple of shady-looking shops in the middle.

There was a chamber of commerce, mind you, but presumably due to the lack of a professional signwriter locally it looked just as much like a shack as the rest of the town. Not to pick on Dolan Springs, though, for it was only the first and by some distance not the worst of the towns I encountered which looked more like accidents than a natural accumulation of people with a common interest in a particular geographical advantage.

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Anyhow, where was I? Ah, yes, the Grand fucking Canyon. Bloody hell. For a nation so prone to bombast and over-statement as America, the idea of the ‘Grand’ Canyon being a massive understatement never occurred to me, but holy fuck that is very much the case. Grand doesn’t even begin to cover it. Behold my marvellous hipster-pics and you will understand nothing – the sheer scale of the fucking thing is quite literally awe-inspiring.

The Skywalk is only worth it if you think you have the courage to actually go further onto it than the five dizzying, horrifying steps which I managed, but Guano Point was just gob-smacking. It’s all about scale, really. So deep, so wide, so fucking massive, it really is something a of a shock just to lay eyes upon it.

Maybe some of my awe has to do with my fear of heights. Things which go up high are one thing, but deep chasms and steep drops like this both terrify me and draw me in. I find myself losing my balance and sure that I am just tipping towards the edge, even if I am just sitting on my arse and scuttling back from the edge.

My route on Saturday and Sunday.

Driving back down from the Grand Canyon, I turned off towards Peach Springs on a road which my satnav assured me was entirely legit, but which turned out to be entirely made of compacted sand. For 30 kilometers I thundered along this in my RV, bouncing around, perplexing the two locals and six cows I encountered, and constantly passing intersections with roads which were barely visible tracks through the bare scrub, yet called things like Hooper Boulevard.

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The road I eventually found at the end of this path was the legendary Highway 66, which is so redolent with history and pathos that the towns I encountered no longer even surprised me. They were frontier towns still, even in an era where one or two of the scratchy bars and motels advertised WiFi, with no more than a few scattered and very much temporary-looking dwellings only very vaguely clustered around a motel, a convenience store and gas station.

Even cities, ones marked on my road atlas and with signs proclaiming their limits, were no more than a scattershot collection of structures, seeming no more deliberately close together than the inevitable clusters you’d get if you randomly scattered houses across the countryside.

I encountered my first bona fide biker gang at one of these gas stations actually. Feeling a bit vulnerable as a solitary, pasty tourist in an RV, I’m not sure if the fact that they all instantly turned into Dick Van Dyke was reassuring or terrifying. “Ah, Scotland, awright guv’nor, apples and pears”. Fucking bizarre. I chose not to correct them.

Anyhow, I circled back to the Grand Canyon eventually, albeit not intentionally. Looking at the map, I’d seen a road which ran near the Colorado River and which wound around like it was drunk, and I guessed this might be along the edge of the canyon, and a good choice for my route, and I was entirely vindicated.

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I spent the night in Tusayan on Sunday, which turned out to be a bit like Aviemore in Scotland – Gateway to the Canyon! Woo hoo! Middle-aged people in fleeces, and families trying desperately to interest their kids in some of the most stunning scenery they might ever see… all so sadly familiar.

No matter though. Despite the miles I had to make up on Monday, I ended up stopping at every single viewpoint from Tusayan down to Cameron to gawk in awe.

I’ve used the term awe-inspiring before in this post, and that is best I can do. That and perhaps humbled, a term which I genuinely despise, but really, if you want to come face to face with your own insignificance, try staring out across the Grand Canyon – the world doesn’t need us, we can’t destroy it, and it will be here perfectly happily long after we’ve gone.

Anyhow, I ploughed on, as the landscape changed from rocky scrub-land to a weird pink, sandy, rocky desert. I think I must have passed through a dozen Native American reservations on this drive – some of the most legendary names of all time – Apache, Navajo, Comanche – but the settlements were just as bafflingly barren as Dolan Springs, except even more apologetic.

I know you can’t just raze Boston to the ground and say sorry folks this used to belong to someone else, we’ve made a terrible mistake and you’ll all have to fuck off, but the barely-formed, desolate shanty towns which populate the First Nations’ land in the southern states is a fucking horror show. Even more so when you see the apologetic, joyless ‘celebrations of native culture’ at every tourist attraction.

Exploiting the commercial value of tourist attractions on their land is obviously a Native American right, but the ‘see the ethnic people dance’ way it exists at the moment made my skin fucking crawl, I’ll be honest. Ah well, just what the world needs: more white, middle class, post-colonial guilt. Hooray for me.

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Kayenta, Arizona

Monday was a heavy day, actually. I started off trying and failing to avoid stopping at every single Grand Canyon view point there was along the road, pushed on through the pink sand of Northern Arizona, and eventually ended up in Kayenta, just South of the route through Monument Valley.

My route on Monday.

There was absolutely fuck-all in Kayenta, as you can see above, beyond three or four gas stations, a dubious mall, some crap-looking motels and an awful lot of tarmac. But what there was, and what there was in every single town I drove through no matter how desolate and isolated, was a McDonalds. Or a Subway. Or a fucking Dairy Queen. It was fucking horrendous. How do these companies even have the energy to open franchises here – there are barely more than ten permanent structures in the fucking place, how does that even pay for your fucking sign?

Nevertheless there they are. And in Phoenix at least I got to drink in a sports bar and have a shit burger made by someone who ran their own business. The bar clearly belonged to someone. But there is no town in America so tiny, so ramshackle, so hopeless and so abandoned that Subway won’t try and sell you a fucking dog-meat sandwich there, it seems. Hurrah for freedom.

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Anyhow, the good stuff. Like above: Monument Valley. Fucking hell.

After leaving Kayenta I drove due North into Monument Valley. Despite my escapades on dirt roads in and around the Grand Canyon I was told not to fuck about with Monument Valley. Apparently you really can’t drive through it in an RV.

That really makes no difference though. You might not be able to drive through the meat and potatoes of the thing, but just driving North on Highway 163 is more than enough. I didn’t have the time to detour, having spent most of my morning gawping at the Grand Canyon, but this was something else altogether.

Not as jaw-droppingly intimidating as the Canyon, Monument Valley is just plain fucking beautiful. Really it is. These stunning columns of red rock rising from the pale sand-and-bush floor of the plain are just amazing. On a cloudy day they are made even more incredible by the changing light, watching shadows and patches of sunlight ignore and then highlight one structure after another.

It’s like another world, in a similar sense to the moonscape of Iceland. I nearly crashed, I have to confess, waving my camera about in one hand and trying to steer with the other. The locals must fucking hate us, as they try and go about their everyday business.

And from there I headed East into Colorado – actually, how the fuck did I end up here, isn’t Colorado in the North, and don’t I have to be in fucking Austin in two days? – and then down into New Mexico.

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Colorado and the very Northern part of New Mexico were just as stunning as Monument Valley. The rock was lighter, perhaps, but the wind and rain had still sculpted some stunning statues from this pale stone, with skirts of sand like waves around their ankles.

I kept stopping to take pictures. Despite my earlier reticence this was just too beautiful not to try and photograph, and I actually became pretty adept at those through-the-windscreen, wobbly, holy-fuck-I’m-on-the-hard-shoulder photos.

Much like earlier I kept seeing signs saying ‘land for sale’. Land? For sale? Why? Who the fuck owns it, and why the fuck would anyone buy it, as opposed to, say, some other bit of desolate wasteland just over there? Like the random nature of the towns, trying to sell someone a particular piece of this bleak and beautiful desert just seemed perverse.

As I came out of Colorado and into Northern New Mexico, however, night began to fall. South of Shiprock I got into what seemed like the shitty industrial underbelly of New Mexico. I couldn’t see much in the dark, apart from a constant stream of pessimistic traffic, and the occasional chimneys of factories.

I needed to make up the miles by this point though, and I figured that while it was dark it didn’t matter about the landscape, I was better off just chugging South as long as I could manage it. I ended up with yet another after-hours check-in at an RV park near Santa Fé.

And finally, today’s journey.

As you can imagine, today was also mostly about making up the miles. I had accidentally ended up in Colorado and I needed to (still need to, actually) be in Austin.

Well, I woke up in Santa Fé, looked at the map, and my inner pop muppet took over. What is just South of Santa Fé? Tucumcari. For those of you without the lifelong influence of my father and now my wife, both of whom love westerns, Tucumcari is precisely where Lee Van Cleef is NOT going in The Magnificent Seven.

Then what? A few miles East is Amarillo, the way to which I did indeed know. Then South of there Lubbock of the obscure classic Lubbock Love Song, then Sweetwater and Abilene, where Micah P Hinson comes from… ah fuck it. I know I need to chew up some miles here, but my route is going to be determined entirely by pop culture references and balls to efficiency.

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I did discover the High Plains though, just as my iTunes account sent me an email that Mrs. Toad had ordered High Plains Drifter in my absence. Highbrow lady.

You approach the High Plains from the Northwest corner of Texas, as I did, having come through town after town of pretty much nothing – a set of traffic lights, some houses which aren’t permanently moored mobile homes, several gas stations – and there before you looms what looks like a ridge. So you climb it, surrounded by windmills, and you discover it has a top.

The high plains are basically just like all the other plains, apart from the retrospectively unsurprising fact that they are somewhat higher up. It’s like a weird plateau where disparate and isolated settlements cease to be sad and lonely and become really quite wealthy.

The grass is still white with sun and lack of water, and every gust of wind whips up clouds of dust, but there are massive herds of cows in battery farms, the occasionally nice house, and long, straight, well-paved roads which surprise you to learn that you’re suddenly effortlessly charging along at over eighty miles an hour, where previously it had been an effort to do sixty.

As you charge through this world with its generous speed limits, and you go from one wealthy farm to the next, into the land of agriculture and oil derricks, you slowly start to understand how Texas is so wealthy. It looks, here at least, as barren as a lot of the places I have driven through already, but the land is a touch kinder, and that allows massive agri-business to embrace the empty expanses and become rich.

I’m in Texas now – Abilene to be precise – and tomorrow I collect the band from Houston. But I have one last, strange night in the RV all by myself, and a journey to Fredericksburg tomorrow to stare at some of the most pristine and beautiful monuments to America’s crazy motoring heritage, and then the tour starts.

In other words, I have to actually start working. Fuck.

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