Sunday, 23 September 2012

As The Road Flies

The guidebook we consulted splits central San Francisco into eight different neighbourhoods or areas: the Civic Center; Presidio; Pacific Heights and the Marina; Land's End and Golden Gate Park; the Financial District; Nob Hill and Chinatown; Haight Ashbury and the Mission; and Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach and Alcatraz. Each one is its own attraction, offering its own flavour of laid back San Francisco—serene parks, seaside noise, old Victorian houses, the vertical reaches of modern downtown. Green, blue, yellow, red, orange, grey, dark purple, light purple.


Downtown San Francisco rooftops   Haight Street Market: old Victorian house with graffiti on the side, titled Forever 27 and featuring Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain   Man tricking on his bike at Fisherman's Wharf

It's almost neat and tidy, the way it's laid out, at least compared to some of the other, more haphazardly sprawling cities I could think of. While it's obviously simplified how the guidebook carves it all up, cut into each in a two-day glancing bit of tourism and you get eight quite distinct San Francisco slices. Eight different little San Francisco worlds.

Get in a car, head south and east and back in-land, and before long San Francisco's slipped away and there are miles and miles and miles of desert. That's the way of cities and settlements in the Western states—they all slip away to nothing, with an abruptness that leaves them imprinted in your head like a dream; civilisation replaced with only the transience of small towns and service stations.

It works the other way, too. Filled with the sights and sounds of L.A., Las Vegas, the natural wonders of the National Parks (Yosemite, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon), those long straight desert highways feel like static between signals. Hot, beautiful static, but static all the same. And then you head back out there.

On the road: California desert   On the road: a car drives through sunset mists in Death Valley   On the road: stormy skies and green mesas of Arizona

In Death Valley, at sunset, we drove through a veil of light and parked up at the side of the road. We stood out in the middle of it, this hot, dry, silent nowhere, and looked around, at the yellows of sand dunes and the sunlit dirt, the red blaze of dead shrubs fading though to green, the reds and purples of the faraway mountains.

This pause, profoundest isolation... and then we moved on.

There's no analogy to describe this diversity of experience that doesn't seem too clumsy or crude. Wherever you are on a fast trip like this through the Western states, everywhere else you've been is a strange and distant sensation that you can't quite square with your current experience. These aren't just different places; these are completely separate, isolated bubbles of existence, of concept, of sensory input.

Las Vegas is an anomaly. It's kind of interesting, albeit ridiculous and vaguely depressing, that with all of these eclectic visions, the country offers up as one of its main attractions a parody of all this, or at least the same idea gone wrong, done naff. The Las Vegas Strip, a place that might be said to revel in its own tacky fakeness, if its shameless, money-sucking machinations weren't so blatant as to deny it even this potential sliver of ironic charm, is a collection of dreams made out of cardboard.

Las Vegas: canals of fake Venice   Las Vegas: Pepsi advert done like a Roman mosaic   Las Vegas: false sky and lanterns of indoor Venice shopping mall

The Strip has its own little worlds, pretending to be big—its Paris, its Venice, its Egypt, its island of pirates (and no irony there whatsoever). The surface details of civilisation and culture are recreated here with the cheapest materials.

The Venetian, where we stayed, had a replica St Mark's Campanile on the outside, an indoor St Mark's Square shopping mall with a false sky, gondola rides on a canal that looped through the shopping mall and back outside again, with big plastic red and white poles and all the charm of a chlorinated public swimming pool. In the evening, outside, a man, dressed as gondolier and gondola, roamed the tables of seated patrons and sang with an expectant outstretched hand.

Las Vegas is a themepark, a Disneyland for adults with an uglier, flimsier kind of make-believe. Not more honest—just more openly disregarding of all the swarming marks that fill it. Las Vegas wants you drawn in by the novelty, captured by the gimmick of its gaudy makeshift worlds, an admission of its own desertness even while it wants you to forget that this is exactly where you are.

Half Dome mountain in Yosemite   Shrubs, mountains and sky of Death Valley at sunset   Sun setting behind the Grand Canyon

Back out, and on, to lightning storms above the green mesas of Arizona, sunrise and sunset at the Grand Canyon's south rim. On to the entangled horror-sprawl of the L.A. Highways, sci-fi diners and psychics in weird Sedona, and old London Bridge just... there, in the desert, I guess... now a Vegas attraction 150 miles south of the Strip.

[more photos>>]

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