Sunday, 25 March 2012

USA

Hitching a ride with a truck through Nevada.
We were woken up by the bus driver at an ungodly hour as we approached the Mexico-US border at Ciudad Juárez. In a daze, we disembarked and joined the queue. I looked around and it slowly dawned on me that everything was in English: this was the US border control. But we hadn’t yet had our passports stamped for exit out of Mexico! The bus driver must have assumed that everyone on the bus was Mexican and not bothered to stop at the Mexican post. I sheepishly asked a guard what we should do. She made it quite clear that they didn’t really care what happened or didn’t happen on the Mexican side – all they were concerned with was whether or not we should be allowed into the US.

On the one hand we were, as far as the Mexicans were concerned, still in the country and would eventually overstay our visas and become illegal immigrants. On the other, we had saved ourselves the $25 exit fee! My jubilation was short lived, however, when I was told I needed to go into a separate area and fill out various forms, despite not needing a visa and having already filled out all those forms online. “Those only count for airports,” explained the man, clearly loving his job. Forms filled in, fee paid, passport stamped, we emerged into the US to find our bus departed, not willing to wait. A taxi driver of whorish descent wanted $20 to take us to El Paso, so we smiled at another passing bus and got a free ride to the bus station.

Our bus to Phoenix having left already, we now had four hours to kill before the next one. We suddenly found ourselves stranded in the very place that everyone across the whole of South and Central America had warned us never to go to. We did what anyone in our situation would have done: go to IHOP! We took a local bus out of the quiet town (it was a Sunday) to the malls on the outskirts of the city. The immediate contrast with the rest of the Americas was stark: even this relatively small town is built on a huge scale, where walking is not an option and those without cars are relegated to the leagues of pond-life and dogs. It goes someway to explaining the US’s over-reliance on gasoline: without it, they simply would not be able to go anywhere or do anything. Having gorged ourselves on pancakes (our welcome to the States) we hitched our way back to the bus station with a US Border Patrol guard. He was very nice to us, probably because we weren’t Mexican.

El Paso, Texas
The bus took us out across the Texas and then New Mexico desert, where the dry, flat earth is punctuated only by the miraculous growth of cacti. Crossing into Arizona, we descended to the open plains and the city of Phoenix, where the climate was somewhat more warm and humid. We walked for hours from the bus station in what we assumed was a northerly direction in search of a motel. The first couple were way out of our budget but one of the receptionists told us that there were cheap ones a couple of blocks down the road. Now, a ‘couple of blocks’ is about two miles in these parts, so we took the first cheap motel we came across. Cheap certainly is an appropriate adjective for Paradise Inn. As is, grimy, rancid, bug-ridden and smelly.
“Do you have any non-smoking rooms?” I enquired.
“All our rooms are smoking,” came the reply.
“But ours is a bit, erm, smelly,” I pleaded.
“All our rooms are smelly,” he explained.

We took our bed-bug bitten selves out of there the next morning and began trying to hitch. Being well inside the city it was difficult, but a kind man handed us two day passes for the local bus. We took it as far out of the city as possible and restarted our attempts on the on-ramp to the I-17, the freeway heading north. It wasn’t long at all before we were picked up by a native couple belonging to the Hopi tribe. They took us all the way to Flagstaff, explaining their history, culture and traditions on the way. It was an enormous privilege to be welcomed in such a way. They dropped us right in the centre of Flagstaff where we found a warm hostel within a few minutes.

Flagstaff has a very different atmosphere to it. It’s a university town with a compact centre, where the generic stores are drowned out by the array of independent shops, cafés and pubs. It was cold and a bit snowy, so we enjoyed the cosy warmth of the wooden-floored buildings. The town has an air of class about it, a sense of self distinct from many other cities I’ve visited.

We took a road trip the next day with a few other backpackers to see that most obligatory of Arizonan and indeed American sights: the Grand Canyon! Joking aside, it was very grand. While it’s not as big as the Copper Canyon in Mexico, through which we’d travelled a few days earlier, the path along its rim allows for spectacular views. The layers of rock, twisted and pulled over millions of years, eroded slowly by a river that seems impossibly puny all the way at the bottom, change colour with every movement of the sun and every cloud that passes over. The oranges and reds and pinks and yellows create a rainbow of horizontal strata, a record of time that makes it crushingly obvious that you’re merely a fleeting observer, privy only to a glimpse of the greater show to which you don’t have a ticket. It’s ego-destroying.

The Grand Canyon
We were unable to descend into the canyon itself as it was too icy and slippery, but this was more than made up for by the spectacle of the sun sinking into the valley, melting into the water with a sudden burst of shimmering flame.

Sunset over the Grand Canyon.
The next day we began hitching again, west this time, along the I-40 towards Nevada. Our first ride was with a girl who had never picked up hitchhikers before. “I like to help out the homeless,” she told us. “I give them food and stuff.” Despite our protestations that we were far from being homeless, she couldn’t quite grasp the concept. “Do you need any money?” she asked as she dropped us on the side of the freeway. We didn’t accept.

We were subsequently picked up by a hippy who was moving to California so that he could get a medical licence for marijuana, before asking around at a truck stop in Kingman for a ride to Las Vegas up Route 93. The trucker who took us became very excited when he learned that we’d never been to Nevada before, and he smiled joyously as we crossed the mighty Hoover Dam and passed Lake Mead. The casino adverts started long before we reached Las Vegas, as did the signs for food and prescription drugs. I’ve never seen the word ‘Impotence’ written in such large letters.

Hitching through the Arizona and Nevada landscapes.
We took the local bus from the truck stop into town, and stayed at a cheap hostel where the manager made up for an overbooking by giving up his room. We went out and overfilled our stomachs at a rib buffet in Circus Circus, before exploring the tables of the big names like the Venetian, the Bellagio and others. It was interesting, but reconfirmed my image of it as an ultimately shallow place, where the fun is short-lived and meaningless.

Las Vegas: Elvis lives!
I have a theory: everyone going into Las Vegas is happy, but everyone leaving is depressed. This is why I experienced my first ever hitching failure in this city. We waited and waited on the I-15 at the furthest point we could get from the city by local bus, then gave up and rented a motel room. However, the disappointment was curbed by a couple of funny incidents. First, a DJ in a car spotted us, signed a flyer and just wrote “You guys are crazy” on it, then tried to give us a loaf of bread. Next, two US army soldiers insisted on giving us $5 each so we could buy a bus pass. Evidently hitching is not common around here..

We tried again the next day and had success early in the morning: a trucker took us all the way into Utah and was very sorry he couldn’t do the last stretch to Salt Lake City as he was headed to Colorado. We finished the trip into the state capital with a local university student who was the very embodiment of the American cliché: a gun-toting, Republican-voting Mormon. He was thoroughly nice and went well out of his way for us, but he went out of his mind with laughter when he discovered we hadn’t ever held a gun.
“I have one here! Try it.” He opened his glove box and pulled out a handgun, which he proceeded to load and cock and hand over to us. I held it as if it were a dangerous animal. He laughed.
After discussing the open gun laws in the US, my travel companion asked, “Aren’t you worried about all the crazy people with guns?”
“Nope,” he replied. “Because I’ve got one too.”

And here we were, in the Mormon capital, where the snow-capped mountains poke above the buildings at the end of every street. We treated ourselves to delicious fondue (cheese followed by chocolate) for dinner, and spent the next day exploring the very grand centre. All the streets in SLC are named according to their relative distance and direction from the central zone, known as Temple Square. So if a street is called 800 S 100 W, it’s eight blocks south and one block west of the temple. And everything revolves around the religious centre. Alongside the huge temple is a church, several Mormon visitor centres, the Church History Museum and the Tabernacle. The latter was the original meeting hall of the church, but now they have a huge building with an underground conference centre capable of holding 21,000 people. Then there is the Genealogical Library. It is the biggest of its kind in the world. Borne out of a desire to document every human that has ever existed so that living Mormons may be baptised in the deceased’s names, thus elevating said deceased to the higher echelons of heaven (presumably they’ll accept), the library now contains sections devoted to each part of the world. It’s an incredible organisation, and it highlights the power of absolute belief. I also wonder if it doesn’t go some way towards propagating the belief system – who wants to give it up when you’ve put so much effort in?

Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah
My Galapagos shipmate having left, I occupied my thoughts with Mormonism and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (as it is correctly known). And it certainly is a very time-consuming mind-filler. I went to the Church History Museum and tried to get to grips with the multi-layered, highly technical nature of the religion, where the raw philosophy seems to have been drowned out by the complicated structure and hierarchy. It was reminiscent of the Buddhism I experienced in Tibet, where the simple message is dressed up in intricate tradition and ceremony to the point where one is so absorbed by the never-ending routine that there’s no time to think about the meaning behind it.

I could go on about my befuddlement (and I really did enjoy trying to figure it all out!) but let me say the most important thing: Mormons are without doubt some of the friendliest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. My guide in the museum and his wife took me out for lunch and then drove me way out of the city so that I could start hitching, and then (after several short rides including an exotic dancer) I was picked up by a lovely young couple. Whilst I have experienced amazing kindness throughout my travels, this was by far one of the most incredible acts of hospitality. They and their eleven month old son drove me all the way to Idaho Falls, invited me into his father’s house, fed me a huge dinner, and gave me a place to stay. The next morning I awoke to a breakfast of eggs and a bag filled with food for my journey ahead. (Mormons usually have two years’ supply of food in their houses, just in case.) He took me out to see the sights of Idaho Falls, where waterfalls tumble in front of a temple, and we talked of life and trust. I was overwhelmed at the kindness I was shown, and never once did anyone try to convert me or criticise my beliefs (or lack thereof).

Idaho Falls, with a Mormon temple in the distance.
After two short rides, five hours and only some ten miles out of Idaho Falls, I was on the verge of calling it a day when a guy stopped. I told him I was going north. “How far do you want to go?” he asked. He took me 600 miles into deepest Montana, where the wide, grassy plains of Idaho were left behind for thick pine forests. We stopped to find food in a tiny village bar where the local bearded men all turned to stare at us. An environmental engineer working on a project up there, his company provides him with a huge house in a lovely isolated setting. He kindly put me up for the night and let me sleep the next morning while he went off to work early. I was left alone with about a hundred stuffed deer heads hanging from every spare patch of wall. (The owner’s taste, not his!)

Hitching across the vast plains of the USA.
I stood outside in the cold and rain on the lonely Route 37, a quiet road leading towards Eureka, the border town. There was perhaps one car every fifteen minutes and I was so fed up after a couple of hours that I told myself, ‘Just one more car and then I’m going back inside.’ It stopped! He was only supposed to go as far as his work fifteen miles away, but he quickly decided to drive me all the way: 67 miles. Unfortunately, we ran out of fuel en route and had to call the recovery services. I apologised, but he just said, “It was my idea!”

Out of fuel nearing the Canadian border!
I was dropped at the Canada border. There’s no pedestrian route through, so I walked up the line on the road and obeyed the sign telling me to wait for the green light. I saw a border official waving me forward. They were initially bemused to see me there, but after explaining my story they stamped me in. Canada – the final country of the trip!

2 comments:

  1. Save the best for last eh?

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  2. Hey, you made it! I'd like to think I was the only person to drive you South on your journey. (Pocatello ID to the truck stop/ casino then back to Pocatello, backed off the onramp against traffic before I realised I actually wanted to go forward.) I bought a 42' boat in Galveston TX and will be leaving for Central America in November.

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