Los Angeles, again. Sitting in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset, I listen idly to the beautiful native Angeleno as she tells me what she and her boyfriend – an equally beautiful Spaniard – did last New Year’s Eve. “We drove all the way out to the Joshua Tree, man, and we did some ‘shrooms and we just let it all sink in.”
“Yeah,” puts in the Spaniard, who’s writing a doctoral thesis on deconstruction or construction – one or the other – “and we made love, amazing, fragile love. It was too much in a way. Much too much. There were shooting stars, and these ancient trees, and the coyotes and bobcats … and, well … I felt a little, y’know …” he laughs, embarrassed at his own psychic fragility, “… like bits of me were dropping off.”
“I know what you mean.” I try to sound avuncular as I puff on my pipe, somewhere between a drug counsellor and a keen stamp collector. Yards of tweed pleat into hairy mountains in my crotch. However, the tobacco I bought earlier in the day – Royal Vintage Matured Ribbon – is the rankest thing I’ve tasted since I last swigged a can of flat beer and fag butts, and the Angeleno is just a little too pulchritudinous for me to want to even hear that she’s been making love, let alone imagine it taking place in the Mojave Desert. Bits of me are dropping off as well – and it isn’t ‘shrooms that are to blame.
Still, down in the hotel car park, I have a sloppy General Motors coupe – a hire car for a hireling – and my flight out to London isn’t until late the following afternoon; perhaps I too will head for the Joshua Tree and commune there under its giant toilet- brush limbs? In fact – I must. Nothing hurts more than waiting in a vast and alien city for an intercontinental friction toy to whirr you into the stratosphere. The surly gravity of LA – pickled in its own nastiness of pollutants – drags you so that you feel like a grounded astronaut, each of your limbs subjected to 5Gs of thrust, as you struggle to make it to the minibar for $6.50’s worth of jelly beans.
Seven-thirty am on Sunday morning and I swing out on to Sunset, my tyres squealing as they slap the oil-stained concrete. In LA it is pointless to adopt any psychogeographic perspective that is unmediated by the automobile. Don’t walk or allow yourself to be driven, grasp the burning nettle of the 21st century and look at everything through a screen, or on one. This is not a city for the faint-hearted or for those who demand human scale, because it goes on and on and on. There are no featured players – only extras. By the time I reach the entrance ramp on to Highway 10, I feel as if I’ve done a good morning’s driving. I listen to the Phil Collins station, WMCPHIL, on the car radio, back-to-back plays of Phil’s greatest hits, segued with advertisements for colonic irrigation and
Chunk-a-clunka-chunk. Highway 10 rears and gallops through El Monte, Baldwin Park, West Covina, Pomona, Montclair, Ontario – the city is so big that it contains an entire fucking Canadian province within its boundless limits. Then, around Banning, on the edge of the desert, it finally loses its grip, mountains rear up, eagles replace aerials. “I can feel it coming in the air tonight …” Phil expostulates, and I can only join in “Oh Lord!”
I pull in to a rest stop and stroll over to where an immaculate California Highway Patrol car idles; for several long moments I look at the two tousled me’s in the mirrors of his sunglasses, before asking how far it is to the turn-off for the Park. “Route 62 is about a half-hour on, the Park entrance a half-hour after that.” He replies unfazed; although I note that like all Americans he now pronounces “route” to rhyme with “doubt”. This transformation occurred about 10 years ago in a mass act of strange Stalinist forgetting on the part of the people. Now, all Americans swear that they’ve always said “rout” not “root”. Even when you sing a few lines of “Route 66” and point out to them that it isn’t a song about the 66th time of putting an aggressor to flight, they still deny it.
These things trouble me, trouble me more than the fat, bourgeois weekender bikers who stream past me on the switchback road, more than the vast perimeter fence of the Twentynine Palms Marine base to the north of the road, wherein a thousand thousand jarheads are ironing their hair before church.
By the time I reach the Park I have only half an hour to crunch the sand, climb a rounded rock, breathe the cool, strained air, goggle at the leguminous toilet brushes. The Official Map and Guide is apologetic about the desert: “Some think it wretched and seemingly useless,” it says, as if describing a minor character in a play by Samuel Beckett. But it isn’t the Park that’s useless – it’s me. I’ve driven for eight hours to take a half-hour walk. I thought I was rolling with the Firestone go-round of LA life, but really I’m just another piece of tousled road kill.