American February Part One

“Do you wanna go see Dee Dee?” So, we begin at Hollywood Forever. Zach’s on the way to Mexico on his motorbike, we meet him where the streets are wide and straight. I try one,two…four cups of Cafe de Olla. Here’s Johnny’s statue (his ashes are at home with Linda) and over there, Dee Dee’s real life corpse. We meet Isabella, she is learning to drive in a purple glittery hearse she drove here from Chicago. As a place of burial, the Cemetery has none of the maudlin sanctity I usually brace myself for. Surrounded by graves, I still can’t begin to imagine an interment here. How would grief fare on these well-kept lawns, would it wither in such bright sunshine or do the relatives of celebrities just keep their sunglass-eyes on glistening probate?

This is a yesteryear type of place, no glitz, and I don’t imagine Douglas Colvin died with much, overdosing as he did, failed rap career or no. Still, perhaps fame grants a slithery buffer from loss. There are many degrees of gone-ness, and maybe my unchecked eagerness to strike a pale pose next to Dee Dee’s grave makes him that little bit less gone? Poor rotting Ramone. A well-fingered headstone, a sign of immortality unlocked. Why be sad when you’ll live forever? We grasp the talismans of the dead around our necks and take crayon rubbings of their inscriptions. There were ten turtles in the lake that looked like they had become caught in a net. Grace shook it and they swam free, basking thick gnarled shells in the strange heat. We open a miniature of whiskey that some sweet soul left behind the headstone and I lend Zach some lip balm to give Dee-Dee’s marble a fleshy farewell kiss, assuring him it’s tinted. Ok.. we gotta go now.

In a little hire car sliding up the coast with me is Ben and Grace. We ease back into each other like three feet finding shoes. In a few short hours we’re laced right up, giddy on new sights and old company. Malibu gives way to Ventura, and the palm trees, which I comment on at every opportunity, will retain their unnameable swaying romance throughout the trip. I scream with childish joy as we pass an eagle flying low to grab a snake with both sets of claws, the snake flexing desperately to wriggle out of reach. We stop at a Mission, high up on a hill overlooking the hot, smug stucco of Santa Barbara. I have a naturally British suspicion of historic monuments in America, forever land of the relatively recent. I try and glean as much context as possible from the display outside of the ticket desk, which seems to be focussed more on developing photographic techniques. There are several small photograph of groups of indigenous people who inhabited these coastal areas, known for basketry and beading – the Chumash. The tiny photos have been retouched to appear in colour. Outside, sat waiting for my fellow travellers to pee, and notice I am sharing the wall with a tiny elderly woman holding a cup, who’s riven, leathery face, and round dark eyes look unmistakably the same as the people in the pictures, who the tourist captions vaguely state were ‘instructed to work’ on what had been their own farmland after the establishment of the mission. My head spins, realising slowly how wounded by jet-lag I am. I wonder about her and nearly try to strike up conversation as she shifts, her old back curved in the weak brown afternoon light. Then the toilets flush and the moment is gone. Epigenetics is the theory that people are born carrying the trauma of their ancestors.

After a night in unsettlingly sterile San Luis Obispo, we’re on the road again. Ben says just how much like Wales the landscape looks, a comment that makes me laugh because of its uncanny echo to a running family joke on trips of my youth, where Dad would take pains to compare any comment-worthy landscape we came upon on our travels unfavourably to the various beaches back home. ‘It’s nice, but it’s no Three Cliff Bay.’ SLO’s surrounding countryside was rolling hills and deeply pastoral in a way I had never connected with America, engorged and gorgeous, sheep and cows, green and lush. The hills fall around each other like cake mixture, folded in luxuriously on themselves, occasional lumps of fruit or nuts oozing out of its folds as soft boulders. We detour to find an In-n-Out Burger, a key ‘to do’ on this trip (No strip malls in Wales, mind) and drive back across a ridge where these strange hills look like two obese giants spooning. Their greenness is startling, I punish my fellow travellers every time I see running water. ‘Isn’t there a bloody drought on?!’ On we go, riding the Pacific Coast Highway. Route 1.

There’s an oddness in the hillside. It’s The Hearst Castle, or La Cuesta Encantada. Built for William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate and all round rich man, by Julia Morgan, trailblazing woman architect and visionary. We’re going to see inside this ridiculous set of mansions, ‘castles’, sort-of-palaces on a mountain in San Simeon. Our company are primarily old white american tourists. I’m reminded of how big this country is as Grace recounts her father’s lifelong obsession with this place and much anticipated eventual visit. Then again, I have still never been to Kremlin, far closer to London than San Simeon is to DC. How big this world is. It is a Wednesday morning, we pay $25, select a tour and board a shuttle bus which winds us up a mountain to this, the most bizarre monument to American Accumulation. While Britain has many hundreds of what are usually called ‘stately Homes,’ usually of some architectural import, open for tours, usually no longer inhabited, the difference is that I couldn’t name one built in the 20th Century. While this should lend the place a modernity that fits with its material (primarily made of reinforced concrete) it only confuses things further because the concrete has been clad with different finishings to give the effect of, by various turns, Gothic church, the Alhambra palace in Seville, Spain and an assortment of mediterranean villa vibes. It’s jaw-droppingly opulent, all this replicant forgery (amongst which sit invaluably rare artefacts like Egyptian godheads from 5000BC, just casually positioned in a fountain.) I’m stunned, but something somewhere in me (something rather British, I suspect) wants to find the whole thing in very bad taste, initially. I scold myself for wanting interpretation cards, logical positioning choices, at least an attempt to make this all seem logical, connected, ‘real.’ But this is not a museum, except maybe to the complicated connection between Hearst’s interests and Morgan’s skills, made flesh/concrete. Someone with endless money built a palace full of treasures which took historical objects and architectural styles and smashed them together for simultaneous display, and it’s an absolute trip. Curatorial nightmare, post-modern dream, even a monument to money cannot help but become something more. I’m reminded there is no difference between this and any neo-classical building painstakingly constructed in mid-18th century England to look like a Grecian villa. Everything is a mirage and authenticity is for squares, so Patti’s grandpa says, and I can get down with it. I’m desperate to ask our guard about Patti Hearst and Symbionese Liberation Army, but fear her steely gaze and action calves. Hearst bought Polar Bears, lions and Zebras here to make a zoo. The zebras still roam along the highway.

Here’s the outdoor Neptune pool, complete with a couple of real columns from ancient Rome (impossible to tell which) and our guide tells us that Lady Gaga was the last person to swim here before they stopped refilling it due to pressure from the State Parks authority. There’s a bloody drought on, guys! She shuffles us along as we turn to face the view of the endless Pacific. “He never came back” she quips. “He was sick, and back then people used to listen to their doctors. Those of us who work here are pretty sure he would have wanted to spend his last days here.” I wonder what Hearst would have thought of her. The pseudo-democratisation of his private play thing. $25 and a wander/wonder about. The Dads on the tour ask repeatedly for figures of worth on various objects and building phases in ‘today’s money’ as though inflation can rationalise this spending, as though they might cash in their 401(k)s and do a Willy Hearst themselves. Our guide’s mutters something defensively in response about the place being ‘…almost.. beyond valuation.’

We slink through the rooms of this crazy house and the mishmash, mash-up of the real and the imaginary hits harder as Italian horse racing flags waft playfully above a long thin medieval dining room lined with ornate wooden priest chairs. They’d mostly eat ‘down home’ style cooking here and dance to country music, our guide tells us. Heinz mustard and ketchup bottles from the 1950s line the table. Next, we gaze into the blue of a mosaic pool where apparently staff can swim at an annual party. ‘Did you know you’re walking on gold?’ Beyond decadence, up here, high on the hill, the real and the unreal collide in an oasis of pure camp. A while later, back down on the shore, we meet a beach full of Elephant seals flullolloping about, fanning themselves with sludgy mud. Their bodies and the plumes of grey sand they send shooting upwards with outstretched fins disrupt the strange horizon where all this world stops, becomes blue. Cyan, azure, aqua, whatever you want to call it, depending on the light, just bluest bluest blue. You can build your castles and dream your big dreams, maybe even blaze a trail, secure the lipstick kisses on your tomb, but nature will always win out when it comes to beauty. We head back to the hire car as Mother Pacific laughs warmly in our faces.


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