After a night in a Big Sur motel among the redwoods and firs, where strange men wonder and stranger women wander, we make a stop at a lodge for a ridiculous breakfast where all the staff seemed to whisper, addressing everyone as ‘sweet pea.’ I don’t feel even slightly annoyed. We stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, actually a shack full of books about using massage to enhance your love life feels amusingly appropriate for the types liable to drool here. Know your audience, indeed. One of us (names withheld to protect the guilty) blocks the toilet so badly we have to make a quick getaway. Pooped on for misogynistic literary farts, justice comes eventually. The sudden flattening out of the landscape feels jarring. Having come to terms with the teetering cliff sides, cloud mountains fall away and within moments we’re staring at miles of (‘Wait, what are those?!’) artichoke and asparagus farms.
The sun feels like the moon.
It feels like being pulled from under a mound of textured covers and lain on a flat, cold mattress. A painted sign advertises deep fried artichokes. We nearly u-turn for them. Later, passing San Jose and some oddly spaced out traffic in the other lane. There is a long, black car with little flags decorating its edged. I add Obama to the snake and the eagle in the list of ‘stuff we saw on the road.’ I’m charmed by the opportunity to use vocabulary I have no use for anywhere but here. Motorcade. It’s the presidential motorcade. We check our instinctive excitement in for some cynicism, ‘obviously fuck the president’ and he’s gone again in a flash. Not quite a deep fried artichoke, either. We jam tunes, Minutemen into Kate Bush, and follow our noses through into San Mateo county past the town of Colma, where corpses outnumber the living by one thousand to one. They bury the bodies there because San Francisco cannot take the weight of its own dead. No Headstone kisses for Dee dee equivalents here. My stupid love affair with this stupid peninsula started nearly a decade previously, and here I am again, on the eve of my thirtieth birthday. Grace, still driving, needs help with exits for a second and I catch myself bluffing that I know the way. I don’t, of course, but these cross streets still hold something. Page Fell Oak Hayes Grove Fulton. Nostalgia for previous incarnations of yourself, the dreams you might have had. An HBO doc I watched on the flight about tech industry doom has me fearing the worst, and my chest flutters as I watch the pastel houses on the hills come into view. No different to London or any other neoliberal shitheap, but if you squint, it’s almost like nothing has changed. I kid myself for the purposes of holiday. You’ve still got it, baby.
Our weekend in the bay passes quickly with cheap beer, many reunions, some warmer, some colder, many that feel like coming home. Highlights are The Bug and Mozart in a ballroom. Ralph Rivera and the Salient Points. Ralph Rivera and the 2am Donuts. Ralph Rivera. I laugh so much I need my asthma pump. We walk through Golden Gate Park and I face myself realising I’m in deep the meat of adulthood, blessed with luck to return and return to places that feel good. I get my mosh wings back at 924 Gilman for In School, watching my dream hardcore band of friends from too far away in a venue I’ve never been to before, but have referenced a million times in many contexts. It’s… dark. In School’s new hit, Cement Fucker, rolls around my head, and will continue to for the next three months. Then Replica plays, a storm of unrelenting rage. Punks punk, someone calls a skinhead a racist, nothing changes. We take photos outside afterwards, then it is time to say goodbye to the city blocks, the static traffic, and head back into nature again. Not before doing some ill advised Monday night karaoke with members of Uranium Club, though, a group who project the collective vibe of genius serial killer car mechanics. I finally recognise myself as a deep karaoke punisher, forcing the host to change songs several times, picking the wrong song and having to ad-lib a soulful ‘I’m dying up here’ for a verse and a half of an En Vogue banger. Surrender to the rhythm. A woman chooses ‘Morning has Broken’ for her next song, and I feel less bad about the punishment.
Back in LA. They have lost my luggage. Ben is full of quiet rage, I am fine, happy to be facing my fear, buying some weird clothes for the next day (my birthday) and finally driving. There is the strange Go-kart disconnection of driving an automatic car. Constantly poised to grab the gearstick. I am already squinting at the strange bloodless arteries between each place we go, a city divided by the them. The freeways pumps along one person per vehicle, neighbourhoods linked by these throttling fuel filled un-places, we pootle along a ten miles an hour and I feel as cliched in my disgust and as I do in my curiosity; excitement. Every song on the radio is Drake or Drake-lite. We love Drake but pledge to buy an aux cord before the desert.
We arrive in the dark. I am not someone who regularly cries, let alone over the beauty of the natural world, because I am not a fucking hippy. But I’m here to admit it. Six hours later, palsied from the weekend traffic we swam in, climbing a hill, following the GPS and hoping the road under us remains a road of some description. It went suddenly vertical and we seemed to drive directly into the sky. It’s hard to describe the dark. My life is three decades long and this honestly looks like space. I might just be deliriously tired by everything shatters and my breath tastes new. Navy-black sky with big white holes is bigger than I’ve ever seen sky.
The moon feels like the sun.
I sob for a full two minutes then pump out microwaved soyrizo from its little plastic shaft into a couple of chalky tacos. We explored the Mojave Desert on my birthday. Lost in the smooth rocks of Joshua Tree, we panic-buy water and push through into the nothing. The calm of an unnarrated National Park. America does this very, very well. Wilderness medicine. This world is a huge and wild place and California swings eternal, like a Noah’s Ark of all civilisation, at least one example of every possibility flora, fauna and human life, here in this strange borderland state of extremity. Everything’s a must have. ‘This is insane’ becomes a verbal tick. As if the crushing cities are not crazy.
Back in SF, Greg had described the Salton Sea to us as a monument to American failure, his favourite genre of attraction, so we knew we had to go. As the mountains disappeared and the valley holding Coachella and endless retirement villages, we saw so many palm trees planted in perfect rows they began to appear like a word you’ve said too much that loses all its meaning and becomes just an uncanny sound. Their fronds spiking out along the 111, becoming indistinguishable from the sleek white of the wind farms, suddenly gone again as we edged towards the Mexican border where the Salton sea’s sulphur hits you in the nose. It’s nearing up on 5pm and we’re desperate to see Salvation Mountain in the adobe-mud flesh. Racing against the light, the sunset seems to last for hours. The GPS says we have four minutes to get there. Outraged to be in a place beyond the reach of satellites, we have only an approximate address and a heightened fear of the dark. We take U-turns and nearly have to off road it to turn around. Where the fuck is this place? What are we even looking for. No sign of human life. The nearly abandoned corner store watches me pant across the store as the light fades outside. “Just follow this road about three miles. You can’t miss it.” You really can’t. Cliched interests in folk art fly out the window as the stunning colours fare up against the sky. Truth, beauty and evangelism. Aren’t we all? He daubed bible verses into the mud with latex paint, one of a generation on the run, everyone attempting to escape something, created a monument to faith and forgiveness, of course they saw god in these mountains, of course. There is still an outsider community here, at the end of the world. The hand-painted sign at the entrance to the dirt road, in the shadow of the desalination plant reads ‘Slab City: the last free place on earth.’
As we leave this strange hinterland, sated by our desperate photography, a border guard waves us down at a checkpoint to ask in a heavy Latino accent who we are and where we have been. It’s a sudden bump back down to the ground. ‘The last free place on earth.’
On our last day, back in the city, cruising a tiny Botánica on Sunset Strip, I buy a bottle of purple oil with the words ‘I Dominate Man’ printed on it. Ben buys some brown dust in a bag. As we hand over the last of our crumpled dollars, the owner offers some sage instructions for effective use of these charms, lingering on them in his hands as he puts them into a brown paper bag and passes them to us. ‘You just have to really believe it.’