I’m not sure exactly where I found my mojo today, but something happened between sneaking out of Sue’s place and pausing for air in the middle of Death Valley, something that turned the world right-ways round again. It may be down to the sheer, unfathomable size of this picture postcard world with only yourself in it, and the reassurance that you could, if you wanted to, run about naked with your pants on your head, shouting BONJOUR LES CANARDS at the tumbleweeds. Nobody would ever know. Or it could just have been the zing and zap of an endless, empty road, a V8, and the very best of Fleetwood Mac.
Either way, Death Valley was exactly what I expected it to be, and exactly what I needed. What I didn’t expect was to pay $20 just to drive through it, but when I glimpsed some tourist info about Zabriskie Point by the ticket machine I knew I was onto a winner. It’s weird that given the humungous scale of this country I’ve managed to find, quite by accident, many of the places that have been on my to-do list for ages: Mojave Desert & Joshua Tree Forest, Barstow (for sheer Thompson nostalgia), Mono Lake, Bodie, and now Zabriskie Point. In just two days driving through tiny corners of just two states I’ve come to realise just what an astoundingly beautiful country this is. Sure, you’ve seen all of these places in pictures and on film, but so much of what America exports turns out to be hot air and make-up that it’s all too easy to write off the good stuff, the real deal. A few minutes of staring in open-mouthed wonder at the rolling hills around Zabriskie Point soon recalibrates the give-a-fuck-ometer. Vegas who?
It’s windy out here, and getting colder too, so I’m glad I’ve got a tall latte, a croissant, and a quart cup of iced water waiting for me in The Shark, courtesy of Starbucks, back in “civilisation”. There’s something perversely funny about having breakfast in Death Valley, but nobody else gets it – they just stare at the sunburnt freak in the rented Mustang, giggling uncontrollably.
Lunch follows some hours later in similar fashion; munching a Subway calorie bomb while reading about a local Indian legend on a roadside plaque high in the Sierra Nevada. The scenery is changing now, arid plains and Joshua trees replaced by the first pastures, horses, and trees proper. The low sunlight sets off the fall colours in spectacular fashion and again I’m reminded what an incredibly beautiful country this is.
The one stop I was really looking forward, Mono Lake, turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax thanks to bad light and hordes of tourists, so I took a few “I’ve been here” pics myself before pressing on to my stop for the night at Lake Tahoe. Call me stupid, but I’d never thought about the destination much, it was just some name that pops up now and then in overheard conversations or films. Apparently it’s a ski resort, quite high up, and accessible via a very twisty mountain road, as I found out now that it was completely dark. Great. The dashboard tells me it’s 33º out there but that means nothing if you’re not used to Fahrenheit. Already some of the surrounding roads have been closed for the season due to snow – was I about to face an unscheduled detour?
Needn’t have worried, the upside of a country which takes public safety to such an extreme level is that even this foreign tourist wasn’t about to meet an icy death. I arrived a few hours later on the southern shores of Lake Tahoe, and found my accommodation straight away: a typical American single-storey motel, complete with parking out front and a little asian guy behind a barred window fulfilling the role of receptionist / concierge / cashier. This was something I’ve been looking forward to for a while, another one of those Hollywood-esque boxes that needed ticking, but I was to be disappointed again: everything worked, the sheets were clean, the carpet didn’t smell of onions, and nobody was fucking theatrically next door. Oh well, stiff upper lip and all that. They’ll get a letter from me in the morning …