Monday, 23 February 2009

Road trip: Oakhurst - Beatty

At one extreme we have the Cuba Street Carnival on my week in images blog, and over here we have a continuation of the America travel diary. And we are heading to Death Valley...

Him Outdoors is very impressed with the American supermarket – an aisle of cereals including several types of Cheerios; individually wrapped slices of cheese; ginseng and honey in a can; self-service checkouts for clearly honest people.

We drive through infinite swathes of nothingness, questioning of flat, shimmering patches, “Is that the sea?” No, it’s Central Valley California; the fruit and nut (oh yes) producer of California. The faded and dusty American flags hang limply from pick-up truck shops – a total contrast to the bright snapping variety with their jaunty stars and forge-ahead stripes in the waterfront cities.

Boats are for sale by the driving range in Pinedale, but where’s the water, or do people sail away on a mirage of dreams? Apparently Paul Evans sells fun – if your idea of fun is a mobile home, then maybe he does.

We pass a procession of fire trucks and a cardboard city on the edge of Fresno. How can this be when the farmers’ fields are full of corn, cattle, beets and potatoes – there is food for Africa! The suburban giants are advertising hoardings sprouting up along the motorway, signalling Shell, Taco Bell, MacDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Denny’s. One sign reads, ‘People and pets, cremation urns and keepsakes’. There’s a market for everything in America – if you think of it; you can sell it.

There are stop signs at crossroads to nowhere. Delano is characterized by tattooed men in Stetsons driving pick-up trucks with tinted windows. We lock our doors and drive on through. As we approach the brown hills and distant mountains it looks like Graham Sydney country. A large black crow flaps and a wily coyote lopes away from the road kill at the dusty verge.

Many churches present
opportunities to worship along the way – there are Seven Day Adventists; Latter Day Saints; Baptists; Lighthouse Pentecostal, but none of your traditional everyday Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians. A forlorn sign pitched in a field of dirt reads, ‘Prayer changes things’ and a white painted cross on a brown barren hillside presides over the wasteland.

China Lake is a strange place – a naval weapons centre in the middle of the desert. There are acres of nuclear testing sites in nearby Nevada. These are represented by featureless purple blocks of shading on the map, and surrounded by a barbed wire perimeter fence in reality with a warning to keep out posted every twenty yards in case you don’t get the message.

Only two shops are in evidence – one sells ‘outdoor additions’ which appear to be gazebos, conservatories, barns and anything else that can conceivably fill the space. The other shop is the Gem and Mineral Society – a gathering of cars suggests the consumption of tacos, hot dogs and car washes offered for sale. Angus is boarded up and derelict; everything is demolished or for sale – this looks like real Mad Max stuff. Dry lakes, salt mines, deserted towns and a naval weapons centre – this really is an odd part of the country.

As the day is getting on, we drive right through Death Valley National Park. A mid-west couple (from New Mexico) tell us at the visitor centre of a ‘groovy little town’ called Beatty in Nevada, on the other side of the park, so we head there. If this is a groovy little town by their standards, I dread to think where they live. The motel we stay at has an industrial shower curtain, strange connecting doors, and a polyester bedspread in blue, orange, pink and yellow, with images of bears, flamingos, Canada geese, shells, skyscrapers, forest scenes and mountains. Still, it’s a room.

We go out to the Sourdough Saloon which we instantly rename the sour faced saloon on account of the extremely unfriendly waitress. The bar is in a horseshoe shape with high stools – there is nowhere else to sit but at the middle of this sea of Stetsons, baseball caps and cigarette smoke. Worrying that we might be sitting in a local’s seat, we order Michelob Amber Bock (the only thing we recognise other than Bud from the list the landlady barks at us). No one else drinks tap beer – it’s all bottles, spirits and Jaeger bombs. A man buys a bottle of vodka, which he wraps in a brown paper bag before leaving.

A turn-off in Beatty leads to Las Vegas, and that’s where many people are expected to go. The ceiling is papered with dollar bills from passers by. One woman swears loudly at her relatives across the bar. Another tells us she moved here two years ago from ‘the high desert in California’. She loves it here and sits out on the porch in the mornings with her coffee watching ‘the beautiful light’. She is not even deterred by the 70 mile drive once a week to Parumph to buy groceries.

The road to our hotel is lined with ammunition cases on sale – I’ve never seen such a collection and am even more disturbed by the potential market. There is a casino next to our motel and the lights flash on and off all night. It’s quite a draw card as there are no legal casinos in California (apart from on Indian land).

I watch True Blood on HBO, a series Our Gracious Hostess has recommended. It is slightly alarming that the images of vampires infiltrating society do not seem out of place in Beatty, Nevada.

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