The last star was floating in the deep black above a thin orange line when I started the long fall back to the coast. Right away I had to climb more than a mile. The West Portal of the Eisenhower Tunnel is 11,158 feet above the Pacific. Technically, Frisco is a couple thousand feet lower than that but Frisco is where I found the road work and where I started to worry about my carburetor. The fat bitch between my legs coughed and choked as if I was shoving something down her throat. “Piece of shit!” That’s how I sound when I am worried, cold or afraid. “Fuck you!” I sound like that.
I cursed the road again and again. I was barely going seventy and I was shivering. I should have had the sense to stuff newspapers in my clothes.
I hate the Rocky Mountains. I hate Aspen trees. I hate tunnels. I hate cars. I hate riding under quarter mile high sheets of red granite scree. Back there a woman told me her head was messed up. It was kismet. I laughed and I told her, “Me too!”
Usually I hide my lifelong rage under a veneer of placid fatalism. Mostly I am blank. If I like you I might sneer. Mostly I keep my “issues” in my little mojo bag. I allow myself the luxury of rage only when I think rage might work. I don’t pour it out casually. But I threw it all at the crest of the Vail Pass. “Motherfucker, mother…fucker, you bitch, you bastard fucking whore.” I twisted up my face and cursed so hard I spit on myself. I scared the woman driving on my throttle side. I knew because she slowed down to get away from me. I almost felt bad about that. I wasn’t mad at her. But at that moment I just felt like I had to pull out all the stops and rage was all I had left. So that was what I used to punk the invisible atmosphere and force invisible gravity to my will. I flew into a rage. “Fuck anger management!” I have no doubt the damn motorcycle would have just rolled to a stop and left me stranded if I hadn’t started shouting back at all the invisible forces that I cannot see that dominate my life anyway. I have seen it a thousand times. I rolled the first 90 miles on gasoline but I crested that pass on rage.
I fueled up and composed myself. After Vail it was all downhill. I could have been on any interstate anywhere except for the Glenwood Canyon. The bottom of the Rockies is Grand Junction. The junction refers to the convergence of the Gunnison and the sleepy, ancient end of the Colorado. The grand part is just public relations. Grand Junction is a self important and overpriced little town. It is also about where the sage desert starts. I bought gas again and pushed on. The road straightened and smoothed and in no time I faced a choice.
I pulled over at a familiar spot – just after a road named 191 unravels off the interstate. I stood between the Book Cliffs and Arches National Park and considered this fork. I have passed here often. After I am dead I am sure my wandering ghost will haunt this barrenness from time to time. I knew that at that spot I was still three days on a motorcycle from the Pacific Coast Highway. Whether I turned south or continued west it was still three days. It shouldn’t take that long. In a car I could have driven straight through but I don’t own a car and this was August. And, I am basically an unemployed and unattached ne’er-do-well so I did not much care.
Down there to my left, past the herds of massive boulders, the white monsoon was boiling all over the Navajo Nation. I have issues sane men could never admit. I have issues with the kachinas down there in the San Francisco Peaks. I don’t know what I did. I never know. The invisible forces just hand me my punishment. A brown witch once told me that whatever it was I did that the kachinas noticed, it was a good thing and it was in another life. But, I am not convinced that witches are any smarter than psychiatrists or priests.
I do know that not everybody believes in the invisible forces like I do. I have to believe because otherwise the world would make no sense. For example, I can’t get on a motorcycle and ride more than five hundred miles before something I cannot see tries to push me backwards, then jolts me from my left, then runs into my right and throws buckets of water in my face. On the worst rides an invisible force sinks its invisible teeth into the bike. One time it was my petcock. Another time it was a sparkplug wire. I have slurred out my belief in spooks and gremlins and ghosts leaning on a half dozen bars. Most people are polite and ignore me. One time one guy told me, “I just follow the signs.”
To which I answered, “Exactly! Exactly!” And when I said that this was the exact spot I had in mind. This was the Moab cutoff and if you have ever been there you know that just past that there is a big yellow sign that warns of “Eagles On Hwy.” That sign has always bothered me because I know there is at least one eagle kachina. I saw his likeness in a souvenir store in Albuquerque.
I had come a long way since dawn so I stretched my legs. My boots threw up little puffs of dust. The desert is a good place to think about the big questions in life and I have always been very aware of my mortality.
My personal bucket list ends with my death in el lay. If I get a choice I want to die on the bike – whichever bike happens to be “the bike” at the time. I want what everybody wants now days, that my final moment will be captured on a cell phone camera and posted to YouTube where it will be viewed about a million times. An invisible narrator will pronounce my brief epitaph – “Sheee-it! You see that!?” If fate is kind my demise will involve eight or nine police heroes firing two or three hundred shots in self defense at my dangerously fleeing back. I have given this scenario some thought. I didn’t just start thinking about this at the grand junction of the 191 and the 70. If I have to get shot two or three hundred times in self defense I might as well get shot crashing into a fuel truck at the same time. With any luck, all that fuel will explode. God willing, there will be a Sheriff’s helicopter hovering over the gas truck and it will be engulfed in a jack-o-lantern carved out of flames.
I know. I know we all have our hopes and dreams. I hope to make the evening news when I go. Maybe my death will even inspire a new law – something like: “An Act to Protect Our Police and Keep Dangerous Lunatics on Motorcycles From Ruining America by Running Free.” It would be nice to be remembered like that.
Or maybe I’ll go out in a head on crash with a forty pound bird with claws like shark’s teeth. Who knows? I guess that would be okay. Except, this is rural Utah. This is not a big media market like Los Angeles. It is one thing to die from the mother of all bird strikes. It is another to pass from the visible to the invisible realm unnoticed. And, unless there just happens to be a camera crew from America’s Funniest Highway Fatalities driving by when that eagle kachina finally catches up with me, nobody is even going to miss me for probably three weeks. And, then everybody will say, “Oh well.” And the only law I am likely to inspire will probably be intended to protect big birds with sharp claws from motorcycles.
I thought about all that for a long time. See what I mean about issues? That is what loose women and high altitudes will do to you. I got a grip eventually. I knew that if I was going to die on that little adventure it was probably going to be in the Mojave.
What that fork in the road really forced me to decide was how I was going to sneak up on the meanest desert on the continent. If I turned back to the 191 I could ride home through the iconic American West: Through Arches and Canyonlands, over the hundred miles of tar snakes that lead to my favorite hoodoo, the one called Mexican Hat, and then through Monument Valley, the Painted Desert and Flagstaff to the Colorado and Laughlin. It is the prettiest ride I know. Everybody should take that ride at least once.
There are only two problems with that ride. The first is the damned kachinas. But they might not even be a problem for you. So don’t worry about that part. The second problem is that after you get through all that scenery you have to spend your last night before the west coast in Laughlin. Perhaps I should say, fucking Laughlin. CBS ran a television series about Laughlin in 2007. It featured Hugh Jackman, who is a pretty big star, and it was still cancelled after only two episodes. The New York Times called it “the worst show in the history of television.” And, I bet that reviewer never had to spend $150 for a $30 hotel room at the Aquarius during the River Run either.
I weighed my decision in my hands. One hand held the iconic wonders of the American Southwest. And Laughlin. The other held a long boring ride and the city Laughlin dreams it might be. I fired up the Dyna and headed west toward the killer eagles and the 15 and Las Vegas.
The ride was a chore. The sky turned mottled grey and began to seethe. The winds shook the bike from time to time. The engine droned. I put on my jacket just outside Green River when the invisible forces started to spit in my face. Mountains appeared and slowly grew until I passed them by. I disappeared into the deep cuts the engineers had blasted in the rocks. The sage became pinon and scrub. My shoulders were shaking when I pulled off at Salina. The only gas station I saw was on a bad road stripped down to gravel.
I wasn’t close to done. The road climbed and dove through the Pahvant Range. It was mountain man country and I started fretting about elk instead of eagles. When the annoying drizzle turned to rain I stopped, put on my plastic rain suit and continued. Two minutes later the rain stopped and the sun came out. Another bike pulled next to me. The wet rider stared at my space suit and seemed to laugh as he pulled away. My morale evaporated. Two minutes later I pulled over again and stripped off the stupid suit. Five minutes after that it started to rain again. “Fuck it.”
I was 450 miles into the day and I was ready for a shot and a beer. Then I remembered. “Oh yeah. I’m in Utah.”
When the rain stopped the winds got serious. I blew into a gas station in Beaver. I leaned on the bike while I filled it up because I was afraid the winds would blow it over. I swear one gust knocked me back and rocked the bike. I putted over to a Comfort Inn. They wanted $90 for a room. I wanted to get inside. We did not negotiate. The room had a working television. I had beef jerky, Peanut M&Ms and a Coors in my T-Bag.
I went out back and took a couple hits off a joint rolled with an organically grown, healing herb which my health care provider assured me was 25.6 percent THC. Two kids, a boy and a girl – and by kids I mean they were maybe 19 – were in the hall playing a guitar and singing when I went out. They looked like the Partridge family. I threw them a buck. They told me they were just practicing, not performing, and tried to give me back my money. When I came back in I threw them another dollar and they just looked mystified. Sometimes giving a little money away makes me happy.
The next morning the winds had died down but I was still about 500 miles and two days from home. I should have taken the scenic route but now it was too late. I slept in and rolled out about ten. I put on my “novelty helmet” with the homemade DOT sticker before I left because I knew I would probably forget when I crossed the Nevada state line. The weather had moved through in the night. The winds had tamed to a breeze. The road was a still river. The sky was a fade of cobalt blue with ruffles of clouds. I think there is a red and white lighthouse just south of Cedar City. I’m not sure. I think I have seen it a couple of times but I have never gone back to actually touch it so maybe I have been hallucinating.
The 15 south was practically deserted and I was in Dixie Utah in an hour. People call it Dixie because the Mormon pilgrims tried to grow cotton in the southwest corner of the state. But Dixie Utah was at a competitive disadvantage because the market price for cotton was set by plantation owners with slaves. The Mormons had a hard time getting their hands on slaves. So after the Civil War the Utah cotton business withered and now all that remains is that name – Dixie. I saw the first sage in almost a day just past Zion National Park. The hills became careless piles of rocks. The high clouds burned away and I began to descend into an oven. When I stopped in St. George I swapped my tee-shirt for a tank top. The inside of the helmet was soaked. It was over a hundred degrees by then and I began to wonder if I should have started earlier. I bought some water, drank some and decided to try to hurry.
The most remote spot in the lower 48 may be the outlaw corner of Arizona where the survivalists and the fundamentalist Mormons go to hide from modernity. I didn’t see any ATF Swat Teams as I passed through but I know it is only a matter of time. Just past the Arizona line is the startling Virgin River Gorge and the minute I was in it the winds picked up. The bike shivered and I slowed. It might have taken 15 minutes to get through that. Then I was in Nevada and the Mojave.
When I stopped in Mesquite I spotted a fellow traveler, a brother in the wind, on the far side of the parking lot under the only tree for miles. He was standing next to a Softail Heritage Classic drinking water and he was wearing a leather jacket. I pulled over by him after I paid. His bike was a lot prettier than mine and the guy looked like a male model in Easyriders Magazine.
“How come you’re wearing your jacket? No offense. Just out of curiosity.”
“The zipper’s stuck. I can’t get it off.” The jacket looked brand new.
I am the world’s worst mechanic but I did have a pair of pliers and some WD-40 in the bottom of one of my saddlebags so between us we managed to get that problem fixed. I didn’t ask where he was coming from. “Where you headed?”
Nobody ever asks for my advice but I am still inclined to give it away. “Don’t try to get past Vegas today. First time in the Mojave in August?” He nodded. “Big bad desert. Cross over tomorrow morning early. You got water.”
“Rubber side down. Shiny side up.” Then we parted ways.
Forty minutes later I caught my first glimpse of the yellow scum that hovers in the sky over America’s city of the future. That was just about where the old Mormon Trail heads north and the interstate begins its descent. By then it must have been 140 degrees in the saddle. I should keep my advice to myself. Anybody who is stupid enough to keep going on to the coast in this weather deserves to die. I pulled off at Speedway Boulevard where I always gas up when I come into Vegas this way. I didn’t need gas as much as I needed cold water and an air-conditioned convenience store. A thermometer in the shade near the front door was broken. It must have been broken. The thermometer claimed it was only 119. I poured some water on my gas tank and the water vanished. Some of it spilled onto the air cleaner and hissed and popped. I bent over and poured cold water over my head. I was close to heat exhaustion. I would have been better off if I hadn’t had to wear my special, Department of Transportation approved, plastic, safety hat.
I was headed for the Flamingo. I always stay at Bugsy Siegel’s dream. He named it after his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. She had such long and perfect legs that her friends called her The Flamingo. The hotel is cheap and I like to do things exactly the same way every time. I know which way to turn off the Flamingo Road exit. I know where the bike spaces are in the garage and I know the speed bumps in the driveway. This time the traffic was ridiculous so I got off an exit early at Spring Mountain Road and the next thing I knew I thought the bike was going to catch fire. The Vegas Strip has the slowest traffic lights in America. My average speed dropped to about a third of a mile an hour. My gas tank was too hot to touch. Heat rose off my engine in waves. I burned my finger when I touched my horn. “That can’t be good. Motherfucker. Son of a bitch.” I was so hot I could hardly get angry. Then I didn’t know what I was going to do. Nobody could hear me curse anyway. I was surrounded by air conditioned steel boxes. Vegas really is a town with no pity. I was on the wrong side of the street. I wound up going all the way down Las Vegas Boulevard past Planet Hollywood before I could get back to the Flamingo. By the time I got into the garage I thought I was going to throw up. It took me another 20 minutes to get the Tee-Bag unbuckled and pull my jacket out of my saddlebag. It took me another 45 minutes to check in. I kept right on sweating in the lobby.
But the woman who checked me in was amused by me apparently. “We’re sold out of standard rooms,” she said. “I can put you in a deluxe room on the 18th floor. Same price.”
It was a great room. I stripped down, took a cold shower then admired my view. The Flamingo is the old Vegas and Vegas is the new model for America. All of the Neon Metropolis lay at my feet. Vegas is what Wall Street hopes to be. Vegas is the model for the new American service economy. Vegas is the American fantasy. You can get anything in Vegas if you have enough money; anything you can dream. Vegas is where Americans go to pretend they live somebody else’s life. I took a nap for free.
It was a three digit night when I went out for a walk. Sex was all around. Whores and pimps and unappealing young men met and argued and negotiated. None of them got what they wanted but they all got something. A dancer on a sign as big as a ship strutted and teased. Fugitives from the Mexican drug wars tossed out thousands of calling cards and on one side of each card was a photo of a beautiful woman who would date you for only twenty-five dollars. Unimportant people say times are hard but the people who count insist that the corporate tax cuts must be given time to work.
Just call the number printed on the card. For a reasonable fee, say forty-five dollars, she will date a total stranger. Any stranger. She is new in town. She is very friendly. Don’t forget you get what you pay for.
Forget Paris. Forget Rome. This is the one city in the world everybody knows: The old fashioned sign that proclaims “Welcome to Las Vegas;” the Mandalay Bay; the Luxor pyramid and the sphinx; the sky scrapers of the hyper-real New York, the New York so real you have to say it twice; the grandness of the MGM; the glamour of Monte Carlo; the Bellagio fountains dancing in the middle of the desert like white whips, like tornados of light; the real Paris, the real Eiffel Tower and the new and improved Arc de Triomphe; Bill’s with its inimitable Elvis impersonators; the gravitas of Caesar’s; the swashbuckling pirates of Treasure Island; and off in the far distance the least of all these wonders, the Stratosphere, which is merely a thousand-foot-tall needle with a roller coaster balanced on top.
A Hunter Thompson impersonator in a Panama hat and aviator glasses languidly flicked the ash from a cigarette stuck in his long holder. You can do anything in Vegas. You can even smoke. An aging woman in a tight red dress pretended to be young and in the sparkling lights of the forbidden city she was young. A midget Elvis grabbed at a statuesque hawker wearing a cat suit. And when she jumped back her top hat fell off.
On the strip the lights do not change so the cars do not move. I see the world freeze in the desert heat. I got married here once, very long ago.
Music pulsed out of a thousand doors and slowly one golden oldie conquered the rest. It thumped menacingly. You pick the song. Almost anything by the Rolling Stones will do. I heard George Thorogood warn the world that I was on the loose. Bad to the Bone. Bad to the Bone. In my Vegas fantasy the pimps, whores, gamblers and hustlers, the street thugs and cops, the marginally depraved and the lost all see me coming and scuttle out of my way. I drifted easily back to the hotel and a restaurant called Margaritaville.
I lingered in the gift shop. I considered a tee-shirt that announced, “Yes I’m a pirate but I was born 200 years too late.” It costs thirty dollars which seemed like a small price to pay for a new identity. A pretty woman called my name and led me to a table in a big room that paid homage to the golden age of the drug trade. I was there. I did that. A twin engine amphibious plane hangs from the ceiling. I can see the stripped out interior in my mind’s eye. Beneath the plane are “fishing” boats.
I enter this moment. “Dos Equis.”
I chug the first beer. I check out the women at the next table. Two of them are sort of pretty, plump girls. Next to them is a woman who looks like what happens to a sort of pretty, plump girl if you put her in the back of your refrigerator and forget about her for forty years.
“Another Dos Equis and a scotch.” All roads lead here. This is where I was meant to be when I was born. Men on stilts invade the room. A girl frolics in a margarita glass. All the songs are thirty years old. I am no longer as old as I was this morning. I have wandered the west and now I have finally found where America has gone. I was crazy but now I’m not crazy anymore. I’m not angry anymore. I’m not worried anymore. I’m not hot or tired anymore. There is nothing invisible here. There are no invisible forces. Everything is obvious here. Here, I am the master of my fate.
“Jambalaya and another beer.” I am full of confidence as I glance around. “Buy you a drink,” I ask one of the pretty, plump girls. She looks away. The fat old one looks at me instead. “What about you, baby?” Maybe she didn’t hear me.
The loud, seventies sound track continues. I know this song well. It has never been about me before but it is now. I never liked it before but I like it now. I don’t understand the words. I don’t know what it is about. It has been a long day and I am finally drunk enough to forget who I am – just as everyone else has come here from Indianapolis and Waco to forget themselves. That’s what Vegas means. We are all doomed unless we can forget. America must forget and I must play my patriotic part. David Bowie sings to me and when he sings the hook I pump my fist in the air and sing back. No one seems to mind, not even the fat girls. I sing that the world might remember me. It will not. I pump my fist in the air and sing anyway. “Rebel, Rebel!”