A Flying Visit to the Grand Canyon

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It was only 275 miles to the Grand Canyon.

Back home, that would be the sort of journey you plan for months and talk about for years, but travelling, back to back, through Australia, New Zealand and the US had changed my ideas about distance irrevocably.

I was going to go by bus. I had done similar bus journeys often enough over the past few months: Port Macquarie to Byron Bay (249 miles), Airlie Beach to Cairns (385), Nelson to Christchurch (257), Franz Josef to Queenstown (219), and most recently LA to Vegas (270). But then the agent told me that the bus came at five in the morning, and that meant getting up at four, and four is a time to come in, not go out.

There was another way, though. If I gave up on the idea of a helicopter flight to the floor of the canyon and went to the South Rim instead of the West, I could go on an executive plane for the same sort of money, and get up at a sensible time.

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I would never get to fly in an executive aircraft in the ordinary course of things, so it was worth doing just for that. It was essentially a miniature airliner but with the trim level of a Mercedes, and the whole experience hinted at what regular flying might be if airlines gave two shits about passenger comfort and the cabin crew were not on such power trips.

At ground level, only the intense dry heat reminds you that Las Vegas was built in the middle of the desert, but from the air you see that there is little for a hundred miles all around it but mountains and dust.

We flew east over the Hoover Dam, proud symbol of a lost Keynesian world, across the Arizona state line and on over the West Rim and the glass-bottomed Skywalk and followed the canyon round to the airport at the South Rim, where the captain pulled off a perfect landing, shaving off height as we floated down the runway, easing the nose up, and finally settling it gently on the wheels.

So did I do okay then?” he asked brightly, but did not get the applause he deserved because most passengers expect every landing to be like that and complain if it is not, even in a 20-knot crosswind.

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Of course the Grand Canyon is massive; we all know that. The sort of people who fill their heads with facts and reel them off at half a chance will tell you that it is 277 miles long, a mile deep, four miles wide at its narrowest point, and eighteen at the widest.

But figures like that never mean very much until you see the thing for yourself. The vastness of it astonished me. I gazed across at the opposite rim, as you might look towards the outer suburbs from the tallest building downtown, and deep down at the floor where the Colorado River, which carved this great gash into the earth, looked a pathetic trickle.

My eyes recalibrated for the scale, and when I looked round, the people on a nearby ledge seemed for a moment the size of toy soldiers until I refocused again.

The colours in the rock constantly change as the sun makes its way across the sky, from red to orange, from violet to pink; from cream to beige to gold, from grey to blue to green. I could have stayed and looked all afternoon at the contours and folds, the stripes and shadows, the ever-changing palette.

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There were warning signs everywhere exhorting people not to try hiking to the floor of the canyon and back in a day but a cheerful group of guys appeared at the rim having done just that and I would almost certainly have had a go myself if I had been there long enough. It looked eminently doable to me.

As it was, though, I only had an hour left to walk the first bit of the trail, down and round, down and round and then turn back, get back on the bus and back on the plane to Vegas.

© Richard Senior 2016

At the Movies in LA

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All of LA’s a set and all the men and women in it merely actors.

Everything seems a cliché from the movies. The pap-pa-pap-pap of impatient drivers. The apocalyptic howl of the siren on a ladder truck. The Harpo Marx horn on the fire truck behind it. The cops congregating in the coffee shop. Their angular black and white cars with chirping sirens and “To protect and to serve” on the doors.

There is, in the hills, the establishing shot from numberless movies – the stock symbol of the movie business – a seventies replica of a twenties advert for a housing development: forty-five foot letters erratically spaced to spell HO LLY W OOD.

‘Hollywood’ is an anachronistic shorthand now, like ‘Fleet Street’ for the London press. Of the old majors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, roughly between Warner’s The Jazz Singer in 1927 and Universal’s The Birds in 1963, only Paramount remains. The rest of what is now the Big Six long ago moved out into Los Angeles County.

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Hollywood Boulevard has the much-photographed, much-parodied Walk of Fame with its 2,500 pink stars embossed with the names of the biggest stars in this city of stars; it has Grauman’s Chinese Theater with the hand and footprints of more big stars, and the Dolby Theater where another constellation of stars assembles each year for the Oscars. But it soon fades to the west into soulless suburbia and to the east into discount stores and beyond to Thai Town and Little Armenia. Drop two blocks south and you are on the legendary Sunset Boulevard, but east of the Strip, it is a characterless stretch of gas stations and orthodontists.

Universal Studios is not technically in LA, because it stands on a 415 acre plot of unincorporated land within the city boundary. Los Angeles firemen have access to it but Los Angeles taxmen do not. It is part working studio, part theme park, and all tourist trap. But it is as good a way as any to pass an afternoon in LA, if you check your pretensions in at the door.

A tram takes you through generic sets which you have seen in dozens of movies: a Wild West town, a Mexican village, the business district of every city in the world with skyscrapers which stop at third floor level and a square of townhouses which can be anywhere from eighteenth century Vienna to Hell’s Kitchen last week. It passes through the sets of War of the Worlds, with a real Jumbo Jet chopped into pieces among ruined houses, Jaws, where ‘Bruce’ the mechanical shark breaks out of the water as the tram approaches, and Psycho where an actor dressed as Norman Bates dumps Marion’s body in the trunk of the Ford and stumps towards you with a knife.

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There is a simulated flash flood and a simulated earthquake, in which the tram shakes and everything around it disintegrates; there is a collection of cars from the movies, a demonstration of special effects, a room of memorabilia, and movie-themed roller coasters.

It is crassly commercial, of course; it is as cheesy as a family-sized quattro formaggi pizza. But you can hardly attack it for that. Might as well attack an elephant for being big and having a trunk.

© Richard Senior 2015

Escape to Alcatraz

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It is only a mile and a half from the mainland, but the water is cold and the tides are strong, and the authorities were confident that no one would escape from what would become the world’s most notorious prison.

There is still a stern warning as you approach by boat from Pier 33 about the penalty for procuring or concealing escapes, but the old sign is rotten and the letters have faded and it is half a century since Alcatraz closed.

Winds howl across the island, gulls screech overhead. The perimeter fence is threadbare with rust. Paint is flaking, windows are broken, lichen is overwhelming the walls. The concrete is cracked and crumbling in the old recreation yard.

Knowledge of the outside world is what we tell you,” declared the Warden in Escape from Alcatraz, “…your world will be everything that happens in this building”. But the outside world was teasingly close. The recreation yard overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge. Music and party voices drifted over the water. It is hardly surprising that three dozen inmates tried to escape, in two dozen separate attempts. The only surprise is that there were not more.

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 “No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz,” said the Warden in the movie, “and no one ever will”. But on 11 June 1962, three bank robbers crawled through holes they had spent a year chiselling into the walls of their cells with spoons, into a service corridor, up a ventilation shaft, onto the roof, down the prison wall and over the fence. They left dummy heads made of toilet paper, soap and hair in their beds to fool the guards – which it did until morning – and paddled away in a dinghy made out of raincoats. They were never found, nor heard of again.

The movie implies that they got away. Some believe that they did. The evidence they rely on is flimsy, but so is the evidence the authorities relied on to conclude that the escapees drowned. The official version meant that the Warden could carry on boasting that no one had ever escaped from Alcatraz: it saved its reputation with the public. Yet within less than a year it had closed for good.

Native American activists occupied the island in 1969; they stayed for nineteen months. Faded ‘Red Power’ slogans are still plainly visible on the prison block and watchtower. The Warden’s quarters are now just a shell, after they were gutted by a fire which got out of hand during the occupation, or – say conspiracy theorists – which was started deliberately by saboteurs out to discredit the activists.

Everything on Alcatraz looks to have been left as it was when the last of the inmates departed, or when the occupation ended. It has not, as so often, been repainted, remodelled and rebuilt until you wonder if anything you see is much older than things which you have in the back of the shed at home.

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The cells, five feet by nine feet, are kitted out as they were with a bunk, a tiny cold-water sink and toilet, and a few are left open so you can step inside. You can wander down the wings, known as Michigan Avenue, Broadway, Park Avenue and the Sunset Strip, into the cavernous dining room secretly fitted with tear gas canisters, and the kitchen with the breakfast menu for the last day the prison was open, assorted dry cereals, steamed whole wheat, scrambled egg, milk, stewed fruit, toast, bread, and butter, and out into the recreation yard.

There are none of those stupid interactive exhibits which kids run round trying to break. You are not subjected to tabloid-style propaganda about evil inmates and hero guards and told that crime does not pay and that prison works. There is an audio guide but it is a lot more interesting than they usually are, with a well-thought mix of information – neither dumbed-down nor sensationalised – and accounts by ex-prisoners and guards. Mostly, though, you are just left alone to explore at your own pace and work things out for yourself.

© Richard Senior 2015

Beer and Losing in Las Vegas

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Las Vegas, said Hunter S Thompson in his craziest book, “is not a good town for psychedelic drugs [because] reality itself is too twisted”. It is even worse now.

Elvis is alive and everywhere at once. He shares street space with Spider Men and Optimus Primes, and a man with a sign which reads “kick me in the nuts for $20”.

New York is a few steps from Egypt and Rome, and Paris and Venice are across the street. The Ponte Rialto joins the Campanile to the Palazzo Ducale, and gondolas slide through glacier-blue waters. The Eiffel Tower sprouts from the roof of the Louvre; and New York’s great sights are lined up in a row. It is a bit like the world, but with a lot less walking. No carbon footprint either.

MGM has lions, Mirage has tigers, and all the casinos have cougars. Bellagio has an eight acre lake with hidden fountains which break the surface twice an hour (more often at night) and squirt and dance to music, then stop and retreat underwater.

Luxor is a 400 ft pyramid with a replica sphinx guarding its doorway. Excalibur is a cartoon medieval castle, which would definitely not agree with psychedelic drugs. Paris, Las Vegas (so named in case anyone thinks they have walked by mistake to Paris, France), New York, New York, and the Venetian are amalgams of landmarks in the cities they represent.

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If you were as drunk as you were supposed, by tradition, to be in Vegas, you would never quite know whether you were inside or out, or what time of day it was. The shops and restaurants are behind facades which look like a street scene to continue the theme outside, and roofs are painted to look like the sky, and the lighting fools your brain into thinking it is perpetual evening. There are – famously – no clocks to contradict it.

Five per cent of visitors say that they are there to gamble. Ninety-seven per cent actually do gamble. They get through an average $250 a day. It earns the state $9 billion a year.

It is all but impossible not to go in a casino at some point. You might be unmoved by the bright, beckoning signs, uncurious about the fanciful themes, indifferent to celebrity chef restaurants and superstar DJ’s, magicians and singers and dancers, but you will still need to pass through a casino or two to get to the monorail, or just to walk the length of the Strip. And they are so bewilderingly huge that it is hard to get out once in. You follow the signs to the street or the monorail from one room to the next; you go up and down escalators, through bars, past the tables for blackjack, baccarat, poker and craps, past a hundred slot machines and a hundred more until, finally, you get back to where you started.

It is mesmerising to gaze across a stadium-sized casino at the rows of slot machines stretching away to seeming infinity with their flashing lights and plunky music, and the tables, and the sports books with every game and ever race playing at once on the big screens and a wall full of digital statistics which mean as little to me as the company data they print in the Financial Times.

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I saw hundreds of dollars robotically fed into slot machines but never saw a cent come out. I heard one shout of triumph from the tables but who knows how much the guy invested to get there. Some apparently make a living from gambling but it is hard to see how when the odds always favour the house.

There are consoles on the bars so you can carry on gambling as you drink, and plenty of bars so you can carry on drinking as you gamble. Then you can wake up in the morning without even the funds for black coffee and headache pills.

The fountains dance, the lights pulsate, the music pumps and big rigs haul in more beer. It is sleazy, it is tacky; it is overblown in every way. Yet there is something compelling about it, something you cannot help like.

© Richard Senior 2015

Riding History in San Francisco

The cable cars would never have survived in Britain. The unsmiling grey people who make the important decisions would have killed them off long ago. Inefficient, an accountant would have sniffed: they need two people to operate them instead of one. Dangerous too, a health and safety officer would have added: someone could jump or fall off the platform and go under the wheels and get squashed and sue us. They would have gone to the scrappers with London’s Routemaster buses.

It almost happened in San Francisco in the late 1940’s, when the cable cars were coming up to 75 years old; but a citizen’s committee forced a referendum and won it. The cars are a National Historic Landmark now and, much as it might be a tourist cliché, few visitors leave without riding one.

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You have to wait in line for an age at the terminus up near Fisherman’s Wharf, but a car will eventually trundle down the hill and onto the wooden turntable set into the road. The stocky gripman and skinny conductor will jump out, lean against it and shove it round to face the other way. It is delightfully archaic.

You stand on the platform and hang on to the pole in the open doorway. The conductor dings the bell and the gripman tugs on hefty levers and the car jerks forward and climbs through North Beach to the summit of Columbus Avenue and begins its descent downtown. Tourists whoop and scream as the car tips into the dizzying hills, as if they really believe you could fall off the edge of the world in the heart of an American city. But the gripman has the lever hard back so the car never gathers much speed, except on one or two corners when he lets it go so it can build up the momentum to get round.

Then down, down, down, stopping at each block, as the gripman calls out the street name and some passengers jump off and some climb on; then clanking past Chinatown, glimpsing the other suspension bridge, the one no one cares about because it is not funky orange; tourists genuflect in the street to get action shots as the car rolls towards them, the gripman rings the bell to get them to move; and then on and down to the turnaround at Market Street in a quiet corner of the Tenderloin.

It would, in truth, have been quicker to walk, much quicker to take the bus. But it would not have been half as much fun.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

In San Francisco with Kerouac

[S]tretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time. – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

North Beach is an old Italian neighbourhood. There are tricoleri painted around the lamp posts and cafes named for operas, and delis filled with salami and prosciutto legs. Everywhere the smell of good coffee and soffritto gently frying, the clunk-shush of espresso machines, bouna seras and ci vediamos.

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I stayed on Mason at the San Remo Hotel, a pretty, Italianate Victorian with marble sinks, iron bedsteads and old wooden bureaux in the rooms. There were no televisions, duvets or phones, little of the modern world beyond a Wi-Fi connection. It was as if nothing had changed since it opened in 1906, since the two World Wars, since Kerouac slouched round the neighbourhood, seabag on shoulder, bottle in hand, looking for a bed, a sofa, a floor for the night.

I had just started reading his novel, Big Sur, which opens with ‘Dulouz’ (Keroauc) stumbling drunk into City Lights bookstore to see the owner, his friend ‘Monsanto’ (Lawrence Ferlinghetti), and as I walked down Columbus and glanced in the window of a cheery old bookshop, I was startled to see the words “City Lights” in shaded gold letters on the glass. I had no idea it was still open.

It has the shabby, shambolic air of all the best bookshops, a relief from the corporate monotony of the chain stores which dominate the market and have all the character of a bank. The icons whose names appear on the spines of the books in the Beat literature section which fills one wall, whose photographs decorate another wall, Kerouac and Cassady, Ginsberg and Corso, Snyder and Ferlinghetti, were drawn to San Francisco in the forties and fifties, when writers could afford to live in North Beach. They called themselves the Beat Generation.

Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx in On the Road) and Gregory Corso each lived in apartments down the street on Montgomery. Corso broke into City Lights one drunken early morning and robbed the till. “We just didn’t pay his royalties for a couple of years,” shrugged Ferlinghetti. Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) lived – between wanderings and mistresses – with his second wife in nearby Russian Hill.

Kerouac never really lived in his “favourite exciting city of San Francisco,” but frequently ended up there, hitching rides and hopping freights from the East Coast. He spent nights in friends’ spare rooms, or on their sofas, and stayed for a time in the attic of the Cassadys’ “two-storey crooked, rickety wooden cottage in the middle of tenements” which is still standing at 29 Russell Street. Otherwise he booked into Skid Row hotels around Third and Mission and Fourth and Howard South of Market, now developed out of recognition, and the Tenderloin, which is still the sorriest part of town.

I passed through a few times, but always hurriedly and never at night. It makes you despair to see the ruined lives, the lack of hope, the long, desperate queues for soup kitchens, the derelicts in the doorways, the guys selling scraps of pitiful junk reclaimed from bins spread across blankets on the pavement –  another, different, beat generation.

“I ain’t no panhandler,” a man said to me, much as Brits say “I’m not being funny” whenever they are about to be funny. “No!” said his girlfriend, shaking her head in support, as he started to explain that he was from out of town, and his car had been towed, and he had no cash, and his card had been declined, and he was sorry to ask, but he needed to raise $18. I believed none of it, of course, but gave him a couple of dollars for effort.

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A few blocks north, through the Dragon Gate, is one of the oldest and biggest of the world’s Chinatowns, a teeming, bustling quarter crammed with restaurants, temples, meeting houses, mahjong players, incense, and maneki-neko cats, waving limply as the crowds throng past. The ghosts of the Beat Generation are everywhere. Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums of a night at Nam Yuen restaurant at 740 Washington Street, a favourite of Gary Snyder’s:

We all got together…and drove in several cars to Chinatown for a big fabulous dinner off the Chinese menu, with chopsticks, yelling conversation in the middle of the night in one of those free-swinging great Chinese restaurants of San Francisco.

The building is still there with the sign out front, but it is closed, boarded up and graffitied now. Its neighbour, the “marvellous old restaurant” Sun Hung Heung (called Sam Heung in Desolation Angels) is now simply Chinatown Restaurant. Ginsberg preferred the narrow red-brick, green-shuttered Sam Wo along the street at 813, with San Francisco’s most truculent waiter. It closed for good in 2012.

Round the corner, up Chinatown’s steep main street is a dive bar which looks much the same as it did when Kerouac, Snyder and Ginsberg drank there in the fifties: like a cave with a Buddha and red leatherette stools. It is named Li Po, after an eighth century poet with a lifestyle like one of the Beats: a compulsive wanderer, a tough guy who killed men in sword fights, and a committed drinker, who wrote frankly about it in poems like “Waking from drunkenness on a spring day”.

A little further up Grant, midway from Pacific to Broadway, is an alley named in Kerouac’s honour. It leads back onto Columbus, between City Lights and the wonderfully bohemian Vesuvio Café (“the bar on Columbus Street” of Big Sur), which Carolyn Cassady (Camille Moriarty), Neal’s wife and Kerouac’s lover, recalled as:

an arty bar…with colourful cartoon-like paintings….a quiet laid-back little bar where men played chess and guitar, and you could have a drink and  conversion without having to yell over loud so-called music.

It has barely changed – if it has changed at all – in sixty-five years. I expected Neal Cassady to explode through the door, back from the dead, telling three different stories at once. As I read the yellowing newspaper clippings pinned to the wall, a man of late middle age in a silk top hat and a leopard-print jacket rose from his seat and stared, as if I were the one oddly dressed. Perhaps to him I was.

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Caffè Trieste, up the hill on Vallejo, with its dark wood and brass, its old-fashioned juke box and smoke-yellowed ceiling claims to have been the first espresso bar on the West Coast. The Beats were regulars when it opened in 1956 (Ferlinghetti apparently still is) and what you see as you sit and sip your espresso is much as they would have seen it. Francis Ford Coppola is among the star cast of patrons whose black and white photos hang from the wall. He owns the verdigrised Sentinel Building which dominates the corner of Columbus and Kearny and appears in all the brochures. His American Zoetrope studio, based there – in a building which ‘Sal’ and ‘Dean’ and ‘Carlo Marx’ knew well – adapted On the Road for the screen.

The Beat Generation was really just Kerouac, Ginsberg, William Burroughs and their friends. But after the Six Gallery poetry reading of 1955, which Ginsberg and Snyder closed out and Kerouac chronicled in The Dharma Bums, after Ginsberg’s Howl was published the following year and On the Road the year after that, North Beach started to flood with wannabes in sunglasses, berets and turtlenecks, with goatee beards, bongos and half-arsed Buddhist ideas. The media called them “beatniks”.

The next generation’s bohemians were priced out of North Beach and settled instead across town in the streets around the junction of Haight and Ashbury, where the media discovered them again and re-branded them “hippies”. The neighbourhood is stuck in the middle-sixties, like some ageing hippie, still high on the acid of half a century ago. Its stores and houses are a hallucination of orange and turquoise, magenta and blue, of peace signs and rainbows and trippy cartoons.

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Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the Haight-Ashbury generation’s On the Road. It follows another hedonistic journey from coast to coast, fifteen years after ‘Sal’ and ‘Dean’s’, when the Beat Generation was middle-aged, and LSD was the favoured drug instead of Benzedrine and booze, and the soundtrack was acid rock, not jazz. But Neal Cassady was still doing the driving; he partied with the hippies as he had with the Beats, bounded from one generation to the next. Ginsberg, too, found a place for himself in the sixties. He became friends with Dylan and Timothy Leary and protested the Vietnam War. But Kerouac slid into a bitter, reactionary middle age; no longer travelling, hardly ever sober. From the joie de vivre of On the Road to the despair of Big Sur, and worse. He died, at 47, just twelve years after his best-known book was published.

But Cassady had been dead 18 months by then, living fast to the very end. A trip to Mexico, a party, a few drinks, a fistful of Seconal tablets, a late-night walk along the railway line. He was found in the morning in a coma from which he never recovered. He was 41.

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

(c) Richard Senior 2014