Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Goodbye California

Time. It's been wonky for me for a while now. Ever since I left South Africa for Namibia and I lost an hour to when we landed in Cuzco and I thought I lost a day. It has become fluid, changeable and untrustworthy. I feel as if I have become unhinged in time somehow, as if it has become an entirely arbitrary concept that only the locals of the places we visit hold like some secret pact I know nothing about. They keep time like some mass conspiracy, holding close to the rhythms of their days which Elsje and I try to match but fail, clumsily falling asleep in the middle of their afternoons and stumbling wide-awake through their nights. With time as an untrustworthy companion, all we have is space and place. But we are foreigners and the land is somewhat alien and this has given our travels a somewhat surreal quality, particularly in North America funnily enough. Perhaps it is because I personally have always attributed a modicum of stability and solidity to this place, indeed a kind of timelessness or "Hollywood time," mythic and ridiculous. Added to this the driving on the right-hand side of the road and you have a kind of surreal mirror image reality that has characterized the first week of me being here.  
But anyway, time. Never seems to be enough of it. Certainly during the past eight days it has seemed as if there weren’t enough hours in the day for the things we needed to do, let alone the things we wanted to do. So far we’ve been watching America go past our car windows, spending only hours instead of days in some of the most interesting parts of California and leaving out massive chunks of this most intriguing of the United States. 

Anyhoo, we are now in Reno, Nevada, with our awesome couchsurfing hosts, after having spent four days camping (in our $36 tent) in Stanislaus national forest and Yosemite national park. It was a most welcome respite to the week we had just had. All I can say is thank God for Wi-Fi. We basically planned the entirety of the rest of our trip in crappy motels, half-arsed diners, coffee joints and fast food emporia. We had the grit of America firmly stuck in our teeth when we decided it was high time to see some of the more scenic vistas of what the land of the brave has to offer. So off we went to Stanislaus; originally booked because of the lack of place at Yosemite, but we were more than pleasantly surprised to find that it is a jewel, pretty much entirely unknown to tourists. Ok, it was full when we got there on the Friday – but full with Americans, not tourists – but by Sunday afternoon be basically had the whole place to ourselves.  We had an extremely friendly campsite manager named Jerry who gave some good advice about bears. We also met a guy who had been coming to that very campsite for the past fifty years. It was he who gave us the tip to go up to Ebbetts Pass and take a stroll along the Pacific Crest Trail (see photos below, the ones with the snow). It was in fact just what we needed. We got to touch the silence of the land and meet some good people, get some perspective and just slow down and enjoy our time here for a bit before we hit the road again. 

We left Stanislaus yesterday, rather reluctantly, and drove through some obscure little towns, stopping for breakfast in one, at a Christian diner called “The Heart Rock Café” (I know, you can’t beat it) where the staff were super friendly, even though the food was crap.  We took an unintentional detour, despite the GPS, and finally got to Yosemite at about 11:30.  It was chock-a-block. Tourists of all descriptions littered that beautiful landscape. Our sole purpose though was to take a shower, so we waded through swathes of cars and crowds and took our first shower in four days – a good feeling, to understate it dramatically, particularly as we forgot to pay the $5 fee per shower. Yes, Yosemite is awesome, but since we were only there for one day and were knackered, we didn’t get to see much, or at least not as much as we would have liked. There really were too many tourists there though. We camped at a place outside of the valley that had something like 300 campsites, almost one on top of the other. Just imagine the smoke from 300 campfires in an area with no through breeze, no so pleasant. But we took another unintentional detour early this morning – this time I couldn’t blame the GPS – which took us around the valley and we got to see the sites more clearly, albeit from the car windows yet again.  All in all a very cool experience. We didn’t get to see any bears, but we saw some deer at least.


Today we drove along Route 395 North towards Reno. It’s a beautiful drive along the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains – I think I have that right – and you can literally see the landscape change from lush, greens mountain country to desert mountain country, quite spectacular. 

I have to be honest, I am seduced by America. I imagine it’s what Humbert Humbert/Vladimir Nabokov felt for his beloved Lolita/America, a kind of seduction that’s not altogether savoury, but is utterly irresistible in that it is the kind of seduction that requires the full participation of the one seduced, that is, it requires one, in effect, to seduce oneself, at least with the idea of being seduced. It’s sort of like that. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it definitely has something to do with the excess I experience here. Everything is so big – I’m thinking here primarily of the cars, but the supermarkets too – and there seems to be so much of everything. It’s simultaneously garish and beautiful, ghastly and beguiling and there’s something about that simultaneous stimulation of disgust and a kind of lust that is the essence of America for me. Perhaps that is the essence of the American dream: the lust-drunk ephemera of an Old World notion long gone to seed; the remnants of a project never quite conceived on the Continent finding expression across the pond where Europeans can experience this lush, tainted garden-wasteland, indulge in it even, but then go home and speak of the ‘uncouth Americans’ and their wanton ways.

I am very aware that the eyes through which I see America are tainted with mythic ideas about it that I have received through movies and television and I have to say that so far many of my assumptions about America, and particularly its people, have been dashed. Ah, but so many more remain intact, and I’m even tempted  - seduced even – into picking up the dashed pieces of my favourite assumptions and holding them together with sheer willpower, simply for my own amusement, to seduce myself into seeing what I want to see from this place.
I must say, I like America immensely. I couldn’t live here, I would honestly get so fat, but I like it, it’s a cool place and really all of the people we’ve met so far have been awesome and mostly really knowledgeable and worldly. OK, there have been a few who asked me where I learned English and why it’s so good, coming from South Africa, but I think that’s kind of sweet and besides I had people in England ask me the same questions. That’s what I have to say; America, f@ck yeah!!

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