Tuesday, February 22, 2011
I came to 'Phantom Ranch'- a series of cabins and dormitories for the people who make it down to the bottom- for the first time 2 weeks ago with Kelsey and her blood comrades and ended up jamming hard for two nights with the guys that work down here. The place is accessible only by 9 mile hike, muleride or helicopter. The workers, therefore, are people who like being away from the 'real' world and enjoying the simple pleasures of life- hiking, climbing, talking shit, playing music, singing loud and drinking lots of whisky (they call it 'ambition'). They have a bumper sticker on their fridge 'phantom ranch- where someone you are boning is also boning someone else'. I had just started playing some songs with the girl behind the bar who had a guitar, then later the cook picked up another guitar and opened a bottle of jack daniels (which doesn't taste any more like whisky here than it does in england) and we were rolling. The next night more musicians appeared and they invited me to come back whenever I wanted. So I postponed my continued cycle south and, after visiting Jono and Jeff for the last time, hitchhiked the 600 miles from the californian coast to the arizona desert.
I was a little nervous. I had only hitched up and down the california (dreamin') coast in america, but this was a different story- I would have to pass through bakersfield and barstow- two big ass industrial downs with a reputation for crystal meth and, well, not much else. Crystal meth is a huge problem here. Made it bathtubs from such ingredients as bleach and cough mixture and giving a high something like crack, it has the potent combination of being cheap, readily available, highly addictive, and hugely damaging to ones body. Apparently THE most damaging drug (the second is tobacco...). Your teeth fall out, your skin becomes pi
tted and discoloured, it twists up all your vital organs and the comedown makes people real nasty and violent. It is (surprise surprise) most prevelant among working class people and native americans, and in places like the central valley is endemic. I got a ride from a guy going to Modesto who was going to visit his kid for christmas- the mum was a methhead and he had to prove she was in order to get custody of the child, making him deeply unpopular with all her friends, who were also his old friends. That was going to be a hard christmas.
Anyway basically I didn't want to be stuck overnight in one of these towns, nor did I want to hitchike out of one of these towns that are notorious for being very difficult to hitch out of (probably because everyone things you are a methhead). The solution? Maximise my chances of getting rides quickly by play on public sentiment with a huge, boldly colour union jack sign about the size of two cereal packets. Jono's totally ace girlfriend colleen had the skill and patience to execute what is easily my best sign ever, and it worked a TREAT. A whole convoy of army trucks passed me and each one gave me something between a salute and a wave, which I duly reciprocated. And then I managed to get all that way in just THREE rides, as well as recieving two chicken burgers and a bed for the night before the final ascent into the national park that the canyon is in. It was almost too easy and I recommend this to anyone without too many nationalistic scruples.
The hitchike before the one here though- from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, only about 150 miles- had in contrast taken 2 days and was very slow going. It took hours to get out of Malibu, the home of Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Newton John and, ironically, the rolling stone himself bob dylan (I know all this because we eventually got picked up by a guy who delivers firewood to their mansions). It had taken 3 hours on buses just to get from one side of LA to this bit, right on its western tip, and I was slightly disheartened to find another hitchiker in the only decent hitching spot. We greeted each other. With a bum's grey beard and cap, this 66 year olds clear light blue eyes weren't, in my opinion, enough to stop him giving of the impression to potential rides of a slightly odd homeless looking guy, a sure fire way to be stood waiting for a ride all day. It didn't help that he carried with him two huge, decrepid looking grey blankets and the fact that he didn't really seem that bothered in hitching at all, vaguely pointing his thumb at passing traffic, not smiling and not looking at the drivers in the eyes- something I have found a total necessity in saying 'hey, I am a sound human who you would like to pick up'. Eventually we agreed that he would sit behind a bush while I thumbed a ride and then would try and get him a ride as well.
After a while this worked, and in this manner we moved together for the next 24 hours. In that time I didn't quite work him out. I realised that he didn't really have much of a desination at all, and was just waiting around in California until winter was over and he was able to go back to Arizona. He mumbled that he had been kicked out of his curch for challenging its leadership and he wanted to basically start his own chuch based on 'liberal principles' that had something to do with gay marriage. He would seem on the edge of madness when he talked but then would occasionally look at me with his piercing eyes as though he could see exactly what was in my soul and would smile as though what he found vaguely amused him. We spent the night together (after I told him I would kick his ass if he tried any funny business) in a riverbed near ventura amongst reeds and willow trees and in the gathering darkness I read him some of jacks poetry, which at the time seemed perfectly apt. Some white men of that age- 45-65- are the ones who control america. Those that have fallen on the other side of societies' line between success and failure are some of the most tragic people I have come across. Make money or be outcast, that is the american way.
a week later.
I just got back from the canyon. 3 nights turned into 5 and the colour of the rocks got more vivid as the time passed. On the 3rd day an aged and wise couple took me up a deer trail to a series of flats that native americans used to call home. the rocks made a natural amphitheatre and they told me that this was the place they have scattered the ashes of several ranchers who have died down in the canyon. i duetted on my clarinet with thebirds and heard my runs bounce off the surrounding rocks to create otherworldly echoes. though this whole trip was in no way meant to be a 'spiritual journey', so many people i have met along the way have wanted to talk to me about their understandings of the things we can't percieve with our five senses. the friars in san miguel, my chinese family talking about their christianity, strangers on trains with wide and piercing eyes... and it could be denied that the two people i was with on the flats were full of something of another place, though maybe this was just some intense knowledge from their travels. he said that the spirit world did exist; there was no doubt about that. she asked me if i had ever equated the feeling one gets when you go to a place that you think you just shouldn't stay in too long, or meet people that seem to suck your energy or, conversely, that you have an understanding with that doesn't need to be spoken of and indeed can't be. and yes, of course i get those feelings, all the more when i am free from day to day worries and can think clearly... nah, i can't really explain properly what i mean...
on the last night the ranchers had their annual winter ball, and the brie, stilton and homemade chocolate truffles tasted all the better knowing they had been hauled down by mules just for our pleasure. so did the vodka for that matter. after only minimal cajouling i found myself wearing a superwoman outfit, complete with tutu, a viking horn helmet (with only one horn) and an american flag used as a sarong. we danced to old country tunes and classic funk (they have a record collection that hasbeen building up over the last 50 years, complete with first pressings of most of the beatles albums, grateful dead, hendrix, yes, all that fine stuff) and the packers, the guys who ride the mules down, most of whom have been cowboys all their lives and have the handlebar moustaches to prove it, sat in the corner nodding along with their whiskies. i slept once again in a hammock in their garden with orion and his belt lit up as if in a theatre along with the huge intensity of the milky way out to the east. it was a great night.
the next morning my vague hangoverbadmood propelled me up the side of the canyon into what turned into a hailstorm and then a gentle flurry of snow. nicole, a park ranger, dropped me off at the edge of the national park (it is illegal to hitch in national parks in america) and within 20 mintues i was in the back of a jeep with a menonite (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonite) couple on their honeymoon heading to san diego, just a couple of hours drive from where i wanted to to be back in LA. perfect.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
It is just after dawn in lompoc, a town of strip malls and one big mexican barrio on california's central coast. The town is surrounded by hills to the south and fields to the east, with the sea west and vandenburg airbase, where the US government launches all its intercontinental balistic missiles from, to the north. I sit in the growing patch of sun in the garden of my old friend steve, who is still sleeping after a heavy night of 'magic cards' (apparently like pokemon cards but for adults) and try to weave some cogent and interesting thoughts out of these last joyful weeks.
After san fransisco i headed south to Santa Cruz, where i had spent a dreamy year in 06/07 learning to play jazz, climbing trees and eating burritos (and beginning this blog). I was a bit worried that the nostalgic bubble might burst when i got back there and that i would find the trees i lived in chopped down and my friends doing shitty jobs. Fortunately that wasn't the case- though most of my cats had moved away, a couple of key friends were still doing their thing, activism was still yielding results (check out - http://scsolidarity.blogspot.com/2011/01/11811-demand-letter-delivered-at-secret.html - for an action and cheesy photo i got involved in whilst there) and, after a good dirty crawl in the woods i found my old spot, now a little overgrown but still with the same trees in the same places. I even found my old tarpaulin that i made a shelter out of that had been used and now abandoned by someone else, and jack told me that my 10 gallon army water container that i myself had found in the forest was now being used by one of his friends. Beautiful stuff.
As i sat there though i did feel something of what john steinbeck calls a 'mystical sadness', i can't put it more succinctly than that so i hope you know what i mean, i sat there with my mbira and several oranges and realised that if i was ever able to really live this life again- the sun, the surf, the forest, the huge quantities of free food, the musicians, the proximity of san fransisco- and just a week in santa cruz made me want to- i would have to come back either for a phd (which, if you get into one, you get PAID to do, unlike masters') or get married to someone to get a work permit, and commit myself for at least 3 or 5 years. This would of course mean not being in england and among the cold and the fucking conservative party but also not realising the plans i have for music and system-jamming there and all the amazing people that have been shaping me like a stone in the north sea and who i am not sure i could handle saying proper goodbyes to. So i guess the sadness is that at some point soon i am going to have to make a choice, and as lucky i am to have that choice, it still closes down lots of paths. Twice i have been picked up when hitching by english guys who have settled here, and both times i have wanted to be like 'but what about all your friends you left behind!!!' but i know if i did they would just shrug and my friends are worth more than a shrug.
What a funny word 'shrug' is when put down twice in the same sentence.
But hold on, i mentioned jack. I said goodbye to jacklast time just before i left america as he headed into the hills to make fire breaks (done with no machinery and is very hard work) and write poetry. At the time he was the darling of the santa cruz beat poet scene, and his tall, adonis like frame would tense up and jerk around with his hands and his words as he congealed mixed up thoughts into questioning sentences and animal-metaphors. He was not overtly political though, and when he helped me build my place in the woods i remember seeing him as a young person with huge potential for the world.
I found him again, 3.5 years later, in a garage that was called the 'office' on the east side of town. In 3 years he had quit the beat poet scene as too cliquey and found the best expression of his need for freedom and happiness in the anarchist movement. He had lived in the forest for 2 years, gone train hopping and was now one of the key organisers of Santa Cruz Solidarity. We spent a night in his place in the woods... after 30 minutes of walking and then crawling we came upon what can only be described as a hut with a plastic roof, containing a raised bed, desk, gas ring, supplies of canned food... a veritable palace compared to my old place; rat proof and water proof. A bottle of jack daniels (which tastes no more like whisky in america than it does in england) was found and we discussed our independent political journeys over the last years. And we had basically got to the same point, expressed in different terms- the need to build communities and reach out beyond the usual activist groups, the struggle to balance fighting hard in this shit system with building a better one outside it, maybe, MAYBE, knowing that this whole thing is soooo small in the paradigms of space and time that we can put our whole heart into it without worrying about it too much... and we talked about how to find Freedom.
This cheered me up no end, as did jamming and busking hard all over town and beach with percussion wizard Moises, as did the process of 'building' (i.e. Watching whilst max and macneil actually built) a beautiful and strong bicycle out of a ridgeback touring frame that max had given me. We did it at the bike church, an amazing bike workshop based on anarchist do-it-yourself principles- you buy a membership and then can use their tools and expertise and massive collection of spare parts to repair or build your bike. If you don't have any money you can work for credit (probably the only place in america where you get paid $10 an hour for sweeping floors) and buy your bike that way. After 3 solid days in the church, one test ride and one broken chain, the bike oozed power and confidence, with front and back pannier racks, 27 gears, foothold thingys and even reflectors.
On the last night before i left i took moises to see the Wailers (as in bob marley and the...). It said they were playing the whole of Uprising and i expected a load of wizened old men with dreadlocks at their knees playing some dirty dub reggae. I was severely disappointed. Out came four singers, all young- one who looked like bob, one who sounded like bob, and two ladies- with keys (playing synth horns) and just one original wailer, the bass player. They did poppy rearrangements of only the most well known tunes and were for all intents and purposes a cover band. And i got so smampfed that when a beautiful mexican girl who i had been talking to earlier came to dance with me towards the end i COULDN'T REMEMBER WHO SHE WAS, never mind what her name was. She watched my face as it dawned on me who she was and was suitably let down and unimpressed. Fucking schoolboy error and another message that says 'come on ben, you know you are a fool when you get too high, EVEN if it is at a wailers gig and the guy dancing next to you keeps passing you his pipe'
that night was a full moon. In the morning i ate some porridge with dumpstered papaya smoothie (i had made the most ridiculously delicious asparagus soup out of a sack of dumpstered asparagus the week before), checked all the screws on my bike and started pedalling south. Destination: Los Angeles.