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Somewhere in Northern California

July 1, 2020, 7:13 p.m. by James Leach ( 484 views)

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The heat had fallen away in the dark. The humidity had gripped the air; guarded it, protected, and patrolled it like an invisible prison warden. The night had negotiated its release. The air now felt still, loose, unbuttoned- like linen draped over narrow bones.

We’d already pitched our tents and were camping in a field next to a road which cut a tiny line through northern California. In the distance, mountains stood in the dusk like opaque sketches of themselves.

I’d been travelling with my sister and our three friends. Our itinerary was: Los Angeles for 4 days- a coach trip through the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite National Park, and Las Vegas over 5 days- San Francisco for 3 days. At this point, we were about halfway through the coach trip. We’d already made a rookie mistake of booking the cheapest possible hostel in Los Angeles, thus landing ourselves in South Central, an area of LA notorious for its gangs. Nevertheless, about a week later, beneath the stars- it was dinner time (spaghetti and passata sauce). My primary memory of that night is laughter. My sister, a decidedly fussy eater, rejected her dinner on account of it being ‘too cold.’ I accidentally awoke a German woman sleeping on a bench. My friends and I explored the tiny shop on the campsite, examining its vast arsenal of squeaky toys, much to the amusement of the old Californian woman who worked there.

The other thing I distinctly remember is the sky. It was not like anything I’d ever seen- a taut skin of velvet black; the pale breath of lilac clouds; stars and moon gleaming like a million irises. As if the sky was some enormous muscular body with every tendon tensed.

Sometimes life is stale. Sometimes life is bland, tasteless and tiring, punctuated by the vague feeling of indifference to things. That veil of grey which settles like a mist over everything. And sometimes life explodes in colour. Sometimes all you can feel is the moment- blissful, awake, coming at you with its electric alertness. That night was filled with those moments.

Las Vegas:

It was a pandemonium of lights. There’s something interesting about Las Vegas and its relationship with colours. Firstly, it’s surrounded by nothingness. It takes hours of driving through the desert to get in, and hours of driving through the desert to get out. Through networks of the sunburnt crag, and vacant plains dressed in the auburn complexion of dead autumn leaves. Then, in the middle- Las Vegas- a bomb of colour.

We were staying at the Golden Nugget hotel. It’s one of the oldest hotel and casinos in Las Vegas (you might have seen it in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever!) Trying to navigate through the Golden Nugget is like trying to swim blind through a waterlogged maze. There are 2,419 rooms. The bottom floor is an enormous, sprawling casino; rooms spring out of rooms, a thousand different faces play a thousand different games.

If camping in North California was an experience of ‘old’ America- a celebration of the ‘tonic of wildness’, to quote Henry David Thoreau, then the visit to Las Vegas was to be re-immersed in ‘new’ America. The writer Hunter S. Thompson wrote about the mentality of ‘Sin City’: ‘When you bring an act into this town, you want to bring it in heavy. Don’t waste any time with cheap shucks and misdemeanours. Go straight for the jugular. Get right into felonies. The mentality of Las Vegas is so grossly atavistic that a massive crime often slips by unrecognized.’

We took a cab to the strip.
“You’re not betting?”
“We’re not 21.”

The cab-driver seemed, understandably, a little perplexed what a five-strong team of under-21 British tourists was doing in the American capital of gambling, speculation, alcohol, drugs, and all those other neon-laced dreams of excess.

What our youth offered was, if not the authentic Vegas experience, an impartial (and sober) outsider’s insight into what the ‘neon oasis’ was all about.

It’s not hard to diagnose Vegas as a symptom of a global illness. Perhaps it would be too simple. The obsessive consumption symptomatic of an economic system which greedily devours fossil fuels, and thus leaves the planet in flames. But, it’s easy to forget that a ‘normal’ world exists behind the city’s dollar-green eyes. There are families. There are houses. Suburbs. Neighborhoods. There are jobs (someone has to pour the drinks and tidy the hotel rooms!)

All this ‘normality’, however, seems to dissipate as we stumble through the strip. People move as in a dream. The air luminescent and humming radiance. The sidewalk painted by faces who seem to know where they’re going, guided by some secret they have kept to themselves; winding past one casino, then the next- each claiming to offer a better dream. The place has an air of privacy. A feeling that- here- there are different rules. It seems judgemental, even puritanical, to criticise it. It feels like condemning shameless fun. But the effect is tarnishing. You come away feeling slightly dirty. Maybe it’s because Vegas so openly flaunts its decadence. Its enormous wealth. I suppose every other city operates in the same mode: to make as much money as possible. They just cover it up in better disguises.

The Haight Ashbury, San Francisco:

“Hey, do you guys want any mushrooms?”

Shoulder length scraggy hair. Dirty oversized green bomber jacket. A tired yet amused monotone voice like a classic ‘surfer dude’. He’d practically stepped out a movie.

Needless to say, we resisted the narcotic fuel for our stroll through America’s hippie capital. Unfortunately, we were one man down from our five-person travel squad by this point. One of our friends had jetted off early that morning to study birds in a Mexican rainforest for part of his undergrad dissertation. We’d waved bye-bye at the airport at around 6 am, so were naturally feeling a little tired.

I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t know anything about the radical history of the Haight Ashbury before I visited it. Sadly, the legacy of the hippie movement has been overtaken by the profitable aesthetic which arose from it. Now, peace signs are less symbolic of resistance to an illegal war in Vietnam but are rather a merchandise to be sold to yoga-enthusiasts at supermarkets. The Haight Ashbury was home to a defining generation of 1960’s American rebels: Allen Ginsberg, the imminent, openly gay beat poet whose outrageous verse told frantic tales of mental illness, drug use, and visceral sex; Grace Slick, the front woman of psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, a group who pushed the boundaries of music and maintained a staunch anti-Vietnam position; Kathleen Cleaver, the enigmatic ‘head of communications’ for the Black Panther Party, a nationwide organization who armed themselves against rampant police brutality and set up free breakfast schemes for thousands of children. The Haight Ashbury is a small strip of an America that has always struggled to do America’s bidding.

The neighborhood still captured the ‘chilled out’ vibe, if nothing else. It seemed to be a performance of ‘chill’. Incense hung heavily in the air as if powered by electric fans. When the mushroom merchants appeared on a corner and said: ‘Hey, do you guys want any mushrooms?’, it felt a little like a stage cue.

If it was unclear, the Haight Ashbury is essentially now a high street. Or rather, it’s an urban oasis overflowing with vintage clothing outlets and vegan eateries. The area has moved from ‘hippe’ to ‘hipster’. This shift is part of the enormous gentrification of San Francisco that began in the Silicon Valley tech boom of the 1990s. Rent soared while homelessness exploded. A study done by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that for a minimum wage worker to afford the rent on a two-bedroom home at a ‘fair market’ price, they would have to work 171.5 hours a week (there are, of course, only 168 hours in a week). Homelessness struts the city like a ghost. It haunts sidewalks in spectral shanty towns; gaunt faces unfed, unwashed and unseen, staring vacantly out of the plagued tent- cities.

The Haight Ashbury is a strange realization of this social trend. It’s adorned with the foliage of the ‘summer of love’; ‘hippie’ murals are scrawled across the neighbourhood walls. It’s an aesthetic that sells. Despite this, we still indulged.

A pizza-joint jumped out of the high street and yanked me in, forcing me into a seat. Suddenly an enormous, unholy slice of vegan pepperoni pizza appeared before me. I wolfed it down before it vanished. It was the best pizza I’ve ever had.

e finished our trip to the Haight Ashbury (and our trip to the United States) in a bookshop. As an English Literature student, and an avid reader of the Black Power movement which the Haight Ashbury was so closely entwined with, through Black Panthers like Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver- this bookshop was a real treat. Tombs of radical literature- novels, poetry, history, sociology, and economics plastered the walls, begging to be read. Furthermore, they were books that I probably couldn’t access in the UK because they’re not in print there. It was like literary heaven designed for my tastes. The only issue, of course, was the cost. It was so expensive. I wrestled with my dwindling budget but sadly lost the bout, deciding instead into making a list of my favorites on my phone, to check if I could find them online (I still have the list on my phone and regularly look at it for a hit of nostalgia).

The trip to the bookshop was a fitting metaphor for what has become of the Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, and America in general. The 1960’s: anti-war resistance, Black Power, the sexual revolution, radical feminism, and enormous anti-capitalist sentiment- reimagined what society could be like. It was a light bulb moment of political imagination. We tend to forget, however, that the movement lost. Far from wealth redistribution to the poorest sections of society and an end to perpetual war- what instead happened was an influx of inequality and, well, more war. The intellectual remnants of the 1960s are, partly, still with us though. If the trip to the Haight Ashbury was anything to go by, then the daydreams of liberation that the 1960s provoked have been sadly repackaged and branded for sale on the market.

-James Leach

-from Birmingham, England- and I’m a graduate of English Literature and Creative Writing.

-I’m big into travelling, rock climbing and football; and of course, books!

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