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Yeehaw Your Hire Car (IV)
Something that you don’t often see in classic cross-country road trips in American films and television is the passenger providing frequent, well-intentioned, increasingly distressed updates on the position of the car in the lane—which position is always too far to the right. God damn. Sunglassed, self-possessed protagonists never seem to have trouble with the bluetooth of their hire car. Never seem to very almost take the wrong interstate exit. Never brake hard at psychotic, low-flying birds. And not once in all of film and television have I ever seen a driver approach a difficult merge, accidentally smash on the windscreen wipers instead of the blinker, and loudly say, ‘Fuck.’
We warm into it—the Nevada desert is hot enough to warm into just about anything. Soon the magnetic pull to the right right (but, in this country, wrong) side of the road weakens, and the MPH to KPH conversion seems less important, and we only accidentally turn the windscreen wipers on in moments of real distress. It’s fun again. We have pretzels and our own music. The roadside is sublime. It’s like driving through a different planet, but one you’ve seen a lot of on TV.
There’s a security checkpoint on the way to the Hoover Dam. A man with a moustache that is scarier to me than the gun on his belt leans in lazily through the open window and asks, ‘Do you folks have any weapons?’ Our smug little Australian laugh does us no favours, but he takes our ‘No,’ as absolute truth and asks no follow ups and doesn’t even check the boot. What a relief he didn’t ask if we had any Kinder Surprises.
The water that is trapped by the Hoover Dam is crystal and alluring azure. It looks extremely drinkable. It is held at bay by one of the sheerest, most colossal bits of infrastructure I have ever seen—a 220 metres high, 380 metres long slab of glorious white cement. God bless it. Yes sir. According to a memorial plaque, the 138 men who were drowned, impaled, or became otherwise deceased during the construction effort, ‘Died to make the desert bloom.’ What a way to go.
Unfortunately for the lost souls you can’t see very much in the way of blooming from this particular lookout, which is scorching and dry and up a very long set of stairs. There is a radiant heat from the concrete and the rocks. If you forget your sunglasses you’d probably explode. As soon as you leave the car you want to get back in it, for example, in the carpark on our way back down an adolescent boy is banging his head on the window of his family’s minivan. His mother calls from right at the top of the hill, ‘Tyler, will you stahp! Granmaw’s got the keys!’ Tyler must have a slow grandma. He immediately buries his face in his hands and slouches towards the shade to be bored.
How the town of Chloride has managed to get itself onto TimeOut’s ‘Top 10 Must-See Stopovers Between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon,’ list is, frankly, suspicious. It is bright and blisteringly sunny. No one is outside. A lone cow wanders along a path that is presumably usually reserved for tumbleweeds. The old ghost town in the middle of the Chloride CBD—more like an abandoned strip of shops, really—goes by the name of Cyanide Springs. Spooky. Definitely a high ghost count. The sand is a silky orange. All signage is creepy but cartoonish. And there are no less than three different saloons with swinging doors.
The only member of staff inside Chloride’s Visitor Information centre has the charisma of a glass-eyed waterslide attendant—she tells us with minimal enthusiasm that a lot of folks come through Chloride to see the rock murals, which are ‘weird’ and ‘about a mile’ up a ‘bit of a dirt road.’ Though there is technically dirt between all the many miles of rocks and boulders we drive over, it should really say somewhere at the start of the path: ‘Now entering a Mitsubishi Highlander ad.’ Yeehaw. It takes us thirty tense and queasy minutes to drive the treacherous path and the rock mural is… it’s, like, okay. Unfortunately, just before we got out of the car to look at it, I’d made the (in my head, funny) observation that this receptionless, extremely inaccessible dead zone would be the perfect place to lure and murder tourists, and it’s hard to get much joy out of a rock mural after that. No matter how ‘weird’ it is. And it is. Weird. Painted by hippies in the 60’s that were clearly working under the influence of more than just the three saloons, the murals offer a window into a very different dimension indeed. A place of eyes and moons and tentacle arms. Good lord.
As we off-road back out towards the town of Chloride, with two less driving wheels than we really need, we are waved down by a deeply troubled German Family. They want to know if it’s worth it to keep going. It’s extremely hard to say. We offer some noncommittal things about the interesting colour palette and how the drive will be much easier now that they’ve crossed the ravine, then show them some pictures that we took. The teenager in the back of the car says a sad and disillusioned, ‘Nein.’ We bump and grind our way back to the interstate and resume our long drive through the Great American Dream.
The flat, dry, two-lane interstate curves through what is—you’ll be reminded any time you leave the car’s air conditioning for any reason—serious desert. The kind with cacti. Sheer and distant ranges. Cowboy bones (you’d assume). And all along the road are billboards asking if you’ve ever been in an accident of any kind and, if so, would you like some money? This is a whole-of-America thing. Personal injury lawyers own interstate signage, and radio ads, and the reverse side of petrol receipts. These billboards generally feature big, suited, smiling gentlemen, in one’s or two’s, who promise to eat light and forgo any sort of salary until after you get the massive compensation payout that you deserve. One of them simply says, ‘Wrongful death? Call now.’ Yikes.
But everyone’s just awful polite here. Everyone calls one another sir and ma’am. Everyone gladly partakes in dorky small talk using Americanisms like, ‘Darn right,’ and ‘Right on,’ and ‘You can say that again,’ that are so familiar they almost feel unreal. On the very surface level—in hospitality situations especially—the aliens on this planet are just pleasant as heck. It’s really only the billboards that give them away. Especially the ones with foetuses. With Trump endorsements. With guns and confederate flags and big black text that reads, that dares, ‘Come and take them.’ It’s the billboards that remind you that this is a world at war with itself.
We’ve been staring at this storm for a hundred miles. It hasn’t moved, it’s been trapped in the pocket of a valley. We flirt around the storm’s edge for a bit, then the road pulls us inside. The passenger’s job is to document everything and say soothing things. The driver's job is to focus extra hard on wiper management, lane position, and overall speed because Mum would kill me if we died in America. At least we’d be able to litigate—against the government? God?—for an obviously wrongful death. This is no storm like any I’ve driven through before. It’s thick dark, and surreal, and you can see dimly through the downpour that a fine, scorching summer day is only a few hundred metres over. Rain droplets pelt down like separate bullets from a semi-automatic weapon. The wind exerts actual influence over the car. I say, ‘Hurricane?’ and I am told (soothingly) that I’m being hysterical and I am. The orange dust around us has become sludgy mud. No one but no one slows down except us, not even the trucks, whose tire spray smashes against the side windows and makes it feel like the storm has us surrounded.
Eventually the road bends and carries us away from the storm, which stays exactly where it was. And on the other side of the rain, for the first time in four hours, we see the colour green. There are trees. Roadside brush. Birds. Soon we will see big dumb gorgeous deer. We’ve made it. Hallelujah. This, the signs say, the signs won’t shut up about actually, is Canyon Country, and flat boring desert has transformed into a skyline horizon of craggy crimson rock that is, God Bless it, pretty grand.
This was Episode IV of the ‘Land of the Free (Plus Tax) (And a Tip)’ series. Episodes I-III of this America trip are not as interesting, so we’ve started at part IV. This strategy seemed to work for Star Wars.