Ampatch DisPatch 3
The Momans Meet the Mormons
Grandiose mountains overhang Denver as they overhang Munich, Salzburg and Milan. But instead of baroque domes, Denver's Colfax Avenue is an extraordinary strip of Robert Venturi motels, porno stores, Greek restaurants and drive-thru dentists, all preserved as if there had been some sort of Pompeii-like cataclysm here in 1965. And right in the middle of it all, signalled by blue neon, lies the vaudeville theatre called the Bluebird. Plaster gargoyles, plush curtains, a lobby. A campaign on the part of locals who don't like their parking threatened by strangers looks set to close this place down, so there's a curfew. We play a cheerful show to a tiny knot of adventurous Coloradans, some of whom dance.
The night's accommodation comes courtesy of Grisha, who bears the same name as his doctor father and grandfather, and has a card entitling him to free rooms at the Fairfield Inn. He and Shizu just have to impersonate a doctor and nurse at reception, and the rooms are ours.
Grisha is the spiritual Gong. Beautiful as a blond, blue-eyed junk store Jesus, he spends at least an hour a day meditating. He smiles a lot and is easy to get on with, except if you're full of sarcasm and resentment, sexual innuendo and bitchy put-downs. Like me and John Supermad. In which case, his saintliness is a little unsettling. It's Grisha who is asked to come back as artist in residence to the Mormon house we stay at in Salt Lake City. It's Grisha who says, after bathing in Hell's Canyon, Idaho, 'Landscape like this makes me proud to be an American'. And it's Grisha who seems totally bored in Boise, Idaho while the rest of us are irony-thrifting... until he discovers a book reconciling Hinduism and the Scriptures. He'll give it to his mother, he says. The rest of us have brought CDs by Throbbing Gristle, Der Plan, Sofia Gubaidulina and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Grisha has brought the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. But he's too selfless and centred to insist on playing it.
Peter is the bright alpha-Gong. Descended from a long line of Virginia surgeons, he has an IQ of 180. He knows Chinese and quizzes Shizu endlessly about the common 'radicals' which are the building blocks of both Japanese and Chinese script. 'Brain, that's made up of the radicals 'bad', 'flesh' and 'river', right?' He's always right. Even if he isn't, he's so tall that people defer to him. He knows a lot of Latin and Greek, and his interest in arcane scales and tunings is passionate. He builds all the Gongs' instruments out of bits of driftwood, adding strings, tuning pegs and electronics. One of his inventions is a sort of gourd with exposed circuit boards which you blow on to make a contact and hence a note. Peter is undoubtedly some sort of genius. (More character sketches in future episodes.)
The road to Salt Lake City delivers the wilderness scenery we've been looking forward to. It's Biblical, except in the Bible the plain had cities for God to smite. Here there's nothing, just endless rolling scrubland with the occasional gas station or horse ranch. There'll be a little gulch of canyon-like rock formations and oversized, over-round boulders straight out of Roadrunner. Then there'll be nothing for hundreds of miles, just this sort of Jurassic heathland. After hours of this, we start descending towards Salt Lake City, the oddest place I've been in the United States.
First the cliches. Yes, this is a God-fearing, utopian, whacky and conservative city. Extra-marital sex is against the law. Sodomy and oral sex can only be practised within marriage. Polygamy is tolerated, although technically it's against the law. Alcohol is sold in state-owned dispensaries which look more like pharmacies or banks than liquor stores. The streets in every town here are numbered according to their relationship to the local tabernacle, or Mormon temple. This gets us very confused and very lost, and we're late for the gig, a sort of straight-edge show in an exciting little co-op arts centre down a dusty side-street.
Since the guarantee is only $30 and there are pitifully few enlightened adventurers to witness our blasphemies, we have fun, all playing on each other's sets. The room is attractive, finished in translucent corrugated plastic through which eerie diffused green light shines. We look and feel otherworldly, but really it's this salty city which is another world. I sing my more graphic songs with a palpable sense of shame and danger.
Our accommodation lies between lofty mountains about thirty miles south of the city. The parents of Dominique, Phiiliip's hispanic dancer, and Renata, the girl who wrote the Fischerspooner thesis we've been reading (and listening to -- it includes as an appendix their live performance at the Pyramid Club) have kindly offered to put us up in their basement recreation room. We follow a pied piper-like VW Golf covered in libertarian stickers ('My other car is a pair of boots', 'Why be normal?') to a sprawling ranch full of adolescents. Our host works as a librarian at the Brigham Young University, which is directly affiliated with LDS, the Latter-Day Saints (the church formerly known as Mormon). There are devotional books on the living room shelves and Nate, one of the kids in the house, has just come back from a two year missionary stint in Korea. In tie, ill-fitting suit and white shirt he looks every inch the puritan. And yet others in the house are clearly skate kids, liberals and hippies (and Renata and Dominique now run with New York's coolest, most liberal and decadent crowd). Whatever their beliefs, these are the kindest and most caring people we've met on the whole tour. They spend hours cooking us a delicious breakfast and forebear my furious curiosity about their city and lifestyle with great patience. And their home amongst the mountains is just breath-taking.
An Elk, Rabbits, Salmon, Swans, and a Weasel
We leave Salt Lake City with joy in our hearts. We have three days now to meander our way towards Seattle. We stop at an empty toytown called Brigam City, ramble in the woods and swim at a town called Mantua which in the sunshine feels as Italian as its name, then bathe in rock pools by fast white water in a salmon river in Hell's Canyon. (As the only non-swimmer, I restrict myself to taking photos. I'm a little uneasy in all this sunshine and fresh air. I get more pleasure in the little alpine chalet stores, where I find the musty goods and fusty Swiss-style furniture endlessly evocative, and snap typefaces, bait boxes, cream soda bottles and the Polaroids pinned to the walls.)
We spend the night in a camp ground near a town called Glenn's Ferry in Idaho, sitting round an open fire telling ghost stories and watching shooting stars. The others laugh at me when I retreat early to our teepee, filling it with the anaemic light of my iBook as I banish nature with iTunes and Photoshop (the screen makes a good torch, although it doesn't keep away the killer mosquitoes).
The following morning Shizu wakes up to tell me proudly that she went for a walk at five in the morning and saw an elk, rabbits, huge salmon and swans, and a weasel. 'That was really cute,' she says, 'because the weasel looked at me for a while then he ran away making so much noise with his feet!' The same elk also surprised the meditating Grisha, snorting, harumphing and breathing down his neck from nowhere.
A Clockwork Skull in Mongolia
The following day we drive up through the idyllic Hell's Canyon, passing the Seven Devil mountains, then crossing endless completely utopian rolling high plains coloured yellow with rape. Darkness falls and death draws near in the shape of a sudden minefield of unexpected objects all over the highway. They look like ice and rocks, and when I hit them (there's no choice) one lodges itself under our car. We shoot past a partly crushed FedEx truck which has a car lodged right underneath it. On the grass another car is resting on its roof. We pull in and the shellshocked FedEx driver walks up to ask us to call 911. This accident has just happened. It's hard not to avoid the impression that several people have died here. We start to move off, only to find we can't. Something under our car is whirring. Is it a part of the engine? We rock the car off it to find it's someone's rucksack. Peter half unzips the case to find what machine, driven insane by the impact, has gone haywire. 'No, don't, it's too dangerous. Just leave it!' And so, like the sex toy at the end of Bunuel's 'Belle du Jour', we leave the 'death toy' in the wrecked rucksack an eternal enigma. With the blue lights of arriving police cars in our rear-view mirror, we hurry on towards Seattle, our senses sharpened by horror.
It's impossible not to speculate on what might have happened if the sleeping, driving people who undoubtedly caused this collision had been in our path instead of that of the FedEx truck. The only reason they weren't is that we pulled into a dark Texaco gas station just two minutes before. That gas station remains in my mind as something magical. I wanted to take a photo and didn't, but the photo is in my mind. The Texaco sign looks like a communist insignia. We're drinking tea when a truck towing a big agricultural horsebox pulls in. Shizu, sleepy and dressed in a Chinese jacket and a skirt over trousers, goes up to the caged horses and pats them. That's the photo I didn't take, and it's not an American scene in my mind but a Mongolian one, a scene on some dark, lonely road a thousand miles from Ulan Bator. Sleep and death lurk just outside the frame. I'm so grateful they didn't come for us that night. I'm so glad everyone in that untaken photograph is okay.
Part 1 of the AmPatch DisPatches is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 4 is here.
See more photos from the tour in the Daily Photo section.
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