The United States of America, a land of broken dreams, big things and as of late, absurdity. A country where you are more likely to be shot dead by a toddler than a terrorist. Anything can happen in the Land of the Free and the sentiment is wholly as terrifying as it is magnificent. As a first-timer, venturing into the deep, dark depths of Trump’s America, (specifically, the Mid-West) was not at the top of my list of 'American places that had piqued my attention' and I am admittedly now, more curious than ever to see the bright lights of New York City, Chicago, San Francisco or LA. Yet, nature does not discriminate based on location and when the Rocky Mountains came into view on my inbound flight to Denver, Colorado, the vista was nothing short of breath-taking and it became clear my imminent, spontaneous adventure would be a worthwhile one. The 'breath-taking' turned out to be a repeated phenomenon, caused by, yet not limited to, the nausea-inducing mix of winding roads, large vehicles and cliff edges, altitude sickness and most markedly, the immensity of being enveloped by the sheer magnificence of the natural world. America is always bigger, better, faster, louder, brighter and even in its landscapes, I learnt that this rings true.
I have always cradled a mild curiosity for America, due mostly to its Big Brother like qualities. To me, it has always seemed too bizarre, unreal even, like it's teetering on the edge of a brewing plot-twist, the unveiling of a longstanding façade, like a real life Black Mirror episode, or The Truman Show 2.0. There is a strangeness in the fact that even in my childhood, in a small town in rural Australia, I could be so influenced, moulded and dare I say, alarmingly obsessed with the people, places and happenings of a country I'd never visited. The only connection, my silver cord, were the hours 'little me' spent, eyes glued to the television screen almost 14,000 kilometres away. In all its glitz, glamour and absurdity, America has always seemed like a caricature of a real place, rather than one itself. The United States is of course a global super-power, it is unavoidable, bending international counterparts to its will, the purveyors of Western culture (if there is such a thing), taking the lead in some ways whilst simultaneously perplexing the rest of us in others, i.e the right to bear arms or the election of the bleached blonde, tangerine man-child. We look to America. We all do to some extent, as much as we don’t want to, even if it's just for the best dressed of the Met Gala or the most recent, painstakingly surreal political blunder. It is too hard to look away.
In any case, my chance to catch a glimpse of the unfiltered, un-pixelated version and experience the excess of the US for myself felt long overdue. The 'Euro-quaintness' I've grown to love was obviously, out of sight, replaced by neon signs, endless Denny's diners and towns that look like retail parks, reminiscent of the places I flittered through in Australia. The roads are wide, they go on forever, dotted with bikers in black and overhead traffic lights, an asphalt sea of flickering reds and silvers, coming to a fixed point on the horizon, encompassed by a sky so big it could swallow you whole. The romantic 'road trip to nowhere' narrative feels alive and well. Sleazy motels, late night drives, lovers just for the night, 7/11s, bored looking waitresses, gas stations and wide, open spaces. I felt like Thelma, or Louise, or both.
The restaurants are, for the most part, a vegetarian's nightmare and the coffee almost always comes from the push of a button, at least curbing my burgeoning caffeine addiction for a short while. The sight of the green and white Starbucks Siren soon became a welcome one (shudder) but it's fine, I lived, surprise. The menus advertise the calorie count, four figured meals, raising cholesterol by sight alone. I won't forget the Las Vegas, 'Heart Attack Grill', emblazoned in pink neon, "People over 350LB eat FREE." Everything comes from a packet, a factory, handmade, man-made. It was a sorry sight the mornings the only fruit on display at breakfast were canned peaches, but on the plus side, hotels greet guests with warm cookies, still soft. You win some, you lose some. Yet, for a country in the midst of a health epidemic, the only nutritional guidelines anyone seems to cling to revolve around protein. Fruit? No. Vegetables? No. Where do you get your protein? Thankfully, the pharmaceutical industry swoops in to provide a pill-shaped answer to all the average American's day-to-day health ailments, all advertised, constantly, tirelessly, disturbingly, on television. Do you have mild acne? Back pain? Out of breath? Ask your doctor about Tylenol, Lumira, Lyrica, Humira, Eliquis, Xeljanz, Zoloft or Abilify today. Side effects may include insomnia, depression, nausea, infertility, susceptibility to certain cancers, blood thinning, blood thickening or a severe brain infection. I wish I was making that last one up.
The towns felt like something out of a David Lynch film, with names like Rapid City, Badlands, Wall and Deadwood. Everything seems larger than life, but a little dead inside. It's eery. "Take a look at our sale on baked goods, zero calories, if you're on vacation." A line delivered by a dead-pan, dead-behind-the-eyes sales assistant. It's all too manufactured, too rehearsed, too clean, you are never not being sold, up-sold, resold. Would you like to buy a Pepsi product?
Of course, the best things in life are free. The sprawling green grass hills of Wyoming, a grizzly bear running through fields with her bear cubs, a herd of Buffalo grazing, or deer, or deer mice, the clockwork eruption of the famous Old Faithful geyser (approximately every 90 minutes). Real life cowboys, the red dirt randomness of Monument Valley and its arid desert plains and the magnitude of Yellowstone National Park and it's ever-changing landscapes. A half hour drive will bring you snowcapped mountains, geyser basins, bare rock canyons and waterfalls. Yet, let's not forget the greatest marvel of them all, the Grand Canyon, a view so mammoth, there are no words, just a humbling, an almost uncomfortable quiet. There is a beauty to these places, it goes without saying, but it is the immensity, the harshness that strikes me. Humans have accomplished incredible things, we are explorers, pioneers, wanderers, looking for answers we will probably never find, to the questions that we've been asking since the beginning. Our minds are big, our hearts (and egos) are bigger, but when compared to Mother Earth we will always be small. We will always be at her mercy, she will always be in charge.
The serenity of these wide, open spaces, revered by so many were a welcome change to London life. A literal breath of fresh air. It felt good and there was a palpable cognitive dissonance when the trip came to a close in the seedy Mojave desert heat of Las Vegas. A place that draws unsurmountable crowds for wholly different reasons. The temperature did not find its way below 40 degrees centigrade in the daytime, with a high of 47, like a constant hair-dryer blowing on your skin, a slow burn, it's not pleasant, but the low humidity makes it bearable. Everything was overwhelming here. Expensive. Phony. Fake. Everything was impressive except for the people. A constant stream of lads on tour, snapbacks, denim cutoffs, sad eyes, bare sweat-stuck skin, desperation and grim, mouth-breathing retirees, dazed, spending the last of their pension on another gamble, another game, another slot machine. Just one more. Blackjack. Poker. Cashipillar. Slot Father. Reel Rush. Zoo Zillionaire. King Cashlot. Wish Upon a JackPot. Everyone sat alone, together, in the endless bright light casino labyrinth, chasing the Big Hit, the thrill, the Hit and Run, the play that changes it all. I saw the famous fountain show of the Bellagio, it's indoor botanical conservatoire, the canals of The Venetian, complete with moustached gondoliers, the styrofoam ceiling of Ceasar's Palace and it's LED, ever-changing, day-to-night sky. Smoke and Mirrors. The ultimate façade. I saw the Strip, the 'Welcome to Vegas' sign and the wedding chapels, all in a row, interspersed with brothels and tattoo parlours because nothing spells out "True Love" like a fly-trap neon sign, infected ink work and an Elvis impersonator. Las Vegas is a world unto itself, with a skyline that celebrates the best of humanity's architectural accomplishments, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramids, the Statue of Liberty and the absolute worst of humanity. Excess. Greed. Apocalyptic fashion sense. Oasis played over loudspeakers in the streets. The golden dazzle of the Trump Tower meeting the setting sun. It was great to finally see America, the country Donald Trump and his creosote tan seem to have tightly clenched between tiny man-hands, like a toy ball or plasticine, but it was also great to leave. To not have to call the US home, because some things are best left to a fleeting dalliance and there are some things that I never want to have to get used to, like 'firearms prohibited' stickers on doorways, an all too real guessing game of 'firework or gunshot,' or looking the other way first when crossing the road, or having my hypochondriatic tendencies silenced only by the crippling anxiety of towering medical bills, or Fahrenheit, or drinking Starbucks.