I get to travel the world. I’ve just been to California and back in around 80 hours.
Heathrow was in quiet chaos. Although the bus lane was closed there was no sign that anything was wrong, and only an informed Cockney electrician (â€œOi mate, you speaka da English?â€) seemed to know that the buses to nearby hotels were not running. In fact it turned but that nobody really knew what was going on, because it was too late in the evening for information. Helpdesk booths in this 24-hour airport close at 9pm. So I took my cues from overhearing a lost-looking girl who asked people where the taxi rank was. We meandered up through the multi-storey car-park to the signpost-free taxi area, where at least a hundred people were waiting for cabs in the rain.
You see, you can’t walk and expect to get outside of Heathrow. The road tunnel and runway mean that the Heathrow complex is cut off from perambulation entirely. It’s train, plane, wheels, or isolation, and so I have to spend ten pounds to travel less than a third of a mile, even though I share a cab with the wandering girl.
Park Inn hotel is a cross between a disco and a prison. The corporate theme is blocks of primary colour, and elevators are filled with a gloriously kitsch rotating spectrum of light â€“ red through blue and green, via yellow and purple – as if we’re on our way up to some dream of 70s decadence. The rooms meanwhile are cells: bed, TV, and single steel cup and saucer, for making the tea or instant coffee. There is deep hum from within the hotel’s concrete innards.
I have an early flight. The sour-looking fatty on the passport control desk tells me that I won’t be granted access to the US with less than six months left on my passport. â€œYou might want to think about that on your flight,â€ he says, like a teacher reprimanding a naughty child. Despite this, he can’t tell me anything more and asks me to move along. I might be heading off to international detention, but he doesn’t care, and he’s happy to let me into the terminal anyway.
I ask what Fatty meant by his warning at an information desk. â€œWho brought you in?â€ the woman keeps asking, but the question makes no sense. Eventually I seem to manage to get her to understand my predicament and she phones someone. She shrugs. â€œYou should be fine,â€ then she looks suspicious. â€œUnless you know some other reason why you should not be allowed to travel?â€
Worried and exasperated, I phone everyone I know. They are, with two exceptions, asleep. No one seems to know whether the fatty at the passport desk was right, and perhaps I should expect to be ‘detained’. I’ll just have to fly to Los Angeles and find out.
I wake up somewhere over the Rockies. The scene is spectacular: the bright blue strip of the upper Colorado river (swollen by a dam and filled with pleasure boats full of tourists absorbing the astonishing geography) scythes through jagged red mesas. This will give way to weird foam-like stone formations and then, beyond that, the vast Earth-splitting chasms of the Grand Canyon and the mountainous monoliths of the South West. From 30,000 feet this is like a divine lesson in topological extremity. Exquisite skies, and even more wonderful vista below. I am entranced.
Behind me sit an ageing Californian couple. Clearly not super-wealthy (we’re in
economy ‘Traveller’ class) but certainly aspiration-heavy. They wear expensive shirts, Rolex watches, Chanel sunglasses. They talk quietly, and I hear the man say â€œLet’s see what’s out there.â€ He opens his port-hole shutter. They look out of the window at the jagged wilderness for a moment and the woman responds: â€œMmm, just dirt.â€ Her husband seems to concur, and he closes the shutter.
We come in low over Los Angeles. SimCity zone planning is evident. Strip malls placed with a flick of the mouse.
US passport control passes without incident. I mentally poke Heathrow’s Fatty in his hanging gut.
Thanks to my frantic phonecalls earlier in the day, I am met by one of the people involved in organising the trip. Being a lovely man, he gives me a ride to the hotel. LA sprawls endlessly in every direction. We pass the GoodYear blimp, tethered on a disused soccer field. (This is LA, after all). Roadside billboards promise â€œrobotic massage!â€ and â€œGrand Rug Liquidationâ€. Later we also pass the LA Galaxy stadium, where a fading Beckham will wow the few who don’t spend their money on baseball or American Rugby.
The business I’ve come to California for passes in a pleasing haze of jetlag, videogames, excellent catering, and late-night typing.
At dawn I wander around the local commercial estates. Offices, hotels, blank non-residential buildings made from glass or prefabricated concrete. There’s a pleasant mist from the sprinklers that are embedded in the perfectly manicured lawns. These planes and vectors of tightly packed grass are so perfect, in fact, that they could have been rolled up and stowed away each night like a (liquidated) rug. The total anonymity of the buildings, called things like â€œAnetech Corpâ€ and â€œIntegrated Services Incâ€ makes the entire place seem like a facade. There are no pedestrians, but simply a few passing cars which stop occasionally on the six-lane provincial boulevard. (Things aren’t really bigger in the US, they’re just wider.) Patrolling these spaces listening to Brian Eno’s finest ambient work, The Shutov Assembly, on my so-cheap-it’s-basically-disposable MP3 player turns the early morning walk into a surrealist montage of long streets, palm trees, empty parking lots and gong noises. In the evening we pass the Taco Bell building. In the daytime a giant black-glass edifice, at night it’s an inwardly lit tower, betraying the late night Taco executives working hard on their charges. (â€œWe’re going to design the best God-damn taco ever! We’ll stay here all night if we have to!â€)
Once my own work is complete I travel back to the UK. Relieved, exhausted. As we fly back across America I stare out at the twilight dirt of the Rockies. I drift sleepwards somewhere near the great salt lake of Utah. I can’t tell where the mountains end and the sky begins.