In 2003 I took a 6-month road trip around the US, visiting 38 states and countless ‘roadside attractions’ by the end. I travelled by Greyhound whenever possible, partly to meet more (and a wider range of) people than I might have otherwise, and because the stigma attached to American bus travel fascinated me. Occasionally though, because of time constraints or because routes didn’t include an ‘attraction’ I particularly wanted to see, I rented a car.
Such was the case in Nevada, where I drove 100 miles northwest of Vegas to visit a ‘town’ called Rachel (the collection of dwellings nearest to Area 51: more on that another time) then headed back south, aiming for the Grand Canyon. I took the wrong exit out of Vegas and before I knew it was moving through the Mojave on Interstate 15 towards LA. Believing every travel ‘accident’ to be an adventure, and trusting my own sense of direction and instincts more than Rand McNally, I went with it.
So it was that as the desert reflected a painter’s palette of a sunset, I pulled into Baker, California: home of the World’s Tallest Thermometer. I’d not have known that ‘attraction’ existed otherwise. It claimed the temperature as 36c at 730pm, making the town’s name all too appropriate, so I looked for the nearest cheap motel with a pool. Arne’s Royal Hawaiian Motel was neither regal nor Polynesian in any way, hadn’t been renovated since at least the 70s, and hasn’t attracted very good reviews, but my room was clean enough for a night and I loved the retro look. The young family at the front desk were lovely, free spirits. After a quick meal at a Denny’s (guilty pleasures) I headed for the pool.
At 10pm on a hot summer night, I floated alone in bright turquoise water under a desert sky full of Milky Way, palm trees still and bats lively overhead, the old Airstream in the junkyard behind the motel glittering in the starlight. It remains one of the most sensuous and precious memories of my life.
I desperately wanted to live (and act) in California when in my early teens, having watched too many sitcoms via cable channels beaming the American Dream from Washington and Idaho north across the border to Calgary. That August night seven years ago, the first of many on California soil, I had at last taken myself there, with my own money, skills, and intuition. I felt powerful, entranced, and utterly content.
The next day that navigational ‘accident’ led to my stumbling across The Baghdad Cafe. But that’s a whole other pebble for another time.