I’ve decided I should make a go of this blog, so here is post number two, arriving just over 12 weeks into the trip! Better late than never, eh? I’ve crossed the United States, by means of buses, rideshares, the odd train (indeed, just two) and a bit of the old magic hitching. My route has turned out something like this:

There are plenty of stories to tell, but I’d like to begin with a couple of episodes that stick out:

1. The Desert Hippies of Powell-a-Palooza

I’d been couchsurfing with a really beautiful family of people – William, Camille and their little girl Sophia in Austin, Texas. This is a town which Americans refer to as ‘the live music capital of the world’ – whether a slogan born of true naivety or crashing arrogance I was never quite able to work out. Austin does have a quite phenomenal amount of artists coming through and a couple of world famous festivals to boot – South by South West in March, a city-wide celebration of film and music and ‘Austin City Limits’, a bit of a who’s who of the US indie-rock scene. I was in town for the later, and the whole place was buzzing from Zilker Park on one side of the River Colorado to the strip on East 6th street: bands tuning up in dive joints everywhere in the desert evening. After catching a couple of the ‘aftershows’ – Bon Iver and his new nine-piece band during the week, and Bright Eyes and Iron and Wine, on consecutive nights (just another weekend in Austin, folks- it makes you sick sometimes) at a great dusty yard on Waller Creek known as Stubbs’, I was off  west again.

I’d managed to find a rideshare on the Craigslist website with a bloke called Glen. That’s about all I knew. So up he rolls in front of William and Camille’s little porch on Monday afternoon, five hours late. He’s in a pickup, pulling this horsebox with the legend ‘elegant and spritual shelters from Asheville, North Carolina’. He darts out and madly starts shaking hands, ruffling heads. Soon we’re off in a blast of aircon and he’s gabbling – “got to get back to the warehouse, pack the rig… We should get on the road by two, big drive ahead. I could get you to Albuquerque man, sure, but I’d have to go a little out of my way, maybe five hours or so”. He’s heading to Page, Arizona – to join his ‘tribe’, do some work for his lighting business, throw up that tent in the back. There’s a small music festival going on right on the shores of Lake Powell: “You heard of Slightly Stoopid…?  They’re playing, and Yonder Moutain String Band… it’s not too big, the rocks are beautiful out there. You should come and meet the team man, I’ll get you a free pass, it’ll be a blast”.

That’s all it takes and I’m on board. New Mexico and Colorado plans abandoned ( was intending to follow the Rockies north to meet the Interstate 70, swoop down on San Fransisco a la ‘On The Road’). We stop at Glen’s storage space and I watch as he clambers frantically over lighting equipment, hefts boxes, forces amplifiers and subs and chains inside the little clapboard trailer. He’s a climber – that you can tell. He also appears to be on some kind of uppers, maybe just lots of Red Bull. In goes sleeping stuff, cooler, a bag of snacks. The huge tent poles seem like they’re going to break through the sides of the trailer – this ain’t no little Quechua pop-up. We drive through the Texas hill country in early evening, sun dimming over the scraggly live oaks as wild deer skip on those cowboy folds of land. Somewhere after joining the I10, there’s a mad hitch-hiker in the semi-darkness, right in the middle of the carriageway on the empty scrubland. We stop to pick them up – it’s a pretty young girl from the North West,  her car has broken down on the way to San Antonio. She tells her story, voice quivering, she’s off to set-up some coffee franchise in San Antone whose main concept seems to be bikini-clad baristas. But it’s all gone wrong, she’s lost, the road trip’s over. Glen drives her into the next town and drops her at the gas station where Mexicans are grinning half-drunk in cowboy hats and a kindly old ranchman offers to tow the car.

Somewhere past Fort Stockton we pull of the main road and grab bedding from the trailer. Roll out mats and bags in the warm desert night on some kind of concrete platform. I awoke to a sky ready to burn, the splayed-wire sculpture of a cactus, a dusty landscape flecked with green and home-made fences. We were still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes as the great ashen wastelands came on, the ridiculous sweep of the road through an empty  horizon of toy-sized, then ant-sized trucks working against the miles. Out of this came El Paso’s strip bars and waffle houses and novelty ‘frontier stores’, sparkly bunting fluttering in the old sea of hoardings and car-salesman despair. I’m straining to see Mexico, over there through those rusty passes they must speak Spanish, hey? And suddenly it’s all too clear: around a corner we look down on a steel line, where the outcrops make a gorge. A trickle of a stream somewhere, far below and the sad sight of a heaving mound of squat oblongs, all colours, blank squares for windows, right there opposite McDonalds.

Pressing on into New Mexico we left the interstate near Silver City. From here to Holbrook the landscape came alive with so many new colours and plants. Streams rushed by little ranches with creaking and proud parairie windmills, fascinating old homesteads deep in the sway of some trees I can’t name. I want to say Poplars, because they stood lush around creek beds like that. Hidden projects and rusty sculptures visible behind hand-carved welcomes and entrance ways. Behind these little valleys, the canyons grew up imperceptibly ’til they were deep and mysterious and full of old Indian eagle-head significance. Further north, the road bent through great swathes of pine and still lakes where you could imagine Lassie bounding home to the wood-choppers evening. Next, a tyre blowout on the trailer but we’ve got a spare, and a friendly local cop guides us into town telling me about his sister who worked as a baptist missionary ‘over there’ in Leeds. We get some dinner, green burritos and Mexican beer, at a kitsch diner on ‘Old Route 66’ (not actually a single road anymore, but a patched-together route combining various bits of State highway and Interstate).

Anyway! Eventually we reached the festi in Page when night had come. We found Glen’s friends amidst all the trailers and lorries and carnival campers, in that great quiet buzz of night before the party. Lots of hugging goes on, and lighting of pipes, and padding round the sand, where the ‘Jenkstars’ (that’s the name of the tribe) are still busy setting up their performance space under spotlight. It’s not ready yet, but it already looks great: the basic idea of the stage is of a pirate ship crashing through a wild-west saloon. DJs will perform alternate sets on the deck of the ship, or inside the ‘solar saucer’, which is an 10ft high crash-landed UFO, covered in a mosaic of dials and buttons and ‘jenk’: that is to say, both these installations are constructed almost entirely of found and recycled objects. The ‘saucer’s decks and samplers and DJ kit run off solar. Things become clearer to me the next day as Scotty, the leader of the gang, holds a discussion to go over the day’s plan. He’s like a Robinson Crusoe mystic with his simple cotton shirt, feather dangling from an ear as he makes blithe pronouncements, tosses out ideas and amends a makerboard list which has scrawled: attach sails. put up mast. mermaid? 

The others: Tanner, Prescott and the rest were someone’s lost boys, perhaps Scotty’s, and no less inspiring. Stage hands with torn costumes and indian tribe-meets-Mad Max adornments. They were carpenters and creators, salvagers, hunters and mechanics all rolled into one; climbing frames and awnings like crabs, home-made swords dangling from their belts, sipping PBR’s from the Sol-Lun cooler as they worked, chasing down ‘pieces’ to pack and dancing across the sand barefoot showing painted toes. As we worked together in the heavy Arizona heat, heaving the three-tiered mast up at the back of the stage, I couldn’t help but be in awe.