American Journal

Excerpt of Gonzo Journalism from my early experiences of travelling in the United States

American Journal

When I first met Leonard, it was a scorching white desert day and we spent the afternoon submerging ourselves in an offshoot of the Colorado river. The current ran fast, and I was new and he was old, so we would hold on to a withering rope attached to the banks and let our whole bodies drift with the rippling water and then pull back in when we were cooled down. We spoke of things I've never spoken of with anyone else before or since, and when we returned to the mountain we shared a single watermelon. He cranked open the back of the truck and sliced it up right there on the tailgate. It was so fresh and perfect. After that I was heading back to LA and so he hugged me and said

                                         “well Natalie, it's been a beautiful friendship”

and then shuffled back to his painting and I went back to my soul-less rented car because I knew I couldn't stay but I also didn't want to go back to the city. Thing is at that time I didn't know all that much about travel and meeting folks on the road and quite often I had the feeling like I should be heading somewhere else but just didn't know how to do it.

That all ended in a blur of Johnnie Walker and cold night concrete on my cheeks, jumping in Santa Monica Boulevard pools with all our clothes on and almost being deported but then one hour later drinking pitchers of beer in some bar corner of Playa Del Rey and no one minded.

I wondered if Alexander in his overalls had ever made it to Alaska. I gave him a ride one day on PCH, had to turn around and everything but I saw him smiling sweetly there and I felt that it was more important to take him somewhere than for me to go wherever it was I thought I was going. I bought him a soda (it was so hot that day) from that big market in Malibu that looks like a ranch or something, and the me now wishes I'd just gone with him. I looked for him one night in Seattle. I went down to the fishing port and my eyes so wide frantically scanning the crowd in case he was there, and I didn't know when to stop looking. It was always the wrong time.

I'd been in Portland and liked it, but felt like I wanted to come back later in my life more than I wanted to just stay there. Three Delta pilots paid for my whiskeys that night and one took me to my first ballgame. I think he knew I was sad and also he missed his kids (who might have been like me), so maybe he felt like it would be nice to imagine someone somewhere might be taking them to a ballgame too?

Back then I was too meek for America, and the people I usually met weren't travellers but real people. People who actually lived and breathed their lives there, and I would just dip in and out but it was a rhythm I couldn't quite sync with. When you meet other travellers, road people, you're all digging and moving and loving and spurning all the time, so it makes sense. But digging “only on the weekends” or after 5—I couldn't understand it. And watching TV (you can rely on America for a TV) alone in a distant house in some basement with no car and no money and too far to walk anywhere, dizzy from too much gin at breakfast in Silverlake and spinning out whilst watching a Hunter S. Thompson flick and wondering if I'm okay with waking up to the sound of a gunshot coming from the neighbours.

I would release shiny silver balloons filled with helium from the balcony and watch them drift away over the city, further and further until they were just tiny specks glinting in the loyal sun on the horizon. All the while I was standing there mesmerized, unable to move and filled with longing. I longed for enchantment beyond my creation. I longed for understanding, and experiences I could handle. Mostly I longed for a feeling that I didn't know how to describe. But it was held right there, in the invisible line of my gaze that reached from eyelash to glinting silver surface.

Anyway it would be years before I experienced the Harley version of America, staying in motels and stopping in diners just like in the movies. Everything looks like a movie over there. And I don't know which created which. The thing that made me restless is that it never felt like a life that was really happening. It was more like a vast show with everyone half-playing their roles and the potential for enjoyment everywhere but never reaching the depths of true joy.

But – oh yes! - those brief encounters with such lovely charming smiley people. At a bus stop, or in the market, or sitting on a log rolling tobacco. Those good-hearted trusting conduits of kindness convincing me that yes, this is all true and isn't it wonderful, and why not stay awhile?