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Cowboys R Us

Cowboys are in America; we are in America.

Cowboys sleep in their clothes; we sleep in our clothes.

Cowboys eat beans and sausages over the fire; we eat beans and sausages over the fire.

Cowboys drink coffee strong as diesel; we drink coffee strong as diesel.

Cowboys drink bourbon when they can; we drink bourbon when we can.

Cowboys sing country songs; we sing country songs.

Cowboys have chapped lips; we have lip balm.

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The Richest Hill on Earth

Butte

We thought we would stay a night but stayed three, and didn’t want to leave.

We stayed with Carly and her son Miles. Carly is interesting and funny and relaxed. She even makes being mum look effortless, although maybe she will un-friend me on facebook for saying that. She can’t take back the delicious meatloaf she made on our last night though. Ha!

Miles is really cool and five years old and he basically just wants to have a good time, and so he does.

Butte is gorgeous, although many Buttians seemed to find this a strange way to see their town. Perhaps to them the crumbling old buildings, sagging balconies and squeaking porches make the place feel run down. Or maybe all the old gallus frames perching astride abandoned mine shafts, dismantled hills, and piles of grey rock at the edge of town seem bleak to them.

Not to me though. Butte is a charmer, even if a little lived in. I prefer tables with constellations of burn marks and cup rings, if you see what I mean.

Butte wears its history on its sleeve, and the people are generous, and they tell you what they think. It is about a hundred and fifty years old, which is around nine hundred in European years.

Buttites still very much identify as Irish, for most of the miners were Irish immigrants, and St Patrick’s is legendary there. It is the only place in the States where you are allowed to drink in the street.

It’s greasy spoon cafes are really traditional. They are so nice that I am tempted to eat in them every day until I die.

The following history of Butte was assembled from talks we had with the following characters:

1. A boss-eyed amateur historian and living Butte-a-pedia who runs a shop full of trinkets and homemade t shirts.
2. A guy who came to fix Carly’s cable, who incidentally has a truly brilliant claim to fame: at school he beat up Evil Knievel’s son – the Knievel’s being residents of Butte, and the son being a spoilt bully.
3. A Scottish guy who moved to Butte because his sweetheart is a Butte-er, and together with her is building a house out on the edge of town by the drive-in cinema.

As such it is an oral history not a book history, so don’t come to me with corrections.

Butte was already a profitable mining town from healthy deposits of just about every mineral known when everyone started wanting telephones and lights everywhere, and they desperately needed Butte’s copious supply of electricity-conducting copper.

Butte was a bustling metropolis before any other place out west was really a place. “Butte IS Montana!” claimed the cable guy. “This country was built on the back of Butte” mused the boss-eyed historian.

Today there are around 40,000 people here, but there were 100,000 during the boom.

The miners were not unionised in Butte. To avoid the difficulties of an organised workforce the mining companies paid them $3.30 a day, where elsewhere miners got $1.60.

The town was full of relatively prosperous miners then, and an elite of extraordinarily well off bosses. As a consequence it was the biggest gig for plays and cabaret acts outside of Broadway. Charlie Chaplain came to Butte. He reported his stay very tiring. You had to do three shows a day – one for every shift down in the mines.

When he wasn’t on the stage, being who he was, he kept himself busy in Butte’s famous red light district.

The various mining corporations had a war for control of the town. ‘The war of the copper kings’ involved intimidation, arson, assassination, militias, and many tedious court battles.

Eventually one family won the day, and then Butte was run by a single corporation.

By this time the miners had seen fit to unionise, as had just about everyone else. Even the sex workers were in the union. Apparently there was some debate about where among the Byzantine network of groups and sub-groups to put them, this being a time when prostitution was tolerated, even encouraged, but never spoken of.

In the end the sex workers joined the seamstresses, “after all”, it was said, “they too make alterations”.

The last brothel closed in 1985.

The people won various historic battles with the corporation. Notably, after the discovery of rich deposits directly beneath the town, the saving of Butte itself.

They lost many too of course. One morning Butte awoke to find a beloved union man hanging from the railway bridge by his neck. Pinned to him was a plaque bearing the figures 3,7,7.7; the dimensions of a coffin.

The militia who protected the bosses interests continued using this sinister calling card, and today the number is still found on state Police vehicles, for it was the very same militia who eventually became Montana’s official law enforcers.

The people’s sorest loss in these disputes was perhaps Columbia Gardens. Columbia Gardens was the people’s theme park. Built by one of the early mine owners it had a wonderful wooden rollercoaster and a little zoo.

Happy workers must have their circuses, but the corporation wanted close this one because they had sniffed out some mineral treats underneath it. There was an uproar from Butte at the suggestion. The corporation relented, but then, ‘mysteriously’, the place burnt down.

Now, on the spot where it once stood, there is a great open caste mine, half full with water. Berkeley Pit is the most polluted body of water in the states. It is slowly filling up, and if they cannot clean it by the time it raises enough to get into the water table, Butte will be poisoned.

A recorded message that jumps from a speaker at the viewing platform above the pit assures you this won’t happen.

Let’s hope it is telling the truth because Butte is one of the best places we have come across. We wandered around, learning these things, eating, and looking in strange shops.

Every night I told Miles stories and once he went to bed we got wrapped up in blankets and watched Zombie movies.

It was as good as it sounds.

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Our mission, if you choose to accept it

Perhaps I should explain.

We had to go to Canada because our car, who is from Vancouver, really wanted to go home for a couple of days. I think she has a sweetheart in the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Then we went to Seattle where we stayed with a great family. They were funny and interesting and we ate gourmet burgers and chatted and laughed.

Caitlin, the ‘mom’ (which means mum), showed us the new house they were building. It is bright yellow and is on a hill. To build your own house is the thing.

The kids told us about life in Seattle and let us play their video games, which were stupendously advanced and satisfyingly violent.

Mon watched ‘football’ (which means a kind of turn-based rugby played in space suits) with the dad, who is called Paul and who has tenaciously protected his Irish accent over nearly 30 years in the States.

Paul is in the sewer business and he implored Mon to throw away his carpentry tools and “get in the underground game. The underground game is the ONLY game. No one can see what you’re doing!” He slapped his knee in mirth.

It was with heavy hearts that we said goodbye to these folks and began to head east.

We went up into the mountains. They were big and jagged and had snow on them.

After a few hours you break out onto a plateau. The landscape is like an immense furrowed blanket.

Few trees or buildings break the mottled ground. It’s like the sky has battered everything into submission. Hundreds of hills cower from the winds, pulling their scraggy brown hats over their ears. They march on and on and on and on and on, finding no escape.

Nothing happens suddenly. There are gargantuan valleys but no gorges or drops. Each hill takes a few hours to drive up. Your sense of progress is ruined; mocked by the exaggerated scale.

It is like an ocean of land. Easy to picture wagon trains sailing slowly across it, buffeted by the terrible winds, sinking down into each crevice and slowly rising up the bosom of each hill. It must have been terrifying.

We stayed in Couer d’Alene, whose beautiful name was bequeathed to her by French traders. This was the first conservative and Christian town we have been too.

We stayed with a lady who describes herself as a devout pagan. She used to be a biker and a drug addict, then cleaned up her act because she got pregnant. She told the dude who had done the deed to “get”, and he happily obeyed.

She decided she wanted to have a faith to pass on to her son, but not the Christian one she grew up with. She chose paganism. She does rituals and celebrates the passing of the seasons.

She is sympathetic to Christianity and her Christian neighbours, but sadly they do not always return the sentiment.

Sometimes friends of her son are told they cannot play with him because his mother is a witch.

The town, despite being fairly prosperous, has lots of problems with crystal-meth and alcoholism. The children often get a very hard time there, either from parents who are addicts or parents who are abominably strict Christians.

When kids come to play with her son, or when customers come to get a massage or reiki therapy from her, they see something different. She is training to be a counsellor and asks people about their feelings a lot, she is spiritual but non-dogmatic, liberal but not an addict.

I say she is the custodian of balance and a true pioneer.

Then we drove into Montana, which is real cowboy country. We are staying in a great little mining town. It is called Butte (not pronounced “Butt”, but “Beaut”). Butte is going to get proper treatment in the next entry, which I will bring you soon. I am going to tell you everything about the place. I’ve totally fallen for it. I have been snagged on its rickety old buildings and Gallus frames, and sweetly intoxicated by the famous Berkly pit; most polluted body of water in North America.

There is snow on the ground and our windscreen is iced over. From here we are going to Yogi bear’s very own Yellowstone National Park. It will be cold.

 

 

 

 

Then we plan to go to these places:

Salt Lake City
Canyon Lands National Park
Arches National Park
Sante Fe
Memphis
Nashville
Atlanta
Birmingham
Jackson
New Orleans
Austin
El Paso
Albuquerque
Flagstaff
The Grand Canyon
Las Vegas
Joshua Tree National Park
San Diego
LA
San Francisco

If we haven’t blown budget by Vegas I plan to get rich.

Either way I’m definitely gunning for a shotgun wedding in a drive-thru chapel. Ideally not with Mon, but we’ll see.

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Things we want to do with Hollywood Superstars

This is the product of a great car game. Please feel free to join in and keep us entertained. Just add more in the comments section. We are on a road with no bends for the next 18 hours. We just passed quite an interesting bush. Mon is asleep at the wheel but it doesn’t seem to be making any difference. We have cruse control and there are no corners. Driving in these conditions is like bowling with those barriers up. See you in Montana.

Things We Want to Do with Hollywood Superstars

Metal detecting with Gene Hackman

Going to the arcade with Uma Therman.

Pickle tasting with Steve Bucemi.

Examining ancient artifacts with Sam Neill.

Wack-a-rat with Jack Nicholson.

Horse riding with John Cusack.

Dog Walking with Natalie Portman.

Mackerel fishing with Morgan Freeman.

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Vancouver

I asked Mon why he hadn’t dressed up smart to go to the swanky cocktail bar, and he replied that he was committed to a very particular aesthetic: ‘Brink of hiking’. I couldn’t argue.

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Olympic Trek

We decided to make a detour and go see a rainforest.

It is three days later and we have come out the other side.

I have great things to report from our travels in the million acre Olympic National Park.

On the way there human habitations make a disturbing exodus from the landscape. Hills lift you gently up into forests of fir trees.

It rains and rains. The term ‘rainforest’ conjures lush undergrowth shot through with the calls of birds, the beeps of frogs, and the whirring of insects. What you forget is that it is raining there, and that this is it’s chief characteristic.

We go through small township. Everything is grey. The whole place has one splash of colour to share: a pile of pumpkins waiting sombrely for Halloween.

We get to the sea and park on the beach pretty much. We take a walk. The sand is as grey as the drizzle. The waves are even greyer. Some grey birds pad about listlessly in the sand. We watch the surface of the water. Somewhere out there in the grey, grey whales are baking in the freezing greyness.

The next morning, miraculously, the sky is clear. We drive on.

There is a small shop at the side of the road. It sells trekking stuff. Mon’s trainers have holes so we stop off. It is the end of the season and they are having a sale.

The girl keeps dropping the price of everything we touch. The whole place is haemorrhaging value beneath our fingers. I get a t shirt with wolves on it and some postcards. Mon gets some shoes.

She warns me that whether there are actually wolves in the forest is a matter of some discussion, despite their dominance of the merchandise.

Even though she saw one outside the shop once, she still hasn’t decided which side of the debate she is on. This strikes me as highly democratic.

Wolf or no, there are certainly coyotes, bears, and mountain lions. They are hundreds in there, the girl nods matter of factly. In fact right now they are stocking up their supplies preparing for hibernation.

It’s funny because I had literally just been saying to Mon how much I would love to spend the winter being slowly dismembered in a hole in the ground.

I ask the girl if she is from around here, she replies that she is from Idaho. She moved to be close to the ocean. I asked her if she surfs, she nods.

She could have moved to southern California; the warm and sticky centre of international surf culture. There would have been surf bands, surf shops, surf cafes, sex wax, sunny beaches, lifeguards, and surfers in spades.

Instead she has moved here, to a bleak and desolate stretch of coastline in the northernmost tip of the USA (excluding Alaska who is cheating).

She treks the mountains and the forests, and she surfs on that cold and inhospitable beach, all alone. The sea is a freezing, formidable mouth.

Wise people know to stay close to what they love, as the killer whales know to stay close to the seals.

Along the river, the rainforest begins. Suddenly, BANG! everyone is green. The light itself is absolutely soaked in green, it skulks around like it has been egged.

Millions of trees (maples, cedars, sikta spruce, western hemlock) all compete to grow tallest and widest fastest. Everywhere tongues of lush green are reaching out to lick you.

The redwoods in northern California were bigger. Redwoods are as thick as lighthouses. But the trees in the rainforest are bloodthirsty. They twist round each other, throttling their competitors; smaller spruces grow from older trees, piggybacking on their height, stealing their light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure that if you slowed time down you would hear their desperate green panting, their gnarly threats and their Olympian bragging.

Each one is drenched in lichen and moss. Great beards of the stuff hang down from every branch.

 

 

 

 

We keep meeting the river. It rushes along, sick with rain and full of grey soil. It is the Hoh river. The tribe who lived on it when it was ‘discovered’ by Euro-American explorers in 1895, and who have a small reservation here today, say that the river was created as a powerful fellow called K’wati was chased by wolves through the dense pillars of the forest.

In a magical panic he threw the river out behind him as he went, trying to drown his pursuers. He ran all the way to the grey beach, and was safe. This explains why the river bounces and rushes so, and why it snarls like a wolf.

 

 

 

 

We saw elk and a tree frog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North America has a problem with naming. The standard is low. It is like they named everywhere in a hurry. Mostly they are stolen from Europe, and even then they re-use every name a couple of times. So you type in the name of a town to your gps and then after a couple of days drive you discover that you are going to the wrong Austin in the wrong state.

The Northwest is a mighty exception. The native names are gorgeous, and some of the Euro-American ones are very fitting. I will leave you with a selection of my favourites.

Mats Mats, Seiku, Lake Ozzette, Quillayute, Suquamish, Coupeville Nolf, Poulsbo, Silverdale, Irondale, Mutiny bay, Dungeonous bay, Samish bay, Lucky pass, Deception pass.

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Pictures

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We’re home

We have driven so far north now that the season has changed. First the redwoods petered out and the deciduous trees started, then, as the miles continued to malt from the road, the leaves began to dry and go husky and brown, then a deathly yellow, finally burning up in reds and oranges.

The whole landscape exhaled as if our relentless driving had winded it and the sky went limp with rain.

We are staying in a little town with the name of Olympia. It is the centre of power for Washington State, but is none-the-less a sleepy kind of place.

It is shrouded in what to me is a sort of mystic Americana. Wooden houses, peeling paint, an old man mowing his lawn.

We are staying with some old family friends, Lester and Candy. They used to live in England. They are happy me and Mon are staying because they haven’t really seen us since we were young enough to legitimately take a wee in our pants, and also because they are Anglophiles.

Me and Mon are happy to stay because they stewards of goodness and beauty, and because we are USAophiles. This house is overflowing with old records and good books.

The rain patters against the window, we drink coffee, eat beef jerky, homemade pickles, and listen to country, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, blues.

Imagine travelling to the other side of the world, and finding that you are at home.

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Oregon

You can drive and drive all day, and still not really get anywhere.

However, over the past three days, the tightly packed hills of northern California have given way to wide open spaces, banked by rugged mountains.

This is Oregon. This is the state that Hunter S. Thompson and Ken Kesey both called home.

There are lots of ranches. It is very rural.

We are staying by another river tonight. We can see some deer on the opposite bank. There are massive birds flying around in the dusk.

The sun is well behind the mountain now, and we are terrified again.

We just sang “Old Man River”.

Mon has bought a guitar, and is playing it as I write.

We are giving the stars a chance tonight.

God I just saw one fall.

If we aren’t murdered then I think might remember this as a good night.

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Alone in the Redwoods

We finally left San Francisco. We drive for a full day. We go through vineyards, then into the redwoods. The redwoods are trees so big that they make you exclaim.

Our dear friend Ben Krupp has given us an iphone, packed with hours of amazing music. We listen to it, occasionally exclaiming at trees.

We are in the hills now. This is gold rush country. Rivers cut stony gorges between the heavily forested peaks. The sun drops.

We park a little off the road, behind some trees and by a river. We hastily take the seats out of the car and make our bed, pilling all our stuff in the front. We need to work out a good system for this, but this will do for now.

We go sit my the water and make camp. The stars put on a show above our heads that we are both too terrified to appreciate.

We have three things to be afraid of.

1. Bears.

2. Locals who want to steal our stuff, or make our skin into masks etc.

3. The law, or rangers, because we are not meant to camp in these hills.

There is a dim light on the other side of the river. We can hear a voice sometimes, above the whispering of the trees. They are doing something over there, something industrial, something crunchy.

Why would someone do crunching, at night?

People use this bank too, there is the remains of a fire and a litter of empty beet cans.

Every time a car goes past the headlights peer accusingly through the trees. Light licks the trees on the opposite side of the bank.

We have over spent in SF, and petrol is more expensive than we hoped. We must live like gypsies now. We heat up a tin of beans.

There is something in the nearest bush. Something at least a big as a cat, and hopefully smaller than a person.

The night-cruncher continues. Mosquito’s whine and dine.

To prove we survived, and to appreciate the beauty we woke up to, please look at the following images:

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