Everything started on an airplane, as is often the case. Or in an airport, you can never tell. Noise, rushing, shouting. Throngs of people like you don’t see anymore. I’m looking for my flight to Las Vegas, wondering what had come over me. I’m coming over to be with you. Landing in Las Vegas at night is like watching a movie in 3D: you can’t be sure what’s real what’s not. But you don’t believe a word of it.
A solitary walker, a wayfarer in the wilderness, and a lover of arid silence, I find myself in the throbbing heart of a casino, without having even showered. My hands are sweaty and my stomach is empty. Bright lights everywhere. Nothing is flashy enough, nothing conspicuous enough, nothing shiny enough. Sequined pumps stick out from under snake-skin pants. There are Gucci lapdog getups, fake starlit skies, and fake Venetian canals. Excited tourists, running from table to table, phones in hand, feverishly enjoying free drinks and attractions for loaded patrons, mingle with lost souls haunting long empty corridors. In the seediest casinos, janitors, drivers, and dishwashers come to spend their dollars, hoping to hit the jackpot and finally get out of this rathole. But, for now, people queue up at the Golden Nugget. I’m drunk, I haven’t won anything, I’ve no idea what time it is, I’m surrounded by depressing slot machines.
It’s almost noon and the city is deserted and dead. Cheap champagne is being laid out in windowless rooms. My foot on the gas pedal, I keep it steady at 70 mph, and watch Vegas shrink in our rearview mirror. Adios, roulettes, blackjack, and the greedy neon lights. I recall seeing one old lady, alone, at 6 a.m., standing at her slot machine. The sun is warming my skin through the windshield. In Vegas, the dead dance even in the light.
The unending road
Up ahead and all around, the desert is still cold, the sky scorched, and the road pitch black. The road is wide and soft, like a velvet ribbon rolled out across the red rock. All that remains of Native Americans are souvenir shops, dream-catchers made in China and sold at gas stations, and a few place names that remind us of mournful tribal chants. We’re heading down toward the Kaweah River and Lone Pine, California. On the side of the road, a couple of newlyweds are having their picture taken with their limousine. A dazzling cowboy hat and the dusty desert: America lies before me, unaware of how beautiful she is.
Nights go by, measured by regular intervals at motels, as dreary as our dreams. We make love in front of the heater. It smells like burgers and grease all the way to the car.
“Here lawns are watered with ice cubes.”
Bakersfield … Three Rivers: weary America files before our windows. We’ve already logged 800 miles. Interminable parking lots and gas pumps, the sun searing the rock. The desert invades everything, but America, of course, plays dumb, and right there, in the dead valley, plants an artificial oasis, with a private airstrip and a golf course, garish retirees and ten-dollar Budweisers. Badwater, 82.5°F. Here lawns are watered with ice cubes.
From time to time, gone astray, tourists take selfies against the white sand. The parking lots are filled with cars too clean for the desert. We follow Sierra Nevada from sand to snow and back to sand. We are far from the synthetic boulevards of Las Vegas and bimbos in feathers. A parade of cacti in bloom outside the window. I think of all the authors I’ve read: Hillerman, Harrison, Brautigan, Kerouac. They are far away. And so what?
We grab a sandwich at a diner. The grease always drips down our fingers. I dream of real coffee, but then under the giant redwood trees I find a bit of fresh air and a little love. We stand close listening to an owl. I hum “Harvest Moon.” Even though we are far from the wilderness now. Every crossroad is thick with billboards advertising Sequoia National Park and with plastic souvenir vendors.
We drive one of those cars for Europeans averse to oversized pickups. At snow-covered Grant Grove people look at us like we’re crazy. We’re not the only ones. For a moment, a bright blue bird is trailing our car. I wonder what it’s called.
Back to reality
Days go by. We leave behind the America of tall trees and the snowy roads of Sequoia Park for California’s flat, massive freeways. Orange groves as far as the eye can see, spewing out their underpaid Mexican workers who smoke in secret. By the roadside, barbed wire sometimes marks the edge of shockingly green fields. Some clothes and a Confederate flag are taking a sunbath. We take a tour of some god-forsaken villages populated by half-empty pubs, their billiard tables pockmarked with cigarette burns, by neon-covered churches, and by workers who finish their day in front of a greasy burger, staring at an oversized TV screen, their cowboy boots resting firmly on the foot rail.
It’s already late when we reach the ocean. It smells shamelessly like a postcard, and Instagrammers file in procession. We are going to eat at the water’s edge and watch seagulls in Santa Barbara. I feel like a character in a Martin Parr album, hanging out among overweight white couples, Hawaiian shirts, and leather sandals. I try to order a beer, but the waitress is too entranced by a remix of “Sweet Home Alabama” pouring from speakers. Pickup trucks have given way to slick Buicks. Nothing like Ellroy thrillers. I want to get a pair of tinted glasses and a bucket hat and walk around like Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, wobbly-legged and glassy-eyed. We hang out in the sun, under giant palm trees and colorful cafes, drinking beer in Malibu.
At night, we finally plunge into the interminable stream of light on a two-times-six lane freeway running headlong into the abyss of Los Angeles. This city is a demon, a giant ogre that swallows anything that comes its way.
One lone egret straggles along the canal. It watches a dollar bill float past. I’m feeling a bit sick. You order a latte and an avocado toast on Venice Beach, I mumble a few lines of Ginsberg that you can’t hear, and you take my picture. You pay a fortune to sit in a golf cart and tour Paramount studios. I take pictures of people in period costumes, a dog bone vending machine, and a mannequin in a coffin, and then we end the day in a traffic jam on Mulholland Drive under a stormy sky. I want you, but the guy in a Chevy behind is blowing the horn. You take me out for the best sushi in town.
A young woman strolls topless outside the Disney studios, and we cross paths with a procession of believers carrying “I Love Jesus” signs. Princess Leïa gets a guy with a Viet Vet’ T-shirt to sign a petition. The City’s Angels are coated with silicon and smell like French fries, but an old blond surfer sings “Blowin’ in the Wind” and I drop him a coin.
I smoke a few cigarettes on Hollywood Boulevard, since you can’t smoke anywhere. The stars are shadows, while the less-than-heavenly bums pitch their tents on Sunset Boulevard. All-you-can-eat tacos, failed actors, a car of gold: it reeks of money as much as it does of misery. You take my hand and drag me to a café.
You’re a thousand times more beautiful than L.A.
By Théo Giacometti
Independent photojournalist, member of the Hans Lucas Studio since 2018, Théo Giacometti lives and works in Marseille, where he produces news stories for the press or NGOs, mainly on social and environmental issues.
Théo Giacometti, I’m Not From Here
To learn more about the photographer, click here.