Out the window hundreds of white wind turbines were turning in the desert wind. A lone tree stood on an otherwise barren mesa casting a ridiculous shadow on the tawny land. Chaparral filled up the distances along with a few Joshua trees. Chet was sitting sideways in his seat next to me, his head craned back and his body almost completely turned around, twisted in what must have been a very uncomfortable position, with his knees sometimes coming up onto the seat as he excitedly talked over many wondrous things with Leroy. They would pass the plastic ash tray with lines of coke on it back and forth between them, holding it very delicately, and sometimes offering it to me by mistake, which I refused with a strong-will and almost puritanical fastidiousness and dedication to my purpose of getting this vehicle to Las Vegas as efficiently as possible with all of us still alive inside of it. I looked out at the clouds. They were drifting by like continents, all cracked apart and torn ragged at the edges, just a lispy whisper of sky like oceans between them. I felt at ease. Gripping the wheel tighter, with no obstacles in my way now, I slammed down on the accelerator and pushed the Mercedes up past 90, sending Chet and Leroy flying into the back of their respective seats. Luckily, no cocaine was spilled. I smiled and sped on.
Turning the scanner control knob on the radio, as reception got bleary in the middle of all the nowhere we were driving through, I said, “You know, there are only two types of people in this world. People who find a good song on the radio and leave it, and then those people who keep turning the dial, changing the station, always thinking they’ll find something better on the next station, never satisfied with where they are, always thinking the next place just up ahead will be better than where they are.” The radio went all the way up from 88.1 FM to 107.9 FM without ever stopping. “No reception out here in this depopulated land of dust and wind. The thing’s gone kooky. It’s lost its mind! Flipped its lid! Lost touch with its innermost self and come back a stranger, tremulous, wacko, blowing all its damn gaskets.” I turned off the radio. “There. That’ll teach it!”
Leroy leaned up into the front seat, his head right between Chet and me, his eyes staring straight ahead, his tongue hanging out, panting, kind of reminding me of a dog that’d been in the back seat too long and wanted out. He said, “What kind of person does that make you?”
“A nihilist I guess.”
Chet fed a CD into the stereo system’s thin mouth and Leroy went back to the backseat. I could hear him snorting up some more of the coke, a brief and nasal-ripping cacophony followed by a few hacking caterwauls of phlegm. Chet turned up the volume and rested his head against the palm of his right hand with his elbow propped up on the windowsill. His eyes closed behind his sunglasses and he began to nod his head to the music.
Chet has a reserved kind of stillness to his movements, a sort of mellow and soft way that he treads through the world, almost invisible in his shadowy ways, though he never seems to be hiding from anything, just kind of part of the scenery, not rocking the boat. That is most of the time. There are times when he can also be just as ribald and disastrously rambunctious as Leroy, only it’s in small bursts, like a mechanism for releasing all of this bound up energy that’s gathered inside of him from attrition during the mostly laidback and unassuming moments of his life. He nods and smiles a lot, is agreeable to most things without saying much, and seems to kind of just be going along for the ride most of the time. But in those rare moments when he goes ape-shit, well, he really lets it all hang out, screaming and throwing things, kind of like a comatose schizophrenic during a manic episode, releasing himself from the bonds of his easygoing, cool and composed existence, this bonhomie and tranquility that determines his path-of-least-resistance lifestyle. He has stramineous hair, which is usually a bit unkempt and shaggy looking, and most of the time there’s a reddish-blonde trim layer of beard growing on his pale face. Hidden behind sunglasses is the liquid-Tide blue of his eyes. He’s unkempt without being slovenly, and good-natured without being overly amicable. There’s a texture to his speech that reminds you of a surfboard bobbing softly up and down on the ocean in the lull between waves. When he’s manic it is more like a Tsunami has hit and all hell is breaking loose. You just run for cover and try to ride out the storm. Or you jump in the water and start splashing around with him, maybe losing a few teeth and banging yourself up pretty good in the process, but you’re a better person for it, and no worse for the wear as they say. Luckily it’s mostly the calm and not the storm that you get from him. I guess everything evens out in the end. I’d just rather not be there when it does.
So the sun baked the windows and I navigated our way along unfamiliar highways that seemed to unravel and float away and flap around like over-cooked spaghetti whipping against the mountains in the distance. The Mercedes was fun to drive. I took it up close to 100 a few times. It didn’t feel that much different from 70 really. I tried to make a big deal out of it, announcing the speed in intervals, creating tension as the hand of the speedometer moved up, but in the end we were all still just sitting inside of a car listening to music. I rolled down the window and screamed at the pounding wind.
This was how most of the first part of the trip went. At least as long as I was driving. Somewhere around Barstow my leg started to cramp up. My back was killing me and I was really starting to see a lot of those imaginary motorcycles skidding out in front of us. So I pulled off the highway and stopped in the ravaged parking lot of some closed, burned out, decomposing old diner and handed the keys to Chet. All the diner’s windows were knocked out. All the walls said DO NOT ENTER. I walked over the broken glass and pissed on the ripped up leather remains of what used to be a booth in the diner. It was so hot out I swear my piss started boiling. I looked around at all the old cracked bulb-less lamp fixtures, broken beer bottles on the floor, paint peeling off the walls, sand strewn all over the place, barstools with legs of coral-reef-like rust the color of dried blood, their vinyl seat covers worn thin and cracked with little patches of yellow fluff poking out—the ruined remains of what was once a quaint and cozy little diner off the highway in the middle of the American night. I wanted to stay there for a while and look around, but Chet and Leroy were ready to move on. I told Chet not to drive over any glass and made sure Leroy didn’t drop anything out of the car when he moved into the front seat. I took my seat in the back, wiped some coke off of the leather below me, and tried to relax for the rest of the drive up the 15.
That’s when Leroy picked up an old copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that I’d brought along just for luck, and started reading from it out loud in a very theatrical, boozy, cigarette-shot voice. It was perfect. All that superfetation of drugs and travels down the fistulas of a paranoid and chemically altered mind. Leroy’s smoke-coated, cocaine-stained growl grew more intense as it built from page to page, rendering Thompson in all the glory of his prose with an almost cartoonish intensity. He was smoking cigarettes and reading at an incredible pace, and barely stuttering or skipping words at all. Chet and I just sat there and listened to this stunning feat of stertorous oration coming at us from the passenger’s seat. It was like Hunter S Thompson was alive again, and his every cadence, every nuance of his rabid style was being brought into a spluttering, disastrous, and mind-blowing being. His hyperkinetic voice, more raspy than a turpentine-gargling Aldo Ray, filled my head as I watched all that tamarisk and cholla and larkspur and yucca and saltbush and creosote bush and whatever the hell else was out there among the dry winds and sand of the Mojave go rifling by out the window.
He’d gotten through almost half the book by the time we reached Vegas. We put AC/DC on the stereo as the thousand-room hotels lit up off the freeway all around us. It felt like we were floating by on some hallucination of wings and smashing guitars wailing and all these things that seemed like they were gushing and banging on our senses like some montage or opening scene in a movie where everything just happens right in time and is perfect with the music and the way your feeling and all the things going on around you. Chet steered towards downtown and the electric thermometers all read 110° high up in the twilight onion-red skies of Las Vegas. The streets were not empty or ancient or dead for dreaming. They were alive and singing and sharp with excited waves of light, unfurled, unleashed, like the chaotic flickering splinters of fireflies trapped in a glass jar. With a bottle rocket’s force shooting fecklessly at the moon the streets flooded with energy and shotgun blasts of movement, the constant stream of dynamic and irreconcilable motion headed in all directions at once. The billboards sang the price of admission like a love song. As the music rang in my ears like an angry beast, I looked out at all the tremendous sights outside the window. There was good old New York, New York with its plasticine Lady of Liberty and imitation skyscrapers faking a city skyline. Paris’s Eiffel tower was shooting up like an oil derrick right next to a King-Kong sized blowup of an almost naked dancing lady with a top hat on who hovered over Ballys’ 50-yard plasma screen, which was hectically flashing advertisements and pixilated million-dollar smiles. Luxor’s sleek and dark pyramid made of a million sleeping computer screens seemed to need its own zip code. The crenellations and red, blue, and gold turrets of The Excalibur’s many castle towers jutted up like pointed witch hats in a children’s book. It was all an enigmatic cartoon, a universe of its own where everything was portioned out in heaping, ululating spoonfuls of electric and incessant activity for the ever-expanding appetites of the masses who journeyed through its maze of lights like ants in an ant farm that some kid has just shaken up. We drove on past it all as Chet steered us uneasily towards the Downtown exit. The music died down and my head filled up with static.