That same first day we saw Roy’s, a spectacular old half-abandoned gas station in the desert. It’s the place my friend Jesse had hipped me to, and he was right: it was a great location. Roy’s had a googie-style sign and an attached café. Only one bullet hole in the window and in pretty good shape for what it was and where it was. I couldn’t possibly imagine finding a more perfect place for Kar Wai to tell a story in and my instincts are pretty solid. After rooting around and taking pictures there for a while we moved on to find even more fruits of the desert.
There were small clusters of buildings every hundred miles or so, clinging close to the desert floor. We found one such settlement labeled Amboy and another called Essex. They each consisted of a few buildings like a post office, a gas station and a café with a few out buildings. The structures were in good condition albeit weathered, and looked like they could easily have been open for business. Yet they weren’t, and there was not a soul around. So this is what America will look like after the Plague. These places were eminently photographable but we could not spend too much time with them. Given our druthers we each would have been happy to spend hours shooting, but they were not practical for our film. Roy’s was a perfect location, almost as though it had been built, operated, shut down, abandoned and left to suffer the elements just so we could find it and film it.
The first time we came upon one of these clusters of buildings we were half a mile beyond it by the time I had stopped the truck. In part due to the way the buildings were built so close to the earth and surrounded by scrub brush but more so because of the speed at which we were travelling. You see, I love to drive, especially under the right conditions. We were on two-lane highways in the middle of the desert. The roads were dry and in decent condition, consisting of long straightaways broken up by gently sloping curves that could be seen from miles away. Better yet, we only saw another vehicle every few hours or so. I was definitely testing the limits of our vehicle. It accelerated quickly for such a big SUV and cruised comfortably at speed. Stephane and Darius were happy to let me do the driving and were pretty caught up with themselves. Neither one paid any attention to what I was up to behind the wheel. Also, you quickly become acclimated to speed when in a moving vehicle for so long. I gradually took us up to 90, 100, eventually 110 mph. I held it there for a while, feeling my adrenaline rise and my nerves tingle from the speed. I pushed it a little harder, nudging the needle towards 115. The truck started to vibrate noticeably at that point so I backed off and pegged it at a steady 110.
The desert blows past you at that speed, and it was fast enough to keep me focused on the road. I wasn’t particularly worried about law enforcement where we were travelling. If there was an incident that far out you’re easily waiting a few hours for a response to 911. Plus, I am a friend to the police. In my job you work pretty closely with cops, and I genuinely like most of them I’ve met. Enough so that a few have actually become friends of mine. Over time I have acquired an extensive collection of PBA cards and badges. For those who don’t know, a PBA card is something police are issued to hand out to friends and family. It’s pretty much a get out of jail free card up to a point. They’ll generally get you out of speeding tickets and similar petty offenses. Having one won’t help you out of a real jackpot but it doesn’t hurt to let whoever has pulled you over know that you are considered trustworthy by other members of the law enforcement community. I was carrying almost a dozen such cards from various agencies and jurisdictions as well as a few actual badges, but those are stories for another day. For now all that matters is that I was able to speed with impunity and enjoyed the hell out of doing so.
Eventually we hooked up with old state route 95 and shot straight north towards Vegas. It is a more commercial route and the driving turned from pleasure to chore. I went from driving as I pleased on an empty road to being hemmed in by an endless succession of trucks doing 90. The road began climbing up out of the desert floor and through rising foothills. It was definitely time to be aware, just as I was getting a little road-weary and the light was starting to fade. I wanted to press straight through to Vegas but lost the vote, so we stopped.
It turned out to be a good decision. We pulled off at a truck stop-diner-casino just over the mountain from the outskirts of Vegas. It was nice to have a cup of coffee, and my companions were completely taken by the fact that the diner had so many slot machines. I’ve been to Vegas dozens of times, so I’m used to the prevalence of gaming opportunities, but Stephane and Darius were seeing it for the first time. They were thinking profound thoughts about the death of the American Dream; I was fuelling up on caffeine. We met an unbelievably sweet waitress who was a little fond of Stephane. After initial confusion based on his accent and generally scattered manner she started flirting with him pretty hard. It ended the best way possible, with the three of us eating free slices of apple pie al a mode.
As we stretched and scratched our way back to the ride it occurred to me that I had never driven into Vegas before. Surprising, really, as I used to spend a lot of time out there. As a single guy it made for a great long weekend destination. Warm, sunny, easy to get to and as much trouble as one wanted to find. Many of my friends live in Los Angeles. Vegas had been a great place to hook up with them. Takes only two calls to arrange, one to JetBlue and one to Caesars Palace. But I had never driven any farther than from McCarren Airport. Arriving after a long day in the desert was a different thing entirely.
Before we embarked on the final run into town I quietly switched the cord over to use my iPod as the music source. Stephane had done a decent job of picking tunes all day but now it was my turn. I put on the Joe Strummer/Johnny Cash cover of “Redemption Song” and put it in gear. It was as perfect as I expected. The light was almost gone and night was coming on strong. We soared over the mountains and faced the golden flashing lights of Vegas as my two favorite musicians guided our journey. Darius insisted we listen to the song several times in a row as it brought us home. For the first time that day the three of us were completely in tune with one another and the universe. Not a bad first day at all.