I rolled into Phoenix a while back, where the low desert heat was at first a balm and then a bother. To escape I loaded up the van and grabbed my new beau and made the requisite Grand Canyon visit. I’ll give the requisite stipulation that it’s far too magnificent to put into words, and that you just have to see it for yourself. Sorry. I cannot describe for you the scale or depth or length or width of the canyon, nor the might of the river that carved it. Two billion years of rock winnowed by the Colorado River into the most popular tourist attraction in America. Two billion years, laid out before you in neatly stacked layers. Something happens to the concept of time when I’m confronted by such a long geological history – it starts to contort, to weaken, and I found myself struck by the wonderful thought that turning 29 tomorrow actually does not matter. Twenty nine? Who cares! When watching the Colorado River flow past, my stupid little human anxiety over growing a single year older became laughable. Thank God for that.
However, there’s only so many nights I can freeze my ass off on the Colorado Plateau. I had to descend. I had to surrender to the road and follow Route 66 west to meet the Colorado River again at a warmer elevation, following in the footsteps (tire treads?) of millions of Baby Boomers on bucket-list trips. To go from the Grand Canyon, where time is measured in hundreds of millions of years, to Route 66, where the passage of a few decades is the basis for a large nostalgia-based economy, was jarring. Route 66 passes gift shops that used to be towns and ruins that used to be tourist hotspots, the neon signs gone dark and the motels boarded up. Nonetheless, the road is busy enough to support whatever remains. In the general store of a nearly abandoned town, the shop clerk tells jokes with the patter of a professional: Why don’t little girls fart? Because they don’t have assholes until they get married! RV parks sprawl for miles outside of each population centre, usually in proximity to the nearest Walmart Supercentre. In Kingman, Arizona – a major Route 66 waypoint – a dive bar door has a sign reading “NO Colors Allowed”, which apparently refers to motorcycle club colours rather than skin colours, but the point is made regardless. The Route 66 adventure is a very white, very Midwestern fixation. Who could have such an appetite for classic cars, diner-and-drive-in Americana, retro gas station signage, and souvenir shops that sell novelty license plates and Trump 2024 memorabilia? People whose race ensured they could enjoy all that in the pre-civil-rights era. People who never had to consult the Green Book to travel through the heartland. Your average Route 66 traveller has a motorized wheelchair strapped to the back of their RV, a yappy dog on their ample lap, and slurps down slices of pizza at the Kingman Trump-themed pizza joint (“The Most Patriotic Restaurant in America,” which comes complete with a Trump gift shop).
And where do conservative Midwesterners on fixed incomes overwinter? The Mecca of Senior’s Specials, the other Tri-State area (AZ, NV, and CA), the town Vegas cocktail waitresses end up in after their looks have faded enough to affect the tips: Laughlin, Nevada. It’s known as Vegas for old people. Time slows to tortoise pace – I guess this happens when you spend 6 months in an RV park, gambling away your Social Security cheques. There are daily flights into the local airport from Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, and in the casino parking lots you’ll find plenty of those license plates on beat-up RVs that have made the Route 66 pilgrimage. Here I encounter the Colorado River again. It runs along the main drag, lined with palms, but is mostly obscured by the casinos. It may not be carving a mile-deep trench into solid stone, but the river is still hard at work and running swiftly. In summer it is jammed with rented boats. In winter the Jet Skis lie fallow in parking lots, all chained up, and the river instead serves as a wind-swept playground for kite boarders.
Some of the Laughlin casinos are Vegas brands, but they’re dumpier than the flagships – the No Name incarnations, not President’s Choice. A sort of faded 1980s aesthetic prevails throughout the town: mirrored walls, gold fixtures, and loud bowling alley carpeting. Picture Gordon Gekko in a steakhouse, seated beneath the kind of ornate crystal chandeliers you’d find in a McMansion foyer. There’s a pervasive cigarette smoke stench, even in the non-smoking casinos, with plastic ashtrays still cemented to each slot machine. You can chug beers at 9am in the sports betting lounge as your kids run wild in the bowling alley or play laser tag. You can lose track of time completely because there are no clocks and the lights are on 24/7. You can sit at an Egyptian-themed or 007-themed or sexy-milkmaid-themed penny slot machine and feed it the same four dollars for hours, racking up free drinks that are served by elderly women in sexy butler outfits. Everyone in Laughlin, including the labour, is old, seemingly old enough to remember the formation of the Grand Canyon. I try to think of this as an amusing detail rather than an indictment of the US social security system.
In the hotel karaoke bar I sit in one of the seats that surrounds a massive, empty dance floor. Onstage an old woman in a tight white dress croaks through “O Holy Night” with admirable courage as a white couple square dances. They heel-toe, step-turn, plant-kick, advance-retreat, twirl-and-twirl, as a drunk man in a Slayer t-shirt airdrums along to the music and attempts to follow their steps, nearly clipping their heels in the process. The disco ball turns. They square dance to any and everything: Shania Twain, Lynyrd Skynyrd, White Christmas, Garth Brooks, you name it, all of it performed by what I can confidently call the worst crop of singers I’ve ever encountered at a karaoke bar. A young cowboy serenades his denim-clad girlfriend with a massacred rendition of Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” holding her close as he twirls her around the dance floor. It’s physically painful to hear, but after drinking about ten complimentary vodka-sodas on the casino floor, I am absolutely loving it.
The horniest couple in the world takes to the dance floor for the slower numbers. He’s an elderly cowboy, dressed all in black, complete with boots and silver belt and bolo tie. She’s got the look of a Romani fortune teller, with dark hair and red lips; she wears knee-high white boots and a red jumpsuit with flared and slitted legs to show the boots off when she sways, looking like a Mamma Mia! background dancer. The two of them cling to each other, barely moving with the music – it’s the geriatric equivalent of two pent-up teenagers grinding at a high school dance. When the song ends she ambles off the dance floor and the cowboy stands for a moment alone in the centre of the dance floor, staring at her, shaking his head from side to side with theatrical flair as if in disbelief of his good fortune. Between slow songs they stand at their table and smoke cigarettes and stare into each other’s eyes. At one point she gets onstage to sing a tuneless song in an incomprehensible language and he looks up at her with something approaching divine love, or worship.
The next morning I drive south out of Laughlin, craning my neck to get a last glimpse of the river before I head into the desert. I spot a quickie wedding chapel that advertises VHS taping and free flowers. In the desert town of Oatman a flyer offers the services of a local outlaw as an officiant at weddings (he’s a performer in the daily gunfights performed for tourists along the main street). This is the future I imagine for that lovely couple: each of them on their fourth or fifth marriage, tying the knot in a cowboy-themed shotgun wedding, honeymooning alongside America’s wisest and mightiest river, slow-dancing together with no care for the pressure and passage of time. Livin’, Laughin’, and Laughlin.