Bikers and bars

There’s a 65-mile streIMG_5904 (800x587) (2)tch of road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque (ABQ) that’s known as the Turquoise Trail. Seven towns span the route and it was in the second, Los Cerrillos, that we felt the pull of Mary’s Bar. Originally the Cerrillos Bar, it got its current name when one of the many movies made in the town (Vampires) left the signage behind. Both the Young Guns movies were filmed here and ‘Mary’ told us how Charlie Sheen would arrive in his limo, shoot his scenes, and leave while his brother, Emilio Estevez, one of the ‘friendliest actors ever’, would hang around, shoot the shit, and have a beer.

IMG_5907 (800x600) (2)IMG_5900 (600x800)Officially a ghost town, Los Cerrillos has all the old-world charm necessary to make you feel that you’ve landed in the middle of a Western and that if you stood still long enough, John Wayne would come strutting up the sidewalk.  Back in its day (mid-1880s), the city (yes, it had city status) was a hive of activity with 21 saloons, 5 brothels, 4 hotels and several newspapers. Apparently at one stage it was a serious contender to be the capital of New Mexico. But that was then.

It didn’t take us long to see the sights: the church, the icon mural, and the opera house and of these, it was perhaps the opera house that was the most surreal. IMG_5892 (587x800)The Clear Light Opera House, whose stage Sarah Bernhardt once graced, dates back to 1881 and its very presence is a reminder of how great the town once was.  Mind you, the incongruity of opera and the Wild West was a little hard to swallow but somehow it added to the charm of the place.

Just as we pulled into town, three guys on Harleys arrived, too. That made five strangers in all. And as strangers often do, we met in the bar for a beer. We’d soon realise that the Turquose Trail was a regular Sunday route for bikers from ABQ and that they would by far outnumber the motorists. But L, T, and C were the first we’d met.

IMG_5908 (800x600) (2)I have already confessed to a penchant for cowboys. And were every cowboy in the world to varporise tomorrow, then bikers would become my next obsession. There’s something rebellious about their style, their bearing, their image. There’s a certain non-conformity that is singularly attractive. Perhaps it’s the oneness between them and their bikes, which, come to think of it, isn’t all that far removed from that of a cowboy and his horse.

IMG_5911 (800x589) (800x589)I have to fess up to a stereotypical wariness of bikers, though, one that comes, perhaps, from reading too much about biker gangs like Hells Angels, the Pagans, and the Outlaws. But any unease I might have felt was soon abated by the friendly openness of our trio. We were even invited over for drinks in ABQ later that evening, if we made it back to the city in time. Roadtrips are full of surprises. Never would I have expected to be sitting in a bar that had my name over its door, at noon, in a ghost town, having a beer with a trio of bikers and hearing the sounds of another illusion being shattered. Thanks, lads!

IMG_5914 (800x600)IMG_5918 (800x600)Next stop on the Turquoise Trail was Madrid and it couldn’t have been more different. Its main street lined with boutique shops, tarot-card readers, and restaurants, it was hard to find a parking place.The whole town was listed for sale in the Wall Street Journal back in 1954 for the princely sum of $250 000 but was saved from its ghost-town status when it was rediscovered in the 1960s by artists and hippies. Madrid now has a population of about 400, mainly artists, craftspeople, and gallery owners and its famous Christmas Light extravaganza is back on the state’s festive calendar.

IMG_5915 (600x800)Madrid is firmly etched in my mind for two reasons: (1) It’s the first place in years that I’ve seen buffalo on the menu (and it still tastes as good as I remember). (2) I put my name in the book to have my tarot cards read, and then scratched it out. Have I finally reached a point where I no longer want to know the future? Could it be so? Perhaps I’m growing up (or growing old) but for the first time in years I simply didn’t feel the need to know. It will take me a while to adjust to that one!

IMG_5916 (800x600)

All eyes on me

Alaska. South Africa. Could two places be more different? And yet, while in South Africa recently, Alaska kept popping into my head. And it started when I saw a buffalo. Alaska is a great place to spot moose, caribou, bear and the odd buffalo if you are lucky. In Africa, they talk of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion (interestingly, this is to be expanded to the Big 7, to include whale and shark…mmmm). Two completely different casts of characters, animals known for either their predatory nature or danger potential in compromising situations, with one common denominator. The Alaskan bison and the African buffalo don’t look alike all; it’s a bit like me having, say, Japanese cousins.  But the relationship is there.

As the late AK was fond of saying, for every one animal you see in the bush, 49 see you.  HR is convinced that when he goes to heaven, St Peter will play back a video showing him all the animals he failed to spot on his trips to Kruger and that will be his purgatory. Driving through the park gates was like driving into another world, a world where humans are locked up and animals roam free. A world where looking out the window of a kombi you might spot nothing for hours but acres and acres of bush and scrub and then suddenly, you round a bend and happen across a lioness on the side of the road.

Much of the excitement of being ‘on safari’ is not knowing what you’ll see next. Every bit of your being is tuned in to where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on high alert for the best part of the day. You react to the slightest movement in the trees, call ‘stop’ to the driver (the incredibly patient EK) who will then reverse and give you time to check out what you think you’ve seen. It can be very frustrating – rocks, trees, bushes all begin to take shape and morph into animals. You’d put money that what you saw was alive and breathing but no… it was another one of nature’s tricks.

But to truly enjoy it, to really get it, you need to be aware of the majesty of it all. It’s not about spotting the Big 5. It’s about spotting the chamelon on the side of the road; it’s about never tiring of seeing herd after herd of waterbuck; it’s about dumping that ‘gotta be big to be great’ attitude that is so prevalent in our world of blockbusters and bestsellers. Yes, your first elephant or lion or zebra will always have that extra ‘specialness’ of being your ‘first’ …but the shame of it is that it’s so easy to devolve into a ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ attitude.

On a night safari (the only option available to see animals at night as private vehicles cannot leave the compounds after 6pm) it was upsetting to hear people groan ‘it’s only a herd of impala’. How anyone could tire of seeing these gorgeous faces is beyond me. Likewise, the zebra. Amazing creatures. I could watch them all day. Their black and white stripes (28 on each side of the average Z) moving and merging into new patterns and shapes. Art on hooves.Whether their stripes are for camoflage or to prevent insects biting  is still under discussion and has been so for more than a century.

While the days did take on a certain sameness as we found our groove, that sameness was superficial. Up at dawn. A quick coffee and some rusks (ours made by the incredibly talented SD from Ermelo, Mpumalanga). Pack the kombi. Then out the gate. Brunch about 1oish (Pretoria’s HR in charge of the braai) and lunch late afternoon before back to the camp to supper. That was the routine of it. DR has it down to a fine art – she’s the mistress of order and organisation and could run a small nation. She’d get my vote for president any day. The excitement, the wonder, the magnificence of  it all came in between. During the long hours of nothing, years of collective memories surfaced and I realised how lucky I was to be in the company of such greatness.   And then the adrenaline rush when I thought I saw something. The frustration when it turned out to be a rock. Another rush and this time I was sure it moved… and it did… and I saw nature at her best, in all her glory. And I felt insignificant.For all our modernity, for all our inventiveness, for all that we claim in the name of progress, nothing can match the uncomplicated complexity of nature. A world where survival is what it’s about; a world where beauty is not augmented by creams and lotions; a world where big and small live side by side and being different is part of simply being.