I was 28. Single, living in LA, working for a TV production company, and writing on the side. Life was good. I had a suitably bonkers Hollywood flatmate - a kombucha-drinking, aura cleansing actorly type with a penchant for dashing off to Mexico to dance on mountains and “welcoming in the solstice”. But as long as I ate my red meat and drank my red wine out of her sight, we got along fine.
On one of these sojourns down Mexico way, she’d fallen in love with a guy whose name roughly translated to “Wolf Hunter”. After many weeks of enthusiastic phone sex traumatising me through the thin walls of our two-bedder, he was finally coming to stay for the weekend - which I took as my cue to get the hell outta there. I’d always had grand plans to drive across the country, West to East along Route 66, sell the car at the other end, and then hang around NYC for a little while. Unfortunately, I had to be at work at 8am on Monday morning, so a cross-country road trip was out.
I settled for a weekend in Vegas instead. Now, you might think it’s a bit sad going to Vegas on your own. After all, it's the home of Elvis impersonators, a surprising Human Nature renaissance, and two too many Hangover films: it’s a place you’re meant to go with your mates and get trashy. But I didn’t have time to rally a posse. Wolf Hunter was over the border and getting closer and I had to vamoose. I threw some things in a bag, jumped in my VW and hit the highway, looking for adventure or whatever came my way. Maybe I’d crash a hen’s night or maybe I’d have a one-night-stand with a hot croupier… either way, I was up for it. It was all ahead of me on the open road.
Here’s the thing: Route 66 ain’t exactly that exciting. At least, the Californian part of it isn’t. I’m sure it gets better, but from what I could tell it was just a freeway passing through suburbia and every now and then there are some mountains. And then it becomes desert… and desert… and more desert. And you drive through literal ghost towns with names like “Ragtown”, “Siberia”, and “Bagdad” and you think: did they name them before or after they abandoned them, because the terrible name could have had a bit to do with people deciding to find happier places to raise a family.
I reckon a lot of my time on Route 66 was spent imagining what would happen if I got stranded in one of these places if my car blew a tire or ran out of gas. I wondered if help would come in the form of a handsome stranger, a handsome axe murderer, or maybe Forrest Gump out for an afternoon run. That’s the thing about this road: it’s pretty lonely. Legendary, sure, but lonely. It’s easy to get caught up in the mythology, it’s easy, if you have a brain like mine, to turn everything into a movie, to turn every abandoned shop, every ant mound, every piece of road kill, into something romantic, something poignant, something deep and important to your own trivial journey.
The California leg of Route 66 takes you pretty much as far as the border between Cali, Nevada and Arizona. From there you veer off onto a proper four lane highway and it’s just tarmac, scrub and the odd cactus for the next two hours until the bright lights of Vegas start to flicker into view.
By the time I got there, it was early afternoon. I checked into my hotel which was obviously the MGM Grand because I’m a walking cliché. I spent the rest of the afternoon into the evening wandering around in this slightly bemused daze, mesmerized by all the slot machines and just glad that, unlike the last time I was in Vegas with my parents at the age of 9, I was actually able to drink.
I found a tequila bar, forgot that I didn’t actually like tequila, drank a fair few shots anyway, and made several embarrassing attempts at flirting with the bartender. I then rode a mechanical bull. Because what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… except it clearly doesn’t, because I’m telling you all about it now.
There I was. 28, single, alone in Vegas and voluntarily riding a mechanical bull while a waitress patiently took my photo so I had proof of my patheticness for social media. As I hopped, off, victorious, to claim the free shot you got if you survived til the end, I waited for my public to shower me with praise… but there was nothing. There were three drunk guys in a corner booth eating nachos and a couple of people who looked like they were on really bad first (and probably last) dates. No one had seen me and no one cared. So I took myself out of the bar and down the road back to my hotel, lay on the large, comfy bed, ordered a club sandwich from room service and fell asleep at 9.30pm in a terry-towelling robe watching an old episode of Friends, which felt particularly ironic under the circumstances.
The next day (after riding that rollercoaster they put on top of a building, because I couldn’t leave without doing that) I headed home. Back down the lonely highway and back to my little West Hollywood flat with the crazy roomie and her Wolf Hunter. And somehow, it seemed kind of perfect. Route 66 has always represented the great American dream. It was the road that went west, went towards the future, towards freedom. I’d driven it, or part of it, the wrong way and wound up in some kind of tequila-fueled nightmare of neon lights and mechanical bulls. My weekend trip to Vegas was so lame, so tame, so beautiful in its nothingness, it was almost poetic. It reminded me not to pretend to be something I wasn’t, to remember that I wasn’t the type to crash hens parties, have one night stands with total strangers, or have every douchebro in the land cheer my sexy ass on as I tamed a piece of mechanical livestock. I was the type who actually just wanted nothing more than peace and quiet and a fluffy robe and bacon on a sandwich.
Route 66 led many to the American dream. It led me to my American reality.
Abandoned airs every Tuesday night at 10:10pm. You can stream the Route 66 episode at SBS On Demand: