Aisle seat 29G, somewhere between LA and London time..

I have been upgraded to Economy Plus.

This has never happened to me before – probably something to do with the cheap airlines I frequent on which customers scramble to the boarding gate early to seat themselves as opposed to the composed seat assignment carried out by Virgin and Continental. Nothing is different in this compartment except for having a bit more leg room and a softer complementary blanket, but it still improved my mood no end to know that a system or a person someplace had found me worthy of promotion. Hell yeah!

I nibble on the last perishable trace of my dwindling Californian dream-life in the form of a moist slice of Starbucks marble cake. In each chocolate and vanilla mouthful the dark and dawn of future and past become a miscible mess I am forced to swallow. The taste of a mere five hours ago is already crumbling into memory, a bolus of bittersweet highs which will slowly be digested and dispersed to settle in the cells of my body, a layer of life like the rings in a tree trunk. If they cut me open in years to come, perhaps they’ll find a slice of my heart missing. I left a piece of it in California.

I had a bruise on my left thigh when I left the terminal; will it still be there when I land in England? I press it gingerly. The dull pain has not left me yet.

I’m utterly convinced that being 35,000 ft above the world makes you hungrier. Two weeks of alternating In-n-Out burgers with 28-hour periods of starvation saw me beg for leftovers from the flight attendant. Much to the indignation of the human mountain next to me, I was granted not only a stale bread roll, but a whole additional in-flight meal of soft beef and briny mash. Point being I polished this off barely two hours ago and felt saturated with food, and yet already my tummy is growling at me for more..

But with every pick at the remaining marble cake something tugs at my insides that is not hunger. I am slowly but surely sending the cake to navigate my inner self and confining it to the walls of my stomach, as intangible soon as my memories are to me now. Beyond my grasp, an inaccessible womb of shoots and flowers which never bore fruit.

I hope you are both asleep somewhere, anywhere, on your onward journey. I hope you will forget me with just as much difficulty as I will forget you.

In Vegas we saw the largest moon the modern world has known: as obscene in the sky as our pupils in our eager eyes. Slivers of brown and green. We wandered the dusty Strip where America’s oddities swarm together, arrogantly revelling in our own youth and beauty by comparison and recoiling from – while simultaneously indulging in – the intense falsity which saturates, indeed built and buttresses, this patch of the Nevada desert. At 04:45, the first alarming signs of pink appear above the mountain peaks (mountains we forgot were there, such is the Vegas bubble), and we scramble back into the dark mouth of the plastic city, having reached its outer edges. But the lights shine just as brightly in daytime; the music stays impossibly loud and positive, the promises of a big win boom from hotel fronts with identical conviction. People continue to gamble and gambol in absurd clothing where the dream would normally fade: heat creeps up and natural sunlight challenges the artificial glare to expose these maggots in full glory. The emerging horror of Vegas in daylight sent us running from this unpalatable parade, into the nearest newspaper taxi and back to the hotel (where we closed our curtains to the fake world and faked nighttime again for some peace and sleep). Vegas is a wonderfully hollow, shallow world of endless partying, but as a young person, it’s pretty depressing after a few days. The leopard print, the bridal gowns, the fake boobs, the call girls, the middle-aged and the fat, the impoverished old man at the street corner in a party hat, the rowdiness – it’s all too much to deal with if you allow yourself a single thought outside of this party box. The misery of realisation would be thick in the air, but it has long since been pushed away as its inhabitants replenish hope and high spirits through an endless cycle of artificiality. I look at the soles of my bare feet on which I foolishly walked around all night; they are rimmed with black dirt from the pavement. Our dreams are made of gold, but in the end it’s all dust.

Afternoon arrives like stale chocolate that sticks to our teeth. We call reception to plead checkout extra time and stumble through showers, packing and three chewing gums apiece. We spend the next 27 hours persuading E-Z (NB: far from it) to allow a broke, exhausted 19-year-old to man one of their cars, and eventually leave with keys to a white Land Rover type thing after spending half the night half asleep on the floor.

We cruise along to our next destination, Joshua Tree National Park, breathing a collective sigh of contentment as we munch on burgers and crunchy peanut butter and Pringles, the wind whistling through the holes Vegas punched in our chests. We camp overnight and wake up far too early but refreshed and somewhat recuperated. After a wash in the water taps we hike to a rocky point across rough terrain and deep sand, comfortable in just underwear in the epic silent surroundings and empty 40 degree C heat. I snapped my sunglasses by accident and we inscribed our names in the wooden wall of a disused hut. Your wolf cries echoed across miles and miles of stick plants and albino lizards and hot breath. We barely made it three miles. We did not see any Joshua Trees.

I don’t think what we’ve been living has been real. How can such an experience be anything but exactly that: a tangent from reality, an extended holiday, a sabbatical? We were living on borrowed time; we knew this from the beginning. Grains of sand granted to us with the omnipresent threat of the egg-timer, running through our very fingers to the sea. Such is the dilemma: reality and responsibility beckon and call from a distance while the bubble of impossible happiness pokes fun like Peter Pan’s naughty shadow. Eventually the chase loses momentum and the gap is closed; the two merge, but are irreconcilable for now.

I’ll think of you on this plane – all those I have met, whose tapestries wove with mine, whose footprints I stepped in as we hunted for crabs and stuck our fingers in the sea anemones on the shores of La Jolla. We are all just children really and you, my darling, are the softest of all. We are all just children in the sea, getting stung by jellyfish and glowing in phosphorescence and hardening ourselves to the world. Like hermit crabs we lived from homes we carried on our backs. We drank each other’s company and drank to our good fortune and consumed the pure hopeful vitality around us.

And now how to continue I just don’t know.

Visit my fellow Chris McCandless:


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