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Will Self

PsychoGeography #58: Ralph's postcard from the Rockies

In Denver, Colorado I was interviewed by two literary-journalistic brothers called Bartoli who toiled for some Rocky Mountain review of disembodied poetics. "You must have a rapport," I said, feeding them dry martinis from a hotel pitcher, "being brothers and all that." They looked at me quizzically, they both had collar-length, grey-brown hair and doughy faces. The larger and more assertive of the two said crisply: "Actually, we're identical twins." It fair creeped me out, as I looked from one unleavened countenance to the next and had to acknowledge that yes, they were indeed idents, but one of them had so got the psychic upper hand that he was almost twice as big as his clone.

That evening the Bartoli Brothers invited me to their tract house in the 'burbs where they proceeded to demonstrate their great rapport with each other by playing faultless four-handed Bach. Back East they had been professional concert pianists. I was moved, impressed and still creeped out. The house had a close, cloacal feel to it, as if some unsavoury acts of incest had been committed there. There's was that and the brothers also span a nice line in misogynism. I made my excuses and left.

The night before I'd dragged a drunk bookseller back to my hotel room, and when she vomited over the side of the bed a revolver fell out her handbag and lay on the carpet like a death metal turd. In the morning I had to drive her clear across the city so she could jack her Rottweiler up with Vitamin C. That was bad enough, but after the Bartoli Brothers incident it was clear that I had to quit town. This was ten years ago, and the film Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead was on at every multiplex I passed, the poster looking like a minatory warning.

I drove up to Boulder where I bought some fake-pigskin walking shoes, then I drove on to the Mount Estes National Park and hit the trail which wound up through resinous spruce stands and upland meadows. Contemplating the towering white phantasms of the Rockies, I reflected on the gross disparity between my attempts to aestheticise the West and those of Dear Old Oscar, who'd blown into Colorado in 1882 and been met with a rapturous reception. Visiting the silver mining town of Leadville, Wilde felt a tad faint after the 10,000-ft climb, but his ailment was diagnosed as merely "light air". He was then let down the shaft at the Matchless Mine in a bucket, and read the miners passages from Benvenuto Cellini on the grounds that he was a silversmith. "I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the enquiry, 'Who shot him?'."

I've been thinking about the Rockies because Mr and Mrs Ralph have just returned from one of their occasional sojourns there. They went to see Hunter Thompson, and no matter how I recognise his prior claim on Ralph as an illustrative accompanist, I can't help the little thrill of jealousy that goes through me when I think of them cavorting about Aspen together. Ralph sent the card that you see here, the reverse of which proved his affinity with Oscar as well as mitigating my feelings: "Dear Will, It's the lack of oxygen that gets me! Not much energy. Anyway, the old bugger is holding up and completing a piece for Rolling Stone called VOTE NAKED OR DIE. Still impossible as human beings go. See you soon, Ralph." In my view Ralph's PC of Roaring Fork River depicts any or all of the following: Him and Oscar, him and me, him and Hunter Thompson, or two wholly unrelated phantasms.

The Steadmans went on from Hunter's place to Leadville itself. Via e-mail Ralph sent me a digital photo of the "Oscar" shaft named in Wilde's honour, which was captioned: "We stayed at the Delaware Hotel, where the silver auctions were held, whores whored, carpet-baggers bagged and patent medicine men dispensed immediate cures for everything. You could damn well nearly hear it, since nothing has changed since the 1880s. It's the thin air that gets you, dragging a suitcase up to the third floor, but we love the place."

Ha! Well they're welcome to it so far as I'm concerned. Back in the early Nineties I was only too glad to get out of Denver Airport intact. It was the same year that a multi-million-dollar computerised luggage system was installed there, and it had malfunctioned so drastically that passengers were hauled out of queues by mechanical grabbers and unceremoniously despatched to Seoul in the unpressurised holds of 747s. I flew on to San Francisco, where the freeways were still twisted like lianas by the preceding year's earthquake. There was a bad incident involving a go-go dancer in a red rubber dress - but that's another story.