I arrived in Denver just after a cyclone. Although the city itself was dry and just above freezing, the surrounding Colorado countryside was still blanketed in snow. This is not normal, but then this part of the United States is accustomed to freak weather – even in spring. Most Americans I know are consequently battle-hardened and prepared for every eventuality. All I had done was bring a scarf and gloves.
It wasn't my first time in Colorado; I had driven – or rather been driven – through the south-western corner of the rectangular state during an epic road trip a couple of summers ago, but I felt compelled to return as I can't stand the thought of an unvisited city. And what a city Denver turned out to be, stuffed full of Art Deco architecture, a particular passion of mine. Poet's Row featured a whole street of modernist blocks named after famous scribes, Thomas Carlyle among them.
I was also reminded of the wonderful informality of State Capitol buildings in the United States. Once you've conquered security – never particularly onerous – you're allowed to roam freely. Colorado's was the first I'd visited which was actually in session, yet I was still allowed to wander in and out of the Senate and House galleries unmolested, and could even take photographs (no flash), something the UK Parliament doesn't even allow when its two chambers aren't sitting. The House was debating counselling for school students, and representatives divided along predictable lines: Republicans argued against 'strangers' being allowed to deal with their children; Democrats warned of the need to prevent suicides. The Bill passed – a modest victory for liberalism in Trump's America.
Although Denver appeared affluent, once again I was struck by the extent of homelessness in the US, particularly in its western states. I had first noticed it during a trip to Seattle and Portland ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, when I saw whole street corners taken up with makeshift encampments. I wrote at the time that it was the great unmentionable of American politics: homeless people most likely don't vote, so candidates for high office don't waste time (and votes) talking about it.
The striking Denver Public Library building a block or so from the State Capitol illustrated this, its bathrooms taken over by those without anywhere else to wash up; its public areas full of citizens with nowhere else to shelter from the unseasonable cold. North of downtown, where I tracked down some more Art Deco buildings, it was even more pronounced. At the modernist home of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, several of its target audience were sunning themselves outside, and on the buses I took around the city, I looked out of place with my clean clothes and rucksack. Middle-class Americans don't take public transport.
Walking back to my Airbnb one evening, I passed several people either passed out on grass verges or flailing around, clearly intoxicated. At Denver's splendidly-restored Union Station, I watched as security guards ousted gently-dozing drunks from comfortable leather armchairs. In Boulder, a smaller city to the north-west of Denver, it was like another world. Everything along Pearl Street, its main thoroughfare, was manicured and gleaming, while it was populated with either students from Colorado State University or young professionals working in tech.
The same contrast was evident in Phoenix, Arizona, which was my next stop, not only in temperature – it was 30 degrees hotter than neighbouring Colorado – but in the gap between rich and poor. Although I spent a couple of nights in an affluent suburb full of palm-lined streets, as soon as I got into the city centre, it was like a scene from 'Black Summer', a new zombie series I'd recently begun watching on Netflix.
At a Starbucks within an expensive hotel, a homeless guy – who'd politely asked the staff for some iced water – had clearly overstayed his welcome and was being directed back to the street by a security guard. Elsewhere in downtown Phoenix, others were changing their clothes, sleeping, drinking or staring into space among grand civic buildings which evoked a very different period in US history. Some of them probably wondered who this strange person was taking photographs of faded Art Deco buildings.
This used to be known as 'white flight', although the homeless I saw in Phoenix were overwhelmingly white, so it was more an economic phenomenon than racial. And sure enough, once I had ridden the light rail to Tempe, which is to Phoenix what Boulder is to Denver, I could have been on the east or west coast. Home to Arizona State University, compact Tempe emanated youth and intellect, in stark contrast to the hopelessness evident on the streets of its larger neighbour.
Not far from Tempe, and adjacent to Phoenix's main airport, was the Pueblo Grande Museum, which is one in the eye for those who claim 'America has no history', a tiresome trope (believed by many Americans) you often hear from superior Brits. Showcasing pre-Columbian ruins, this was once a major settlement of the Hohokam people, who started constructing a remarkable network of irrigation canals in the area 1,800 years ago. There isn't much left, although a ballcourt and platform mound were clearly visible. A modest exhibition celebrated this pre-1776 heritage with scholarship and affection – the first time I had ever visited a museum before boarding a flight.