Day 2. DE/MD: polygamy, rubber gloves, gas problems, (un)funfair

by Kevin May

Delaware has to be the most anonymous of the states. Few people know anything about it and that’s because there is very little to know. It was the first state to sign up to the Union and it’s where Nylon was invented. That’s about it. It’s a kind of American equivalent of Belgium.

I was up fairly early for a wander around town. This didn’t take very long because, to all intents and purposes, Lewes consisted of just one street. I bought a paper and went into the only coffee house that was open for a caffeine kick-start. The traffic of the previous day was a distant memory as I cantered down an empty highway out of Lewes. I tuned into a local radio station and found myself listening to a talk show. The subject was Tom Green, the fundamentalist Mormon from Utah who had just been sentenced to 25 years for a combination of having five wives, inseminating a thirteen-year-old and mass social security benefit fraud. He had volunteered for trial as a test case for the traditional Mormon right to practice polygamy and had ended up with two-and-a-half decades of egg on his face.

The host of the show proposed that perhaps there was nothing wrong with polygamy provided all parties were consenting adults and fully appraised of the situation. This proved quite provocative and soon the station was being besieged by animated calls objecting on a number of bases: it was disgusting, it undermined the social order, God hated it and a variety of other emotions over reason. The host held his ground, emphasizing that it wouldn’t be his personal choice (though his main objection seemed to be the prospect of having five mothers-in-law), and suggested that “50,000 kooks in Utah” were never going to become mainstream enough to affect society as a whole and should just be allowed to get on with the lifestyle that they chose.

The debate took another turn when one irate female caller wanted to know why polygamy always involved a man having several wives and why weren’t there examples of women with several husbands. I would have thought that the answer was physiologically self-evident but clearly it wasn’t. The host suggested it was because women get on better with each other than men do. Another caller rang in to tell of a documentary that he had seen on TV about a tribe in darkest Africa where women did have multiple husbands and who were so primitive that they “didn’t even know about America”. And so the vacuity continued.

The most exciting Delaware treat that I had been able to unearth for the Plan was a restaurant in Smyrna that served muskrat. In the end, my navigational skills steered me off the main road three miles before I got to the town. I was on a scenic route that was pleasant enough, but far from spectacular. It ran through some wildlife refuges that, to the uneducated observer, just looked like tracts of marshland. Once more it dawned on me that things weren’t going very well. And I couldn’t blame it on the weather, my lost baggage, or being in a tired panic any more. I was making a complete bollocks of it all by myself.

An eventless morning ended with my arrival in New Castle, an old colonial town that still retained its 19th Century feel with its antebellum homes, narrow cobbled streets and expansive village green. With muskrat off the menu, my only other planned lunchtime option was easy to find: the Arsenal on the Green restaurant was, surprisingly enough, on the green. The welcome couldn’t have been warmer and, after I had finished eating, I enquired of the concierge where would be the best place locally to buy souvenirs. She directed me to Happy Harry’s “five or six blocks away”. I followed her directions and was alarmed to find myself dodging the traffic on the main highway in order to cross to a grotesque concrete complex of everyday stores. Happy Harry’s turned out to be a hardware store and not really what I had had in mind. I somehow didn’t think that a pair of rubber gloves would make the best keepsake of Delaware, but perhaps there was something I didn’t know.

I walked back into town and found myself a much better shop. The girl behind the counter greeted me with the standard observation that I wasn’t from the United States. She said she loved the way I spoke and that British was her very favourite accent, second only to German. I thanked her and pointed out that sometimes an English accent has difficulty being understood in the States. She reassured me that she had no problems whatsoever understanding what I said. I asked her where I could find a phone box. I wanted to ring ahead to book somewhere to stay that night in Maryland. She told me that she thought they had one there and went rummaging through several drawers before pulling out a copy of the Yellow Pages. I explained that I meant a phone box where you could make a call and learnt that I should have asked for a payphone. There was one down on the waterfront. To my astonishment, the first call I made was successful. I’d found myself a room near St Mary’s City, the original state capital, for that evening. The woman was friendly and chatty as she gave me precise directions. At least it looked like a Maryland conversation would be no problem.

Most state boundaries are defined either by water or straight lines but Maryland is the oddest shaped state of them all. It looks like a discarded lump of rolled dough after the pastry cutters have done their work. It’s as if all the other states had got to draw up their territories and then the bits that were left over they decided to call Maryland. There’s a blob of it over in the west, which quite clearly should be part of either Pennsylvania or West Virginia and, in the east, the middle section of the Delmarva Peninsula. And over half of what is now Washington DC has been snipped out of the main body of the state.

The roads were now busy with Friday afternoon traffic. The weekend is a doing-time for most Americans. It’s not a time for sitting around, scratching your backside, watching TV, going to the supermarket and catching up on the housework. It’s a time for sailing, skiing, fishing, motorbike-scrambling and mountain-climbing. Many of the vehicles on the road bore the signs of some outdoor pursuit on their racks and trailers: canoes, jet-skis, mountain-bikes, dinghies.

Low on fuel, I spotted a Sheetz station and spent the next twenty minutes becoming increasingly infuriated. No matter what I did, whether I pressed the “Pay Inside” button or the “Pay Outside, Credit” button, my pump would not activate. I changed pumps twice and still the taunts over the tannoy continued: “Pump no. 16, ready. Pump no. 7, ready.” Expectant pause. “Pump no. 12, ready.” But never pump no. 5. When I heard pump no. 2 being activated, a pump that I had dallied with for the first ten minutes, I concluded that it was a conspiracy against either Englishmen or Mazda drivers and gave up. I’d lost half-an-hour and it was now dark.

My directions were to go a couple of miles past St Mary’s until I found a place called Ridge. It would be apparently “impossible to miss” as there was a carnival going on there that afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, the carnival wasn’t as prominent as I had always taken “impossible to miss” to mean. Even the old “city” was only made up of a green, some water and a church and then back to open highway. I drove up and down three or four times until finally I figured out that the small collection of stalls around the bouncy castle down the road was the carnival that I should have been looking out for. I followed my directions through to South Ridge, turned off the main highway and headed into the darkness. Even with the air-conditioning on, the noises coming from the woods resonated through the car’s chassis. Screeches, squawks, hummings, buzzings and that sound that crickets make at night. I found Pratt Road and began to look for no. 15671. It was the fifth house at the end of a dead-end lane.

The lady of house came out to greet me and introduced herself as Audrey. The room was lovely and snug at the top of the house. It had exposed beams and came equipped with three Bibles, five pictures of Christ, a palm cross and a piss-pot under the towel rail. I explained the problem that I had had with the gas at Sheetz and Audrey pointed where I’d gone wrong. When you took the nozzle out and put it in your tank, you needed to flip up the metal plinth on which the pump handle rested in order to activate it. I felt rather silly. I was proposing to drive some 16000 miles around this country, and hadn’t even been able to figure out properly how to put gas in my tank. Audrey was concerned about whether I had eaten yet or not as the only restaurant nearby stopped serving at 8 pm and it was now 8.15. When I told her that I hadn’t, and in truth I was quite hungry, she suggested I go to the carnival where I would be able to pick up a burger. She showed me the bathroom that I would be sharing with the other couple who were staying that night but who weren’t there at that moment. They were in the restaurant having dinner.

I drove back out through the invisible zoo to the main road and parked up near the carnival. I bought a burger for a dollar and wandered around. It was one of those travelling fairs and it had been pitched on a patch of grass by the side of the road no bigger than a football field. There was a Ferris wheel but the reason I hadn’t spotted this when I first drove past was probably because it was no more than 15’ high. There was a tombola, some shooting ranges, a beer stall, and a thing where you could hurl a baseball and a machine would measure the speed of your throw.

I got myself a beer and stood watching the baseball throwers. One girl of some muscular substance recorded a 68 mph, which devastated the lad who went next when he only achieved 49 mph. As if to rub it in, the same girl then threw a 55 mph underarm at which point all the lads went into a frenzy. Nearby a couple of men were gambling on some spinning wheel card game, but I couldn’t figure out how the game worked. Other stalls offered a number of those games where you had to roll a ball down a board and into a cup, but there wasn’t even the prospect of winning a goldfish or a cuddly toy. People were doing it just for the fun of it.

As I looked closely, it became clear that a disproportionately high number of the people there were carrying some sort of affliction. There was the usual count of staggeringly obese Americans, but also a number of dwarves, four people with false legs, several blind people and what looked like a couple of lepers. In truth they probably weren’t lepers, but they were certainly suffering from a fairly acute skin disorder. Of the rest, at least half of the people were walking with either limps or stoops. Three people stood head and shoulders above the crowd, all being between 6’6’’ and 6’8’’, all being otherwise fairly attractive blonde girls in their late teens. Sisters presumably. This didn’t seem to be a particularly advantaged community.

Through the crowd came a man riding on a miniature tractor with tiny wheels. Because of the people, he was unable to drive much faster than about half-a-mile an hour. I followed him back to his starting point, the John Deere stand where a similar vehicle that also had a mowing function was up for raffle. It turned out that for $5 you could have a ten-minute ride on the mini tractor. I asked the man what the vehicle for hire was called and he told me it was a four-wheeler, which did figure I suppose.

If I’d come in search of America without the Hollywood veneer, I’d found it here. These were basic good people having a basic good time. On the surface they might have seemed a touch odd. But with my badly-fitting corduroy shorts, pasty white legs and baldy square head, stalking around staring at folk while surreptitiously whispering into my tape recorder, I probably wasn’t in much of a position to pass judgement on that score.