48states

A 2001 drive around the 48 states in 48 days

USA Inside Out

Ten years ago I was sitting in a pub in London when I came up with an idea. I thought I might try to drive around the 48 contiguous states in America in 48 days.

It wasn’t that I was suddenly seized by a curious yearning to do loads of driving in a short space of time. A group of us were talking about all the places that we would like to see but were probably never going to with just twenty days off a year. Vacations take you to one or two towns in a particular country and you rarely end up seeing anything of the real life of a place beyond the obvious tourist destinations. We’d all been to America but it was so huge and diverse, and even well-travelled Brits rarely go anywhere other than New York, Florida, and perhaps California. The only time you got to see anything of smalltown America was on the movies, and Hollywood tends to put a gloss on even the meanest backwater and the seediest lowlife.

I reckoned that the only way to see the real America would be to get in a car and drive to each of the states, and aim for a bunch of places I’d never heard of. There’s real power in first impressions, and I was more interested in forming an overall picture rather than a detailed study. I fancied that I might want to move there one day and this would give me a good idea of where to go. At the very least, it would help me figure out which bits I wanted to return to for a “proper” visit at some future point.

Unusually for a pub thought, it still seemed like a good idea when I woke up the following morning. It had something neat and mathematical about it, like Around the World in Eighty Days or that bloke who decided to climb the highest mountain in each of the seven continents. I’d like to say that I went straight into work, handed in my notice, packed my bags and set off, but I didn’t quite have the balls to do that. It took another couple of months of ruminating until finally I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to have a go at doing it.

Looking into it, nobody else appeared to have done it before or, if they had, they’d not bothered to write much about it. The task was going to be daunting. The USA is enormous. If England (50,351 sq miles) were to join the Union, it would only rank as the 32nd largest State behind Louisiana (51,843 sq miles) and just ahead of Mississippi (48,434 sq miles). Yet it would comfortably be the most populous, overtaking California’s 32,609,000 by almost twenty million. This meant that the size was not only breathtaking, but also the spaciousness. Montana is the fourth largest State at 147,045 sq miles but has a population of 879,000, or about half the number of people living in Northern Ireland. The distances between towns can easily exceed 100 miles. The longest single day’s driving that I’d ever done in the UK was roughly the 450 miles from Pitlochry in Scotland down to London. I was planning to exceed that on at least 12 of my 48 days.

I mapped out an approximate route showing a total of 16,558 miles to be covered – an average of just over 340 miles a day – that attempted to keep me off the beaten track and away from the major cities wherever practicable. Each State would be visited consecutively and, once exited, would not be re-entered (except for New Hampshire, which landlocks Maine).  At least I was being realistic enough to leave out Alaska and Hawaii, the most recent two additions to the Union and easily the most difficult to reach by road. They’d have to wait for another time.

To make sure that I didn’t spend all my time inside the car, I came up with a number of tasks that I needed to fulfil in every state before moving on. I was aiming to buy one distinctive bit of tat from each one and a postcard that had to be mailed before crossing the state line. I was also after a local newspaper, and at least a fifteen-minute conversation with someone I wasn’t buying something from. In the seven states where I had no overnight stop, I planned a proper sit-down meal. It wasn’t a fool-proof scheme, but it would help discipline me into making contact with some local life wherever I went.

Looking back, my technology was grim. I had no GPS, no cell-phone, no computer, and a camera that still took film. My turn-by-turn route was on printed-sheets of paper correlating to the highlighted highways in the road atlas that would ride beside me opened on the passenger seat. I had lists of phone numbers for various sights of interest and places to stay, and a phone card to use at public call-boxes. I even had some travelers’ checks.

I also had an old-fashioned Dictaphone (one that used tapes of course) to record my musings as I went. I had the notion that my trip would be so interesting that I’d be able to write a hilarious book about it that would more than justify my giving up a perfectly good job to go on this wild goose chase. In the end events – and my own very limited writing abilities – somewhat took over that ambition, and so it never came to pass.

Until now. As we approach the tenth anniversary of that strange time, the Blogosphere now provides the forum for the tale to be told. If nothing else, it will finally give my mum the chance to read about what her son got up to on that trip she never quite understood. To anyone else who reads this, I make no apologies for the unqualified and superficial nature of my commentary and observations. It was never intended to be anything more serious than a quick jaunt round the country.

Beginning on August 23rd, the tenth anniversary of when I set out, I’ll post the story here of that trip, day by day through to my return to New York on October 9th.

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Day 1. NJ/DE: lost bags, penis bones, car crashes, smoking policies

I gazed across the Hudson at the most famous skyline in the world. The Empire State to the left, the World Trade Center to the right and all of lower Manhattan in between. It was a fine enough view, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be seeing. This was a tourist sight, a shot from a million movies. By no stretch of the imagination could it be considered the untold story of the USA.

It had been four months since I had left my job, which had been more than enough time to turn me from a level-headed easy-going sort of chap into a mild obsessive. I thought that I had this whole expedition planned down to the last detail. My itinerary had been meticulously put together. I’d not only devised a route that took me through each state consecutively without the need to re-enter any a second time along the way, I also had a list of half a dozen or so “unknown” towns to hit in each of them. I’d worked out the mileage, the lunch-stops, where I would stay the night, and uncovered at least one uncelebrated sight or event in each state. I’d even written down all the junctions and exit numbers that I had to take when I changed roads. Today was supposed to be the day when I hit the highway, but despite all the preparation, here I was stuck in Hoboken NJ and going nowhere fast.

Yesterday had started well and finished badly. The plane had taken off on time and stayed in the air all the way across the Atlantic. I’d cleared immigration and customs effortlessly at Dulles and was enjoying a well-earned cigarette break when it all began to go bandy. Storms in the Chicago area had led to the surprising consequence that the plane due to take me on to La Guardia was now stranded in Hartford. Thanks to my nicotine interlude, I’d also been beaten to the few seats available on the next two flights and was looking at a sudden and unforeseen four-hour delay.

I was planning to stay with Neal and Lisa, an ex-colleague and his wife, who were expecting me to arrive for dinner in about 45 minutes’ time. I had some loose change, so I tried calling them to let them know of the delay. A pleasant sounding lady came on the line and invited me to deposit a further $3.25 in quarters to effect connection. In quarters? In the normal scheme of things, I try not to wander around with a deadweight of coins in my pocket, primarily out of a desire not to reduce my scrotal area to some sort of clacking executive toy, but who arrives at an airport carrying that much change? I looked around in vain for a phone that might accept credit cards. There wasn’t even somewhere that would break a $5 bill for me.

The joylessness continued when we eventually arrived at La Guardia. We landed just before 8.30pm local time. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of my bags. I waited at the carousel until ten, as three separate United flights came in from Dulles. Still nothing. Finally, with the clocks back in London showing 3.30 in the morning, I gave up and went to pick up my hire car.

A hostile reception awaited me at Hertz. They sneered when I told them I’d come to pick up a car and, after a few minutes of furtive tapping on the keyboard, informed me that they had no record of my booking. I scrabbled in my hand luggage and found a payment voucher receipt from the booking agency in London. After more tapping and a couple of calls, they reluctantly accepted that I did have business being in their lobby. “Hey. Do we have any economy compacts?” she hollered at her colleague, The Man In Charge of the Keys. Mercifully it appeared that they did and, after a brief discussion that I was too tired to pursue about the unavailability of loss damage waivers in New York state, I went out to find a battle weary red Mazda Protégé waiting for me with 20799 miles already on the clock. I knew my trip wasn’t exactly going to be Easy Rider – I was more interested in reliable rather than cool transport – but I had hoped for something that might have stood at least a chance of having another 16000 miles squeezed out of it without major surgery.

It was just gone eleven by the time I was driving away from the airport, and it took me over an hour to make my way across Manhattan to the Lincoln Tunnel, and under the Hudson to Hoboken where Neal and Lisa lived. My road atlas was in my missing baggage, but I had an e-mail printout of the directions. To complete my day, the car had no internal light and my torch was also in my bags. I had to keep stopping under streetlights to figure out where to go next. When I eventually reached home, it was an achievement just to bumble up to bed and collapse.

If anything, things seemed worse this morning without fatigue clouding the issue. I was up early to telephone the automated service that was on my lost luggage receipt, and was less than delighted to learn that my stuff had still not been located. I tried telling the machine that I had to have my bags back urgently so I could set out to drive around the 48 lower states in 48 days, but it didn’t care. The Plan allowed only one contingency day for things going wrong, and here I was in danger of using it up before I’d even got away from the shadow of New York. At least getting arrested, or breaking down in the desert, or being kidnapped by troglodyte religious maniacs would have been a delay of some adventure. But “bag not appearing on rubber conveyor belt” was barely the stuff of Marco Polo.

I left with Neal when he went to jump on the PATH train to work and that’s how I found myself down by the river. The only thing left to do for the meantime was to have a mooch around Hoboken. It was a nice enough place, and boasted two claims to fame. It was the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and also possibly of baseball. I say possibly because Cooperstown in New York also laid claim to the same thing. Out on Washington, I found the shop that wanted to have the last word on the matter. In amongst tons of general Americana, it sold T-shirts that proudly bore the legend “Hoboken. Home of Baseball. Not rounders like in Cooperstown”.

I did need to buy some trainers and so took the opportunity to pop into Stan’s Sports Emporium across the road. Unlike any other sports shop that I’ve ever visited, this one had chosen not to display any of its wares. All the shoes and equipment were still in their boxes on shelves around the store. I had practised the vocabulary and was ready to ask for “sneakers” when cross-questioned shortly after entering.

“You want sneakers?” said the man with some incredulity. You’d have thought I’d just walked into a bakery. “Yeah, that’s right, you know for playing soccer” I replied, feeling that some clarification was in order. “You want soccer shoes?” with increased disbelief. “Well, not boots with studs or anything, you know, a pair of trainers” I flailed, my careful practice gone to pot. “Oh. What type?” This was getting difficult. “White ones made by Nike,” I answered unhelpfully. “It sounds like you want a cross trainer. What size?” More panic. I neither knew what a cross trainer was nor what size my feet were in American. By now, the other three people in the shop had stopped what they were doing and were intent upon my next words. “Er, nine in British”. He pulled a box from the shelf. “These say UK size 9. That’s a 10. You’re size 10. OK?” The box contained a pair of trainers that were white, made by Nike and, for all I knew, could well have been cross trainers. They fitted. I bought them. I left as quickly as I could.

Back at Neal’s I tried again to find someone to talk to about my luggage without success, but felt that I was becoming quite good mates with the automated voice laid on by United Airlines. Finally my new robotic chum gave me the news that I’d been longing for. My bags were at La Guardia and were awaiting pick-up for delivery to my address. One of the many options on the system was to press 4 if you wanted to go and pick the bags up yourself and in my excitement I hit the number. I couldn’t bear the prospect of waiting in for the rest of the day or any of the multitude of things that I could envisage still going wrong if I left it in the hands of the androids. It also meant that I could still set out and try to get as far through New Jersey with what was left of my first day on the road.

It was a lot easier finding my way out of La Guardia by daylight, and soon I was on Interstate 80 and heading for Paterson. My first planned stop was Waterloo, a tiny village that wasn’t even marked on my map. It had made it on to my schedule because it boasted a working gristmill, blacksmith shop and sawmill. According to my book, it was one of the finest restored villages on the Morris canal. What the book didn’t say was that it had been restored inside a compound making it look like a stockaded Centre Parcs as you approached it. In fact you don’t approach it, as no roads seem to run through it. It’s more like you notice it to your left as you whip by on the main road. The next stop was Clinton, or at least it would have been, but I was through and past that too before I realized it was there. It was becoming imperative for me actually to stop somewhere and do something that amounted to “experiencing” New Jersey.

I followed the Delaware River towards Lambertville where I was sure I’d have an eventful time. Another book had directed me to the remarkable collection of penis bones that hung from the roof in Mason’s Bar. At the very least, I expected that I’d be able to pick up a good souvenir and hopefully some postcards. It took me a while to find the right street and I’d had to cope with the minor embarrassment of having to stop and ask the same man for directions twice. When I got there, it wasn’t what I had expected. It was a residential street and I drove the length of it three times without being able to find any Mason’s Bar. I then noticed a building slightly set back from the street, with grilled windows and a flickering Budweiser neon sign.

It looked like it could be the place. Walking up the path I could just make out half a dozen faces grinning inanely from the darkness within. The afternoon sun was still high in the sky so I had some difficulty seeing in through the window. As I got up close, another smiling face popped up and pressed itself to the glass just in front of me. It had blotchy skin, wild eyes, a shaven head, and its body was dressed in dungarees. It remained stuck with a hand either side to the inside of the glass until the condensation from its breath obscured the view. Behind, the heads of other inmates bobbed, each with an expression somewhere between anger and bewilderment.

Even in normal circumstances, it would have been a hostelry to avoid. The prospect of entering and then having to order a Coke because I was driving held little appeal. The prospect of then having to enquire about a collection of penis bones made it disappear off the appeal radar altogether. I was on the doorstep and it was almost too late to turn back. It called for desperate measures. I dropped to one knee and pretended to tie a shoelace. Crouching low so as to remain out of sight to those at the window, I then made an imbecilic dash back to the car. At least this time I was safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t making a scene. Any onlooking neighbour would have assumed that it was just one of the bar’s regulars scampering back home for afternoon muffins.

Today was proving to be a washout. Just managing not to sail through places was proving a challenge let alone getting out of the car and doing any profitable exploring. I’d lost so much time with the baggage fiasco that I decided to head straight down to Cape May. The water would force me to stop and I’d be left with at least a couple of hours to have a reasonable look around. Day 2 Postcard – Cape May

The traffic on the Garden State Parkway was thick and fast. Jersey-plated vehicles were vying with those from New York, as if they had a real point to prove. There were at least two accidents on the Parkway that afternoon. One involved an open top metallic turquoise Thunderbird that had come past me with some aggression and that I later saw five miles up the road wrapped around a lamp-post. The other happened right in front of me. A dirty yellow compact came screaming down the outside lane and decided to pull in sharply. It was going far too fast for the traffic in the inside lane and, realizing that it was about to total itself into the back of an RV, threw on its brakes. It went into a skid, careered off the road and down the embankment. Quite a price to pay for being worried about the size of your willy.

Cape May was sleepy. Strolling along the seafront, it reminded me of Brighton. On one hand, this was very nice but it was not ideal for my purposes. It meant that most of the people on the street were holidaymakers and probably from out of state, leaving the cotton candy merchants et al as the only prospective natives with whom to chat.

Unfortunately they didn’t really want to chat. They wanted to sell you some cotton candy or whatever. I thought I might have better luck at the ferry. I drove north out of town and round to the docks. After buying a ticket from the kiosk, I wandered over to the ferry terminal. There were loads of people milling around and, like me, they all had nowhere to go for the next hour and a half. I ambled around trying to catch people’s eyes, but I’d have had more luck trying to make light conversation in the waiting room at the local STD clinic. Everybody seemed intent on paying as little attention to anyone else as possible. There was no friendly American outgoingness here and the time passed slowly before we were summoned back to our cars.

It was about 8 pm as the ferry pulled into Lewes in Delaware, and nighttime had fallen. All the motels along Savannah Road were showing no vacancy signs and I was about to give up when I went over the bridge and spotted one more called Vesuvio’s. The guy behind the counter was like Joe Pesci with a moustache. The reception area had soft furniture and clearly doubled as his family’s living room. I asked if he had a room available and instead of answering my question he asked me my name.

“So Kevin, do you smoke?”
“Well, er, yes I do.”
“You can’t have this room then. It’s a no smoking room. I’ve only got a no smoking room left.”
“That’s all right. I’m quite happy not to smoke in it.”
“Kevin, I’m telling you, you can’t smoke in this room.”
“I understand.”
“No Kevin, I’m serious. You mustn’t smoke in this room. Serious.”
“OK, OK. I promise I won’t smoke in the room.”
“Right, that will be 91.60. Now you’re not going to smoke in this room are you Kevin?”
He turned to one of the kids watching TV on the sofa nearby. “Hey you. Are you ready to take a ride then? Go and get yourself ready, we’ve got to go over to see Fuckface in five minutes.”

I smiled, which was a mistake. He obviously read it as a secret sign of my smoking intentions. “Look Kevin. You really can’t smoke in this room. I’ve got a couple arriving tomorrow and she’s pregnant, so we wouldn’t have time to get rid of your smoke. Seriously.”

He gave me the key and took me outside and pointed up to my room. Next to my room on the raised walkway, another guest was fumbling with the keys at his door. “Hey John. Are you having trouble there? Don’t you have any trouble putting the key in that door now. You’re embarrassing yourself in front of your wife there. I tell you John, if you don’t get that door open in ten seconds, I’m going to come up there and do it for you. See what your wife thinks of you then.”

As I reached the walkway, there was time for one more volley:
“So Kevin. No smoking right? Smoke out on the balcony, not in the room.”

It was 8.30 and I decided to have a rest before going out to explore the town. I set the alarm for 9.30 and closed my eyes. When they opened again, the clock read 01.22. Lewes was shut.

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

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.

Day 3. MD/VA/WV: pigs, make-up, appetites, servility

Sharing a bathroom is not a hardship but does involve a certain potential awkwardness, starting with the knickered jaunt across the landing first thing in the morning. It’s not a great situation in which to greet a stranger, particularly if they’re in their underwear too. I was up and in and out of the bathroom by 7 am.

Downstairs the couple who owned the place were ready for the day. Audrey greeted me excitedly and introduced me to her husband, James, who looked generally unimpressed with life. He was like Victor Meldrew, but lacked the charm and gaiety. What appeared to be melon was on the table. More detailed taxonomy was offered by the old man as he sat down: “Pass that there chilli-sauce and pepper, son. I like to put it on my cantaloupe.” Eager to fall in with local custom, I followed suit but it didn’t prove a combination that was much to my liking.

Shortly we were joined by the other couple, Pat and Kathy, who were in their early thirties and also from Maryland. He worked for a mobile telephone company and asked me what cell phone I was using on my travels. I told him that I didn’t have one. “Gee, you definitely need a phone on you. It’s not always safe traveling in this country by yourself. You don’t know what scrapes you’re going to get yourself into and you’d want one in an emergency. Hell, I’d give you one of ours if I knew you better and thought I could trust you.” This was a man who clearly had no internal monologue.

Pat couldn’t understand why we didn’t have the death penalty in the UK. James and Audrey chipped in with agreement. Audrey commented that she believed that anyone caught looting during riots should be shot on the spot. Given that it was such a biblically-orientated household, I thought about asking her whether the authorities should have killed Jesus when he started overturning the market stalls in the Temple. But I was wary of appearing blasphemous, and didn’t much fancy being taken outside to be stoned.

Thankfully, conversation turned to my trip. After the rigmarole of explaining broadly what I was doing, I made the innocuous point that you need to be careful travelling from state to state because laws change and you might do something illegal inadvertently that was perfectly OK where you had just come from. Pat seemed to read this as a slight on the USA and pointed out that we had some pretty weird laws in England too. As he wound himself up for a story, I braced myself for the one about insulting Chelsea Pensioners on Blackfriars’ Bridge or similar fare.

Unexpectedly he started talking about pigs and how it was perfectly legal to keep them in England. In fact, it was also legal to give any individual pig you owned a name. What was still illegal though, and apparently punishable by death, was to give a pig the name Napoleon. He finished the story with one of those “so what do you say to that” looks. Very politely I told him that I had never heard that story before but that I would be surprised if such a thing existed under English law. It sounded more like something that might pertain in France rather than England. He looked puzzled: “Well that’s the same place isn’t it?” Very calmly, I informed him that they were two very separate sovereign countries that just happened to be near each other in Europe. He seemed genuinely grateful to be enlightened.

I felt that I might have embarrassed him, so to compensate I thought I’d say something overtly complimentary about my experiences so far. The first thing that came into my head was to comment on how good the roads were and how cheap the gas was. Pat looked me sternly in the face and, with a wag of his finger, warned me not to be fooled. The gas only seemed cheap because it was sold in US gallons, which were four quarts. He told me that this was less than our Imperial gallons, which were supposedly made up of five quarts. It looked like I had learned something too, in principle if not precision.

The conversation had prolonged the meal and it was now approaching 10 am. I needed to get going. All that was left to do was to get a postcard from Maryland and I could head off for Virginia. This proved far from easy. I spent most of the morning touring around the dozen or so small towns up to the state line and then back into central Maryland to no avail. Everywhere was either shut or hadn’t heard of postcards. I was beginning to resign myself to failing at only the third hurdle on what I had expected to be one of the easier of my tasks for each state.

I was struggling with quite why I thought procuring postcards would facilitate my coming into contact with local life. All it was doing was holding me up, so I pointed the car in the direction of Virginia and hit the gas. I’d have to lie when I got home and pretend that it had got lost in the mail. About a mile short of the state line there was the Maryland Visitors’ Center. As a final roll of the dice, I stopped by only to be told that they didn’t sell postcards. However, they did have some that they could let me have for free and there was even a mailbox on site and so I was saved. I’m sure the level of elation I felt was barely justified, but postcards had taken on a disproportionate importance in my mind at that moment in my life.

Annoyed at the unnecessary time that I had lost, but relieved all the same, I motored over the toll bridge into Virginia. If I headed straight for Richmond, I could still be there for lunch. For the second time since I had set out, “Ferry ‘cross the Mersey” came on the radio. To the uninitiated American ear, it probably sounded like a romantic little boat ride, rather than a windswept chug across the grey maw from the Wirral to the Liver Building. But that’s songs for you. I’d be prepared to bet that Galveston is nowhere near as poly-orgasmic as Glen Campbell makes it sound.

George W Bush is the 43rd President of the United States. You don’t have to be John Nash to work out that, with a union of fifty states, not all of them have had a turn a providing a man for the top job. Virginia isn’t one of them. Eight of those forty-three have hailed from the Old Dominion State, including the original, George Washington. Virginia was also the northernmost of the eleven southern states to secede from the union at the time of the American Civil War. And they seemed to be still fighting the same battle almost a hundred years later, if Prince Edward County was anything to go by. Its reaction to the US Supreme Court’s order to desegregate public educational facilities was to close all its schools from 1959-64. Human rights had never been much of a big deal in Virginia: between 1924 and 1979, 8000 people had been condemned to sterilization for being feeble-minded, a program for which the state took until the 21st Century to apologize. Land of the free and home of the brave.

With the lesson fresh in my mind from Maryland, my first stop in Richmond was at the Visitors’ Center where I was able to pick up postcard and a Virginia version of one of those shaky snow things. The woman was extremely helpful and made several suggestions where I could go for lunch, and carefully showed me how to get there on a detailed street map of the town. She also offered me another handy tip for survival in the US. I was still getting used to a currency where all the notes were the same size and color. She saw me carefully examining the bills in my change and pointed out that the best way to check the denomination was to look for the numbers in the corners. Gee, I’d never thought of that. It certainly beat trying to remember which President appeared on which note.

Within a couple of turns of leaving the Visitors’ Centre, I was driving down a broad tree-lined avenue of colonial mansions. This was certainly not an impoverished neighbourhood. A side road, with slightly more modest homes, led me to the Strawberry Street Café, which was packed with the beautiful people. I come from Essex and so have always felt slightly fazed when confronted by style. The most I know about good taste is that I don’t have much of it. I felt slightly out of place as I waited in the porch but I was already picking up the American habit of brazening it out. When the waitress noticed I was by myself, she suggested that if I were happy to sit at the bar then I would definitely be served more quickly.

I took my seat on the stool and took in the sight of well-to-do America out to family lunch. The finery of clothes, as well as of hair, teeth and skin complexion, was almost overwhelming. There were no fatties in here, let alone people with false limbs or terminal eczema. The barman turned to me and casually asked me whether I came from north or south London. My reply was unnecessarily complicated for him. I explained that I lived in Paddington, which was central London, but actually came from a place to the east of London called Southend. I think he wished he hadn’t asked.

This brief exchange had attracted the attention of a pristine couple just along the bar from me. His was a wholesomely weathered face and hers had a rubbery Barbie-doll look to it. He was a good twenty years her senior and had a twinkle to his eye and a strut to his conversation. She was beautifully manicured, a glossy brunette with straight hair down to her waist, but her eyes were vacant and her voice a monotone.

They introduced themselves as Hubert and Anita and wanted to know what brought an Englishman to these parts. They were both from Virginia but lived out in the countryside where, from what I could deduce, they both appeared to do not much more than just ride around on horses for a living. Nice work if you can get it. They liked to come into Richmond of a weekend to get Anita’s favourite brunch. It looked like a huge dollop of summer pudding with some sausage on the side, but they explained that it was actually blueberry French toast with cream. They were keen to know whether it was really true that we sometimes had baked beans and tomatoes for breakfast in England. They seemed genuinely disgusted by the thought.

I made a comment about how genteel Richmond seemed to be compared to where I’d stayed the night before in Maryland. Hubert wasn’t so sure. He figured that Virginia was every bit as rough as any place else that he’d seen in America: “I tell you, if you looked ‘trailer-trash’ up in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of my neighbors”. He then went on to tell me a rather disturbing tale of how three men from this family had turned up at his ranch one day proffering a hundred dollar bill and making overtures about his “pretty little wife”. It transpired that Anita herself came out of the house and chased them away with her gun: “I told that Chilli Bean to go back where he came from”. I hoped that Chilli Bean was some sort of nickname for one of the neighbors.

In a curious non-sequitur, Hubert started talking about Vietnam and how to behave in a combat situation. He’d been eighteen at the start of that war and had served his time in the army. The most important thing for a soldier was honor, but every army had men “who behave dishonorably”. He then told a story about one of his commanding officers who had shot a woman through her baby and killed them both. I wasn’t sure where this conversation was taking us and it was proving to be rather rich meat given that I’d only made the couple’s acquaintance ten minutes previously. I decided to pay up and be on my way.

It was 2.15 by the time I had made my way out of Richmond and so I found myself chasing the clock once more. There was more character to the highway than the Interstate and soon I was rolling through wooded glades and past ramshackle houses. It was a very relaxing drive – thanks to the combination of being virtually the only car on the road and my discovery/use of the cruise control for the first time – and I didn’t need to stop until I reached Amherst where I filled up with gas and phoned ahead to book a room in West Virginia.

I nipped in to the restroom where there was a condom machine with printed caution that use of condoms helped reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, but that the “only 100% guarantee was to abstain from all sexual activity before marriage and then to maintain a monogamous relationship once married”. Presumably the manufacturers were obliged to put this on their machines to warn of the evils of their product, in much the same way as UK cigarette packs have to tell you that smoking can shrivel your genitals, damage your offspring and then kill you.

Pleased that I had got myself organized, I decided I could afford the time to visit the nearby natural bridge. I swung off the highway and made my way down to Glasgow. It was small, quiet and green and nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Places were evidently not named for any reasons of similarity. From Glasgow, I followed the road to the town called Natural Bridge and, shortly before I reached it, stumbled upon the geological feature after which it was named. The commercial instinct had taken hold with a complex featuring a waxwork museum, a souvenir megastore and even a miniature golf course built around the bridge itself, which unfortunately was out of sight from the car park and the road. Instead I had to pay my ten bucks for the privilege of walking down 137 steps to view the landmark that Thomas Jefferson had described as “the most sublime of nature’s works”.

There was a cluster of very portly people webbling around the burger stand at the bottom. They weren’t just fat, they were super-fat. They were the full Michelin Man and were unable to move their arms or legs without swinging the whole of that side of their bodies. Each had the approximate turning-circle of a Winnebago. At a guess, I’d have put them in the 500-600 lbs category and none of them was taller than 5’8’’. After I had taken some photos (of the bridge), I got to the bottom of the staircase and was horrified to see the fatties had started the ascent ahead of me. Thankfully, they were pausing for breath once every five or six steps and so I was able to squeeze by. I had once run the London Marathon, and not since the end of that race have I seen people looking so red-faced and painfully short of breath. One of them was shovelling chips from a refuse-sack-sized bag into her mouth between gasps for air. I suppose she had to work hard to keep in that condition.

The sun was low in the sky as I rejoined the mountain pass over to West Virginia. An atmospheric mist hung in the air as I crossed the state line and the hills gave way to a mountain skyline. I was delighted to see my first 70 mph limit sign. I was through White Sulphur Springs and drawing into Lewisburg just as dusk was upon the town. The General Lewis was a marvellous old colonial hotel with antiques throughout, ornate gardens and a traditional front porch. My room was decked out with an old writing desk and a four-poster bed. The wall lights had those bulbs that mimic flickering candles. It was all very grand.

The hotel had no bar as such, but you could order beer from an attendant while you lazed on the leather chairs in the lounge. For all its luxury, this was another place not best suited to my purposes. It attracted a middle-aged clientele who wanted to get away from it all and largely keep themselves to themselves, and it offered employees for whom servility and deference were the cornerstones of their training. I wanted to find someone to talk with but I was unlikely to have any luck here. The closest that I came to joining in was when I was able to listen in on the conversation of the table next to me in the restaurant, but they were discussing children and it wasn’t very interesting. The highlight was “You don’t get rid of your kids until they’re 65”. (See what I mean?)

After dinner, I had a glass of wine and a cigarette out on the porch where I was joined by a couple who immediately hid themselves behind newspapers. The only other sign of life came from three characters – a middle-aged man, a post-adolescent teenager, and a ten-year old boy decked out in full baseball gear – who seemed to be prowling around the grounds and who made occasional forays onto the porch area without ever stopping to sit or speaking to anyone. I expect that I could have gone to reception, made a formal request and they probably would have sent one of the waiting staff out with the instruction to chat, but that hardly seemed the point. I picked up a local paper myself and found myself turning to the “What’s happening in your community” page. The Milton Senior Center was having its monthly luncheon on Sep 12th: “The event will start at 10.30 am with free blood pressure readings.” The Burger Grade School Reunion was scheduled for Sep 15th: it promised to feature “a talent show, games and horseshoes”. I had no idea what “horseshoes” might mean in this context, and the appended warning that “No alcohol would be allowed” seemed especially cruel. And at Barboursville, there was going to be a seminar on Sep 12th entitled “Smart women finish rich” hosted by one Scott Bumgardner of Edward Jones Investments.

It struck me that most smart women I knew would make a point of steering clear of anyone who called themselves Mr Bumgardner. I was going to check with my porch-side companions to see what they thought, but they looked like they’d been sucking lemons for the last hour or so. The Mason-Dixon line, nowadays a delineator for where palpable friendliness begins, obviously turned south and dog-legged round West Virginia.

Day 4. WV/KY: prowlers, growlers, snarlers, droners

A slightly bewildered old man was pacing the lobby when I came down in the morning. He was furtively examining the faces of everyone passing through and so I soon came under close examination. I had already decided, on principle, not to bother with breakfast as it cost extra on top of the room. An urn of free coffee bubbled on the sideboard for me and the other cheapskates. After a brief exchange of banalities, I learnt that the old man was the proprietor who was evidently just bedazzled by the amounts of cash he was sucking out of his clientele with every passing minute. I took polite leave and stepped out on to the porch with my coffee.

The prowling trio from the previous evening were still in the grounds. They may have gone to bed but, for all I knew, they’d been stalking the area all night. They were all still wearing exactly the same clothes. They came up to the main door and peered through the glass. The boy saw me staring at them and started walking over to where I had parked myself in a rocking chair. I tried to look away but I’d been rumbled. “You staying in this hotel?” he asked. I nodded. “It’s a bit pricey isn’t it?” I laughed and nodded again. The middle-aged man came over to see who the boy was pestering. It transpired that the three were father, son and younger son. Father and younger son had come down from Billings MT as older son (who lived in Florida, presumably with a divorced mother) was about to start medical school in Lewisburg.

They offered no explanation for what they’d been up to in the grounds, but the young boy was eager to question me about England. He was disappointed to learn that we didn’t have much baseball but fascinated by the notion of cricket. I did lay it on a bit thick – as it’s easy enough to do when explaining cricket to a foreigner – but his eyes bulged as I recounted some of the more curious idiosyncrasies of a game that can last five days with no eventual winner. I needed to get going and the boy insisted that he help carry my bags to the car. The three of them came on to the drive to wave me off, chirruping thanks for my time and for “teaching them all about cricket”. If they were really a band of villainous rogues, they were certainly friendly and polite with it.

West Virginia is known as the Switzerland of America. Surprisingly enough, this isn’t anything to do with watch-making, dodgy banking, holey cheese, being rubbish at Jeux sans Frontiers, or blowing into ten-foot long horns. It’s because of the landscape, and you could see why. It was gloriously mountainous with dramatic rock faces, and soon I was driving away through low hanging cloud. The road dropped down to follow the Kanawha River and the scenery became breathtaking.

Approaching Gauley Bridge, I started to feel peckish so I swung off the road when I saw Thelma’s Cafe. A fuggle of old men were congregating inside and growling incomprehensibly at each other. I strained to listen in on what they were making noise about but could only recognize every twentieth word as having any relationship with what I would call English. The bestial cacophony seemed to increase in pitch as the old woman shuffled over to take my order and the company was alerted to the presence of a pre-septuagenarian outsider. The service was XXX-slow. When my coffee and pancakes finally arrived forty minutes later, both were very black and very cold. I went up to the counter in search of milk and maple syrup to enhance palatability, where a sign on the door to the kitchen read: “Federal offence for non-employees to cross into employee area”. I waited for some minutes but nobody came out. Finally, almost an hour after arriving, I put some money on the table and took my leave to the sound of a low grumble. From the other diners and from my own stomach.

Back on the road to Charleston, the local radio had a show on that was being hosted by a couple of very chirpy rednecks. They had been inundated by requests (so they claimed) to play a cover of It’s Hip to be Square (originally by Huey Lewis and the News). The song had been cleverly rewritten to include the refrain “It’s hip to be queer” and basically amounted to a homophobic diatribe. I stayed tuned in, eagerly waiting to see if they played any other similarly hilarious adapted covers. Chubby Checker’s Lets do a Piss perhaps, or Fartbreaker by Dionne Warwick.

I was about to learn an important lesson. It was best to avoid stopping at places that have no windows. I had seen nowhere that even looked like it could cure my growing hunger pangs for the past 50 miles and so I pulled in at a café near Hurricane. What used to be windows were now boarded up and painted green. There were three pick-ups in the lot, so it appeared to be in business. I creaked the door open and was hit by the smell of decay, a mix of hospital and compost heap. Inside it was dingy and a couple of Goliaths were at the counter watching TV through the gloom. With menacing deliberation, both turned and stared at me, tracking my movement as I edged towards a barstool. The television was silent, but the crackle of a radio could be heard out the back. One of the men scratched his beard and slowly ran his eyes up and then down me. He looked like he was figuring out what part of me would be tastiest to start eating first.

The other came over and asked what I wanted. In truth, I wanted to leave immediately but appreciated that it might have seemed a little odd so I asked if I could have a coffee. All thought of food had slipped from my brain. Ever since the age of twelve, when I resigned from the Sea Scouts on the grounds that the uniform was too itchy, I’ve known myself to be some measure short of a real tough guy. I rarely have to think much about the options when confronted by a fight or flee situation, and tend to be off down the road at the first sign of trouble. I don’t think of it as cowardice necessarily, just a sensible, rational appreciation that I’m no good at punching and even worse at being punched.

As my thoughts turned to running shoes, I was once more presented with black coffee, this time in a chipped mug that clearly hadn’t seen the washing up bowl for a couple of weeks. Nervously I asked if they had any milk and without a word was presented with a catering-tub of powdered dairy creamer. The guy who had served me went back to watching the TV, but his companion’s neck remained locked in a stare in my direction.

I drank up quickly and, in an uncharacteristic show of bravado, left my book and tape recorder on the counter while I went to the restroom, which was teeming with insect-life. On my return, I was relieved to see my things were still there but horrified to see that my coffee mug had been refilled. I felt obliged to swallow it down and then asked for the bill. “You want more coffee”, said the man with a scowl that suggested he’d blow my head off if I gave the wrong answer. I went for “no”, suffixed by a squeeked “thank you very much”. I almost needed to visit the restroom again.

Once out of the door, I think I may have run back to my car. I had been successfully disabused of the notion that it would be desirable to chat with real West Virginians. I was still hungry, but at least I was still alive and free. I checked my rear-view mirror to see if either of them were following me. I held my breath until I was round the next bend and out of sight. It suddenly became a priority to get up on to the Interstate and out into Kentucky as quickly as I could manage.

My stopover that evening was with Martha and David in Louisville. They were friends of the family dating back to the war, but I’d only met them once. They both owned guns and still referred to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay. The most direct route would have been to stay on the Interstate through Lexington, but I wanted to visit Maysville if only for the sake of my surname. Even if it was dull, there was another place called Mays Lick just down the road. Unfortunately, they proved even more disappointing than Cape May NJ. Maysville seemed largely shut due to it being Sunday morning, and Mays Lick was devoid of all shops.

I landed upon Old Washington, which was a delight. It was another cobbled town with narrow streets and cabins dating back to the 18th Century. By now I was very hungry so was pleased to find that the Old Town Tavern was still serving lunch. There was a small dispute with the waitress when I ordered the daily special. It was “Golden Chilli” and she assured me that it could only be eaten by those with a high constituent of asbestos in their tongues. She was on the point of refusing to let me even try it. After lengthy insistence, I was finally brought a gloopy bowl of baked beans and mince which offered about the same zing quotient as a couple of sticks of celery.

Still it was good ballast and allowed me to entertain myself with thoughts of the rectal havoc that a couple of gallons of Praed Street’s finest vindaloo could cause the folks around here. Three others came in during these musings, and once again I was able to listen in on pedestrian conversation. They were discussing keys at some length. The man said that he’d once lost his car keys in a field and had got ten of his men to spend all afternoon looking for them without success. To ensure that it never happened again, he now kept his car keys on the same key ring as his house keys. He didn’t explain quite how this sure-fire guarantee worked, but he was firmly convinced that it did.

The route down to Lexington took me through proper Bible Belt country. The main clue was the aggressive evangelism depicted on the notice boards of churches. One in particular caught my eye: “Our business is feeding sheep, not entertaining goats.” It wasn’t very C of E. As a corollary to this, there was a profusion of dry counties in these parts including Bourbon. This meant that if you went on the tour of the Jim Beam distillery, you wouldn’t be allowed to sample the goods afterwards because it would be against the law. Despite this puritanical background, it wasn’t just booze that they grew in Kentucky but smokes as well. According to a postcard that I picked up with a picture of a “baccy plantation” on it, tobacco appeared to be the state’s chief cash crop and accounted for over 50% of agricultural receipts.

When I got to Louisville, I called David from a gas station and he came out to meet me. I followed him back to their home, which was truly American-sized. There was a huge drive with land falling off to both sides and a series of summerhouses around the swimming pool and barbeque complex at the back of the house. David informed me that the inside of the house stretched to about 5000 square feet, which seemed quite a lot for two people. Martha was inside with a warm welcome and I was quickly installed in an armchair with an iced Coke in my hand. I was told to relax and take my time, although this turned out to be a lie. After a few moments of languorous sipping, David casually informed me that we had to leave the house in seven minutes.

We went for a drive around their very pleasant neighbourhood and I was given a running commentary on things of local interest. We went past the Goshen Store which had been continuously in business since 1750 and was, according to Martha, the “oldest store west of the Mississippi”, which is quite some achievement for a shop in Kentucky. We drove through Harrod’s Creek, supposedly the richest zip code in the US, even including Beverly Hills. We saw the marina and drove along the Ohio River from which I could see the southern side of Indiana. The water was more or less at eye level from our vantage point in the car, and I thought that it looked like an impressive stretch. David was more dismissive. He came from Memphis, where the Mississippi flowed thick and fast. “The folks down there would think of this as just a creek.”

We went into Louisville where I was shown the home of the Louisville Slugger, which was commemorated by an eight-storey bat up against the building. David and Martha had taken the notion that I was looking for stories about America to heart, and made sure I was fed with all the details. I didn’t take in a lot of what I was told about the architecture, but apparently it was quite strange. I do remember David saying that the Kentucky Derby was now the world’s fourth largest sporting event after the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and one other Nascar race that I’d never heard of. I assumed that the Olympics must have been the fifth.

The idea was to eat at a place on the river but it was packed out with a TV crew. It was hosting an audience with one of the coaches from the University of Kentucky, which had an impending American Football match. Most of the audience were pretty basic beer swilling men. College sport clearly enjoyed much greater mass appeal in the US than events like the Boat Race did back home. David informed me that they didn’t have the same trouble with sports’ spectators that we had in England. Perhaps after an important basketball match, there might occasionally be a bit of a riot in the streets and a couple of cars might get turned over and set alight, but “nothing like the problems you have with those soccer hooligans over there”.

We went to another bistro where I ordered a beer. David joined me and Martha had a glass of wine, but that would be it for the evening as far as booze was concerned. They have no casual drinking culture in many parts of the US. If you drink, you have a problem. When David was told by his doctor that it would be a good for his heart to drink a glass of red wine a day, he bought some at $7 a gallon and took his dose down in one go each evening from a tall tumbler while pinching his nose. Over dinner, the conversation turned to the religious broadcasts of the Bible belt. I doubted whether the combination of emotional and financial exploitation would be allowed on air in the UK. Martha said that she once heard one station offering signed portraits of Jesus to its listeners in exchange for a donation. And some people had sent money in.

We returned to the house and David cleaned his guns. His arsenal wasn’t simply kept from love of the Second Amendment, but for a practical purpose. They had a raccoon problem in those parts and he would shoot any that came near the house. He’d already bagged about twenty-five this year and didn’t think he was finished yet. I asked him what he did with the carcasses and he said that he had offered to skin one and make a hat for Martha but that generally he just tossed them over the fence. The buzzards reduced them to a small pile of bones within a day or so.

We chatted about speed limits and David warned me about the prospect of being sent straight to jail if I were caught exceeding any by more than 20 mph anywhere in America. He was keen to note that at least there were none of “them speeding cameras that you have in England”. He didn’t reckon that they would survive a day round these parts “before the good ol’ boys would go shoot ‘em down”. Martha was watching the TV and I commented with admiration on the size of the screen. David informed me that it wasn’t a big screen but that if I wanted to see a really big screen, he could show me. We went down into the basement to a large room that had been newly renovated and in pride of place was a TV that must have had a 50’’ screen. I had to concede he had a point.

The den also sported soft leather sofas and a top of the range sound system, with tweeters, woofers and eight different speakers arranged strategically around the room. The sound from the TV was channelled through this system, but you could play CDs on it too. David played me a CD of aircraft engines from World War II, which was good if you liked continuous vrooming noises. There’s nothing quite like the drone of a Lancaster just before bedtime. Anyone who likes to lie in bed unable to sleep because the same noise is going round and round inside their head should try it some time.

Day 5. KY/TN/NC: rugby, grass runways, moccasins, swearing

Before leaving Kentucky, I wanted to see some Bluegrass to see if it was really blue. It wasn’t. There was a clump of it in the backyard which David took me to look at, and which I dutifully photographed. Caught in the right light, perhaps during the Bailey’s Beads phase of a solar eclipse, and after a couple of nights with very little sleep, it might have looked vaguely silvery I guess, but never what you could call properly blue.

David had put together a survival box of goodies for me: several bottles of water and Coke, some peanuts and some packets of Crackerjacks (a mixture of toffee-coated peanuts and popcorn of which, I later discovered, it was impossible to eat more than half a bag in one 24-hour period without being violently sick). David had noticed a problem with my exhaust pipe and also a tear in the tire wall of my nearside front wheel. His advice was adamant: I should take the car back to Hertz at the first opportunity and insist on an exchange on the basis of emergency.

I didn’t know whether this would work, but was inclined to listen. A crucial weakness as far this trip was concerned was the fact that I had no more than a very rudimentary idea of how cars worked. I could drive, top up the water in the radiator, and – thanks to the lesson learnt in Maryland – put gas in the tank. I could probably even change a wheel, provided there was a jack to hand, but beyond that I would be struggling. Anything that could reduce the chance of breaking down I was solidly in favor of.

They waved me off with three last bits of advice: stick to the Interstates and major highways; stay in the hotel chains like Holiday Inn and tell them that I worked for Ford UK in order to benefit from their corporate rate; eat in Cracker Barrel restaurants, which were also good places to pick up souvenirs. It didn’t seem that they really had much of a grasp of the sort of stories that I was trying to accumulate.

Fort Knox lay a few miles to the south of Louisville. Around the streets of military homes that adjoined the complex, I was pleased to see signs informing me that I was in the vicinity of the “Fort Knox Neighborhood Watch”, which sounded like a scheme that any burglar would be wise not to try to mess with. I couldn’t get close enough to check whether the Gold Reserve itself had one of the stickers in its front window, as it was perched up on a hill some distance back from the road. There were signs warning against stopping and photography, so I took a quick snap through the windshield and sped off. Thankfully no bullets rained down from the watchtowers.

I called Hertz to find out how amenable they would be to my changing vehicle if I were to take it in to one of their depots. I called the wrong number, and got someone who could extend my contract but who wasn’t authorized to answer my question. When I told her the problem, she informed me that I should stay with the vehicle and call the roadside-assistance number. When I explained that I didn’t want roadside-assistance, she became adamant that that was the recommendation that Hertz was giving to me. She clearly didn’t want to be responsible for any lawsuit that I might bring if I went on to break my own stupid neck, though the focus of her concern appeared to be very much the lawsuit rather than my neck. I ignored the official advice and pressed on. Less than a week in the US seemed to have rendered me rather bullish.

The only time that I had been to Tennessee before had been to visit Memphis. I had travelled with an old school friend in search of The King, and we’d checked into the Elvis Motel opposite Graceland. The guidebook had promised a guitar-shaped pool, piped Elvis music in the corridors and a 24-hour shop offering all sorts of paraphernalia sold by Presley impersonators. In this respect we weren’t disappointed – in fact, as far as we could see everyone in the motel looked like a Presley impersonator – but what the guide book hadn’t pointed out was that Graceland was three miles outside Memphis with nothing on offer after dark apart from sitting in the corridors listening to The Wonder of You or gazing out the window at the pool. In the end, we returned to reception and asked to check out. We explained that there had been a terrible mistake and that we’d just remembered we were classical music fans who didn’t in fact like Elvis, and promptly scooted off down the road for a night on the tiles in Beale Street instead.

This time I wanted to see the hill country in the north and make my way down to the Great Smoky Mountains. I picked my way through the poorer rustic towns of southern Kentucky and exited the state at Static. It was the first day back at school after the summer vacation, which meant that all the 10 or 15 mph speed restrictions in school vicinities were in force. The radio was full of distraught parents who couldn’t bear the pain of losing their children back to school. The host of one show offered soothing words: “The Lord instituted school so that we could all learn how to pray”. And there was I thinking that it was for kids to learn stuff.

My next stop was a small town called Rugby, which had been founded by Thomas Hughes the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. When I got there, I found an idyll seemingly frozen in time. Probably true to the vision of its founder, it was like a whole village operating on the basis of a 19th Century English Public School. The roads, sidewalks, buildings and lawns were all immaculately clean and in good repair. All the townspeople appeared to be wearing the same uniform of clothes from another era. I knocked on the door of the Visitors’ Center. It felt like waiting to see the headmaster. The reception was firm but polite and I have to say I was jolly grateful to escape without six of the best.

I stopped for a bite at the Harrow Road Café, a non-profit establishment that existed for the benefit of the maintenance of historic Rugby. The waitress was intrigued by my accent and wanted to know if I was from Canada. She seemed relieved when I told her I wasn’t, and launched into an invective about what a strange place that was. “You know, some of them speak French up there. How weird is that? I mean, it’s just so far from France.” I suppose England is 22 miles nearer to North America.

I hurried away on the scenic run that continued through the trees of the hill country.  I had in mind a fast clip down to Knoxville so that I could make time for the airport. Airports are where you find car rental outlets and I wanted to see a man from Hertz about my tire wall. Having steeled myself for an argument for the previous hour, I realized that I was not going to achieve satisfaction that afternoon. I had come to Powell Stolport which had only one thing in common with the sort of airport I was after: it was indicated on a map by the symbol of a small aeroplane. It was a municipal airport with a grass runway, mainly used by private planes but not much by any representatives of Hertz.

The proper airport was way off to the southeast of Knoxville, and I didn’t now have the time to go there with what was left of the day. My only route out of Tennessee and into North Carolina was through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I was concerned about it closing for the evening and the prospect of not being able to get in if I were to arrive too close to dusk. It was about five, and so I was going to have to brave rush-hour in downtown Knoxville as I needed to pass directly through the city to find the road through the park.

I stopped for gas and was greeted by a Woody Harrelson lookalike in overalls. He filled the tank and checked the oil, concluding on the latter count that “someone’s sold you a quart too much there”. I told him that nobody had sold me any oil and that it was like that when I had picked the car up from Hertz. He shrugged his shoulders and told me it didn’t matter anyways. Reminded of my tire plight, I asked him to have a look. I became worried when he scratched his head, tsked, and pulled at the tear with his fingernail seemingly increasing the gape. He fetched some water to spray on it and confirmed that no air was escaping so I should be fine for the meantime.

As he ran my credit card through the machine and waited for it to process, he asked me if I was from England. “We sure was mighty sad to hear about that there Princess Diana of yours, she was a good woman”. I wasn’t sure whether the news had taken four years to reach Knoxville, but replied that lots of people had been upset back home when she had died and that it was interesting to hear it had had an effect out here. “Oh yeah, it sure did. We were so sad. She did a lot for your country. Really put it on the map with all her good works an’ all.” Obviously nobody had heard of Britain before 1981.

Pigeon Forge was dreadful, a place only to be visited in the most dire emergency. Many American towns put all their shit out on the main highway so you’re left with a drag full of cheap motels, superstores and fast food joints. Pigeon Forge seemed to consist of nothing but this drag, and it went on for miles. Its pièce de résistance was Dollywood, a jamboree of exploitation and crassness at the far end that had been established in order to provide a pension fund for Dolly Parton. It all stood in stark contrast to the beauty of the countryside that surrounded it.

Thankfully the park hadn’t closed yet and I embarked upon the 30-mile mountain trail across the state line. Unlike the bluegrass of Kentucky, the Great Smoky Mountains fully merited their name. They were swathed in mist and cloud but it was of such a patchwork that I had to keep stopping to check for fires and campsites. Finding none, I was left to assume that long thin vertical plumes of cloud were a meteorological possibility although I had never before seen anything like them. On the other side of the mountains I came out in Cherokee, which positioned itself as an authentic Native American settlement but which in fact was little more than an Indian equivalent of Pigeon Forge. I had no idea what the demand for Moccasins was like in that part of the world, but it must have been quite substantial to keep the twenty or more stores selling them there in business.

The surface of the road was clean and fresh, stretching out before me like a strand of liquorice. It felt like I was the first person ever to have driven along it and, with no other vehicle in sight, I glided along effortlessly. As the gradient steepened, the day ebbed away into nighttime and soon I was motoring through pitch mountain blackness. I rounded a lake and pulled into Highlands. Even in late August, it felt like Christmas. There were only two sets of traffic lights and no cars on the road. The place was illuminated by fairy lights and the warm glow of traditional shops selling Dickensian goods.

I had toyed with staying in Highlands but my telephone enquiries earlier in the day had led me to conclude that it probably wouldn’t be worth the budget haemorrhage that this would entail. I didn’t fancy having to sleep in the car from here until New Mexico just for the benefit of one night in a swanky hotel. Now I was here, I was sure I’d made the right decision. This town was rich, leafy and gentrified to an extreme. It looked like the kind of place where the closest that its inhabitants got to “manual” was reading the instructions for their DVD players. It certainly didn’t look the kind of place where scruffy travellers would find conversations easy to come by.

I motored on to Flat Rock, a southern outpost of Hendersonville, hopeful that it would be better suited to my purposes. I’d been able to call ahead from Highlands to make a reservation at an inn there. The guy had been excessively friendly and had made big emphasis of how much he liked the English. When I arrived less than half an hour later, he seemed a little less effusive: “Who’s there? What do you want?” he hissed from the darkness behind the door screen. It seemed an odd way to run a Bed & Breakfast business. I said that I’d come about the room. “You the English guy?” His voice was challenging and aggressive. “What’s your name then?” I was beginning to wonder whether I’d come to the right place. It was pitch black and the wind blew eerily through the canopy of trees that enveloped the inn.

Suddenly the lights went on and out came Dennis, as jovial as any game-show host. He threw out a fist and shook my hand heartily, dismissing his caution at my arrival with the most casual of apologies: “Well, you never can be too sure. Ha ha.” He grabbed my bag and beckoned me in, marched me down the hall and threw open the door to a large fridge. “This is our guest fridge. There’s wine, beer, cheesecake, Coke, pear juice… hey, do you like pear juice?” I didn’t really have a view one way or the other. “Well, you can help yourself from here whenever you feel like it.” Presumably only until I left the following morning.

Dennis informed me that he’d booked me into dinner at a restaurant in town as I’d requested. It was a very fine place to eat, but there was a slight problem: “It’s run by a very nice couple. He’s Lebanese and she’s… I don’t know quite how to say this… she’s lovely but… the problem is, er… I’m sorry, but she’s… French.” I looked quizzically at him, waiting for the bad news before it dawned on me that that was it.

More curious apologies came when I was shown up to the room. “Shucks, I meant to take that down when I knew you was coming. I’m really sorry. Do you mind sleeping with George or do you want me to get rid of him?” I looked around the room, keen to ascertain who or what George was. Dennis pointed to a portrait of Washington that was hanging on the wall. “I wouldn’t want you to take offense, what with you being English and everything and what George did to your countrymen…” Dennis seemed to be a little taken aback when I told him that I really didn’t give a fuck, but it might have been my choice of language. I think he’d expected a proper Englishman to be a bit more Cornwallis and perhaps a bit less Peter Potty-mouth.

I don’t think cusswords formed a regular part of everyday language in this neck of the woods. Just before I had left England, I had read in the paper that North Carolina had passed a law making it a criminal offence to swear in the presence of a corpse. I’d found this not only bizarre, but also worrying. I was pretty certain that if I ended up being unlucky enough to stumble across a dead body during my visit, my first utterances would most probably be profane. I quickly checked around the room for dead people and was thankful to be in the clear on that score at least. Dennis looked as if he was about to burst into tears.

While not quite in the league of Highlands, Hendersonville was another lush, middle-class retreat. The streets were empty and quiet, as was Sinbad’s, the restaurant that Dennis had booked me in to. I managed to make my way through the delicious Bouillabaisse without overly taking umbrage at my very charming French hostess. The other two diners had left by the time I’d settled my bill, but it was still not yet ten.

Not much was doing out on the streets. I walked up and down Main Street and not a single place appeared to be open. I sat on a bench and contemplated the empty streets. At one point, a pick-up drove past with music blaring so loudly that the flower-box on a nearby balcony railing rattled. I decided to call it a day and go back to the car. Just as I was about to slam the door I heard voices turning the corner. Four girls, all aged around 17 or 18 and all dressed up to the nines, click-clacked past. I had no idea where they’d been, but it didn’t sound as if it had been too successful an evening. Now all that was left to them was an early bath and a strum on the cello. It seemed the business of being both young and living in Hendersonville could be a frustrating combination.

Day 6. NC/SC: prayers, good manners, rednecks, carriages

By morning my swearing faux-pas seemed to have been forgotten. Dennis was in bright and breezy mode and ushered me into the kitchen to meet his wife, who was busy preparing breakfast: “Hi there! I’m Sandi! Isn’t this all amazin’! You know, I just love to cook!” Before me stood Pam Ewing in a pinny, her bouffant hair glued precisely into place, and startled wide eyes made panda with slaps of eye-shadow. “We’re almost done! It’s cherry blintz and baked eggs! It’ll be ready in five minutes! You do like baked eggs, don’t you! Dennis, fix Kevin some of our proprietor blend coffee! Take a seat through there! I’ll be right with you!” If ever a situation called for the f-word, this was probably it but I bit my tongue and smiled a glassy smile.

The small dining room had one place laid for it. I took my coffee through and sat down. The inn had four bedrooms but I was evidently the only guest. Dennis hovered as Sandi brought the food through and filled my glass up with juice. It looked like a slab of clean chamois leather with a road accident on the side, but I was up for trying anything and began to dig in.

I can’t be precise about exactly where the fork was – it had definitely entered the food and might even have begun the journey back towards my face – when I heard Dennis cough politely. I glanced up to see the two of them stood with heads bowed. I was able to stop the fork short of entering my mouth before Dennis started saying grace. It would be an exaggeration to say that the food was cold by the time he had finished, but this was no short, sharp prayer. It was more like a Liturgical Collect and all the weirder for the fact that neither of them were joining in the eating. I really don’t think that I had made a very good impression on them.

I set off into the hanging wisps of mist that still enshrouded the mountains and soon found myself behind a truck with a small sign on the back reading “Warning. Stay back 200 feet. Not responsible for broken windshields.” It wasn’t clear whether they were prepared to take responsibility for the fact that the sign only became legible when you got to within 10 feet of the back of the vehicle.

More stern warnings greeted me as I crossed the state line. Americans seem to have a thing about litter or – more accurately – the lack of it, especially on the highway. Every state has signs advising that any litter dropped on the road will be met with some penalty, usually a fine. Once in South Carolina this obsession reached its apotheosis with signs reading “Penalty for littering. $1000 or prison.” Envisaging that any cellmate in a South Carolina prison would be likely to come from the less savoury end of the human spectrum, I wound up all my windows lest any scrap of paper escape accidentally. I had no desire to share slopping out with Mr Big of Rednecksville.

There was no reason to doubt the seriousness of the threat if the case of Regina McKnight was anything to go by. She was a 22-year-old cocaine addict with a sub-normal IQ who had fallen pregnant. When the child was stillborn in May 1999, traces of cocaine were found in its system. The mother was now serving a 12-year sentence for homicide by child abuse. South Carolina was clearly an authoritarian place that had little time for excuses.

My first stop was Pickens, a small and perfectly presentable place boasting an imposing county court house with huge Doric columns. Or perhaps they were Corinthian, or even Ionian, I couldn’t be sure. I changed some travellers’ checks and went shopping, managing to pick up a cruet set with “Hi, y’all from South Carolina” tastefully engraved on the side of each pot. The reaction of the people who served me in both the bank and the shop to my use of please and thank you suggested that those two words didn’t feature massively in the local vernacular. My next town was Liberty, home to Miss South Carolina 1995 1996 1998, with room on the welcome sign for one more year to be added at a future date. Another sign in town announced “Liberty. Where neighbors become good friends”. I was fairly sure that they weren’t taking the piss.

I decided to head for Abbeville, an old southern town founded in 1758. It had been both the birthplace and the deathbed of the confederacy. It was here that the first organized meeting to adopt an Ordinance of Secession had taken place, and it was also where the final meeting of the Confederate Council of War had been held. It had a beautiful old town square, bordered by brick-paved streets. I made my way to The Village Grill just off the square and arrived at 2.15pm, just before last orders for lunch but long after any pretence of Southern Hospitality was on offer. Feeling about as welcome as a streaker at a Papal Mass, I was at least able to hone my skills at catching flying menus, plates and beakers of lemonade.

It was interesting driving around the town to see the amount of red white and blue that decorated the homes of people there. There were a few confederate flags, as through much of the south, but far more of the Stars and Stripes. This town was now more than glad to be a part of the Union. Patriotism reaches levels in the USA that I have only seen come close to being paralleled in Australia, so I assume that it has something to do with the age of the country. Being American is a serious business and is something that is at the front of the consciousness. Europeans have inherited their countries, cultures and traditions whereas Americans constructed theirs from scratch and largely within living memory. In the space of a few generations, they have gone from a hopeless band of outcasts to the most powerful, rich, and influential nation that the world has ever seen. This is not a legacy that the people of America feel they receive, it is one that they own and actively take part in. The flag is more than colors that represent the country, it is a symbol of what Americans get up in the morning for, and they genuinely love it. Even the most disenfranchised still live the dream.

South Carolina seemed markedly poorer than the plush country club bit of North Carolina that I’d been to. As I drove cross-country towards Columbia, several old battered pick-ups passed me with kids or animals riding in the back. Two of them had the word “Redneck” emblazoned where the front license plate usually went. It was not a term that had pejorative connotations everywhere and, for some, it summed up their way of life. I’d heard a number of theories concerning the origin of the reference but a guy at a gas station outside Salem Crossroads told me that it came from the way they never washed their vehicles and so had to lean out of the window to see where they were going. Whatever its true derivation, everyone agreed that these people became renowned for having sunburnt necks. There’s got to be an advertising campaign for Ambre Solaire somewhere in that.

I was headed for Camden which, according to one of my books, was a town where none of the roads were paved so as to be kinder to the hooves of horses. It was also an attempt to be kinder to myself. After racking up the best part of two thousand miles in my first five days, this was a chance to arrive by late afternoon and relax into the evening without having spent most of the day in the car. I pulled into town around five and couldn’t help notice there was no great shortage of tarmac around.

The hotelier was a guy called Jim who came and greeted me in the parking lot as I pulled up, and shook my hand for about three minutes. I asked him about the roads and he confirmed that all the streets in town were just dust tracks, despite all visual evidence to the contrary. He asked me if I wanted a trip in a buggy and, before I could answer, had passed the phone to me with a leaflet advertising carriage rides. I’d booked myself on to a 6 o’clock departure before I’d even checked in.

Five minutes or so before the appointed time, my reading out on the porch was disturbed by the tinkle of sleigh-bells. At first I just dismissed it as part of the general surreality of life in the Deep South, but they soon began to exert a siren effect on me. Without thinking, I found myself getting up and being lured round to the back of the hotel from where the sounds seemed to be emanating. There I was confronted by the sight of a tiny woman trying to reverse a behemoth of a carthorse between the shafts of an old carriage presumably with a view to harnessing it up. The beast was bedecked with bells and ribbons and was having none of it. The woman, who at less than five-feet tall didn’t even come up to the top of the horse’s back, was employing a Sumo wrestling approach to her problem. Hardly surprisingly, it wasn’t getting her very far.

She was dressed in what looked like top-hat and tails and stopped to compose herself as soon as she saw me approaching. “Hi y’all, yooo mus’ be Kev’n” she drawled as she beckoned limp-wristedly to me. “Ay’am Joy, and this here is Beau Ree-gard… that’s Frennch for ‘G’d Looookin’.” She was a buxom fifty-something who wasn’t wildly dissimilar to Barbara Windsor, and spoke with a combination of drawls and spits. I asked her if she needed a hand but she replied that it would be fine. It was apparently the horse’s way of punishing her when she’d not come to see him for a few days (Jim let her keep the horse at the hotel when it wasn’t working and she lived about thirty minutes away). Sure enough, at next time of asking, Beau Regard backed up and within a couple of shakes we were away.

The carriage was from around the time of the Civil War, an event that Joy informed me many of the folks around these parts still didn’t believe was over. Certain types – whose politics were no doubt as tasteless as their historical perspective was clouded – just referred to the war as the “great unpleasantness”. Joy was a source of much local history, but her real specialization was gossip. Soon we were off the main highway and trotting along the side streets. As we approached each house, people came out into their front gardens to wave. Joy knew them all and after an exchange of words with each, turned and filled me in on the backgrounds of each resident and their business.

After some time, we did find ourselves on some dust roads. Joy explained that the local patriarchs, the Buckley family, has decreed that certain areas of town had to remain unpaved so that they could ride their horses at speed, but that was about it. There was something other-worldly about the place, almost quaint. This wasn’t some contrivance designed to trap tourists. This town had been the site of the last legal duel in the USA and also one of the final British victories in the War of Independence, but there was none of the razzmatazz that celebrated some spots with far less significance. It had been used to shoot a number of movies – notably Kate and Leopold and Glory, neither of which I had seen – but there was no reference even to these.

Although I had only asked for the 45-minute tour, Joy decided to extend it to 75-minutes “at no extra charge”. This meant that we could go and see the site where one of the grandest colonial homes of the area had been demolished. Property developers had bought it up and were planning to build something new, but then went bankrupt. So now it was just one huge flattened plot of brown earth. It was this experience that had led to the local authorities slapping preservation orders on all other historical building in the area.

On the way back, Joy regaled me with numerous ghost stories. She was cautious to point out that, because she was a “student of the Bible”, she knew not “to mix dark with the light”, so she always steered clear of such talk. Perhaps it was me who had brought the subject up and I’d forgotten about it.

By the time we had got back and Joy had unhitched Beau Regard, it was almost eight. I was paying Joy as Jim sauntered across the lot to enquire how we’d got on. I was appropriately enthusiastic and everyone seemed happy. I casually asked where would be good to go eat in town. Both Jim and Joy looked at me with puzzlement. Eat? In town? At this time? “Oh, I’m afraid you won’t find anywhere for fine dining around here at this hour.” I said that I didn’t want fine dining necessarily, just something to eat. With sideways glances at each other as if to suggest that they had an idiot-boy on their hands, they suggested I try the gas station down the road where I could probably pick up a sandwich.

Miscalculated again. Last time I had been in central South Carolina had been on a Sunday and I had learnt too late that it remained the only state of the fifty not to sell alcohol anywhere on the Sabbath. On that occasion, I had taken a desperate hundred-and-fifty mile round trip up to North Carolina to assuage my thirst and craving. This time, as a precaution, I had come armed with beer bought back in Brevard NC. I knew it was a Tuesday, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I just hadn’t allowed for the “no dinner later than seven” factor.

I cracked a beer, pulled the Saran Wrap off my egg mayonnaise sandwich and rocked back on my chair on the porch. There was not a soul out now that it was nine. No sign of Jim, let alone any other guests. Joy had pointed out one of the grand houses that was called Kamchatka. It had belonged to a rich lady from the north who had come here to recover from a traumatic divorce. She’d given the house that name because her exile in Camden felt like she’d been sent to the furthest place she’d ever heard of. I think I had some idea how she’d felt.

Day 7. SC/GA: hymning, dankness, swamp gas, strip lighting

Some people who live in Camden go to church at 7 am on Wednesdays. Either that, or the local pastor has quite a sense of humor. These were the only possible explanations I could come up with for the din that awoke me, once I realized that the Rapture hadn’t come upon us during the night. The Baptist Church opposite the hotel was piping a particularly tinny rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers out of a loud speaker above its door. I took it as a sign that the Lord wanted me out of bed and on the road.

Apart from a quick coffee stop by Lake Marion, I made good time straight down to Savannah. I had planned to stop off longer at Santee but was put off by the “Buy dirt here” signs and the notice outside the Rest Inn informing me that it boasted “a pool and delightful clientele”. It just looked too weird.

I had similar reservations about Georgia, a state that I arrived in really knowing only three things about it. I knew that it was the home of the 20th Century revival of the Ku Klux Klan. I knew that it was renowned for tourist carjackings, to the extent that Hertz no longer dared to put their name on any of their vehicles. And I knew that Coca Cola, based in Atlanta GA, employed two executives who went by the names of Doug Daft and Chuck Fruit. All three of these things militated in favour of spending as little time as possible in the Peach State, and I would happily have driven straight through to my destination for the night if Savannah had not stopped me dead in my tracks.

Perhaps I was just in a particularly good mood. I had swung by the clearly-designated-as-international-on-the-map airport, where Ken from Hertz had sorted me out with an identical replacement Protégé (this time light brown and with South Carolina plates). I’d allowed most of the morning to sort the problem out but it had taken less than half an hour, which meant I had time for a good saunter around Savannah before lunchtime.

Wandering around the squares, which dripped with exotic foliage, was delicious, although the air did slop on you like a wet facecloth. Block after block of sumptuous old buildings were punctuated by these squares, each of which had its own distinctive character. Savannah has twenty-one squares in all. It is home to the first orphanage, the first black church, and the first golf course in the USA. It has the third largest St Patrick’s Day parade in the country and had been the parish of John Wesley for a couple of years in the 1730s before he got around to inventing Methodism. I learnt all of this from one visit to a single shop which, according to the sign outside, was dedicated solely to The Book.

The Book, it turned out, was not a reference to the Bible but was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. This was the story of life in Savannah in the period following its renovations in the thirties and in particular the goings on at Mercer House. Since its publication in the late eighties, Savannah had seen a 46% upswing in tourism. It shows what a broadly non-fiction story can do sometimes.

I was by now keen for food and water, but outside the heat and humidity was suffocating. Leaving the air-conditioned comfort of The Book shop was like walking into a sauna fully dressed. I had seen a place that I liked the look of on one of the squares but, by the time I got there, I was marked by acute underarm drench and my T-shirt was stuck to my chest. It was far too well-to-do a joint for me to go into like that so I opted to return to Churchill’s English Pub that I had passed a couple of blocks back. I thought that there might be someone there interested in meeting an English person.

No chance. The most that I ended up getting was “OK mate” when I ordered a lemonade and asked for the menu. At my end of the bar, a seriously mad-looking bloke was slugging bottled beer and whisky chasers and I really didn’t want to interrupt him. I noticed that the barman switched vocabulary when speaking to him, addressing him as “Man”. An old couple next to me had just ordered sausage rolls (billed as “English sausages” on the menu) and could not find the words for how appalling a dining experience they had found it. Most everyone else in there appeared to be locals who knew each other and went there for the beer and the company, not for any particular affinity to England. In a town as gorgeous as Savannah, I had to be able to do better than this.

I wandered down to the waterfront and stopped at one of the many seafood restaurants with tables out on River Street. I asked the waiter for whatever the local speciality was and he suggested the snow crab. I was just tucking in to the claws that were subsequently brought – it transpired that they actually came from Alaska and were each the size of a toddler’s forearm – when a non-too-shy couple planted themselves on the table next to mine. They both lit up cigarettes, ordered beers and waved the menu away. They introduced themselves as Bob and Jane from Waynesboro. I told them that I came from London, which elicited an interesting response from Bob: “Ah London” he mused while wagging a finger at me with a smile and a knowing wink, “City of Harry Potter.” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

Bob worked in construction and Jane was a nurse. They said they liked travelling, but only to Jamaica and Barbados. They wanted to go to Cuba one day, but not until “they’d got rid of Fideo [sic]”. Jane wanted to go to New Mexico but Bob said he’d never be prepared to go that far. There was something fairly limited about the conversation but it was good to be able to light up after I’d eaten without feeling like a pariah. I made casual reference to this and Bob was off on one: “You know, so many of our rights are being taken away all the time, I reckon by the time I die we’ll damn well near have no rights left”.

I’m not sure it was the best example that he could have selected, but Bob chose to illustrate his point by complaining that his 16-year-old son was allowed to drive, but that for the first six months on the road he was only allowed to have family members with him in the vehicle. They both thought it was ridiculous that he couldn’t even use his car to “take a little girl on a date”. I couldn’t say my heart was exactly bleeding. I almost pointed out that, at the age of sixteen, all that I’d been able to offer prospective girlfriends was a ticket on the no. 3 bus or a saddler on the back of my five-gear racer. But then I remembered that neither of these had seen me enjoy exactly fantastic success in my early dating forays.

Instead I just nodded and looked askance. They must have interpreted this as some sort of reticence or self-censure because they then went off on how great the USA was because you could say what you liked whenever you felt like it and how I’d have to get used to that: “Yes sir, you can say what you will but it’s always best to keep clear of politics and religion”. Confounding his own principles somewhat, Bob then asked me if I realized that the Arabs would never get the Jews out of Israel because it had been pre-ordained in the Bible. Having established a precedent of evasiveness, I demurred from getting much involved before making both excuses and tracks.

Not much wealth was in evidence in the bits of Georgia I passed through, but what was more noticeable was an increased amount of aggression. There was more revving of engines and wheel-spinning off the mark at the lights than elsewhere and young men walking down the street were glancing around in that “what are you looking at” way. It wasn’t that I was actually threatened by anyone, just that I got the impression that if I had stopped to enquire then I most certainly would have been. I drove on quickly and quietly.

Georgia also seemed to have generally a more lax attitude to the letter of the law, certainly in terms of driving. It was the first state that I had visited where it appeared de rigueur to exceed the speed limit. There was little regard for seatbelts, and I saw a number of children being driven home from school not only unbelted, but swivelled around and playing about in the front seat. As if to reinforce this, after the news and weather on the radio, there was a segment on where the police were running speed traps that day so that people knew the spots to slow down.

The headline story on the news for the third day running was that Bill Clinton had bought three bikinis on his recent visit to Brazil, and nobody could figure out who they were for. A spokeswoman had now put everyone out of their misery and revealed that they were a gift for his daughter. I also learnt that the Savannah Police were now auctioning off evidence on the Internet. They had become inundated with a stockpile of “jewellery, tools and general equipment”, and so had taken the obvious decision just to flog it to the general public.

In Hinesville, I pulled in to a gas station to buy a paper from one of the machines. Rather spitefully, the parking bays reserved for disabled drivers were at the opposite end of the lot from the door. I’d forgotten to empty the draw with all my small change when I’d switched cars earlier on, and so went in to the shop to ask if they could break a dollar. No sooner had I opened my mouth than a big momma who was in the shop swung on her heel.
“Gee. Where’s that accent from?”
“Er, London… in England.”
“Get out of here!”
“No really…”
“Go on say some more. Just keep on speaking. I could listen all day. Say anything.”

I couldn’t think of a single thing to say, but was saved by the cashier piping up: “You know, it’s a real shame you didn’t come by yesterday. Pierre works here on Tuesdays. He’s from Cameroon. You probably know him.” Africa is the very next continent to home I suppose.

The only reservation that I had made prior to leaving England was the accommodation I had lined up for this evening. It was still August and so out of season for swamp tours at Okefenokee, but I’d been surprised to find out on the Internet that the Visitors’ Center was prepared to open and take me out (provided I made a solid commitment to spend a night in one of the cabins on the swamp). I had booked myself into a “deluxe suite”, on the basis that I liked the idea of sheets and towels being provided. The responsibility had weighed heavily on me during this first week, as I dared not let anything hold me up. It wasn’t simply that I had to be here by this evening. I had to be here by six, or else I would be charged $5 for every hour (or part thereof) that I was late. It wasn’t the amount of money that bothered me. It had just been made very clear that being late was not an acceptable option.

Thankfully, I pulled up outside Okefenokee Pastimes eleven minutes ahead of schedule. I parked opposite the entrance and waited until the precise hour, just in case there were fines for arriving early too. It somehow looked less official than I’d been expecting. There was a chain across the entrance drive with a hand-painted no entry disc. The office building looked more like a house and the sign above the door read “Swamp Gas Gallery. It’s a gas, gas, gas.” The eleven minutes were easily taken up reading the other prohibitive notices that were posted around the immediate vicinity. Evidently, I wasn’t allowed to park, block the driveway, drop litter, use the call-box without permission, sing, reverse my vehicle without guidance, hang my laundry out to dry, bring my own firewood, trespass, swim, tease the alligators, defecate in the woods, or start a forest fire.

I couldn’t see how I could possibly check in without contravening at least two of these prohibitions. I gingerly eased my car up to the chain until I was about an inch in front of the no entry disc. Leaving the engine running, I got out of the car and scratched my head. A bearded guy with big shades peered out from behind the door. He looked like the gimp-keeping pawnbroker out of Pulp Fiction who gives Zed a call to say that he’s caught a couple of flies. Worryingly, he was carrying a rifle. I put my hands in the air and babbled a loose enquiry about my whereabouts. Very slowly, he turned, put the gun down and walked towards me. He unhooked the chain and beckoned me into the driveway: “Sorry about that. We put this up to stop all the traffic around here pulling into the place.” I had yet to see another vehicle of any description on GA 23, but I was sure he knew what he was talking about.

Inside the office, he shook my hand and introduced himself as Steve and his partner as Jo. She looked less spaced than Steve, and a little more flustered. There was something both pragmatic and panicked about her. She nervously checked me in, swiped my credit card, and then ran through a list of dos and don’ts with me. She sold me some home-made insect repellent, some special juice for the morning that “would keep me hydrated but not make me pee” and then told me to be ready to set out by 6 am. Throughout Steve looked on silently and motionless.

When she’d finished, Steve took me round to my deluxe cabin. It was a windowless shed, about eight by six feet with a small veranda protected by mosquito netting. It was 6.40 in the evening and still light. In all fairness, I had been forewarned that the cabins didn’t have TVs, but the extent of the prospective dullness of the evening ahead came as a surprise. I’d at least expected to be in the swamp. In fact, I was in a campground that was effectively the back garden of Steve and Jo’s house. It wasn’t wilderness but it was in the middle of nowhere. And I wasn’t even allowed to smoke.

I tried engaging Steve in conversation, which proved fairly hard work. I managed to get out of him that they “really hated” having to get so “heavy” with guests but that it was “really difficult” with it being just him and Jo and it wasn’t “like we’re the government”. It transpired that they had been in business for the best part of ten years, and were basically a couple of hippies who wanted to hang out in the swamp, make some jewellery, be ecologically sound and try to turn a coin by selling their trinkets, letting people stay in their grounds and taking some folk out on boat trips around the swamp. The problem was that their easy-going approach had been taken advantage of on a number of occasions, culminating in a huge forest fire recently started by some kids, and so they’d now had to clamp down and make some rules.

While I sympathized with their plight, I couldn’t help feeling a little narked. I had rushed to get there by six to conform with their rules because I’d been under the impression that someone had to come out especially to meet me. Given that my “cabin” was about ten yards from the house in which they lived all year round, I would happily have paid a few hours’ worth of five-dollar penalties to tarry longer in Savannah. As it was, here I was with an absolute guarantee that nothing more in terms of conversation or general interest would happen for the rest of the evening. I had been advised to bring food and had some sandwiches and beer, but enquired in any case about the nearest place I could go to eat. Steve said that my best option would be to go ten miles back up GA 23 to Folkston.

Sure enough, I soon located the one eatery in town, the Okefenokee Restaurant. It was located in somebody’s front-room and had been soothingly decked out with white polystyrene tiles on the walls and strip lighting that hummed warmly. That evening’s special was the mid-week buffet, all you could eat and drink for $12.95. I told the waitress that I’d go for that, which was probably just as well because I don’t think there was much other choice. She brought me a plastic tray molded with three portion indentations, asked me whether I wanted Sprite Coke or coffee, and told me to help myself. The buffet comprised various creatures that had had parts of their flesh deep-fried in batter, chips, and some salad that I had to assume had been left over from the weekend’s “special buffet”. I was glad that I had bought those sandwiches.

Not much life was to be seen in Folkston by the time I had finished. I drove around and found what looked like a small station next to the railway line. It was actually a Visitors’ Center for train enthusiasts. I signed the book and watched a freight train go by. After a while I started to count the carriages but got bored once I’d reached a hundred and twenty.

Back at camp it was dark and noisy. I sat on the veranda and drank a beer before venturing outside to prove beyond doubt that smoking cigarettes to ward off mosquitoes is a complete fallacy.

Day 8. GA/FL/AL: alligators, sponges, pimps, flowers, crabs

There was a sign on the inside of the cabin door explaining that because the place was just run by the two of them and not the government that they would have to charge a supplement of $25 per hour (or part thereof) after eleven for people checking out late. As a precaution, I put my bag in the car when I went to meet Steve at six so that I was ready to go as soon as we returned from the swamp.

Steve had hooked up the trailer with the boat and was ready to leave on the dot. It ensured that we would be the first ones out and that would apparently mean more to see. Given that they had made it so clear that it was out-of-season for swamp tours, I assumed that it wouldn’t be too busy whatever time we set out but I was glad for the early start. I had a long slog ahead of me to get across the Florida panhandle and into Alabama today.

My first impressions had led me to believe that Steve was not ideally cut out to be a tour guide. Such folk usually need to be at ease with the spoken word, and Steve was a dedicated minimalist when it came to conversation. It appeared that he didn’t value precision either, if his first “spot” was anything to go by: “See that post there, well look left about twenty or thirty yards, see the alligator..?” It puzzled me immediately, given that the stretch of water we were in was only ten yards across. The animal turned out to be surfacing about six feet from the sign.

The swamp was surprisingly still and quiet. The water was jet black and gave a perfect mirror reflection of the view ahead. Even though it was the color of cold coffee, it was clean enough to drink due to its high acidity. Steve said that guides used always to dip in a glass and take a slurp but had been stopped now because traces of mercury were present from acid rain. I wasn’t enough of a wildlife enthusiast to get the most from the tour. Plants don’t generally excite me and any enthusiasm I could muster for lilies and cypress trees started to abate after the tenth consecutive mile of them. Likewise, the alligators. The first dozen or so were quite exciting, but after that it was hard to maintain the buzz. Steve turned out to be a nice enough bloke but his lackadaisical slur did little to pep the enthusiasm.

With the yellow-fly feasting on my ankles, I eagerly took the offer of heading back early. We’d been out on the swamp for two-and-a-half hours and I could see little benefit in another ninety minutes of the same. It might have been an area of intense ecological significance but, to the layman, Okefenokee basically amounts to 700 square miles of sub-tropical peat bog. And after you’ve seen one of those square miles, you’ve kind of seen them all. An early return would give me more breathing space for my day’s schedule and would also guarantee avoiding any late check-out penalties.

The road away from Okefenokee dropped south into Florida where pink diamond signs informed me that State Prisoners were at work on the highway. I picked up the Interstate and headed west. I had now done the whole of the east coast bar New England and was on to phase two. By eleven I had reached Tallahassee and was heading towards the coast. I had expected Florida to be crap, the American equivalent of Ibiza or Bali. I had expected to be overwhelmed by bronzed posers, packed beaches and drunken foreign tourists. Admittedly, I was sticking to the top portion of the state and hadn’t gone anywhere near the Walt Disney World bit, but it wasn’t like that at all. The shoreline from Lanark Village through to Carrabelle was more or less deserted save for the few residents of the stilted houses, under which you could see the water from the road. It was picture postcard stuff.

I reached Apalachicola at lunchtime and was immediately entranced. It was a hybrid of the south and the tropics, with antebellum homes set against a fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico. The broad highway that swept through the town was empty and, for once, parking couldn’t have been easier. The sun was beating down and obliged you to join in the sedate pace. I wandered around the shops and then found the place that I had come looking for: the Apalachicola Seafood Grill and Steakhouse, purveyors of the largest fried fish sandwich in the world.

I didn’t think I needed to look at the menu, but was glad that I did. It carried a warning that the kitchen took its time preparing all food from fresh and that if customers were in a hurry they should go to Burger King just around the corner. There was even a little map showing you how to get there. They also pointed out that Panama City was only 70 miles away and you could get all the fast food junk that you could possibly wish for there. The fish sandwich wasn’t really a sandwich at all. It was a plate piled high with fish with the top portion of a burger bun balanced on the top. After twenty minutes of solid wolfing down, I discovered the bottom portion of the bun under what had been the pile of fish. I’ve no idea what the fish was, but it sure was mighty tasty. I asked and was told “might be grouper, might be something else altogether…whatever they’ve caught today”.

I went for a stroll around the town and found some old trawlers in a harbor around the back and the now defunct Sponge Exchange (not cakes, but marine life). At one time, Apalachicola had been the Sponge Capital of the World. By three Eastern Time, and having worked off about 4 pounds in fluid from my walk, I was back in the car and taking the 70-mile drive along the coast to the fast food heaven of Panama City. With the pristine white sands of Mexico Beach came a switch into Central Time, affording me a much-needed extra hour for the day. The glories of the coast continued to enchant until I reached Callaway when the traffic coagulated and the Pigeon Forge drag hove into view. This was more of what I had expected Florida to be like. On the rare occasions that the numerous traffic lights seemed to turn in our favor, flip-flopped sun worshippers sauntering across the road prevented any progress.

What can only be described as a pimpmobile drew up alongside me. It was a well-polished deep burgundy, with gold wheel trim and opaque windows. It had “I’m the man, don’t mess with me” written all over it. My respect turned to surprise when it pulled away and I saw the Honda Accord badge on the back, signifying another example of the cultural divide: a car that was only fit for old farts in the UK being fine as cool wheels for a pussy and cocaine peddler in the US of A. I tried peering inside to see if the driver was wearing an old cardigan and perhaps open-toed sandals with plaid socks, but the glass was to dark for me to confirm one way or the other.

Foolishly I took the scenic diversion via Panama City Beach. There was little scenic about it, unless you enjoy 10 miles of looking at the back of the waterfront hotel chains that stretch endlessly along its length, but as Panama City receded so the road returned to its previously delightful self. The junction with US 331 turned me sharply north and I was rising over the spectacular bridge that spans Choctawhatchee bay. De Funiak Springs’ main claim to fame was that it contained the world’s only (of course) perfectly circular natural lake. It was about a half-a-mile across and it was impossible to evaluate from the ground whether it was perfectly circular, but it certainly seemed round enough to me. Either way, it was the only thing worth seeing in town and I was soon back on the Interstate after my Floridian backwater diversion.

The day felt like it had been going on for about a fortnight, but it was only 5.30 Central Time as I crossed the state line into Alabama. I had telephoned ahead and booked myself into a B&B called Away at the Bay in Fairhope. The woman who had answered the phone had certainly been away on the effervescence stakes. She urged me to get there by six as they were having a small reception on the lawn and there’d be lots of folks from the town who would just love to meet me. It looked like I was just going to make it. I pulled into town and stopped at a local store to get directions to my lodgings. It was a pretty little place, with several parades of smart boutiques and bedecked with floral arrangements. Even the municipal rubbish bins had blooms sprouting out the tops and sides.

The house overlooked Mobile Bay. It was an enormous family home with an additional four or five guest suites feeding on to the lawn atop a bluff that led down to the water. A private beach and pier awaited those who took the steep path down and the upper lawn was home to Bingo – and that was indeed his name-oh – a Jack Russell that was tethered by a fifteen yard rope to a pulley that ran along a washing line. It gave the dog a running domain about the size of a tennis court, with a hut and food bowl at one end and bushes for poop and pee at the other. The suite came complete with a jar of dog biscuits with which guests could indulge the little fellow.

The home was owned by Dr Joseph F Gravlee Jr and his wife Glenda. I knew this because the sitting room of my suite was decorated with various framed articles from medical journals highlighting Dr Gravlee’s world pioneering cataract surgical procedures. The diagrams and photographs were not for the weak-stomached. Mind you, I was already feeling slightly queezy before I even reached the room. Glenda had met me on the driveway, as if she’d been waiting for my arrival. She welcomed me and thrust a small white tub into my hand: “That’s there some dippin’ sauce for your claws. You know blue crab… we’ve been havin’ so much fun..!”

I took the pot from her and followed as she led me round to the waterside front of the house. A polystyrene box was outside my door and inside were three very alive and – from where I was standing – very pissed-off-looking crabs. Her son had caught them earlier today down by the shore and they thought I might like some for my tea. Apart from a snake in Beijing and a trout in Poland, I had never seen alive anything that I had subsequently eaten and on both those previous occasions I hadn’t had to do the killing myself. But I figured these people would have no truck with such woosiness – especially after I’d seen the close-up photography of scalpel piercing eyeball that passed for domestic decoration – so I smiled as appreciatively as I could manage.

Guests soon started arriving for the reception that was clearly being held on the bit of lawn in front of my lodgings. A big dump-bin full of ice and bottled beer was next to a table that had been set with a hotplate warming platters of barbequed chicken wings and ribs. The food looked rather sticky so I settled just for beer until I’d got the measure of the company. It was decidedly middle-aged and middle-classed. Everyone was wearing a name badge appended with the company they worked for; it turned out that the reception was somehow linked to the local Chamber of Commerce, a regular gathering of the community’s business gentlefolk to swap ideas and offer mutual support.

I was chatting to a woman called Mary who was originally from Portsmouth in England but had moved to Alabama with her American husband over ten years previously. She shared what must be an Anglo-Saxon view of the southern breakfast speciality of grits, describing it as “a waste of a clean plate”. Glenda came over and told me that I had to meet their mayor who had “heard all about me”. I was led over to where a portly distinguished gent was chatting affably with a rather non-descript, wispish man. I hovered for a moment before there was a break in the conversation and I had the chance to introduce myself.

“Hi, Kevin, I’m Joe Gravlee” the large man boomed as I stretched out my hand to shake his, “Let me introduce you to the Mayor of Fairhope”. He turned out to be a quiet but very warm man. His background wasn’t politics but horticulture. He had been brought to Fairhope by the previous mayor to spruce the place up and turn it into “the Carmel of the South”. He’d ended up doing such a good job with the flowers that the townsfolk had voted him into office at the very next election. Naturally. Who needs a background in local government when you’ve got green fingers?

I’d had a few beers by the time the party started to break up, so Glenda offered to drive me into town to a good night spot called Gambinos. I wished that she had waited while I took a look inside. It was a karaoke bar and burger joint. There was no table free to eat so I went in to witness some of the singing. I had once had an unfortunate experience at a karaoke bar in Minneapolis where I had got kind of plastered and sung “American Pie”, “Stand by your Man” and “Delilah” with full gusto and in quick succession, only to discover the following morning that some business associates whom I was meeting for the first time had been in the same bar. This episode had scarred me to the extent that I now had a Pavlovian aversion to these kinds of places. The singing was very good but after one more beer – or was it two? – I went outside and ordered a taxi.

When the cab arrived it was a stretch limousine and the driver had never heard of North Mobile Street. He explained that he only ever did rides back to Mobile or Pensacola or sometimes Biloxi. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t just driven myself if I were staying in Fairhope. Obviously the fact that I’d been drinking beer for five hours was neither here nor there. I managed to give him directions and when he dropped me off he said he had no idea what to charge me as he’d only taken me three miles. I gave him ten dollars and apologized profusely for bothering him with my custom.

The house was quiet as I snuck back to my door. As I fumbled with the lock my foot kicked something. I heard a scuttling rustle and looked down to see three freshly disturbed crabs in that box. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t know enough about crabs to be confident they could survive the night being out of water, or whether this might amount to an even crueller slower death for them. I went inside and with the help of my Dutch courage started to boil a vat of water as Glenda had instructed. Outside I found a child’s plastic bucket and spade. Using the spade, I flipped the first crab into the bubbling pot. It struggled momentarily before sinking.

The second proved testier, snapping its claw around the spade’s leading edge. I lifted, dangled and dipped and the claw loosened its grip. The last was the toughest of the lot. I chased it with the spade around the box for a number of minutes before finally trying to flick it out and into the water. It seemed to pirouette on the edge of the pan before falling outside. It was now on top of the stove and had clamped its claw around the hot ring beneath the pot. Perhaps its sinews had melted or something but it couldn’t be shifted with the spade. Summoning a courage I never knew I had, I grasped the body of the crab with my hand, wrenched it free and flung it in the pot.

 
Invigorated with shivering spasms down my spine that I was powerless to control, I danced Travolta-like around the room while making Neanderthal noises for the entire duration of the ten minutes it took for the crabs to cook to full pinkness. Satisfied that they were most definitely no longer of this world, I retired to a night of fitful sleep behind a locked bedroom door secure at least in the knowledge that I was definitely not built for survival in the wild.

Day 9. AL/MS: basking, speeding, pooping, lilting

I’ve never been much of a beach person. I’ve got that useless, white Celtic skin that’s just no good in the sun. I’ve been known to get burnt walking under a streetlamp at night and the only way I can survive beachlife is by covering myself from head to toe in total block. Being fat and bald is bad enough in itself, without then going out in public looking like Marcel Marceau in underpants. However, my poor night’s sleep at least meant that I was awake early enough for a discreet dip in the bay before any prying eyes were up and about.

I had brought a snorkel and mask with me, as well as some fins. Quite why I had lugged these all the way over from England when I was otherwise travelling so light, I’m not sure, but this was going to be my last chance to use the things before Maine in October. The sun was rising in the sky behind me as I took to the beach. The water was perfectly still. I walked to the end of the pier and sat on the wooden swing hammock to take in the view. There was a set of steps down into the water. I tentatively dipped a toe in. It was like putting your foot into a warmed slipper. For someone who had been schooled in sea-swimming on the beaches of the Thames Estuary, I was preparing myself for that ritual of edging slowly further and further into the water over a fifteen-minute period. There was no need for that this time. I was in and up to my waist immediately.

I say up to my waist because that was about the extent of the water’s depth. I swam out about fifty yards and it actually seemed to be getting shallower. It was also green and murky. I tried on my snorkelling paraphernalia but it was a waste of time. The fins just dragged along the seabed and kept getting snagged by rocks and I could only see about two inches in front of my face. Still, it beat trying to dodge the tampons, prophylactics and raw sewage at Southend and I could certainly think of worse starts to the day.

There wasn’t much sign of life on the road to Monroeville. Well, not human life anyway. The road was flanked by trees and perhaps even bushes but it was difficult to tell. All of this foliage was covered by a parasitic ivy that didn’t leave a single square inch exposed. It was like someone very large had thrown a green leaved dust-sheet over them in preparation for the decorating or something. Two dogs were trotting along side by side on the grass verge with no building, let alone owner, anywhere in sight.

In Monroeville, I had a look around but found little of interest. I crawled through the town, but there was nothing to attract the attention of the passing tourist at 10.30 in the morning. As I neared the edge of town, I gave up searching and motored off over the brow of the hill where the shops ended. I had accelerated far too quickly, an opinion shared by the police officer who was driving his patrol car up the hill that I was now descending. I saw him immediately and threw on the anchors, but it was too late. I pulled over to the side of the road and got out to face the music, which I realized was a mistake as the policeman seemed to go for his gun. With an urgency that I found somewhat disconcerting, I was instructed to return to my vehicle instantly. I was back in the driver’s seat in about a third of a second. My clear panic seemed to placate the fellow and the rest of conversation followed in a reasonably calm tone.

“Sir. You was doin’ 64 in a 45 there. That’s way too fast.”
“I know. I don’t really have any excuse.”
“Sir, did you know how fast you was goin’?”
“Well no really. I was pulling away because I thought it was the end of the town.”
“Oh no sir. This ain’t the end of the town. It’s a 45 all the way from here for another 2 mile. Didn’t you see the sign?”
“Er, no I didn’t.”
“Well perhaps you missed it. Hey. You’re not from around here, are ya?”
“No, I’m afraid that I’m not”.
“Have you been here long today or are y’ just passing through?”
“Oh. I’m heading up to Selma. I’ve come up from the coast this morning.”
“Well you better slow down sir.”
“Yes I will.”
“I mean it sir. Please slow it down for me sir. For your own good.”
“Thank you. Yes I will.”
“Take it easy now sir and keep an eye on your speed at all times. You make sure to look out for those signs sir. And sir…please please slow down.”

I’d got the message and learned my lesson. I’d been within 1 mph of potentially going to jail. And possibly within 1 second of being shot. Either of those would have messed up my schedule a touch. I took the policeman’s imprecations to heart for the rest of the day and determined to be doubly vigilant about speed in built-up areas. I assumed that my copper couldn’t be bothered with the grief and paperwork of nicking an out-of-towner and so had let me off lightly. I think my accent had thrown him and, if the Police Stop Action videos are anything to go by, probably my candor too. The next time I might not be so lucky. But I’d definitely remember to stay in the car with my hands visible on the steering wheel.

I held a nervous 58 mph for the rest of the morning, despite being the only car on a perfectly open road. I flicked on the radio and was confronted by the choice of Country or God. I listened astounded to a religious broadcast where the subject of raising children to be missionaries was being discussed. One caller pointed out that her kids were only 4 and 1 respectively, and was upbraided by the show’s host for having a sinful attitude. “They’re never too young to start being missionaries”. The co-host pointed out that many parents seem to think that they’re doing their Christian duty if they manage to bring their children up to watch their manners, not to drink alcohol and to be still virgins when they marry. He was very dismissive of something that I would have considered to be an extraordinary achievement.

I arrived in Selma without any further brushes with the law, and I was soon driving across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge I say historic not because it is particularly old but because it was the scene of the violent confrontation between protesters and state troopers in March 1965 that became credited with directly influencing the passage of the Voting Rights Act the following year. Out of sheer embarrassment, I had brought the Fairhope crabs with me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to eat them personally, but some wartime gene that I’ve inherited from my nan means that I never like to see food wasted. I couldn’t just dump them either. I stopped the car and quickly arranged the fruits de mer on top of an exchange box on the sidewalk thinking some homeless person would surely appreciate them. Judging from her quizzical expression, it was one of the more unusual things that the lady in the lighting shop nearby had seen that week.

The next stop, and lunch, was at Demopolis, apparently “home of Christmas on the river”. It was a quiet little town and there didn’t seem to be much action as I pulled into the main square. I got out of the car and went up to a stranger and asked where I could get some lunch round there. One of her suggestions, a place called BJay’s, was a few yards back down the road that I had just driven up. It was a new restaurant. In fact, it was so new and that today was their first day of business. The ambience was pleasant but unfortunately the catfish I ordered wasn’t.

Nor were the restrooms, on account of having non-partitioned cubicles. As a consequence, I found myself standing at the trough and looking down onto a bloke going about his movements in trap 1. Outside I bumped into the same stranger who asked me what I had thought of the restaurant. I told her it had been magnificent. If you liked soggy catfish and watching someone take a shit for dessert. As I was getting back in my car, I could see a man on the opposite corner becoming quite animated and trying to get the attention of (I assume) some friends who were a few yards up the road: “Hey. That’s the Englishman who was having lunch here!” Word had spread fast, and my presence seemed to have caused some sort of local stir. It might have been fun to go over and introduce myself but I didn’t really have the time and would have found it rather embarrassing. And I might have found it more than embarrassing if in fact he was summoning some sort of latter day lynch mob for foreigners and I’d walked straight into their hands. Perhaps the movies sensationalized the Deep South and there was no need to worry, but I didn’t fancy taking the chance.

I stopped and called the place I wanted to stay that night in Port Gibson MS. A slow voice answered the phone and confirmed that there was a room available that night. The conversation consisted of little more than me booking the room, checking that food would still be available, giving my credit card details and getting directions, but it lasted for thirteen minutes. She was very keen to emphasize that I should get there before nightfall because the route into town would take me through “not the best of neighbourhoods”. I told her that I was in Alabama, but hoped to be there by seven. If I could get off the phone.

I was heading up to Kosciusko to join the Natchez Trace Parkway. As soon as I crossed into Mississippi, things changed. The roads became bad and the driving worse. It was like being back in England, and not just because of the motoring. Even the trees and hills looked like the home counties. It was a strange feeling. Kosciusko was a green little town of old, largely dilapidated houses. I drove around the narrow lanes that made up its road system but nothing stood out. The locals eyed me suspiciously and I decided that I’d wasted enough time already. Mississippi’s apparent absence of any signage had resulted in my getting lost several times on the way and now I was running way behind time.

The Natchez Trace Parkway was an astounding road, not open to commercial traffic, and should be driven by anyone who remotely gets the chance to do so. It followed an ancient Native American route and was used by the likes of Andrew Jackson back in the days when it was just a muddy trail. Today it ran through some of the most idyllic parkland in the USA, with wildlife ranging from armadillos to vultures. And possibly even some creatures beginning with W X Y and Z.

Unfortunately, it had a radar-monitored speed limit of 50 mph. Even at top whack, it was going to take me two and half hours to get down to my destination for the night. It was just gone seven by the time I pulled off at the Port Gibson exit. I drove through a rough-ish looking shanty-town and took the wrong direction at the T junction. I was 10 miles further down the road before I became sure of my mistake and headed back. I found my plantation home by about quarter-to-eight.

The old lady greeted me with concern. She spoke slowly, with an almost mournful lilt. She had been worrying whether “those people” (I presumed she meant the poor black people in the shanty-town) had got me. She had her family there, a number of her own children and their spouses and even more grandchildren. She directed me to the annex and pointed out the gazebo where breakfast would be taken in the morning. The compound was huge and was dominated by a grand old colonial home. I was offered a choice of rooms in the annex and had no hesitation taking the first I was shown. The bathroom alone was bigger than most hotel rooms and the bedroom was decked out with antiques. The bed was a four-poster so high that there was a stool next to it for when you wanted to get in. All of the furniture pieces were family heirlooms pre-dating the civil war.

The old lady’s whole being seemed stuck somewhere between the pause button and the slow-motion replay. When I enquired about food, it seemed to take several seconds for it to register what I was talking about. She said she’d need to make a call, presumably to confirm a reservation at some local place. Some minutes later she reappeared below my balcony and beckoned. I followed her outside to where the cars were parked and got into a huge old Lincoln alongside her on the front bench-seat.

More minutes passed as we waited for an opening at the T-junction with the main road before finally we were on our way. We drove two blocks south and then lurched across the road into what seemed to be a used car lot. The old lady pointed at a windowless whitewashed single-storey breezeblock building with a hand-painted sign saying “Rebecca Rose Cafe” propped up against it in the mud. She told me to come back here in half-an-hour. She’d called the lady who ran the restaurant and she was coming into town especially to open up and cook for me.

By the time we’d driven back, parked and the old lady had checked three times with me that I was sure how to find my way back to the restaurant, it was time for me to set out again. This time I walked and it took all of three minutes. It didn’t look any brighter a prospect on my second visit. It was definitely part of the used car lot and it looked as if it had once been a welding shop or something. The sliding door entrance was open a crack and I could see light within. I creaked it open another foot before it stuck fast, and squeezed my body inside.

“Hello, hello, hello. Come in. Come in,” squawked an impish voice. A short round woman with a ludicrously enthusiastic grin emerged from the kitchen, and wiped her hands on her pinny. She looked like a cross between Grandma Walton and Little Jimmy Krankee. She held out her hand and introduced herself as Sherry, adding that Rose was her middle name and that she was the Rose in the Rebecca Rose. Rebecca was the woman who ran the shop but she wasn’t interested any more. She led me over to the one table that had been set and asked me whether I’d like some Zin Sangria.

The inside of the breezeblocks had not been plastered but had been spray-painted with a variety of floral designs. The ceiling was covered in black plastic sheeting that was pinned in place by white trellising. There was one air-conditioning unit and a multitude of free-standing fans. The floor was concrete and there was a piano as well as another seven or eight tables. The food was good – amounting to four separate courses – and Sherry kept the Sangria flowing all night. She chatted throughout but at the end of the meal pulled up a chair and joined me for a full-on hour of chinwag.

Sherry usually only opened from 11 until 2 at lunchtimes because there was no call for evening meals, but she did like to help out Miss Martha when she had overnight guests. I was the fifth English person she had met and it was a shame I couldn’t be here on a Sunday lunchtime because she had an old blind woman who played piano. Port Gibson had five churches for white people but about forty for the black folks; only the Roman Catholic church enjoyed a mixed congregation. Sherry liked the black folks and fraternized openly with them but this had got her a bad name in town where some people called her the “nigger whore” because she hugged her friends. She wanted to emphasize though that while “she liked her cake and her milk chocolate-flavored” that taste didn’t extend to her men.

She was originally from Illinois and had come down to Mississippi when her mother had married a truck driver from the state. “I ended up marrying one of those things as well” she rued. She thought southern men were the pits. They consider themselves to be like Rhett Butler but “in truth, they’re playing around before you’ve turned your back”. Some inter-racial marrying was now going on among the younger generation but Sherry was suspicious of the motives: “It’s about wanting to show power for the black men and it’s about getting back at the family for the white women”. She didn’t mention anything about white men marrying black women.

The racial divide seemed not only to perpetuate in Mississippi, but there didn’t seem to be any attempts to pretend that it didn’t. Even if it belied the reality, at least a certain political correctness was in force in the other southern states. A county commissioner in Atlanta GA had recently rejected plans to name a street Plantation Way, on the basis that it summoned up images of slave labor. He had likened it to naming a street Swastika Boulevard. In contrast, as recently as April 2001, a state-wide vote had been passed by a huge majority to retain a small version of the Southern Cross – generally recognized as a symbol from the age of slavery (hence the vote) – on part of the Mississippi state flag.

Back at the Plantation, I relaxed on the balcony with a beer and a cigarette and took in the atmosphere. The garden was dominated by a huge Oak Tree with a bird box about the size of a pram on the side, and was generally awash with wildlife, including a very nervous feral cat which seemed unimpressed by my attempts to make friends with it. A musty smell hung in the air that reminded me of the greenhouse in the garden of the place where I’d grown up. Perhaps it cued some sort of subconscious nostalgia, but it made me feel quite sad. By the time I went to bed I was feeling very lonely for the first time since I had left New York.